Wednesday, August 11, 2010


There has been some interesting posts and discussions lately on Arlene's and Tangocommuter's blogs on choreography and learning Tango - that, and Man Yung's perpetual interest in appropriating "steps" from Youtube videos - has led me to think about the topic of "Skill" in Tango.

Man Yung can get pretty excited about things that some Tango Professionals can do in a “Tango Performance.” Dazzled at the videos especially of the young “up-and-coming” athletic ones, Man Yung often laments our lack of ‘Skill’.

“Look at these guys – they are amazing! We should learn from this. We need to work on our skills!” he says.

Faster than a fire-fighting helicopter unloading water over a forest fire, I rain scorn on Man Yung’s parade.

“What exactly should we be learning from this?” I ask. “How to jump higher? Spin faster? Walk straighter? Or is this just another manifestation your mid-life crisis?”

Instead of drawing our pistols and trying to shoot each other High-Noon style, Man Yung and I started to brainstorm about the topic of Skills and Tango – and their Subsets.

Skills – Subset 1.0

I think most people get fixated on this one: “Skill” as the ability to execute movements – with or without a partner.

Part of it comes from nature – being naturally strong and limber, having bodies that move attractively and gracefully (and that looks good in dancewear, being it leotards or suits), having a good memory for choreography and sequences, being able to hear the beat and/or music and to move to it in a meaningful way.

The other part comes from nurture – practicing really hard in order to master “moves”, or listening to music repetitively to remember and recognize “cues” for movement, in order to “dance to the beat” or “dance to the music using preset choreography”, etc.

Skill points in this section will enable one to literally “Jump higher”, “Spin faster”, “Walk straighter”, and “Explode during the intense fugue-like sections of Pugliese”. Or even “perform tango-like dancing while dribbling a football”.

"What is THAT???!!!??"

"I don't know, but it sure took a lot of SKILL to make!"

Strangely enough, having these “Skills” alone will not a great Tango dancer make – although many will be very impressed.

Skills – Subset 2.0

The wonderful older dancers whom I’ve danced with – I’ll term them as the “Milongueros” for the sake of convenience – always led what they wanted the follower to do.

Seems a simple enough concept. However, I have also danced with other, non-Milonguero Tango Dancers of High Repute (professional or non-professional) anticipating a wonderful tanda…. only to fall into a Tango Abyss.

Let me explain. Everything would be going along smoothly… and then comes... a moment of “nothing”. My partner waits, expecting me to do something… for which he has utterly and absolutely no lead.

His leading is full of holes! Bottomless ones! How embarrassing and awkward. The Leader may continue to wait, or start to shove – or even open his mouth and start to explain the choreography that I was supposed to do is response to his unled cue!

Sigh. It’s too bad, because the said “Tango Dancers of High Repute”, having oodles of Skill Subset 1.0, always looked so great – whether on stage, or on the dance floor dancing with his partner or other ladies. These Leaders are like a genetically engineered apples – looking so dewy, so shiny, so juicy, so yummy, you just couldn’t help but want to take a bite… only end up with a mouthful of “apple particleboard.”

While these Leaders reveal their lack, Followers in the same category usually exhibit a surfeit. Instead of following, they are doing too much. Twisting, tapping, leg lifting, “jumping ochos” (don’t ask, but someone was teaching them in their Women’s Technique workshops), dreaded double and triple-step “traspies”…

“Look, she’s doing a tap-dancing solo around her partner!” one might be moved to exclaim.

This only proves that Skill Subset 1.0 may make you a mightly fine soloist – but that alone cannot guarantee that you’d be an enjoyable tango partner to dance with. Unless you also have a good dose of Skill Subset 2.0.

So what is Skill Subset 2.0?

I believe it is the skill to be able to lead what you want to lead (for a Leader), and to follow what is being led (for a Follower). I’ve read somewhere mention “micro leading” somewhere – but that term is not even sufficient to describe what is happening. Dancing with some of the Milongueros, I got the impression that they led with more than arm movements, body positioning and muscle spasms. There was never any guesswork on my part as to what they wanted to lead because their entire being “communicated” and “sang”.

As for the Milongueras, they have this superhuman sensitivity to “hearing” whatever Man Yung was trying to lead – in fact, their whole bodies seemed to be listening intently for the lead. They would not move if there was no leading – but what was led, they immediately understood and followed.

During our class with them, Osvaldo and Coca Cartery emphasized that we should dance with gentleness and tenderness – love, if we could manage it. Partners in the dance shouldn’t impose on each other by force or stratagem. Our gentleness facilitated our communication in the leading and following. Any video of Osvaldo and Coca would show the sweet, passionate duet that is taking place between them.

