Couples Dance Classes

Argentine tango is an ideal dance for couples because both follower and leader have to co-operate in order to make the dance work. In other partner dance classes, such as Modern Jive or Salsa, the leader can ‘muscle’ the follower into position if the follower is deemed to be following ‘incorrectly’. In Argentine tango couples dance classes this will not work (or at least shouldn’t be allowed to πŸ™‚ ) especially if you wish to learn to dance the Argentine tango well.

Argentine tango is a partner dance, i.e. it requires two dancers to work together, with each dancer being allowed by the other to perform their respective roles as successfully as possible. There is no fixed choreographic sequences to learn (although individual tango figures do have their own step sequences) because Argentine tango is an improvisational dance where the leader creates a structure to the dance, within which the follower can express themselves with the way they follow, and decorate their part of the dance.

If you are interested in attending my Argentine tango couples dance classes, workshops and courses click here to find out more.

So, in couples dance classes for Argentine tango we must learn to co-operate and by this I mean the following:-

  1. The leader should ‘invite’ the follower to step in the direction required, but not pull, push or otherwise force the follower into position. This requires a clear lead, and sometimes patience. As a leader grows in confidence they should also develop the skill of having a ‘Plan B’ for when the follower does not accept the invitation. These skills will be learned in your couples dance classes for Argentine tango πŸ™‚
  2. The follower should learn to ‘tune in’ to a leader and trust the lead without sabotaging the structure the leader is trying to create. This is one of the most difficult skills a follower needs to develop, and partner dance classes are the ideal environment to learn. Followers cannot improve this skill except by dancing with many leaders (both good and bad, so that you can learn the difference).
  3. Leaders should give time for followers to express themselves with decorative movements, so leaders need to learn to avoid the need to be constantly stepping to the main musical beat (but still learn to be musical). Leaders should learn to be generous with their pauses to allow followers to contribute to the dance in their own way.
  4. Conversely, followers should not abuse the time given by the leader for the expressive decoration. When a leader starts looking at his watch, tutting and shaking his head, it’s time for the dance to move on πŸ™‚

So should only couples attend partner dance classes?

At most social events such as a milonga (tango social dance), numbers are usually roughly even at most venues, but there tends always be a few leaders or followers spare. This is why it is usual (but not mandatory) for leaders to circulate and ask different followers to dance.

Of course since it takes two to tango, ideally people will join a class, workshop or course as a couple, but this is not always going to be possible.

On courses or workshops which I advertise as ‘booking only’ then I will try balance leaders and followers. Couples will always get booking preference, while single leaders or followers may not get an instant booking confirmation until a matching dancer has also booked. You may see me manage this balancing by temporarily disabling booking for certain types of ticket if the balance is becoming unmanageable. I post all events I organise on my Facebook page, so you can always add a comment to the event expressing your desire to find a partner.

When I run open drop-in classes, everybody is welcome to join in, but there are no guarantees that any particular class willΒ  be perfectly balanced, or that there will be enough leaders or followers to go round. In these cases I run a ‘bus stop’ system for spare leaders or followers to wait for a partner to pick them up as people dance round. Please be aware that some couples do not wish to dance with other partners so there maybe no one willing to handle ‘spare’ dancers…

So, to guarantee you will have someone to dance with all the time, you are advised to find a partner to join with, for the opposite role. Please note: a leader and follower is usually a man and a woman, but if two women want to join with one learning the leaders role, or two men join with one learning the followers role, that’s fine πŸ™‚

If you are interested in attending my Argentine tango partner dance classes click here to find out more

Can you Learn Tango from Videos?

Behind the Scenes of Gone with the Wind. Rhett dances with Scarlett

As a tango teacher I occasionally come across people who are trying out ‘a move’ they’ve seen on {insert your favourite internet video service here}, or they ask me to teach them ‘that move where I do this and she does that. It’s on {insert your favourite internet… you get the idea}’.

