Let’s talk tango!
I really wanted to give you a good introduction to and overview of the Argentine tango so this will be a bit of a long post. It’s organized into sections as follows:– My First Tango Experience & Fears – Dance Shoes – Cabeceo – How To Embrace – Etiquette – The Tango Love Letter ~ Basic 8 Count Steps – Argentine Tango Vs. American Ballroom Tango – Physicality – Personal Challenges – Tango With Prince Charming
My First Tango Experience & Fears:
When I first started taking tango I was a little apprehensive about what I was getting myself into. My previous experience with partnered dance classes was very slim. I had all sorts of questions fly through my mind before I went to my first class.
“Isn’t it kind of a sexy dance?”
“What if no one wants to dance with me?”
“Can I even physically handle this?”
“What if I’m expected to fly through the air like the Dancing With The Stars athletes???”
“What if I trip and fall on my face…. or what if I get stabbed in the eye with rose thorns… or I try to put a rose in my mouth and it slices me and I end up bleeding all over… and what if I try to do one of those fancy leg dealies, and my dress splits, and I end up mooning everyone…??? What then, huh?”
Yes, I have a very vivid and active imagination that scampers off into absurdity at times. 😛
I told myself that I would go to at least one class, and just watch from the sidelines if it turned out to not be something I wanted to pursue. Then I could say that I got to go watch tango dancers that evening, and that would have been my grand adventure for the night.
I went to my first class, and I danced, and I fell in love with tango!
The first class was very small, so I got a lot of extra help from the teacher and other students. I hadn’t made the best choice on shoes for the evening, but I danced through the pain. 😛 Man, I tell ya, dance shoes were a Godsend! I still have rough spots on my feet from wearing the wrong kind of shoes to tango class for the first couple of months – my feet looked like I’d dragged them through shards of broken glass. If you’re going to take Argentine tango classes on a regular basis then invest in a pair of comfortable leather-soled shoes. I recommend browsing the company website for Capezio brand dance shoes, but you can also find Capezio shoes on Amazon.
Let me tell you, they might not look like anything terribly special, but these are my magic shoes.
^ Please read the last part of that sentence in the voice of Forest Gump.
I step into these shoes and I feel like I get to release my inner Bond-Girl.
Seriously, Xena Warrior-Tango-Princess suddenly arrives on the scene when I put on my tango shoes. I get a whole new sense of confidence and sass, a whopping dose of femininity, and as if by magic, I’m also gifted with grace.
Alright, so tango DOES sound interesting, you say? Maybe you’ve just GOT to get yourself into a pair of those shoes, but perhaps you find yourself still asking the same questions I did? Then let me ease your fears!
Tango can be a pretty sexy dance, but it’s classy-sexy not raunchy-sexy. There are strict rules and etiquette that go with tango that illustrate that it’s about elegance, chivalry, and beauty. If you’ve taken some classes you might feel comfortable taking your moves to a tango party. A tango party is called a Milonga (this is a word that is also used to describe a style of tango dance), and a person who dances tango at these social events is called a Milonguero.
Once you’re at a Milonga you’ll notice that there is a special silent code to ask a woman to dance, this is called “Cabeceo” (pronounced Cah-beh-say-oh) or “The Look“.
First of all, women do not typically ask the men to dance. If you’re with your best friend/boyfriend/husband then it would be acceptable to ask, but women must otherwise wait for one of the men to ask them to dance. Men will not walk up to a woman and ask “would you like to dance”? They must use “Cabeceo” and this is done simply with eye contact. Ladies, if you want a guy to ask you to dance at a Milonga you’re going to need to have your head up! If you’re staring at your shoes or have your face in your cell phone they can’t even try to ask you to dance (although these are good avoidance tactics if you don’t feel like dancing). While looking for a dance partner a man will be looking around the room before a set. The man will make eye contact with a woman and nod his head slightly to the side as an invitation. If the woman wants to dance with him she will return eye contact and move toward him. If the woman does not want to dance she will break eye contact and look away.
How To Embrace:
Depending on how comfortable you are with your partner you will either step into an “open” or “close” embrace. An open embrace should keep space between you and your partner, while a close embrace should let you dance cheek-to-cheek.
