Explain Tango

I recently returned from my first trip to Buenos Aires, accompanied by my wife, Kathleen, an ardent tanguera, and another couple, Roger and Claire, both tango devotees of the highest order.  I will attempt to explain tango.

Not an easy thing to do.  I think it’s like trying to explain Argentina.  That’s where tango began.  It’s why it is called the Argentine Tango.  It is a social dance, since people who dance tango gather at milongas and ask others, not the “one who brung ya”, to dance.  Mostly men ask women, with a certain glance known as a cabaceo, to which the woman responds with a nod, or turns her head away.  This allows two dancers spotting each other across the room, then making their way across the dance floor to each other, assuming the embrace, then starting to dance, with few or no words said.  The music is of three basic styles, called tango, milonga or vals.  Yes, it can get confusing.  One goes to a milonga to dance tango, and might dance to a tango, or a milonga or a vals, which is a waltz, but not danced like a waltz, but like a tango but with a few syncopated steps thrown in.  If a couple want only to dance with each other, that is okay, but they are sat with other like-minded couples.  If the thought is to dance with others, one needs to sit separate from one’s mate, and be available.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Basic tango steps as documented on the floor of a tango shoe store.

Learning tango is like learning another language.  The vocabulary consists of different progressions of movement, and the communication is between the leader and the follower.  In general, the male leads and the woman follows, but men can follow, women can lead, and men can dance with men, women with women.  But a leader and follower are still essential parts.  Done well, it can be quite beautiful, but everyone needs to start at the beginning, so entry-level tango is necessary.  In fact, when one attends a milonga, which is what the gathering of people to dance tango is called, it usually starts with a lesson.  The lesson is taught by masters of tango, who show basic steps very slowly, building on one turn into the next, and then the students try to emulate.  Good teachers will watch all the students and closely interact with them until they get the movement being taught.  They also encourage the students to frequently change partners, so they get the opportunity to learn how different leaders lead, and different followers follow.  Some followers need a very strong lead and move like a barge, while others are like cutting horses; give them a bit of a nudge and they’re off into a crazy boleo or some other risky maneuver.

Practica:  teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without.

Practica: teachers demonstrating for class, to be followed by time to practice without being too formal.

Tango started sometime around the mid-1800’s, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.  While the origins may be obscure, it seems the early dancers were mainly men, sometimes dancing with each other, sometimes with prostitutes in the poorer neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.  It caught favor with a classier crowd, and towards the end of the century into the early 1900’s it became very popular.  The bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument, was adopted from Germany and became a basic part of tango.  The popularity of the dance spread, first to Paris, then other parts of Europe, New York and eventually world-wide.  But the only true capital, and the place where tangueros and tangueras go to experience the essence of tango is Buenos Aires.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

La Casa Rosada, or Pink House, home of the office of the president of Argentina.

The music of tango has certain style and sound that make it unique.  For straight tango, it has a very strong rhythm with two or four beats per measure, and a pronounced down beat.  There is usually no percussion, although the bandoneon or the bass can be used to keep the rhythm. The music can change tempo, giving dancers the opportunity for dramatic acceleration or slowing, even pausing.  The most famous tango song, and the one which is often used to wrap up a night at a milonga, signalling the last dance, is called La Cumparsita.  It was written by Gerardo Matos Rodriquez, an 18-year-old Uruguayan from Montevideo, in 1916.

Tango in Argentina has gone through periods of decline, then resurgence several times.  But now it is a world-wide phenomenon, one can find milongas most nights in most major cities, and it is popular with more people now than ever before.  The mystery, though, is what drives the desire to spend years, huge amounts of money, and great amounts of frustration to learn tango.

It is a dance of intimate contact.  It is danced chest to chest, sometimes with a bit of separation, in salon style, and sometimes pressed up against each other in close embrace, feet and legs a bit outward, moving in concert in milonguero style.  This is with any partner one happens to lure to the dance floor.  The intimacy is counteracted by the serious nature and intent of the dancers, in other words, if you are enjoying that close contact, you must not show it.  But, the milongueras know.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

Milonguero style, or close embrace.

It is also a dance of strict lead and follow, requiring close attention on the follower’s part, and very clear intention on the leader’s part.  The leader must maintain the proper posture and embrace, without using force, to let his follower know what to do.  The leader must also get cues from the follower, to allow her time to respond, to pivot, or to perform embellishments.  The signals are conveyed chest to chest.  It is a dance requiring a connection between two people which is unlike any other social interaction.  Songs are played in groups of three, or sometimes four, called a “tanda”, and are of the same type, tango, or vals, or milonga.  Once a connection is made, one is expected to dance the entire tanda with the partner, then switch partners.  Between songs, the partners may make light conversation, then wait as the next song starts.  They will often wait until a minute or so into the song before starting dancing.  Between tandas, a bit of utterly non-tango music is played, such as swing, or cha-cha, and the dancers chuckle, briefly showing they may know how to do those dances, too, before getting to the next tanda.

Afternoon tango at Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue.

