Learning tango in the group dance class environment

On our Frequently Asked Questions page, often we get asked ‘Does it take long to learn Argentine Tango?’ or ‘How long does it take to learn Argentine Tango?’. As stated there, this is a bit like asking how long is a piece of string.

It depends on so many different things such as how often you go to class, how you apply yourself, how good your teacher is, how good the other people you practice with are, what you’re overall goal is and so on. It is a question which is therefore difficult to answer simply.

Many tango schools label people as beginners, improvers, intermediates etc. based on calendar duration of dancing tango rather than capability. In my humble opinion all tango dancers (including myself) who are not raw beginners are improvers, because…

The act of improving your dance technique never stops.

I still attend advanced Argentine tango classes and practice a few hours every week. Even World Champions still take lessons… We all become simultaneously, beginners, improvers and experts in some aspect of the dance, as shown in the graphic.

We are all moving from the ‘no experience’ box via ‘some skills’ and ‘much skills’ to ‘advanced skills’ boxes with at least one aspect of our dance, pretty much all the time. You don’t become expert in all things instantaneously overnight, but you evolve to become a better tango dancer each day you practice…

In recognition of this continual learning cycle, at Tango Elegante we run our tango dance classes and courses to start off fairly easy for those of us in the ‘no experience’ box, and help people to move up the competence chain, and with a little bit of practice to eventually nudge attendees into the ‘much skills’ box.

It is important to remember that most people don’t ‘get it’ on the first run through of new material, new technique, or trying to improve musicality. Or some people ‘get it’ in an intellectual way (i.e. they understand what’s required) but they still can’t perform it well without a lot of practice.

So when you go to any class and learn new material, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get it quickly, and certainly ignore anyone around you who is showing impatience because you don’t get it quick enough to suit them.

Just think about what you need to practice to improve that element of your dance, find a patient enough person to practice with, and keep practicing.

Baking a Tasty Tango

Picture of a bread maker as an analogy to 'baking a tango'As some of you know I bought myself a bread-maker as a Christmas present, and of course being a man I plunged ahead and started on the first inaugural loaf. I had all the ingredients (well apart from the odd substitute here and there). I had most of the tools required (or thought I did until I couldn’t find some of them), so I did what most blokes do – I bodged it, guessed it, and made it work (sort of). I mean how hard could it be with a machine that did the hard work? 🙂

So what has this got to do with Argentine Tango? Well I learned a few things by doing something new which I’d never done before just as we all do with our tango adventures.

Make sure you have all the ingredients.

I did have all the ingredients for my loaf apart from one substitute.

In tango terms, to dance the tango well you need the right ingredients – some choreography, executed with good technique, in a fitting musical way, and in an Argentine Tango style. Some things can be substituted without reducing the yumminess of your tango. For example, choreography. You can use all sorts of different choreography to dance tango. Other things can’t be easily substituted without making your tango a bit less flavoursome, for example technique. Even the simplest of choreographic movements just look and feel better, and can be performed easier if you have good technique.

Make sure you have the correct tools

Straight off the bat while doing some basic pre-baking tasks I burned my thumb because… I didn’t have a proper oven glove and just used a thin dry tea-towel to pick up a hot tin. Ouch!

Also I could only find half my weighing scales (and not the measuring bit) so had to guess some of the major ingredients.

In Tango terms this might be any thing from lack of technique to lack of floor craft. For example with floor craft, maybe a leader starts a movement in a busy milonga and suddenly finds they’ve run out of room to complete the move, resulting in a collision.

Or a leader trying out newly learned figure in a milonga which they are not reasonably sure they can perform well. We all attend classes and learn new things, but do you want to immediately try it out in a milonga before you have practised enough to make sure you can lead or follow such a movement? My own rule of thumb is if I can’t be 90% confident of leading a movement with any dancer, then I don’t use it in a milonga, until I’ve practised it enough.

Performing the task correctly

With my first loaf I took longer than the instructions suggested to mix the flour and liquids, and almost forgot the last bit of milk to apply. Actually I didn’t forget. All the milk went in earlier in the process when only some of the milk should have gone in. I didn’t read the recipe properly! I put some more in when I realised I hadn’t saved a bit 🙂

In tango terms an example might mean using floor-craft to make sure you have

  1. enough room to complete your intended movement without having to cut it short, by monitoring the couple in front of you and in front of them to make sure you pick up signals about potential blockage early, or
  2. a back up plan if you can’t complete a movement. Don’t try to complete a movement even when it’s totally obvious to all around that you don’t have room to do this without bumping another couple. If you commit to a movement, without respect for other dancers, you’re not dancing social tango.

