Outside the Lines

On this page we'll continue looking at ways of dancing that are outside the boundaries of social tango, and we'll try to identify some common techniques that don't work well in milongas. On the last page we looked at how Copes used leg bend to add drama to his performance. Now let's look at someone else with a unique way of stepping:


Orlando Paiva in 2005.


What's the matter with these guys... don't they understand English? Haven't they read this chapter? I just listed the basic elements of technique on page 19, and they're flaunting them. First, Copes is walking all over the place with his knees bent, and now here's Orlando Paiva stepping with his weight back, and reaching out with his leg.

Instead of tipping forward and landing solidly with his weight forward, notice how Paiva keeps his chest back, slides his foot out, and then gives a little push with his back leg to rise up into the step. It's the opposite of the heavy, chest-forward tango step we've been describing for use in milongas. In our step, the upper body tips forward early, gains momentum to the point of foot contact, and then slows as it uses the energy from the first part of the step to coast back up to the heel together position. But Paiva begins slowly by sliding his foot forward, and then he pushes off his back leg to finish. This causes him to speed up a little as he rises at the end. He still steps on the compás, and he comes up onto a straight leg to the heel-together position, but by beginning slowly, and speeding up at the end, he expresses the music in a different way.

As you would expect, this basic change in his center of balance affects everything. When your chest isn't forward, there is less space for your partner's feet to move inside the embrace. Another way to look at it is that if the chest is back, then as far as your partner is concerned, your legs and feet are farther forward, taking up her space. This poses a real problem for straight ahead, in-line walking. If the man's chest is back, and his legs are reaching out forward, his thighs may actually bump against the woman if she's walking back, directly in front of him. Paiva avoids this problem by keeping his partner to the side of his chest, and always walking along her right side. This works okay for the melodic string music that many performers prefer, but as soon as you begin to step on the consecutive weak and strong beats of faster music, there are problems. If the woman is to the side, it's difficult to transmit the kind of straight-ahead energy needed for corridas.

Doing corridas (runs of consecutive steps), and curving them in different ways, is a big part of dancing in the milongas, but if the woman is parked out to the side, the man will tend to run past her. In fact, if you look closely, you'll see that she's positioned so that it's impossible for her to step straight back. She's at an angle, and when Paiva walks forward, she actually needs to walk back a little sideways, with her torso twisted. (We noticed this problem several years ago when we examined Petroleo's dancing and embrace in Chapter 3. Because Petroleo's partner in the video stayed on his right side, she often ended up dancing sideways when he moved forward quickly. There was no problem when they moved slowly, but she had trouble keeping up when he accelerated.)

Another problem with this chest back posture is that whenever Paiva and his partner need to step inside the embrace, they're forced to separate. A giro, for example, which requires the woman to step between the partners, forces them to open the embrace and create some space between them:



You may also notice that Paiva's weight is so far back that he isn't grounded enough to actually lead his partner in the giro—and she even needs to pull him through part of it! She's obviously practiced it for the performance, but it's not something that would work in a milonga with different partners.

This weight-back posture seems to be part of the traditions of stage tango. Virulazo was another famous performer who danced with his weight back. And he also did a highly decorated, partner-assisted giro:



Paiva has his own style, and it works well with the slower instrumental tangos that are often used in performances. But there are good reasons that it isn't commonly used in the milongas. First, beginning a step by reaching out with the leg, rather than tipping forward with the upper body, delays the signal the man sends to his partner. She receives the message later, and has less time to react. This isn't normally a problem in a performance—but it can be in a milonga. Second, tipping into the beginning of a step is simply easier than pushing off the back leg all night long. Third, keeping the weight and chest forward allows the woman to stay more in front of the man, so she can more easily follow him through the fast steps of corridas. And finally, dancing with the weight forward allows the couple to maintain the embrace throughout the entire dance, without having to separate every time they want to step inside the embrace, or do a giro.


This video of Orlando Paiva was taken about a year before he died, and it's very nice. He's obviously not that strong, but the balance and the skill are still there. Just as with Copes, I spent some time trying to copy Paiva—but it wasn't planned. Around the time I first became interested in tango, I went to visit my cousin in Los Angeles. One evening I noticed a practica advertised nearby, so I decided to go. When I arrived, the only person there was the organizer. She was an Argentine woman, who was teaching with Paiva at the time. Since there was no one else at the practica, she spent the whole time dancing with me and showing me how he stepped. She had me stand with my weight and chest back, reach gracefully forward with my toe, and then give a little push with my trailing leg to bring my weight forward and up, just like Paiva is doing here. I thought it felt, and looked, pretty sharp. It wasn't that hard to pick up, and it had a very slow, relaxed feel that I liked.

