Tango dancing was largely forgotten by the mainstream, even in Buenos Aires, roughly between the late 50’s and the late 80’s. Many people who had danced it in the 40’s and 50’s took a long break from it. Some people did keep dancing in spite of it’s lack of popularity, but there was virtually no influx of new people. In the late 1980’s tango began making a comeback, and young people started taking interest in it. As a result, when I first started going to Buenos Aires in the 1990’s, most tango dancers were either older than 60 or younger than 30. The dancing of the older generation was markedly different from that of the younger people. Many people acknowledged it, but wrote it off to a difference in the years of experience. But I saw clearly, that just years of practice could not explain the discrepancy. There was something else at work. I then discovered, as I explain in other sections, that the old-timers naturally walked better than the younger generations, which was a big factor in the higher level of their dancing. But another factor was the fact that they had seen the golden age of the tango, and therefore had a much keener sense of what good dancing was about. Even in the golden age of tango dancing, it had stayed mostly an intuitive art, without anyone ever articulating or organizing its fundamental principles. Nowadays, people are able to be much more analytical about it. But back then people intuitively knew good tango from bad tango much better than we do now, especially because it was the music and the dance of that time.
I was fortunate that many of the old-timers, probably noticing my obsession with this dance, volunteered comments and advice, even if I was not taking any lessons from them. At first, I did not appreciate much of it. I was too arrogant, and also did not understand why those things were important. But in time, what they had been saying started to make sense. These sayings, which had stuck in my mind for some reason, in the end helped me greatly in understanding some deeper principles of this dance. I cannot attribute these sayings to anyone – I do not even know the names of everyone who I had talked with, and most of these sayings were repeated by different people. They are more like folk wisdom about tango, which makes sense to many old-timers, but may not be so obvious to the younger generations. I will list here the sayings which seem to me most general and relevant, with an English translation and some comments for each.
“El tango es uno.”
“The tango is one” or “There is only one tango.”
This is, in my opinion, the most important saying of the old-timers, which will probably sound very controversial nowadays. It points at the fact that tango dancing has a certain essential nature, that what is “good tango” is not arbitrary. Nowadays, many people will disagree with this notion, for we live in the age of extreme relativism in art. I will not repeat myself here – a discussion of this issue can be found in the General Principles and the Tango and Conscious Evolution sections.
“Para bailar bien el tango, hay que aprender a caminar bien.”
“To dance tango well, one has to learn to walk well.”
“Bailar el tango es caminar como uno camina en la calle.”
“To dance tango is to walk like one walks in the street.”
I purposely list these two sayings together. Initially they seem to contradict each other, but turn out to mean one and the same thing. How can both of those statements be true? If all one has to do is walk like one walks in the street, what is there to learn about walking? And if one learns how to walk for tango, isn’t one walking differently from how one walks in the street? In this paradox is a key to the evolutionary potential of tango (see Tango and Conscious Evolution). To learn how to walk well does not mean to learn any special tango walk, it means to learn how to walk better in general. As I mention repeatedly, most people nowadays do not develop the optimal use of their bodies. To learn how to stand and walk well is to get rid of the anti-natural patterns of movement, to discover more fully the proper coordination of the muscular-skeletal system. Such process improves one’s tango and one’s “street” walking at once. (For a fuller discussion of this see Personal Background/Overview and Body Conditioning.)
“Tango es: compas, elegancia.”
“Tango is: rhythm, elegance.”
This is probably the most classic and concise definition of tango. It expresses two essential qualities of good tango: a subtle connection to the music and a continuous simplification of means and a refinement of effort which, when applied to movement and partner connection, manifest as elegance.
“El tango no es sobre la choreografia.”
“Tango is not about choreography.”
This comment is a frequent reaction to professionals performing an obviously choreographed routine. It refers to the fact that spontaneous, improvised dancing is an essential aspect of tango. I heard one man say once, “if you are going to do a choreography, at least make it seem like an improvisation.”
