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Areas of Focus
Stephen Shortnacy and Angela Avila

Areas of Focus

When Teaching and Learning Tango

From my experience, tango can be broken down into five interconnected and blurred areas of focus. Quite often these areas are taught in the order presented below. Bring these areas to a conscience awareness, teachers can create better, well-rounded syllabi and students can seek guidance in the areas they may need more training.

I’ve also included some observations/opinions about each area, which are shown in italics. At some point I may expand those thoughts in to additional articles.

Beginners typically start by learning vocabulary, which includes simple movements, such as, walking, sidesteps, and weight changes. Vocabulary also includes "patterns", such as, ochos, molinetes, and cruzadas. To illustrate each area of focus, the process of learning and teaching the tango walk will be used as an example. Since most students already know how to put one foot in front of the other, they demonstrate their walk to the teacher. This gives the teacher a chance to assess the student’s ability and the teacher then quickly shifts focus to the next area.

Beginner leaders often feel inadequate for not having enough vocabulary. But they should know if more time was spent developing the other areas of tango, then their dancing would drastically improve and would be more pleasurable for themselves and their partner.

The next area of focus, technique, will include tango elements such as, axis, alignment, posture, and articulation. When teaching the walk, the teacher may emphasize the technical elements of foot placement, leg and body movements, or posture.

I think balance\axis is the technique element that could use most improvement by many dancers. Here is one small tip (no pun intended) to help:  keep your partner on their balance but maintain your own balance by yourself (i.e. don’t rely on your partner to maintain your balance for you). If every dancer did this, then partners can bail each other out when necessary but the need for that assistance would be less often required.

Next, students create a connection with each other. But this area of tango is more than simply embracing a partner. Unless you are dancing in private, connection also includes floorcraft. Your connection to others around you is also critical to the dance experience. When learning to walk, the student may be taught various embraces and how to make each embrace comfortable, yet effective, for themselves and their partner.

Connection is the key to tango bliss. No matter how experienced a dancer may be, an uncomfortable embrace will most likely distract and bring their partner out of the dance flow. On the contrary, a beginner dancer with a warm and comfortable embrace would have more potential in assisting their partner in finding a tango moment.

Eventually the student learns how to hear and move to tango’s musicality, which includes elements, such as, musical phrases, melody vs rhythm, breaks, pauses, and syncopals. Other than simply learning how to walk to the beat, the student's first lesson in musicality is often the musical phrasing. They can demonstrate their understanding of phrasing by pausing at the end of the phrase and accentuating the first beat of the new phrase.

One of the most abused elements in musicality is the quick-quick-slow rhythm, especially when used in a rock step. Too often the quick steps are rushed, which can feel like someone shaking a baby. Slowing down the quick steps to the musical timing is the key. Experienced followers can add follower energy to assist with making rock steps more pleasant for everyone.

Finally, dynamics are added. This can include shifting the embrace between open and closed, contrasting the walk with alternating short and long steps, or expanding and contracting the connection.

Dynamics are probably the most underutilized, under taught, and under learned of the five areas, and yet, the most necessary to understand when dancing the more dramatic tango movements, such as, volcadas, boleos and colgadas. Adding an understanding of dynamics to simple vocabulary in beginner and intermediate classes can help students more quickly grasp this area when they finally tackle the more advanced steps.

So, what is your feedback? Do these five areas of focus seem complete? Are there any elements in tango that do not seem to fit one of these five categories? What areas or elements do you feel is needed to help your dance improve or your tango community improve? Join the discussion on Facebook and let us know that you think!

Stephen Shortnacy teaches and performs Argentine tango in Austin and throught out Texas.