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

Learning Argentine tango has to be fun, or students will give up before they even taste the dance. There is a belief that the dance is hard to learn; it takes time to get good, but I can teach the fundamental ideas in an hour or two, and survival skills in about ten hours of class. I've been dancing tango since 1995, and I still am working on making my dance better. My point is: the individual chooses what level of tango they wish to reach; my job as the teacher is make that wish become reality.

I try to make every class have elements of fun, even if we are working hard on technique. There are at least ten minutes of each hour class that deal with pure play, fun and connecting with other people. After all, what do we want for our tango community? I want folks who are fun, who like to play and experiment, who pay attention to their surroundings and the people around them; joyous, kind folk who I want to dance with!

Yes, of course I want to train dancers who are the best in the world, with perfect technique, but maybe not everyone wants to be that dancer; private lessons are the place to do that deep training.

Back to group lessons and teaching beginners to have fun with tango. This is Part Two of this series. You can read Part One before or after this; there will be at least a Part Three, and perhaps more later on.

Pauses and adornos

One of the hardest things for new dancers to do, is to incorporate pauses into the dance. I start work on this the first day of class by providing a REASON to pause: adornos (ornaments)! Until dancers know the music well, there is a tendency to step on every beat, making a very monotone, flat-line kind of dance. Adding adornos in gives the dancers a chance to feel how pauses enrich the dance; it also makes folks feel like they are "dancing"--very important if you want them to head out to the dance floor with confidence.

It takes new followers at least a few seconds to realize that the couple has really paused. Then, there are the seconds devoted to thinking, "Hey! I could adorn here!" After that, time is needed to decide which kind of adorno to do. Only then does the dancer start to actually adorn (the time is shorter for the leader, as that person KNOWS the couple is going to pause).

Unfortunately, most leaders tend to pause for very short amounts of time. By the time the follower figures out there is space/time for adornos, the leader has already begun to move. So, how can beginning followers get practice doing adornos?

On the first day of class, I only show one adorno. That way, the time devoted to choosing an adorno is eliminated. I have everyone stand on one foot and trace their name, in cursive script, on the floor. I encourage them to think that they are leaving a deep mark in sand so that the leg is relaxed and heavy on the floor; this better approximates adorno technique that they will learn later. This also allows all dancers to stop worrying if they are performing the adorno correctly: they ALL know how to write their name (OK, with the hand ;-)). This way, they are able to add an element of personal style to their tango immediately, and a bit of PLAY, which makes everyone smile and keep dancing.

Energy and connection

This is the CENTRAL idea in tango, not a nice thing to add in after you know where your feet are moving. In fact, the steps can emanate from a strong flow of energy--some people never actually learn many steps, but tune into the partner and just dance (this is more successful for following, but it also works for leading).

I build energy exercises into at least every other class, to make sure that students have tools to use to connect with their own body, their partner, and the space in the room.

Self: Axis and breath exercise

Most of my energy exercises are done with the eyes closed, as I find that helps most dancers imagine how energy moves without getting distracted. For people who struggle with balance, don't require them to close their eyes.

Imagine that you have a hollow body, and can breathe up from the floor, through your legs, hips and torso, into your lungs, and then exhale out the top of your head, like a whale spout. Focus on the open cylinder of your body, and fill it with breath. Each exhale, even if you can't feel the energy follow this path, imagine it moving up your body, into your lungs, and out the top of your head.

Now, imagine the path reverse: breathing in the top of your head, expanding your lungs, and exhaling through your feet, as if you are pushing a magnet away from the underside of the floor with your energy (this is an image Oscar Mandagaran taught me, ten years ago).

Feel how the ENERGY of your body, and the BREATH, can be a column straight up from the floor, even though your body has curves and bends and joints. That continuity of energy and breath helps keep you grounded and contributes to your balance while you dance.

Partner: Force field exercise

This exercise usually yields the most immediate results of any of my energy exercises. For many dancers, close embrace tango is scary because "there's not enough room for my feet!" Each person is so aware of their own axis and body, that they forget to connect to the partner with their ENTIRE body.

Now, obviously, it is impossible to touch from head to toe while dancing. However, it is necessary to connect with energy from head to toe; this exercise facilitates that.

Pick your favorite color (i.e., red), or energy source (i.e., electricity), or element (i.e., water, fire) or implement (i.e. laser), and direct it THROUGH your partner, to the opposite wall. I personally like red, laser-beam-like fire; others like blue water, gold bubbles, purple lightening, etc. 

I add this on after the axis exercise. Have dancers face another dancer, close enough for their personal space to touch, but not actually touching. Leave at least 6 inches to a foot between the couple. Close your eyes, unclench your hands, relax your feet and knees (you may need to repeat these instructions during the exercise, as folks tense up sometimes).

Now, every time you exhale, send the [red laser fire] energy THROUGH your partner, to the opposite wall. As the dancers breath, I gradually add additional points to send energy through, until the entire couple is a person-shaped force field directed at and through the partner:

  • toes (add one thing every 2-4 breaths)
  • knees ("Toes, knees.")
  • hips ("Toes, knees, hips." etc.)
  • belly button (to make them laugh/relax)
  • ribcage
  • neck
  • head
  • whole body

Watch the group, and see which points of focus improve dancers' connections, and which make them revert to old habits. It will give you (and hopefully them) insight into what parts of the body need more/less energy to help balance and connection work best. I've found that often "Toes!" helps 3/4 of the followers: instead of trying to escape from the leader's feet, keeping the energy TOWARDS the leader, helps the follower avoid being stepped on, and is key to many followers improving their balance.