Hmm… well for one thing, strangely enough I haven’t watched every tango video on the internet and committed them to memory. Maybe a task for later πŸ™‚

But also, where I have looked at tango videos, I’ve discovered quite a lot of stuff which is of variable quality as far as educational value is concerned. Some of it can be very good, but other ‘teaching’ videos can be quite bad from a learning point of view – they are really just marketing videos.

So to come back to the main question I would say my answer is a very heavily qualified yes. Here’s some qualification…


Video is a reasonable medium for learning choreography, providing the dancers on the video know what they are doing and perform a movement well.

However, you need good production quality to make sure the camera picks up all the nuances such as, for example, where leaders/followers feet are in relation to each other. I’m not just taking about HD vs standard resolution here. I’m talking about camera angles, lighting, even down to the clothing the dancers wear, and so on. I once took a video on my not so brilliant camera phone of a couple of teachers demonstrating what had just been taught in the class. The lighting wasn’t brilliant and both of them had dark flared trousers on which totally obscured the choreography when displayed on a 2 dimensional screen. If I hadn’t been at the class the video wouldn’t have been much use to me.

Leading and Following

Understanding how a figure is led or followed is a whole lot more tricky when viewing a video. The more complex a figure is, the more technique will be used to make it look smooth and effortless, so unless you already know these techniques, it may not be possible to see the subtleties of a technique like ‘body lead’ or dissociation on a video. Just copying the movement you see in the video will not guarantee you will be able to dance the figure with every partner.

So to find a tango video useful, it would imply you are not a beginner/improver and that you’ve already developed enough skills in leading/following to be able to super-impose that knowledge onto the choreography that you see.

Styling videos

There are a number of ladies styling videos out there which do show some elegant decorations, foot shaping, boleos etc., so yes ladies, you can pick up some hints and tips from these, but please remember that the dancer in the video is not being led. She knows what’s coming next!

In the real world a follower may not be given time to do the fancy footwork they want to try out, so they have to be prepared to take the next step at any given moment. You might want to try these adornments out in practise first, and possibly with a trusted leader who will give you time to complete them, so you can test out the difficulties in using them to different music, speeds etc.

So in conclusion, yes, it is possible to pick up new material from watching a video, but you would still have to test it out in a practica first to make sure you were leading/following correctly. Even if you did seem to be performing the movement correctly’, there is still a chance that you are not performing it in the most efficient/effective way.

This would imply seeking out a tango teacher who had the skills to teach you the ‘correct way’ of doing things.

However, please give them half a chance and show them the video you’re referring to rather than saying ‘it’s that one on the internet…’ πŸ™‚

How long does it take to learn tango?

Recently one of my new students asked this very reasonable question. However the answer is not easy to state. It’s a bit like asking how long is a piece of string. Even if you put some ‘way points’ in the question such as ‘how long does it take to become average/good/excellent…’ you are still left with defining what average/good/excellent means, or deciding who should make that definition.

However I thought I’d put my engineers mind to it and see if I could shed some light with my own experience, thoughts and opinion. I am not aware of any hard facts or research on ‘tango expertise’, but if anyone knows of such data let me know.

Let’s first look at the main components of the tango dance (in no particular order of importance);

  • Choreography – the walk, the classic figures, the ‘tango steps’ which would be recognisably tango to all tango dancers.
  • Technique – the dissociation, maintaining your own axis, the timing, foot shaping etc. The components recognisable by most tango dancers above beginners level, even if those dancers have not yet mastered them.
  • Musicality – stepping on the strong beat, decorating using the melody and so on. Again most dancers except new beginners would be aware of the possibilities of enhancing a dance with musicality, even if they were not yet adept.

To become expert at tango, we need to excel in all three of these areas at the very least.

There are also many other parameters which may influence how quickly we learn tango such as our own innate abilities, our teachers capabilities and so on, but lets stick to what is perhaps more easily judged for the ‘average’ new starter.

We then come onto defining levels of expertise. The words ‘beginner’, ‘improver’, ‘intermediate’, ‘advanced’, ‘professional’, ‘world champion’ etc. are used throughout the tango world to describe the level of a dancer, but what do they actually mean?

