I have a very dear friend who wants to learn to dance tango. She will, or should, encounter some concepts to do with basic technique. But sometimes in the social complexity of classes, these ideas get lost, or disconnected from any explanation of what they mean. And these are the kinds of things you need to get working well so that you can dance easily and happily with other people, and express yourself and find your own dance without hurting yourself or anyone else. You need this information to solve whatever problems you are having, and not waste time.
So, I've collected them here for her. I've ended up putting them in alphabetical order, because they all go together, so it makes at least as much sense as anything else. I'm not going to tell you how to achieve them; you should get someone who can already do this stuff and can see you, dance with you, and give you feedback, to help you with that.
- Axis means that your partner can easily find a vertical line through your body about which it is possible for you to turn without going off balance. Like the axis of the Earth. To show yourself what it means, stand with both feet on the ground but your weight on just one of them, the other leg relaxed, and get someone to twirl you around on the spot. A good 'axis' means it is easy to do this and you don't fall over. If you stick one hip out to the side and make your axis curved, you'll find it's much harder. But the line is flexible and springy, like bamboo, not rigid.
Axis is equally important for leading and following. The line is what gives the follower neutral, accurate, racing-car steering, without understeer or oversteer or pulling to one side. It makes the leader easy to follow accurately.
- Connection means, for example, that if you are led to step directly into the leader, you will do so. If half a step is led and then stopped, you will follow it half way, and stop. If you are standing with your feet apart and some weight on each one, you will stay there until led to bring them together and put the weight on one of them - and you will pass through all the percentages in-between. Connection means you can be led to change weight from foot to foot, one toe at a time. It means you follow what's actually led. Sometimes that won't be what was intended, and that's fine. Connection is a really good thing. Some people say it's the essence of tango. It means that your attention is continuously with your partner and not with (for example) spectators. One of the biggest challenges for the more experienced follower is managing to avoid learning rules, habits, technical work-arounds, and catalogues of stereotypical movements that cut off other options and destroy the ability to follow what's actually led, especially anything new or unexpected.
Connection mainly comes up in relation to following, but it goes both ways - the leader needs to be listening to the follower's body too. It means paying attention to what your partner is actually doing in the moment, and being open to it, not stuck in your own mental catalogue. And all the other techniques mentioned here go towards making that possible and successful.
- Dissociation means the ability to point your bottom (back or front) towards the direction of travel while still keeping your torso towards, and connected to, your partner. That means the ability and willingness to twist in the middle whenever you need to do so, just as much as necessary.
Dissociation is equally important for leader and follower. It gives you accurate steering and freedom of movement.
- Embrace means you have an embrace that feels nice and works well. The basic, characteristic, close embrace for social tango has the torsos in contact and each partner within the arm of the other, rather like an affectionate hug; it can be tighter or looser, and more or less mobile, and there are lots of variations but no real rules. There are also open variations (with less contact) that some people use and others don't, either to make various things easier to do, or for practice, or just because they enjoy the feeling of bringing it in and out. The same person will often use several variations, minor or major, depending on who they are dancing with. It's not like competition ballroom dancing where there's a refined, prescribed look with specific hand positions.
Embrace is equally important for leader and follower. Whether you need a wide range of different skills, or you're only really going to use the close version, depends on your situation and your preferences.
- Floorcraft means having a good relationship with the other couples around you on the dance floor, sharing the space positively and not bumping into them. Although it's principally the leaders' job, the follower can screw it up royally by doing stupid things or being uncontrolled or difficult to steer. For the beginner leader, you already know how to walk along a crowded pavement or platform, or across a pub, mostly without bumping anyone, even in quite tricky situations. So you have two main challenges - integrating your partner into that, and avoiding learning any bad habits that cut off your perception of those around you, limit your choices of where to go next, or put you off balance or out of control. You'll also learn what situations to avoid, and how to cooperate with others.
- Following pretty much means just that. It's basically the same mental process as following someone on a rapid, zigzag path through a crowded shopping centre without needing to hold their hand. It's something you decide to do; it has nothing to do with guessing what they want, and they don't even have to know you are there. You go wherever you need to go to stay with your partner, only from in front. The power do to this at a basic level whenever you want, comes for free with being a human, or indeed a duckling fresh out of the egg. In a partner dance we practice, extend, and refine it to build connection on top of it, and then do far more with it than you could reasonably have imagined was possible.
