The Tango – the most difficult dance or a walk in the park?

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How many times have you been to a Tango class and been told by the Teacher that, “Tango is based on walking”? If your answer is, “never’, then you might want to consider changing Teachers, as the principal element and foundation of Argentine Tango is walking!

Tango is considered by many, to be one of the most difficult dances to learn but I’m not so sure. I don’t think that the people of 100 years ago, woke up one morning and thought, “Mmm…tonight, after I get back from work, I’m going to get together with a few of my mates and create a really difficult dance, that no-one will be able to do for at least a couple of years!” Does this sound very likely? I don’t think so. It’s far more realistic that they took hold of each other in a natural hold or hug, (possibly after one too many!), and started staggering together to the local musicians, or guy who could play a guitar, to have some fun. Essentially though, what they would have done, was walk together. No technique, no posturing, no masonic hand holds, just simple, get together, walking.

Of course, I don’t know – nobody knows for sure how the Tango started, its origins seem to be buried in a world of cliches, but I don’t believe it started out to be a complicated dance. I think it’s become over-complicated, over time and this is rather sad.

I think it’s time that we all tried to dispel this idea of Tango being the most difficult dance to learn, for the sake of Tango, because I think that this actually discourages new people trying the dance. Plus, if they do try it and find that, like all dances, it’s a little challenging in the first lesson, the myth of Tango being the, ‘most difficult dance to learn,’ exists, which gives them a perfect excuse to give up!

To me, Tango is no more difficult to learn than any other dance, in fact, it could be argued that it’s a damn sight easier, because it’s not about movements or sequences. Instead, it’s about ‘tools’ like the crossed/parallel walking, the pivot, the rebound, giros etc, put together just like a conversation.

If you take aside the theatrical stage dancers with their highly choreographed routines, which of course, is a huge skill in itself, and you concentrate instead on the art of the social Tango, it’s essentially “walking with style”! Sure, there are complications with the rhythm elements, particularly in the rhythm of milonga, which can be difficult for the Western ear to hear at first. But have you ever tried to dance a Ballroom Foxtrot? It’s not easy! The Tango walk has a reputation for being difficult and it’s true that the technique of the Tango walk, has to be learnt and become natural, so that you don’t have to think about it. But again, have you ever tried to do Rumba walks? They’re not straightforward and require a lot of practice to execute them well. My point is – all dances are tricky to learn at the beginning. The fact that there are fewer rules in Tango however, in my opinion, makes it easier, as there is no right or wrong in so many ways. If you’ve ever done Ballroom dancing, there are huge technique books for every movement and there is definitely a right and wrong way to execute everything, otherwise it would be impossible to judge in a competition.

So why is the Tango today advertised as some sort of incredibly difficult dance, that only a few can ever hope to achieve? Why are embraces being developed that are so unnatural to look at and distort the body?

A student told me the other day she had been advised that the only way to do ochos in a close embrace, was to stick out your bottom, so the legs had room to pass! This is a recipe for extreme back ache for life, but she was happy to do it because the Teacher had said that was the way. If you look on ‘You Tube,’ there are unfortunately, hundreds of dancers who do exactly this. On another occasion, a student told me, that in Tango, there was no such thing as a diagonal, directional¬† step. Steps could only be taken in straight lines, forwards, backwards and to the sides. Really?

I published a slogan recently which said, “Think nothing, feel everything, dance the Tango.” For me, this pretty much sums up the art of dancing Tango. If you over think and therefore over complicate the dance you may not be dancing Tango, but instead a caricature of the dance.

To me, the longer I dance Tango, the simpler it becomes. You might say, “Well of course! You teach, of course it’s easy for you!” It’s not about teaching however, it’s about realising that the fundamental component of the dance is ‘walking’!

When I met Leo, even though I was teaching at the time, he had to completely retrain the way I walked. Why? Because I wasn’t really walking – I thought I was, but I wasn’t using my feet properly. I was walking mainly on the balls of my feet, without the heel ever coming into contact with the floor.

This is a very common problem with ladies, because they have the wrong idea about the walk. So many women complain to me, that their feet or legs feel tired after an evening of dancing Tango. The problem is usually because they have been dancing on the balls of their feet and flexing their knees the entire evening. If you walk backwards normally, as you would on the pavement, you would never go back on just the balls of your feet, you would use the whole foot, you would put the heel down. It’s exactly the same in Tango because it’s a walking dance!

For the men, they have a different problem. Usually, one of the things you hear in a class or milonga is the ‘shushing’ sound of feet scraping along the floor. So, when you walk normally down the street, do you keep your feet in contact with the floor the entire time? Absolutely not! You use the heel and the ball of foot. It’s exactly the same in the Tango walk, there is no need to ‘shuffle’ around the floor. If you don’t lead or walk properly with intention, the lady may not understand what you would like her to do.

The reason I feel Tango is easier now, is simply because I walk more naturally!

There is a mysterious power at work in any dance form and it’s called the dance floor. This strange, flat space of ground, has the power to do magical things. It makes normal, well balanced and adjusted people who can move perfectly naturally through crowds of people in their normal, every day lives, become physically incapable of walking as soon as their feet touch it! If you say “walk naturally”, most people will suddenly develop a walking style that John Cleese would be proud of! It’s hard to counteract this, as people have this fixation of: (a), Tango is difficult, and (b), I know the Teacher just said to walk but this is a dance, so I can’t just walk, I need to do something different!

My point is, that if we continually create the myth that Tango is difficult and that it takes years to learn, this will become the norm. Most people haven’t got years to to try and learn a new dance, they want to go out and feel that they’ve made progress and can go to a dance and enjoy themselves. If, by the way, you think I’m advocating learning Tango sequences, then think again, because we passionately believe in the improvised artform of Tango. This is what we teach and dance.

