Archive for the ‘Learning tango’ Category

Improving your social dancing

April 23, 2019

Another blogger wrote about her dilemma on finding the time and money to improve her dancing.  Tango is a booming industry because of an addiction adults have for taking classes for years in the hopes of dancing like their favorite professionals.  The ego is never satisfied with how well you dance.

I know American women who paid Argentine tango professionals one hundred dollars or more for an hour private lesson.  Did it help their social dancing?  Did the men dance with the women in a milonga?  No.  But the women got to tell their friends about dancing with world-famous tango stars.

What is the best way to improve your social dancing?

1. take lots of group classes, weekend workshops, private lessons?

2. focus on technique and choreography?

3. find a practice partner?

4. dance in the milongas, preferably in Buenos Aires

No. 4 is the best way.  Classes may get you to practice some, but a class of beginners doesn’t help many improve beyond a basic level.  Ladies, you need to dance with men who know how to dance.  Workshops with teachers who disappear in three days with your money do you no good, especially those with a championship title who sell choreography instead of improvisational skills for the milonga.

Case in point.  Jean arrived for her third visit in Buenos Aires.  She danced very little in the milongas during her first two trips because she was too busy with classes and going to the wrong milongas.  She came to improve and gain confidence as a social dancer.  I gave her a milonga schedule where I knew she would dance.  I told her to forget classes with teachers whom she would never see at a milonga.  She followed my advice.  She went to the evening milongas and danced every tanda for four hours, something she never does at her local milonga.  I filmed her dancing in the milonga at the beginning of her trip and at the end.  I pointed out one thing to practice.  Her dancing changed by the end of three months.  She had to adjust to a different partner for each tanda.  The result was she gained confidence, her dancing improved and she enjoyed it more.

Many of the milongueras I know learned to dance in the milongas.  They didn’t learn in classes.  There were no technique classes to attend.  Their private lessons were tandas with the milongueros at Club Almagro and Club Buenos Aires.  The milongueros know how to dance well, and the women learned by dancing with them.

Teachers avoid explaining the embrace because they don’t use it themselves.  It is what sets tango apart from all other social dances.  Any milonguero viejo will tell you that the key to dancing tango is the embrace.   It is the vital element in the tango conversation.

I know many of you are thinking there is no way you can go to Buenos Aires to improve your dancing.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way.  Find a way before the milongas and milongueros are extinct.  Or at least stop taking classes that don’t help your social dancing one bit.


Dancers who become teachers

April 22, 2019

A friend and I were discussing this topic.  We agreed that they are two very different things.  A dancer doesn’t necessarily know how to teach, and not all teachers dance well.  One with dance training has limited experience from classes, but no practical experience as a teacher.  We have all known someone who returns from a few weeks in Buenos Aires and announces they will be teaching tango.  The same goes for those who win a tango championship and start teaching.  The title of champion often is understood to mean, if they were good enough to win, they are good enough to teach.  Those who prepare as school teachers take university courses in education to learn methods for teaching before having the opportunity to apply them to real classroom experience.  Teachers become better teachers by teaching.  No one has to pass an exam or present their credentials to teach tango.  When I began assisting my dance partner with group classes 30 years ago, I had no training as a dance teacher, only years of training as a dancer and musician.  I observed how my partner interacted with the students, presented each lesson, and the results he achieved.  I didn’t agree with his teaching methods, but it was his class.  Those years gave me the incentive to begin teaching social dance classes on my own.  I continued learning how to teach by listening and responding to my students.  Over the years I have talked with milongueros about sharing what they know in private lessons.  The first thing each one has said is that they don’t know how to teach nor have the patience required; yet when given the chance to teach, they surprised even themselves.  In order to teach well, one needs to have a depth of knowledge of the subject.  No one has more knowledge and experience dancing tango in the milongas than the milongueros.  Most of them have no idea of how tango is taught today, but they know what they know.  They know the music.  No one taught them how to feel.  No one taught them their technique; they didn’t know that it existed when they were learning.  They danced what came naturally for them from the music.   I’ve heard many dancers say the milongueros don’t know how to teach.  They are expected to teach tango the way it has been taught for many years by dance professionals that keep dancers going to classes for years.  Milongueros impart all they know in a few hours. Most use a teaching method that programs dancers to memorize patterns; the milongueros teach how to dance.  I found this post that has some interesting things on the subject of teaching beginners. The young dancers who have won the tango championships in Buenos Aires are hardly prepared to teach tango.  They practice the steps they learned from their teachers, but they have no feeling for the music.  They have little or no knowledge of the different tango orchestras like the milongueros.  Their titles almost guarantee they will be doing exhibitions around the milongas of Buenos Aires marketing themselves as performers and teachers.  Foreigners go to the milongas to see exhibitions by young couples who are handsomely dressed and capable of performing a rehearsed choreography perfectly. At some point, I hope that more dancers will begin questioning those who teach tango before signing up for their classes.  They say that a tango teacher is born every day in Buenos Aires.  Unfortunately, those who teach aren’t from the milongas.  The future of social dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires depends on the development of social dancers.  Without them, the milongas eventually will close.

