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The History of Argentine Tango and Milonga
Mastering Argentine Tango
Lessons Learned and Tango Philosophy Developed Along The Way

THE DANCE
The older Tango people tell us that the true forms of Argentine Tango Dance that we know today started in 1938 to 1940 with the Tango singer Carlos Gardel.

The Golden Age of Tango took place in in the late 1940's and the 1950's. Recording companies set up offices in Buenos Aires and produced recordings of Tango orchestras and singers.

You may think of Argentine Tango as a smooth, elegant and glamorous dance with ladies and men in formal wear - gowns and tuxedos.

In reality the Tango originated with the Argentinean society's low-life. It got its start in the brothels of of the late 1800's in Argentina. Tango then travelled a rocky to respectability

Tango is not purely Argentine it is a mix of African, Italian, Cuban, French and Spanish. Immigrants poured into Argentina from Africa, Europe and many other areas of the world. Many settled in the surrounding areas of Buenos Aires during the 1880's, It has become well known that the city's houses of ill repute, the portenos (as they were called) became the places where these immigrants could unload the troubles and sense of rootlessness with drinks as well as find a companion.

More than four million immigrants settled in Buenos Aires between 1840 and 1940, and the dance mirrors some of these immigrants dance styles. The Milonga reflects the European Waltz, some French and Italian country-dances, the Cuban Habanera, and the Polka.

Click here for more about Argentine Tango History and Music.

The testimony of a lost soul; "How I became hooked on this beautiful exciting Lady...
The Lady Tango".

I am currently devoting more than 12 hours per week to dancing and studying Tango. I go to sleep and wake up seeing Tango dance movements. I am now or have taken Beginning, Beginning Intermediate, Intermediate, Advanced Intermediate and Advanced group classes and practicas under Bruno, Alex Krebs, Bill Alsup, Peter, Megan Pingree, Steven Payne/Maija Wells, Alicia Pons, Robert Hauk/Maija Wells, Clay Nelson and Sue Cole and Felipe/Kat. My private lessons are with Carlos Rojas. I am immersing myself in every Tango Fest, ValenTango and workshop I can manage to attend.

WHY?

I am sure you are asking, "Why would anyone devote so much concentrated time, money and energy to the pursuit of Tango?"

If you already dance Tango this needs no explanation. You know how seductive the dance can be. It is a dance that makes you want to dance it well. It is a demanding dance but the demands are no greater than those you impose upon yourself. You want to be good at it. Then you see some of the Masters perform and it blows you away. You feel if you are going to continue to dance Tango, you MUST become good at it.

Compounding this, it is my nature to try to a thing well or don't do it all. Further I could not stand to be good at Latin dances and mediocre at Tango.

It is my goal to teach "all" the intricacies of Tango. from Beginning to Advanced. What took most people 4 to 10 years to learn I am announcing my goal is to accomplish this in less than a year and a half. I invite you to follow my journey and Love Affair here. On this Tango Web Page I will share with you the trials, tribulations, mistakes and successes of my learning Argentine Tango and the noteworthy encounters with dance partners and instructors I meet along the way. Perhaps someone will get some encouragement and learn from my experiences as I improve my Argentine Tango dancing skills.

I have discovered that once one gets to a certain level of dance skill there are dozens of benefits that are gained from dance as I have listed below. Some I have listed with tongue in cheek but don't giggle too soon. There is more truth and reality in these benefits than what you may at first believe.

I find that learning a new dance comes less painfully if you are already good at one or two other dances. It will give you an advantage with rhythm, musicality, body movement, balance, timing, similar patterns you can anchor new concepts to and with overall confidence.

Every dance, fortunately or unfortunately, has peculiar body positions, movements and lead and follow responsibilities that don't work in other dance genres. For example Ballroom structure, disciple and controls have little if any place in Night Club/Street Latin Dancing. ...and The gyrating body and Cuban motion of Latin Dancing has little if any place in the smooth, flowing graceful lines and movements of Argentine Tango. ...and the jumping jive of Swing doesn't fit with any of the above.

