Adornments and women’s technique: why they are a really bad idea

Search the internet on tango technique or peruse ads for workshops on Facebook and a lot of what you find is material, mostly for women, for what to do with your feet: things like crossing your feet and various sorts of adornments that the woman (and sometimes also the man) can do in between steps. I want to convince you that you should not be learning any of this, and if you really want to explore it, leave it until you have a good amount of experience in dancing, like at least a couple of years, because only then will you have a good idea about the dance and whether you really want this.

The amount of material that one finds on adornments of this sort would suggest that they are somehow essential to the dance. They are only essential if one’s goal in dancing is exhibition and perhaps self-expression. They have no functional value to the basic structure of traditional social tango or to the enjoyment of the dance unless one seeks the things mentioned above, exhibition and self-expression. From a functional point of view, however, they are more often than not detrimental to the dance. So why do people believe that hooks, kicks and various decorations are so important to tango and spend a lot of time and money taking lessons and learning choreography based on them?

Perhaps there is the belief that these adornments are unique to tango and are part of its tradition. When one looks at tango movies from the 1940s one does see women performing hooks and kicks in musical stage shows. There is no question that such movements are exciting to watch and that is the primary reason they are utilised in dance performance. But as I discuss elsewhere there is the question whether performing such eye catching moves one does not venture into the realm of kitsch, of easy and inauthentic satisfactions.

There seems to be a belief that these movements are part of the expression in tango. This belief originates from a view of dancing in general as expressive and that expression is associated with movements of arms and legs. But the idea that dancing is always expressive is unfounded if one looks at such dances as classical ballet or the Viennese waltz. There is nothing inherently expressive about them, and to the contrary they are marked by restraint and control. Certainly, art is a mode of expression but we first need to connect to the expression in music and then decide on the appropriate way of expressing that in our dancing. It is not clear that doing these decorations done habitually is the appropriate way to do that. It is certainly never mentioned in a ‘technique class’ how these decorations are to be used in relation to the music.

There are a number of reasons not to do decorations. First, doing hooks and kicks looks great but is not efficient in tango estilo milonguero because (i) the dancers have to open up the embrace; (ii) it takes up space and endangers other dancers creating tension on the dancefloor, and (iii) dancers have less control over their dancing and so you lose the all-important connection. All of these are undesirable characteristics and so one does not see these movements in traditional social dancing in Buenos Aires only in floorshows where, in my view, they take away from the beauty of the performance more than anything else adding only a tacky, kitsch element.

While adornments generally look pretty they have a detrimental effect on mastering social dancing. First, to become a good social dancer you need to focus on good technique in terms of connection: leading and following and moving to the music. Spending time learning decorations is putting time and energy on an inessential aspect of the dance from that point of view.

Second, even if you are a competent dancer, performing adornments takes your attention away from the embrace and from your partner, and moves it towards the feet. All attention should be focused on the embrace and posture and there is no good reason to focus on the feet whose function is merely to take steps.

Third, performing adornments becomes a habit so that they are performed even when it is not efficient to do so, that is, when there is not enough time or the leader is not aware that the follower is performing them. That means that the decorations reduce the control that the dancers have and make the dance less enjoyable. Ultimately, we want the best possible connection and control in the dance, and anything that takes away from that is detrimental to the enjoyment.

Finally, adornments are a form of showing off, as a sort of fashion or exhibition, that leads to a competitive atmosphere on the dancefloor which takes away from the convivial and social element of tango. If what you seek is self-expression and attention from an audience then tango estilo milonguero is not the ideal way to do that. Performance tango or other types of dancing are probably better suited to those interests.

Does that mean that we never perform these movements? I am not saying that. What I am saying is that you should not learn them in a ‘technique’ class that teaches adornments or choreography. Crossing your feet is not a special technique or adornment. Instead it is part of the fundamental technique of walking and direction. When you walk you will have to change direction and you do that by initiating with the feet. You cannot do that without crossing them. As for kicks and other movements, they are movements that will naturally emerge in your dancing when you freely improvise. There is no need to learn them, and learning them directly will change them so that your dancing become less expressive and you will be like the dancers performing at tango competitions, mechanically running through their choreographed moves.


