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How About A Little Tango?

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Tango is one confused rhythm. In some books, it is considered a Latin dance; in most, it is one of the smooth, ballroom rhythms. It doesn’t dance like a Latin dance, like rumba or cha cha, but it doesn’t dance like a waltz or foxtrot either.

You first find it in choreographed ballroom (i.e. round dance) at the end of most phase III teaching programs. That means a teacher might not get to it. It might get only a quick look or not get taught at all until one progresses higher, into high intermediate or advanced programs. Over the years, we have asked teachers why. The answer generally comes down to some variation of “it’s too different” or “I never learned it from my teachers.”

You know there is something different about it just by listening to the music. Put on a foxtrot and let it tell you how to move. You should instinctively sway just standing in place. Fred & Ginger should come to mind. Now put on a tango. Do you feel like swaying anymore? The music should be telling you “attack, attack,” and that should dictate how you dance to it.

Waltz and foxtrot are considered “swing” dances (not the same “swing” used to describe the group of rhythms including jive). This means they move best with a swing through the body to propel you from step to step and some sway that acts as a break going through turns. Tango moves on the floor differently. You will hear a teacher say it has no “swing” and “no sway.”

Tango uses an internal windup to generate power to move. You use the knee to pick up the feet and place them, no skimming across the floor. You want the body to move as a column, vertically with no sway. Instead of moving square-ish as in smooth, tango moves with a right side lead, meaning you dance forward onto the outside edge of the heel with the left foot and then to the inside edge of the heel of the right foot. You will also hear that in the swing dances you step forward to turn between steps, but in tango the body winds up to cause you to turn as you step.

While there are some differences in the frame for tango, the connection is much the same as for waltz and foxtrot. Lady steps up to her partner, stands with her weight over her left foot, her heart angled toward his heart. He adjusts to her by opening his arms in a frame that makes room for her on his right side. Try these tips to improve your frame for any smooth dance including tango: Man can hold the small end of a shoe box against the right side of his chest, where partner would be, keeping it there with his right hand placed on the other end as though it were in proper frame. The box should stay in place as he moves. Alternatively, he can practice wearing a tie and holding the end of it out where his right arm should be in frame, and dance without letting the tie sag. So there you go. Tango isn’t all that different.

The Smiths Of Round Dancing

They have been called “one of the most important figures in the country in the spread of round dancing,” yet few today can recall their names. It might help if I say they wrote Tango Mannita.

That was one of the first tangos in round dancing--named from combining their names--and it became a standard first lesson in how to dance Tango. I’m talking of course about Manning and Nita Smith.

“They were the early unquestionable leaders in the art of round dancing and did more than any others have done in directing and stabilizing the rapid development of round dancing throughout the country,” according to an obituary published when Nita died in 2008 at age 90. It was written by Darrah Chavey, a round dance leader and Beloit College professor. Manning had died in 1992.

They were from the 1950s and 1960s era, when round dancing was mostly waltz, two step and polka and mostly taught by square dance callers. They founded teachers’ schools responsible for teaching standardized basics and for bringing “new” rhythms, like tango and the latin rhythms, into round dancing.

They were the first recipients of Roundalab’s Silver Halo Award, given for outstanding contributions to round dancing through teaching, choreography or improvements to materials available to teachers. They were also named to every other Who’s Who list in round dancing--the URDC (now ICBDA) Golden Torch for leadership in round dancing; Callerlab’s highest award (the Milestone Award), and the Sets in Order Square & Round Dance Hall of Fame. Tango Mannita was among the dances picked to start URDC’s Hall of Fame in 1978.

They were best known internationally as round dance teachers but he was also a national traveling square dance caller and the first caller to record an LP series of party square dances for Columbia Records. Round Dancer Magazine reported in 1965 that they had traveled “well over a million miles,” teaching in every state, Canada, and 15 European countries during the previous 10 years. The US Air Force sent them to teach at bases in Europe in 1958. Throughout their dance career, they taught at almost every festival in the country.

Nita also ran Fashions by Nita, a line of custom-made dance dresses and petticoats, referred to as “the Neiman Marcus of the dance world.” Square dance attire had been the squaw dress until dancers saw her square dance dresses and petticoats (like those still worn today) and began ordering a new way of dressing.

He was a Texas A&M football coach, she was a high school physical education teacher. They met at a dance, married a year later in 1939, and took up square dancing five years later. Round dancing was called “couple dancing” back then, she said in an oral history interview done in 1997. “Most of the public dances used fiddle bands,” she said, “and they would do the Cotton Eye Joe, the schottische, and a waltz, and let me tell you, they wouldn’t hire them in my part of the country if they couldn’t do that.”

The Mannings were on Roundalab’s first board of directors when it formed in 1977. She said she was “saddened that they (Roundalab) didn’t in the very beginning stay with the very, very basic things,” she said, “but they eventually got to it.” She worried that dancers who wanted more, and harder material for the challenge of it, would tire and drop out. “I’m hoping our dance movement will eventually be adult enough to enjoy it for the music instead of for challenge.”

They were credited as being the first leaders to realize the importance of teacher education and started the first round dance schools for teachers. In her oral interview, Nita said their schools were based on lectures and teaching techniques. Manning taught a class on how to start a beginners class each session. They also asked each group what they wanted to learn and that dictated the rest of the week for that school.

The full unedited oral interview with Nita is transcribed on the Square Dance Foundation of New England Inc. web site.

There wasn’t yet a cue sheet writing guideline in 1965 when Tango Mannita was written. The cue sheet had no head cues, just measure by measure instructions of footwork-- like ”fwd slow L, cross slow R thru to Banjo position,” Part B, measure 1 (now cued as “Walk 2 to Banjo”). The dance started what became a standard feature of early tangos to walk 2 toward line of dance in closed position, do a tango draw still in closed position, and a quick change to semi-closed position to walk 2 toward center of hall. It also introduced the sequences “walk 2 run two,” seen in some recent choreography, and “side behind flare; behind side thru flare,” an early form of the serpiente.

Tango Mannita was rated 196 on the Fleck scale, after Roundalab created that initial difficulty rating system. That put it in the middle the Intermediate range. The Fleck system was the predecessor of today’s phase rating system to value round dances. It rated dances on numerical values of the steps in it, timing, positions, number of repetitions, and layout. Easy dances for square dance level were rated at 175 or less. Dances of 300 points were considered advanced and those at 350 or more, challenge.

From club newsletters, May 2020 and July 2022, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, October 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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