Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating philosophy, culture, and lifestyle. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a people and species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

November 2, 2009

Notes on Musicality

Tango challenges your multi-tasking ability. Among all tasks, listening to music must be your first priority. You dance the music, not the steps. Don't fix your attention only on the steps and forget about the music. Instead, listen to the music and follow it closely. Let the music lead you to dance.

Be calm and unhurried. Take your time to finish the step and don't rush to chase the beats - a common problem for beginners. If you miss a beat, wait for the next. Don't be hesitant to pause, suspend, or dance in slow motion when the music tells you to do so.

Tango music has a lucid rhythm that is crisp, robust, forceful, steady and predictable, accompanied by a melody that is emotional, sentimental, beautiful, fluid and moody. Dancers can choose to follow the rhythm or the melody, or jump from one to another, depending on their interpretation of the music and how they want to express their feelings at the moment. Some dancers are more rhythmic, others are more melodic. They develop different dance styles according to their musicality.

Tango music is quadruple time. It has four beats in each measure, usually played as 1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and rather than 1, 2, 3, 4, thus gives you more possibilities to step on. The first and third beats are strong beats. The second and fourth beats are weak beats. Dancers usually step on the strong beats, but there are many possibilities. For example, you may step on weak beats, or on both strong and weak beats, or add a step between two beats, or take two steps on one beat, or pause to skip few beats, etc.

Musicians often syncopate or spice up the music by shifting the accent (1, 2, 3, 4), extending a note (- -, 4), starting a note on an unaccented beat and continuing it through the next accented beat (1, 2 -, 4), splitting a note and accenting the subdivision (1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and), adding an accent (1, 2, 3, 4), or omitting and replacing a beat with a rest, etc. Syncopation modifies the rhythm and makes the music more challenging and interesting to dance to. (See Tango Music and Its Danceability.)

A small step takes less time. A larger step takes more time. A fast step takes less time. A slow step takes more time. A simple step takes less time. A complex figure takes more time. A 180-degree turn takes more time than a 90-degree turn, but less time than a 360-degree turn. Experienced dancers can use different steps to play with the music.

In general, you need to step exactly on the beat, but sometimes you can step just slight before or after the beat to shorten one step in order to elongate another, or elongate one step in order to shorten another, or to catch up, delay, sustain a pose, adorn a step, etc. However, you must still time the steps so that your dance is in sync to the music.

Tango steps can be divided into two groups: that of main or feature steps, such as the forward step in ohco, the rock step in ocho cortado, etc., and that of ancillary or decorative steps, such as the collection of the leg, the unwinding of the crossed leg, pivot, the swivel of the hips, the switch of the foot, and embellishment, etc. Beginners tend to focus on the featured steps and overlook the ancillary actions. They may be able to step on the beat, but their pivot, hip rotation, weight change and embellishment are often made too slow or too hasty. Experienced dancers, on the other hand, are able to handle the music in an exquisite way that every detail of the body's movement meets the rhythm, melody, tempo and mood of the music exactly. Only in such a way dancing tango becomes a real treat. (See Women''s Common Mistakes in Tango.)

Dancing to music also involves using cadencia - the lilting motion of the body. The foot must land on the beat, but the lilt of the body continues until the other foot lands on the next beat. Dancers need to time both the step and the lilt of the body. By using the inertia to enhance the lilt or cadence of the body in correspondence with the rhythmic flow of the music, you can add a swing like sensation to the dance. The ability to do cadencia is one of the things that mark a good dancer. (See Cadencia.)

Stepping on the beat is the basic of musicality, but it is not the most sophisticated. Beats are rhythmic stresses that regulate the speed of music. They are interrupted and unemotional. Stepping on beats is like jumping, the focus is on the accent, and the movement is broken and dry. The most important thing in dancing is to express the feelings of the music, which lie not in the beats but in the melody. Melody is the linear, continuous, sweet and emotional tone in the music that adds sentiment, beauty and fluidity to the music. Dancing to melody is like driving, the focus is on the linear tone, and the movement is uninterrupted and smooth. (See Dancing to Melody - Poema.)

Within each piece of music there are different movements. Some are shorter or longer, others are slower or faster. They express different emotions - sad, happy, intimate, romantic, homesick, nostalgic, melancholy, sentimental, etc. "Tango is a sad feeling that is danced." - said Enrique Santos Disccepoloo. Dancing to music does not only mean stepping on the beat. It also means dancing to the changing mood of the music. A good dancer steps on the beat. An excellent dancer dances to the mood of the music.