Well, apart from the obvious ones at the far ends of the spectrum (‘beginner’ and ‘world champion’) the others are a little more difficult to pin down.

Some tango schools classify by calendar duration. For example a beginner is someone who has danced less than 6 months, or an intermediate is someone dancing for a minimum of 2 years. In my experience this is a fairly blunt tool to define a persons actual capability. I’ve danced with people who ‘feel’ like they’ve been dancing a couple of years, to be told they’ve only been dancing 6 months (but taking 5 classes and attending a couple of milongas each week of those 6 months). Equally I’ve danced with people who ‘feel’ like they are beginners, to be told that they’ve been dancing tango ’10 years, on and off’. So the simple passage of calendar time is not necessarily a good measure of progress or capability.

There is a school of thought (and empirical research across many fields lends support) that to become an ‘expert’Β in any subject takes 10 years of deliberate practice, i.e. taking classes, practising with specific purpose, and performing while taking feedback.

This β€œ10 year rule” was first proposed based on research about the amount of deliberate practice it took for someone to become a chess master, but since then has been found to be fairly consistent across many subject areas. This translates into thousands of hours of effort expended for the sole purpose of mastering a craft or activity.

By age twenty the best violinists are estimated to have engaged in deliberate practice for at least 10,000 hours. Expert performers arrange their lives around a commitment to daily practice. For example, expert musicians have been found to engage in deliberate practice approximately four hours per day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

This would imply that if you go to a 1hr tango class once a week and do no more, it will take you 200 years to become expert! Equally it implies that if you work in a job where you spend 30-40 hours a week doing the same thing week in week out, then you would become an expert in about 6 years.

This makes sense, and explains why some people seem ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than they ‘should be’. If you put in a greater number of hours, regularly and consistently, you are more likely to be perceived as ‘better’, compared to someone doing a few hours here and there with many long gaps in between.

Varying the type of subject performance is also critical to achievement. You can go to as many tango classes and practise sessions as you like, but you may still feel out of your depth during your first social dance simply because the safe learning environment is different from the performance environment.

You can’t really know how good you are at any point in your learning until you put yourself to the test. This applies both in class (where you might eagerly volunteer to be the teachers demonstrator instead of hiding at the back), as well as at a social dance where, as nervous as you may feel, you just have to get up and do it.

The trick to dealing with the inevitable mistakes in both class and milonga is simply to use the mistake as a learning tool, always looking for the useful learning points. In that way you make progress even when things feel uncomfortable.

So if you’ve read this far and are thinking you might never be any good at tango and you might as well give it up, take heart, because as yet I haven’t discussed another important parameter, which is your own objectives in learning tango.

What do you want out of tango?

Some people only want to do enough to be able to mug along at some occasional tangoesque type event. Some people want to challenge themselves to see how good they can become, and of course some people may dream of being a national or international champion. These objectives require different levels of committent and determination.

So in a nut-shell:-

1. Unless you intend to enter the World Championships or perform on stage, you don’t need to be ‘expert’ at tango to enjoy social dancing, but in order to get lots of dances you need to be acknowledged as ‘reasonably good’ within your tango community, so some time and effort is required. Maybe not 10,000 hours, but certainly many hundreds to the odd thousand or so hours.

2. I believe that the act of learning the components of tango is something like the illustration below:

Learning Tango - an illustration of how long it might take

Before you all get up in arms about how ‘inaccurate’ this is, one should take it with a healthy dose of standard deviation, and your experience may well be different. This is based on my personal experience, what I observe of dancers around my community, and a smidgeon of thought and logical deduction. For example, why do the three parameters stop below the level of ‘World Champion’? Well, it’s my opinion that World Champions have some other harder to define ‘je ne se quoi’. It may be inspiration, or luck on the day, but it’s unlikely to be lack of technique, musicality or choreographic ability at that level.

So the chart shows that you may learn a fair bit of choreography reasonably quickly, but technique and musicality take longer. It also shows that the path to tango nirvana is never a straight smooth line. Sometimes you plateau and think you’ll never make further progress. That is the time to seek out input from someone much further along the curve.

