Former ballerina Cyrena Drusine and her partner Steinar RefsdalIn a bustling Buenos Aires ballroom, a dapper gentleman stands, gazing at an elegant señora. He nods gently, receiving her graceful, silent response. Without a word, he leads her to the dance floor, and as she closes her eyes, they nestle into a close hold, the twin parts of a helix winding together. They begin to walk, their feet gliding along the floor, grapevine crosses, small circles and gentle rocks punctuating the otherwise languid sentence. From the pulse between them, it seems they've been lovers for years. But no, they're dance partners meeting for the first time.

And this, say enthusiasts, is the allure of tango: In the embrace of a partner, strangers become connected instantly and uniquely. The tango relies on the silent conversation between leader and follower. “Tango has no set pattern, and that requires you make an extra effort to be in the real moment, not the automatic moment," says Tomas Corbalan, who travels the world dancing and teaching tango with partner Yamila Ivonne. “Give to the other person and share energy."

The Appeal for Ballet Dancers

Former New York City Ballet principal and longtime faculty member at the School of American Ballet, Suki Schorer found tango years after putting her pointe shoes away. It was the perfect complement and continuation of her movement background, she says.

“Unlike concert dance, it's not about performing for the outside world," she says. “If I have a private lesson, it feels like a shot of adrenaline…like I've been hugged for an hour. It's euphoric."

Rebecca Shulman (in striped pants) co-founded an all-female company, TangoMujer.Similarly, former ballerina Cyrena Drusine, founder of Narrative Tango Tours in Buenos Aires, says tango can help all dancers interact more effectively with partners. “Coming from ballet, it's difficult to relax your legs and submit to your partner," she says. “But, within that, you can find a grounded trust and new chance for creativity to use in your other styles."

As Simple as Walking

Stage tango of the type Tango Argentino helped make famous, with its heavy layering of kicks, lifts and complicated turns, suggests tango has an intimidating catalogue of individual steps. But it's actually quite simple.

Walking—forward and backward, including rocking or shifting weight, plus a basic eight-count box step of sorts—and grapevine crosses serve as the foundation. “My teacher Gustavo explained that combining walking and the grapevine is what creates the look of tango," says Rebecca Shulman, NYC-based performer, master teacher and co-founder of the all-female company TangoMujer. “Within that, the leader's footwork is entirely free, and he can step on either foot. The patterns and rules are for the follower. They help her interpret the leader's signals. For example, when the leader starts to turn, the follower has to take steps to stay in front of the leader's chest, and those steps should always be the grapevine. If the leader keeps turning, the follower will continue to grapevine."

But don't be fooled: Though simple, these movements prove challenging, because the dancers must remain relaxed but also walk straight on the center axis. “Even professional dancers spend hours trying to perfect a natural, elegant walk," says Drusine. “The female inclines her chest forward to her partner to be able to extend her legs backward in a continuous walk."

“Walking without any bounce is the basic point," adds Schorer. “And, you want to remain on your axis as you walk back, not fall on your leg. You do this by keeping the weight on the supporting leg longer before the transition. Try walking with your hand on your partner's chest to feel that constant pressure. Then reverse roles so both people can understand it."

Tomas Corbalan and his partner Yamila IvonneIt is the follower's role to allow the intricacies of tango to emerge, as she riffs on the basic steps. “The follower might choose to change the quality from twisty to gliding to playful," says Shulman. “Or, she might add interactive decoration, like adornments around your ankle."

The Embrace

Equally, if not more important, is the embrace, the close position of the two dancers' chests. This can be challenging for students to grasp or enjoy, even though it increases freedom in the legs and feet. “In different cultures it can be difficult to get people to embrace," says Drusine. “But that's how you receive information, not through the arms or hands. Sometimes, we start with an open embrace while we practice walking, or sometimes we practice hugging each other. It's about trust."

“We want the torso to be signaling the connection," says Shulman. “I might ask the dancers to hold their arms in the air so they learn to connect at the heart. The follower must learn to move their own body by their own power, instead of being muscled by the leader's arms."

Corbalan suggests that the embrace becomes easier to digest when thought of as a proposition instead of an imposition. “It's a circle, not a line," he says. “For example, as the leader, if you want to move backward, first send your energy up in a curve and then forward and then toward the floor and finally backward. This connection reaches her first, asks her to move to you and then you proceed."

Taking on a New Challenge

Because of the ephemeral nature of the dance, dancers new to the genre find it bewildering, especially since there's no set choreography. Moreover, unlike ballet, there's a disassociation between the upper and lower body.

“In tango, your chest moves first, then the hips and legs," says Schorer. “You can't anticipate that, and it's better to be late. To understand this, practice walking in different ways, from the heel to toe and toe to heel, or maybe a combination. Practice these adornments alone so they're available to you with a partner. Try to circle your free leg, maintaining your axis, or complete ochos (grapevines with twisting hips) around a pillar."

