On Tango

By Anthony Hurley

Ever wondered why some couples have a natural aptitude for creating the atmosphere and control whilst producing the staccato action and reflex speed in anticipation of directional changes, switch actions and checks for example, these qualities should always be coupled with the catlike leg action maximising the creation of their combined energies to produce the next desired figure set to the musical accents that are so important in creating the highlights of Tango. They work with the music not in spite of the music.

The acknowledged tango exponents all have one common denominator, ultimate stillness between their bodies. They never look rough or harsh, never overstride of show rise and fall and above all they maintain a compact shape.

Tango was always a very successful dance for Fay and I throughout our amateur and professional career therefore I feel confident in sharing my firm beliefs regarding techniques and certain special requirements that make a couple stand out from the rest in this dance.

The problems I so often see is the man preparing by himself a sitting down position with the left arm forward of the right side. Now the lady must find a position for herself. This often results in the lady dictating the degree of knee flex. This will never produce the compact unit required to bring the two bodies into the real Tango character

How do we endeavour to master these necessary ingredients? I have some suggestions and teaching hints that hopefully will make some instant improvements.

Part One: The Tango Hold

Man: Standing in a normal upright position with a long feeling of the spine facing DW weight on LF make a light body contact with the lady and extend the arms out to the side with the palms facing the lady.

Lady: Backing DW weight on RF also with a long spine extend the arms out to the side with the palms facing and touching the man.

Man: Transfer weight to RF slightly back compressing the supporting leg making sure that you do not SIT DOWN. Make sure the LF is to the side rather like having danced a Brush Tap. Always think SIT UP.As the transference of weight is being made make a slight body turn to left absorbing the lady into the desired compact position, now facing between DW & LOD ready to move DW. The Lady’s role will naturally be normal opposite. The important point to remember is the compressing of the supporting leg is produced simultaneously between the two bodies.

Man: Now simply bend the arms from the elbows so that the right arm fits around the ladies back. Do not hold the lady tight. The best thought is body to hand not hand to body. The left arm is more condensed than the swing dances and because of the slight right side lead now produced (lady left side lead), the left elbow will naturally be behind the right.

With the bodies set up correctly in TANGO MODE the first walk forward will automatically be in CBMP and the second with a slight right side lead stepping comfortably between partner’s feet.

Part Two: Movement, Shape and Styling

In part one I discussed the tango hold and body position, if you have practised you should now be ready to move.

Tango is based on a walk so the legs should articulate exactly as we would walk in the street albeit the legs are always flexed not bent. If they are bent you are sitting down instead of sitting up.( Refer to part one tango hold).

It should be understood that tango is not considered to be a progressive dance compared to the swing dances.

When walking we are always comfortably over our feet, this allows the body to be naturally aligned with good balance. large steps or over striding pushes the lady and creates unwanted pressure and doubtful balance between the two bodies, this will result in the man having to work very hard in the arms to move the lady and therefore the reflex speed which is so important in tango is lost not to mention that all important tango shape.

Shape is special in this dance the compact body position the arm position and the styling of the legs and feet are all easily assessed and instantly recognisable by the experienced adjudicator.

The lady has a special reaction to the overall styling of the body position. When she is walking backwards her feet and ankles differ from that of the swing dances. For example if she is dancing back on her RF her foot styling will shape from the outside edge to the whole foot as the weight is taken in full. LF back will see the inside edge ball heel used, this is controlled by CBMP RF and left side leading LF. The foot shaping is developed from the ankle. When the man insists on over progression the lady cannot create this attractive and expressive footwork. So often we see the lady using Foxtrot ankles which delays her weight between steps this will also have an effect on the partnership losing the correct timing and combined weight change in relation to the tango music.

Technically the dance has no rise but that does not mean the feet are flat and unsupportive. There should be much use of ankles and precise foot placements as described earlier regardless of the complexity of the choreography.

When Fay and I used to practice tango we imagined we had a triangle shaping. Imagine standing in front of the mirror in tango position having danced a Brush Tap. The base of the triangle fits from man’s left elbow to lady’s left elbow, with the imaginary sides moving down to its point which should meet at the the back of the knees, so the legs are under the body with the Left knee veering in for man and right knee veering in for the lady, this should result in the correct ankle shaping. The triangular shaping should be kept throughout progressive actions and especially lines however if large steps and over progression becomes the priority then it is impossible to maintain.

