Patterns and figures in tango, and the Tango Edge approach

The roles of the man and the woman in tango are very different. At the simplest level the man needs to know how to convey his intention to the woman and she needs to know how to accept it.

The first involves active thinking: “where is there space on the dance floor, what move will feel nicest and express the music?”, while the second involves disengaging those active thought processes in order to respond to subtle changes in the embrace in the most natural and elegant way.

Why should the woman learn figures? If she goes to a lesson and is given a pattern to practice, how hard will it be for her, later, to suppress the inevitable (and perhaps incorrect) thought that pops up: “aha I recognise this lead and I know what comes next?”

For that matter, should the men learn figures? Yes, since it is the easiest way for them to absorb new ideas of what is possible. But it is important that they are encouraged to see the figure as a combination of smaller elements which can be lead in isolation and recombined in many different ways. So that a man who can remember 20 figures doesn’t find himself repeating them over and over but has the freedom he needs to create thousands of unique and spontaneous dances.

It is quite possible to cater separately for both roles in a tango lesson even though the class is mixed. The teacher can give the men and ladies different things to focus on while they are dancing together, so that the ladies are learning to dance their partners’ leads and not simply stepping automatically where teacher said they should!

An example of how this works might be: the class is learning the ocho cortado. The women are taken to one side and given an exercise to do in pairs which reinforces the difference in the feeling of the frame between a cross in front and a cross behind. While they are practicing this the men are shown the ocho cortado pattern, with emphasis on what their partners need to feel from the upper body – and therefore where their feet and weight need to be to enable this. Then the class form man-woman couples and practice. The ladies are not especially aware of the pattern that is being taught so the men get direct feedback on how well their lead is working and what they need to adjust. The ladies are focussing on the embrace and improving their following skills, rather than worrying about where their feet are supposed to go. Then, once everyone has practiced this with a few different people the men are asked to experiment: lead it on the opposite side, play with the ocho and cortado bits in isolation to find a variety of ways of getting in and out, lead it in waltz rhythm, add a barrida, etc. The men are putting the pattern into an improvisational context while the women’s skills are constantly being tested and improved.

This method of learning should be very rewarding for everyone, as the couple focus more on each other and less on their feet. The aim is to get as close as possible to what is actually experienced at a milonga.

Example exercises / principles

M=men, W=women, B=both

B: 3 basic elements of tango: step, pivot and pause

B: The feet as tools for moving the body

M: Learming steps and the importance of breaking them down afterwards

W: Holding the intention – supporting the lead and avoiding anticipation

M: Two-way communication: man invites, woman accepts, man follows

B: The energy of the step as a wave

W: Fundamentals of the frame (“how do I know where to step?”)

B: Working in close hold & supporting each other

B: Pivoting in close hold (without losing each other)

W: Action and reaction – making your pivots effortless and easy to lead

B: The glass egg – protecting your centre

M: The cross and what the woman needs to feel

W: The ‘difficult sideways’ – when a cross and when an ocho

B: Weight changing (and not) in the cross position

B: Walking with energy – making use of your toes

W: Freeing up the leg – stepping with the thigh / knee instead of the foot

M: Improvisation exercise: creating a path without forward steps

W: Stepping forwards with grace and clarity

W: The behaviour of the free leg and ways of freeing it

M: Floor craft and making best use of the space

B: Making the dance lyrical – reflecting the music

W: Timing your movements to the music and taking your time on the pivots

M: Creating a clear intention with the upper body