Beginning Argentine tango can be fun: basic building blocks and improvisation I

One thing I learned when I studied with Alito Alessi to prepare for Danceability  workshops in Eugene, OR, was to focus on the main idea of a movement. What is the essence of this move? That way, no matter what skill level each dancer reaches in class, the main ideas walk out of the studio with each person. Everyone succeeds and everyone has fun.

In tango, the essence of the dance is walking, pausing, changing direction and turning (with some fancy stuff thrown in), in tune with another body/soul. Tango is merely a particular style of moving while doing those activities. That is what I teach in my beginning tango class, rather than a lot of specific tango steps. If a dancer is deeply interested in tango, there will always be time to learn more steps later on. Over the past fifteen years, I've explored many ways to teach tango.  Now, I have changed my teaching style to make tango less serious, more fun, and more based on improvisation right from the start.

I started this post a few weeks ago, and finally realized that I need to publish it part by part, so that I eventually finish it! Here's the first part of what we did in the beginner's class last session.

Getting started

I do encourage new dancers to tell thepartner which foot to start on by shifting themselves (and their partner) onto one foot, ONCE. I don't think that treading in place is good way to start a dance; instead, shift weight one time, and then walk. That way, the first step of the dance is smooth, traveling line-of-dance (LOD) and relaxed, which paves the way for a more successful dance.


My main teachers, Oscar Mandagaran and Georgina Vargas, walk like big cats. When you lead Georgina, you can FEEL the purr of the cat, or the engine, or whatever it feels like to you as the leader. When you follow Oscar, it's almost impossible to make a mistake because his walk has so much power and connection that you are drawn into the dance. What they say is, "Walk like a tiger, not a kitty cat!"

Walking in tango is easy: it's like walking in real life. If you walk heel-toe when going forward; toe-heel when backing up; and remember to breath, you have 75% of tango already! A lot of what I do in private lessons focuses around repatterning the student's body to more efficient, balanced locomotion and stance. In group classes, I introduce the elements of posture and movement, but one-on-one is limited by class size.

Right, left, right, left . . .

You have one choice when stepping: the foot that you have free from weight. You have four choices of direction: forward, backward, right and left. 

There are two systems of movement in Argentine tango: parallel and crossed systems. In parallel system, the leader steps on the left when the follower steps on the right. In the crossed system, the leader steps on the right when the follower steps on the right. It is the changing from parallel to crossed system that gives Argentine tango so many choices, because it is the orientation of the leader to the follower that creates the matrix of possible steps in the dance. For some folks, the plethora of available steps is what makes tango a bit overwhelming at first, rather than freeing.

I encourage new dancers to get into the flow of the music and experiment with intention: tell the follower where you want them to step, using your energy/intention. Don't worry a lot about which foot the other person is on at first; just keep breathing and keep moving. With practice, it becomes much easier to figure out which foot the follower is standing on, and to actually LEAD the follower to take a specific step in time/space. For now, think about accuracy of direction in space and let the follower respond to that.

Changing directions

There are a lot of reasons why tango is made up of direction changes. Most of these reasons are called the dancers in your way in front of you, behind you, and next to you ;-)  Seriously, the dance floor is often crowded, and the beauty of the improvisation that is tango, is that you can make a tiny little dance, almost in place on the dance floor, and REALLY dance! Rebounds (traspie steps, rock steps, check steps, whatever you want to call them) and ochos are basic ways to change direction in tango.


A rebound is any step that returns to its original position on the dance floor. This requires that the dancer move to a new space, release the foot into the floor with weight over it, and then move back to the original foot. For example, if the leader steps forward on the left foot, the rebound brings the leader back onto the right foot, ready again to use the left foot. I think of steps like these as: front/side/back rebounds, named by the original direction of the first step. Other people call these traspie steps, check steps, or rock steps.

Yes, this is technically two steps, but I think of it as one motion; I find that helps most beginners get the main idea: making changing directions easy (whether for navigation, fun, or by accident).

The ball analogy

When you bounce a ball, as the ball encounters the floor, it compresses and widens into the floor, in preparation for rebounding up. Just like bouncing a basketball, the energy/weight of the step needs to press through/against the floor before returning: you can't bounce a ball and have it rebound BEFORE it hits the floor! It's the same idea with the body. 

Stopping the body early, or by tightening the muscles, is like trying to get the ball back before it hits the floor. Use the follower's body (and the leader's body, of course) to gauge the best moment to rebound. Make the step work for you. Playing Naughty Toddler (see below) is a good way to get used to how easy it is to make the rebound work FOR you.


Ochos are rebounds with a twist. Front ochos consist of the follower doing two consecutive front steps, making a figure eight in front of the leader; or two back steps (much harder). However, the basic idea is to change directions (here, from right to left, or vice versa), and return to the original location.

Note: This is the same outcome as a rock, but happens if the follower is on the "other" foot and has to cross over to go in the requested direction. That way, the follower has two possibilities to respond to the leader, both of which work, and both of which achieve the needed direction change. If the leader knows what foot the follower is on, s/he can lead more successfully, but if not, the follower can "survive" and still look good.

More on ochos in another post.


There are only two directions to turn: right and left.

There are three kinds of turns. You can turn in place, around the leader. You can turn in place, around the follower (not usually called a turn in tango). You can also turn while traveling down the floor.

Tete's turning exercise

Years ago, I had the opportunity to take weekly classes from Tete in Buenos Aires. He had an exercise where we walked around the room and did half or whole turns while continuing to travel around the room; he would yell, "Turn!" and we would. He encouraged us to practice turning right and left, and returning to facing forward both by continuing to turn the same we started, and by reversing to the other direction. No specific turns were taught: the followers were expected to keep upright and step as needed to maintain balance.

It turns out the there are only two outcomes of such a turn: the couple is walking in parallel system (leader's right, follower's left, for example), or in crossed system (leader's right, follower's right, for example). That means you are exiting either in traveling back ochos, or in parallel walks. Simple--as long as you don't panic about what feet are being used.

As a complete beginner, most people do this fine, but start stumbling when they realize that the follower is on the "other" foot. Quick fix: turn again! You have a 50-50 chance of ending up in parallel system. If you can hang in there with the unstructured state of this exercise, you will see that there is an organic quality to the movement that works, even when both dancers are beginners, and not sure of what is happening. I encourage that tuning into the flow of the dance: that's what makes dancers look like they know what's happening, and eventually, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy! At some point, the leader DOES start to know what foot the follower is on and vice versa.

For those of you who are more structured (or for the purists in tango), this might make you tear your hair out. However, I'm finding that my students hit the dance floor a lot earlier, and with as much success, as folks who are carefully studying steps and learning forms, but who are too scared to go out dancing. Knowing that it's OK to not know 100% of what is going on, can be very freeing.

A lot of my beginners are afraid to go tango dancing because they feel that everyone is watching, and will judge their dance. I send them to Portland's Wednesday night alternative music dance--and go to dance with them--because that is seen as the least judgmental venue for new dancers to explore tango. I myself notice that I am willing to experiment more to alternative music, while traditional music brings out my best technique; of course, I'm used to the "everyone is watching" feeling :-)