Back to basics

April 18, 2019

There are some misconceptions about learning to dance tango:

  1. You will never completely learn it and could spend years on one step.
  2. It is a difficult dance and requires years of study to dance well.
  3. It is best to study with a variety of teachers because one can always get something from every class.

Learning tango is approached by many as a dance to master, no matter how long it takes.  Those who become obsessed take classes with every teacher they can find (whether or not they are qualified to teach), attend marathon weekends of seminars and milongas, and work tirelessly on perfecting every detail of their dance until it no longer resembles tango.  They look to the so-called experts for criticism on how they can improve.  A simple social dance has become a world-wide market for anyone with the guts to hang out a shingle and call themselves a tango teacher.

What does “completely learn it” mean?  Learn all the steps ever created and master them?  Why spend years working on one step?  Who says it’s not good enough the way you did it a year ago?  How can someone judge a feeling?  There is a collective mindset that is brainwashing everybody into believing that it takes years to complete enough training to be worthy to dance it.

I taught social dance classes for ten years.  At the end of eight classes, the students had enough basics to go out and dance.  People have busy lives with work, family, and other obligations.  They learn to dance for pleasure and to enjoy the company of other dancers.  Those in my classes didn’t have to continue with more classes in order to dance socially and enjoy themselves.   Why isn’t it the same for tango?

Tango has been labeled as a “difficult” dance.  It is really very simple.  One needs to learn to walk with the music.  Understanding the music takes years, but dancers rarely dedicate themselves to the music first.  They go to classes where they are expected to memorize steps and then try to fit them to music they never heard.  This is what makes tango difficult.  If those who wanted to learn to dance were told they had to listen to recordings of Troilo, D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, and Calo for eight hours a day, seven days a week, in one year they would be ready to learn the basics of tango and dance after eight classes.  We can’t dance to music we don’t know.  Music that is foreign to us requires time to understand.

Ricardo Vidort once told me that he taught everything he knew in eight classes.   Then he told his students he had no more to teach them. They had to go practice on their own and develop their own style.  They didn’t need more classes.  He was right.  Those who stay in classes for years want approval from the teacher and won’t practice on their own.

People who have taken years of lessons with many teachers eventually return to basic classes.  Imagine all the hours spent in classes to improve one’s level of dance only go back to the beginning.  I suppose many finally realize that all those advanced technique classes were not what they needed.  They forgot most of it, and in the end knew that one needs only a few steps to improvise tango.

Those who place themselves at an “advanced” level continue to attend classes.   Perhaps they like showing how easy everything is for them and justify participation because they always learn something new.  That’s life. We learn something new every day and hopefully continue learning throughout our lives.  There should be a point, no matter what we are learning, when we gain more from self-study and practice.  That’s certainly true in tango.

  1. Learn the basics, practice on your own, and then go dance.
  2. Tango is simple.  Love the music first, and your tango will come out of you.
  3. Leave class before you become obsessed with collecting steps.  Then develop your own style.

From street to stage

April 17, 2019

A street dancer creates rather than copies and improvises with the music without rehearsal or choreography.  A street dancer dances in the moment and derives inspiration from the music.

Ricardo Vidort talked about tango as a street dance that was practiced on the corner or in the park between boys who knew nothing about dance technique.  There were no dance teachers when they were learning tango in the 1930s and 40s. Feeling was their only technique.  They developed their own personal styles.  They were creating their styles in those days that we see today in the milongas of Buenos Aires.

Today we can find all types of dances being taught in studios.  Street dancing (hip hop, funk, etc.) originated in the streets of the ghettos just like tango did in Buenos Aires.  Contemporary street dance is so popular today that it is taught in dance academies and certified teacher training programs.  Professional instruction washes out all the creativity of a pure form.

