The following information has been compiled from various sources, not the least of which is the Portland Tango Website, the Santa Barbara Tango Website, Missoula, Helena, and Bozeman Websites and Wikipedia.
Frequently asked questions
There are many ways to answer this question. Here are a few approaches:
Argentine Tango is a partnered social dance, with the couple dancing embraced. Unlike “ballroom” style dances, which tend to be more structured, social tango is improvised, with every step being a spontaneous discovery in the moment, as the partners focus on their connections to each other and to the music.
Danial Trenner once explained at a workshop in Portland that while most dances are defined by specific step patterns and/or rhythm structures, Tango, though it is generally confined to “regular” rhythms, has an infinite variety of step patterns. The thing that defines the dance as “tango” is not the steps, but the “manner” or the “way” that the steps are danced. The “connection” mentioned above is not so much a result of anything in the dance as it is a requirement. In order to do a dance where every step is spontaneously improvised, both partners must be paying full attention to each other. This creates the connection that is by its nature very sensual, unlike anything else in the dance world.
A milonga is an Argentine Tango social dance. People come as individuals or with a partner. Music is usually played in tandas, or sets, with 3 or 4 songs in a tanda. In between tandas there will be a cortina, a short music interlude (30 sec or so long) of non-tango music. This is the customary time to change partners or take a break if you want to.
A practica is a practice dance. Floorcraft (See below) protocols are generally relaxed as compared to a milonga. Specifically, it is OK to talk during the dance, and impeding traffic within reason while you work on a step is accepted.
A Practica is an informal time to practice the things you have learned in classes. You’re welcome to come with no previous experience.
Experienced dancers are very helpful and will gladly show you the basics to get you started.
All levels Welcome. Come and dance with us.
Attire varies considerably. Some people dress up, while others wear jeans and T-shirts. In general, practicas are less formal than milongas.
Suffice to say that wherever you go, you cannot be over-dressed, nor can you be under-dressed. It’s really all about the dancing.
You want a shoe that will pivot easily on a hardwood floor, and that will stay on your foot. For men, dress shoes of some sort — anything with a smooth leather sole — would be fine. For women, a comfortable shoe with either laces or a strap of some sort, and a leather, suede, or smooth plastic sole would be great. Either flats or heels are fine; just make sure they have a strap so they stay on. Socks are also OK for practice time.
It is customary to not talk at all while dancing at a milonga. If you want to talk or teach or discuss a step, it is polite to wait until you are off the dance floor so you don’t disturb other dancers. At practicas, as mentioned above, this protocol is relaxed, and it’s OK to talk, to work on your steps, or to discuss technique while on the dance floor.
Since most milongas have a beginning lesson as the first hour of the dance, there will be a majority of beginning dancers during the early part of the evening. More experienced dancers tend to arrive later on.
Floorcraft, or dance floor etiquette, is an informal collection of protocols and guidelines that have evolved to maximize everyone’s enjoyment.
Good floorcraft allows the couple to navigate smoothly around the dance floor, staying in “Line of Dance” (moving counterclockwise around the dance floor) while avoiding collisions with walls, furniture, or other dancers. With some exceptions, floorcraft is the responsibility of the leader. This allows the follower to “zone out” and just enjoy the embrace and the music, trusting her follower to take care of her.
The main goal of floorcraft and dance floor etiquette is to avoid injury – to the follower, to other dancers, and to walls and furniture and potted plants. This requires that the leader be paying full attention to his surroundings and to other dancers and their styles of dancing – whether they are controlled and disciplined, or whether they are wild and crazy.
The second goal is to keep traffic moving around line-of-dance. This means not stopping and blocking other dancers behind you if there is an empty space in front of you.
As you progress CCW around the floor in line-of-dance, the most strategic place to dance is near the wall, close enough that no one has space to get into your blind-spot by passing you on the right.
Stay in single-file if you can. At a crowded venue, it will naturally happen that couples will migrate into several “rings” or “lanes” of single-file dancers. Try not to switch lanes to pass slower couples, unless they appear to be clueless and a traffic jam of dancers is building up behind you.
Entering the dance floor while other dancers are dancing is like merging onto the freeway: wait for an opening, make eye contact if you can, and move in gracefully without disturbing the other dancers, rather than forcing your way into the line of dance.
