What is essential in tango: connection

In learning traditional tango we want to distinguish between what is essential and what is inessential. When we look at dancers of tango we see many things which are aspects of individual expression or which are purely decorative. Most of these aspects are not essential to tango because you can dance tango well without them. If you see some tango dancer having a certain facial expression or some other affectation, or doing some decorations with her feet, does that mean that you cannot dance tango well without that? The reality is that most of what stands out to an onlooker who has little understanding of tango are its inessential aspects.

Experienced tango dancers focus first and foremost on connection: the connection between the partners through the embrace; the connection of their dancing to the music; and the connection of their dancing to the energy of the dancefloor. The key to connection is a good embrace and good leading and following. The dancing should express the music by marking the beat and pausing. Finally, the dancing should connect to the energy of the other dancers on the dancefloor and should not stand out as radically different from what everyone else is doing.

If the dancers do not have some particular expression on their face or some other affectation, this does not mean that they are not doing good tango. But if they don’t have a good embrace, are not connected in their leading and following, are not connected to the music, and their dancing stands out as out of sync with the dancing of the other dancers, then there is something fundamentally wrong going on and we cannot say that it is good tango. Our goal is to have a better embrace, better connection to our partner, the music and the energy of the dancefloor. These are the essential skills. The other aspects are mere affectations and are superfluous and thus best avoided until we have more experience in the essential things.

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The big small: courtesy

Recently I’ve been reading about the phenomenon of the big small: small things that make a big difference. These are things that seem really small and insignificant but actually make all the difference in terms of success and failure. In learning to dance we tend to focus on dancing skills and these are to an extent important. But what one sees all too often is that as skills go up the manners correspondingly go down (if they were there at all). One goes to a dance event, whether it’s tango or some other social dance, and one can tell who’s been attending a lot of lessons and workshops from the attitude. Yet precisely having an attitude is a sure way to end up dissatisfied and defeats the purpose of learning social dancing (as opposed to competitive dancing, I guess).

There are at least two important and closely related reasons to be courteous to people at social tango events. The first reason has to do with energy. An event is enjoyable and productive when it generates positive energy. When there is a lack of courtesy and people exhibit an attitude, distance, aggressiveness or aloofness, this basically sucks the energy out of the event and the atmosphere becomes stifled and uncomfortable and we no longer want to be there.

The second reason has to do with managing relationships. Social dancing is not merely dancing with a single partner. One needs to be able to get enough satisfying dances from a number of people. People are generally quite sensitive to the attitudes of the other people at the event. Small courtesies go a long way in building a positive and lasting relationship. Equally, small discourtesies go far in alienating and damaging the relationship. At some point its a race to the bottom as the number of potential partners rapidly diminishes. Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing whether and how much you value the relationship.


Courtesy (or lack of it) is a way of expressing how much you value the relationship.


A significant source of the problem is excessive emphasis on dancing skills, and corresponding lack of attention to social skills. At a certain point learning more dancing skills becomes an end in itself and can actually become a source of anxiety, frustration, competitiveness and end-gaining (see Posture). Social tango, by contrast, requires patience, understanding and generosity (to yourself and others). Investing excessive effort on gaining more skills is not always conducive to an easy-going, friendly atmosphere, and to building and maintaining positive relationships.

Courtesy is the big small because it often takes a very small amount of effort to be courteous but the results may be quite big. As a child I was taught that good manners simply means saying ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry’, and ‘please’ or ‘do you mind’, etc. I see at many milongas that dancers stop dancing and just walk back to their chair without expressing warmth or gratitude. The atmosphere at such events starts to resemble more of a physical workout or perhaps a nightclub scene. Often people confuse the energy produced by the DJ cranking up the volume to the max and activities like taking selfies or networking for the energy of an enjoyable milonga with positive relationships.

Equally dysfunctional are scenes where ostentatious expressions of gratitude is a way of marking the membership an ingroup, an inner circle, usually of a teacher and his students. This can leave people who are not part of the club as well as visitors feeling alienated as the outgroup. There are also fake rituals such as announcing the names of visitors from other countries. This only helps to distance and exclude. All of these dynamics indicate that the tango scene is not really functional and the ‘community’ is fake.

A good way to start is to express gratitude: to your teacher, students, partner, the DJ, and organiser, etc. Show that you enjoyed the class or the event, and show appreciation for their effort. Just this relatively minor effort will repay manyfold whereas failing to do so will leave people cold and unappreciated if they made a genuine effort. If, on the other hand, you feel that you cannot genuinely express gratitude, but that instead they should be thankful to you for bothering to turn up, you’re better off leaving the scene because you are probably not enjoying it and sticking around would be defeating the purpose. No amount of dancing skills can equal the feeling of genuine appreciation and inclusion, lacking which would in the end be defeating the purpose of what traditional tango is really all about, namely, to share the enjoyment of great music in a friendly social atmosphere.

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