In Argentina a person learns to tango in a threefold way:
- Deluged with images, stories, poems, lyrics, relatives, famous characters, even an Argentine who hates tango knows an awful lot about it.
- Through osmosis. The fledgling initiate sits for hours at a dance floor table watching the older and younger folks at play and passion.
- Goes to a teacher for that teacher’s particular vocabulary of steps which the student has chosen for stylistic preference, because the student has a plethory of teachers to choose from.
Therefore teachers, generations of them, need teach no more than the step, so much of the character of the tango being previously instilled.
But, basic steps didn’t exist for the milongueros.
It would be inaccurate to translate “Salida” as Basic Step. While salida means exit in spanish, it really translates as the way out, and salida seems to have been used by the milongueros more to signify the way out onto the dance floor.
In nine years of observation and conversation with older dancers in Buenos Aires I can make two very strong statements about the Salida among milongueros:
- No two dancers have ever described their Salida in exactly the same way. The amount of variation on such a “basic” theme is remarkable. Asking milongueros to count their salidas has been one of the most amusing surveys I have ever undertaken. I still do it every chance I get.
- I have never seen a milonguero start a dance by stepping into the space behind himself, where he cannot see, except in rare instances when all other paths are blocked and it was the only option (and this I have literally only seen a handful of times. Without fail the first step an older Argentine social dancer takes is to the side with his left and her right. (I say social dancer, because there are some older dancers who are not social dancers but who do teach.)
The eight step tango basic in parallel feet, as danced almost universally in the world outside of Buenos Aires was never taught as a salida among milongueros and is more recently derided by them as “el bàsico acedZÿmico” (the acedemic basic). This basic step seems to have been created by the “tango for export” community of stage dancers because it was easy to teach to the gringos. Additionally, it began to be counted, also for the sake of ease of teaching to foriegners, who by the way, kept asking them to count, so lets not completely blame them.
So, why the step backwards to get the salida going in all these basic steps for export, you ask?
The closest answer I can come up with is the Antonio Todaro/Raul Bravo school of stage dancing, which has had by far the biggest influence on modern stage dancing. Todaro and Bravo had a tango school in Flores for sixteen years in the 60’s and 70’s. Todaro later went on to have great success as the teacher of many, if not most of the young stage stars of today. Who knows what influences also passed out of that laboratory of theirs. Bravo was the lead dancer for Mariano Mores, Todaro the practice partner for Virulazo who later starred in Tango Argentino.
Anyway, these guys used to teach private lessons in houses that had small rooms, all the steps being turned in on themselves for the small space, later to be stretched out on the stage. They used the same first five parallel steps that we now call the “basic” (the leader opposite; the front-side-back-back-cross of the follower) to get themselves from the side of the room, where I guess one always starts because it is after all the side of the dance floor, to the center where they would begin the turning figure that was the focus of the lesson.
This prep step, kind of breath step to get you going into the figure, seems to have been adopted as a basic step by the stage dance community, who turned out to be the first ones to teach outside of Argentina. So it had become almost universal by the time this innocent arrived back in the first world from his recuperation in Buenos Aires.
So having set the stage, I would now like to get to the basic steps of real argentine social dance.
To learn tango outside of Argentina one must be aware that the conditions set out for aspiring tango dancers in Argentina are drastically changed.
- Not only do the students have no cultural context for knowing the dance, but their consciousness is filled with hollywood and advertising images which are the bastard children of the original tango madness of the parisian crazes of the teens and twenties.
- Dance floors where they observe tango tend to be filled with beginners offering poor and misleading examples of what tango is suppose to be.
- Therefore, the student becomes dependent on the teacher in a way unfathomable to the Argentines who invented this dance among the hoards of competing milongueros, playing constant one-ups-manship with their ever evolving creations.
So let us observe something fundamental about Argentine social dance improvisation.
The Argentine Tango is built by leader and follower in three intertwined and overlapping parts:
- The skeleton of the dance is a walk of the follower that is designed by the leader.
- The leader creates the next layer by building a step of his (traditionally his, that is) or hers (I like that!) in the spaces betwen the followers confidently laid out pattern.
- The follower, and the leader, now decorate these two interwoven steps with a layer of adornments.
Therefore, by this reading of the dance, the basics are as follows.
- Must learn Argentine frame, i.e. concepts of keeping space open for footwork, and of honoring the embrace.
- Must learn how to keep a steady walk going while learning the limited vocabulary that is always used by the leader for the follower, that is:
- Walks, forward and back
- Ochos, forward and back
- Giros, right and left
- When to cross in response to the leader’s choice of position
- Must be able to walk all of these steps while interpreting the beat of the music.
- Must be able to lead the follower’s steps so as to create the comfortable smooth walk which he or she will then use as the skeleton of his step.
- Must have the basics of navigation down, meaning do these without stopping her walk, i.e.:
- how to move forward and stay in place
- how to turn right and left
- how to look where he or she is going while leading the steps
- Must understand how to change the orientation of his or her feet from parallel to crossed and back again, with out disturbing the followers walk,in various ways and with confidence.
- Must learn to shift position from side to side without disturbing her walk, etc.
- Must be able to give the follower a sense of the beat desired while also keeping his or her own steps in the music.
- Must be striving for a minimum of force in the lead and an elegant attention to the follower’s pleasure throughout.
- And, oh yes, one must know how to walk to the cross.