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Getting Them To Like Tango

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Many dancers tell us they don’t like tango. That seems so odd -- tango should be the easiest rhythm to dance because the steps are the most like walking. We think the problem arises because dancers don’t get much of it. With more early exposure, they might see that it can be fun. After all, the name "tango" derives from the Castilian “tano,” meaning “I play” and the Latin “tangere” meaning “to touch.”
Tango comes in three variations, American, International, and Argentine styles. Roundalab eliminated the distinction as to style—we just have tango—but each style is characteristically different. 

And therein is part of the problem. “Beginning” tango clinics often focus on the beginning International tango figures, which come into the Manual at phase V. The real beginning (that is often ignored) is tango at the easy and intermediate levels, done in the American style. 

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 ex-patriots 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 the more staccato form was standardized in 1922 as the International style. 

The late round dance leader Eddie Palmquist likened the differences between the three styles of tango to a Lady’s temperament. In Argentine tango, the Lady dances seductively, almost cuddled to her partner, as though “ yes” would be her answer to any request from him. In the International style tango, the Lady is very English and aloof, and the head tics and sharp turns into and out of closed position indicate that her answer would always be a definite “no.” 

American style has always been more fun and playful, epitomized by the Hollywood image of Rudolph Valentino stomping across the floor with lead hands stretched out in front. As Eddie characterized it, this tango is danced with the playfulness of a Lady responding to her partner’s overtures with a “maybe.” 

So with all that drama and variety in how tango can be danced, why isn’t it more popular? In our own informal survey of teachers, we found that many do not teach tango at all. Some equate it only with the advanced International style, which has its own language and the head tics, shrugs, and sharp movements that not everyone likes. Dancers tell us they don’t have a taste for tango because “nobody teaches it,” or they hate all the head shaking, or they just don’t have the opportunity to do it much. 

It is time for a new way of thinking. There are only a handful of figures that need to be taught at the easy level to get dancers started and interested. And much fun can be made of it. 

First, Some Technicalities: 

Musical Timing:

In round dancing, tango is shown in cuesheets 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. In easy and intermediate levels, amalgamations come in SS QQS sequences. More advanced figures will run into split measures with timing such as SQQS for the closed promenade, often followed by a QQ as in a progressive link. 


Figures from the waltz and foxtrot sections of the Manual are danced in tango, but with tango timing and a tango way of moving. This means most figure names and foot placement will be familiar. You will recognize Argentine style figures by the use of Spanish words—doble cruz, gaucho turn and serpiente—found in phase III and IV. At the advanced level, many figures have names borrowed from the ballroom syllabus for International tango. Semi-closed position is called promenade position, and a whole family of figures includes the term “promenade” as part of the figure names to mean walking into and out of semi-closed position. 


The Roundalab Teaching Progression Manuals for phase III and IV suggest that the characteristic movement of tango be taught from the beginning. Whatever style is intended, you will dance on soft (flexed) knees and feel more solid into the floor. This means forward steps have to be with heel leads. There is an abrupt stop on most slows, getting to the foot on the first beat and holding. 

Waltz and foxtrot are supposed to have flight, a continuous smooth flow with rise and fall, feet skimming the floor and a swing through the hips. In tango the feet are picked up and placed like walking on a sticky floor. Be solid on each foot, not like strolling. Feet are never skimmed across the floor. Tango does not have the rise and fall of the other smooth dances, and has no sway, no body swing. This way of moving is a distinguishing characteristic of tango that enables you to identify it when someone is dancing even without music. 

The tango dance position is more compact than in other dances. Man’s hand is further across her back, and lower, than in other dances. Lead hands are joined as in smooth dances but are brought in closer. When dancing Argentine style, the hold is so compact that the Man’s right hand rests almost on her spine. In International style, Lady’s left hand will be tucked under his arm with her thumb almost tickling his armpit. In Argentine style, her left arm might drape around his neck. To start dancers in American style, Lady’s left hand can rest on Man’s right arm as she already knows how to do. Alternatively, she can cup her left hand to the back of his arm. 

Getting To Know It 

Beginning with the American style, tango is not too staccato, has a more playful attitude, with less technique to teach and more familiar figures. All tango is theatrical because it depicts a story. Unless you relate to the history of the dance, it is only a walk. Think “war of the sexes.” Go with that and make it fun. 

Walk: (SS) Tango gives the impression that it curves to the left in the walk because of Man’s right shoulder lead. On the first step, your thighs will cross in CBMP (see note below), and on the second step, they will uncross. Think of an arc drawn on the floor in front of you, with Man’s left foot walking on the inside of the arc and his right foot on the outside of the arc. We have often put painter’s tape on the floor to illustrate this when teaching. 

Tango Draw: (QQS) Try Walk 2 (SS); Tango Draw (forward L, forward and side R, draw L to R -- QQS). To insert some levity and establish a cadence, have dancers say the letters T-A-N-G-O as they step through the Walk 2 and Tango Draw. 

Corte (not a dip) and Side Corte (not a side lunge): (S) One step to the side turning to reverse SCP (side corte) or back in CP (corte). 

Everybody loves a Leg Crawl: (S) This dresses up an ordinary Corte. Try this combination: Walk 2; Tango Draw; Corte with Leg Crawl (SS). A Phase III+1 combination that will tickle dancers. 

Spanish Drag (phase IV): (S) Side lunge L and draw right to standing leg. Can be paired with a Right Lunge. More time can be allowed for the draw for dramatic effect. 

Progressive Rocks: (QQS) Rocking in place in closed position by rocking forward L, recover R, forward L,-; Repeat rock forward R, recover L, forward, R-; to get back to lead feet free. Can also be done in semi-closed and shadow positions. Can also start with a back step for back rocks. 

Gaucho Turn (phase III): (QQ) Rocking in CP but turning left-face, in combinations of quicks, depending on how much turn you want. [Forward, recover with a 1⁄4 turn,] 

Serpiente (phase III):( QQS QQQQ) In any facing position, for Man (Lady opposite): side L, behind R, fan L counterclockwise; behind L, side R, thru L and fan; not to be confused with the phase IV Doble Cruz (SQQ QQQQ), which goes to SCP with forward L on the first step and ends in BJO, an exciting alternative. 

Criss Cross: (SS QQS) In SCP, for Man: forward and side L,-, thru R swiveling to reverse SCP,-; thru L, side R to CP, draw R to L,-; 

Add the familiar figures: 

Reverse Turn (or Open Reverse Turn) with Closed (or Open) Finish (phase IV): (QQS QQS) Note the change of timing from foxtrot. 

Whisk (phase III): (QQS) Danced flat with no rise and fall. 

Telemark (phase IV): (QQS) Lady’s heel turn is not done with swivel but foot placement, resulting in feet momentarily being turned out. 

Outside Swivel (phase IV): (QQS but only one weight change) No rise and fall, more staccato than in Smooth dances, timing change from the SQQ of Smooth dances.

 Note on CBMP: This concept is an integral part of tango, beginning with the walk. In the barest terms, it means a foot position occurring during a figure where the moving foot is placed on or across the line of the supporting foot and the side of the body opposite the moving foot is leading. In the walk, Man’s right side and left foot are leading on the first step.

From clinic notes prepared for the RAL Convention, 2013, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, October 2016.


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