Tango originated a street dance.  Boys practiced together to dance well enough to invite girls at the dances.  Tango was danced in its purest form.  Watch the milongueros viejos in the milongas, and what you’ll see is pure feeling and simplicity.  They created their personal styles at an early age and then danced every night of the week in the downtown confiterias, cabarets and salons.

Today, the younger generation of dancers is studying tango, perfecting their technique and preparing choreographies to perform for exhibition and stage.  They are trained, but they lack the essence of tango.  They practice choreography hours each day for performance.  Their goal is technical perfection, but they have no feeling.

What will the milongas be like when all the milongueros viejos are gone?


April 15, 2019

I recently attended a concert by a jazz quartet.  It was nice hearing live music being improvised in the moment.  Jazz musicians know what pieces they are going to play, but they never know exactly how they will turn out because they allow the music to happen in the moment.  The music is improvised within the framework of each specific composition.  Each musician has his part to play and at the same time are connected with one another.  They respond to one another in the music, and that’s when it all happens.  You can see it on their faces.  They are having a musical conversation with each other while the music happens.  Each takes a turn with a solo while others support it — piano, string bass, trumpet, and percussion.

I couldn’t sit still during the concert.  The rhythm was contagious and had me tapping my hand or foot quietly the entire hour.  I felt a connection to the music.  This is the reason I go to listen to live music.  It’s a different experience whether listening or dancing.

The quartet invited a tenor saxophonist to join them for a Thelonious Monk composition.  When he wasn’t playing, he was on the sidelines, connected with the music and doing his own little dance.  Musicians dance while playing their instruments, in their own way.  The body wants to move with the feeling that comes from the music.  Whether they are swaying back and forth, nodding the head, or tapping a foot, musicians respond to the music with movement.  It’s their unique way of dancing.

After the concert, I thought about the similarities and differences in tango music and dance.  Tango music is not improvised, although the dance is in a social setting.  Each tango, vals or milonga was arranged in a particular style for a certain ensemble.   Each group has its style from the arranger.

The milongueros improvise their dance in the moment because they know the music and connect with it.  Their tango comes out of them; the music tells them what to do.  There is no thinking going on, only feeling.  Connection comes from one source — the music.  It doesn’t happen without it.  It has nothing to do with technique, footwork, sequences, etc.  Two become one in the music because they are connected with it.  This connection is like a meditation when there is awareness of the moment and nothing else.   Feeling will get us closer to this connection than thinking about it.

The music is the source of the emotional connection in tango, and the embrace is the catalyst for sharing it.


April 14, 2019

Musicality: a sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent in music.

For some it’s natural, for others it’s a struggle.  You either have sensitivity for the music or you don’t.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be learned.  Attending classes on the subject offered by dancers with no musical training won’t help.  More than anything it takes listening for hours to music to internalize it.  Then your dance becomes a natural expression of your connection with the music.

I recall that not to long ago tango dancers weren’t interested in the codigos in the milongas of Buenos Aires.   That has changed, and progress is being made. Finally many recognize that there is a need for rules of social conduct on the dance floor.  Another subject that was avoided in tango classes was dancing to the music.  Everyone was completely focused on learning and memorizing steps patterns that there was no attention given to the music.  Teachers with no musical training counted steps rather than the beat of the music.  That, too, has changed.  Connection and musicality are the topics of discussion.

Musicality workshops seem to be more common these days.  It has taken years for teachers to realize that the music they have lived and breathed all their lives in Buenos Aires is strange for newcomers to tango.  The music is where the dance begins.  Without it, there is no dance.  Knowledge of the music for dancing is necessary for its natural expression.  You can’t dance well to music that you don’t know.  In order to be connected, you need to feel it.

One can present information about how to listen to music, hear the differences in rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, etc., but it takes active listening on the dancer’s part to acquire the sensitivity to relate to it with the body.  I believe that tango as a social dance does not have to be artistically perfect by well-trained dancers in order to be called tango.  Tango is one of the most natural social dances I have encountered in my life where every milonguero has his own style, improvises in the moment, and knows how to dance well with any woman.  The embrace is more important that any steps to a milonguero.  That, too, is rarely taught in classes although it is the basis of tango for a milonguero.

Do you dance tango to impress others or to express a feeling?  This is an important question.  Both types are seen at social dances.  Those who are out to impress others are usually oblivious to others on the floor.  This is demonstrated in all the exhibition videos where one couple performs to impress the audience.  Usually what they are dancing cannot be done on a social floor, so students are not learning what they need. Tango is a means to an end for them.  On the other hand, there are dancers who express their feelings calmly and quietly without disturbing others.  Tango is a feeling shared by two.