“It's not about being perfect," says Shulman. “It's about adding your own personality and energy in the form of decorations or dynamics. Dance both roles to explore and have empathy for the other side, and don't be afraid to relax your dance posture. It's a gift to have a dance whose main purpose is enjoying time together, discovering the elegance and earthiness of tango. That's sacred." DT

Lauren Kay is a dancer, writer and fitness instructor in NYC.

Tango Talk

The Language

Boleos: A one-leg sweep or flick crossing behind the body while the body swivels

Ganchos: Hooking a leg sharply around the partner's leg by bending and releasing the knee in a flick motion

Giro: A figure or step that turns

Ocho: Figure eight of the hips, including forward and backward, with grapevine footwork

Paradas: A “stop," where the leader puts his foot against the follower's, stopping her. This invites her to use embellishments to step over the joined feet.

Sacadas: Replacing a partner's leg or foot with your leg or foot

The Music

Featuring the unique moan of the bandoneons, along with guitars, flutes and other additional instruments, the music is divided in categories, including the familiar tango, the up-tempo milonga (similar to a polka) and a waltz.

The Protocol

In a milonga, to ask for a dance, a man silently gazes and nods at his prospective partner. Her agreement or gentle refusal is silent as well. And, unlike other forms where “thank you" is a nicety, here, this phrase is a clear indicator that the pair's time has ended. So, if you want to continue dancing, avoid this phrase.

Also, if you want to practice the moves you learn in class, attend a practicum, where chatting with your partners about steps is appropriate. If you attend a milonga unprepared and talkative, it won't be appreciated.

The History

While the detailed history of tango provokes debate, it's largely agreed that what morphed into the tango began in and around the twin stars of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay. Immigrants and African slaves flooded the area during the end of the 1800s. The population consisted of men who found a common language in music. “The rebellious young hombres used to dance tango sideways around a campfire so the leader was facing out of a circle," says Rebecca Shulman of TangoMujer. “Because of this, the follower would often dance the grapevine, but with inventiveness. Both leader and follower took initiative in expression."

The dance also appeared in brothels, further shaping the tango's sultry reputation. Only after the dance was critically acknowledged by the upper classes in Belle Époque Europe did Argentinians begin to consider it socially appropriate.

From 1935 to 1955, glorious ballrooms sprung up and the refined version of Tango Salon was born. During this golden age of tango, “it became more about an elegant bearing, with a lifted upper body and respectable embrace with space between partners," says Shulman. “Later, in the '50s, this changed again, when people started dancing tango at rock-and-roll clubs, like Le Petit Café. Smaller, crowded dance floors and fewer chaperones bred that recognizable close embrace."

When General Perón was ousted from leadership of Argentina in 1955, gatherings were banned and the tango was pushed underground. In 1983, a return to democracy made a resurgence possible. And in the 1990s, Nuevo Tango blossomed as a more relaxed version, characterized by experimentation with tango structure. Today a blend of these aspects is studied worldwide. —LK

Yuyú Herrera (front) teaches the blind to tango.Tango for All

When Buenos Aires–born and –based Yuyú Herrera speaks of tango, her eyes sparkle, and she shakes her raven mane with excitement. “Unlike choreography you can do alone, tango is a dance with another person," she says. “Tango's richness is in the moment. Time and space are suspended. Even if you're a great dancer, if you don't put your heart into the moment and give yourself to the other person, it's just gymnastics."

Herrera is known for her workshops for the blind and other people with disabilities. She leads “Milongas of Integration" that attract students of all ages and physical abilities.

She says the use of props is especially crucial with the disabled to help them increase body contact slowly. “Maybe we use a big scarf. Everyone takes hold of the scarf and walks in a circle," she says. “Since some autistic people don't want to be touched, they can participate and still feel safe. Or, we use a ball of different sizes between chests to work toward the embrace." They work in pairs, with balloons or balls that they pass to each other.

Her blind dancers have particular challenges to overcome. “Sometimes, blind students don't move their necks," she says. “They move in a block because they're not using the eyes to direct them, so first we need to increase movement in each part of their bodies." She does this by having them sit (to avoid dizziness or any falls) and slowly move their necks and heads, waking up the muscles. She introduces sounds (bells, drums or clapping) and odors (incense, perfume or fruits) to stimulate other senses. “I ask them to stand, feel the stimulus, move their head toward the direction of what they're feeling, face their body toward that and then finally walk toward it," she says. “That sequence helps them move more easily. Finally, I help them rotate. I have them move their head first, followed by their torso and finally lower body."

An additional layer also has to be broken through. “They don't have trust, because they're constantly relying on others to lead them," she says. “Even as a follower in tango, you need that secure movement. So, we work on confidence in touching another person, first by touching a shoulder as they might do to cross the street, and then moving together to feel the embrace. Their challenge is largely in being the leader. And it's also a huge opportunity. You can see it make a big difference in their psychology: to be recognized by the other person, to move themselves and the partner and to move with the music."