Having patience for things to come together

So I finally had all the ingredients in my bread-maker and it was sloshing the mix around creating the dough prior to cooking. I stood and watched through the window in the top of the machine. It was like watching paint dry, but I couldn’t help coming back every 10 mins or so (in a 2 1/2 cooking cycle), just to see if anything interesting was happening. It wasn’t…

In Tango terms this could be the impatience we often get with our ‘lack of improvement’. We never seem to get ‘good’ quick enough! Learning takes time, and improvement may be imperceptible, but is nevertheless happening. Have patience with your own progress and keep learning and practising consistently.

I’m sure there are many more analogies one could draw between baking and tango (perhaps the tango bakers out there would like to suggest further ones? 🙂 ) but as a start, if you follow some of the above guidance, you too could be baking a nice tasty tango for yourself 🙂

Finally, I’m sure you’d all love to know what happened with the first ever loaf I baked? Was it Mmmmm… 🙂 or Hmmm… :(? I’m happy to say that it was Mmmmm… in taste, much better than shop bought gluten-free bread. However, there was undoubtedly room for improvement, and yes I have bought some proper scales – no more guessing quantities (until I start experimenting with flavours 🙂 )

Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part One

In this series of articles about the important subject of musicality I will look at elements of music and some basic terminology (this article), followed by articles on Orchestra instruments, the structure of tango music, and then I’ll take a look at some famous Tango Orchestras and tunes and how the arrangers changed a tune to match their Orchestras sound. All the while I will be attempting to relate the information to interpretation of the music with your tango dancing.

You do not need to be able to read music to dance, but in order to hear the music and improve our musical interpretation of the Argentine Tango tunes we all love to dance to we must first understand a little bit about music and it’s components. I first present little music theory and terminology might be in order, so that when you attend musicality classes you begin to understand what tempo, rhythm, melody, music beat, etc. are all about and how they relate to tango and other music.

Music Terminology

Written music is represented by a notation consisting of a series of horizontal lines (stave) upon which musical notes are represented in both pitch (where they are positioned on the stave) and duration (the particular symbol used to represent one note).

We can use two staves printed one above the other to represent the treble notes (high pitch) and bass notes (low pitch) and we use symbols (treble or bass clef) at the beginning of a stave to show which range the notes are in.Musical notes on treble and bass staves with elements annotatedSo as notes are placed higher on the stave, they increase in pitch, and lower on the stave they decrease in pitch. You’ll also notice there is a repeating pattern where the note sequence starts again but at a higher pitch. This is called an octave. For example, when the middle C string on a piano is struck it vibrates at 261.6 Hz (Hertz or cycles per second), and the next C above vibrates at a frequency of 523.2 Hz. In other words for each octave a note will vibrate twice as fast for the octave higher, and half as fast for the octave lower. This is why, for example, all C notes sound similar but are a different pitch (frequency) to each other.

We now know how to represent the pitch or frequency of a note, by it’s position of a treble or bass stave, but how about duration? The duration of a note is defined as a set of note symbols which represent relative duration to each other, and are as follows

A list of note values
One whole note (semibreve) = 2 half notes (minims), one minim = 2 quarter notes (crotchets), and so on. In terms of duration then, two minim notes and four crotchets take exactly the same duration to play, as do one semibreve and eight quavers. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the tails are pointing up or down. The usual convention is to keep the tail inside the related stave as much as possible

Hang on a minute (a minuet?) though! If note duration are played relative to each other, how do we know how fast to play the whole piece of music? This is entirely down to either the composer or the musician, but there are clues in the notation.

For example the composer could annotate a ‘metronome mark’ which indicates how many beats per minute the tempo should be. They look like this and are written just above the top stave on the left of the page.

A typical metronome markThis means ‘play at 120 beats per minute’. The note symbol is a crotchet so it also means ‘play at 120 crotchets per minute’. A metronome marks with a ‘c’ in front of the number mean ‘approximately’ (circa).

Other ways of indicating the tempo may consist of a few words at the top of the page, often in Italian but not exclusively so.

Allegro (fast)
Adagio (slow)
Andante (at walking pace)
Allegro ma non troppo (fast but not too fast)

and so on. This form of notation is less specific and it’s left to the musician to decide what ‘fast’ or ‘slow’ means.

Time signatures

Previously we’ve considered the pitch of notes relative to each other, and relative to a treble or bass stave, the tempo of a piece, and a vague reference to how we can locate one of the notes (middle C) on a Piano (it’s in the middle of the keyboard 🙂 ) to anchor an entire piece of music into the correct set of octaves.

Now we can consider how to express an accented beat, which means placing an emphasis on one of a group of notes. We can do this with ‘bars’ and time signatures.

If you imagine a simple clock ticking, the regular tick represents the clocks rhythm or beat, but it has no accent. Each tick sounds exactly like the previous tick. Imagine now, if you had a clock ticking away, but on every fourth tick, the tick sounded louder, then the volume dropped back to normal for the next three ticks. This louder tick would represent an accentuated beat.

