Two common questions people learning tango ask about learning a movement:
(i) Do they do that in Argentina?
(ii) I saw a video in which the dancers do X. It looks very cool.
The idea behind the first question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that this is how people dance in Argentina. The problem with this is that there is really no one way in which people dance in Argentina (see Styles). Even within a single style of Argentine Tango there will be considerable variation between individual dancers, and so one has to distinguish between what is essential to the dance and what is an individual expression.
The idea behind the second question is that the reason to dance a certain way is that it is visually attractive. The problem with this is that visual attractiveness is not a good reason to learn something if one is learning social tango. It is only useful if one is learning tango in order to do tango performances. Strangely enough, many people seem not to realise that what one sees in a tango performance is completely different from social dancing for a number of reasons:
(i) in a tango floor show the couple usually has plenty of floor space to themselves
(ii) a show couple practice the routine with a particular partner
(iii) the primary purpose of a floor show is to entertain an audience
None of these factors operate in social tango dancing. Tango is often danced in crowded conditions where the large movements, kicks and lifts done by show couples are completely impractical. In social tango we dance with different partners of different ability and size, which renders most difficult choreography of no use. Finally, traditional social tango is not intended to either entertain or compete and show off one’s cool moves. The essence of tango is for partners to share a beautiful moment.
So these considerations inform how we can decide whether a given movement or technique is useful to learn from the point of view of social tango dancing.
Rule for learning a movement or technique
A movement or technique for social tango dancing should only be learned when it is efficient in terms of movement, connection and space. Conversely, any movement or technique that is not efficient in these terms should be avoided.
Lets have a look at these three aspects of efficiency in more detail:
Whereas in show dancing the pleasure is on the part of the viewers of the couple whereas it is not necessary that the couple themselves enjoy the experience since it is a job they get paid for, in social dancing the main purpose is the enjoyment of the dancing by the social dancers themselves. Part of the enjoyment should be the actual movement itself. It is recognised that movement which is enjoyable is also efficient movement. Efficient movement is a relatively technical matter and it defined roughly as follows:
Efficient movement is movement that exemplifies an efficient use of the neuromuscular system, that is, a use of the system that requires the least amount of effort, tension or strain in order to perform it.
The study of efficient movement is called Somatics, and it was created by F. M. Alexander and Moshe Feldenkrais. They discovered that when we are too focused on a goal (called end-gaining) we lose awareness of our body position and this leads to an inefficient use of the body, that is, excessive tension and strain. Efficient movement is graceful, requires less effort, and is more pleasant.
One way to ascertain whether you are moving efficiently is to bring your awareness to your breathing and to see whether you can easily take a deep breath while executing the movement. If you are in a stationary position you can also close your eyes and see whether you feel that you’re standing or sitting in a comfortable position. In dancing you can ascertain that you are moving efficiently by asking whether you can execute the movement with minimum tension and without losing good posture and alignment (see Posture and Alignment).
This means a strong connection to the partner and to the music. It is this connection to partner and music that is strong and yet requires minimum strain or tension and that provides the primary source of enjoyment in tango. If you are moving but the connection to music and your partner is not efficient, that is, it is loose or sloppy, then the dance is not very enjoyable. It then becomes a mere physical activity. You see this all the time, a lot of what seems like pointless and excessive movement that’s not connected to anything. So improving in tango dancing should be primarily measured in terms of the tightness or strength of the connection to partner and music. The more connected you are the better your dancing. Therefore, we want to reduce the number of elements that may complicate the movement and thus upset this connection.
Connection Rule 1
The goal of learning and improving in social tango dancing is to improve the connection to the partner and the music. The better the connection the better the dancing.
Connection Rule 2
We want to simplify the elements to the most essential elements in order to improve the connection. We want to avoid unnecessary complications that can reduce the connection.
Efficient use of space
Watching people dancing we rarely consider the dynamic context of social dancing. If it’s a performance or demonstration we focus on the couple which dances on an empty dance-floor. Sometimes we watch couples dancing when there is relatively few people dancing and so there is a lot of space. But it is not reasonable to expect that these are the normal conditions. It is more reasonable to expect that the dance-floor is quite crowded and then we find that the style of dancing that looked so beautiful and graceful is completely impractical.
We should ask whether the tango we are watching is ’fit for purpose’, ie., fit for dancing on a crowded dance-floor. We want to learn some beautiful piece of choreography and then find that we kick or otherwise disturb other dancers doing them. The primary goal of social dancing is dancing in harmony with other dancers and that means that we are able to dance without disturbing them in any way. Dancing styles that are designed for performances are not functional in two ways:
(i) they do not allow you to navigate efficiently around the dance-floor so that you either block the way of others or bump into them
(ii) they include movements which are loud and distracting and create an unpleasant competitive atmosphere
So we want to be able to move in such a way that we can easily navigate the dance-floor moving along the line of dance at a good rate so that we don’t block the dancers behind us or bump into dancers ahead of us. Difficulties navigating caused by a choreography that is too fixed or uses large steps and kicks in the end leads to situations which cause tension and negative feelings.