Argentine Tango Dancing

Lesson One


Every dance has its own unique music, and you can't master it without developing a feel for this music. Elsewhere in these Web pages is information on what and how to get Argentine tango music that's beautiful and good for dancing.

But you can get started learning tango now by using music you already have or can easily get.  Pick something that has a slow steady beat. Listen to the music and count the beats: ONE two THREE four ONE two THREE four. The ONE and THREE counts mark the major beats of the music and should come about a second apart.

Music you could use includes American tango, slow foxtrot, rumba, or even some slow rock or symphonic music, as long as their characteristic rhythm is subtle enough to ignore in favor of the Argentine tango rhythm.


Walking is basic to most tango step patterns. This makes it easy to get started dancing right away, though there is surprising complexity behind this apparently simple activity. You will learn more about that in each lesson.

For now, start the music and listen for each major beat. Then walk around the room, trying to step exactly on those major beats. Don't worry about anything else; just practice this SLOW SLOW rhythm for a few minutes. This rhythm is central to tango, though as you become more expert you'll learn how to spice up your dancing by varying this basic rhythm.

Now walk some more. This time, walk counter-clockwise around the outside edge of the floor. This is called the Line of Dance; it helps dancers avoid running into each other. (If other people make it impossible or dangerous to follow the LOD, you may briefly travel against it or even cross the empty center of the floor, then continue the LOD.) Place obstacles in your path to simulate people (or imagine them), then curve your walking to the left or right to go around them.


Argentine tango uses some of the same step patterns as other walking dances, including freestyle foxtrot, paso doble, quick step -- and the Texas Two Step! But you can instantly tell these dances apart because of the way the dancers move and relate to their partners.

Practice walking around the room without music, stepping forward onto the balls of your feet, not onto your heels as you do in ordinary walking and in many dances. This should help you to feel like a great jungle cat. Keep this cat image in mind when you're working on aspects of tango style, and soon when you bring up this image your body will automatically move properly.

Now practice walking BACKWARD along the Line of Dance. Turn your head to the side to help you see where you're going. Women should look to the right, men to the left. Straighten your leg a little more than you ordinarily would and reach back a little further than might feel natural at first. This will help prevent bumping knees with your partner when you dance. It also adds to the cat-like look and feel of your walk.

Whether walking backward or forward, keep your weight over the balls of your feet. You can practice walking on tip-toes to more quickly strengthen the stabilizer muscles in your toes, feet, and ankles. It will also help you build the habit of dancing with your weight forward. But when you actually dance don't do it on tip-toes. This is too tiring. It may also get you out of the habit of using your heels, something needed in more advanced tango dancing.


No other dance connects two people more closely than the Argentine tango, emotionally as well as physically. Part of this is the dance position. You face in the same direction (the woman's right, the man's left) and so dance almost cheek to cheek. You also keep your arms around each other for the entire dance.

Take your partner (real or imaginary) in a standard dance position. Keeping your upper body straight, shift your weight onto the balls of your feet. This will push you and your partner very lightly together, helping weld you into a couple.

If you're a man, pull your partner toward you with your right hand behind her back. If you're a woman, place your left hand on your partner's upper arm just above his biceps and push against him. Both pull and push should be as gentle as you can make them and still remain firm.

Extend your other arm (the woman's right, the man's left) to the side in the usual ballroom manner. Do NOT let your arm sink like a lead weight, or flop around like wet spaghetti. Instead press very lightly against your partner's hand. During practice you may want to keep your "balance" hand flat against your partner's palm rather than clasp it. This way any lapse in pressure will cause your hands to slide apart, giving you instant feedback so you can quickly fix the problem.

It's a good idea to practice dancing with an imaginary partner with your arms and hands properly placed. This will strengthen your muscles and habits so that you can keep a good frame without thinking about it.

Now try walking in the Line of Dance with your (real or imaginary) partner, the man facing forward along the LOD, the woman backward. Do this first without music, trying just to keep a good connection with your partner. Keep your head up and turned slightly to the side, staying aware of your surroundings as well as your partner. Then turn in the opposite direction and walk some more along the LOD, the man walking backward and the woman forward.

Lastly, put on some music and walk around the room in time to the music. Try to do everything right that you've learned so far, but don't try too hard. Instead, concentrate on having fun. Because you're dancing, and learning to have a good time is also part of learning to dance!

Pattern Building Blocks

If you take lessons from several tango teachers and go to all the tango dances in a large city, you will see literally hundreds of step patterns. This can be very discouraging until you realize that these complex patterns are made of a few simple ones by varying and combining them in a few simple ways.

The simplest, most basic tango pattern is la Caminata (the Walk), which you've already been doing. But now you will see how it is part of a system of dance patterns. Knowing this system will help you learn new patterns quickly. It will also help you make up your own patterns.

The building block of the Walk is the Two-Step Walk. There are several versions of it; the most commonly used is el Paseo (the Stroll). To do it, start from the neutral position (feet close together). If you're a woman step backward with your right foot then backward with your left. If you're a man step forward with your left foot then forward with your right.

