Learning tango as a conversation

Tango can be usefully viewed on analogy with conversation, but instead of the medium of language, or words, we use the medium of the physical body and its movements. First, as with conversation, tango is interactive (see Interaction). Interaction means that we are responding to the immediate situation and we are cooperating with the Other to create an improvised conversation. Unlike composed language or movement, we cannot anticipate how the conversation will run. We have not rehearsed a routine or choreography that we are going to execute in a predetermined manner. We need to respond to the situation as it emerges, ie., the music and our partner. We co-create the dance in a cooperative manner with our partner.

The analogy with conversation also can inform our approach to learning it. Because conversation is essentilly interactive, it has to be learned by practicing interaction. It cannot be learned by rote learning your lines. Memorising the lines of a dialogue will not teach us conversation skills, and people who attempt to learn conversation in a foreign language this way are boring to talk to and can never find anyone to talk to them because they’re sticking to a rigid schema or model instead of responding to the immediate situation with its pragmatic elements and complexities that cannot be written down.

However, we cannot simply launch into a conversation without any preparation. We do need to prepare by some drill, memorisation and rote learning even how to say “Hello!” in the foreign language before we can say it in an interactive situation. It is therefore a question of proportion rather than an either/or scenario. The problem is that people start off rote learning and then never progress to actual interaction. They load up their heads with rigid schemas without testing them out in real life situations. When they attempt to do so they freeze under pressure and go back to the safety of the textbook. When they finally come out with their rehearsed schemas they’re boring conversationalists with no fluency.

As with language, before we can interact physically with another body we need to do some preparatory work. We need to get a sense of how our own body moves and some of its possibilities through some drill and repetition. However, it makes no sense to memorise whole sequences of movement when we have no clue how to take a single step with a partner in a satisfactory way. We want to star off small, with simple movements that with repetition become fluent. It is a matter of repetition on your own, and then repetition with a partner. At each point we want to be listening and also getting a sense whether our message is appropriate to the situation, whether it’s clear, whether it has been received and perceived correctly. What response we are getting.

I believe that this conversational schema—preparation through rote repetition, interaction in a practice situation, listening and adjusting—is fairly universal to anything we learn, whether it is a new language, to dance or to play a musical instrument.


Feet: a functional approach

Pretty feet

Perhaps the biggest hinderance in learning social tango estilo milonguero is the excessive focus on the feet of many, perhaps most, dancers. There are a couple of reasons for focusing on the feet. One reason is that beginners who are not used to partner dancing are afraid of stepping on their partner’s foot. This is a fairly insignificant problem as it takes only a few lessons to get over this fear and the learner should start to get a sense of where the feet are without having to look. By far the main cause of the problem is the fact that choreographed tango demands an overwhelming focus on the feet for purely aesthetic reasons.* This leads to the preconception that the beauty of tango inheres in the footwork and the decorations, or perhaps the interplay of the man’s and woman’s legs and feet.

Focusing on the dancer’s feet makes sense in the context of a tango show where the primary purpose is the visual appeal of the dancers, what I call external aesthetics, that is, looking nice to an audience watching the show. However, it is completely counterproductive in social dancing. Showing off in any way 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, that is, the feeling of the connection at the chest between the dancers. In focusing on the feet, showing 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, when they do a lot of decorations, cannot help but prioritise their feet over the embrace. But the essence of tango is the embrace, not pretty feet.

Feet in tango estilo milonguero

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 (see ). 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.

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 of the foot with the toe of the foot staying in contact with 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.*** There is no particular need to bring your feet together at the end of the step unless it feels natural to do so.


  1. 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.
  2. Doing decorations in social Tango Estilo Milonguero in inappropriate and takes away from the essence of the dance.
  3. Feet always stay on the ground with only a few exceptions where they slightly leave the ground.
  4. The heel leaves the ground as we break at the knee.
  5. Slide the foot lightly brushing the floor with the ball of the foot.
  6. Finally, shift your weight to that foot to complete the step.
  7. Do not attempt to bring the feet together at the end of the step, but allow them to come together naturally.


*Choreographed tango includes tango seen in a variety of contexts including floor shows, demonstrations by teachers, tango movies and musicals, etc. The focus on the feet in demonstractions is common to all varieties of tango and virtually all such exhibitions focus on showing off the action of the feet and legs.

**This includes all so-called adornments, firuletes 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 … all of these belong to choreographed or semi-choreographed styles of tango and have the tendency to interfere with efficient movement.

***There are some exceptions to this, eg., if the partner’s foot is in the way and needs to be stepped over, in which case the foot would have to rise slightly off the floor.