“La pista es mas dura.”
“The dance floor is the toughest.”
This refers to the fact that to dance well in a milonga is a tougher challenge than dancing on stage or in a class situation. One reason is that on the dance floor, one must improvise, respond to the movement of other couples, and provide an enjoyable experience for one’s partner, none of which is required in stage dancing. Another reason is that in a milonga one dances in front of other tango dancers, who see all one’s strengths and weaknesses much better than the uninitiated theater audiences.
“Este esta bailando para las mesas.”
“This one is dancing for the tables.”
This is a criticism of dancers who obviously care about the effect they have on the onlookers seated at the tables more than about their own and their partner’s experience. In our culture plagued by narcissism, this is a frequent problem. I am not yet completely cured of it myself.
“El tango es para bailar tomado.” “Mas de 10 centimetros no es el tango verdadero.”
“Tango is to be danced in an embrace.” “More than 10 centimeters is not the true tango.”
This states clearly that tango is a close-embrace dance by its very nature. 10 centimeters is about 4 inches, which is about the maximum distance between partners before the connection stops to feel like an embrace. More on this in Partner Connection.
“El gusto es en la marca.”
“The flavor is in the lead.”
The communication between the partners is probably the biggest source of enjoyment of this dance. The mark of a good dancer is the subtlety and precision of leading and following much more than the number of different steps one can perform.
“Muchas saben seguir, pocas saben acompañar.”
“Many know how to follow, few know how to accompany.”
This comment refers to the difference between a woman’s ability to follow a sequence of steps as opposed to her ability to accompany his movement continuously. The latter is a much more subtle skill. It is parallel to “sticking and yielding” in Tai Chi, and is similarly difficult to develop. A good male dancer also accompanies the woman’s movement (see synchronicity in Partner Connection).
“Hay que hacer lucir a la mujer.”
“One must let the woman shine.”
This is a reference to the fact that a good male dancer “dances the woman”, meaning that he does everything from the base of her movement, her own rhythm and comfort zone. He thereby lets her dance most freely and comfortably, as opposed to someone who primarily uses the woman to perform his favorite steps. The same woman, especially if she is not very advanced in skill, will look much better dancing with a good male dancer than with a mediocre one.
“Para el baile.” “Hace pausa.”
“Stop the dance.” “Make a pause.”
The pause is an important element of advanced tango dancing, which opens up a doorway at once to a more sophisticated musicality, a deeper partner connection, and more spontaneity in improvisation. During my first several years of dancing, some old-timers kept telling me to slow down, to stop, that I was running. I did not know what they meant back then, and only years later I began to understand it. Learning how to pause has completely transformed my dancing. For more on the pause see Musicality and stillness in Partner Connection.
“Para bailar bien el tango, hay que saber pararse derecho.”
“To dance tango well, one has to be able to stand straight.”
This is another example of how tango demands proper natural use of the body. A good posture is needed in order to embrace the partner while at the same time feeling free to move. At present such conditions are rare, as most men have a somewhat slouched posture. This makes the heads of the partners touch and prevents proper freedom of movement. Women often also have a problem standing up straight, though in a different way: in order to avoid contact with the knees and the feet of the partner, they usually have to exaggerate the curvature of the back, “sticking the butt out”. More on this in Body Conditioning.
“El tango hay que caminar; los pasos – a lo ultimo.”
“One must walk the tango; the ‘steps’ are of least importance.”
This is an expression of the fact that the essence of tango is walking together. Some purists in Buenos Aires believe that tango is just that – musical walking in an embrace, - and that all the “figures” are impurities. A somewhat less extreme traditional view is that one should walk simply for most part of the tango, with only a few complex figures, usually at the end. My own experience has shown me that coming back to simple in-line walking throughout a song is essential in order to re-establish good connection with the partner, which tends to dissipate while one performs more complex figures. But even the figures themselves are only done well if they are accomplished through simple walking, stepping here and there, no different from when one walks in line.
