Archive for the ‘Learning tango’ Category

Musical intelligence

July 1, 2021

Scientists have discovered that when the brain is focused on the rhythm of music, the brain creates how the body will move.  This subject is explored in a television program on NatGeo entitled, Musical Intelligence.  It gives us something to consider, especially those who are focused on memorizing step sequences.  If our goal is to improvise our dance in the moment and express what we are feeling in the music, we can learn to rely on our brains.

Music and dance preceded language.  No human culture is known that does not have music.  Daniel Leviten, Ph.D. is a music psychologist at McGill University in Montreal who authored, This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession.  He studied the brain of the popular singer/song writer Sting to see how various areas respond when hearing music and the creative process.  The big question is why do we like the music we like?  Answering this would help us understand why some tango dancers prefer to dance to music other than tango.  Sting said he remembers listening to his mother play tango at the piano.  He likes the rhythm of the tango and said it fed his muse.  His song Roxanne is a tango.

In the program, School for the Ear, Daniel Barenboim said: The music speaks to us when we are actively listening.  We have to become active listeners as dancers.  Then the sound, melody, harmony and rhythm make us dance.

Robert Jourdain says we don’t need an ear for music, but a mind for it in his book, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy: How music captures our imagination.  When music dissolves into ecstacy, it transports us to an abstract place far from the physical world that normally occupies our minds.  Sounds like a perfect description of what happens to many of us when we dance tango.

Juan Carlos Copes

February 19, 2021
May 31, 1931–January 16, 2021

Stanford Tango Week 1993

I first met Juan Carlos when I attended Stanford Tango Week, July 1993. I wanted to take of photo of him, but he handed my camera to someone else who took this photo of us. Stanford is the grandfather of tango festivals in the USA, and it wouldn’t have been complete without the Maestro. Shortly after Stanford, I approached Northwestern University’s dance department about holding the first international tango congress. Juan Carlos and Maria Nieves were both invited to teach at Northwestern in June 1995. It was a privilege to know and study with them. I went to O’Hare Airport to meet their flight and got down on my hands and knees when I saw them walk off the plane. They started dancing as teenagers in the milongas and danced in New York City in the 1950s.
Juan Carlos invited me to dance during the final milonga/reception of the tango congress. It was the finishing touch after two years to turn my dream into a reality.


My neighbor loves tango

July 5, 2020

A neighbor in my building loves tango music.  Thanks to him, I hear the recordings of Carlos Di Sarli, Juan D’Arienzo, Miguel Calo, etc. almost every afternoon.  I heard my favorite tunes of Di Sarli today while sweeping the patio. There was a time when Gabriel, in his early 40s, listened only to Argentine rock music at high volume that was so irritating.  His music changed when his girlfriend moved in.  Then it was only tango music coming from their apartment two floors above mine.

One year ago I offered dance lessons at no charge to Gabriel and his partner.  He had lost his job and had time on his hands while she worked to pay their bills.  He stayed home with their two-year-old boy.  I knew for certain that Gabriel would enjoy dancing because he knows the music.  He thanked me for my offer, and said it wasn’t a good time.  I knew that focusing on tango would give him inner peace as well as a needed distraction.

After I finished on the patio, I met Gabriel in the hallway of the building.  I told him I enjoyed the Di Sarli album very much.  Those were my favorite tunes when I danced with Tito Aquino in Lo de Celia.  During the pandemic, Gabriel, his partner Adriana, and their son Felipe are together all the time.  Dancing tango is something they can enjoy together.  Felipe certainly would enjoy dancing with his daddy and mommy as all children do.

You know, tango is a meditation, I said to Gabriel.  You love the music, so you will love dancing with Adriana and Felipe.  When Felipe is ready for a nap, hold him in your arms and dance tango with him.  You both will love the feeling.

Tango can help anyone in these stressful times.

Finding the real tango in Buenos Aires

June 12, 2020

I had the pleasure of meeting a young tango dancer from Europe last year.  He contacted me about his upcoming visit to Buenos Aires, and we arranged a meeting to talk.  I directed him to the milongas and offered a private lesson if he was interested.  After going to a milonga, he took me up on my offer.  He learned the embrace with me.  Not only did he adapt to it quickly, but he liked it.  Dancing with him was such a pleasure for me.  He wrote his thoughts about how Buenos Aires changed his tango.


I’ve been writing this email for a long time now, with new realizations coming all the time. But now that a month and a half has passed since I came back to Europe, it’s high time I let you know about my experience so far.

Most importantly, my preference for partners has changed quite a bit. There are a couple of women whom I considered excellent dancers before, but now I dance with them mostly because I like them as friends, but frankly wouldn’t mind if we didn’t manage to cabeceo each other. In fact, I moved to another country two weeks ago, and I really enjoy that I could start building my tango circle from scratch, with no social obligations to dance with women with whom I used to dance in the past.

Of course, a change in the opposite direction has also occurred. Some of the women whom I didn’t quite enjoy dancing with before are now among my favorites. Plenty of them are not considered good dancers by other men, and so I have very little competition when trying to invite them. I suspect it’s because they cannot execute the complicated movements, and so other men are bored when dancing with them. Those ladies make up for their limited vocabulary with perfect balance and very attentive following — something that “more advanced” ladies are severely lacking.

I actually thought that it was I who was for some mysterious reason struggling with my balance, until I danced with Anne. I saw her at many milongas in BA. I really didn’t want to dance with her back there. But seeing her in Ukraine, this small country on the edge of Europe, was such a surprise that I decided to give it a try. It was pure bliss!  She made me realize how much I miss dancing with the BA milongueras (Anne has been spending a lot of time in BA for the past 11 years, and she definitely has developed a similar style). After that, I also became very aware of how often women here pull on me to keep their balance while their stilettos fly high into the air.

It’s now more difficult to predict how I will enjoy different partners based on observation alone. Probably because no other leaders dance like I do now. I’m getting better at paying attention to the right things when watching, but it’s still a work in progress. So far, there are plenty of disappointments but also pleasant surprises. The very skinny ladies are a reasonably safe bet because even if they cannot dance well, at least they cannot hurt my back due to their low body weight.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that now any attraction between me and the partner enhances the dance, rather than disrupting it. I remember that before I came to Buenos Aires, I would become more stressed and stiff when dancing with a partner that I fancied. If the partner happened to fancy me, it would be even worse — her attempts to show off would completely ruin the leader-follower dynamic. Now, there is no stress, tension and showing off. When we are both attracted to each other, it becomes obvious through the tenderness of the embrace. Even more striking: the more attraction there is, the shorter the breaks between songs within a tanda, if those breaks even occur at all. Earlier, those breaks and short pieces of conversation inserted between songs were the time to progress the interaction. Now, with everything that can be communicated through the embrace, nothing remains to be said, except for specific arrangements to meet outside a milonga. I actually don’t get to enjoy this change very often since few women in the tango scene appeal to me in this way, but it’s still a wonderful thing to experience when it does happen.

Thank you again for unveiling to me this way of dancing. Chances are, I would have never found it if it wasn’t for you.

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.