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 29, 2013

Men's Common Mistakes in Tango

1. Not listening to music
Some men do not dance to music because they do not know how to listen to tango music. (See The Characteristics of Classic Tango.) Others because they are so focused on doing the steps that they cannot hear the music. The former is a problem of musicality. The latter is that of attention allocation. Dancing tango requires the ability to allot attention to many elements simultaneously, including embrace, connection, posture, partner, coordination, relaxation, steps, adornments, music, etc. Among these listening to music must be the first priority because dancing tango is dancing the music, not the steps. The latter is but an expression of the former. In leading, the man must first pay attention to the music. He must not only think of the steps and forget about the music.

2. The steps are too difficult
Some men like to lead steps that are beyond the comfortable zone, which require so much of their attention that they become heedless of the other aspects of the dance. Beginners often mistake difficulty for beauty. But in fact one has nothing to do with the other. On the contrary, keeping the steps simple will be easier for the dancers to allocate the attention, listen to the music, relax the body, perfect the movement and enjoy the relationship. Unlike stage tango that features performance, social tango emphasizes the communication of feelings; therefore, simple steps are more suitable. Dancing social tango with difficult steps of stage tango could easily backfire. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)

3. Leading with the arms and hands
Many men use their arms and hands to lead due to various reasons. First, this long-standing habit is hard to break. Second, it is easier to lead with the arms and hands than with the torso. Third, beginners tend to focus on the steps and overlook the feelings, and they rely on the help of the arms and hands to do steps. Fourth, many women prefer to dance in an open dance hold, leaving men little choice but using the arms and hands. Finally, in order to teach steps, many teachers encourage students to use open embrace, which reinforces the habit of using the arms and hands. However, using the arms and hands to lead conflicts with the essence of tango, that is, intimacy, comfort, sensuality, oneness and synchronicity. Tango has been from its birth a dance of close embrace and torso leading, which distinguishes it from other partner dances. For the man, learning tango is learning to lead with his torso, that is, to affect the movement of the woman's body with his body, not his arms and hands. Beginners must overcome the habit of using the arms and hands and develop the ability of leading with the torso.

4. Sending mixed signals
The problem of using the arms and hands to lead is that it often contradicts the body. A man who uses the arms and hands to lead usually does not know how to lead with the torso. When his arms and hands put forth strength in one direction but his torso does not move or turn accordingly, that sends mixed signals. Although improving the coordination of the body may help, the final solution is to supersede hand leading with torso leading. The arms and hands must be completely relaxed in leading and used only to form a supportive frame. Unaware of the impact his body may have on the woman's movement, the man often lead with his arms and hands when his weight is not completely transferred from one foot to the other. But, since the partners are connected, the incompleteness of his weight change means that she, too, has not completed her weight change. Asking her to take a step in that position is demanding the impossible. The woman must first complete her weight change before she can take the step, resulting in the incoherence of her movement. Such errors caused by using the arms and hands to lead could be avoided if the man uses his torso to lead. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.)

5. Bending over
I stress using the torso rather than the chest to lead because the latter could be misleading sometimes. Which part of the body is used to lead depends on the heights of the partners. If the two partners are about the same height, then using the chest to lead is correct. However, if the man is much taller than the woman, using the chest to lead could cause him to bend over his torso and stick out his buttock, which not only looks bad but also adds pressure on the woman, causing her to bend backwards. A tall man must not bend his body but should keep it tall and straight and use his abdomen rather than chest to lead a short woman.

6. Bowing the head
Tango partners often stick their cheeks together in the embrace to enjoy the intimacy, which is nice if they are about the same height. But if the man is much taller than the woman, that could cause him to bow his head, curve his torso, hold his chest in, stick his buttock out and bend his knees, which not only looks awful but also will have a negative impact on the woman's dance. A tall man and a short woman would be better not tango together because that neither looks good nor feels comfortable. But if they choose to dance together, then the woman may rest her head on his chest, but the man should not bow his head to meet her head. Rather, he should stand tall, keeping his body vertical, head up and knees straight to maintain a good posture.

7. Coercing the woman to submit
An immature leader may think of follow as unconditional surrender and obedience on the woman's part. In fact, the surrender and obedience in tango is not unilateral but mutual. Tango is an intimate and harmonious relationship. The two partners must both be empathetic, thoughtful, agreeable and accommodating. To lead is not to coerce, but to guide, support, collaborate, adapt, protect, and help the woman to unfold her skills and beauty. Just like the woman should submit to the man, the man, too, should submit to the need of the woman in her dance. There must not be any coerce in leading.