Tango is a dance you can start quickly and easily. It all starts with walking and connecting with your partner and the music.
From there, if you get “hooked” you can enjoy a long time of learning intricacies and enjoying your dance more and more.
The easiest way, with the least committment, is to go to a milonga or practica (see definition above). Most milongas and practicas currently running have a free beginning lesson as the first hour of the event. There are always complete beginners at these lessons, so even if you’ve never danced a step of tango, you need not feel intimidated. There will almost surely be other, equally inexperienced dancers there, and the lessons are always designed to accommodate absolute beginners.
… or … Should you decide that Tango is a dance that you would like to learn, group lessons are available on a regular basis. You can see the next scheduled class if you look at the “Schedule” tab of this website.
Like anything worthwhile, it takes effort to learn. There is nothing quite like the synchronicity of a perfect tango: when two bodies, two hearts, two minds, two souls move as one in perfect harmony with each other, with the music, with the floor, with the other couples … ah, there is nothing quite like it! So, yes, it takes some effort, but it is well worth it!
Plus, since you can dance tango to any 4-count music (almost all rock and roll is 4-count; we’ve danced tango performances to Leonard Skynard, Tracy Chapman, etc.), it is really much more versatile than other dances (for instance, waltz has that particular 1-2-3 waltz rhythm which requires a particular music to dance to it). But tango can be danced to just about anything.
So, it’s going to take some effort, but it is definitely worth it!
We encourage participants to rotate partners in our tango classes, but we never insist on it. So if you and your partner decide you only want to dance together, you certainly don’t have to rotate. However, switching is the norm in classes around the world and we strongly recommend that you at least give it a try. You will both get better much faster! You become a better leader/follower when you can lead/follow anyone. But the choice is always yours.
When we lead and follow in a ballroom dance for instance, our movements combine lots of little elements to create this wonderful thing called ‘connection’. To achieve a connection in ballroom dance, a ballroom frame is used. A ballroom frame is the positioning of your arms and body that creates room for you to dance. The two most common holds in ballroom or Latin dancing is the closed hold and the two-hand hold. In Argentine Tango, the term “Embrace” is used to describe the connection between the dance partners.
A striking difference between Argentine tango and ballroom tango is in the shape and feel of the embrace. Ballroom technique dictates that partners arch their upper bodies away from each other, while maintaining contact at the hip, in an offset frame.
In Argentine tango, it is nearly the opposite: the dancers’ chests are closer to each other than are their hips, and often there is contact at about the level of the chest (the contact point differing, depending on the height of the leader and the closeness of the embrace). In close embrace, the leader and the follower’s chests are in contact and they are dancing with their heads touching or very near each other. In open embrace, there can be as much space as desired between the partners, but there should always be complete contact along the embracing arms to give optimum communication. Since Argentine tango is almost entirely improvisational, there needs to be clear communication between partners. Even when dancing in a very open embrace, Argentine tango dancers do not hold their upper bodies arched away from each other; yet, each partner is not always over their own axis, there are even styles that demand a constant leaning against each other. Whether open or closed, a tango embrace is not rigid, but relaxed, like a hug.
It is up to the partners to determine how open or closed the embrace shall be so that both can dance comfortably. It is perfectly acceptable to ask to dance in an “open embrace”, thereby providing additional space between the two dancers. Either partner can simply say “Let’s dance open”.
Most often, here in Kalispell, you just walk up and ask someone. Either a man or a woman can ask another person to dance, and it’s accepted at all venues for women to dance with women or men to dance with men.
However, there is a charming convention that originated in Argentina called the cabeceo that involves making eye contact. If there’s someone you want to dance with, you stare at them until they look your way. When you make eye contact, you raise your eyebrows and/or make a subtle head nod (cabeceo = nod) toward the dance floor. The responder answers “yes” by smiling and nodding back, or “no” by turning and looking away. (It’s polite to wait until your potential partner has come off the dance floor before you ask them for the next dance.)
The key thing to make this work is that you must make eye contact. In American culture that can be considered aggressive, but, well, you just have to get over that if you want the cabeceo to work.