Floating elbows practice

The position of the arms in the Tango Estilo Milonguero embrace is not intuitive and is somewhat physically demanding. We normally visualise the arms in the embrace to be below the level of the shoulders and so tend to drop them down lower than is desirable. It is more useful to visualise the arms floating on the level with or slightly above the shoulders. So we want to get into the correct position, with the right image, and we want to maintain the position for as long as possible, preferably for the duration of the dance.

In this practice we start by doing the Bow. We can then practice floating our elbows and hands just above the level of the shoulders. The correct position of the arms is primarily about the position of the elbows in relation to the head and shoulders. We want to have the image of our elbows being lightly lifted or pulled up above the shoulders. We want to maintain this image throughout each and every dance. So it is recommended that we practice this each time we practice our walking.

The exact position of the elbows will be slightly different for men and women. For women, the right elbow is more to the right and the left elbow is closer to the face. For men, the left elbow is more to the left and the right elbow is closer to the face. Keep the hands relaxed throughout this practice. Throughout the practice, visualise having strings attached to your hands and elbows lightly pulling them up so that they float above the shoulders.

Key point summary:

  1. There is a tendency to drop the arms in the embrace below what is desirable.
  2. We need to learn to float the elbows above the shoulders.
  3. Imagine your elbows floating up.
  4. Start with the Bow (see Alignment).
  5. Release the hands but continue floating hands and elbows above your shoulders.
  6. Visualise your hands and elbows floating or being pulled up.
  7. Practice this position during your walking practice.
  8. Take regular breaks when needed.

One dance or many: the styles of tango

An important question is what style of tango one should learn and how the different styles are related to each other. For the purposes of a person learning tango outside of Argentina the styles of tango can be usefully divided into three types:

  1. Tango de salon – this is the traditional Buenos Aires tango that includes more open embrace tango estilo Villa Urquiza and close embrace tango estilo milonguero;
  2. Salon style tango – this is a globalised derivation of tango estilo Villa Urquiza that incorporates stage show choreography (tango escenario), that one finds in floor shows, tango competitions, and most commercial tango classes and events around the world;
  3. Tango nuevo – this is a style created in the 1990s that draws on estilo Villa Urquiza and tango escenario adapted to dancing contemporary tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music; it was popularised in the movie The Tango Lesson;

This seems simple enough, but then the more difficult question that causes seemingly endless arguments in the tango world is whether and how far these styles can co-exist? In order to provide my own perspective on the issue I will define it in terms of the following questions:

  1. If you learn one style can you dance with people who dance the other style?
  2. Can you effectively participate in events of the other styles?

My answer to these questions is basically No, not really. This is not unique to tango: I like Cuban salsa but I find that I cannot effectively dance at parties where people dance LA style salsa because the music and the dancing technique are too different. I don’t really like the music they play, and the women I dance with cannot follow my lead.

You can think of it on analogy with learning to play guitar. If someone told you that they are learning to play guitar you might assume that they are learning to play acoustic guitar because that is what most people start on. But actually a lot of people play electric guitar and others play classical guitar. The instrument, equipment, repertoire, venues and technique involved in each type of guitar are all very different. Still, structurally speaking, they are all types of guitar and so transitioning from say acoustic to classical guitar might be easier than from acoustic guitar to the saxophone or piano.

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As with the styles of guitar playing the different styles of tango are only loosely related in terms of the dancing technique and the type of event even if they might all be called milonga.* A dancer of tango estilo milonguero will sit through most sets of the non-traditional music at a salon style milonga waiting for a traditional tune, whereas a salon style dancer will find most traditional tunes do not fit well with his choreography which fits better with music recorded after the  mid-40s and non-traditional tango. A tango nuevo dancer tends to get bored with the traditional stuff and breaks out with non-traditional tango music, electronic tango and non-tango music.**

So it is best to treat these styles as distinct forms instead of lumping them together in the same basket. More importantly for our purposes here that means that the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.

… the technique and mindset that you learned in a salon style tango or tango nuevo do not apply and will probably hinder your progress if you try to apply them to learning tango estilo milonguero.

Currently most teachers and events around the world are salon style tango and this is the usual entry point for most people starting out with tango. It is a style of dancing tango that has been adapted to suit the mindset of people outside of Argentina: it has visual appeal so that it attracts people, and it has been formalised into steps and figures so that it is relatively easy to teach. Nonetheless, most dancers have been exposed at some time to either tango nuevo or traditional tango estilo milonguero. Most people will try one or the other and will in the end settle for the one that suits them most.

