Tango Dance: The Complete Beginner’s Guide
What is Tango?
Seems like it could be a simple answer.
However, a lot of what we may conceive to be Tango, is in fact not truly what Tango is all about.
Tango, more specifically Argentine Tango, is a lifestyle, a culture, a philosophy.
Many think of it as a metaphor of life, and that the dance drives two partners towards the pursuit of connection, unity and harmony.
Instead of answering directly– what the Argentine Tango really is, let’s take a fun journey of discovery of this mesmorizing dance form.
With the help of some short video clips, we can more precisely understand what the real deal is.
What Tango Isn’t
Let’s have some fun and first talk about what Tango is not.
The Tango you have probably seen in movies is not an authentic representation of what Tango really is.
Movie Clips of Inauthentic Tango
The scenes depicting the Tango dance in these movies do a great job of serving their purpose effectively.
They bring about emotions and passion, but have a hugely distorted sense for what Tango actually looks like when it’s danced in real life.
Aside from superficial flare and attitude, the dance lacks pieces of the true representation.
Here are some examples of “Tango” in movies:
This action movie stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, and before the movie ends, he shows off his Tango skills, complete with rose in teeth.
Take a close look at this video.
There is a lot of drama.
However, can you see what the Tango is missing?
If not, no worries, we will go over that in just a second!
Shall We Dance
This movie stars Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere.
Their interpretation of the Tango (although it is more ballroom style) is passionate and fiery.
There are kicks and flicks, complete with a breathless exchange of words at the end.
It’s all very effective, but can you tell what’s missing in their Tango?
Scent of a Woman
This movie stars Al Pacino, who took Tango lessons in Manhattan, specifically for this scene.
It is entertaining and exciting.
However, is there something notably missing in this representation of Tango (aside from Al Pacino’s eye site)?
All of these video examples have high impact when it comes to the dancing.
The Tango scenes are touching, moving and even inspiring, however, read on to find out why they are all superficial representations of the authentic art form.
What Tango Looks like in Real Life
It’s like a foreign language.
At its heart, after peeling away the layers of its complexity, Tango really is a street dance expressing a relationship between a man and a woman.
It is a story told by bodies with music.
Tango is about a meeting between two energetic people and unknown of what will happen between them.
How will they act or behave?
What will be their world and their dance?
This is what captivates us about Tango.
Here is some Tango Dancing done in the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina:
What do you notice in this dancing that the movies lacked?
A Dialogue Between Two People
Tango dancers define the dance of Tango as a DIALOGUE between two people.
It is a means to an end for communicating.
Both the leader and follower in the partnership take on extreme focus to LISTEN to each other and RESPOND, as they express themselves, talking without talking, and then moving together.
Furthermore, social Tango is improvised.
Partners focus on the music and their connection to each other.
Every step taken is a spontaneous discovery in the moment.
There is an infinite variety in the patterns and steps taken.
It is important to note that the steps are not what make the dance, rather, it is how the steps are taken and the manner in which they are danced.
Both dancers must pay full attention.
In the simplest terms, Tango is walking with your partner to music.
A good Tango dancer is able to emote the feeling of the music to their partner, inspiring them to follow accordingly.
Authentic Styles of Tango Dancing
Salon Tango is the type of Tango that is danced socially in the salons and dance halls of Buenos Aires and focuses most on Tango etiquette.
During the Golden Era, when orchestras were full, the dance venues were large.
Accordingly, the open embrace was used and upright positions of the dancers provided opportunity for larger movements on the large dance floors.
The open embrace allows for the uninhibited use of leg hooks (ganchos), foot drags (barridas), sweeps (boleos) and leg thrusts (sacadas).
Here is a video clip of the Salon Style Tango, which is popular for social dancing.
As you can see, everyone is dancing in close embrace on a large dance floor:
The “walk” in Salon Tango is still the most important element – dancers walk up to 70% of the song.
The music is slow, with emphasis on smooth movement and deliberate execution of steps.
Partners find their center and must be responsible for their own balance, not using each other for support.
Due to the open embrace, followers are able to use a visual lead by observing their partner.
A Milonguero is a person who dances at a Milonga -- a Tango social dance.
These dances are commonly in small, crowded spaces, and many believe this is the only way to truly dance Tango.
The dance hold in this type of Tango is called “Milonguero style”.
It is close and intimate, as two bodies lean forward chest to chest, into each other, with faces and heads often times in contact.
Knees are relaxed and backs are straight.
Here is a video clip of Milonguero Style Tango.
It is danced by Noelia Hurtado and Carlitos Espinoza at the 10th International Moscow Festival of Argentine Tango.
Notice their chest to chest embrace:
This type of Tango requires special leading and following skills.
The lead is transmitted physically through upper body and it is very subtle.
For this reason, couples appear to move as one entity, and the connection between the two must be on point.
It is common for the follower to dance with closed eyes and totally immerse into the experience in order to get into the zone and completely feel the music.
