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An Approach to Advanced Tango

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Tango comes in many flavors—the sultry Argentine style, the playful American style, and the staccato International tango. Each style has a different way of moving, a distinctive look of the dancer that can be recognized even without music playing. Many figures can be danced in any of the three styles, depending on the technique applied.

At the advanced level, tango takes on the character of the International style. The late Sir Alex Moore, MBE*, described that as having “tango atmosphere,” calling it a dance “full of eccentricities coupled with steps easily acquired.” As dancers move into advanced tango, they should spend some time on the technique that sets the International tango apart from other rhythms.

I. Understanding Its History

All three styles evolved from the dance that took root in the slums and bordellos of Argentina in the late 1880s, as waves of immigrants flooded into Buenos Aires. Their dance was sad, about lost loves and lives left behind in Europe, opportunities promised and not fulfilled, aggression and passion. Political upheaval in South America in the early 1900s drove many to Europe, and they took their tango with them. It became the rage of Paris society. The sad overtones were lost on those who had not lived through the terror of government overthrows, but a “battle of the sexes” theme survived. Hollywood stylized it for the movies of the 1920s. In England a more staccato form was standardized in 1922 as the International style.

II. How Advanced Style Differs From Other Rhythms

To achieve that “tango atmosphere,” the dancer must incorporate a more compact hold and must learn to pick up and place the feet. Tango has virtually no rise and fall, no swing, no sway, no skimming the feet across the floor.

Hold: The basic position feels more grounded than in the other rhythms because knees are slightly flexed. Without rise and fall, the dancers will move as though they are walking in a low cave, trying not to bump their heads by keeping the movement level. The hold is more compact, with Lady slightly more to Man’s right side. His right hand is lower on her back and further toward her spine, with fingers pointing down. Lady’s left arm is placed over the top of his right arm, with her thumb under his upper right arm so that her fingertips just avoid touching his torso. The back of her hand faces away from her. This gives a sense of being “locked” together, so that any slight move by the Man will be felt and amplified by the Lady. Lead hands are joined just below his eye level.

Placing the feet: Steps are taken with compression and deliberation, like a cat stalking prey. Pick up and place each foot, contrary to the gliding steps of the smooth dances. Side leads and CBMP add to the cat-like nature. When dancing the standard walk 2 (found in almost every dance), the step forward with the left foot is placed ON (not across) the line of the right foot, in CBMP. The right foot walks out of CBMP. The result will be a wide curve to the Man’s left. Walk 2 should move from an alignment facing diagonal wall to diagonal center.

A Little More Technique: Staccato action is obtained by delaying the movement of the foot that is not supporting the weight of the body. Turning steps are placed without foot swivel, creating a different look for lady’s heel turns, such as in the telemark to semi.

Footwork: Forward steps are taken with heel leads. The first two steps of promenade figures are also heel leads. This is a different heel lead from foxtrot, for example, which lands on the back of heel. In tango, the heel lead in semi-closed position will be onto the inside edge of the heel. In closed position, the heel lead with the left foot will be taken onto the outside edge of the heel, but on the right foot, it will land first on the inside edge of the heel. Steps can be on the inside edges of heel, ball, or even the big toe. Closing steps are usually described as being taken onto the “whole foot.”

When feet close, they will be offset to allow for the flexed knees of the partners. To practice getting into this position, both partners stand in closed position with feet together, then keeping the balls of the feet on the floor, each turns 1/8 to the left, which slips the right foot slightly back so that the ball of the right foot is at the instep of the left foot. Your right knee now is “tucked” behind the left. Whenever the feet close, they will generally be in this position.

III. Musicality

In round dancing, tango is choreographed in 4/4 timing, meaning four beats in each measure of music. The most basic rhythm is QQS, which means you dance the first “Q” on beat 1, the second “Q” on beat 2 and “S” on beats 3 and 4. Many figures span a measure and a half, like the closed promenade, SQQS. Couple it with the progressive link, QQ, and you have two full measures of music.

Many figures end with a count of “&S”. To accentuate the staccato nature of tango, you dance the final step quickly on the “&” count and tap or hold the Slow, rather than using both beats of the “S” to take the step.

A good basic tango to introduce the advanced style is Kay & Joy Read’s Gold Tango. It is phase IV+2,
with two of the promenade family figures. It will feel like a very advanced tango if its phase III and IV
figures are done with advanced technique.

*Sir Alex Moore’s Ballroom Dancing is considered the bible of international style ballroom dancing. He founded the ballroom branch of the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing (ISTD) which standardized the technique for ballroom rhythms and was its chairman for almost 40 years.

From clinic notes prepared for the RAL Convention 2014, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, June 2018. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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