If you avoid eye contact (see cabeceo in ‘how to ask’, above), the potential asker may get the message that you don’t want to dance. If they come up and ask you anyway, a simple, “No, thank you,” with or without a big smile or an explanation, should be sufficient.
You may offer a courteous excuse to soften the refusal, for example: “I am resting – would rather not dance to this music – want to finish this conversation,” or whatever. If you are hoping to dance with this person some other time, be sure to say so.
If you have declined an invitation to dance with the excuse that you are “resting,” it would be thoughtless and/or rude to then accept another offer, even if from a more desirable dance partner, before the song or tanda has ended, unless of course you INTEND to give the first person the message that you don’t ever want to dance with them in the future.
You have the right to refuse to dance with anyone, at any time. You have the right to end a dance at any time, even if the middle of a song (see next section).
To say “thank you” to your dance partner is a coded way of saying, “I want to stop dancing now.” If you want to express your appreciation for the dance, but you want to keep dancing with this partner, use words or an expression other than “thank you”. You might say something like that was a fun dance.
The cortina (the non-danceable interlude between sets/tandas) is the customary time to change partners. However, it’s entirely OK to dance more than one tanda with the same partner, and it’s equally OK to stop dancing before the tanda or even before the song is over, if you are sufficiently uncomfortable for any reason. Maybe they’re throwing you around, maybe they smell bad, or maybe you’re just getting a blister on your foot. Whatever the reason, just stop, explain whatever you want, thank them, and leave the dance floor.
That said, there is truth to the saying that “Everyone sees everything on the dance floor,” and ending a dance early, especially in the middle of a song, is potentially embarrassing. So if you don’t INTEND to embarrass them, it is sensitive to make up some excuse, like your feet hurt, perhaps feigning fiddling with your shoes to lend credence, and let them escort you off the dance floor amicably.
The music of Argentine Tango, (tango, tango vals, and milonga) actually consists of three different styles of music, each having its own distinct rhythm. A fourth style of music is Nuevo tango. And today, mostly outside of Argentina, dancers will dance tango to alternative tango music.
The milonga style is actually the precursor of classic tango! It is a fast, energetic dance with small, traspié (tripping) steps and lots of forward momentum. Those with musical training will recognize the rhythm of the milonga as that of the habanera, in 2/4 time.
Since it is noticeably faster than most standard tango songs, it necessitates smaller steps on the dance floor. Further, the steps of milonga tend to be simple, linear and sharp. It is less frequently taught or practiced, so the floor tends to clear out a bit for the milonga tandas. It has a playful, upbeat spirit. This serves to provide a nice psychological break from the bittersweet nostalgia of classic tango music.
Tango chose the classic dance, the waltz, and gave it an Argentine spin to create the “vals”.
The distinguishing characteristic of this music is its 3/4 rhythm, meaning that there are 3 beats to one measure of music. Most music has an even number of beats to a measure (2 or 4).
The vals is all about maintaining a fluidity of movement, so pauses are generally avoided. This eliminates certain movements (like sandwiches, paradas, and long, lazy adornos) from the standard vals repertoire. Just as with the milonga, fewer dancers feel comfortable managing the faster rhythm of the vals, so the floor will generally be half as full as normal.
The Tango music style is the most commonly recognized of the three styles. The Tango style can be described as “melancholy” or “dramatic,” if the beat sounds slow and deliberate. Dancers think of the tango as the place where they get to express drama, passion, and romance. They do this by taking slow, graceful walking steps, rolling from the toe to the heel. They make a scene out of long, dramatic pauses, using the full repertoire of steps afforded them by the slower beat. In tango, the 2nd and 4th notes are the beats that the dancers actually step on. The 1st and 3rd beats, on the other hand, allow plenty of time to execute the moves that make the tango sparkle: long foot drags (arrastres), flourishing sweeps (barridas), and lovely adornos where ladies slide their legs variously up, over, and back down in seductive foot play.
The origin of Tango-Neuvo music can be directly linked to the composer, director and bandoneón player Astor Piazzolla. After forming his own orquesta tipica (from 1944 to 1949), Piazzolla then went to Paris to study music, and returned to Buenos Aires in 1955 where he formed his Octeto Buenos Aires – and it is here that he began composing and directing Tango-Nuevo, combining characteristics of traditional tango, classical music and jazz. Ironically, whilst being greatly acclaimed today, Piazzolla was for many years disowned by the Argentine milongueri who denounced his compositions as corrupting tango.