Tango music is a passionate and elaborate expression of masculinity and femininity. The two opposite moods intertwining and complementing each other is a notable feature of tango music. Dancing tango, you must imagine that you are playing the music with your body. The man and the woman are different instruments. One is like the bandoneon, the other the violin. One is the passion of the drums, the other the beauty of the melody. One is philosophy, the other poem. Each with its unique sound, expresses different emotions. Both are indispensable and irreplaceable and must complement each other and collaborate harmoniously in order to create a beautiful tango. (See The Characteristics of Classic Tango.)

Too many tango students pay too much attention to the visible steps rather than invisible musicality, but what is invisible is more important than what is visible. Steps are the tool that the dancers use to express the feelings stirred by the music. It is the dancers' musicality that decides how they dance. Musicality is an art only few have mastered. Unless you master it you can’t reach excellence.

October 29, 2009


At Milonga de los Consagrados a woman caught my attention. Her waist was so flexible that she could turn her lower body over 90 degree against her upper body. In such twisted poise she can step in any direction while her upper body is connected to her partner's torso.

When doing the front ocho, her upper body and lower body seemed totally separated. She first turned her lower body and stepped forward to one side of her partner, then, turned her hips 180 degree and stepped to the other side of her partner with the other leg while her upper body remained permanently connected to her partner. At the end of the ocho sequence she always turned her hips to the side first, crossing her free leg and keeping it stylishly bent, and then turned her hips back to face her partner and put the bending leg down. She did so with elegance and beauty. No matter how complex the movement seemed, she executed it with great ease and style. No matter how fast the music sounded, she remained calm and unhurried, giving herself time to complete the step, and still managed to finish the step on the beat. She is a master of tango with an extraordinary musicality.

I liked the way she danced and wanted to dance with her, so I stared at her intently. Finally I caught her attention. As her eyes met mine I nodded at her and she nodded back. I stood up and walked towards her, keeping my eyes at her all the way until I was standing a few steps in front of her. She gave me a smile, stood up and walked towards me. We started to dance.

She was an incredible dancer, light, followed perfectly, as if she knew in advance how I wanted her to move. Every time I led her do an ocho, I gave her extra time to show her unique style. We danced in perfect harmony. When we finished she said she wanted to give me her card. I walked her back to her seat. She took out a card from her purse and handed it to me. On it printed “Mirta Mark, Profesora Nacional de Danzas”. “Let me know where you will be,” she said, “so we can dance again.”

We danced again a few days later at Club Gricel. She didn’t feel very well that day, but she came anyway because I was leaving Buenos Aires the next day. Unfortunately the floor was too crowded on that weekend and we couldn’t dance the way we would like to. I sent her an email to say goodbye the next morning. In her response she wrote, “These things do not happen every day…If you think the same way, let’s continue to write… and who knows, we may again have the opportunity, in Argentina or USA, to enjoy our dance and maybe an exquisite dinner…”

I miss that wonderful moment dancing with her, and am looking forward to that day!

September 10, 2009

Close Embrace and Open Embrace (III)

The feeling of dancing close embrace tango is totally different from that of dancing open embrace tango. The beautiful music, intimate embrace and rhythmic motion of the dance have a hypnotic effect to the dancers, causing them fall deeply into a state of meditation or dreaming, so heavenly that they don't want to wake up when the tanda ends. In close embrace tango, the male partner feels his female partner’s soft, springy, flexible, sensitive and responsive body. She surrenders to him, melts in his arms and becomes an inseparable part of him. Whatever he does, she follows intuitively. As he leads her dancing, her body twists to his left and right, her breasts rub his chest, her muscles relax and tense, her leg entangles with his leg, and her whole body adapts ingeniously and femininely to his changing posture... All these generate a pleasant feeling. He feels a real flesh-and-blood woman. The beauty of her body and her femininity excite him. He enjoys that moment dancing with her because only she as a woman can stir the feelings within him that make him a man - strong, dependable, in charge, and protective - just as only he as a man can stir within her the feelings that she enjoys as a woman. His masculinity, strength, support and protection make her feel loved, safe, and beautiful. In his embrace she returns to her childhood and womanhood again. Only in that moment she can truly feel and enjoy being a woman, as in real life she has to be less. (See Artistic Sublimation and Vulgarism in Tango.) Tango is known as a refuge, and it has to be danced by two people of the opposite sexes to have that effect. When tango is danced by men or women alone, something mysterious and magic is missing, and that to me is anti-tango. I know some people may argue with me about that. But, hey, that’s me. I like women and enjoy a dance that contains the beauty of both masculinity and femininity.

