Adornments and women’s technique: why they are a really bad idea

Search the internet on tango technique or peruse ads for workshops on Facebook and a lot of what you find is material, mostly for women, for what to do with your feet: things like crossing your feet and various sorts of adornments that the woman (and sometimes also the man) can do in between steps. I want to convince you that you should not be learning any of this, and if you really want to explore it, leave it until you have a good amount of experience in dancing, like at least a couple of years, because only then will you have a good idea about the dance and whether you really want this.

The amount of material that one finds on adornments of this sort would suggest that they are somehow essential to the dance. They are only essential if one’s goal in dancing is exhibition and perhaps self-expression. They have no functional value to the basic structure of traditional social tango or to the enjoyment of the dance unless one seeks the things mentioned above, exhibition and self-expression. From a functional point of view, however, they are more often than not detrimental to the dance. So why do people believe that hooks, kicks and various decorations are so important to tango and spend a lot of time and money taking lessons and learning choreography based on them?

Perhaps there is the belief that these adornments are unique to tango and are part of its tradition. When one looks at tango movies from the 1940s one does see women performing hooks and kicks in musical stage shows. There is no question that such movements are exciting to watch and that is the primary reason they are utilised in dance performance. But as I discuss elsewhere there is the question whether performing such eye catching moves one does not venture into the realm of kitsch, of easy and inauthentic satisfactions.

There seems to be a belief that these movements are part of the expression in tango. This belief originates from a view of dancing in general as expressive and that expression is associated with movements of arms and legs. But the idea that dancing is always expressive is unfounded if one looks at such dances as classical ballet or the Viennese waltz. There is nothing inherently expressive about them, and to the contrary they are marked by restraint and control. Certainly, art is a mode of expression but we first need to connect to the expression in music and then decide on the appropriate way of expressing that in our dancing. It is not clear that doing these decorations done habitually is the appropriate way to do that. It is certainly never mentioned in a ‘technique class’ how these decorations are to be used in relation to the music.

There are a number of reasons not to do decorations. First, doing hooks and kicks looks great but is not efficient in tango estilo milonguero because (i) the dancers have to open up the embrace; (ii) it takes up space and endangers other dancers creating tension on the dancefloor, and (iii) dancers have less control over their dancing and so you lose the all-important connection. All of these are undesirable characteristics and so one does not see these movements in traditional social dancing in Buenos Aires only in floorshows where, in my view, they take away from the beauty of the performance more than anything else adding only a tacky, kitsch element.

While adornments generally look pretty they have a detrimental effect on mastering social dancing. First, to become a good social dancer you need to focus on good technique in terms of connection: leading and following and moving to the music. Spending time learning decorations is putting time and energy on an inessential aspect of the dance from that point of view.

Second, even if you are a competent dancer, performing adornments takes your attention away from the embrace and from your partner, and moves it towards the feet. All attention should be focused on the embrace and posture and there is no good reason to focus on the feet whose function is merely to take steps.

Third, performing adornments becomes a habit so that they are performed even when it is not efficient to do so, that is, when there is not enough time or the leader is not aware that the follower is performing them. That means that the decorations reduce the control that the dancers have and make the dance less enjoyable. Ultimately, we want the best possible connection and control in the dance, and anything that takes away from that is detrimental to the enjoyment.

Finally, adornments are a form of showing off, as a sort of fashion or exhibition, that leads to a competitive atmosphere on the dancefloor which takes away from the convivial and social element of tango. If what you seek is self-expression and attention from an audience then tango estilo milonguero is not the ideal way to do that. Performance tango or other types of dancing are probably better suited to those interests.

Does that mean that we never perform these movements? I am not saying that. What I am saying is that you should not learn them in a ‘technique’ class that teaches adornments or choreography. Crossing your feet is not a special technique or adornment. Instead it is part of the fundamental technique of walking and direction. When you walk you will have to change direction and you do that by initiating with the feet. You cannot do that without crossing them. As for kicks and other movements, they are movements that will naturally emerge in your dancing when you freely improvise. There is no need to learn them, and learning them directly will change them so that your dancing become less expressive and you will be like the dancers performing at tango competitions, mechanically running through their choreographed moves.