To step into an embrace the man should extend his left hand, open and palm up so that the woman may place her right hand in his. The woman should then place her left hand on the man’s right shoulder (upper arm, shoulder, or back of shoulder – whatever is comfortable for your height), so that the man can slide his right hand under her arm and place it onto the woman’s left shoulder blade. All this should be done slowly and with confidence – it should look classy, not sloppy or wishy-washy. Getting this sequence down might seem a little confusing at first, but it looks ever so lovely when done right. 🙂 Keep your chin up, folks! Literally, keep your head held high and stand with good posture – it’s time to get your “fancy” groove on.
Once you’re out on the dance floor it is customary to dance to three songs with your partner, this is called a “set“. You may find yourself at a more informal Milonga and you’ll see people talking briefly in between songs, but you may also find that people won’t be talking with each other. They’re not being unfriendly, they’re being respectful of their partner and somewhat more formal. Don’t worry about making small talk.
That’s all you need to do. Do not say “thank you” to your partner until you are done dancing with them! Saying “thank you” expresses appreciation, but also that you are done dancing with your partner. For the men, sorry bros, you picked your partner, you’re stuck with her until the end of the set (three songs). For the women, if you said yes to dancing with some guy that’s stepping on your feet, or has horrifying halitosis, or anything else unsavory, you can smile and say “thank you” after the first song then return to your seat. Otherwise, give your partner your time and the courtesy of the full three songs (one whole set). Once the set is over you can express your gratitude for the dance by saying “thank you”.
There is an atmosphere of chivalry in tango. A lady will not be left all alone by herself at a Milonga, someone (and probably several someones) will approach her to dance. Do not feel self conscious about your age, height, weight, or any of the usual hang-ups that we all deal with. You will be seen as a lady, someone to respect, someone take care of, and someone to show off on the dance floor. Dress yourself up nice and pretty, do your hair, maybe add a little make-up, and make sure you stock up on breath mints (you’ll be very close to people – I always feel more confident with a mint), you will get asked to dance. If you feel confident enough to take your skills to a Milonga to begin with then there should be no reason to not spend your evening dancing the night away. Dismiss all worries of ending up as a wallflower.
The Tango Love Letter ~ Basic 8 Count Steps:
Dancing the Argentine tango is like writing a love letter with your body. It might be a smoldering passionate love letter filled with desire, or it might be a joyful playful love letter filled with appreciation. Either way, you are expressing yourselves as you dance together. You can dance tango without any flirtation – it can be a fun and beautiful way to dance with new friends and acquaintances.
One of the first things you’ll learn in a beginners tango class is the “basic 8” count steps.
The basic 8 count steps are the beginning and end of your love letter.
Steps 1-5 are called “salida” (which seems a bit odd since this means “exit”) and this is how you will usually begin your letter.
Dear Milonguero (1-5),
You’ll notice that step 5 is a “cross” for the ladies – the ankles will be crossed and from here the gentleman can lead his partner into all sorts of fancy techniques. These improvised techniques are the body of the love letter. While the man will be leading the techniques, the lady can still feel free to embellish as is appropriate as much as she wishes.
Eventually your love letter must come to an end. Steps 6-8 are called “resolución” (meaning resolution) and these will close your love letter.
Each love letter doesn’t need to last for a whole song. You might find yourself writing several love letters with your partner before a song is over. Take your time and learn the opening and closing for starters. There are so many different techniques which are the “words” or “language” of your tango love letter to fill the body with; but first begin with the basic 8, learn how to “write” your opening and closing lines.
Argentine Tango Vs. American Ballroom Tango:
It used to be that when I heard the word “tango” it conjured images of two people pressed close together with their arms out to one side and rose stems clenched in their teeth. This is a completely different kind of tango than Argentine tango. That type of dance style is usually associated with American ballroom tango.
If you were actually concerned about rose thorns, then you can dismiss those fears too.
The Dancing With The Stars dancers are amazing athletes. They are obviously very skilled and educated in their field so that they can give us very entertaining TV performances; however, you will not see the same kind of “wow-factor” techniques used at real Argentine tango competitions. If you have concerns about physically handling tango then dismiss those as well. Tango is a very fancy walk – if you can walk then you can tango. Some techniques require a bit of athleticism and might be considered strenuous for some people, but these techniques aren’t necessary to the dance or to have a good time.