3. If you want to compress the learning curve(s) then you need to do more work, more often and develop a commitment to deliberate practise each day, even if you can only manage 15 minutes instead of the 4 hours of experts. It should make a positive difference to your tango provided you’re practising how to become better, rather than just re-enforcing bad habits. In other words really listen to the advice your teachers give you, and practice the good stuff.

So how long does it take to learn tango? Well, first you need a find a piece of string… πŸ™‚

The Anatomy of the Tango Embrace

Rudolf Valentino in an embraceEl Abrazo – The Embrace. Even the name conjures up nice, warm, comfortable feelings πŸ™‚

It is an important aspect of Argentine tango. It is the channel through which a leader communicates intent, silently, with their partner. Many tango teachers and dancers will talk about ‘connection’. Sometimes they refer to the physical connection, and sometimes they will refer to being ‘in tune’ with your partner. It is a complex mix of physical, musical, and emotional elements. Get it right and you can achieve that sublime feeling when you feel fully in tune with your partner and at the end both agree that you had a ‘perfect’ dance.

However the embrace must still start with the physical connection, without which the non physical aspects are difficult if not impossible to achieve, so here are a few tips to enhance your embrace.

1. The embrace should be flexible and able to open/close as the dance dictates. Since the leader is creating the broad structure of the dance the decision to open/close the embrace will mainly be down to them.

  • A closed embrace is good for walking. The feedback between leader and follower is virtually instant.
  • An open embrace is good for figures where the legs need room to move.

In any given dance the embrace will be moving from closed to open and back again as the leader invites the follower to move.

2. When placing hands on followers back, or on leaders shoulder blades etc. it is useful to have a slight pressure there. In this way, when the leader stops moving the follower will feel slight extra pressure on her back and a slight extra pressure in her hand on leaders shoulder blade. When leader moves again it will be the other way round, a slight relief of pressure (in a walk for example). This will add one more avenue of feedback, as well as visual, and other body contact feedback.

3. No squeezing hard please! Leaders, do not grab your follower in a bear hug. They have to be able to breathe to dance. Followers, do not clamp the leaders arm tightly under yours especially in open embrace. This will restrict the leaders ability to lead and you will miss out on all that potential tango goodness.

4. Leaders, create a frame in which the follower is comfortable, but when necessary can move freely within the frame. When moving the frame, the arms and chest should be considered as one unit. If you rotate to one side or the other, the arms do not move independently of the chest (most of the time… there are always exceptions πŸ™‚ )

5. If you feel your connection is failing, then examine your embrace from a communications point of view. Every communication has a transmitter (the leader indicating intent), a communication medium (the embrace), and a receiver (the follower receiving the intent and responding correctly). A communication can fail if any of those elements break down, or even just stop performing at optimum.

The transmitter stops transmitting. This would equate to the leader not transmitting intent clearly enough. Note; ‘clearly’ does not mean forcibly. The leader is not trying to push or pull his partner into position. The leader can ‘invite without option’ by inviting the follower to step in one direction, but at the same time limiting the choice of other directions. If leaders master this technique they won’t need to pull or push.

The communications medium breaks down. In this case the embrace is not clearly transmitting the lead. This results in a lack of connection. It will more often happen in open embrace where the connection is by definition, less secure and more compromised, so leaders need to be as clear as possible, and followers need to use other senses and mechanisms for detecting the lead, more so than in close embrace.

The receiver stops receiving. The follower is not tuned in and is not receptive to the lead, even though it’s clear and the embrace is fine. In this case followers, it’s either time to wake up and tune in, or if you’re tired it’s time to stop dancing.

All of these things can happen sometime in a milonga, especially near the end after 4 or 5 hours dancing when everybody is pleasantly tired but no longer concentrating.

6. Once you have the physical connection in place you can then start to consider the musical connection. After all, you are both dancing to the same tune, and presumably hearing the same beats, melody, opportunities for syncopation, and so forth. To achieve this musical connection both dancers need to be familiar with the tune, and there is no easy way to make yourselves familiar with tango music except to listen to lots of it.

