April 13th, 2006

How many does it take to tango?

When I was just a tiny child, there was a popular song called “It Takes Two to Tango.”

A family story—perhaps apocryphal, perhaps true—is that when I was just a toddler, my parents took me to see the ice show at Madison Square Garden. A couple started skating to the tune. Picture the hushed auditorium, the spotlight on the dazzling pair, and then the exclamation of a mesmerized young girl (me) shouting out in awe above the music, “Gee, it really does take two to tango!”

I went on to become a dancer and dance teacher myself, but of the ballet variety. Social dancing? I grew up in the age of every man (and woman) for himself: get out there, stand in the general vicinity of your partner (or not, as the case may be), and do whatever comes to mind. But do it essentially alone.

Ah yes, there was “slow” dancing, where people touched. But that wasn’t really dancing; it was a sort of shuffle-shuffle-hold-hold, an opportunity to press bodies together to a musical background. Nothing wrong with that, actually, and very easy to learn. And “fast” dancing was improvisational—no routines necessary—as well as individualistic. It didn’t matter what one’s partner was doing, except in some vague and general sense; no need to follow or lead.

As best I can recall, this non-touch dancing started with the Twist (although the Stroll preceded it, that was technically a line dance), going on to the Watusi and the Jerk and the—well, take a look here.

But there was a parallel track of ballroom dancing of the traditional type, that never stopped and is still going strong today. My parents were spectacular ballroom dancers, the sort who, when they got on the dance floor, would actually cause others to step back and watch and then applaud. They took lessons, they had routines, they danced a lot, and they enjoyed every minute of it.

I enjoyed watching them, as well. It seemed effortless to look at, but I knew better. I knew better because, every now and then at a wedding or other occasion where there was a dance band, my father would ask me to dance.

I still remember the feeling of dread that would enter the pit of my stomach. Somehow, he always seemed to choose a fox trot, a dance about which I knew virtually nothing, rather than one I had at least a passing familiarity with, like the cha-cha or the merengue (the dance, that is, not the dessert—and yes, I checked the spelling). He would lead, and I was supposed to follow—to somehow intuit, like a mindreader, what was going to happen next. The more self-conscious and worried I became, the more I would freeze. The more I would freeze, the harder it became to follow. The harder it became to follow, the more I would try, the more I would freeze—well, you get the picture, and it’s not a pretty one.

Fast-forward to now. Because of an old back injury—and well, just being old—my ballet days are most definitely over. And my ballroom dancing days never began. But I was at a party about a month ago speaking to a couple I know, and they said they were having a lot of fun taking tango lessons.

Tango. The tango! Maybe, just maybe, I could do that. After all, I used to be a dancer, right? And I certainly look Latin. How hard could it be? And then I did some research and discovered that there’s actually a little ballroom dance place in my town, and they have group beginner classes for an extremely nominal fee.

Well, folks, I found out just how hard it could be. Very hard. Very very hard. Makes the foxtrot with my father look like a walk in the park; a cakewalk. I had no idea. I had no idea! (Did I say that I HAD NO IDEA?)

Because in case you, just like me, had watched Al Pacino dance a fabulous and sexy tango in “Scent of a Woman” and thought, “That looks like a lot of fun”:

(and yes, isn’t her back awfully bony? We wouldn’t want bony backs like that, would we, ladies? We’re glad our backs are—are—unbony, right? Right?) I’m here to tell you that yes, it does look like a lot of fun. It probably is a lot of fun, once you can do it. But I’m finding that hard to imagine, now that I’ve tried it.

Picture, instead, a dance in which there are about a thousand possible steps and combinations of steps (see this). The steps are not easy to do; they are actually fiendishly difficult to learn (at least for me). It’s not so much the steps themselves as it is the weight shifting and the stance and the feel of it all (I think a ballet background may actually be counterproductive—at least, I’ll use that as part of my excuse).

And these steps never come in any order or pattern; it’s all improvised by the man, or “leader.” The woman—the “follower”—must somehow read his body, or his mind, or both, and do what’s required. The man must know exactly what he’s going to do and telegraph it unequivocally, with no hesitation, or the woman will become confused—if she isn’t already, like me.