GETTING RID OF THE BAD HABITS FROM OTHER DANCES

So my first and biggest task to learn for Tango was to get rid of the bad habits of these other dances. After spending years at learning these skills I now had to quickly rid myself of them to dance Tango.

My Cuban motion of the hips was one of the first casualties. NO LATIN MOTION WITH THE HIPS??? There goes my pride and joy!

Then I had to loosen up my embrace. The arm is not held tightly around the follower and you don't (for the most part) lead with the arms. WOW!!!!! I have been complimented on my strong lead for years and now it's gone. NOT TO WORRY. I can still have a strong lead but it is done with the body and movements and indications, "Intent", etc." ...more about this later.

LEARNING NEW DANCE MOVEMENTS AND STRUCTURE FOR TANGO DANCING

While unlearning certain movements and structures one must also be learning a new body frame structure and myriad of new movements and patterns like ochos, cross feet, crosses, close embrace, sacadas, ganchos, centering, connection, ocho cortado, quebrada, etc.
Help!!!!!!!! No wonder I am waking up dreaming about Tango movements.

ABOUT TAKING ADVANCED TANGO CLASSES BEFORE YOU ARE READY

The first class that I felt like was over my head was one with Felip and Kat during the 6th Annual Valen Tango Event in Portland. It was not brain surgery however. Nevertheless a little brain surgery might have helped!!!!!.

I was unfamiliar and untrained on many of the movements that were required to accomplish the patterns yet I was happy to be able to try them. That initial exposure to these movements, patterns and timing created a visual, rational, subconscious and body dynamic memory in me. I am confident that when one of my instructors teaches me these dance patterns in the near future I will be more prepared and receptive than if I had never seen them or tried them before. Thank goodness we rotated partners regularly so the ladies were not stuck with me the whole time. The women were very special. They were patient and helped me.

THE TRUE LADIES OF TANGO AND OTHER DANCES

My thanks go out to all the patient ladies who helped me while they themselves were trying to learn. There is a class of women who have more class than the definition can express. I have met them everywhere from the time I began to learn to dance. They have patient with me as a beginner and in classes, practices and dances when their skill level exceeds mine. A BIG THANK YOU KISS! You are the true definition of a Lady. As my skill level increases I remember these women and they are my true dance friends. I pass on this kindness by helping and being patient with women who are also just learning or at a skill level below mine.

SNOOTY ATTITUDES

There are a few women who have snooty attitudes towards beginners. They don't remember the time when they too were at that stage. They were told it's okay to turn down requests for a dance by avoiding glances or making excuses about being in a conversation with their girl friend, etc. They hide behind this innocent Tango custom but many of them are showing their true selves - spoiled, cold or arrogant. That is the way they have always been even before they learned to dance. Remember them as your skill level matches or exceeds theirs. Let them wonder why you don't ask them to dance.

One word of caution men... If your dancing is really awful and you have almost no rhythm and timing don't hold it against women who don't want to dance with you until you improve. You need to know the difference. The "true ladies of Tango" will be happy to dance with you even as a beginner and they are very supportive and encouraging. They will even walk up to you ask "you" to dance. They will still want to dance with you even if you tell them you are just learning and they will help you around the floor with patience. Special thanks to Ellen. At my very first tango dance during October Fest at the Viscount Ballroom she saw me sitting the most of the night without dancing and asked me to dance. I asked her to give a chance to take a few lessons first. She told me not to worry about that ..."Let's just take a nice walk around the floor." Thanks Ellen. I will always remember that. Althought I did not dance that night she was one of the first "True Ladies of Tango" that I sought out to dance with when I got a few lessons under my belt.