But that is not all. If close embrace tango is physical and sensual, it is also romantic and poetic. No one has depicted this aspect of close embrace tango better than Eugene Grigoryev in his short essay What Is Tango? I want to quote that essay in its entirety here because I myself cannot say it better, and the description of close embrace tango would not be complete without a depiction of this inward, dreamy, soulful and heavenly feeling. The following is the entire quote of Eugene’s masterpiece.

“Tango is more than just a dance or a sequence of steps. It is an expression of our emotions, an inner reflection of who we are and what we experience, a way to channel what we feel through movement. Tango is a language of expressing what we feel through motion, stirred in us by music, in unison with our partner. It comes into your lives in many different ways, as simple interest, a hobby, or a fascination… and ever so slowly it becomes an addiction.

A simple look, a gesture, a smile, an eye contact, his askance to lead, her acceptance to be led, all done without any need of verbal communication. As the music compels them, she comes close to him, they embrace… they feel each other breathe, they feel the passionate song unfold, it flows through their bodies, invigorating them, stirring emotions, which they both share… they can be strangers in real life, but as long as they are in this tango moment, they can be anyone they want… You don't have to know the person or even want to know them. Time ceases to exist during this moment, both dancers are moving to the music, listening for it to tell them what to do… they slow down, pause, accelerate, suspend, all in the moment… almost as being possessed by the music. Outside of this moment is the real world, with its everyday problems, solutions, responsibilities, deadlines… but not here, not now… Now it is only tango, a refuge, a moment of surreal experience of desire, longing… words are not meant to describe it.

The social aspect of milonga is fascinating. It holds anticipation, surprise, heavenly music, moments of contact and separation. The challenge and satisfaction of rhythmically moving in unison with another person is what lures us to Tango. The experience is both physical and surreal. In three minutes of a song, you can experience a rollercoaster of emotions, but you will not experience them alone. For those three minutes there will be a person embracing you, sharing what they are feeling with you… all without a single word being spoken… pure, raw emotions expressed through motion.”

September 3, 2009

Close Embrace and Open Embrace (II)

Close embrace tango and open embrace tango are two different dances. They have little in common in their structures, techniques, feel, and philosophies (what is tango, why people dance tango, the gender roles in tango, and principles of partnership, etc.), so different that people who can dance one dance may not be able to dance the other without learning it. I knew this from personal experience. When I first tried to dance close embrace tango after three years of learning open embrace tango, I had no clue on how to do it because everything, including posture, connection, axis, balance, space, movement possibilities, and the way to lead and follow, changed. (See The Styles of Tango.)

In fact, open embrace tango has more in common with ballroom dances than tango. Just as in a standard ballroom dance, in open embrace tango the two partners are apart by an arm's length without torso contact. Each partner is on his/her own axis independent to the other, so the two do not depend on each other for balance. Theoretically the man is supposed to lead with his torso. But since there is no torso contact, he has to use the hands to lead, and the woman receives the lead through her hands instead of her torso also. The feeling of dancing open embrace tango is exactly like dancing a standard ballroom dance. No intimacy and comfort of embracing another person. No sensation of the two connected bodies moving together in rhythm to the music. No emotional involvement between them. The fun of dancing open embrace tango mainly comes from a broader range of movement possibilities due to the increased space between the partners. Each partner focuses on his/her own performance. They do not enjoy the physical existence of the other person.

I like to dance open embrace tango just as I like to dance ballroom dances. It's spectacular, intricate, dazzling and showy. But that is not the reason I love tango. The reason I love tango lies in the close embrace, its physicality, intimacy, coziness, sensuousness, sentimentalism and romanticism. In close embrace tango, the two partners lean into each other, chest against chest and cheek touches cheek. His arm encircles her body, and hers is around his neck. In such closeness the two partners literally feel each other's body, hear each other’s breaths, smell each other’s odor, and sense each other’s impulses. They rely on each other for balance and there is little space between them. Consequently, the way they move their bodies is different from that in open embrace tango. (See Spot Dancing in Tango.) The man leads the woman with his torso against her and does not need to use the hands. The woman receives the lead with her chest. She closes her eyes, surrenders herself to him, relishes the caress of his embrace and enjoys his attentive ride. It is a very comfortable position in which to be and to dance. (See From Steps to Feelings.)

(See Close Embrace and Open Embrace (III).)

