What is tango?
If you ask for what tango is, you will get as many answers as there are dancers. Some say that Canaro is tango but Piazzolla is not. Others say that it is an elaborate variation of the salida. There are those who claim that tango is about two hearts making a connection through movement on the dance floor. Someone else may say that it is the dance that is enjoyed at milongas. In art and life, and by any means in tango, contrary answers may be equally true. Yes, tango is in and of the music (and we believe that Piazzolla’s music is definitely tango music even when Bartók, Stravinsky and Shoenberg are influencing the tunes), and tango is an improvisatory variation of a few basic steps (but we do not believe that the salida is a fruitful point of departure for learning how to tango), and the dance is doubtless about how two people connect at a milonga. Still, the above is not how we primarily conceptualize the dance. This is our take.
Tango is about communicating movement. Every step can be deconstructed down to three elements, and every tango step is constructed in the same manner. Yes! Every step!
1) The man invites the woman to move.
2) The woman expresses the movement.
3) The man either rounds off the woman’s expression of his invitation or he uses the momentum to proceed directly into the next step.
It would be misleading to talk about ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ instead of ‘men’ and ‘women’. Our point is that the dance is about movement, and giving singular roles to the dancers would be to paint a very black and white picture of tango. No, it would be a grey mesh that if it was followed would render a most disengaged tango that totally would lack the energy of movement that we are advocates of. Read ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as abstractions of dynamic attitudes in the dance or roles that entail both leading and following.
The three elements of the tango steps could be voiced differently, and that would demonstrate the point.
1) The man’s invitation to movement or expression is a lead, but it is only at surface level that we can speak of an invitation. The woman cannot compromise with the direction that he orders, but she can play with qualities. She can play hard to get or she can act as the obedient wife, but she cannot question or challenge his directive. The man is the leader as he initiates the step.
2) But as the movement commences, as the flirtatious seductress or the light-footed (literally speaking) gracious dancer expresses the movement; she is the King and Queen in one person. She leads the dance. Well, she leads according to his movement directives, but what matters at that stage of the dance is not where to go but how one gets there. At this stage the man follows the woman’s expression.
3) As the step comes towards the end, the man regains control again and he is again the leader.
All is connected
Through the three stages of the dance we could thus say that the man is respectively leader-follower-leader, and the contrary applies to the woman, i.e. that she is follower-leader-follower. That would be to make matters to simple though. As the man invites the woman to move, he suggests a particular kind of energy to the movement. Still, only she can express it with her dance skills as they are manifested and interpreted through her unique body. Thus, she induces qualities to the movement that he could not foresee the full extent of. As the couple reaches stage (3) the leader must indeed make a decision about where to move next, but he does so on a basis of the movement qualities that she expressed through phase (2) of the step. The man must therefore listen gently with his abrazo and her expression will on the one hand limit how he can move further from phase (3) and into a new phase (1), but she will also have given him plenty of expression to work with to create unforeseen opportunities to directions and further qualities.
We now begin to see the outlines of how stage (1) and (3), initiation and round-off, are two sides of the same coin. The round-off is the essential precondition for how the next step will be formed, and the round-off is created by the expression (2), which in turn is a consequence of how the woman responded to the invitation to movement (1). All stages are interconnected, and as the movement is elaborated here it is hard to uphold the belief that we have three clearly distinguishable stages. We could further deconstruct the singular stages, say the first stage. The invitation to movement comes as a lead in a certain direction. The woman immediately gives a quality back (what we earlier talked about in metaphors like dancing flirtatious etc., but in plain terms she gives him different amounts of counter-movement/force at different intervals of time). There is a moment where both are attempting to lead. The man is undoubtedly the leader of directions as her answer to his invitation will always counter his movement. The interesting issue, though, is that both man and woman are for some fractions of a second both contributing with equal amounts of qualities or lead into the movement that is about to be created.
We could also similarly question the leading role of the woman through phase (2). The most obvious example would be if the man decided to give her a counter-direction as she expresses the step. In many occasions, this would lead to a boleo of some kind, depending on which step they are dancing and the timing of the counter movement. We could also imagine much more subtle ways of questioning her expression. He could infer more energy into the step or he could perhaps slow down her expression. These decisions will affect how stage (3) is reached.
We see that the concepts and roles get mixed. There is no longer a simple role as leader or follower. Instead, tango dancing on a high level demands that every so called leader or man must be an excellent follower. Conversely, women or followers must have lots of guts to express in the dance. We believe that every good dancer must be a little queer in his or her way of surfing between the different modes of listening, leading and expressing. Good dancers are simply queer dancers, no matter they know it or not.
Using the model
Now that the model is established, what use do we have for it? Well, the most obvious is for personal further development and for teaching. Assuming that you are a teacher interested in tango as communicated movement; this is the progression that you guide your students through. Most likely, you start even one step further back where the man leads and the woman follows. Then you try to ask (through movement and exercises) if that is really how one moves, and then you get into the ideas about invitation-expression-conclusion; and then those concepts are blurred. In other words, the deconstructions of the deconstruction are a fruitful way of understanding how we learn how to create tango where both dancers are expressing on equal terms.
There are numerous other ways to use the model too, but this blog post is already too extensive. Thus we will let it come to a conclusion by showing how the model can say much about how dancers move. Take an acknowledged dancer like Miguel Zotto. We find him boring, and the reason is that in the example that we have chosen, the roles are given. He leads and she follows. Period. She never takes the lead (ornaments does not make her truly independent), and they do not for a moment hover in the magical void where they do not know who has led the movement into the particular situation of the dance. They are never at the stage where they follow the movement and the energy of the momentum. Also, take note how most of the steps are of similar length, and how the dynamics are very much the same.
Now, have a look at Eugenia Parilla and Chicho. She is full of expressive power and he is intelligent and emphatic enough to let her take an equal part in the creation of the dance. That is what distinguishes this dance from the one with Zotto and Plebs, and that is why they move with such liveliness in this dance.
Someone may at this stage believe that we are arguing in favour of tango Nuevo at the expense of classical tango, but that is not true. We both believe that every classical dancer must be in command of tango Nuevo, and these two examples are arguments for that opinion. Zotto is a classical dancer without in-depth knowledge and experience of tango Nuevo, and that is why they move in a dull way. On the other hand, Nuevo dancers that cannot dance a classical tango will most likely perform something jerky. If you define yourself as a Nuevo dancer, then you still need to study tango salon seriously. Chicho and Eugenia are examples of Nuevo dancers with a thorough knowledge of their history.
Finally, have a look at this video with Murat and Michelle Erdemsel. Basically it is a classical interpretation which is spiced up with many Nuevo elements. Even so, when they are at their most conservative, they still move beautifully. That is because Michelle has a strong will to expression through movement, and Murat listens well.
We want to thank Gunilla Rydén and Henrik Uldall for first introducing us to the ideas that we discuss in this blog post. Even so, we have not tried to make an account of their ideas about tango. Instead, what we have written springs out of working with tango in this fashion for several years. Gunilla and Henrik cannot be held responsible for any wrongs said. They can only be thanked for whatever positive you may find here. We have not had lessons with them in many years but we still consider them to be among our most important role models.