The only way to learn Tango, is to try and walk normally with the technique of the walk. Listen to the music. Imagine you are embracing one of your good friends, so it’s a natural, relaxed embrace. Enjoy putting together the ‘tools’ of Tango to create a conversation on the dance floor – this does not have to be complicated! Forget long sequences and movements, this will just lead to frustration. Ignore all the myths you may have heard about Tango – come to it with an open mind and simply enjoy the experience! Above all, the next time someone says to you, “Oh, I’d love to have a go at Tango but it’s so difficult, try re-assuring them that if they can walk, then Tango may be the dance for them!”

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About Tracey Tyack-King

I'm a professional Teacher and Dancer of the improvised art form of the social Argentine Tango. Together with my partner, Leonardo Acosta, (Leo Fandango), we teach regular weekly classes under the name of Tango Fandango, mainly in the South of the UK. We also teach our own Teachers using our defined teaching methodology under the name of 'The London Argentine Tango School'. We believe passionately in the social art form of improvised Tango and dance as we teach - all our performances are improvised.
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9 Responses to The Tango – the most difficult dance or a walk in the park?

  1. Cliff says:

    I went to a milonga recently – the first for a very long time as after nearly thirteen years I no longer dance. What I noticed was the almost entire lack of response to the music. “Feel the music” as Leo says – but who does? Tis very rare.

    Think milongueros have got completely hooked on doing half remembered and badly executed ‘stuff’ to the detriment of it being truly a dance. Maybe it’s ‘easier’ to do it that way, a sort of Defence, rather than feel out dance, Perhaps also it’s because as a society we no longer couple dance? Watching a documentary on war time London the couples dancing ballroom were, on average, really good. My parents regularly danced and expected to be in some sort of embrace – we no longer do. They also practised – a lot!

    One famous Maestro once said to me “if you want to fly Cliff you have to immerse yourself in the dance”. The idea of dancing at least twice a week seems to give many dancers the heaves and three times is enough to make some faint! The thought of having to practice seems just to raise eyebrows. Travelling more than a few miles seems also to be an disincentive.

    The sheer joy of finding someone who can let go, meld with the music and ‘Travel’ makes the dance truly sublime – but is all too rare and I’m too old – far too old really.

    Stamp collecting is fun – so they tell me.

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    • You’re quite right Cliff, the UK used to have a very vibrant dance scene. If you look at old film footage before the advent of the 60’s pop culture, it was very natural for couple dancing. This seems to be a lost skill although TV shows have helped to try and bring it back. I think it’s also that people haven’t got time to learn a new skill here. In Italy for example, its common practice to sign up for a years course of Tango which you pay for a month in advance. People tend to see through the course as well. Here, people hop from Teacher to Teacher or can’t make half the lessons because of work. I don’t think stamp collecting is the answer though!!!

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      • Linda says:

        It’s the same here in France Tracey. People sign up for a year of classes and all seem to stay. They’re also very committed to practising the basics and both sexes will walk up and down the room on their own while waiting for the class to start. People in the UK seem to be chasing all the time, collecting classes and always looking for something to speed up their learning process – the next visiting maestro, the newest class (intermediate, of course!) – chopping and changing all the time and not really developing much at all.
        With regard to other dances, I think that ballroom dancers understand tango more than those who come from a dance involving ‘moves’ because, in my experience, those people expect to learn figures, rather than creating a beautiful, musical walk.

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  2. My problem is you are told forget about ballroom dancing and I would contend that there are similarities in most genres and also most followers want the leaders to be able to do boleos, sacadas volcadoes etc almost from the get go. The leaders become intimated and don’t enjoy learning and dancing the tango which is a terrible shame. I do love to dance in time and to interpet the music and to stop on the beat and thankfully there are followers who agree

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    • Hi Bill, yes, this is a problem where dancers want to run before they can walk. Also, the choreographed Tango shows don’t really help as everyone has the idea that show dancing is Argentine Tango, when in fact, it’s just a small part of it. In my opinion there is nothing more beautiful than walking together with someone who is musical. The sacadas, hooks etc are not necessary to enjoy the social Tango.

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    • Cliff says:

      You’re so right in many ways Bill, Tango shares many features required in other dances : musicality, dynamics, balance, timing but I would argue that Tango also very much differs from Ballroom.

      To be fair to yourself, try to find your own style before worrying about what you believe Tangueras ‘want’ otherwise you will never ‘know’ your own particular style.

      In finding yourself you will find tangueras who truly enjoy dancing with you and ask for repeats and you will develop through that reinforcement. Those who don’t like your style won’t – and that’s fair enough, you can NOT please everyone.

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  3. Ariadne says:

    Not sure when I had the brainstorm originally, but for quite some time now I start out beginner’s classes or even warm up my intermediate and advanced students by having them walk around the room arm-in-arm with their partner as if they’re taking a stroll in the park. They usually start out very confused, but I’ve had fantastic results with it. Bonus: it lets them listen to the music because they’re not thinking about their connection or footwork so they will just naturally step on the beat. (I’ve also observed the phenomenon you note here where they try to stylize their walk at first.)

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    • Hi Ariadne, yes, we also do the same sort of thing, we get them to walk hand in hand sometimes just as they would normally in a couple. You have to try everything in order to get the message of Tango across!

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  4. john giles says:

    I totally agree with the above article.
    The sheer joy of rhythmical walking to tango music is a great experience. Watch great couples dance and 90% of what they do is simple movement done beautifully. Don’t worry about attempting the other difficult 10%.
    Then anyone can enjoy this wonderful dance.

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