If you have taken at least one lesson, you should be able to successfully follow weight changes, walks, and sidesteps with a more experienced dancer who you've never met. If not, something has gone wrong. And nothing you do later should take away this ability.
If you mainly lead, doing some following gives you a chance to solve some problems one at a time that you'd otherwise have to tackle all at once, and also to find out which problems are most worth your attention.
- Free leg
- Your free leg is the leg you aren't putting weight on right now. Being 'free' means it's free to move, and perhaps swing. So that means it's relaxed where it joins to the hip, rather than being held in a particular position, give or take some friction with the floor. The consequence is that your partner can feel where that leg is through the connection with you (try it).
It's important for both partners, but it's more obvious for following, because the leader can cause it to move without the follower doing any more than allowing it - this can produce some amazing movements which you will never see on Strictly Come Dancing. The leader having a free leg is less obvious, but makes everything more stable and clear.
- Grounded means you feel as though it would be very difficult to push you over. At first, you might think of this as like having "good balance" (I certainly did) but it isn't. You can balance in a position where it's easy to push you over. Being grounded is having habits in the way you move so that you don't get in such positions unless you want to.
Grounding is equally important for leader and follower, but leaders may need more of it more urgently. If you're leading and you're not grounded, you're likely to bump into other people, even if the follower has no problems. If you're following, and you're not grounded, then you may be out of control and difficult to steer. If you're well grounded, you can compensate quite a bit if your partner isn't, but it's hard work.
- Heavy means it's really hard work to move you at all. It has nothing to do with your physical size, but you feel like a fridge. Your partner will get a sore back, hips, knees, ankles, arms or shoulders. It's a very bad thing, as it means dancing with you can cause significant injury. People may also say someone is 'heavy' or 'a little heavy' when they only mean the connection is not working that well for some reason. In that case it's not so dangerous.
It mostly comes up in relation to following, but it's also possible for the leader to stand or move in such a way as to hurt their partner physically. When you make changes, check.
- Leading is making use of the fact that another human being has decided to follow you, in order to create a partner dance. As soon as they make that decision and start acting on it, you can already lead at a minimal level. You learn how to do it better, practice it, refine it, and find out what you can do with it. It's crazy how much you can do with it together.
If you mainly follow, doing some leading is very illuminating and helps you prioritise; it may also give you more confidence in the things you are doing right as a follower.
- "Light" means you are easy to move. Being easy to move is not just being grounded and not heavy - it also has to do with connection. "Too light" means you tend to get away from your partner in an uncontrolled way. But exactly how "light" different people are varies naturally and there isn't just one perfect spot that's the same for everyone.
Lightness mostly applies to following. But if you are leading and someone says you are too light, it might mean the follower can't detect where you are going at all.
- Musicality means you are really listening and moving with the music. You have dynamics. It's not just that you follow what's led or that you move on the beat; the way you move, sharply, softly, swooshily, smoothly or not, and so on, always expresses what you are hearing and how you are feeling it. Each partner can feel the other doing this, and respond. So your attention to each other is mediated through the music, and the music is mediated into the dance through your attention to each other (and often, in the leader's case, to people around you) - they are working like one thing.
Musicality is equally important for leader and follower, but it tends to be discussed a lot more in relation to leading. This is because the leader has to decide what to do - whether the next step will be slow or quick - and learning how to do that and be on the beat takes a lot of time and attention. As a result, the women can often end up thinking that their own musicality is some sort of ornamental extra that has to be stuck on top of the leader's dance, like icing on a cake - and that it's necessary to stop moving and break the connection so they can take their turn. You can probably tell I think that's a terrible way of looking at it. You want to be on the beat, yes, but it's important to think of musicality in terms of how you move all the time, how you both do everything you are doing, and how that feels in the connection, not just when you step. That's what makes someone actually feel musical to their partner.
- Posture has its normal meaning. But it's what creates lightness, heaviness, axis, grounding, and a successful embrace. So it's a good place to look if you are having trouble with anything on this list.
There are lots of recreational arguments in tango, but none of the above is particularly controversial. Some people talk and think about this stuff a lot; some do it occasionally; others just hate the idea of thinking about what they're doing at all.
I have not dealt with manners in social dancing. That's for another day.
What I'm aiming for is to be useful and practical for people with no previous knowledge, in a range of communities. If you can get most of this stuff working to an ok-ish level, then you can reasonably expect (at least if you also like the music) to be getting lots of practice and to be well on the way to "dancing very nicely". Then you can take it as far as you like.