Once you both start really hearing and dancing to the tune, you will be able to add another layer onto your connection because a follower will be able to ‘anticipate’ (I know – not supposed to πŸ™‚ ) what a leader may be about to lead because of the musical phrase both dancers know is coming up next. The music tells both of you what to do! This may seem like anticipation but may simply be both dancers instinctively knowing ‘the most appropriate movement’ for that musical phrase, because of hundreds of hours dancing and listening to tango music.

7. Then we have the emotional connection. This is the hardest to achieve because emotions are personal to each dancer. This implies that to achieve an emotional connection one of you has to be perceptive, sympathetic, or empathetic to the others mood and be willing to give up your own emotional need in that time, in order to adopt a similar mood.

So to review Leaders must be skilled in how to lead the movement, and clearly transmit the intent. The embrace must be relaxed but firm enough to allow the physical movement of leading to be quickly picked up, and the follower must be attentive and tuned in (or as a bare minimum, awake πŸ™‚ ). You must both be really listening to the music, and for a dance with ’emotional cohesion’ you both must be roughly in the same mood.

It’s a lot to ask for, which is why we perhaps don’t have many (if any) ‘perfect’ dances in any single milonga, but when you get one… that’s what keeps you coming back for more πŸ™‚

To Cabeceo or not to Cabeceo…

Boris Carloff attempting cabeceoIn the world of Argentine tango, there are some milongas whose rules of engagement prohibit any form of asking a person to dance, unless it is done by ‘cabeceo’. The whole idea of cabeceo (‘the pitch’ or leaders invitation) and ‘mirada’ (‘the look’ or followers response) is that a leader can ‘ask’ a follower to dance in a semi-private way.

This communication happens silently and often over distances as large as the length of a dance hall. If the follower refuses, there is no long walk of shame back across the dance floor for the leader to contend with (we all remember those school discos that scarred us for life, but at the same time toughened us up πŸ™‚ ) , and the follower doesn’t have to accept just because a leader is stood next to them and ‘it would be rude not to’. Lots of embarrassment saved on both sides.

However, there are plenty of opportunities for misfires, as with most communication systems, so let’s first have a refresher of communications theory.

In any communications system there is at least one transmitter, one receiver, and the medium via which a message is transferred. If two way communication is required then there must be a transmitter and receiver at each end of the communication medium so that a message sent one way can be responded to by a message coming back.

So A transmits a message via the medium and B receives the message and sends an acknowledgement that the message has been received. Note, this is not a response to the sense of the message, but simply and acknowledgement of receipt. If B wishes to respond to the message then the communication happens again but initiated by B transmitting a reply to A who responds that they’ve received it.

The system can fail if any combination of transmitter, receiver, and medium fails. All very simple and logical right?

What communications components correspond to the cabeceo scenario?

The communications medium is simply line of sight between leader and follower. The transmitter is initially the leaders cabeceo – his enquiring look at the target follower. The follower is initially a receiver, to first observer the cabeceo, and then having decided to accept the invitation or not, the follower becomes a transmitter, to reply with mirada. The leader then becomes a receiver of the reply, for final interpretation of success or failure of his invitation.

So what could possibly go wrong?

The communications medium needs to be open. If the line of sight is blocked (by other dancers, pillars in the room, or other physical obstacles etc) then communication can’t take place. This is the easiest problem to fix. Both leaders and followers who want to dance just need to make it obvious, perhaps by standing up, moving to an area of the room where they can easily be seen near the edge of the dance floor, and then followers need to be receptive to a leaders Cabeceo.

The leaders transmission needs to be a clear invite. Staring blankly, or with a vaguely ‘mad axe murderer’ expression is probably not going to be successful, either for the leader or as a followers response. If you do see a person seemingly looking your way with a blank stare on their face, it might just mean they’ve zoned out, just listening to the music, and not actually ‘looking’ at anything in particular. So leaders need to smile, or nod to make sure the follower knows is definitely them the leader is wanting to communicate with. So the leader is now transmitting and the comms medium is clear.

