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A Perspective on Argentine Tango

by Brent & Judy Moore

Argentine tango presents a new dimension of variety for a “classically” trained ballroom/round dancer. It is one dance that is as much or more involved with the social expression of a culture than we in the outside world associate with dance styles. This cultural influence coupled with a wider variety of positions and some different techniques employed in moving from position to position makes this rhythm initially challenging to our traditional understanding. This article will attempt to impart the flavor of the dance without delving into descriptions of the figures.

For the cultural tone of tango, here’s what the famous Argentine tango choreographer and dancer, Juan Carlos Copes, says about it: “The tango is a man and woman in search of each other. It is the search for an embrace, a way to be together, when the man feels that he is a male and the woman feels that she is a female, without machismo. She likes to be led; he likes to lead. Disagreements may occur later or they may not. When that moment comes, it is important to have a positive and productive dialogue, fifty-fifty. The music arouses and torments, the dance is the coupling of two people defenseless against the world and powerless to change things. This is the best definition of the tango as a dance, I think.”

Incorporating the cultural influence is the key dilemma we face in acquiring this rhythm. We use dance for many things--exercise, art, self expression, mental stimulation, a social vehicle—but not for expressing the cultural relationships between men and women. We must now utilize that which we have learned from our previous dance training to “formalize” the various nuances peculiar to the Argentine style into a form that we can communicate easily to each other.

Position and foot action form the essential elements of any dance and the Argentine tango style uses more positions than we normally associate with closed position dancing and fewer but unique foot actions. The Argentine style places emphasis on foot placement and each position is a very logical and enabling element for each pattern of steps. There are three to four variations of what we traditionally think of as "closed" position. One is like the one we are most familiar with, another is what we would think of as a looser or "Latin" closed position, and the others have no ready equivalents but are noted by different angles with the partner's body and variations in arm positions. However, the common element is that the footwork is between the partner’s feet for the right foot. Teachers of Argentine tango call all these actions "dancing inside.”

In addition to the "closed" positions, the familiar movements outside the partner (what we descriptively call banjo and sidecar to indicate which side) are utilized. They are at times very close and at times quite loose but have that conventional feel that comes from doing them many times before. Identify these actions as "dancing outside".

Another set of positions is utilized in which the hips are essentially parallel and in line with (or even slightly past rather than facing) the partner’s hips. In some cases the couples are facing opposite directions and in others the same direction. We do not have a similar position but it is an essential position for many Argentine figures. These positions are said to be "dancing beside or dancing along side.”

The promenade or sem-closed positions are similar to those we are familiar with but do have that common feature of the Argentine style of having degrees of looseness in the hold. These are called “dancing with”.

Foot actions in the Argentine tango are not based on the walking dance that has developed in the Northern Hemisphere. They are more like Latin dancing but with more flow. All basic steps are a ball of foot glide when moving forward or to the side and whole foot when being placed under the body. Some theatrical techniques, however, do utilize gentle heel leads. Backing steps are as in all dances without rise--toe to flat as body weight comes over the foot. And, when closing, the feet are placed side-by-side (instead of off-set) which causes some straightening of the knee. The resulting gentle rise and fall naturally happens but is never emphasized in the Argentine style.

There is a structural model for “basic” figures we find useful. Fundamental figures (basics) have a beginning (called a start), a middle (a salida or way out), and an ending (called the resolution). A typical basic will occupy three measures of music--one for the start, one for the middle, and one for the resolution. Usually more elaborate figures take one of the elements (usually the middle)and amplify or expand the action and can add any number of measures or beats. We are aware of four starts, three middles, and two resolutions--there may well be more.

The “amplifications” which are added to these basic groupings are added other fundamental actions such as swiveling (ochos), foot flicking (ganchos and leg sweeps), swiveling and flicking together (boleos) corte actions (with various shapes), and rotational actions.

Add to the mix some very non-classical head positions...the downward gaze, the opposite head turn for lady in many closed positions, the askance glance...and you begin to develop the sense of social dynamism that Copes alluded to in his assessment of Argentine tango.

Over the past several years, round dancing has just begun to incorporate this rhythm and is at a very fundamental stage in defining figures and choosing cueing terms for them. The journey has been and will continue to be full of various interpretations but it will continue to be an exciting trip.

From Dixie Round Dance Council Newsletter, December 2015.


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