THE GHOST OF A STREET PUNK
Man to Man
mano a mano

Recently I had a dream. I was suddenly confronted by a number of men who looked like they were straight off the waterfront of some old black and white movie. At the front was a small man with black hair and weathered brown skin. He looked like he was angry at the world. The left side of his face was deeply scared from what appeared to be a knife cut. There was a steel cold look in his gray eyes like that of jackal defending his turf. He wore oversized pants and a belt made of hemp rope. His shirt although clean was tattered, well worn and nearly colorless. Despite his lack of refinement he stood with a macho stance that shouted out "listen to me or I will personally kick your ass! He told me that he and his friends were the original Tangueros - that they created the dance. He said, "Alberto be true to our dance. If you dance it, dance it well! For more than a hundred years my friends and I have seen our dance become a wimpy sissy waltz. We danced with heart and courage. We danced as MEN! The thrust and the parry was real. It drew blood. It was our life - our blood. We danced with anger and fury! When we loved women we loved hard and with everything we had. It was all that we had".

"Yes... we were "street punks"! Women were few. Our dance was a ritual of men - our affirmation of life... and our frustration It was "street punk" trading blows with "street punk".-- not punks dancing with punks. To the victor go the women. Be true to our dance Alberto. Bring back the fury. Dance the Tango like a real man! We will be watching you!

I never got to say a word. I woke up in a cold sweat and knew what I had to do.

Early Dance Mistakes That May Be Common To Many Tango Beginners and Intermediates

Early Mistakes made in walking

I had the rhythm but I was contacting the floor on the balls of my feet (as one does in other dances) instead of bringing my heels down.

Later Mistakes discovered in walking - Ahhh Yes!!! The Tango Walk!!!

I was feeling like I was getting it ...and starting to dance Tango fairly well (for what I knew at this point). At least I thought I knew how to walk to Tango. Wasn't I way past that? I was already doing multiple patterns and interpreting rhythm.

NOT so fast! It is easy to overlook fine details. Maija came up to me in a class and stopped me as I was walking to practice some moves we were learning and said, "I've been thinking about how you walk to Tango." She suggested that I give more energy from the body to the forward thrust of the walk and leaving the trailing leg behind until the last moment when I have to bring it forward. I instantly recognized what she meant and wondered why no one had seen this before. Of course I had heard something like this in other group instruction and I had seen it. Somehow I had not incorporated it into my walking rhythm. All professions need specialist and Maija is a diagnostic surgeon of Tango. Thanks Maija! ...but now I feel like I have to learn to walk again. I can't wait until I perfect that "Tango Walk!"

Early Mistakes in the body frame


It took a while to get it. It's not easy to consistently keep a good strong connection with the body from the chest to the pelvis. It is an unfamiliar connection and I was certainly not used to leading from this connection point. Even when you think you've got it your body has to maintain it consistently throughout the dance. The exception is with dance patterns that require the connection to be broken.

Holding

I had danced with many women many times when one said that I should bring my hand up a little higher on her shoulder blade. Since she was the only one who had said something about the position of my right hand I started to ask every woman that I danced with if my hand position was okay before I decided to make an overall change. All the women that I asked said that my hand position was okay with them ...except for one other. When I asked Rose she answered, "Hold me like you mean it!" Thank you, Rose!!! You made my day.

I did find out from Maija in class on a later date that the best position for my right hand is just below the follower's right shoulder blade.

Early Mistakes in following

With great cultural resistance I have reluctantly learned some of the basics of following. The first mistake made is putting the weight on both feet at the same time. Only one foot at a time should bear the follower's weight at any one moment. The other foot should remain slightly off the floor or be swayed until the follower senses the weight shift of the lead to the other foot. The follower shifts weight to the foot that is directed by the lead.

It is also very necessary to keep pressure against the lead resisting (to a degree) his forward motion even thought you are walking backwards as the follower. This keeps the connection strong. The tendency to lean backwards when walking backwards must be overcome.

Early Mistakes in walking cross feet or on the right side of the follow

When walking outside the follower the tendency is to walk too far away/outside her. Most likely this is due to fear of stepping on her feet. Then when attempting to step directly into her tracks there is a tendency to contact her toes causing you to slightly trip. This I have found is mostly a problem of the rhythmic timing of the step and not initiating the movement with the upper body first.

I have also found out and been told by some instructors that although the lead can walk in parallel feet on the outside (right side) of the follow it is not advisable for more than two steps and then step back inside (unless you are going to lead a cross). Some follows who are used to crossing automatically without a strong lead as soon as you walk outside. It becomes confusing. So don't do it.