One may argue that Salon Style Tango is the most useful one to learn because it has the most classes and events. However, on the downside, it also has the lowest rate of retention, that is, while most people take salon style tango it is also the case that most people get bored and drop out within 6 to 12 months, whereas the other styles can claim that their adherents are more committed to their styles in the long run. Many people who do stick with salon style tango will gravitate in the direction of tango estilo milonguero as they find the fixed choreography increasingly repetitious and boring, or else move to Tango Nuevo.

The reality is that dance scenes in most Western countries are inherently unstable because they depend on constant need for classes and marketing for funding and styles of dancing that are the most visually appealing are also most marketable. Because of its emphasis on culture and limited marketability tango estilo milonguero is more likely to be organised locally by non-profit organisations and connoisseurs who enjoy social dancing to traditional tango music. It might not turn you into a rock star, but it provides enjoyment of classical Argentine tango.

Selecting a teacher

Here’s a quote from a tango teacher that represents a fairly common marketing strategy:

Interviewer: What style of tango do you teach?

Tango teacher: I teach the essence of tango of all styles. I do point out if something belongs to a certain style: Salon, Orillero, Canyengue, Apilado, Milonguero, Nuevo. I especially welcome dancers who want to learn tango in all its complexity and beauty, not bound to any restrictions. I am the only one dancer in our [major city] area who knows all these styles.

What this teacher is saying is that he superficially knows bits of each of these styles but does not know any of them well. He does not welcome any students who want to seriously study any particular style, much less if they actually want to know something about it in depth, but welcomes students who want to dabble in all the different styles and then move on to something else like Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, etc. His events will be a disconcerting confusion of music and styles where no one knows anything well. His students will turn up randomly to tango events once or twice a year with only the ‘basics’ that allow them to get through a set without falling over and then to hang around taking selfies and networking.

Now, it does make sense for you to try out the different styles in order to see which one suits you the most. However, the worst kind of student is one who takes lessons for 3-6 months and then turns up randomly to events with only basic ideas about the different styles. Once you decide on a particular style you should then stick with classes for at least 12 months to get good enough to participate in a tango event or help organise events.

As a rough guide, each of the three styles suits a different personality type:

  1. If your main interest is that you just want to dance, enjoy lots of activity, fancy constumes, musicals, and dancing competitions then Salon Style Tango is probably your thing. (O-, C-, E+, A+, N-)***
  2. If your main interest is that you just want to express yourself, contemporary dance performances and theatre improv, then Tango Nuevo might be for you. (O++, C-, E++, A+, N+)
  3. If you are more contemplative, enjoy classical music, romanticist literature, art galleries and ancient architecture then Tango Estilo Milonguero might better match your tastes. (O+, C++, E-, A-, N-)

Quick quiz

Which picture represents which style of tango? Write down your answer, then scroll to the bottom for the answer key.

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* Although apparently in Buenos Aires there is a law that requires that a milonga must play traditional tango music and follow traditional customs, so that a Tango Nuevo event cannot be called a ‘milonga’.

**Outside of Buenos Aires the default event for tango is Salon Style Tango and so these events are never specified as it’s taken for granted. Also, it is typical of these organisations to want to attract the maximum number of participants. Unless otherwise specified, an Argentine Tango event outside of Buenos Aires is probably a Salon Style Tango event, whereas events specific to Tango Estilo Milonguero or Tango Nuevo are likely to be marked as such, eg., “Traditional Milonga”, “Nuevo Milonga”, “Tango Nuevo Festival”, etc.

*** In the brackets are included high (+) and low (-) on the Big Five Personality Traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism (OCEAN)

Answer key:

Salon style tango: A F H K L

Tango estilo milonguero: B E I M

Tango nuevo: C D G J

Walking: the basic movement of tango

The basic movement in tango is walking. This is often misunderstood as a statement about practicing. That is, what one often learns is that there are certain basic steps such as paso basico (the basic), ocho (figure eight), or cruzada (the cross). These are the steps that one commonly learns in a beginner class. Walking is then stressed as technique practice much as one might practice scales on the piano. Moreover, the student is taught to practice walking with elongated steps, pushing into the step and then bringing feet together in between the steps.