Skill subset 2.0 involves the ability to communicate with our partners – and the ability to keep the channels of communication free from clutter. Now, that’s some awesome Skill – even though it’s something that you could only feel and not actually see.

Skill – Subset 3.0

We don’t live in a perfect world – and no matter what our level of Skill (Subsets 1.0 or 2.0) misunderstanding and obstacles arise. Skill Subset 3.0 steps in to save the day – and it’s none other but the ability to improvise within the context of Tango.

What if the follower mis-steps or misunderstands? Leaders without the necessary skill to save the situation will either have to stop and start again – or continue in the rut of his choreography and somehow manhandle and shoe-horn the follower into the step sequence. Conversely, Leaders with Skill Subset 3.0 will smoothly accommodate and assimilate the Follower’s misstep and do something else. Sometimes this is done so seamlessly the Follower would not even know that there was ever any problem.

Likewise, the Skilled Follower will “cover” for the Leader’s missteps - because Leaders can get distracted or confused and end up with a gap in their lead. This has to be done discretely and judiciously though – covering up can go too far for a smart Follower and end up as a"tap dancing solo".

Skill Subset 3.0 also provides the Leader with the ability to deal with obstacles on the dance floor. If a space opens up or closes, or if bodies suddenly cut into the line of dance in front, a Leader with Skill Subset 3.0 will not have to stop moving, return to the corner and start his dance routine again – something we have seen in Chinese Ballroom dance halls! A skilled Leader will keep on going and keep on expressing the music, unperturbed.

In fact, a non-skilled Leader may even use his body and his partner’s bodies as weapons, charging and slashing and bumping through the crowd to make space for his step sequences, thus imposing his “will” and flagrantly obnoxious choreography onto the other dancers on the dance floor.

Imagine if a gaggle of such geeses (or crash of such hippopotami) appear at the same time at the same milonga! Such is the damage that could be done to a milonga and a dance community when Leaders lack Skill Subset 3.0!*

* Back in the “Good Old Days” the geese and the hippos would get tossed out of the Buenos Aires milongas when they were being disruptive on the dance floor. These days they could stay and continue to be recipients of the "evil eye" by everyone around them - just by the virtue of having paid to get in.


There must be other “Skills” out there, but we perversely focused on the above three Subsets to keep this post under 1500 words!

An ideal Tango Dancer will have all the Skills above, but unfortunately, many go out and perform and teach only by the strength of what they have in Subset 1.0.

As I have said, “Many will be very impressed”. We’ve seen local dancers of Buenos Aires milongas looking very amused at foreign tango dancers doing their best in exhibiting their talents at Skill Subset 1.0. All that flapping about can be very entertaining! And lucrative, in tango communities where the gold standard for Tango can be found in episodes of “Dancing with the Stars”.

For those who may not have a whole lot of Skill Subset 1.0 – don’t be disheartened. Rest assured that you don’t have to dance flashy, you don’t even have to dance complicated to be a good dancer if you have sufficient amounts of Skill Subsets 2.0 and 3.0.

You may not be "Entertaining" in all the wrong ways - but what you will get when the Buenos Aires locals see you at their milongas is RESPECT.


Tango Therapist said...

Wonderful post. I once noticed a tanguera at a festival sitting on the edge of the dance floor (actually just her shoes) as I danced by. When I finally cabeceo'd the woman with the nice shoes, she said after one song: "I wished I had danced with you earlier. I had no idea." My comment was that she had seen me dance by her all night. "Yes, but you can never really know how it feels just because it 'looks good.'" Although an esteemed teacher has a choreography class in town, I have eschewed going to it. Tango for me is dancing just for one, not a crowd. The music choreographs simple moves the same way that music makes simple lyrics fly with special wings. The ideal is Skill-Set 2.0! Using the music analogy: How can a woman sing harmony or a melody if the man is not singing the base notes or something with which she can harmonize?

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Tango Therapist,

Thanks for your anecdote about the reluctant tanguera! And may your tango be more and more enjoyable and more and more harmonious, for you and your partners!

Thanks for your comment,

Irene and Man Yung

AlexTangoFuego said...

That tango should be danced with gentleness, tenderness, a beautiful concept.

This is a beautiful post (and funny - the rain scorn on Man Yung's parade line) - a "must read" in my view. If you don't mind, I like to post a link to it on my blog.

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Alex,

Glad that you enjoyed our post and thanks for linking to us and our post on your blog!


Irene and Man Yung

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