A time signature basically describes the underlying pattern of beats and the accentuation, so in our clock example, a time signature might describe the group of 4 ticks but with the first tick of each group of four being accentuated.

So in the following example of music you will notice that the notes are grouped into sections (or bars) indicated by the vertical lines on the stave. Each vertical line shows where the accentuated beat of the next bar occurs – the note immediately after the vertical line.The musical notation of the first part of Romance de Barrio, written by Anibal TroiloThe other squiggly bits and lines on the stave between notes represent rests (silence) of different durations, or marks representing expression. Silence or pauses, are also useful in interpreting your tango dance.

Unfortunately we are still left with a choice of which duration of note (crotchets, minims, quavers etc.) should represent the beats in a bar, so we still don’t quite know exactly how long the duration of a bar should be… until we specify the time signature. Here are some examples used in tango music.Typical time signatures for different types of Tango musicThe number on the bottom represents what note value each beat has. ‘2’ represents a minim per beat, ‘4’ represents a crotchet per beat, and ‘8’ represents a quaver per beat, so in the three examples above, the beat is represented by a crotchet. The top number then tells you how many beats there are in one bar, so

  • 4/4 says each beat is represented by the duration of a crotchet, and there are 4 beats (or crotchets) to a bar.
  • 3/4 says each beat is represented by the duration of a crotchet, and there are 3 beats (or crotchets) to a bar. This is waltz timing.
  • 2/4 says each beat is represented by the duration of a crotchet, and there are 2 beats (or crotchets) to a bar.

So is 3/4 time the same as 6/8 time? Well not quite, cos it’s not maths 🙂

If we go back to our ticking clock example with a 3/4 time signature, the clock tick would be

T t t T t t T t t with ‘T’ being the emphasised beat 1.

The 6/8 time signature would have a beat pattern of

T t t t t t T t t t t t T t t t t t

twice as many beats but each beat duration on half as long (a quaver not a crotchet), but the emphasised beat 1 is only half the duration as in 3/4 time. The rhythm sounds similar but not identical.

So why are some tangos written in 2/4 time instead of 4/4 time? Well rhythmically it wouldn’t make much difference to the dancer if they were stepping on both beats (in 2/4 time) or stepping on beat 1 & 3 (in 4/4 time) for their basic tango walk. Beat one would still be the emphasised beat, and using notes of different durations would still allow the composer to express melody and accompaniment in either time signature. It could be simply down to the composer to choose. For example, early tango pieces such as El Chocolo (A.G. Villoldo) were often written in 2/4 time whereas later works such as Libertango (Astor Piazolla) was written in 4/4 time. Libertango might be considered as more of a concert piece. Perhaps a ‘proper’ musician could tell us if there any advantages one way or another?

So what have we learned about music?

  1. It’s a bit complex, but then little kids can learn it by practising a lot, so no excuses… 🙂
  2. There are many elements of notation which can be used to express a tune onto paper. Some of the terminology is a little obscure to a non-Italian speaking non-musician, but once the notation has been learned it is possible to get into the structure, tempo, and musical expression in a tune, as performed by the musicians.
  3. For all the variety of notation elements for beats, notes, expression, silence etc., there is still a certain amount of interpretation by both the composer and the musician in what the notation exactly means. Musicians sometimes still have to hear a piece of music played before they can ‘read off the sheet’.

As a dancer it helps to be familiar with a particular tune in order to maximally interpret it, but as you will see in the following parts of this series, there is a structure to music and often a repetitious nature to elements of a tune. Once you’ve heard just one section of a tango tune, it is possible to anticipate what the tune will sound like later on, and therefore better interpret the music with your dance.

Although I have given a brief overview of the main aspects of written music, you do not need to be able to read music to dance to it. However in the next few posts when I look at how music can be interpreted in dance I will use this terminology, so refer back to this page if you need to.

Please note I am not a professional musician. Much of this material I’ve learned through study, my amateur attempts to play instruments (badly 🙂 ) and to write bits of music (equally badly, but one day… 🙂 ) and dancing to tango music (Hmmm… beginning to get there 🙂 ).

I used the first few chapters of the following book to write this little overview and can recommend it for any non-musician. The book is called called ‘Learning to Read Music by Peter Nickol’ if you want to delve into reading music in a more thorough way. Its a good introduction and pretty much tells you what you need to know to start reading music (and his explanations are a bit more thorough than mine).

In the next part of this series, I will examine the elements of a tune which a tango dancer could learn to interpret.

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 🙂

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…’ 🙂

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’ in any subject takes 10 years of deliberate practice, i.e. taking classes, practising with specific purpose, and performing while taking feedback.

This “10 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… 🙂