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Making Tango Your Own

I started using the phrase “Make Tango your own” in 2012, around the time I met Armin Kyros. He taught our Sydney students to bring their own mood and character to the dance. To practice, he assigned students to dance like  little girls, cowboys, clowns, and priests. He suggested they could make traditional tango music feel fresh either by exaggerating what the music suggested –dancing like a soldier to one of Canaro’s military marches– or by bringing a contrary character –dancing as if we were drunk to a too-familiar dull DiSarli. He urged them to assert some autonomous idea, even something like dancing in slomotion to a fast song or frantically on a slow one. The students were delighted and empowered by what they described as the license to be “playful”.

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Later, in Berlin, Armin introduced me to Roberto.

We further developed Armin’s suggestion into what we call “El Encuentro” … the process of forming an interpretation of the music after the cabeceo but before entering the embrace and then dancing into the music, through the space, to the partner.

As the global tango scene has turned against self-expression, most dancers have conformed to a restricted musical selection, a pruned movement repertoire, restrained adornos, retro fashion, and contracted social roles.

In this context, to make tango your own requires far more than the skills developed through exercises like Armin’s, and even more than the courage to express yourself beyond the routine. It requires access to a social tango space which supports diversity.

The emergence of a parallel “neotango” scene has been a reluctant and expensive retreat necessitated by bigotry (name calling, exclusion, and expulsion) against musicians, DJs, and dancers at regular tango events. This oasis has largely been made possible by financial risk taken by DJs and organizers.

But many cities do not have a neotango scene, and dancers must travel great distances to infrequent special events and festivals.

Most of our students and friends report that they conform themselves to be accepted in the local tango scene. 

Some create one.


Mario and Andrea were competitive ballroom dancers for some years. Eventually they tired of the rigid priorities and circumstances of competition. They resolved to continue dancing in a way that was more sustainable and directed by their own values.

Starting Argentine Tango they felt not really comfortable until friends invited them to join a different class, where tango was taught in both roles from the very beginning and to all kind of music. This opened a new world!

Finding traditional milongas uptight and unsatisfying, they renovated part of their house to make a dancing room and built their own community. At their events they play the music they like and encourage everyone to explore both roles. The men in this community do not see learning both roles as merely functional. They explain that Reveling gives them great pleasure. Of course, in a small group, when everyone dances both roles it increases the partner opportunities.

After so many years of dance experience, Mario and Andrea were not vulnerable to people who tried to tell them what music to dance to, which roles to learn, or even where to dance.

They were also careful to choose teachers who resonated with their values, and eventually found TangoForge. We appreciate the challenge not to teach them correct tango, but to teach in a way that expands their dance. They have beautiful gestures referencing their ballroom days and pleasures they bring to embellishments which are all their own. Isn’t that what adornos are for – self-expression?

Strikingly, the fact that they have made tango their own has meant that The Distance of 2020 has hardly impacted their tango lives. They continue to dance and practice, and they were ready with their “cluster” to continue safely with the need to reduce contacts.

I asked this beautiful couple to put on their ballroom costumes so I could superimpose their photo on the original 2012 graphic.

Recognizing Mario and Andrea as exemplars for “Make Tango your own” revealed that I had neglected to articulate a technique. So I distill theirs:

  1.  Retain and refer to your own priorities.
  2. Observe and respect your experiences – what works and doesn’t for you.
  3. Take action to build your own community/space.

In tango or any endeavor, be alert to the experience of getting sucked into someone else’s world where you must restrict yourself in order to participate successfully. This sensation is cause for pause and reflection.

As we have seen, dancers who took action to create their own community have been more resilient to social distance restrictions. Five people don’t need so much space to dance, so this is the easy part.  The challenges are social and cultural, because honest communication is not tango’s strong suits: Can you list and communicate with 10 dancers of appropriate level to form a cluster?

The success of a small group will depend on its ability to produce satisfying experiences, and that means that the participants are willing and able to advance their skills. Rather than maintaining tango’s ego-silence, such a group will need a culture of invested and caring communication.

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