In the 1990’s, there came a new wave of younger tango dancers who started dancing Tango steps to world music, electro-tango, experimental rock, blues, and other types of non traditional Tango music.
Thus, this style evolved as the musical styles evolved, calling for the music to be interpreted differently.
This clip is shows a Nuevo Tango improvisation to Ed Sheeran – a totally non traditional Tango song:
Tango Nuevo combines Salon and Milonguero style, but adds something a little extra.
The embrace in Tango Nuevo can be closed or open; it is up to the dancers and their interpretation.
This style requires a larger dance floor. “Tango Nuevo” is simply associated with dancing Tango to alternative music.
Neo Tango is a fusion of Tango and non Tango steps danced to non Tango music.
The music can range from slow, night club, Salsa, Swing to Rumba.
It is unorthodox in its expression of Tango, but becoming more popular.
Here is a great clip of a famous Neo Tango couple Charlotte Pedrant and Cedric Tellier.
As you can see they are dancing to “California Deaming”, a non traditional song, and they incorporate non traditional Tango movements including undulations:
The foundation of movement is in the the Tango steps themselves.
However, Neo Tango allows dancers to incorporate steps from other types of dances as well, expanding the possibilities for self expression.
Stage Tango, Show Tango, or “Tango de Escenario”, is a more theatrical form of Tango usually choreographed and highly dramatized.
It includes beautiful movements including embellishments, acrobatics, and solo moves.
This style of Tango is reserved for performances as it is impractical to execute at a social dance scene.
In Stage Tango, it is important for partners not to lose the intimate connection.
Because of the many frills of stage Tango, it is trickier to stay connected within the partnership.
Partners must enter completely into their roles and the leader must still lead his partner, whether or not the routine is set.
Here is an example of Stage Tango from the 2018 Mundial de Tango.
These are First Place finalists from the Mundial de Tango, Dmitry Vasin and Sagdiana Hamsina:
The Connection of Tango
In order for the connection to work, both leader and follower must totally embrace their roles.
Leaders must be unwavering in their intentions and be clear minded.
There needs to be a sureness in movement, embodying both conviction and authority.
The follower on the other hand must be totally open and receptive.
There is a trust factor that followers must embrace, as they let the leader lead and have control.
A good follow must let go and not expect or anticipate any action.
She will further respond spontaneously without overthinking or over analyzing.
In this way a captivating polarity develops.
The most important thing for a follower is to be balanced and poised, waiting to respond to the lead.
Although this requires a lot of the follower, the lead needs to be in tune as well.
The leader must wait and listen as, to see how the follower responds.
As the follower commits the momentum, it is at that time that the leader may step as well, so that they step in sync and precisely together.
Feet are close to the floor as partners walk, and ankles and knees brush as one leg passes the other.
Rarely is weight on both feet.
Tango is danced counterclockwise.
Why Do People Get Hooked on Tango?
Some explain the experience of Tango as that of a zen meditation.
A Tango dance is a short journey of two people in a partnership becoming a unit and whole.
The dance flows as the bodies communicate, listen and respond.
It becomes deep and connected, and inherently intimate.
As the follower pays full attention to her partner and immerses herself in the moment, so the leader listens and accommodates for her.
This creates an intimate experience like no other.
Tango Mood and Character
Sensuality is a key component to Tango, along with strong emotional undertones.
It is full of expression, connection and harmony.
The dance can span from being energetic and playful to passionate and intense.
The Embrace of Tango
The embrace of Tango is called an “abrazo”.
This is the frame that connects two partners together.
There are two varieties of embraces: Close and open.
Since the Tango is highly improvisational, there needs to be clear communication between partners.
For this reason, whichever embrace is used, there should always be complete contact along the embracing arms.
The center of each partner’s chest faces the center of the other partner’s center of the chest, and the two remain parallel throughout the dance.
A close embrace will have full upper body contact.
If the leader invites the follower into the close embrace, the follower can choose how to accept the invitation.
A more open embrace will have more distance between the partners.
This will allow more flexibility and bigger variety in movement.
There are no fixed rules for following particular tempos or steps in the Tango.
Any beat of the music provides the leader an opportunity to start movement.
The leader may lead the follower into any variety of movements and directions, or can even pause.
Social dancing is never choreographed.
Everything including steps, directions and timing is led.
This requires an uncanny focus and sensitivity to one’s partner.
Partners must pay full attention to each other at every moment.
Sometimes the most subtle movements will be the signal.
The ability to play with execution, thus playing with tempo changes and pauses opens up the gateway for an infinite variety of expression in the Tango.
This is the key element of the dance: improvisation.
Naturally, there will never be two dances that are ever the same.
Just like every partner is different, so is every song and every night.
Thus, the result of these elements combined together will bring about a very unique moment in time, every time.
Most Tango music was composed in the early part of the 1900’s.
It is melodic, romantic and varied.
The primary instrument played is called a bandoneon, which is similar to an accordion.
The music often emotes meloncholly sentiments of loneliness and loss.
However, there are also songs that are more upbeat with brighter sounds.
