This sensual dance emerged around 1880 in Argentina and Uruguay among the European immigrant population. Argentine Tango became popular in Europe and USA between 1910 and the beginning of the first world war. Hollywood actor Rudolph Valentino with his breakout role as Julio in the movie 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse' contributed to Tango-mania.
Ballroom Tango that we know today is quite different from Argentine Tango as many figures in ballroom Tango were taken from stage and exhibition fields. And yet, both Tango styles still share some common characteristics - intimate hold, Tango walk and contrast between staccato (cut, sudden movements with free energy and sense of passion/urge) and legato/tenuto (sustained in time movements with energy held in the body and sense of intimacy).
Let's stroll through the most typical features of ballroom Tango style in more detail to ensure that they will stay sufficiently present in current and future competitive dancing.
Tango hold suggests the absorption of the couple in an intimate manner and is different from other four ballroom dances.The woman is positioned slightly more on the man's right side, therefore the man's right arm is farther round the woman’s back – like an embrace. The man's left arm is held lower, the wrist is slightly in towards him while the woman's left arm embraces the man's right arm.
The expression 'connection' would probably be more suitable than ‘hold’, to prevent a pose and pre-set frame. If you stay sensitive to each other, you'll dance, breathe into a connection to be established. That way you absorb the partner and typically for Tango 'sit up'. That means that you don't bend your knees, but compress them, resisting the ground.
Bill and Bobbie Irvine MBI
Tango is a stationary rather than a progressive dance and staccato rhythms and movements hold the dance in place rather than travel through space like other ballroom dances. This dance is based on a walking action which is not striving to travel far. I remember Anthony Hurley's words: "I bring the wall to me and then I walk". This idea might help you to time the walk correctly and to absorb rather than push your partner forward.
The Tango Walk suggests in itself the very essence of this dance, with the calm top, slower transference of the weight, the curve and deliberate foot placement, keeping the sense of exciting tension in the lower body, a kind of alert mood. The Walk is like a motif in music which gives the basis to the team and phrase.
Walks in Tango curve, therefore the left foot walks forward and the right foot walks backward are taken in CBMP, meaning moving across the body. The right foot walks forward are taken with the right shoulder lead.
Len Scrivener and Nellie Duggan
The knees are kept slightly flexed throughout the dance. Walking steps in Tango are slightly picked up from the floor before being placed into the position with a crisp action (as opposed to other dances where weight transfers seem like gliding). That kind of foot articulation matches the staccato in the music.
Closing of the feet in Tango is unique. The feet are usually closed after a step to the side. In Tango feet are never closed tightly together, the man's right toe should be level with the left foot instep and about 2,5 centimetres (one inch) away from it and the knees must be touching. The woman’s left foot heel will close near the right foot instep. There is no rise and fall in this dance as there is no swing. With correct footwork you will achieve the characteristic movements, timings and atmosphere.
Music and timing
Tango music suggests a provocative atmosphere, intensity and drama. A Tango orchestra typically consists of bandoneons, violins, piano and double bass, in addition to guitar and drums, influenced by the Afro-Cuban Habanera rhythm. Bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument, which was brought by Germans to Argentina around 1870, is the key instrument in producing the authentic, emotional and nostalgic sound.
Harmony is the most sophisticated and mystical element of music which speculatively affects your emotions. It is the vertical aspect of notated music (chord), the relationship of simultaneously sounding pitches. Certain chords sound pleasant to your ear as the combination of notes seems in agreement and compatibility. This is the so-called consonance. On the other end, dissonance makes you feel uncomfortable (similar to a baby crying) as it creates tension that requires resolution.
The interplay between consonance and dissonance creates a unique mood that affects the way you dance. Some movements would feel urgent and passionate and others more intimate, smoother and kind of nostalgic. Mind that you dance the music, not the steps, therefore the choice of music is essential. Tango music today often lacks the sound colour of bandoneon and violin, which create the real Tango flavor with their tunes and harmonies.
Here is a great example of Tango musicality and accurate timing, presented by Andrew Sinkinson and Lorraine Berry.
Your choreography needs contrast and surprise. Contrast will be achieved by a combination of sudden and sustained movements, that's why Tango Walk is such an important ingredient. Surprise figures/lines happen as reflexes and reactions/responses between partners. A well-chosen choreography and its intentional interpretation will assist the creation of a unique Tango atmosphere.
Authentic Argentine Tango figures can be beautifully incorporated into ballroom Tango as decorative elements to add flavour. Fusions of authentic Argentine Tango with our ballroom Tango are an eternal attempt and inspiration to search for new pathways and expressions.
Here is a beautiful example of a Tango show, danced by Massimo Giorgianni and Alessia Manfredini.
How to preserve the character of Tango?
There are some questions to be answered in this dance. Is Tango a walking dance or progressing-in-space dance? What is characteristic Tango shaping? Reflect through what is written above and make your decisions, maybe some upgrades are needed in order to preserve the character of this dance.
Tango has no rise and fall and no swing. If you go against those suggestions, you then have to ask yourself for what purpose. Would it still fit into the character of the dance? There is a danger to overlook the foundation of this dance and deal only with the effects – from picture to picture, from line to line.
Another interesting detail to be acknowledged is the direction of your visual focus. Where do you look? Mind that when you are moving, you are never facing the direction as you move in CBM (except when you close your feet). The woman's head turns could be moderate rather than overelaborate, minding that head actions do not affect a partner's balance negatively. You could be more aware that head movements depend on the following and preceding figures. Stillness or a momentary pause, like silence in music, support the idea of being alert, present here and now.
The subtle quality of Tango is almost impossible to put into words, yet the right words will always drag your attention towards new awareness – let’s look at the word intimacy. A few years ago my colleague Ruud Vermeij explained the word intimacy as ‘into me I see’. You are the watcher and the witness of the inner energy field of your body and spirit. To feel the body from within in Tango is essential. Your body is not just a shell; you need to inhabit it with an alert inward presence that makes you feel the life inside.
Direct your attention into the body more intentionally, away from thinking, choose sensing and presence. Presence is needed to recognise beauty. When you see into yourself, you can share your peaceful and relaxed atmosphere with your partner.
Sourse of inspiration
Len Scrivener, edited by Bryan Allen - "Just one idea"
Alex Moore - "Ballroom dancing"
Philip J.S. Richardson - “A history of English Ballroom Dancing”