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 place your attention only on the steps and forget about the music. Instead, focus on the music, try to express the feelings of the music and let the music lead you to dance.
Be calm and unhurried. Take your time to finish each step and don't rush to chase the beats. If you miss a beat, wait for the next. Don't be hesitant to pause, suspend and dance in slow motion when the music tells you to do so.
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 a weak beat, or on both strong and weak beats, or add a step between two beats on the subdivision, or take two steps on one beat, or pause to skip few beats, etc.
A small step takes less time. A big step takes more time. A fast step takes less time. A slow step takes more time. A simple step takes less time. A complex step takes more time. A half turn takes less time. A full turn takes more time. Experienced dancers use different steps to play with the music.
Sometimes you can step just a little bit before or after the beat to shorten a step in order to elongate another, or elongate a step in order to shorten another, to sustain a pose, or to adorn a step etc. Nevertheless, you must follow the music and let your dance be in rhythm to the music in general.
Musicians spice up or syncopate the music by shifting the accent (1, 2, 3, 4), extending a note (1 - - -), starting a note on an unaccented beat and continuing it through the next accented beat (1, 2 -, 4), splitting a note into subdivisions (1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and), accenting the subdivision (1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and), adding an accent (1, 2, 3, 4), or omitting a beat and replacing it with a rest, etc. Syncopation modifies the rhythm and makes the music more interesting and challenging to dance to. (See Tango Music and Its Danceability.)
Tango steps can be divided into two groups: those of featured steps, such as the forward step in front ocho, the rock step in ocho cortado, etc., and those of ancillary or decorative steps, such as pivot, the swivel of the hips, the collection of the leg, the unwinding of the crossed leg, 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 embellishments are often made too slow or too hasty. On the contrary, experienced dancers 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 perfectly. Only in such a way dancing tango becomes a real treat.
Tango music has a rhythm that is lucid, forceful, steady and predictable, accompanied by a melody that is sentimental, beautiful, fluid and moody. You can choose to follow the rhythm or the melody, or change from one to another, depending on your interpretation and how you want to express the feelings of the music at the moment. Some dancers are more rhythmic, others are more melodic. They develop different dance styles according to their musicality.
The ability to step on the beat is important, but it is not the most sophisticated. Beats are rhythmic stresses that regulate the speed of music. They are interrupted and unemotional. Stepping on the beat is like jumping, the focus is on the accent, and the movement is short, broken and dry. The most important thing in dancing is to express the feelings of the music, which lie in the melody. Melody is the linear, continuous, sweet and emotional tone that adds sentiment, beauty and fluidity to music. Dancing to melody is like driving, the focus is on the linear tone, and the movement is uninterrupted, fluid and smooth. (See Dancing to Melody - Poema.)
Opposite moods intertwining with and complimenting each other is a notable feature of tango music, which has a lucid rhythm that is masculine and a sentimental melody that is feminine. Dancing tango, you need to imagine that you are playing the music with your body. The man and the woman are different instruments. Each with its unique sound, expresses a different mood. 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.)