Early Mistakes made in leading the cross

I found that half the women followed my lead into a cross with no problem and another half of them always crossed early before I intended for them to cross. At first I thought these where the women who crossed automatically as soon as the lead stepped outside of them but that was not the case. One of my dance partners helped me walk through it until I discover that the initial step with my left foot was actually going to the side instead of straight forward thus giving the follower a strong lead to my left and when my next step with my right foot to the outside of her right caused more movement in that same direction and led followers into a cross (and occasionally into an ocho). Why wasn't this problem discovered in classes by the instructor and the women who were dancing with me in the class? The answer probably is that women in a class with you are already "anticipating" what you are practicing and unwittingly assist you at it. That's not a good thing but they are learning too. From the view point of the instructors the error in the movement is so slight they can not see it if it results in a cross as intended. These error only come to light when you dance with someone who is not in your class and is following your "real" movement and lead.

A light bulb went on. Every movement of the lead will produce a corresponding movement from the follow. Duhhhh!!! So the directions I give by my movement, however slight, must be correct and definitive.

The realization of this point alone I believe is the essence of the "TangoConnection". It is so easy to take this for granted. Even when you are told this it does not mean anything until you make a breakthrough like I did.

Early Mistakes made in leading the ocho

I found that I led some women into the ocho very fluidly with very little effort. Other women didn't seem to respond and did not go into an ocho on one or more attempts. I found myself trying to twist and turn my body and sometimes sneaking in a lead with my arm to get these women to start their ocho. In short I was very uncertain about what I was doing wrong.

I give credit to Maija who finally showed me that lead into the ocho was much simpler that I had imagined. She made it clear that the quick step that I take to get into cross feet was all that I needed to initiate the ocho. Duuuhhhhhh!!!!! Was it really that easy????? YES!!!!

The final mistake that I was making in leading the ocho was that after the quick quick slow step to initiate the ocho I was not continuing a fluid forward movement of my body. I had a little delay in my forward motion which should not have been. It was smooth sailing after that.

My mind was now free from this anxiety to focus on dance elements like circling while the follow does the ocho, maintaining stability with both feet with stepping diagonally forward, varying the degree of the follows leg swing while she ochos by varying my speed forward, slowing down at the axis point of the leg swing of the ocho for a different effect, crossing over to the follows outside foot and leading a cross to exit the ocho or exiting the ocho with another quick quick slow step to get back into parallel feet.

Uhhh Ohhh!!! Just When I Thought My Ocho Lead Was Perfected..."Heavy Follows"

Just when I was feeling good about my ocho lead the very next week I danced with a couple women who continued to walk straight backwards even after a couple of my attempts to lead the ocho. Initially this blew my newfound confidence. I wondered why my lead worked perfectly with most women and not at all with a couple others. These women were not beginners. I knew that they were at least adequate dancers. I tried a little more upper body lead to initiate the ocho and it worked perfectly. Conclusion: There are some follows who do not have the energy level of many other women. Their frame in not as quick and light to twist and change direction as many other women. They need a much stronger lead and a more definitive lead to get started with the ocho. This lead can still be smooth and subtle.

Ohhh No This can't be!!! A New and Different Ocho Lead Problem - "An Ultra-Sensitive Feather Touch Follower"

At this point in my dance I was having no problem leading a backwards ocho. I was dancing in class with a follower who was quite good and really expressed that she enjoyed my dancing because she smiled and her eyes lit up with joy when we danced or practiced a pattern being taught in the class. Then all of a sudden when we did an ocho she stopped abruptly and couldn't follow me. I tried again and again and it didn't work. She said it was too much. In her limited Russian accented English she was telling me that I was putting too much torque into my lead to get her ocho started. I tried a softer movement still to no avail. Then Robert came over to help us. Even though consciously I accept that a problem is usually (okay always...) the leads fault, the thought that something was wrong with her was lurking just below the surface.

