Tango Magic

22nd May 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

"If I tell you how it's done, the Magic Circle will send a team of assassins to kill us all. It's the law." ~ Patrick Jane


There's a lot tangoistas can learn from Magicians. If you look at a magic trick the following is usually rated:

  • Set-up. Is the trick good to go instantly or is some preparation required?
  • Sleight of hand required? Can anyone do it or is it only for those willing to practice for hours each day for several years?
  • Reset - Can you immediately repeat the trick or do you need to set it up again (or find another woman to saw in half!)

What's interesting is that "beginner" tricks are usually described as "self-working", "no skill involved".


There are several types of magician.

Stage performers

They don't mind if there's a hefty amount of set-up preparation and the trick can't be reset. They've got all afternoon to set things up, a crew to help them and they only need to get it reset by the next performance.

Consider Tango stage performers. They don't mind if a move needs to be carefully choreographed and takes several steps to get into and out of it in a performance.

Restaurant performers

Interestingly the inexperienced ones are happy with complicated set-ups, long resets and difficult sleight of hand. But as time passes, the more experienced tend to shift towards simpler tricks - why?

Well, a couple of reasons:

  1. They go wrong less.
  2. They can concentrate on connecting with the audience rather than on the trick.

Now consider tango milonga dancers. Most start off wanting to learn the sequences that let them do boleos, ganchos etc. But over time, the more experienced tend to settle down to a smaller repertoire of simple steps / walks and focus on the connection with their partner, for much the same reasons.

Preserve the illusion

It's very hard to perform a magic trick to someone who's trying to figure it out. They've basically missed the whole point. It's an illusion! Do they go to galleries and complain that the Water Lilies is just various oil paints on a canvas? Likewise the follower has to believe the dance will work. If she's questioning or focussed on trying to work it out it's much harder for the leader.

Although most non-magicians associate a rabbit being pulled out of a hat as a symbol for magicians, most magicians feel it should be one of two things, the linking rings or the cups and balls.

What's interesting about both these tricks is they break the cardinal rule of magic "Never repeat a trick" - in fact they repeat the "trick" a considerable amount of times! Firstly consider that the rule actually is good advice. Endless boloes are probably a bad idea. However the "secret" to the above tricks is they do the same trick in more than one way. So you might lead several boleos of slightly different heights, speeds, shapes etc. The same with walking. It's not just step, step, step. Consider all the subtle ways you can do them differently.

Multiple outs

Things go wrong, such is life. Sensible magicians ask "What if this happens?" before they perform the trick - apparently English audiences are a lot worse than American audiences in this respect...

Ask yourself what you'd do if things went wrong? Practice it first in a practica to avoid unfortunate surprises in the milonga.

Sleights vs tricks

A trick is a specific application of a sleight eg you make a card vanish. Understand the trick and you can make a card vanish. Understand the sleight and you can make any small object vanish. Same thing with sequences and concepts. A sequence will let you do a boleo one specific way. Understand a boleo and you can do them in hundreds of ways.

Not another card trick

It's also worth knowing that there are only about 7 categories of tricks - indeed some tricks like the magic rings or cups and balls end up being in several. Yet every day people perform "new" tricks. In some cases it's a cleaner version, or easier in someway, but ultimately they come down to presentation. Keep connected with your audience and keep them in the moment. Otherwise they'll go "Oh I've seen this before", even if they haven't!.

Likewise there's not really that many concepts in tango. It's what you do with them that counts.

One step ahead

A good magician is at least one step ahead of where you are. After all he knows what's going on. While you're distracted looking at the pretty assistant bending over, he's probably up to something. Leader's get to use this a lot in tango. By careful positioning of footwork we can get into position for where we want to be slightly ahead of time, rather than having to take extra double time steps to position ourselves when the time comes.

The beautiful assistant

On the bright side you get one of these every time you tango!

 - Christopher O'Shea, 22nd May 2009

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