Perhaps the biggest hinderance in learning social tango estilo milonguero is excessive focus on feet. While beginners who are not used to partner dancing are afraid of stepping on their partner’s foot, this is something they get over after a few lessons. The main problem is due to the fact that choreographed tango focuses on the feet for purely aesthetic reasons.* Choreographed tango includes floor shows, demonstrations by teachers, tango movies and musicals, etc. The focus on the feet in demonstrations is common to all varieties of tango and virtually all such exhibitions focus on showing off the action of the feet and legs. This leads to the preconception that the beauty and expressiveness in tango inheres in the footwork and the decorations.
Focusing on the dancer’s feet makes sense in contexts in which the main goal is to provide visual appeal, what I call external aesthetics, ie., looking nice to an audience watching the show. This is, however, counterproductive in social dancing. First, showing off in a social dancing context goes against the ethos of tango estilo milonguero which is the feeling of the dancers themselves, or what I call inner aesthetics, ie., the feeling of the connection at the chest between the dancers. In focusing on the action of the feet to show off takes the focus away from the upper body and the connection of the dancers at the heart. Even dancers who are in a Tango Estilo Milonguero embrace cannot help but prioritise their feet over the embrace when they do a lot of decorations. But the essence of tango is the embrace, not pretty feet.
Feet in tango estilo milonguero: the basics
Because the essence and focus of tango is the embrace the only focus on the feet is in terms of the direction of the dance. What the feet do is purely functional. In social tango the action of the feet has no aesthetic value to the dancers, and so all foot movement is purely functional. The function of feet in social tango is merely to move from A to B efficiently and with elegance. All of the so-called adornments or decorations such as tapping, drawing, pointing the toe upwards, sliding the foot up the leg, bringing feet together at the end of every step, keeping feet parallel to each other, belong to choreographed or semi-choreographed styles of tango and tend to interfere with efficient movement.
The walk should be elegant and natural. That means we walk elegantly in a straight line. The feet are naturally slightly turned out at about 20 to 30 degrees angle. When we change direction the angle of the feet to each other will vary as needed. Sometimes the foot with which we are stepping will point in the direction of the turn.
A step is initiated with the breaking at the knee. In order to do this we will have to lift the heel with the toe remaining close to the floor. We then slide the foot in the direction of the step before shifting weight onto that foot. The toe of the stepping foot maintains light contact with the floor throughout the step, sliding along the floor (except in stops, see next section). There is no particular need to bring your feet together at the end of the step unless it feels natural to do so.
Sandwiches, stops and sacadas
What about sacadas, sandwiches and stops, are they not done in tango estilo milonguero and isn’t there an aesthetic aspect to those movements? During the dance the partners do connect with their feet either on the outer or inner side of the foot. The man’s inner right foot will connect with the woman’s outer left foot to initiate a sandwich. Also, the man’s outer right foot will connect with the woman’s inner left or right foot to initiate a stop. The man’s outer foot may come close or touch the woman’s inner foot to execute a sacada.
These are complex techniques that are difficult to execute in the close embrace and are better viewed as emergent movements that naturally arise as we master walking and turning. As the man becomes a better leader he will learn to communicate intention by touching the woman’s foot. However, this cannot be done safely and effectively until walking and turning in the close embrace is at a more advanced level. You should learn these techniques in terms of their function in leading and following walking and turning, always focusing on inner aesthetics and efficiency of movement. The mistake is to focus on these things prematurely because of their outer aesthetic aspect in tango shows. It is also a mistake to execute these movements in an exaggerated manner with wide horizontal sweeps, boleos, lunges and kicks (trust me, I’ve been there). One should always practice both modesty and economy in terms of space when executing such movements.
- Do not do any adornments of any kind until you become an experienced social dancer and have enough knowledge of the wisdom and utility of these.
- Doing decorations in social Tango Estilo Milonguero in inappropriate and takes away from the essence of the dance.
- Feet always stay on the ground with only a few exceptions where they slightly leave the ground.
- The heel leaves the ground as we break at the knee.
- Slide the foot lightly brushing the floor with the ball of the foot.
- Finally, shift your weight to that foot to complete the step.
- Do not attempt to bring the feet together at the end of the step, but allow them to come together naturally.
- Give yourself time to master basic walking patterns before moving onto sacadas and stops.
- Focus on the function of these movements in leading and following (walks, turns, pauses)
- Modesty and economy and inner feeling/aesthetics when performing such movements are advisable, avoiding exaggerated, exhibitionist movements that take up a large amount of space for the sake of ‘performing’ to the people sitting at the table