“El tango esta en el piso.”
“Tango is in the floor.”
This is another reference to the fact that pure tango is just walking, for it means that all the figures are simply combinations of foot placements and weight transfers. The elegance of tango owes itself largely to this fact. It is why in good dancing the upper bodies are calm, while the feet express the music. At present, one often sees leaning and bending of the upper bodies, moving the arms and raising the knees, all of which are detrimental to the purity of the art form.
This is a term to describe a good rhythmical movement in the body, a good “swing” in the step and the weight transfer.
“Ahora no caminan – corren o caen.”
“Right now they do not walk – they run or fall.”
This is a common criticism of the younger generation of dancers which I have heard from many old-timers. A frequent verdict which I have heard numerous times after a young dancer’s performance is “este no sabe caminar” – “this one does not know how to walk”. The old-time dancers not only were capable of a better natural walk, but they could also immediately tell when someone did not have it. The trouble is that they did not know how to teach it, so the younger dancers, including myself, are left to figure it out on their own. I eventually understood that “running” and “falling” (from one foot to the other) result from one’s inability to control one’s weight transfer, one’s inability to slow down the step and stop in the middle of it.
“Primero el pie, después el cuerpo.”
“First the foot, then the body.”
This is an attempt to teach or explain good walking which I heard from many old-timers. Some of my older teaches were adamant about making students place the foot out first, and only then move the rest of the body over it. Such lightness of the step is indeed an aspect of good walking, in animals and humans alike – no animal in the wild throws its weight on to the foot at the same time as it is stepping. But the foot does not move separately from the body, otherwise one’s partner would not feel it. Too often, “first the foot” tends to be done artificially, and actually interferes with good dancing, as any artificiality does. This is why many younger professional dancers and teaches had rebelled against this idea, and there developed a long-standing controversy on this issue. The controversy is resolved by developing proper body conditions, such that placing the foot down lightly and slowing down the weight transfer feels easy and natural.
“Hay que caminar mas a la tierra.”
“No hay que despegar los pies del piso.”
“No hay que levantar talones.”
“No hay que mostrar la suela.”
“One must walk more with the ground.”
“One must not lift the feet off of the floor.”
“One must not lift the heels.”
“One should not show the sole of the shoe.”
These comments are further attempts to explain good walking. The more steady one’s connection to the ground, the less the feet lift off the floor. More precisely, in walking forward, the heel of the back foot should not leave the floor until all the weight is on the front foot. This turns out to be hard for most people nowadays, which is why the transfer of weight is difficult to control, and why people end up “running”.
“El tango hay que bailar bien enfrentados.”
“Tango is to be danced directly in front of the partner.”
This is naturally one of the most forgotten comments of the old-timers, for very few people can do this at present. The only ones for whom it is relatively easy are people with sizeable bellies. Nevertheless, as proper body conditions are developed, it becomes possible to dance face-to-face even if there is no buffer of a belly to help it (see Partner Connection).
“La mujer que baila mirando a la izquierda, esta bailando de memoria.”
“The woman who dances looking to the left is dancing from memory.”
This is an exaggerated comment – it is possible to follow and not have to dance “from memory” even while looking to the left. However, this comment (which comes from a woman) expresses the sense that turning the head to the left (as it is commonly done in the modern close-embrace style) does not allow for the right connection.
“Esta buscando monedas.”
“He is looking for coins.”
This is a common criticism of the men who cannot stop looking at the feet while they dance. It again refers to the upright posture as the proper way to dance tango.
“El tango te tiene que darte la piel de gallina, si no - no va.”
“Tango must give one the goose-pimples, if not – it’s not right.”
This is the exclamation of one of the milongueros in the film “Tango: Baile Nuestro”. It reminds one that tango is above all an extraordinary experience.