8. Self-centeredness
A self-centered leader often fails to take into consideration the balance, axis, time, space and support that the woman needs in her dance. Examples of such self-centeredness include taking care only of his own balance and overlooking hers, leading her to make a step when her balance is not yet in place, letting her rotate on a tilted axis, leading her to move but blocking her path, not giving her enough time to finish her step, leading her do things beyond her ability, and so on. Such could cause her to feel coerced or uncomfortable. The man must think from the standpoint of the woman and constantly adjust his own position, embrace, axis, weight, speed, lead, etc. to adapt to her need and facilitate her movement so she can dance freely. (See Partner-Centered Leading vs. Self-Centered Leading.)

9. Not giving her enough support
Letting her dance freely does not mean letting her dance alone without your support. An inexperienced man often just sends a signal and then waits for the woman to follow, but fails to provide the support that she needs in her dancing. In fact, such support is crucial because she is leaning on you. If you withdraw your support, even if you lean back only slightly, that could cause her to lose balance and compromise the quality of her dance. When she moves away from you, you have to move with her to maintain your support for her. When she moves into you, you have to retreat while not lose the support for her. Otherwise, she will feel falling away.

10. Overlooking ancillary actions
The lack of understanding of the structure of the step is another problem for a beginner. Most tango steps are not composed of only one action, but a combination of several actions. For example, dancing ocho from position five includes five actions: unwinding the crossed leg, taking a forward step with that leg, swiveling the hips and pivoting on that leg, taking another forward step with the other leg, and swiveling the hips and pivoting again. Thus the entire sequence needs to be led with five action steps. If you do not break down the sequence and attempt to bring out two actions with one lead, that will be hard for the woman to follow. A beginner tends to focus on the main action and overlook the ancillary action. For example, he leads the woman to take a forward step without unwinding her crossed leg first, or leads her to step forward when she is yet to complete her hip rotation.

11. Unsophisticated musicality
This is also reflected in the beginner’s handling of music. The musicality of the beginner is often raw and untrained. He may be able to identify the rhythm and lead the woman to step on the beat, but his handling of the ancillary actions is often unmusical. Still use the example of ocho, in which the beginner tends to focus on the main action, i.e., the forward step. Once a forward step is made, he immediately moves on to lead the next forward step. While both steps may be led on the beat, the transitional action between the two steps, namely hip rotation and pivot, often is led off beat. Such lead cannot satisfy a mature follower who expects the leader to handle all aspects of the entire sequence in an exquisite way that every detail of the sequence meets the rhythm, melody, speed and mood of the music perfectly. Only in such a fashion dancing tango becomes a real treat.

12. Self-exhibition
Some men use the woman as the foil to their performance. Such men have invented more and more exhibitory steps for themselves, showing off at the milonga to draw eyeballs to their exhibition. In my opinion that is a bad trend today. In tango, the man's job is to display the woman's beauty and let her enjoy the dance. Instead of drawing eyeballs to himself, he should focus on making her feel pampered in his arms, shining her and letting her be the center of attention. A leader's maturity is measured by how his partner dances, not by his own exhibition. (See The Gender Roles in Tango.)


  1. "Catch us if you can! We were young with all of our hearts!"

    Most of us did not start doing the tango in order the get the ocho just right. Most of us saw elegant, dramatic and erotic moves in a performance that took our breath away. Then we take tango lessons and dance among older people who look down their noses at beginners for not doing the details as well as they can, who are quite conservative in their tastes, who are uptight about the eroticism, who are offended when attractive young people look better at the erotic movements than they do, and who are too weak, inflexible, heavy, and cowardly to do the more dramatic moves. You try to get along with the teachers and older established dancers, so you take on some of their cautious attitudes. Then you find you're getting more and more fussy at a very different dance than the one you wanted to do in the first place.

    It is impossible to do something bolder or more creative without mistakes. In any creative community (dancers, artists, poets, scholars) there is a playful, tolerant attitude toward people trying new stuff. If you try something that doesn't work, instead of saying you're being egotistical and selfish, they laugh, say good for you, you took risks, and added to the creative possibilities of our community. That conservative "no new movements", (or at least not unless you can do them perfectly) attitude is the death of creativity, evolution and life. It maintains tango as an antiquarian cult.