I’d never really thought much about it before, but ballet dancers are very into control and predictability in the dance form. Ordinarily, every movement is prescribed and choreographed; the dancer knows where even his/her fingers are supposed to be, and it’s all rehearsed over and over again. Of course, within that form, there’s a strange sort of freedom—the dance itself is so large, the movements so glorious, that the feeling is of flight and soaring and lyric oneness with the music. But it’s achieved through a strict control.

Not so the tango. At my introductory lesson, the other beginners were not nearly as beginnerish as me. The tango seems to attract the young (that is, people in their twenties) and the getting-on-in-years (that is, those older than I am). All of them tried to be polite when paired up with the most inexperienced novice there—moi. But I could see something in their eyes (and when you dance tango, you can really see their eyes, up close and personal) that said “Get me outta here; this lady hasn’t a clue what she’s doing.”

I managed not to step on any toes, including my own. And I may indeed go back for more. They say tango is not only difficult, it’s addictive:

Students–even if they are experienced dancers–discuss how hard it is to survive their first attempts at the complex steps. Emil Waldteufel, the chef-owner of Emil’s restaurant in Santa Rosa, has studied all kinds of dance in his life, including tap dancing in the hoofer style. He has even performed onstage. “The first few lessons, I found tango difficult. I was blurting out ‘I’m sorry’ all the time, but I’ve progressed well. Sometimes a breath of the music will come over me while I’m working and I’ll happily execute a little step…

Paul, a 58-year-old vineyard mechanic…describes tango as “a dance for overachievers. It draws intelligent people because it’s not easy to learn. But it still has soul. Tango has a way of making you yearn for it.”

We’ll see.

[ADDENDUM: And now that I've mastered---not the tango, but the art of YouTube embedding---here is that legendary tango scene from "Scent of a Woman." Enjoy:

And here's something more to chew on---a description of how Pacino learned the tango for the movie (scroll down a bit and start where it says, "'The Man Who Taught Pacino to Tango' by Susan Brenna"). Here's an excerpt:

For two months Pellicoro and Fotinos worked with "Al" in those quiet afternoons before the after-work dance class rush hour. They’d tango for 20 minutes. They they’d take a 15-minute cappuccino break. "I like breaks," Pacino would say. "I’m big on breaks."...

They taught him basic principles of tango and how to stand and move like a dancer. Pellicoro and Fotinos would dance, and they he would stand and imitate Pellicoro’s commanding Ramon Navarro attitude. "He was really a natural but he wanted to be perfect," said Pellicoro.]

22 Responses to “How many does it take to tango?”

  1. Debbie Says:

    I once was at a dance and a man near me said jitterbug when appropriate music came on. We were solitary dancing near each other and he grabbed my hand and started dancing with me. With the occasional direction (I am going to slide you on the ground, just relax) I managed to not look too much like a complete bumbler. He revealed that he had won jitterbug dancing contests before (did not suprise me after that demonstration)

    That was so much fun, I would love to try again. My husband has tried ballroom dancing before though and said it was a disaster. In a sad twist on the ballet setback of yours, he has a strong martial arts background. Here he is already rather nervous and many moves in dancing are a lot like throws… well when you are nervous your best known reflexes take over. He stopped at that point.

  2. Silicon Valley Jim Says:

    Emil Waldteufel? The owner of the restaurant just happens to have the same name as a notable composer of waltzes? This is a joke, right?

  3. David V.S. Says:

    My wife and I do swing dancing at least weekly.

    Done true to its roots, swing dancing is also all about lead and follow, every bit as much as tango.

    (But many places do “ballroomized” swing dancing, which is different.)

    I think this post might relate to your slightly later post about critical thinking. There is no logical deduction in the lead-and-follow communication, but there is a great deal of learning not to second guess what someone else is about to do. That’s a valuable thing to practice, and a great aid to clear discussion of ideas!

    We and our swing dancing friends would much rather spend a song doing fewer fancy moves with a more solid sense of “connection”. What makes swing dancing fun for us is the communication, not the dance steps. Besides talking to your partner (it is a social dance, after all) you are in communication with your partner’s movement, with the musicality of the song, and with the floor. That’s four things to concentrate on! No wonder it is difficult to do well.

  4. Seth Says:

    I took ballroom lessons 3 times a week, and went dancing 2 more nights a week as well, for more than 2 years. In that time, I learned a little of the tango, and can confirm for you: yes, it’s hard. As you said, it’s a dance that’s rather particular about the shifting of your weight–it’s what gives it the deliberate and impressive stalking look. I can also tell you it’s a heck of a payoff to learn even a little of it.

