Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search 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 community and people. 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 28, 2011

Tango Is a Language (I)

Laymen may not think of tango as a language but in fact tango is a language, which can be understood, taught, learned and used to convey intentions, feelings, musicality and movement traits such as step type, size, variation, direction, rhythm, speed, syncopation, pause, etc. Those who know the language can communicate with each other, identify each other's intentions and feelings and move harmoniously and beautifully as one unified body. Those who don’t know the language are not able to express and respond to each other, and they feel awkward and frustrated in the dance.

Like any language, tango has its own alphabet, vocabulary, grammar and composition. The body parts, including the head, the arms, the hands, the torso, the waist, the hips, the legs and the feet, can be seen as the alphabet of tango. We use these elements to make steps, which are the vocabulary of tango. Musicality and communication are like the grammar, according to which steps are improvised to form a dance. Choreography is the composition of the dance. (See Floorcraft, Choreography and Hastiness.)

Just like studying any language, learning tango should start from the alphabet and grammar. Without the alphabet we can’t spell correctly. Without the grammar we can’t put words into proper use. One problem in our tango learning is that we focus only on studying the vocabulary but pay little attention to the alphabet and grammar. We don't know how to use our body. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.) We don’t know how to properly embrace and walk. Our posture is ugly. Our connection is broken. Our body is too stiff and heavy. We don't know how to dissociate the upper body and the lower body. There is no balance and stability in our movements. We don’t listen to the music. We don't step on the beat. We don’t follow the sentiment and mood of the music. We don’t communicate well. Our lead is unclear and follow is clumsy. As a result, although we know a lot of steps, we can’t put them together in a meaningful, coherent, harmonious and beautiful way.

Like any language, tango has a large vocabulary. Nobody is able to do all the steps in tango, just like nobody knows all the words in a language. The fact is, one does not need to memorize the entire dictionary to speak a language. For example, in Chinese language there are more than 60,000 characters. The Kangxi Dictionary includes 47,000 characters. The official Xinhua Dictionary includes 8,550 characters. Of them only 950 characters are the most frequently used, which cover 90% of the total characters used in popular literature. Additional 2,800 characters of the second highest use frequency increase the coverage to 99.9%. Most Chinese characters are rarely used.

Tango is the same. There are only limited steps and skills that are essential in tango, such as embrace, walk, salida, resolution, pivot, dissociation, cadencia, cross, front ocho, back ocho, media luna, molinete, rock, giro milonguero, traspie, etc. These basic steps form 90% of the steps used in social tango dancing. More complicated steps, such as ocho cortado, sacada, boleo, sandwich, parada, arrastrar, barrida, corrida, lápiz, carpa, planeo, zarandeo, calesita, americana, media vuelta, wrap, single axis turn, etc., form the other 9% less common, optional and dispensable steps in social tango. In addition to the above are steps used primarily in performance tango, such as enrosque, high boleo, castigada, gancho, back sacada, volcada, colgada, romantica, soltada, patada, sentada, kick, lift, etc. These steps are mainly used by professional performers for special effects only. They lack the friendliness of the social tango steps, are difficult, uncomfortable, dangerous, and requiring a lot of space to do, therefore are not suitable for social dancing. 

It is unwise to spend time and money on stuffs that are of little use, but neglect the essentials that can benefit you most, and it is affected to use professional jargon to carry out a daily conversation. Unfortunately, that is what many students are doing. A much better approach to tango is to do just the opposite: concentrating on the alphabet, grammar and basic vocabulary of tango instead of jumping into big fancy words without a solid foundation. Frankly, for most people, the basics are all they need to enjoy social tango. If you understand that, then tango is really a simple and easy dance. Those who are truly talented and want to become stage performers can go further to learn performance, but that should be pursued after they have mastered the fundamentals, not before, and certainly not in the milonga where even true professionals dance sociably. (See Learning Tango: Imitating Steps vs. Developing Skills.)


  1. Wow! I love this post. I wrote a little tango essay about tango as a language too. But your post is much better. Thank you