August 29, 2009

Close Embrace and Open Embrace (I)

I like everything about Argentine tango: its music, passion, beauty, its artistic, sportive, social and recreational functions, and its culture (milonguero legends, milonga codes, cabeceo, and even machismo, etc.). All of these, however, would not mean so much if tango were not danced by a man and a woman. As Susana Miller said, “If you like tango, then you like women.” Let’s face it, at bottom it is women who attract men to tango, and vice versa. Although to some degree that is true with all partner dances, tango is different. It is much more intimate, physical and sensual.

One BBC commentator remarked, “Tango contains a secret about the yearning between men and women.” That is right on. The yearning, however, is not necessarily a sexual one. I believe tango fulfills a human need for affinity with the opposite sex in a nonsexual way. Our society is so sex oriented that this innocent yearning between men and women is often being deprived. Any intimacy between the opposite genders is deemed sexual, therefore, is repressed either voluntarily or involuntarily. Men and women cannot be intimate unless they want to have sex. In other words, our culture does not approve innocent intimacy between the opposite genders.

But Argentine tango represents a different view, or culture, that sanctions nonsexual intimacy. Tango is a product of that culture. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) In this context tango is not just a dance. It is a way by which that innocent human desire can be met with stylized sophistication and elegance under a set of rules designed to maintain the dignity and decency of the activity. That is why milonga codes are such an important part of tango. The influence of tango, I believe, is by far more cultural than artistic. Tango is now becoming a worldwide phenomenon for a reason. It serves a fundamental human need and fulfills that innocent yearning between men and women.

But that aspect of tango is still new to the Americans, as attested by the way we embrace tango. We dance tango as but another ballroom dance. We are not intimately engaged to each other in the dance. Many of us still shy away from close embrace, and prefer open embrace instead, which, although rarely seen in Buenos Aires, is the dominant style in American tango. Cabeceo and milonga codes are not taught and practiced at most milongas in the US. The general culture in our tango community is still more individualistic, independent, competitive and even hostile than intimate, friendly, accommodating and cooperative. Those who have visited Buenos Aires know what I compare with. (See From Steps to Feelings.)

(See Close Embrace and Open Embrace (II).)

August 7, 2009


Sam, Max, Rebecca and me stayed at the same hotel when we attended a tango festival in Seattle. At the opening night Sam offered the rest of us a ride to the welcome milonga. It was a ten minutes drive. Since tango was the reason that brought us together, the conversations in the car naturally centered on tango.

"I am fed up with the attitude in the milonga."

"I know what you mean."

"Some women are so arrogant. They think they are too good for the beginners."

"Men too. I often sit there for hours but nobody come to dance with me."

"I remember the time when I just started. It was rough."

"My sister quit tango because she doesn’t like the hierarchy in the milonga."

"Well, this is the process everyone has to go through. It's a part of the tango experience."

"But why people have to be so snobby?"

"Everyone comes to have a good time. If they are good, it's only natural they want to dance with equals."

"Don’t good dancers have an obligation? If others didn't dance with them when they started, how could they become good?"

"Better be nice to the beginners. You never know how good someone can become in a couple of years."

"But people don’t dance to please others. They come to enjoy themselves, and dancing with the beginners doesn't help..."

"So you don’t think good dancers should dance with the beginners?"

"Well, it depends..."

"How long have you danced?"

"Seven years."

There was a moment of silence after that. I felt tension.

Then, the topic changed to something else.

August 5, 2009

Why People Quit Tango

Seldom we see people quit tango because of tango. Most often we see people quit tango because of people. When we dance tango we dance with people, and people are much more complicated than the dance itself. People have different interests, needs, style preferences, skill levels, philosophies, attitudes and biases, which are not easy to accommodate. People can be nice, kind, considerate, friendly and encouraging. Yet they can also be selfish, inconsiderate, rude, mean and discouraging. People can be as open-minded, tolerant and acceptant as they can be opinionated, discriminative, arrogant and snobbish. And people have egos, they are easily hurt and difficult to forgive. It won’t take many misconducts to ruin a relationship or a tango community. To be a social dancer, one in fact has more to learn about people than what one needs to learn about tango. Sure, it is important to improve dance skills. But it is even more important to improve ourselves as persons, our skills in dealing with each other, and our dance community on which our tango experience, whether good or bad, depends. As an intimate dance tango affects people deeply on many levels and its enjoyment relies on the interaction of the dancers and the ambiance of the milonga impacted by each and every participant's conduct. Therefore, a friendly, respectful, acceptant, cooperative and accommodating culture within the tango community is particularly important. (See Exhibition Versus Fellowship.)