Walking: the basic movement of tango

The basic movement in tango is walking. This is often misunderstood as a statement about practicing. That is, what one often learns is that there are certain basic steps such as paso basico (the basic), ocho (figure eight), or cruzada (the cross). These are the steps that one commonly learns in a beginner class. Walking is then stressed as technique practice much as one might practice scales on the piano. Moreover, the student is taught to practice walking with elongated steps, pushing into the step and then bringing feet together in between the steps.

Now, this way of framing the issue of walking is typical of styles of tango which are essentially choreographed. This means that there are set patterns which take several steps to execute. This, however, is at odds with tango estilo milonguero which is essentially improvised.* Practicing by walking individually, taking elongated steps, powering horizontally into each step, and bringing feet together at the end of the step will actually hinder progress in learning walking with a partner and will interfere with dancing in the close embrace.

This type of movement can work in two contexts which are different from that of a beginner class. First, it looks great in a choreographed floor show in an open embrace that allows for such walking and for the choreography. In a floorshow we need to use up all that empty space and such walking satisfies this requirement. Second, in tango estilo milonguero it is a case of demonstrating high level of skill. However, as I explain in Training vs. demonstration of skill, the process of attaining the requisite skills requires a different process of training.

In general, while it sometimes can be seen, this type of walking is not the norm as for the most part it is not efficient, connected or functional in the context of social dancing. We often have to take smaller steps due to (i) limited space on the dancefloor; (ii) the level of our partner; and (iii) the requirements of the music. It is therefore unlikely that we would be dancing powering into each step other than on a selected occasions when the opportunity or need arises (see also Walking and the principle of reversibility). I suggest that this type of walking is best viewed as emerging out of more basic improvisational skills that require a very different type of training (see Choreography vs. emergent movement).

Instead, what we want is to practice initiating the step by breaking at the knee and then following that with the foot sliding along the floor so that it ends up where we want to go and then taking the step. This walking movement has these parts:

  1. Breaking at the knee in the leg that is going to go.
  2. The foot slides along the floor in the direction that we want to go.
  3. Finally, move into that step.

It may be useful to prepare by practicing that movement alone but ultimately it only makes sense to practice walking by doing it with a partner, walking forward and back, with some relatively slow music to begin with.

In tango estilo milonguero there are no steps to be learned, ie., copied and memorised. All the patterns that one sees in social tango dancing naturally emerge from walking. Tango is essentially improvised. We start walking in a straight line forward and back but soon enough we discover new possibilities which we may call steps if we want. For example, learning to change direction while we walk with a partner creates the pauses and turns that we associate with tango. Anything outside of that is fixed or semi-fixed choreography and so then it is no longer traditional tango estilo milonguero which can be defined as the exploration of the possibilities of walking in a heart-to-heart embrace to tango music.


* Although one does find teachers who claim to instruct tango estilo milonguero using set patterns.

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