The follower needs to make eye contact long enough for the leader to know the ‘comms line is now open’, even if the followers response is going to be a ‘no thank you’. This eye contact is the acknowledgement that the message has been received, but is not the reply to the message. Without it, the communication loop has not been established. I have observed some followers who just continually scan the room without making eye contact (or at least not making eye contact for long enough to be certain of the fact). In this case the communication loop is not complete. This type of ‘follower scanning’ seems to be saying to the audience of leaders at large ‘I am looking for one of a specific group of friends to dance with, not a stranger’.

So once the follower has caught the eye of the leader and his invitation, they can now either smile, nod etc. to accept the invitation, or do a little shake of the head, or just look away to decline the invitation. However there must be eye contact for that brief exchange, for this to be clearly interpreted by the leader.

So as long as we stick to the above basic rules of communication cabeceo works right? Well not always.

There are other cabeceo problems.

Now we need to examine a little radar theory (bear with me πŸ™‚ ). So with radar the idea is to identify moving objects from static objects, so that on a military field of battle for example, you can tell which blip on the screen is a moving enemy tank and which is just a static building. To do this a radar installation will send regular electronic pulses from two separate points and measure the reflected signal. Sending pulses from two different points allows us to establish range and location. If the position of a blip has moved since the last pulse was sent out, that is probably the tank.

However, what if two objects are so close that it is difficult to separate their blips on the screen? If the tank stops moving, close to the building, the blips merge and the reflected pulse can’t discriminate accurately between the two objects.

With cabeceo, this is the case when a follower thinks a leader is inviting them when in fact the target is next door, or behind. So what to do here? Well, followers can perhaps ease the situation by not bunching up, although in a crowded milonga and with typical seating arrangements this can be pretty much impossible.

The leader now has to respond to one of the followers. If there is only one response, but not the original target, the polite thing to do is to dance with the only follower who is offering to dance with you. Not all leaders are that polite… but if the leader is there to dance, why pass up an offer?

If there are two or more followers responding, then the polite thing to do would be to pick one follower but promise the other(s) the next tanda(s). Remember that this miscommunication is no ones fault, so followers shouldn’t take it personally if the leader doesn’t pick them first (as long as the leader comes back and fulfils their promise for the next tanda). Again, not all leaders will… but if leaders are there to dance then they’re sorted for the next couple of tandas, so why not?

The use of cabeceo and mirada can also be ‘abused’.

It’s true that if you’ve paid your money to enter a milonga for a night out, you want a good time and you are within your rights to pick and choose who you dance with (or even who you consider worthy enough to dance with).

It’s worth remembering though that you were once a beginner and maybe not so hot at dancing. You needed better dancers than you to invite you, or accept your invitation to dance to help you become a better dancer. If tango clubs can’t attract new people because they are too ‘cliquey’, too unfriendly, have too many ‘weird’ rules, etc. then the club may eventually wither away.

So while it’s possible to use cabeceo and mirada to exclude strangers, dancers deemed ‘not good enough’, or a myriad of other elitist reasons for exclusion, in the end it won’t be helping your tango community to grow, possibly quite the opposite.

Personally I am neither strongly for, or strongly against the cabeceo tradition. It has it’s advantages, and it’s flaws (in my case, the typical range falls outside my long vision, but not into the range where my reading glasses would help πŸ™‚ ).

However there’s no harm in giving it a go. If you’ve never tried it, stick to the basics as described above, but don’t get too despondent if it doesn’t work every time. I would also suggest to all tango dancers of all abilities, if someone verbally asks you to dance, you still have the choice of accepting or politely refusing. Is it such a big deal that someone didn’t cabeceo you, or wait to be cabeceo’d by you, instead of asking? Surely the dancing and socialising are more important than holding tight to a set of social rules imported from another country (assuming you’re not reading this in Argentina, in which case cabeceo away πŸ™‚ ).

Let’s not get too uptight about these rules, but rather help those who want to learn about them to learn, and find ways of accommodating those who don’tΒ  πŸ™‚

What are your thoughts?