The tempo of Tango music is not regular.
Sometimes beats are suspended, making it challenging to dance to.
However, attributes like these are what makes the Tango so expressive and unique.
Dancers are thus able to use pauses and and rhythmical changes to their own personal interpretation and their own feeling and emotion into the dance.
Varied with different orchestras and stylistic differences, Tango music allows dancers to spend the whole night dancing to only Argentine Tango music.
There are four representative schools of Argentine music: Pugliese, Trolio, Di Sarli and d’Arienzo, and they are all decendents from Italian immigrant families.
Osvaldo Pugliese and Piazzola are examples of two composers who used powerful beats and tempo changes for dramatizations.
Music with strong and easy to hear bass lines were commonly in the style of heard from Biagi or Canero.
Origins of Tango
In the 1800’s, Buenos Aires was a popular destination for immigrants who were lured from Europe and Africa with the promise of job opportunity.
These immigrants comprised a wide mix of cultures, including Italian, Slavic, Portuguese, and Western European cultures from afar.
More local cultural influences came from indigenous people from South American and and Caribbean countries.
The result from this mixed group was a melting pot of sorts, where everyone brought their own culture, history, music and dance into the mix.
These people began to socialize and fuse their cultures with local music of the time.
A mashup of the cultural arts soon unfolded, and this unique, multi-cultural group ended up creating their own outlet for entertainment, conjuring up the Argentine Tango.
Where to See Tango Dancing
For those who would like to witness a true Tango setting and experience, attending a Milonga or Practica is the best way to do that.
You can peek in to see what is going on.
Without dance experience, though, it would not be easy to jump right in.
Usually, people get introduced to the dance by taking private instruction or classes.
And if you’re interested in tango or any ballroom style dance lessons and are in the Las Vegas area, we’d love to see.
We even have a dance “boot camp” for weekenders from out of town.
Keep in mind, the learning never ends.
Even after formal instruction has ended, tango dancers spend a lifetime of learning.
What is a Milonga?
A Milonga is an Argentine Tango social dance.
The music consists of tango, vals and milonga.
They are different dances under the same umbrella of Argentine Tango.
Here is an example of what a Milonga looks like.
This one takes place in Rome:
You may come alone or with a partner to a Milonga.
Music is played in tandas, which is a set of 3 or 4 songs in the same genre.
In between these sets there are short non-tango interludes called cortinas, giving dancers a chance to change partners.
At a Milonga it is not necessary to ask someone to dance, instead, you find a partner to have a “cabaceo” with.
In other words, all you need to do is make eye contact and nod.
What is a Practica?
A Practica is a less formal event where you can practice your dancing in preparation for Milongas.
It is a relaxed atmosphere where you can work on movement and stop to discuss it with your partner if things don’t work out.
Practicas are sometimes followed by a class, so it is a good way to review material you might have just learned.
Music is not played in tandas, so the structure of the experience is more laid back.
The Subculture of Tango
There is a subculture of Tango all over the world.
What does this Tango subculture look like?
Small to large groups up to 100+ people may gather in special places to dance Tango worldwide.
These social dance gatherings are called Milongas and become part of the Tango lifestyle.
Here is an example of a Milonga in Moscow.
People meet casually in a restaurant with great ambience and dance the night away:
Believe it or not, practically every night of the week there is somewhere to go Tango dancing in a large city.
Most people can show up all alone in a strange city, yet feel instantly at home by attending a Milonga and dancing the night away with strangers.
Tango is a dialogue between people, much like a language for communicating.
Once you learn it, it is a lifelong skill to enjoy.
It is normal to come to a Milonga alone not knowing anyone.
If you are traveling somewhere far away from home, finding a Milonga where you can dance Tango is a good way to meet people, and nice way to spend an evening out.
Here is an example of an outdoor Milonga that popped up out of nowhere, in the open air:
Legacy of Tango
As you can see, Tango can be dance anywhere that the heart desires.
There are many different styles of Tango, different types of music and venues, all over the world.
Tango is an International dance and is known globally.
However, like mentioned previously, it is much more than just a dance.
Tango has the capacity to teach people how to grow in a relationships and individually within themselves.
By paying close attention and focusing to each other, Tango dancers create intimacy and connection.
There is a certain “letting go” and surrendering to your partner that goes on, as well as non judgmental acceptance of each other.
It is both healing and energizing.
More Examples of Tango from Around the World
Milonga in Budapest. Great ambience and setting, right on the water:
Milonga in Prague:
Here is an Argentinian couple dancing in front of a restaurant in Buenos Aires:
Another couple in the streets:
Try it for yourself.
Hope you enjoyed this little presentation of what Tango is all about.
Feel free to take the plunge and check out your local Tango scene to see what you’ve been missing out on.
If you want to really give it a go, contact your local dance studio and get some Tango life skills of your own!
Once you learn Tango, you will instantly be a part of something so much bigger than just a dance.
Now I want to hear from you!
Leave a comment and tell me your favorite thing about tango and anything else you’d like to know.