    The idea of dividing tango into social dance and "show" dance trivializes efforts to be more creative and to actually do the dance that we were attracted to in the first place. Performance is not just for tourists. It includes ballet, modern dance, jazz and other rich, culturally important forms. It can be brilliant and revolutionary, changing the way we think. It can give tango dance its Isadora Duncans, Sergei Diaghilevs, Merce Cunnihams and Astor Piazzollas. Tango and dance have always included a conversation between performance and social dance. Both should be respected as spaces in which creativity can take place. That's how art and culture evolve in living ways.

    Some ladies like cautious dancing. However, most young ladies love it when you want to do something crazy, at least until the older, cautious ones tut-tut them into submission. Doing bold movements is not selfish. The "tango Nazis" who try to exclude the playful dramatic moves that young people can do are the selfish ones.

    Should they run before they can walk? Yes! Young dancers can often learn bold lifts quickly and beautifully, long before they perfect going to the cross. There is no reason to delay teaching a lift to a young, strong, light, flexible dancer. We should learn the bold move while we can. We should not have to wait months or years until we are not physically capable of doing them anymore.

    1. The commercial culture is all about catching and impressing, it promotes constant changes, repackaging, exoticism, "creativity" and "boldness". People grown up in such culture and philosophy exhibit a lack of depth and lasting quality. They confuse bizarreness with beauty, focus too much on flashy forms rather than substances, and constantly seek change and novelty. Commercialism is one of the reasons that get this culture into trouble. Unfortunately, some people don't realize it.

    2. Tango is a creation of modernity - of industrialization that formed a sophisticated, cosmopolitan, urban, working class composed of immigrants from all over the world. It's also a creation of modern mass media - the phonograph and radio - that allowed it to project around the world.

      Tango, as you say in your history, went through many changes. It grew and evolved. It has always incorporated outside elements. You point out correctly that the Tango shows overseas - first in the early 20th Century and again in the 1990s revived the tango.Those foreign elements in a way are not foreign at all. They are intrinsic to the tango.

      I sympathize with your criticism of commercial culture. However, the modern world has exponentially increased the richness of our culture. There are, as you say, critics of commercial culture who hearken back to "Golden Ages" real and imagined - Luddites, catonists, and plain reactionaries. But at this point that is pretty clearly a dead end. Successful criticism of shallow,exploitative commercial culture is going to have to be creative to survive. Progressives, visionaries, and idealists, who get anywhere look to improving the future, not returning to the past.

      Part of the reason creative idealists are more successful is that creativity, innovation, and progress have produced some great things. Some experiments don't work, or are uninspired, but enough of them have been truly inspired that most people see progress as a good thing. I would have to agree with them. Deep, rich modern art forms include modern classical music, jazz, blues, modern dance, jazz dance, movies, architecture, poetry, literature, theater, and so on. Tango is completely part of that. All of these art forms, including tango, have continued to evolve.

      You say wisely, in your statement on why people quit tango that we need to be open and tolerant. Part of that is being open to experiments and changes that new members bring.

      It especially requires being open to young people. Young people like to experiment. All of these new people will bring new cultural influences, as young people and foreigners have always done in Tango history.

      One of the main things young people bring is greater physicality. They bring bigger bolder stuff. They can do it better than older people. We need to encourage young people to join us and to bring their changes, cultural inputs, strength, beauty and exuberance. Let them run. Don't make them slow down to our speed. When we were young we ran hard. We need to give them freedom to do so. Teaching young dancers, I learn more from them than they do from me. We try to catch one another if we can. We play. We enjoy dancing and tango brilliantly.

    3. Most people understand the importance of creativity. But not everyone understands its drawbacks. Every time I bought a smart phone, a smarter one is invented next day. In economic terms this is called "creating demands," so people will throw away their perfectly functional old phones and keep buying new ones. How do you think the natural resources are depleted and the environment destroyed? Human creativity may lead us to a promising future, it may also lead us to destruction, if we think that is the only thing important. Whatever new steps you create, someone will outsmart you the next day, I promise. How do you think you can dance socially if everyone brings his new steps that you don't know?

    4. One negotiation between traditional, packed-dance-floor Tango and performance, Nuevo and open-space Tangoes is to acknowledge that the environment in which you are dancing, including social mores, varies a lot, and that dancing sustainably in a specific environment puts limits on what is danced and how.
      If anyone cries out, "No limits", I'll point at spinal cord damage.