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Introducing International Tango To Your Dancers

by Pat and Joe Hilton

Does the thought of trying to introduce your dancers to International Tango cause you a bit of anxiety, and make you wonder “should I really try this”? As a new tango dancer, do you feel the same anxiety? Do you ask yourself the same question, “should I really try this”? If so, we would like to help you answer that question with a resounding “yes I should!”

A Brief History of Tango and How It Came Into Round Dancing

The origins of the tango are unclear because of poor documentation. It is generally thought that the dance developed in the late 19th century in working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Montevideo, Uruguay, as practiced by Uruguayan and Argentine dancers and musicians, and by immigrant laborers. One writer claims the tango originated in the lower class districts of Buenos Aires, Argentina in the late 19th century. He further states the wealthier classes then encountered it at brothels as Madams of the brothels would hire tango musicians to keep the men entertained while they waited in line for women to become available. Did you ever think history could be so much fun?

Argentine Tango dancing consists of a variety of styles that developed in different regions and eras, and in response to the crowding of the venue and even the fashions in clothing. Even though the present forms were probably developed in Argentina and Uruguay, they have also been exposed to influences  re-imported from Europe and North America. Consequently there is a good deal of confusion and overlap between the styles as they are now danced - and fusions continue to evolve.

Argentine Tango is danced in an embrace that can vary from very open, in which leader and follower connect at arms length, to very closed, in which the connection is chest-to-chest, or anywhere in between.

As Argentinean men began to travel abroad, the tango was introduced to Europe, and in 1912 the tango took Paris by storm. From there the dance became increasingly popular throughout the world and various different styles were developed. Two other styles of tango, the English (International) style and the American ballroom style, evolved from Argentine Tango.

The English then standardized this version of the tango in order to teach it in dance schools. This standardized version of the tango was originally referred to as the English style and then changed to the International style as it became the version that was practiced competitively around the world. Although the American ballroom tango is probably the most simplified version, it is also the most ostentatious of all the tangos. Following the English standardization of the tango, American ballroom dance instructor, Arthur Murray, standardized a version of the tango that could be taught in his chain of dance schools in America. He incorporated this style of tango with both Argentine and Hollywood influences as well as mixing in other socially popular influences and techniques.

As tango was brought into Round Dancing the first choreographers relied primarily on a mix of International and American style tango figures. Because our activity is not required to conform to any specific dance organization’s syllabus, we are able to define our figures in ways that best suit the needs of our choreographers and dancers. A comparison of various dance syllabi would show that most of our “true” International Tango figures are found in Phases V and VI. However, when we start to teach International Tango in round dancing we start with lower phase figures that are taken from several tango styles, but danced with International Tango characteristics.

The Characteristics of International Tango

  1. Rhythm Timing - In round dancing, the tango rhythm is denoted using 4/4 timing. Figures are sometimes written in 1 1/2 measures, mainly using 3 patterns of timing: [SS]; [QQS]; [QQQQ];
  2. The Tango Hold - The hold is very compact with the woman further into the man's right side. Foot placement in Closed Position is slightly different than other rhythms. The right foot is placed a few inches back so that the right toe is level with the left instep; this will help to hold the knees in a slightly flexed but very firm position. It will also put the partners into a position where their knees and thighs are touching, or at least very close to each other. It will also cause the man to have his right side slightly forward [i.e., a slight right-side lead].
  3. Movement - Tango dance is essentially walking with a partner and the music. Dancing appropriately to the emotion and speed of a tango is extremely important to dancing tango. Dancers generally keep their feet close to the floor as they walk, the ankles and knees brushing as one leg passes the other. All forward steps are heel leads, side steps are inside edge of foot and closing steps are flat whole foot. Each foot is picked up and placed deliberately. In tango, there is somewhat of a wider base because the weight is between the feet. Bodies are not allowed to go outside of the feet; therefore, there is no flight and no swing, but there is turn. Without flight and swing, there is no sway, rise, or fall. A wider base, compact hold, action of the legs and feet all contribute in achieving a different quality and character for dancing tango.

Introducing Tango Figures To New Tango Dancers (Teaching Techniques)

When introducing a new rhythm such as Tango we need to remember to keep it as simple as possible while still getting the flavor of the rhythm. We do not try to teach the beginning tango dancers everything we know about tango techniques. When learning something new the dancers can only focus on the basics. Said another way, they should only be given the first layer of techniques. Keep it simple. The primary teaching focus for beginners should answer the following questions:
  1. Where do I go? – Cover beginning and ending directions [LOD, WALL, RLOD, COH, DIAGONALS] and position [CP, SCP, BJO, SCAR, OP].
  2. How do I get there? – Tell them about the foot placement [where the step lands] and timing of the figure [SQQ; SS; QQS; etc.].
Use music with a strong beat to help the dancers get a feel for stepping on the beat of the music. This is very important because it helps the partners to move together in unison. Moving in unison is important if the dancers are using the “close” Tango hold that has their thighs and knees in contact with each other.

Making The Process Fun For You And Your Dancers

The idea is to keep the early sessions moving and fun by giving the dancers a chance to get the feel of the tango rhythm, and to be successful during the first class session. Build a short routine that will allow them to “dance a tango” by the end of that class. The dance may contain only three or four figures, but that will not matter to the dancers because they will have successfully danced tango after only one class session. Use a short piece of music with a strong beat. Help them be successful in learning where their feet go and dancing to the rhythm.

One possible short routine [from the Phase IV Tango Rhythm Teaching Progression Manual] you might use follows: [CP DLW] WALK 2 ; TANGO DRAW [CP DLC] ; OPEN REVERSE TURN CLOSED FINISH ; ; GAUCHO TURN 4 TO CP DLC ; TANGO DRAW ; OPEN REVERSE TURN CLOSED FINISH [CP DLW] ; ;


In this session we have looked at ways to introduce International Tango to new tango dancers by concentrating on:
  • Frame/hold/body position and alignment
  • Foot placement
  • Rhythm
  • Fun
  • Keep it simple
  • Keep it fun
  • Help them to be successful
  • Enjoy the moment

From a presentation at the RAL Convention, 2014, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, January 2017.


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