When all the body has been engaged, I do a second part of this exercise (sometimes, I stop here, and do the second part the next time we do the exercise). Without opening the eyes, move towards your partner until you are touching. Make an embrace (practice or actual, depending on level of class). Keep doing the force field exercise, but on each exhale, MOVE somewhere in space (one step). Inhale. Do it again. Everyone is moving slow motion, so there are few collisions. Encourage folks to do this with their eyes closed, rather than to cheat: it changes how they use their force field, extending it AROUND the couple like a bumper!

Group: Solo-couple exercise

Getting into the flow of the dance requires the couple to tune into the energy of the entire room. If that doesn't happen, collisions reduce the enjoyment that comes with tuning into the partner. To facilitate that, I teach a game I call solo-couple.

First, all the dancers move around the room IN ANY DIRECTION, swirling around with the music and tuning into the physical space. If someone is in the way, instead of stopping or changing direction, the dancer will simply turn in place until there is a space to move to. Arms and bodies need to stay relaxed in case of collision (I tell students to exhale if hit, so the impact will be reduced). I encourage dancers to actually LOOK at each other :-)

When I yell COUPLE! everyone grabs the nearest other dancer WITHOUT STOPPING, and keeps moving in space, turning in place when there is no room, and otherwise moving to new spaces. When someone stops, or the traffic starts to get congested, I yell SOLO, and we go back to the first part.

Although in real life, tango does not float around in space without pauses, I have found this exercise very helpful for new dancers. The ongoing nature of the rules imposes moving without forethought, thus removing the analytical block a lot of new leaders have, to responding to the music and available space to make a dance. Also, once this exercise works, a dancer learns to tune into the movement through space of the group as a whole, making it easier to navigate comfortably as more complex issues arise (such as a couple in front pausing for a long time).

Naughty Toddler

Naughty Toddler is my favorite game right now (since I thought of it about six years ago!). It offers benefits to both leaders and followers that allow a complete beginner to get out on the dance floor, have fun, and not hurt anyone else ;-)

Just as it is difficult for the average adult to convince a toddler NOT to do something, but easy to divert their attention to another activity, it is easy for a leader to divert the follower's energy into more positive, tango-like activity, rather than to wrestle the follower into submission. Usually, a follower's mistakes come from not dancing perfectly, rather than not paying attention, but the leader experiences those moments as being out of control. What if we use those moments to reassure the leader that, no matter how badly the dance goes, s/he can make a good/safe dance from the chaos?

Not only that, but a lot of

In Naughty Toddler, the person "following" is NOT following. That person can do anything s/he likes, whether it is to do adornos for the whole song, turns, ochos, walking; or even dancing badly on purpose--hanging on the leader, not waiting, being noodly or too tense, etc. I have NEVER met a dancer who didn't come to love this game; it's a good stress-reducer, too, if folks are frustrated about their dance.

The "leader" hangs on for dear life. I suggest holding firmly to the "follower's" shoulders, just in case of malfunction :-)


It is of paramount importance to accustom new leaders to the reality of dancing with people in the way. I start this in my beginner's class with the traffic game. For beginners, I usually incorporate this game into solo-couple, or into the Tete exercise (see Part One). I pretend to be the "bad" dancer on the dance floor, staying in one place for too long, backing up into traffic, cutting across the dance floor randomly, etc. (this also helps beginners understand what NOT to do on the dance floor).

Next, I designate half or a third of the class to be "traffic" and obstruct the other dancers. If the room is too big and folks can escape, I have them use only part of the room.

As the space gets smaller or the amount of traffic increases, the dancers get better and better. This happens in every class. I think that the game helps new leaders turn off their brains and just dance as they are forced to make decisions based on other people's decisions/behavior.

Another variation of this game, is to do the same thing, but with a ring of chairs in the middle ("the doughnut") that prevents dancers from floating across the center of the dance space.

New leaders emerge from this exercise with new confidence (as in Naughty Toddler) because they overcame obstacles and did well. New followers learn the importance of keeping their heels near the floor and staying on axis to allow the leader to deal with traffic; and trust the leaders more.


This is the hard part of dancing: not the steps, but standing and moving efficiently.  I teach this along with the fun pieces, one or two ideas each class. In more advanced classes, I cover the same material again, with more drills, more explanation, etc. In beginning classes, I try to help dancers understand that this should feel easy/comfortable/less difficult than what they are doing. For many of us, this will feel "strange" but not wrong.

Nitty gritty about body alignment (skip this if you are just going for the meat; read it if you really plan to get good at tango):

  1. The bones of the body hold the body up, with minimal help from the muscles. That leaves the muscles to dance/play.
  2. The connection with the floor (hopefully, your feet!) is grounded, relaxed and balanced. Half the body's weight is over the ball of the foot, and half over the heel. The toes are released, not gripped for balance or fear ;-)
  3. The ankles are relaxed!
  4. The knees are relaxed and slightly flexed. They are used as part of the "spring" from the ground, up through the pelvis, that allows you to move in a balanced way.
  5. The hips are back so that the head of the femur is tucked into the pelvis. This allows the bones to do the work, rather than the ligaments and muscles across the front of the hip joint. In other words, the opposite of the North American slouch. This is the hardest part of basic alignment to learn as a laidback, slouching "yankee" (what norte americanos are called in Buenos Aires by guys like Tete).
  6. The lower back is elongated and soft: the hips are moved back at the hip joint, NOT by curving the lower back.
  7. The whole spine is elongated, so that the solar plexus opens towards the partner, creating an energetic, lively connection.
  8. The head is relaxed, balanced on the spine.

Remember, keep the fun factor up, along with the time for each person to really DANCE, and you will enjoy your classes more, along with your students.