    The big think about ballrom dancing is to have a good “connection” to your partner, whoever they are. Not a romantic connection. In fact, you can have a good connection with a complete stranger, as it’s a learned thing (it has a lot to do with the proper level of tension in the arms, placement of hands, and posture). It’s the connection that allows the leader to lead, and the follower to follow, all the while apearing to everyone else to be anticipating the leader’s every next move.

    Good fun!

  5. Californio Says:

    Don’t be discouraged. I am 40 yr old and I hated dancing as single jiggling. Greatest fun was when we would swing dance (or try to) in high school with friends. Now I dance every chance I get with my wife, or female friends.

    If your average man knew how impressed women are by a physically confident man who can lead (as expressed in dancing) well they would all be at dance class.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Fun post!

    Your comments (and others’ comments) about “leader” and “follower” remind me of something Gov. Ann Richards in Texas once said. “Women can do anything a man can do…in high heels and moving backwards.” (BTW, I’m a Republican).

    Neo…come on down to Texas. We’ll teach you how to do the C&W Texas Two Step. After a couple of Shiner Dark Beers, if you aren’t doing it right, at least you’ll THINK you are doing it right!

  7. HokiePundit Says:

    I think ballet may be counter-productive to ballroom dancing. My nine years of marching band certainly took some unlearning before I was able to start to get the hang of swing. My girlfriend is trained in ballet, and teaching her the basics of Lindy Hop took a very long time.

    On the other hand, my knowledge of rhythm from marching and musical style from band gives me a very good ability to figure what’s going on in the music at a given point and where it’s likely to go. Her knowledge of ballet allows her to do spins and other moves far more gracefully and with more daring than most others would consider.

  8. douglas Says:

    A resurgence in ballroom dance (and I believe there is one) will hopefully be good for our youth- perhaps the destructiveness of feminism can be countered with something so simple (or not) as the foxtrot. Man and woman with different tasks, a designated ‘leader’ and ‘follower’ and yet both share equally in the benefits (or lack thereof).
    When my wife an I dance, it can get pretty funny, since she’s not a great follower, and I’m too deferential as a leader… but we still love it.

  9. Skookumchuk Says:

    Ben-David:

    it’s the first way you learn to guess what a man is going to do before he does it.

    As a guy, I naturally hadn’t thought of that in my 52 years on this planet, but, yes, I suppose so. I spent most of 1994 in Buenos Aires. I was frankly a horrible tango dancer in comparison to many. (The milonga is easier.) But it sure was fun.

    The music and the lyrics of those tangos written in the 20s and 30s can be simply outstanding. Cole Porter, only in Spanish. I can’t even describe it.

  10. Ben-David Says:

    neo – your experience confirms a famous quote by the author Christopher Morley:

    “Dancing is a wonderful training for girls, it’s the first way you learn to guess what a man is going to do before he does it.”

    A valuable skill in many areas of life!

  11. gatorbait Says:

    The idea of the tango with neo makes me smile

  12. karrde Says:

    I’ve recently done a lot of “Swing” dancing, to music from the Big-Band era of the 20′s, 30′s and 40′s.

    Occasionally, I get to see a very experienced pair of dancers Tango. The Tango requires both dancers to stand very close to each other, and must move in near-perfect syncronicity. It has an elegant grace if it is done properly, but requires a good deal of trust between the dancers.

    Swing, on the other hand, has the couple stand slightly apart, and allows much more freedom of movement of motion. It still requires trust, but requires it in a different way.

    Dancing is fun–I dance mostly to help me enjoy certain kinds of music more fully.

    Most couples’ dances have a leader and a follower (usually male and female, respectively). The leader sets the pace, keeps the beat with his feet, and communicates to the follower with his hands and his posture.

  13. Pancho Says:

    Interesting link, however, I really don’t think I would ever learn the tango by reading the steps on the Internet!

  14. Joan Says:

    Obviously you’ve never seen the TLC show, Ballroom Bootcamp, which takes 3 average joes and coaches them for 5 weeks and then throws them into an actual ballroom competition geared towards beginners, but still judged and everything.

