Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The language of tango

Lire en français

When teaching tango, studying tango or just talking about tango, we compare the dance to many things: driving, sports, architecture, relationships – but my favourite tango analogies compare tango to language. I didn’t invent the tango-language comparison, but I use it often and I feel it is the most true.

First, tango is inarguably a form of communication. It is a non-verbal conversation between two people. The leader initiates the conversation, the follower responds and the leader responds to her response. As in verbal exchanges, the best communicators are excellent listeners. It is such a pleasure to lead dancers who wait for the lead, who respond to subtle movements and who take the time and initiative to express themselves. Meanwhile, leaders who give that time to their partners, who leave them space for self-expression and who wait for them to complete a movement before suggesting the next one are a joy to dance with.

Also, as in verbal communication, interrupting is impolite. For leaders this would be the equivalent of not letting the follower complete one movement before leading the next. For followers it means anticipating what comes next and not waiting for the lead. If I interrupt you when you are talking to me, I am basically telling you that what you were saying either didn’t interest me or was at least less interesting that what I have to say. It is the same on the dancefloor.

The beauty of humanity is that we are all different, and therefore we all express ourselves differently. So no two conversations are alike. In the context of tango it is important not just to understand this, but also to respect it. Every follower will respond differently to a lead, and every leader will respond differently to the follower’s response. And so the conversation evolves.

Of course, a dancer’s skill level has a lot to do with the extent to which he or she is able to express him or herself. Which takes me to the second way tango is like language: the learning process. You need to learn the alphabet before you can write poetry – in English, French, Spanish or tango. When we teach or learn the dance, we generally start with a few simple phrases – a box step, an eight-count basic, forward and backward ochos within a simple structure – but ultimately dancers need to go beyond the ready-made sequences and learn to create their own. If not, they continue to merely mimic their teachers or other dancers rather than learning to express themselves. At the same time, it is really important to learn the basics correctly and not get carried away by the fancy, impressive moves (big, impressive words). If we take the time to learn and follow the rules first, then when it comes time to break some of those rules and write poetry, ours will be beautiful.

For most of us, tango is not a mother tongue; it is a second language. As with any language, when, where and how we learn tango has a lot to do with how easily we will master it. If we want to master a new language, the best way is to immerse ourselves in it. So being somewhere where we can speak the language on a regular basis with a variety of people who speak it well will help immensely. But formal study is an important component, too, so that we can understand the rules and learn to speak correctly. So taking classes, going regularly to practices and milongas and dancing with different partners will all contribute to a dancer’s advancement. Heading to Buenos Aires for your immersion is the obvious choice, but it is not necessary to go to Argentina to learn Argentine tango, just as it is not necessary to go to Spain to learn Spanish. It is only necessary to be somewhere where the language is spoken – or the tango is danced – frequently and at a high level. So Montreal, Paris, Istanbul and countless other cities around the world offer enough tango that you can learn it to the point of mastery if you want to. But studying the history, learning about the culture and visiting the birthplace will give you another level of understanding and a deeper perspective.

A note to the advanced tango-speakers about how to help newcomers who are just starting to learn our language: Leave the lessons to the teachers and the class setting. Imagine if you were having a conversation with someone, telling them about something really interesting that happened to you, and that person stopped you every few words to correct your pronunciation, suggest a different idiom, tell you a better way to phrase your thoughts. Perhaps your partner will learn something from your instructions, but it won’t be a very enjoyable conversation. All you need to do to help beginners move forward is speak – I mean dance – slowly and clearly to make sure they can understand you. They will learn from you and have fun doing it.

Often when people contact me for information about classes, if they already dance other dances – ballroom, salsa, swing – they expect that they won’t have to start at the beginner level, since they already know how to dance. But again I come back to the idea that learning tango is like learning a second language. If I already speak English and I want to learn Russian, does that mean that I should be put in an intermediate level Russian class? Of course not! However, if I already speak two or three languages there is a good chance that I will pick up a fourth one more quickly than someone who has never learned a second language before. People who dance other dances are probably coming in with a good sense of musicality, a certain amount of body awareness and a number of other skills that may accelerate the learning process, but they still need to start at the beginning.

Like with languages or indeed anything else we might want to learn, some people also just have a knack for it and will pick it up in no time, but with hard work, study and lots and lots of practice, anyone can learn to speak the language of tango. Some might go on to be poets in their own right, and others will just manage to make themselves understood.

So what does it mean to master the language of tango?

Once we have learned to walk with a partner in front of us, we are already communicating at a basic level, but we need a certain amount of vocabulary and a certain ease of expression to really say we dance tango.

At the same time, big, impressive words do not a great communicator make. It’s important to use words – or moves – that our partners can understand and follow rather than trying to impress them with vocabulary that goes right over their heads. We may know the big words, but it’s important to use them in the right context and with the right people.

So the list is long: excellent listening skills, a desire and an ability to express yourself, strong basics, a thorough understanding of the rules and also when to break them, a well-developed yet carefully chosen vocabulary, an awareness of and respect for your partner’s abilities... Mastering this language goes far beyond knowing its mechanics: We need to know the rules and the structure, but also be able to express ourselves with fluidity and eloquence; then we need to go beyond the language itself  and develop our communication skills and our creativity.

Finally, we need to remember that no matter how well we ourselves may speak – or think we speak – the language of tango, we too are still learning. No one knows all the words in the dictionary, and besides, languages evolve and so should we... which will be the topic of a future blog post.


  1. Intéressant, bien senti et généreux. Ça vaudrait la peine de traduire ce texte en français.

    1. Hmmm. Est-ce que je connais quelqu'un qui serait en mesure de le traduire???

  2. Wonderfully expressed Andrea--and helpful for Tango 'conversationalists' of all levels. Thank you!