Don't leave your legs apart after the second step. Instead bring your free foot (the woman's right, the man's left) up beside your supporting foot. Don't put any weight on the free foot. This brings you back to the neutral position, poised to do another Two-Step Walk or some other pattern.

el Paseo (the Stroll)

Patterns can be varied in several ways. One is by varying the length of each step.

For instance, if you do both steps of the Two-Step Walk in place, so that you go nowhere, you've done la Cadencia (the Cadence-Counting step). This is an important pattern, though it might not seem like it now. Don't forget it; we'll spend more time on it in later lessons.  

If you do the second step of the Two-Step Walk in place beside your other foot, you've done la Caza (the Chase). In ballroom dancing this is called the Chassé (French for "chase") because one foot chases the other. 

If you reverse the direction of the second step, so that you return to your starting position, you've done la Cunita (the Cradle, or Rock step). Don't stand with your legs apart as you do the rock; bring your feet close together at the end of each step.

la Caza (the Chase)
la Cunita (the Rock Step)

Practice each of the four types of Two-Step Walks for a minute or two, pausing between each to make sure you've done each one right. By focussing on just one at a time, you'll also be able to master it faster.


In the Argentine tango you do not do standard step patterns in standard sequences to a set rhythm. Instead you create new step patterns and combine them in ways new to you. Creativity and improvisation are valued more than correctness by the best tango dancers. (When beginning to study tango only the leaders improvise, but as you become more advanced followers also become able to do it.)

Since all variations of the Two-Step Walk begin and end with your weight on the same foot, you can combine them in any number and order. Try putting several versions of the Two-Step Walk together. Perhaps two Strolls, a Chase, a Stroll curving 90 degrees to the left (as if to follow the curve of the floor), and another Stroll.

End by doing three or four or five Rock Steps, pivoting on each step to the left so that you make a 360 degree counter-clockwise turn. This pattern is called las Cunitas (the Cradle-Rocking Step). It's useful if your path is blocked by other dancers. (You can also turn clockwise by pivoting to the right on each step rather than to the left.)

Notice the feeling the different patterns give. The Stroll lets you travel and feels smooth. The Chase feels more abrupt. It can be used to mark the end of phrases of music, like a comma or period in writing. The Cradle-Rocking pattern can express tenderness because it feels gentle, like rocking a baby.

El Circulo (the Circle) is another simple pattern that you can make from the Two-Step Walk. Just do two (or three, or four) Strolls, pivoting always to the left after each step so that you circle back to the beginning of the pattern. (You can also pivot to the right to make a clockwise Circle.) Like Rocking patterns Circles can let you keep dancing when you're blocked in every direction, but Circles have a different physical and emotional feel.


So far you have been studying to better understand tango and practicing to improve your technique. But tango is not just an intellectual or athletic activity. It also has esthetic and emotional and social sides. To learn these you must dance, even if you only do it in private. Even if you only do it with a pretend partner!

So start a piece of music that you and your partner like, or request or wait for one if you're at a dance. Embrace your partner, but don't begin to move or expect to move right away. Open up a space inside yourself and let the music fill it, to become part of you. Let your body very subtly "bounce" to the pulse of the music. Enjoy the melody and whatever singing there might be.

Also, focus on your partner and your connection with them. Try, but not hard, to make your frame good. "Listen" to their "body language" and imagine what they might be experiencing. Enjoy the feel of your arms around them and theirs around you.

If you're leading the dance, when it feels right -- not before -- begin walking. If you're following, don't be anxious to start. Resist (just the tiniest bit) the leader's efforts. This will actually help your partners lead you and make it easier for you to follow them.

Keep your head up and stay alert to obstacles and others around you but not hyper-alert. You have a lifetime of skills that will protect you and others. When you occasionally bump another couple or your partner say "Sorry!" but don't make a big deal of it -- as long as you didn't kill or maim anyone, anyway!

When you or others make a mistake -- and everyone does no matter how good they become -- DON'T try to figure it out or work to correct it. You're supposed to be dancing, not analyzing or practicing technique. Just recover from the mistake as gracefully and quietly as you can and continue dancing. As you get better at handling mistakes you'll fear them less. You will also sometimes discover a step new to you when you recover from a mistake.

As you dance think of yourself as a great jungle cat and your body will automatically begin to move with the proper tango style. Imagine yourself as powerful, graceful, and beautiful as the cat. Often you will begin to feel and move and even look the way you imagine.

The Soul of the Tango

Every dance has its unique flavor. As time goes by and you continue to study and practice and dance it, tango will become easier and more automatic. You will be better able to experience el alma del tango -- the soul of the tango.

This is a blend of several essences -- the flow of creativity that comes from the unusual freedom in tango to improvise, the agility and precision nurtured by tango style, the almost operatic intensity of the best tango music and musicians, and the emotional closeness to your partners.

This feeling, more than mastery of dance mechanics, is what makes an Argentine tango dancer. And when you begin to feel it you will be one too.

Introduction<== ==> Lesson Two
copyright ©1997 by Larry E. Carroll
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