    It’s off the air now and I don’t know if it’s coming back on, but I hope it does. Because the instructors stay the same and subjects change every week, there’s a nice flow without things getting boring. The first thing I learned about ballroom from the show is that it’s very hard work, and doubly hard for the men who have to learn how to lead — it always struck me as unfair when they had women competing against the men.

    Tango was one of the dances they learned, along with cha-cha, jive, waltz, and rhumba. At first glance you think that tango would be easier than, say, jive (which is so fast!) but then it becomes obvious that it’s not. None of them are easy!

    I think you would like the show if you had a chance to watch it. I hope you go back to tango lessons, and then let us know how it goes — what an opportunity for vicarious thrills!

  15. Ymarsakar Says:

    That’s so funny, the woman has to follow and adapt to improvisation, while the man has to pre-plan and execute without flaws of miscommunication.

    a weird sort of dichotomy

    These dance names all sound so exotic.

    I watch a lot of dual ice skating and that’s always fun to watch. The dynamics are principally the same as a choreographed tango with improvisation, but the consequences of failure are much greater.

    Relating to martial arts and ballet, it just seems that ballet is a singular expression of discipline and form, whilst duality systems are mirrors and focusing effects. Where trust, balance, and perpetual motion are in effect.

    The woman has to trust the man not to screw up, the man has to trust the woman not to screw up, and neither can show any doubt or allow doubt to interfere with their reactions and actions. It is thus, what people have known in ages past so easily yet twas so hard to understand. That things can be greater than the sum of their parts.

    It reminds me of mirror dance.

  16. Richard Aubrey Says:

    I’m not much of a dancer. Knee locks up when the band starts. Old parachuting injury. Or football. Can’t remember.

    However, in watching some really good tango dancers, I was impressed by a number of things. One of them is that the man is in control, entirely, including his patented dominating expression. Or, if he isn’t, the dance makes it look so.
    Any feminists complained about the tango?

  17. N. O'Brain Says:

    Your little song story set off the ol’ joke bell:

    “Mom was working around the house, humming a tune. The little one asked, “Mommy, what’s that song?”

    Mommy answered, “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”

    The little one then asked, “Mommy, where’s YOUR now?”

  18. Terry A. Hoover Says:

    Oh, I just can’t wait to hear the usual suspects chime in on this one.

    C’mon Steve! Where’s Dr. de la Vega? You’re asleep at the switch here while Ms. Neo-neocon is pontificating about running dog capitalist forms of dance designed to globalise the entertainment industry and further America’s corporate profit driven neo-colonialism at the expense of the misunderstood “others”. Man, you guys are a disappointment.

    And where’s Ymarsakar’s insight on this? And the usual and customary sniping from a platoon of “Anonymous” posters? Where is everybody today?

  19. Fausta Says:

    a ballet background may actually be counterproductive
    Maybe not.
    I used to attempt the tango with a friend who was a very good dancer and he said that the turnout and the control is exactly right. The hard part for a classical ballet dancer is improvising, but (at least according to him) the tango shows you see, like Bocca’s, are coreographed very precisely.

    Have you watched The Tango Lesson? The woman had to have her house remodeled so she left for Argentina to learn the tango. Would we be so lucky!

  20. Goesh Says:

    Lithe, eh?

  21. Paul Eustace Says:

    In the two areas of dancing there is a distinct separation required … the lead must have his head about him and understand what he wants to do. He should also have a good understanding of the music and dance to the musical measures, which gives frames to dance steps.

    The Follow, the more difficult position to be in (remember the Ginger Rogers idea), has to understand body and dance movement, but should not try to think about dancing. When things fall apart on the dance floor I tell my partner to sing so that she does not try to figure what I’m doing. That thinking slows her reaction time down and sets her back even more.

    I’ve been taking lessons for 5 1/2 years (today is my 57th birthday), so I know that the more senior generation can learn this and excel. She and I have danced for the last 2 1/2 years and we regularly get comments on our dancing. One issue I have found is that Good Dancers Dance Large — big frames and confident steps driving you down the dance floor. The motion allows you to get “into” the dance and helps you cover errors more easily.

    Enjoy the dancing … find a partner with whom you can find pleasurable dancing.

  22. Power Of Law Forms Says:

    Power Of Law Forms…

    I couldn’t understand some parts of this article, but it sounds interesting…

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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