Every orchestra has its own unique style, with a different rhythm and mood.  It takes years of listening to distinguish them and learn to dance differently to each one.  There is no pressure on dancers to accomplish this in a certain amount of time.  One’s commitment to the enjoyment of tango includes listening to the recordings on a daily basis to know and understand the music.  That is the only way to become a good dancer.  The goal is relating your dance to the music through movement.  The feeling comes from within you and only when you connect to the music that you know and love.  That feeling is yours to share with your partner as a silent conversation.

The challenge for tango dancers is acquiring a knowledge of the music that was born and created in Buenos Aires many decades ago.  The music has remained timeless in the recordings.  It is our job to become acquainted with it and love it.  An hour class on musicality won’t accomplish that.  It takes personal dedication.  No one can do it for you.

My newbie years

January 8, 2019

Most topics posted recently on the Argentine Tango section of Dance Forum relate to newbies and beginners.  I want to share memories of my beginning steps and introduction into the world of tango.

I had the advantage of dance classes and piano lessons from a young age, so dance and music were second nature for me.  My parents were ballroom dancers who had a collection of tango recordings by American orchestras in the 1950s.  My sister and I were learning tango at home and dancing in the living room.

I started taking social dance classes at a Chicago studio in 1988.  There was a small group of Argentine tango enthusiasts who studied with local teacher who had been to Buenos Aires.  A man from that group who also had been to Buenos Aires offered to teach me what he learned.  We met regularly at my apartment building clubhouse to practice sequences for performance.  We watched videos by Gloria & Eduardo and Los Dinzel.  There was no connection to the music or my partner.  This version of tango focused on sequences.  After only six months of practice, we performed at a dance studio.

In 1992, I heard there was an Argentine couple on sabbatical in Chicago who were giving classes.  I signed up for private and group lessons.  I thought I was learning the tango danced in Buenos Aires milongas, but it was tango de salon for exhibition.

In 1993, I attended a Tango Week at Stanford University where Juan Carlos Copes taught his choreography for stage.  I added tango to my social dance classes at community education classes and park districts.

I thought that Chicago should have a tango week like Stanford, so I started planning it with Northwestern University for June 1995.  The teachers invited were not milongueros, so classes had nothing to do with social tango. The week was a success, but a disaster as far as learning social tango in the embrace.

International Argentine Tango Congress teachers – Chicago 1995

Finally, in March 1996, I went to Buenos Aires to see the tango in the milongas for myself.  I was still too brainwashed by all the classes over five years to immediately notice the differences.  The crowded floors were something I hadn’t seen before.

In February 1999, I moved to Buenos Aires.  It was a slow learning process that took years of development.  I didn’t grow up on tango music from the 1940s like the milongueros.  I couldn’t tell one orchestra from another.  I had to work my way up from the bottom of the barrel, dancing with horrible dancers, and recognizing the difference.  I knew I had come to the right place when I felt tango when embraced by the milongueros.

Tango is not something anyone learns quickly.  You need to know the music and that takes years of listening.  It takes time being comfortable in your own body as an adult who never danced as a teenager like the milongueros did.  They had time to practice, and time to create their own personal style.  There’s no hurry when you’re young.  Today adults who want to learn tango have no self-confidence and very little patience.  They expect proficiency in a short time.

Take it from a one-time newbie who had to start over from the beginning after learning performance tango for years — give yourself a break, take your time, feel the music, forget about your feet, and let your dance come out of you.  Don’t think tango, feel it.


January 19, 2018

There are those who get tango, and those who will never get tango.  This isn’t to say that only Argentinians get tango, and all foreigners don’t get what tango is.  It makes a difference when one grew up on tango in Buenos Aires and learned the dance early in life.  It’s in their blood.

Taking classes with many teachers is no guarantee that one gets tango.  Some Argentine teachers don’t get tango, so how can they inspire others with the music, lyrics, and orquestas.  They teach choreography and call it tango.

I was enjoying the music from my table when a foreigner made an overt, almost horizontal pose to get my attention for the tanda.  My standard advice to foreign visitors is: refuse to dance with men who approach your table; the worst dancers prey upon newcomers.  I don’t usually accept an , but I did this time and didn’t expect much.