Now, this way of framing the issue of walking is typical of styles of tango which are essentially choreographed. This means that there are set patterns which take several steps to execute. This, however, is at odds with tango estilo milonguero which is essentially improvised.* Practicing by walking individually, taking elongated steps, powering horizontally into each step, and bringing feet together at the end of the step will actually hinder progress in learning walking with a partner and will interfere with dancing in the close embrace.

This type of movement can work in two contexts which are different from that of a beginner class. First, it looks great in a choreographed floor show in an open embrace that allows for such walking and for the choreography. In a floorshow we need to use up all that empty space and such walking satisfies this requirement. Second, in tango estilo milonguero it is a case of demonstrating high level of skill. However, as I explain in Training vs. demonstration of skill, the process of ataining the requisite skills requires a different process of training.

In general, while it sometimes can be seen, this type of walking is not the norm as for the most part it is not efficient, connected or functional in the context of social dancing. We often have to take smaller steps due to (i) limited space on the dancefloor; (ii) the level of our partner; and (iii) the requirements of the music. It is therefore unlikely that we would be dancing powering into each step other than on a selected occasions when the opportunity or need arises (see also Walking and the principle of reversibility). I suggest that this type of walking is best viewed as emerging out of more basic improvisational skills that require a very different type of training (see Choreography vs. emergent movement).

Instead, what we want is to practice initiating the step by breaking at the knee and then following that with the foot sliding along the floor so that it ends up where we want to go and then taking the step. This walking movement has these parts:

  1. Breaking at the knee in the leg that is going to go.
  2. The foot slides along the floor in the direction that we want to go.
  3. Finally, move into that step.

It may be useful to prepare by practicing that movement alone but ultimately it only makes sense to practice walking by doing it with a partner, walking forward and back, with some relatively slow music to begin with.

In tango estilo milonguero there are no steps to be learned, ie., copied and memorised. All the patterns that one sees in social tango dancing naturally emerge from walking. Tango is essentially improvised. We start walking in a straight line forward and back but soon enough we discover new possibilities which we may call steps if we want. For example, learning to change direction while we walk with a partner creates the pauses and turns that we associate with tango. Anything outside of that is fixed or semi-fixed choreography and so then it is no longer traditional tango estilo milonguero which can be defined as the exploration of the possibilities of walking in a heart-to-heart embrace to tango music.


* Although one does find teachers who claim to instruct tango estilo milonguero using set patterns.


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Microskill stack

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, wrote a book called How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big in which he develops the concept of a ‘skill stack’. He thinks that rather than knowing a few things really well you have a better chance of success if you develop a wider range of skills. He thinks that success is a function of the convergence of a range of skills, that is, of your skill stack. I think that this applies to tango as well and that people often make the mistake of thinking that being successful at tango is a matter of knowing a few things like choreography and technique really well.

In a real milonga situation there are many skills that are never covered in dancing lessons. These are usually learned through some sort of trial-and-error. This typically leads to more error than success and ultimately burnout as the dancer discovers that it’s all too hard and impenetrable. A more effective system or approach to learning social dancing is to spend less energy on dancing lessons and more on developing a stack of microskills. If you focus on developing a stack of really basic skills then the larger goals will take care of themselves.

Most of the choreography that you learn in classes requires that you have mastered a series of more basic skills. Without these more basic skills learning and executing choreography will always be a struggle. A more effective strategy is to focus on the basic microskills that in the long run will make mastering complex choreography effortless. In fact, I claim that choreography naturally and effortlessly emerges out of walking with the correct technique.

The key is to focus on developing a microskill stack and to learn the ones that have the biggest payoff in the long run. People put these skills in the ‘technique’ bucket and only revisit them between sets of choreography lessons to correct their poor form with the goal of executing the choreography. In this they tend to focus on a narrow range of these and do not practice them enough. Yet their power lies precisely in the regular practice of the whole range of these, because it is when they are used together that they become very powerful and make all choreography easy and natural.

In particular, these are the microskills that allow us to exploit learning opportunities, whether these are things that spontaneously come up while dancing, or a step or pattern that we are introduced to. Without these microskills the step or pattern will be an endless struggle whereas if you have the right tools in your microskill stack you will master the pattern effortlessly and without much practice at all.