Here’s an example of professional Argentine tango dancers:
Check out the spins at ~1:55 and ~ 2:27. That’s some pretty fancy footwork, and that’s the kind of “wow-factor” techniques you’ll be more likely to see.
The hardest thing for me to learn was to be a good “follower” on the dance floor. Argentine tango doesn’t subscribe to a specific set of dance moves like regular ballroom dances; tango is creative, and the “leader” can move the couple to the feel of the music. When I felt awkward I would want to lead so that I would have more control – at the beginning I had some serious fears about tripping or knocking over my partners. Eventually I learned to simply take things slow. Tango is my big chance to feel very feminine on a regular basis. Ladies, your job in tango is to show off how amazing you are; guys, your job in tango is protect, guide, and show off the lady. If anyone has any gripes about women being the “followers” and men being the “leaders” then let me correct you – this dance is all about the guys being incredibly wonderful gentlemen, adoring their dance partner, showing her off, protecting and guiding her through the dance. When the leader leads it is not a command, it’s not “do this because I want you to”; the really good dance partners, the excellent leaders, they lead with suggestions, it’s “do this because I know you look especially gorgeous showing off in this way”. A good leader will give you space and support to take their suggestion, and that’s when the dance gets really fun.
Tango With Prince Charming:
I am lucky enough that my boyfriend, Charming, dances tango with me. He’s an amazing gentleman and really smooth on the dance floor. Lucky girl, I know! One of the best things about dancing tango with him is that I am so comfortable with him. We can dance together in a “close embrace”, and I feel at ease being sexy as he shows me off. Switching from “open embrace” to “close embrace” has been a whole new ball game for me. It’s more intimate and I feel like it really brings the dance to life. Yes, I also enjoy dancing tango with friends, but it’s about passion and flirtation when I dance with Charming. I feel like it takes the dance to a whole new level to have the freedom to dance with that level of intimacy and comfort. I recommend that this is something to keep in mind if you’re in a relationship – ask your loved one to dance with you.
Some of the more advanced tango techniques require quite a bit of trust between partners. Volcada (shown above) is a very controlled fall or lean followed by a pivot, and Charming is the first man I’ve trusted to try this technique with. The fact of the matter is that it’s a very intimate technique so I had not done this before I started dancing with him – just a personal comfort choice. It’s been awkward for me to get used to my body in that pose and I often end up giggling. 😛 Ultimately it can be very sweet to feel supported falling into the arms of the person you love. It is also a reassuring reminder of his strength. Trust is a funny thing, ain’t it? While I might feel unsure and awkward with myself while doing this technique it has only cultivated my trust in him. Trust is important because you run the risk of hurting your partner if you don’t trust them – Swayze was totally on point during the lift scene in Dirty Dancing!
Another comfortability aspect about dancing with Charming is his height. I believe I’ve shared with y’all before that I’m a bit of an Amazon in the height department. I’m 6′ tall without shoes, and my tango shoes with low heels bring me up to 6′ 2″; thankfully, Charming is still quite a bit taller than me even in my tango shoes. It’s been entirely doable to dance with shorter friends, but his height advantage allows us to more easily pull off some of the fancier techniques when we dance together. If you are also of the Amazon tribe and you want to really get into Argentine tango then I highly recommend taking height into consideration when choosing a dance partner.
Well folks, I hope I’ve turned you on to tango! If you’re ever presented with the opportunity to give it a try please go for it, and don’t forget to come back and tell me about it later. 😀 Better yet, don’t wait around for an opportunity to present itself, go look for dance classes in your community or a local social Milonga. Above all, give yourself the chance to feel elegant on a regular basis. Maybe dancing isn’t your thing, that’s okay, just give yourself an outlet to get your glam on. Hold yourself up and let yourself feel classy. It really is a beautiful thing to have that kind of grace and confidence. If you take nothing else away from this post take this, classy is about how you carry yourself and how you treat other people. There is no brand name, piece of jewelry, car, cocktail, or fashion statement that can magically give you elegance and class. Move with purpose, own every step you take, and give others your appreciation and respect. That’s classy.
Until next time folks…