Things didn’t get off to a good start.  My hair was in his face and he brushed it away with his hand, commanding that I do something to relieve his discomfort.  I did, but that would have been the perfect excuse to avoid the tanda with him.   My cheek rested on his sweaty face and my arm on his wet shirt from perspiration.  I couldn’t have been more uncomfortable.

I knew after the first few steps on the floor that I was with a man who danced for himself, not for his partner.  He danced memorized sequences and didn’t hear the music.  There is nothing I hate more than a dancer with no connection to the music.  Another is expecting a partner to automatically follow when there is no lead.  He had no awareness of me, only his own dancing.

After the first dance, I asked him where he is from.  He told me, and then added he’s been living in Buenos Aires for six years.  That proves that people don’t get tango even while living here.

After the second dance, I asked him if he heard about the cabeceo for inviting someone to dance.  He said he couldn’t see very far.  I suggested wearing glasses,  but he said they don’t help him.  Later I saw him wearing glasses.  All the women were 20 feet away across the floor. If he didn’t use the cabeceo, he wasn’t going to dance.

This tangoman has a lot to learn.

There is no comparison

January 10, 2018

I danced for the first time with Jose Mario about two months ago in El Maipu.  I remember how much I enjoyed a tanda with him.  I was hoping to catch his attention yesterday in Nuevo Chique.  There were only a few dancers left at 22 hs.  I was about to call it a night and change my shoes.  Then Jose Mario caught my eye and invited me for the Pugliese tanda that began with Recuerdos.  I accepted even though I don’t usually dance the Pugliese tanda.

From the second I entered his embrace, I surrendered to the music and closed my eyes.  There were no more than five couples on the floor.  I rarely close my eyes while dancing, but I let it happen naturally.  It was magical.  It was feeling, not steps.  We moved together in harmony like we’ve danced together for years.

I had danced earlier with men from Germany, Australia, and England, including a very young Argentine who has learned for two years.

The German tried to get my attention from the other side of the room, but I ignored him because he is too tall for me.  He approached my table, and I accepted.  It was the Biaggi tanda.  He started like a racehorse out of the gate with long steps.  I said, slow down.  He was dancing for himself, not for me. Later he commented, “the music has energy so you have to put energy into the dance.”  This wasn’t his first visit to Buenos Aires.  I couldn’t feel the lead from his upper body.  I had to concentrate on his steps and try to follow.  A few times I didn’t follow along because there was no lead.  He didn’t notice.  He was dancing for himself.

The Australian and I danced together at the same milonga a day after his arrival.  He invited me for the Rodriguez tanda yesterday.  [I haven’t heard this orquesta in a very long time. Thanks to Daniel Borelli, who I consider the best DJ in Buenos Aires, for including it yesterday.]  He’s here for a month to dance and take classes — two privates and eight group classes each week.  He said he’s here to learn the milonguero style.  I offered free private sessions, but he has a full agenda. It’s no wonder that he’s still thinking tango, not feeling it.

Foreigners are in a hurry; the milongueros take their time.  Foreigners focus on the steps; the milongueros focus on the woman in their embrace.  There is no comparison.  One is exercise, the other is a feeling.  If I need exercise, I go for a walk or practice Pilates.  When a man shares what he feels in the music, I melt.  And I did last night with Jose Mario.

Tango is losing its role models

January 6, 2018

Making the journey to the home of tango is no guarantee that one will find good role models for social dancing. You need to sift through so many styles and venues to find the real thing.

Group classes rarely produce good social dancers. After so many years in Buenos Aires, I feel that tango is best learned in the culture it was born. Those who come to dance in the milongas reap the benefits. It’s where they learn the codes and customs which are basically ignored in their local communities. Dancers may call it tango, but they are adding their local flavor; Buenos Aires isn’t an ingredient.

My approach to teaching today is entirely different from when I began in 1993 in Chicago. I could teach what I learned from others, which had no resemblance to the social style of the Buenos Aires milongas. My eyes were opened in 1996 in Buenos Aires, and it took years to understand what is so different about tango there.

Now I offer a free three-hour weekly session to anyone who is interested in social tango. We begin with exercises to prepare the body. I talk about the rhythms and feeling the music, not about steps. The milonga codes and customs are part of each class from the start. I record during the class for self-criticism and improvement. The goal is to dance well with a stranger at a milonga. I’ve learned so much from the milongueros viejos who are no longer around and want to pass it on to keep social tango alive and well. Tango is losing its role models. Performers aren’t doing social tango any good.

[My comment posted on Tango High and Low, May 12, 2017]