In my previous blog for The Joy Club, all about discovering a passion for dancing in my mid 50s, I mentioned my love of Argentine tango. I’m delighted to have the chance to say a little more about this incredible dance and my personal highs, and lows, of learning it. I’d love to hear from any other ‘tangueros’ (tango dancers) out there.
I’ve had countless lessons over many years. Initially I was attracted by the beautiful and moving music, with its haunting bandoneon (a type of accordion). Tango also appealed as I thought it mostly consisted of walking slowly. Well, yes, and no, as it turned out. But perhaps I should start by clarifying what Argentine tango is not.
Firstly, as fans of Strictly Come Dancing will know, Argentine tango is very different from Ballroom tango. Secondly, ‘Show Tango’, seen in performances usually by companies from Buenos Aires – and what most couples attempt in Strictly – is not what you learn. If you tried all those extravagant, acrobatic lifts and kicks during a crowded class or social dancing it would be a serious health and safety issue resulting in a rise in admissions to A&E. Those stiletto heels can be a dangerous weapon!
There are several forms of Argentine tango – salon/traditional, tango vals (in waltz time), milonga (a joyful, faster dance) and the more modern Nuevo Tango. But traditional tango is probably the most common and popular, and that is essentially a ‘walking embrace’, danced heart to heart, torsos and faces touching in ‘closed hold’ – the opposite of ballroom tango.
As a newcomer without a partner, being up close and personal to total strangers looked pretty off-putting. But fortunately, I started with the ‘practice hold’ (holding arms), then the more familiar ‘open hold’ of partner dancing, finally progressing to the close embrace. To build familiarity and confidence we even had classes that included simply hugging other dancers – some of us nervously asking permission before doing so!
But with time and practice, in the safe space of a dance class, we gradually overcame our reticence, grew accustomed to the hold, and then realised this was the best part. Hugs are so good for you. The dance is sensual but not sexual; as my teacher said, ‘there are far easier ways to grope a woman than learning tango!‘ Moving to music as if one body with four legs can feel completely out of this world, even with a total stranger. What’s so weird is that if I was that close to this same stranger, say on a crowded train, I’d feel deeply uncomfortable or worse, and yet when dancing tango it feels the most natural thing in the world. The effect of dance is incredible.
‘The tango is as complex as its own roots and as simple as
the primal impulse for two human beings to move as one.’
Sally Potter, English film director of the award-winning 1996 film ‘The Tango Lesson’ about learning to tango at 46.
Tango is truly addictive, and I succumbed. The majority who take it up become totally obsessed, dancing three or four times a week at classes and socially, and some travelling abroad to dance in Buenos Aires and at the numerous Festivals.
When I began, I wondered how hard walking (caminata) and the other moves could be. The answer is, very! I soon discovered many say Argentine tango the most difficult dance to learn and that it requires seven years to master. I never have. I slowly worked my way up from Beginners at the classes of my wonderful teachers in London (Kim and David of Tango Movement) but never reached the Holy Grail of the Advanced class. But it doesn’t bother me as it is the joy of dancing at any level that matters.
Tango is hard largely because it’s a totally improvised response to the music. No two dances are the same and every person dances it differently.
There are, of course, basic steps and short sequences, including the cross (cruzada), turns (giros), figure of eight pivots (ochos), the well-known kicks and flicks (boleos) and entwined legs (ganchos). But the way they are combined constantly changes and is for the leader to determine, taking into account his (or occasionally her) own experience, the music, the available space, and their partner’s skill, at the same time as navigating the line of dance, anti-clockwise around the floor.
Although it is easier to be the follower, I did not find it easy, but absolutely loved it. A follower has to be sensitive to subtle cues from the leader’s body, avoid anticipating moves, try to incorporate some personal embellishments (or ‘adornments’), and do all this dancing backwards. It requires total focus on your partner and the music which partly explains why it’s usually danced in total silence with many women dancing with eyes closed. You enter the wonderful state of ‘flow’, living totally in the moment, oblivious of anything except the dance. I was interested to see that alcohol is generally avoided or drunk in strict moderation.
‘It’s about the connection with your partner and the expression of feelings
rather than about the choreography.’
Ultimately tango is all about the embrace and that connection and, if that exists, fancy displays or intricate choreography are unnecessary. And the age or skill of your partner is unimportant. Anyone just might provide a magical experience and you then can’t wait to replicate it. And you can usually tell within moments of starting to dance in hold what lies ahead.
‘There will never be a step, sequence, or trick in tango that will come close
to matching the power of the embrace.’
I have danced many ‘tandas’ at social dances, each tanda comprising four dances and lasting about 12 minutes, after which you usually change partners. Some tandas have induced highs lasting the rest of the night making sleep impossible. But I’ve also had dismal and depressing dances, for example, when a partner is openly critical or just wants to show off his talent. Of course, the problem can equally rest with you; sometimes one is too tense, can’t concentrate, or may not be in the right mood. But usually, a lovely time is had by all.
Sadly, I’ve not danced tango for several years. I gave up due to an ankle injury that made any dancing impossible for quite a while, and several things then delayed my return. First, there was the rather daunting prospect of wearing my gorgeous tango shoes with vertiginous 7cm stiletto heels, which are hard to walk, let alone dance, in. (Some dance in lower heels or flat shoes but it doesn’t look, or feel, the same).
Secondly, by the time I’d physically recovered, I’d lost the limited confidence I’d previously possessed. Rightly or wrongly, I became convinced no-one would dance with me if I went to a milonga (confusingly the name for social dancing as well as a type of tango dance). Tango is a macho dance, the man inviting the woman to dance, and sitting out several tandas brings back memories of being a ‘wallflower’ at teenage dances. And, although tango can be danced well at any age – and I’ve danced with students to septuagenarians – people tend to dance with those from the same generation. There’s not an excess of older male dancers, so, if female, the chance to dance reduces as you age, unless you just go to lessons, have a regular partner or partners, or are extremely talented – when age becomes irrelevant.
And then the pandemic arrived.
But I cannot forget this incredible dance. I’ve danced, and enjoyed, other styles, but, as anyone who dances tango will tell you, only this dance provides that unique connection and euphoria. Tango is like a drug, but luckily one that is legal, healthy and low cost. Although I’m not dancing now, it is in my soul – I’m even currently working on a tango embrace in my Beginners Sculpture class!
In common with many addicts, relapse is probably inevitable! I’ll need to go ‘back to basics’ and then hopefully will be brave enough to go social dancing again. But, as tango and social distancing do not mix, I’m waiting until this pandemic finally loosens its grip, although most tangueros were back on the dance floor as soon as dancing resumed.
If you want a dance that you can learn at any age, that will bring intense joy, new friends (possibly a life partner!) and the rewards of slowly mastering a demanding skill, I would highly recommend you give Argentine Tango a go.
And there’s an added bonus. Regular dancing and learning new steps, reduces the risk of dementia by a staggering 76% and tango (unsurprisingly given its totally improvised nature), has been found to be one of the best, if not the best of dances for the brain.
What more encouragement do you need to learn what has rightly been called ‘the most profound dance in the history of the world’?
If you enjoyed Maggy’s blog, you can share your thoughts with her in the comment section below!
We host regular solo dancing classes at The Joy Club, so if this blog has inspired you to give the tango a go yourself, take a look at our upcoming sessions here.