Of course Robert was able to lead the ocho with no problem with her. That disposed of any lurking suspicion about who was the problem. ME!!!. Robert said that I was causing her to do too much work by stepping more to the side that forward in a diagonal. That's all it was. Thanks Robert! She's smiling again.

Problems with exiting the ocho

One method I learned for exiting the ocho was to step over to the follows outside foot and and lead a cross then continue by stepping forward with my left foot. This is an interesting and fun variation for exiting. The problem was that when I finished her cross and stepped out I was still in cross feet and had to quickly adjust or else we would trip. Thanks again to Maija who is extremely good at diagnosis of subtle problems I learned that I should step right through the follows cross without a delayed step. It worked! We now come out in parallel feet.

Problem #2: Oooops! She's in another ocho How did that happen?

Over rotation. Stopping the momentum.
Frequently I found that when I stepped the follower out of her ocho on the next step she was right back into the ocho.

The answer is that didn't stop the follower's momentum. She rotated out of the twisting momentum of ochos and into a cross. Without a lead to stop her momentum and center her on her axis the next step can send her back into ochos. It's a 50 - 50 possibility so it is better not to leave it up to possible confusion. It's not kind.

Arrrgghhhhh!!!!!!

Sometimes learning a pattern is mind boggling, embarrassing, frustrating, painful, stressful, seemingly impossible, sweat provoking, profane, ugly, scary, no fun, masochistic, demoralizing, demeaning, depressing, and downright evil!!!!!!

Thank you Babette!!! Thanks for your patience and the practice after class.

Learning to lead complex patterns like front ochos and back ochos that move into the planeos, then into the secadas, then sandwiching the foot of the follower, then a ghost pivot leading into parada (a lead's stop of the followers momentum and leading a step over of the leads foot) with a pivot, step back and then walk out. Help!!! I can't even describe it correctly how could I do it?

I know it's simple once you get it ...but the brain pain at learning the lead...! At first (and at second!) remembering and piecing together the individual pieces of the pattern series is mind boggling, embarrassing, frustrating, painful, stressful, seemingly impossible, sweat provoking, profane, ugly, scary, no fun, masochistic, demoralizing, demeaning, depressing, and downright evil!!!!!!

Thanks to Babette a dance class-mate and Alex, the instructor, who spent a few minutes after class with us I almost have it. ...but it still ain't pretty!!!!

The "hardest" "easy" lead I ever made.

Thank you again Babette!!!
Open up the shoulder on the left or the right to lead the follower to step in that direction. That's easy. Right? NOT!!! Not at the early stages of learning Tango. After years of leading with the hands and the arms it is a major re-education for the body to learn to do it by opening up a shoulder in the direction you want the follow to step. Something gets in the way initially of doing it naturally. I think part of the brain is focused on what not to do like not using your arms. Part of the brain is trying to access the memory of what piece of the pattern is next. Another part is trying to make sense of the visuals such as which way the follow is facing now ...where her feet are ... and which way do you want her to go or turn. ...not to mention the music and timing. By the time you process all that and your insecurities of the moment there is NOT much brain power left to remember a simple thing like which way to open up the shoulder.

So thanks again Babette for your patience and for helping me at that shoulder junction.

When is drilling good and when to stop doing it by the numbers

No matter how many dances and dance patterns I know when I am shown something entirely new I feel like a total beginner again. I need the instructor to show me the pattern or steps many times until I can remember each step and movement. Then I need to try it over and over with help and correction from the instructor until I get it right. Every person has a different threshold where they break through to the place that they have learned a pattern, a movement or new steps.

In a group class where time is limited and there are many things to cover with many students it is difficult if not unlikely that everyone will arrive at that point of mastery of a pattern, a movement or new steps. I have found that the best instructor will conduct a drill and practice the movement in parts and pieces over and over and over until it comes together for the class.

Once the mind has transferred the newly learned pattern to the body it is time to stop doing it by the numbers. Turn off the head and let the rhythm be dictated by the music.

Early mistake made while stepping backwards

While stepping backwards either as a lead or a follow it is important to maintain a good connection. This is not done by cheating with the arm. It is done with forward intention even though you are moving backwards. The lead must give a quick and subtle indication or invitation that he is about to move backwards and proceed when the follower gets it and is ready to go with you. This happens very quickly and almost imperceptibly but it maintains a good connection and makes smoother transitions. Thanks Stephen and Maija! This has been an important element of my dancing ever since.

Diagnosing the pieces of the pattern

It sounds simple but it's not.
Some instructors are better than others at diagnosing small problems with the pieces of a dance pattern and at instructing you how to fix it. The reason that not all instructors can see the problems is that they are very subtle and require subtle fixes. Often the student thinks he or she is doing the movement correctly but is not. One such problem that I had was slightly losing my forward intention and insufficient rotation of the shoulders to my left while stepping back -crossing my left foot behind the my right - to lead my follower into a twisting turn to my left and around my axis.

A helpful fix - "Make a fist"

While in Maija and Robert's class, Maija pointed out that I still had a tendency to push her hand out or pull it in with my left hand while leading some movements or turns. This not only moved the followers axis and made the movement awkward but it also altered our frame.

She reached up and curled my left hand inward so that the knuckles faced inward and my palm faced outward with her hand in mine. To me it looks like a loosely held fist turned inward with the fingers loose and relaxed. It also has the image of a violin or cello player's left hand curled around the neck of the instrument. It occurred to me that I had seen this hand hold many times before on other lead dancers. It is amazing how much it helps (When I remember to do it).

Creepy Arms - No! Don't be negative. It's not what you think
It's Coming Down To Earth - Literally and Figuratively

I was just dancing along and practicing whatever pattern we were doing in class at the moment. I was feeling pretty good that I was dancing fairly well when Alex comes over and brings my arms and hand down to earth. "They shouldn't be higher that the follower's shoulder," he said. A few minutes later my arms had "creped" back up again. Some followers actually are guilty of pushing their arms up too and I find myself having to bring us both back down to earth. Thanks Alex. I never noticed it before.

Painting the dance floor with your "Sweat, Blood and Tears".

The way you dance to Tango defines your style of dance. Your dance is you. It is an amalgamation of all your experiences in life, love, frustration and successes. I see the dance floor as my canvass and the music as a beautiful scene, a picture, an image or a concept in my mind. It is a story that wants to be told of many lives, happiness and sorrow. The music demands that I express it and paint it on the floor with the brush strokes of my dance. The intensity and life fullness of Tango demands more than a few pastel brush strokes on the canvass. Should we not labor to perfect our individual expression of each musical phrase? To do true justice to the art should we not paint the floor with a little of our own "sweat, blood and tears"? It will be a while longer before I have the skills to dance like I want to but each step will bring me closer.

How am I doing

I hesitate to say this because some dancers will expect too much from me when they see me dance or dance with me. Others will look for opportunities to criticize my dancing to knock me down to size. Nevertheless I will share some feelings that I am having. I have started to get sincere compliments from many women that I dance with. Many are saying things like, "That was great!, ...or "You are getting good! ...or making nice satisfied sounds at the conclusion of our dance. Many just show it when their faces light up or they smile with satisfaction after the dance. One woman who I have never danced with just said to me as I was leaving a class and she was arriving to take a class, "I have seen you dance ...and I want to get good enough to dance with you." First of all I am embarrased. It has not been that long since I started to learn Tango. As I am writing this I have only been studying Tango for 2 1/2 to 3 months. I know that I am not that good yet. Yes I had a head start because I teach other dances but I know that I have a ton to learn and many fine point to refine. What these women are sensing is my interpretation of the music, my rhythm and timing. my sensitivity to their balance and weighted foot. Even at a limited skill level, musical interpretation, rhythm, timing and sensitivity to your partner's foot placement, weighting and balance will make a dance wonderful!

Are you ready for some advanced lessons learned? Click here for page 2 of "Lessons Learned"

Click below for my tango poems:
The 4th Man Tango - The Last Tanguero-
The Mystery Melody of Tango
La Femme Fatale - Tango At The Café de Sal
Dance of Love


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