This person, this music, this moment: Reconnecting with the essence of tango

I remember returning from Buenos Aires in 2019 with a whole new understanding of what tango is about – at least, to me. Back here now, I realised that I’d lost some of that understanding along the way.

Well, perhaps not lost, nor really forgotten, but allowed it to become somewhat buried by other things – by the other world which is London tango. Here, now, I’ve reconnected with it …

Tango is contradictory in so many ways, of course. It’s simple, and it’s complex. It’s all about emotion, but it’s also all about technique. It’s about improvisation, but also about mathematics. It’s just a dance, and it’s life-changing.

There are all these stories about people who come to Buenos Aires for two weeks, and stay for ten years. On my first trip, it was only a matter of days before I understood how and why. Returning home after just a fortnight, I’d felt there was more culture shock arriving back in London than there was arriving in Argentina.

Slowing down

My travel has always been of the ‘fast and furious’ variety. Business trips typically gave me less than half a day of free time per city, and I learned how to do whirlwind tours. As a freelance, without paid holiday, that approach bled over into my leisure trips. I can spend three days in a city and see more of it than most people who spend a fortnight there.

Yet I knew immediately that my next trip here had to be for a month. That what I wanted was less a long holiday and more a short-term immigration. In large part, because what I learned here was to slow down.

Having the milonga experience be about the chat and the wine and the empanadas as well as the dance. Waiting for the music to inspire me. Allowing the pauses to linger. Having every step count.

It’s all about my partner

Very early in my tango journey, I remember reading someone who said something like these are the true levels in tango:

  • Beginner: Steps first, music a distant second, scarcely aware of their partner
  • Intermediate: Music first, adapt their steps to their partner
  • Advanced: Partner first, then the music, scarcely aware of their steps

Of course, the levels above are only one perspective. Being an advanced dancer of course also implies having advanced technique, and I’m not remotely close to that! But I think this is a crucial hierarchy which not all dancers understand – including some of those with advanced technique.

The ‘music first’ part always made sense to me, but I didn’t understand at the time what the ‘partner first’ part meant. It probably took a couple of years until it really did.

To express the music, of course, but never at the expense of my partner. It’s much more important to wait for her to complete her pivot than it is to begin the next movement at what seemed to me to be the perfect point in the music.

To focus less on my lead, and more on what it is I’m inviting my partner to do. All my private teachers have contributed to my understanding of this, so I can’t even recall now who stopped me and said: “Forget about what you are doing with your body – what do you want me to do with mine?” I told them, and they replied: “Ok, so what would achieve that? What would I have to feel from you?”

I’m gradually working on this approach, and have had some truly delightful moments of completely improvised lead. (This is why I’m also keen to have some more lessons as a follower, to aid my appreciation of what a follower needs to feel for different types of movement.)

Dancing here has reminded me that of course it’s all about my partner. The cabeceo as part of the dance. The questioning look, the nod, the little ‘Who, me?’ mime, and my clear nod and smile in return, her smile as I get close enough for her to be sure. I’ve been a fan ever since I first got over my British awkwardness over anything as intimate as eye-contact. I love it for all its practical benefits – being able to invite someone from a distance, being able to decline without any pressure, and so on – but I also love it because I see it as the first moment of connection.

Escorting her to the floor, using a leader cabeceo to ensure it is clear to enter. Offering my left hand and slowly completing the embrace so she can choose the style. Some gentle weight-changes to the beat while we establish the most comfortable embrace for each of us, and get some kind of kinaesthetic sense of who this person is. Using those weight changes, too, to calibrate the level of need required.

Even when I’m sure the follower is a way better dancer than me, still easing in. Giving her time to calibrate to my lead. Slow and simple in the first tanda, gradually adding more speed and complexity (such as I have it!) in subsequent tandas.

Really trying to stay with my partner every millimetre of the way. Focusing on this movement, not the next.

Between songs, again trying to calibrate to her wishes. To remain loosely in the embrace? To separate but maintain a hand-hold? To let go? To be silent or to talk? If it’s the latter, the Spanglish involved usually brings a smile or laughter! But with the knowledge that we have already been communicating, whatever words we can manage are merely a bonus.

Taking time, too, to leave the embrace at the end of the tanda. Escorting my partner back to her seat when appropriate (generally, older followers in more traditional milongas).

Reconnecting with the heart of tango

Tango is all about connection, and for me, being back in BsAs is all about reconnection. Reconnecting with what is really at the heart of tango. The reason tango exists. The reason she has me enraptured.

Being reminded that, whatever complexities may be involved in the learning process, the essence of tango can be summed up in a few simple words: this person, this music, this moment.

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