Music that was not originally conceived as tango music, but has all the ingredients for dancing tango to it, is usually referred to as Alternative Tango.
At the end of the 19th century, when Buenos Aires was expanding over the deserted “Pampa”, a new sound and expression was born. Borrowing music and movement from Central America, the Spanish “Tango Andaluz”, Africa, and the Milongas, the traveling singers (payadores) performing throughout the countryside; this mixture of European and African themes and emotions brought by the immigrants, exemplified the beginning of a new music–“TANGO”.
Although now considered a dance of glamor, elegance, and sophistication by society, Tango found its first life in the rough heart of Argentina and Uraguay. People streaming to the new world at the turn of the century, and the newly dispossessed gauchos found themselves in a strange land, and to offset their rootlessness, their loss of home, they sought companionship in the bordellos and cafes of Buenos Aires. Starting as a dance expressing life’s dark side, Tango, the breath of Buenos Aires, was born in the slums, yet today, reigns world wide. It achieved its success not because it portrayed the bizarre, but because it told and still tells the truth.
As with any artistic expression, the Tango, symbolizes much that is basic in life, the difficulty of love, the struggle to survive, to fight in a hard land. In groups consisting of a flute, guitar, violin, and an exotic instrument of German origin called El Bandoneon, early musicians began playing the Tango intuitively–it expressed their lives. In 1897, Rosendo Mendizabal introduced El Entrerriano, in 1903 Angel Villoldo composed El Choclo, and subsequently, the great names of the “Guardia Vieja” (Old Guard) started to appear such as Juan Maglio Pacho and Vicente Greco, who created the “Orquesta Tipica”.
In 1913-1914 Tango was “In” all over the world. Its popularity spread to Paris society by wealthy expatriates Argentines. From there, it spread to England sowing the seeds for today’s “International Tango”, and later to the United States where Vernon & Irene Castle toned down its inherent sexuality to make it “acceptable.” This became “American Ballroom Tango.” Between 1915 and 1930, the musical innovations contributed by Eduardo Arolas, Agustin Bardi, Francisco Canaro and Roberto Firpo, among others, evolved Tango into two styles: Traditional and Evolutionist; which found its exponent in Julio and Francisco Caro. The singer’s personality was incorporated by Carlos Gardel in 1917, when he sang the verses of Mi Noche Triste, (Pascual Contursi – Samual Castriota), marking the beginning of the “story-like” lyrics of the Tango song. The female singers were represented by Azueena Maizani, Libertad Lamarque and Mercedes Simone. They earned the applause of audiences all over the American continent. As the music spread, adopted by more and more countries, it became more finished, more romantic and less threatening; became the music of all Argentinians.
In the twenties, while there were unofficial Tango capitols in Paris, New York and Finland, a military coup at home suppressed a great many form of the people’s expression. It was a decade until the government changed and the Tango resurfaced with a renewed life and social statement. But without a doubt, the Great Golden Era of Tango was the forties. A wealth of material from instrumentalists, poets, and interpreters, supported by “Radio”, the cabarets and dance halls, created a wave of vocal and orchestral groups that spread around the world: Troilo-Fiorentino, D’Arienzo-Echague, Tanturi-Castillo, De Angelis- Martel, Pugliese-Moran. This period parallels our own “Big Band Era” with different bands developing their own unique styles in what came to be known as “Tango Moderno.”
Subsequently, with the fall of Peron, and Rock and Roll sweeping all before it, youth gave their parent’s Tango a recess. In a way this hiatus gave the Tango time to find a different language. No longer tied to the dance, it became music for listening, for the concert hall. But changing national fortunes ushered in new freedoms and two things gave Tango its rebirth. Astor Piazzolla, who imbued the Tango with a new creative energy–“Tango Nuevo”–imagination for a new generation. It started with Horacio Salgdon’s A Fuego Lento, Mariano Mores’, Tanguera, Eduardo Rovira’s “Sonico”. And secondly, “Tango Argentino,” in 1983, premiering in Paris and Broadway, reintroduced Tango to the world. A success that grows to this day, a success that imparts life to Argentinian soul.