We so often talk about musical feeling but if the moving action and shape is lost so is the character and atmosphere that separates the tango from the other test dances.

Hopefully we will see in the near future the latest exciting choreographic trends with the traditions that have hallmarked past great tango champions.

Part Three: Character of Tango

After considering the tango principles in my first two articles, I feel it is necessary to add some personal thoughts on the development of the character and atmosphere of the ballroom competitive tango.

For me tango has three moods:

1. FAST REFLEX SPEED developed from using the body weight through to the supporting leg, this will create a crisp, fast weight change as long as it is not followed by an oversized step.

2. DYNAMIC STOPS after a flurry of pivoting or fast telespin type actions a couple must be able to demonstrate the ability to create a dead stop, such as a contra check or the ever popular throwaway oversway maintaining a perfect shoulder line and body contact. When trying to perfect these lines a good tip to remember is that never take the combined energy of the partnership to the end product this usually results in losing the balance of the line selected.

3. THE SLOW MOODS the Spanish drag is a first class example when many slows may be used whilst in a non- progressive feature of choreography. The courage to hold lines and listen for the correct musical impulse to exit will give an immediate contrast and reflex speed.

Additional Elements

MUSIC: There are different thoughts in the dancing world on musical interpretation. Should we be counting it as 4/4 (1234) or 2/4(1&2&2&2&). For Fay and I there is no choice the crispness of 2/4 timing in my opinion gives the ability to correctly change weight on the accents of the tango music. If I compare the two musical structures one promotes a long floating action whilst the other demands smaller steps that in turn promotes a more staccato and compact production which is the hallmark of a good tango.

VISUAL RISE: Regardless of choreographic choice I hate to see any visible rise and fall and when I see figures such as double reverse spins, overspins, standing spins with waltz type foot rise, my blood boils. We have of course tango figures that are danced on the ball of the foot. Examples, side chasses man & lady, lady’s big top and outside spin danced from step 4 of the twist turn and not from an open natural turn, it does not exist in tango. All must be produced without visual rise.

PROMENADE POSITION: sometimes known as problem position. (Sometimes) in the dancers dictionary usually means always.

When standing in PP man facing DW, the lady will be facing DC. Therefore the lady has a ¼ of a turn difference in alignment and 1/8 of a turn off the man’s centre, so the lady cannot have her right side in contact with the man. Her foot position should be LF to side and slightly back. Most girls I see dance any opening action by stepping diag back with LF therefore leaving the RF diag fwd under the man’s body. Could it be the Man is not correctly leading the opening action and therefore creating all sorts of problems on the first step of promenade regardless of what the following figure maybe.

Let’s keep the tango as a competitive ballroom dance with its own exclusive characteristics that separate it from the swing dances.

Anthony Hurley

  1. Much respect to Mr Hurley. Well written article on the tango. I also loved his article
    On his criteria for judging. Very clarifying and extremely enlightening.

    I wonder if Mr Hurley could give his take on the article written by the wonderful Mr Bill Davies for Topline magazine a few months ago (perhaps 4-5 issues ago…?) about the tango, where he states that it’s not that the tango can’t have moments of rise and fall, but more specifically that the tango has no body swing. Perhaps the key to the common ground answer is that there should be no “visual rise and fall” as Mr Hurley states in this article, which I very much understand and agree with.

    Either way, I find these articles a wonderful source of information. I do love the sharing of the knowledge and experience from the dance masters in our business in this way. As a person who obsessively tries to dissect everything about the dancing that I can, it is most appreciated so, hey keep it coming!!!

  2. A quick response to the question of rise and fall in Tango. Bill Davies of course is correct in his analysis that the tango cannot have body swing although moments of rise and fall are acceptable.( But not for me)
    Now consider that swing is what develops rise and fall in our swing dances for example.
    Therefore I still insist that whilst in tango we have figures that are danced on the BALL OF FOOT WITH KNEES FLEXED no visual rise must be apparent.
    I know Bill well we competed together and had the same coaches so we can’t be very much apart in our beliefs.

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