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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Feet

Pretty feet

The biggest hinderance in learning social tango estilo milonguero is a excessive focus on the feet of many dancers. One reason for this is that beginners who are not used to partner dancing are afraid of stepping on the partner’s foot. This is a minor problem as it takes only a few lessons to get over this fear. A more significant and lasting problem is the fact that choreographed tango demands an overwhelming focus on the feet for aesthetic reasons.* This leads to the preconception that the beauty of tango inheres in the footwork and decorations, or perhaps the interplay of the man’s and woman’s legs and feet.

While this does make sense in show or stage tango where the primary purpose is external aesthetics, that is, looking nice to an audience watching the show, this is counterproductive in social dancing. Showing off in any way in a social context goes against the ethos of tango estilo milonguero which is inner aesthetics or feeling of 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.

Summary

  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 try to bring your feet together at the end of the step, they will come together naturally when needed.


Notes:

*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.

Embrace

The essence of tango is the embrace. We can define the embrace that is unique to tango simply as this: a hug. An embrace which is open or which is flexible—sometimes close and sometimes open—is not unique to tango because one sees it in other dances. The tango embrace is the sort of hug where once we start hugging we do not stop until the end of the tune. That’s what makes tango a 3 minute romance and what makes it so unique.

Everything we do in dancing Tango Estilo Milonguero is constrained by this basic fact. For example, there can be no movement from the hips up and so tango technique requires that all movement is below the hips, in the knees and feet. The hips cannot move because movement in the hips cannot be separated from the twisting in the spine which will lead to pressure in the upper body. Any movement in the hips will transfer via the spine to the trunk and the shoulders. Partners have to remain perfectly square all the way from the shoulders down to the hips throughout the dance in order to maintain the tango embrace.

Because the tango embrace is a hug at the chest, all the energy of the dance is at the chest level and that is where our focus should be at all times. We are connected at the heart and that is the primary point of focus. We are also connected by the woman’s upper arm over the man’s right shoulder, the man’s right hand on the woman’s right shoulder blade, and through the wrists. Most of the pressure should be through the heart and the other connections should be relatively light.

In combination this basic structure allows for a tight connection and an efficient transfer of lead and follow so that the woman can clearly feel the man’s lead and the man can clearly feel the woman’s centre and position (where her feet are). Just as tilting a chair you can tell without looking which leg is touching the floor, any pressure on one foot or the other should be perceptible in the upper body through the embrace with regular practice.

Because the point of focus is on the embrace, the feet have to adjust to that. In other forms of tango and other dances where the feet are a focus the upper body adjusts to the action of the feet. In Tango Estilo Milonguero it’s always the feet adjusting to the requirement of maintaining the tight embrace in the upper body. Another way of putting this is that the embrace is the constraint and the feet have to figure out what to do in order to move. So the rules are:

  1. If a foot movement requires us to change the embrace it cannot be done.
  2. Only foot movements that do not compromise the embrace are allowed.

So the foot technique in Tango Estilo Milonguero is designed specifically to meet these requirements. We cannot swivel in Tango Estilo Milonguero because it cannot be done without the turning of the hips which then puts pressure on the upper body and thus compromises the connection at the heart. For this reason we begin learning tango by simply walking forward and back and learning how to do that while constantly connected at the heart. Learning choreography before mastering this basic skill will compromise the embrace and will be therefore detrimental to the structure of the dance.

Any learning system for Tango Estilo Milonguero starts with learning and practicing to walk in the embrace. Because the basic skill is walking with a partner, practicing walking without a partner is pointless. It’s like practicing conversation in a foreign language by yourself. On the other hand, practicing a lot of choreography with a partner is also pointless because you will be compromising the embrace. So we always start learning tango by practicing walking with a partner in the embrace.

Additional study materials

 

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