photo: Selasy Atty, Tango OSU

I remember saying the letters aloud as we moved through: “step step step side together” in Tom Ralabate’s Social Dance course at SUNY Buffalo (not so very long ago was it?) I was leading my partner -women were mostly partnered up, as  dance dept. demographics dictate.  We performed a routine for class and that was the end of my tango life – until a few weeks ago!

During my first week at OSU, at one of the every-organization-on-campus-has-a-table- and-free-stuff  events -after finding out how to go to the dentist – I saw two couples tango dancing by a table across the way.  Immediately I went over and introduced myself.

  OSU Argentine Tango Club meets every Friday for lessons and practica and once a month hosts a milonga party. Friday was my third tango event, a milonga with live music by Resaca Duo de Tango. It had been a few weeks since I’d practiced – I felt rusty at first- but before I knew it I was (attempting to) glide around the floor.


Although the environment for practica and milongas here is relatively informal, we do learn traditional etiquette.


It is rude for a lead, traditionally a man, to walk directly up to a potential follower, traditionally a woman, and put them on the spot :“Yo Babe. Wanna dance?” (It’s equally rude for a follower to do so.)

It can either put the ask-ee an awkward spot, feeling obligated to dance even if they don’t want to, or can create public embarrassment for the ask-er.

To avoid either disagreeable outcome, proper etiquette is to make clear eye contact with a potential dance partner across the floor and nod your head discreetly: cabeceó. You know, the nod. If the other person wants to dance, they will meet eye contact and nod back.  If a potential partner doesn’t want to dance they can simply pretend not to notice – saving face for all involved. Or perhaps they didn’t notice and you might want to try again. If they keep not noticing, some inference skills might be needed.

To think, a cool cabeceó might have saved many a middle school blunder…

Traffic and Tandas

           The dancing space and music are also very structured. Dancing happens in concentric circles, traveling counterclockwise around the floor. Movement is continuous, if you’re slow or stationary you’ll want to be in the center (Slow traffic out of the way). When meeting a partner it’s improper to walk across the floor, rather you should walk around the perimeter.  Entering the dance floor can resemble the intricate dance of merging onto the highway at rush hour.

Tangos are generally played in sets of three called “tandas,” followed by a short “cortina,” closing the “curtain” on the dancing encounter. It is proper to dance all three songs of the tanda.  During the cortina, signaled by a non tango rhythm, you thank your partner and can leave the floor and socialize.  It’s a good time to pick up that conversation you were having before – since traditional etiquette frowns upon talking while dancing.  It’s also not traditionally kosher to dance multiple tandas with the same partner (unless they are your Partner.)

Thankfully we relax rules enough to communicate as needed while dancing- especially when learning new steps  (“LEFT foot,”  “oh! sorry I stepped on your toe,” etc.)- and to practice dancing with whomever you feel comfortable.


This time around I’ve been mostly practicing as a follower. Learning to listen is freeing and, to borrow the word of the semester, awesome.  It’s also quite satisfying to be a beginner, to be learning a dance skill for enjoyment purposes only.  No pressure to acquire any specific skill by a deadline, no gig, no evaluations, no mandatory attendance.  Movement to music for the joy of it, in the company of friends.

video: Bita Bell


Tango, like most social dance where the steps aren’t explicit in the lyrics, is improvised.  The vocabulary is based on walking together to music, a concept both egregiously simple and profound. Tango requires a precision of articulation (leader) and acute awareness of and attention to shifts of weight (follower). On Friday instructor Alejandro Pinzon reminded us to maintain our own vertical axes, and not try to also hold up a partner. “Your responsibility is to clearly communicate and listen, but you are each responsible for your own balance.” There seems to be a metaphor for life in there.


Like contact improvisation, you (ideally) continually sense your own weight and partner’s weight. You listen through the body to feel whether their weight has settled on two feet, or have they shifted to one foot, sensing shifts of axes and frame for cues whether to advance, retire, twist, or stay put for a flourish.

The tango embrace is intimate, intimidating, exciting.  In tango you don’t turn your back on your partner as you might in spins and passes in Swing or Cha-cha. You don’t sever the connection, even in an open arm position. At some fundamental sense it’s like zooming in on the weight of your bones, and a gravity between the anterior surfaces of your spinal columns, propelling you through space.

(Underneath of course the “ahh I don’t know what to do,” “whoops,” and “sorry I bumped your knees.”)

The thought of not looking at your partner’s face but rather just past them, might seem distant, but it makes the encounter, in some ways, more personal.  You have to rely on more than vision. As volume decreases on vision, it increases on touch, your sense of form and weight, the sound of the music, the smell of the person. That classic tango posture is also a traffic control measure – you’re both monitoring your surroundings- not just for affect.

It’s invigorating to follow – when I actually relax, and stop glancing down at my feet, and fix my “tango focus,” I see the room with a soft focus and sense more clearly with everything else.  I’ve only been able to find that sensation in spurts so far.

I’ve a strong tendency to reverse-lead, a not surprising, but potentially rude habit. It’s challenging to calm the need to control the dance and to tune in to the way the lead is “speaking.” Then we both learn to “pronounce” and “hear” better. Again – a metaphor for life in there.

It’s also a great way to make friends!