Rather than bog the students down in technique, Herrera emphasizes the motion of the embrace—and of having fun. She teaches decorations and embellishments of the feet and legs by having her blind students touch either her legs or a small, wooden figurine. “I put the accent on moving together, the embrace and enjoyment," she says. “The result is so clear. Mechanically they are more stable, they have more flexibility and their relationship with others is more confident and happy. That's the biggest present to me." —LK

Photo by Kicca Tommasi, courtesy of Drusine; by Astrid Weiske, courtesy of Shulman; courtesy of Corbalan; courtesy of Herrera

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As a dance teacher, chances are you strive daily to be a great role model for your students—cheerful, enthusiastic and motivating, offering plenty of positive reinforcement as well as a sense of clear control over your classroom. But what happens when your personal life gets in the way of those good intentions?

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Growing up in a family-owned dance studio in Missouri had its perks for tap dancer Anthony Russo. But it also earned him constant taunting, especially in high school.

"There was a junior in my sophomore year health class who was absolutely relentless," he says. "I'd get tripped on my way to the front of the classroom and he'd say, 'Watch out, twinkle toes.' If I raised my hand and answered a question incorrectly, I'd hear a patronizing 'Nice one, Bojangles.' "

A different classmate, who often called Russo "Dancing Queen," would lurk near the cafeteria doors each day at lunchtime, hoping for an opportunity to corner him. "I'd find ways to exit the cafeteria at the same time as a teacher, or go as far as walking out through the kitchen and reentering the building somewhere else," Russo admits.

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His experience is sadly similar to what many male dancers endure throughout their training and careers: name calling, physical intimidation, cyberbullying, sometimes even death threats.

Although girls, too, can be bullying victims, it's far less common, as our culture views dance as a more acceptable activity for them to pursue. Boys who dance are frequently stereotyped as gay and mocked for participating in what many consider to be a feminine art.

As conversations about bullying heat up throughout the country, with the role of social media and the effects on adolescent mental health emerging as related concerns, there's no better time to consider what the dance world can do to help male students of all ages feel safe and accepted.

Teachers Can Make a Difference

Many male dancers agree that positive adult role models are essential for bullying prevention. Dancer and choreographer Chris Bell, who remembers being incessantly called a "faggot" throughout middle and high school in San Antonio, Texas, says he channeled his anger into his school work, focusing on excelling academically.

Now a performer with Eryc Taylor Dance and dendy/donovan projects, he realizes how necessary it is for teachers—both in academic schools and dance studios—to speak up.

Chris Bell says teachers need to stop bullying in its tracks. Photo by Craig Macleod, courtesy Bell.


"The second that you hear anything demeaning or demoralizing, stop it and talk about it," he says. "You have to acknowledge that it's wrong, explain why it's wrong and then move on."

The message is especially effective if teachers work in schools that support dance as part of the curriculum. "The dance world should get into public schools, especially younger grades, to show what both men and women do in the dance world—any kind of dance," says Andy Jacobs, a modern/contemporary dancer and choreographer in New York City. "It's all going to open up their eyes and show them there's no boundaries to what you can like."

Dance Should Be Introduced More Like a Sport

Tap dancer Leo Lamontagne, assistant director at North Andover School of Dance and former company member with Chicago's Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, asks what would happen if dance were treated more like sports in school. "What if dance were introduced at the same age that basketball was? What if dance were used to teach gross motor skills?" he asks. "Bullies are intimidated by what they don't understand, so it's up to us to educate not just dancers but also non-dancers on what dance can be."

"So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Peter Sabasino suggests creating more performing arts schools altogether. "Then more kids would look at dance as a cool thing to do," he says.

Peter Sabasino suggests more performing arts schools could help dance look "cooler" among kids. Photo by Matthew Carby, courtesy Sabasino.


We Need More Role Models

More male ambassadors in popular culture could also help. "We could certainly use another Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire to show how cool dance is, not just showing hip-hop dancers as cool or men as strippers, like in Magic Mike," says Todd Shanks, an artist in residence at Dean College. "Honestly, though, dance doesn't have to be masculine to be cool. Talent doesn't have a sexual preference."

Todd Shanks feels another Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly could show that men dance, too. Photo courtesy Dean College/Paladino School of Dance.


But maybe we don't have to wait for a dance celebrity: Young men can also be role models for each other. "We need to expose boys to other male dancers, not just the professionals," Lamontagne says. "We need to come together to support our boys to support one another."

He suggests that competitions and conventions offer classes exclusively to boys, as all-male classes can sometimes be impossible in many small communities, where few male students are in attendance.

That is exactly the idea behind the Male Dancer Conference, launched last year by the founders of online dancewear store Boys Dance Too. The event gives boys a chance to be surrounded by their peers in classes led by role models like Sascha Radetsky and Alex Wong.


Similarly, Earl Mosley's Hearts of Men intensive offers two weeks of training and networking for male dancers. The National Dance Education Organization also held a symposium last year for teachers of male students to address how dance can attract more boys.

Power in numbers, after all, may be a valuable tactic. Bell points out that all dancers who are bullied have something in common—a shared experience that has made them stronger. "These experiences help you to become a better, more enriched person," he says. "A lot of the kids who bully want some kind of essential quality that you have. They want the freedom that you already have to do what you love."

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