Matinee (until 9:00 PM) tango at La Confiteria Ideal, a classic tango venue in Buenos Aires.

Tango has it’s own verbal language.  There’s abrazo, boleo, cadena, desplazamiento, entrada, fanfarron, gancho, lapiz, molinete, ocho, planeo, and many more, all in Spanish, all which one must learn as part of learning the dance.  Naturally, the tango teacher comes from Argentina, speaks mostly or only Spanish, so one either gets with the language or is totally confused.  Tango dancers enjoy learning this secret language known only to them.  The Spanish words by themselves are common, but what they mean in the dance is the key.

Making shoes for tango.

Making shoes for tango.

Particularly for women, there is the excitement of the shoes.  Tangueras (the ladies) get absolutely obsessed by the tango shoes, stylish high heels costing hundreds of dollars, built by hand in the shoe salons of Buenos Aires.  If a woman enjoys tango, she may go to Buenos Aires for the sole purpose of buying shoes.  Of course, they need to fit just right, and be supportive for dancing in addition to making the other women furious with envy.  We spent one afternoon chasing this dream on our recent trip.  The address of the salon led us to a tall, narrow building on a busy street with a locked door and the typical push button list of occupants.  There was no sign indicating a shoe salon, and no labels on the brass plate with the buttons to show which one to press.  We were wondering if we were in the right place, when another customer came up, pressed the right button and got buzzed in.  She indicated we were indeed in the right place.  The building inside was old with a very high ceiling and elegant, but with the look of an office building.  The elevator was a classic ancient elevator, tiny with glass doors.  There was room only for our wives and the other customer, so my friend Roger and I ascended the stairs and met the women on the third floor, which was, English style, three flights up.  Through the unmarked office door we went, and were greeted by a young woman in charge of her shoe salon.  She had samples on shelves around the waiting area, with thin leather straps, colorful combinations of prints and designs, and very long slender heels.  Several other women were there trying on shoes.  This is the ultimate in shoe buying experience.  We went to several other shoe salons during the trip that were not so secretive, but this one topped them all.

One of Kathleen's new pairs of tango shoes.

One of Kathleen’s new pairs of tango shoes.

Tango starts and ends very late at night.  The typical time table starts with a lesson around 9:30-10:30.  The milonga itself does not start until 11:00 PM, and goes until 4:00 AM.  The better dancers don’t even show up until 1:00 AM, and stay until the end.  So if you like to sleep in late, rise say at noon, and hit the dance floor around midnight, tango is for you.  Some people like this.  This life is not for the hard core early riser, the sunrise worshiper, the early to bed, early to rise type.  Nope.  This is for the person whose life runs on their time, who likes to consider dinner at around 10:00 PM, and uses the later morning hours for a good sleep.

Learning tango may take years, and a lot of dedication, but it offers the excuse, if one was needed, to go to Argentina and experience the dance in its element.  Certainly, Buenos Aires has much to offer beyond tango.  The various neighborhoods are very colorful, with beautiful architecture, and a style of painting in many areas known as fileteado.

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

Building with fileteado painting in Palermo

There is San Telmo, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, characterized by small cafés, bodegas, book shops, art galleries, antique shops and elegant old buildings.  It is where we stayed in a very unique apartment while in Buenos Aires.  La Boca, where many Italian immigrants from Genoa settled, has typical tourist shops, and the old port.  Microcentro is the central business district, with office buildings, shopping, restaurants and hotels.  There is a pedestrian-only street in Microcentro called Calle Florida, jammed with shops and shoppers, also young men quietly calling out “cambio”, (“change”), seeking to have you change your dollars for their pesos.

Street tango performers

Street performers on Calle Florida in Microcentro.

Palermo is a chic, upscale barrio, with earth-friendly but costly cafés, expensive clothing stores, and lots of bikes.  It is a very pleasant area to wander in the afternoon, window shopping, and stopping for an espresso, or lunch.  We did not make it to Recoleta on this trip, but it is the highest end neighborhood.   In every barrio, every night, there are several milongas from which to choose.  There is, of course, a smart phone app to help, called “Hoy Milonga”, which will let you know what is happening where.

I will leave you with a link to a video of a typical milonga, but to truly understand tango takes years of practice, lessons, milongas, mistakes, overcoming shyness, brusqueness, close human interaction, embracing the challenge and opening oneself to new friends and relationships.  I am told that once one is bitten by the bug, there is no turning back.  Perhaps I sound a bit on the fence,  but I am enjoying my foray into the world of tango.

Uncorking Croatia



To help enrich the lives of others, we developed RunnersOnTheGo.com to help runners save money on races, running stores, and much more. We also provide the specific local information that makes your travel for business, vacation, or racing as rewarding as possible.


Travel Blog of a Budget Traveler sharing stories on travel, books & Vegetarian Food

Marc Hemingway

Trying to keep track of my life (and my life on track)

Mid-Life, Mid-Level, Masters Running

Exploring ideas about running to contribute to a more enjoyable pursuit for the mid-level masters runner


"One foot in front of the other and one thought at a time"

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.


The Diary of a Retiree

%d bloggers like this: