Whenever you think about dance, you think of footwork. There are basic steps that define the character of every type of dance, from the simple “step back, then in” of LeRoc, to the “forward, side, together” of waltz or the “one, two, three-and-four” of latin. The steps are the first stage in learning a new dance. You begin by learning the timing and how to position your feet in the correct places, then when you’ve got the hang of that you start to concentrate on where to put your body to improve balance, posture, and styling and make the dance begin to flow.
But Argentine Tango doesn’t have any of that. It is that strangest of things, a dance without steps.
When you first start to learn the tango the temptation is to follow the steps that the teacher is doing and try to copy the way his or her feet are moving around the floor. This is a natural way of looking at it especially if you have done any other dancing before, but it is not how tango works. With tango the most important element is the upper body connection, the invisible link between the leader’s and follower’s chests that - if done correctly - means the feet will move in the right direction as a consequence of the movement. It is this chest connection that most new tango dancers find the hardest to master, partly because the isolation or dissociation needed to be able to rotate your upper body independently of your hips is not something we naturally do and needs to be learned, but mostly because they spend all their time trying to work out where the feet should go and try to dance whilst looking down.
Tango is a dance of connection, not of steps. It is a bit of an over-simplification, but you could start by picturing all of the dance happening from the waist-upwards, and the feet just moving around to keep you from falling over. The lead in tango comes not from the feet but from the chest, with the leader moving his or her chest in the direction they want the follower to go, and the follower responding by moving their chest in the same direction whilst maintaining as close a connection to their leader as is physically possible.
This is easy to say, but it can be confusing. When you watch tango danced by experienced dancers, whether on the stage or just at a local social dance event, you will see a lot of footwork. Small detailed rock-steps, sweeps and pushes of all sizes, the famous tango hook or ‘gancho’, and many other classic elements all make an appearance somewhere in the dance, and beginners point and say “See… footwork! I told you there were steps…”
But all of those things happen as a consequence of the chest connection. The leader is not thinking about where his or her partner’s feet are going to be, but where their weight, balance, and chest must be to maintain the connection. Yes, there are rules and styling techniques involved for both leader and follower to make the dance look like a dance rather than just two people wandering around the floor, but the position of the feet and the centre of balance is all controlled by the upper body connection.
So how does this affect you in your class? Tango is usually taught using short sequences of movements that include elements with steps in them, and beginners (and some more experienced dancers) often make the mistake of thinking of them as steps that need to be learned. But these are just ways of teaching you about the chest connection, they are tools for you to learn how weight, connection, and balance all affect you and your partner’s position.
Learn the sequences and practise the routines, but remember that their real purpose is to show you how the chest connection makes the dance, and how the feet are just a consequence of where your bodies are and where your weight is at any moment.
When you’ve got the hang of that, then you can add the styling!
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