When I left, I felt bad because I'd only paid about five dollars, and ended up with private instruction from an Argentine woman who obviously knew what she was talking about. It was a hundred times better than anything I was getting from other instructors. All they ever did was walk around in circles and demonstrate patterns they had memorized, so I bought a video from her. It was an instructional video with her and Paiva, but I seem to have lost it. I looked for it when I wrote this page, but I guess it's gone. I liked her, because she actually taught the mechanics of movement. You have to be smart to do that—I've run across very few people in tango, who can. Miguel Zotto's old partner Milena Plebs (who teaches a step similar to the one the lady showed me), and Natu (who is an engineer), are two that come to mind.

Leveling Tango

Here's Pablo Pugliese dancing with his mother Esther:


Tango smooth: Pablo Pugliese with his mother Esther.


This is from one of the first instructional videos I ever bought. Even then, I noticed that Pablo moved differently. Can you see it? He's using leg bend to dampen out almost all of the natural up and down movement in his walk. He begins with a long reaching step onto a straight leg. If he then continued forward with the knee locked, he would rise up, and then drop back down at the finish—but he doesn't. As soon as his foot strikes the floor, he immediately starts to flex his leg to absorb the rise. When he reaches the heel-to-heel position, he has quite a bit of bend in his knees, and then he straightens his legs to finish the step. It's an effect that causes his upper body to move along smoothly on a level plain. Not only does this way of stepping eliminate most of the up and down movement from his dancing, but it also removes the forward acceleration and deceleration that occurs in the more straight-legged walk we looked at earlier in the chapter.

Copes also uses leg bend to stay at the same level as he moves forward, but he usually begins by stepping onto a bent leg, so it looks like he’s crouching down as he walks. Pablo, on the other hand, reaches out onto a straight leg before he flexes his knee. He starts and finishes on a straight leg, so the result is more liquid. It's like a cat reaching out to the front as it stalks its prey. What do you think about it? This step, and its variations, must be pretty attractive, because they are currently in fashion with many of the younger generation of nuevo-show dancers.

Here's more of the performance, with music:


Esther and Pablo Pugliese:  An interesting combination
of the traditional and the new in tango.


Good dancers. Esther's feet have the speed of a young professional dancer, and also the control that comes from years of experience. She has the natural body of a woman her age, and the beautiful way of moving that you see in some of the best Argentine women who've been dancing tango forever. So much dignity... and even a touch of arrogance. She looks like royalty. If Argentina ever decides to change their government and go with a queen, they should ask her if she wants the job. Or at least they should find someone who dances tango like she does.

Check out this part near the end, where they begin to step in a jerky, robotic way as Di Sarli puts a little jumpiness in the music:


Esther and Pablo Pugliese moving robotically to part of the music.


They're definitely messing with the traditions of tango—but if you're going to mess around, then that's the way to do it. It's unorthodox, but they pull it off because it's original, their technique is excellent, and most importantly, it's a good interpretation of that small segment of music. It's nice to discover this hidden away in plain sight in this old tape. Who knows where the idea for that little part came from? Maybe they just did it a couple of times, and then forgot about it. If I had to guess, I'd say the idea came from someone who has heard and danced to this bit of Di Sarli about a thousand times. So maybe Mingo or Esther put it in because Pablo was pushing them to try new things. Or maybe they just wanted to keep their son interested in tango.

When I ordered this tape, it came in the mail along with several others. I hadn't looked at them in years, but the bit of music in the video above reminded me of something on another one of the tapes. It's Tete dancing to the same music, so I thought it might be fun to look at what Tete does with the same little staccato part of Di Sarli's Pollo Ricardo. (That name... Pollo Ricardo!  Only in tango.)  In a way, this is like the comparison of Copes and Buglione that we did on the last page. It's not exactly fair to compare a performance to spontaneous social dancing, but let's do it anyway, and see what we get:


Tete's interpretation of the same jerky part of the music.


Not bad. Tete is rougher—but he's definitely listening! In the first part of the video, you can see how he picks up on the same jerkiness of Di Sarli's orchestra, and marks it intuitively by bringing his feet together in several little stomps and freezes. It's may not be quite as entertaining as Esther and Pablo's choreographed response, but it's there.


While we have them here on the same page, it might be a good opportunity to compare the difference between Paiva's traditional stage tango and Tete's social tango. Paiva has the smooth, weight-back way of moving and the open embrace of many performers, while Tete uses the more "step-into-the-floor and mark the compás" style of the crowded milongas. A classic example of sophisticated show tango vs. the working class tango of the street.

It's also interesting to note how much diversity there is in the dancing on this page. I remember a question in the "Comments Section" about how you should dance in different ways to different orchestras. My answer was that I thought there were too many variations in the music to associate certain ways of dancing with a specific orchestra—and this is a good example of it. There are six accomplished tango dancers here, and it's easy to see that each one is dancing in ways that are noticeably different from the all the others. It's as if each one is doing a completely different dance—and yet they're all dancing to the same orchestra. And four of them are dancing to the exact same tango!