• John Lowry

Learning to Dance Tango & Expressing Emotions



Many Tango dancers stop learning at an early stage of the development of their dance. The reason often given is, "Tango is all about expressing one's emotions. I don't need a lot of clever skills to express my emotions".

The question these people want to ask themselves, "Is my dance partner receiving the message that I want to convey through my dance?"

It is commonly accepted that dance is a language -" a method of conveying complex concepts and ideas without recourse to sound. ...beyond the physical externalisation of inner feeling, dance is also a cognitive activity able to convey information with metaphor and abstraction". Tango (excluding stage, show and demonstration styles) is specifically a communication between dance partners. It ignores, but does not exclude, spectators.

Like verbal language, dance is a form of stylised movement that has:

  • Vocabulary - locomotion and gestures,

  • Grammar or syntax - rules for putting the vocabulary together and justifying how one movement follows another,

  • Semantics - meaning

Tango connects sequences of movement into phrases and sentences. Other similarities with verbal language include cultural transmission and ambiguity. It carries messages never produced before that can be sent and understood within a set of structured principles.

Learning a language takes dedicated application to learning the vocabulary and grammar, and practice. Learning to dance Tango is no different. A competent dancer must have a good level of learned skill, with an understanding of balance and space, invitation and acceptance, the music and how to interpret it and the cultural context in which it is danced. Daniel Trenner, eloquently describes Tango as, "The Argentine Tango is built by leader and follower in intertwined and overlapping parts", The implication is that dancing Tango is an equal and complimentary conversation.

Whilst the poorly skilled dancer may feel he is expressing emotion, it is unlikely that his dance partner is receiving the intended message, if at all. The same applies to an unskilled lady. Without good balance and technique she can not begin to receive, interpret and respond with a reply in the split-second between steps.

Learning (and relying on) Tango figures is similar to using a language phrase book. It may be quick and convenient but it can not lead to the ability to carry on a meaningful conversation, let alone within a cultural context. Many women complain that dancing with "so-and-so" is boring because he always dance the same sequence of figures. ie., they have no conversation.

The problem for Tango is that "it's simple, but it's not easy". Anyone can quickly master a few basic figures. It is much more challenging and time-consuming to master the handful of basic elements of technique that are required and then to build a vocabulary of movement that fits within the understanding / expectations of a partner and other couples in the room. On top of this is a deep understanding of the conversation embodied in continual invitation and acceptance embodied in the dance.

Then there is the music. Tango is a complex polyphonic musical form with varying rhythm and melody. Interpreting and responding to the music requires an understanding of the structure and form of Tango and the various elements that make it unique.

When the basic elements are thoroughly mastered a dancer can begin to build a vocabulary without thinking about the next step. Then he / she can begin to concentrate on the music in order to respond to the music and create a beautiful conversation, all within the space of a close embrace.

The result of years of application is more than satisfying, but it is a long journey. Enjoy the journey.


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