A Dancer's Guide to Tango

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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Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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