Dancing Tango

15th April 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

" 'Learning an art's movements' involves much more than simply learning to put a hand here or a foot there. It also means developing a thorough understanding of, for example, a movement's purpose, mechanics and principles. Understanding motion and movement at that level provides you with everything you need to create your own techniques. This is exactly what you do when you move beyond the practice and into the realm of spontaneity; in combat, you spontaneously create your own techniques." ~ Bob Orlando


In Principles and Sequences I considered sequences as:
"a series of movements put together in a way that you can then practice all the above. Ideally it works by chaining moves with dynamics that naturally set-up each consecutive move. The exception is when you're being taught the principle of how to lead something other than what is naturally suggested by the movement."

There is another type of sequence that looks specifically at how to chain movements together. So once you know how to do a cross and an ocho, how do you join them together (rather useful for actual dancing).

Practical sequences

There is however another (unfortunately much rarer) type of sequence. It considers how a person actually dances tango socially. Most sequences really only work for show tango where you have the whole floor to yourself and so blind spots, going backwards, crossing lanes, and so forth aren't an issue.

Practical sequences take into account the joys of being on a crowded dance floor and floorcraft. They tend to be quite short. Which is useful because you don't know ahead of time what the flow of traffic is going to be like.

Tom-Toms are great for navigating, but I'd hate to have follow their directions regardless of the surrounding traffic, red lights etc.

Practical sequences are designed to consider and solve the problems you face when dancing tango. How do you deal with your blind spot? What are the drawbacks of being in a sandwich if you want to lead forward ochos? And so on.

At first I used to think of them as "Utility moves". Indeed when I asked Ezequiel Paludi at the end of a workshop why he'd chosen to teach us these specific sequences, he responded by showing how each solved a specific problem / had a specific use in social dancing.

However there's more to them than that.

It sounds strange, but in my experience we don't often learn to dance in tango. Musicality and floorcraft may turn up occasionally, but how do you actually put it all together in some kind of coherent structure? What is it that makes tango, well tango?

And this I suspect is why so many people end up dancing sequences and focus on stringing moves together. Because short of divine inspiration, how else are you supposed to figure it out?!

Obvious - and wrong

To make matters worse, the obvious solution is in fact wrong. If I wanted to become a better boxer, I'd be well advised to watch other boxers. You can see pretty clearly what works and what doesn't, especially by the guy lying comatose on the floor...

If you watch social dancing however you run into this problem
"Stefano made another comment, to the effect that almost no-one in milongas is actually dancing - they're mostly simply moving from one move to another. Basically, they're exercising, not dancing."

So if you watch social dancing, in the London area at least, you're actually learning the wrong thing.

Watch the experts. Or not.

OK, so you watch the teachers and the maestros, they're doing it properly; um, aren't they?

Well, unfortunately, probably not. If you're watching Youtube or teachers doing a demonstration (other than after their lesson) what you're most likely seeing is Show Tango, not social tango. Drat.

OK, what about the demonstration after the lesson? Well it's better, but again it's artificially restricted. They are showing you ways to blend the sequences / concepts they've shown you in to social dancing, but it's really unlikely they'd ever actually dance like that socially.

Ok what about watching teachers dancing socially? Now you're talking.

But wait - there's even more problems!

You're watching someone of a professional level dance tango, quite possibly with another professional. It's akin to trying to learn chess strategies by watching two Grandmasters playing.

In reality what you'd most likely actually do is get someone to teach you the basics such as the Fool's Mate first and work up from there, rather than start by trying to figure out what on earth's going on in the Orangutan?!

Oh and just to compound things, how often do you actually get to see teachers dancing socially anyway?

The answer. Or not.

So what do you do?

Well to be honest I'm not sure there's a lot you can do. This is really more of a warning of hidden dangers and advice to watch out for practical sequences.

I can't remember ever having seen a workshop on how to actually dance tango. - I've seen a grand total of two classes (which sadly were cancelled due to lack of interest). I suspect the only realistic solution for the foreseeable future is private lessons with someone who dances in a style that you like.

It also raises the somewhat zen-like question:
"If no-one in a milonga is actually dancing, is it still a milonga?"

 - Christopher O'Shea, 15th April 2009

Related articles