Argentine tango is the Great Humbler of dances. Learning it usually begins by substantially undermining our confidence in something we thought we had mastered at age two: walking. And for leaders, we are suddenly responsible for guiding the steps of two people, while we may not even be sure we should be responsible for one. So what exactly does a leader need to do to create a synchronized dance step, rather than a forced movement in a somewhat ambiguous direction? Let's take a look at the breakdown:
Here's a great exercise you can do anywhere:
Stand in a nice, tall tango posture with the knees slightly bent, torso slightly forward, weight only on one foot, with the other leg relaxed. This position should feel comfortable, yet engaged. Now, soften your weighted knee even more, so that it feels bouyant and flexible. Move your chest straight forward slightly by adjusting your weight to the front part of the ball of your foot. Note that the ball of your foot is not a point, but a small area in which you can shift your weight around. See how far you can project yourself forward without losing your balance, then come back to center. Try the same thing to the side and backward. At no time should your weight move off of your one foot. Practice this a bit each day, and aim to increase how far you can project in each direction. Your goal is to comfortably and clearly move your chest in a particular direction without any risk to your balance.
This movement is how you communicate to a follow to begin stepping in a particular direction. Keep in mind that you have not yet begun to step yourself. One of the paramount ideas in leading tango is that the leader indicates a step, but does not actually step until just after the follower. There is only the illusion of stepping simultaneously.
Remember that these chest movements are relatively small, but when they are done in an engaged tango embrace, they come across to an attentive follow as if through a megaphone.
It can be useful to bend your unweighted knee slightly forward as you project your torso. This puts the leader's whole body in a position more like how we naturally start a step. Remember that your partner is connected with your chest movement and not your knee, so this only works because of the way the slightly forward knee affects your chest position. In other words, if you take care to move your knee together with your chest, and never project your unweighted knee further than your chest, this technique can be very clear and connected for the follower.
The length of the step that the follower is about to take is dependent on how flexed your follower's knees are. The lower down your partner is, the farther they can extend their leg. The leader influences this with their height. If you stay tall when you project your torso, your partner will not be able to extend as far and a shorter step will result. Alternatively, if you bend your knees significantly before projecting, your partner will match that and be able to extend the leg further for a longer step. Varying your height and step length to correspond to different parts of the music can be a very expressive way to dance.
When your partner feels the projection of your torso, they will respond by extending their unweighted leg in the direction you are indicating. Recall that you have not yet moved your feet, so let's look one more time at the position that results. The follower extends before you step:
And now comes the part that is perhaps the most challenging for leaders. You must switch gears and become a follow yourself. This means that when your partner extends their leg, you must tune in to this, and begin following your partner's response to your own lead. Why? Because the follower is about to take a step of a certain size and in a certain direction. It may be exactly what you had in mind, or it may not. Regardless, your goal is to match your follower's step at this point, and not simply to take your own intended step. This creates smoothness in the dance because both partners remain together and connected.
Let's look at how to do that:
When your partner's leg extends, you will feel it in their upper body. Pay attention to their hip and lower rib cage moving slightly back to create space for you. You should not feel your partner transfer weight onto the extended leg at this point. This body communication is subtle and requires good follower technique. Your goal is to gauge from your partner's upper body how much their leg is extended so you can match it. This is something to practice on each step.
As a side note, since the follower has not yet changed weight, it is possible to bring your own torso back to center causing the follower's leg to collect again without stepping. Many creative movements can come from guiding the follower's unweighted leg around with your torso without completing the step. It's an idea well worth exploring. But typically, your follower's leg is extended by itself for only a very brief moment. When you feel the extension, you know there is now an opening for your step. Extend your unweighted leg to fill that space and take care to match the amount of extension made by your follower. The quickness of this action creates the illusion of simultaneous steps, when in reality you are following the extension of your partner.
This point can be missed by both leaders and followers. The leader not only initiates the step, but also leads the weight change. Signaling the weight change is accomplished by the leader pushing off of his weighted foot to transfer his weight onto his extended foot. This pushing off moves the follower from their axis, and the follower will respond by pushing off of their own weighted foot. The lead can create extra length in the step by pushing off with greater energy. However, be careful that the momentum is not more than is needed to get you and your partner squarely onto your other foot. Otherwise, you will push your follower past their new axis, and the step will end off balance. And that will definitely not get you a second tanda.
If both partners are following good technique, then the leader will be able to land the follower's foot in an exact spot on the dance floor at the end of the weight change. This opens up a multitude of possibilities for interesting tango movements which require a high level of precision. The follower's foot placement is affected mainly by three things:
After the weight change, both partners allow their newly unweighted leg to collect underneath their new axis. This has the feeling of dissipating the energy of the step. There is something interesting about the level of energy experienced throughout the tango step. When the leader initiates the intention of the step and the follower extends, there is the feeling of a build-up of energy. This build-up leads into the push-off from the weighted foot for both partners, which is where the peak energy is felt. The collection portion of the step uses up the energy from the push-off and we're back to a point of rest. And the process happens again for the next step. This produces the sensation of little waves in the amount of energy present throughout each step. That ebb and flow of energy, when it is crafted to coincide with the rhythm of music, is what produces the sensation of dancing.
And that is why this very complex series of body movements that create the basic step of Argentine tango is in fact what separates the act of walking from the experience of dancing tango.
Watch the opening 25 seconds of this performance by Luciano Brigante and Alejandra Orozco to see how each piece discussed here comes together into the action of the tango walk: