It takes two to tango: The Fundamentals


The Music
Throughout the history of tango, its composers have also been its musicians and its singers. The chamber ensemble that plays tango music is called an orquesta tipica. In the early days of tango, it was a sextet that accompanied tango dancers, composed of two bandoneons, two violins, piano and double bass. Tango's Golden Age coincided with the big band craze elsewhere, and orquestas tipicas grew to include a larger more varied string section and more bandoneons. Today, depending on the venue, orquestsa tipicas usually consists of six or more players.

Called the soul of tango, the bandoneon is a concertina-like instrument that gives tango music its distinctive sound, both setting the melancholic mood of slow songs and the jittery "want to get up and dance" flavor of fast numbers. An extremely difficult instrument to learn, the bandoneon has thirty-eight buttons on the right side and thirty-three buttons on the left, making a different sound as its two sides are either pushed together or pulled apart. The number of players in the world today totals only about 200.

The Steps
Of the moves that make up tango, here is a sampling of the component parts that when put together by dancers who have honed their craft give life to tango's definition: "a vertical expression of a horizontal desire."

At its most basic, there is la caminata, the walk and some two-step walk variations, either moving or in place. Tango steps are combined into various patterns, usually consisting of three steps, beginning with la salida and ending with la resolucion. One pattern commonly associated with tango is the molinete, when the woman does a grapevine around her partner, and the arrastre, consisting of what looks like one partner dragging the other's foot. The important pausa, the pause, gives partners an opportunity for a facial expression, or to change patterns.

To the patterns are added adornos, or embellishments. Some that may seem familiar are the gancho, when the foot leaves the ground to hook a leg around the partner's leg or body, the boleo when one's leg is sent flying into the air and the zarandeo, or twist of the torso with or without the leg raised. Then there are the provocative adornos, the intrusion, in which one partner puts his foot or leg between those of the other, and the caricia, or caress, in which the leg or shoe is rubbed against some part of the partner's body.

Leading and following are done mostly by the hands and arms as directed by the upper body. The man's job is to know what he wants his partner to do. The woman's job is the opposite. She must let the music, the melody, the rhythm and her partner's body language communicate what's next. The goal, of course, is to reach a state of feeling el alma del tango (the soul of tango), when all the thinking, analyzing and guessing drop away, until both partners become the tango. Those who have experienced the sensation say there's nothing like it.