11. Tango, the no-flow dance

Tango is a dance quite different to the other four Standard dances.
Movement is not based on Bodyswing! Consequently, there is no Body Rise & Fall. Neither is there Rise & Fall through the feet. There are NO steps taken on the toes. All forward steps, including the ‘Quicks’, are with a Heel Lead and the foot is immediately placed flat. Most Man’s Left Foot-to-side steps are placed Inside Edge of (whole) Foot. Most closing steps are placed with the whole of the foot meeting the ground at the same time. Backward steps are either Ball, Heel or Inside Edge of Ball, Heel.

The total message is that the Tango is a FLAT dance. Neither Waltz-type pendulum swing nor Foxtrot-type undu¬lation swing have any place in this dance. Sometimes seen is the grotesque affectation of raising the heel high off the floor on the entry into promenade position. This is totally out of character. I repeat. No step should be placed on the toes!

Instead of the smooth rhythmic flow basis of the other Standard dances, there is a staccato characterisation which has been the dominant competition form for over 60 years. The Stance and Hold are also different and need separate study.

This results in many steps moving in a different direction to the alignment; e.g. a step down the Line of Dance by Man with his Right Foot will be with his body and the toes of the feet facing Diagonal to Centre.

Although I acquired the technical basis of the dance with relative ease, it took me quite some years to really master the dramatic ‘feel’ of this dance. As an amateur I twice won the British Open Amateur Championship at Blackpool – with different partners – and the “Sunday Dispatch 6 dance Open To The World” Contest at the Empress Hall, London with Doreen, without really getting to the heart of the character of this dance. In fact, we had turned professional before the Tango became one of our ‘strong’ dances. But by the time we were ready to challenge for the top championships of the world, we were winning the Tango as well as the other standard dances.

Madame llett, the Blackpool teacher who was my sole mentor from the start of my interest in competitions until I was getting into the top six of major championships, had given me a solid grounding in the technical aspects of the dance; footwork, weight distribution, angle of body in relation -to movement, etcetera. I had been firmly drilled in the fact that there was NO Body Rise in Tango. The technical dicta has not changed! The points I listed in the opening paragraph are all to be found in the Revised Technique books of the present day. Yet, if you are a regular observer at dance competitions, how many breaches of the above Rules in each event have you spotted? Only last weekend I was adjudicating at a major event and saw rated Juniors and Amateurs, who should have known better, using tiptoes on side steps and on Tap to side.

Some readers of my “The Making Of A Champion” series seem to have got the idea that I put technical ability on a pedestal above artistic interpretation. Nothing could be further from the truth! But a sound foundation of correct technique is as essential to a champion as is a sound foundation to a house, castle or palace. Without such a foundation the edifice you are raising is the equivalent to building on sand. A Champion with poor technique!!*?? Perish the thought.

Henry Jacques, one of the most famous of the pioneer champions of ballroom dancing and the ‘father’ of the staccato form of Tango, was my second mentor. He developed the infrastructure of my Tango style: the toning-up, the correct muscular feeling, the feet being placed with a firm downward pressure into the floor; the legs ’stronger’ than in the other dances, especially in the thigh muscles. Particularly important is that the leg in motion must retain this feeling of tension. The legs always slightly bent at the knee. Middle Line should always feel stretched. The waist and abdominal area are the focal point of muscular tone; initiating, powering and controlling all progressive and rotary movement of the partnership. Rise & Fall absolutely taboo; the ultimate crime in Tango!
Henry Jacques was a great confidence-booster, at least for me. He was a homespun psychologist, though with no formal training in this area. Every championship-seeking competitor needs someone who can engender this mental strength and resilience; an almost religious quality of belief.

I would leave a lesson feeling supremely confident; believing that I could beat the world. So it came to pass! But from conversations with some of my contemporaries, I know he did not have this effect upon everyone of his pupils.
My explanation is that confidence-building is a two-way rapport. The pupil and coach must have belief in each other. Physically, as well as in teaching method, he was an excellent role model. Even having retired from competing more than a decade and a half earlier, Henry still looked more artistic in his clarity of foot action and generally superb urbanity of style than the champions of the day. He was a fanatic about “style” in all the facets of dance: footwork, leg action, body movement, arm, shoulders and head positioning; insisting that not even the tiniest detail should be overlooked.

Nor can the influence of Len Scrivener on my approach to Tango be under-estimated.
Len and his partner, Nellie Duggan, had captured my imagination at the beginning of the 1950’s with their superbly charismatic portrayal of Tango. Len and Nellie were thought by many dance enthusiasts to be the archetypal Tango dancers. In addition, Len was an intro¬spective, analytical thinker who, as a teacher and lecturer, put every movement under his mental ‘microscope’. Doreen and I went to him specifically for ideas on Tango characterisation. This was always something of a battle of wills because Len preferred to be thought of as an all-round dance coach, not solely as a Tango specialist. In spite of our insistence on just this one dance, over time we became firm friends and our trust in his ‘eye’ was such that we used to let him check over our work even after our retirement from the competition arena.

Personalisation was the final stage in our development. (This process applied to all the dances in which we competed and demonstrated but I am talking here only about Tango). The good teacher will give a sound basic framework of technique and general style. The good coach will add some of the finer points, put on ‘spit and polish’, specialists will enlarge one’s knowledge and understanding of characterisation in a specific dance. Ultimately, however, the real champion must put the stamp of his/her own personality on performance. A copy is never as good as an original. Everything unsuitable – for you – must be ruthlessly discarded, even though the figure may be an ‘evergreen’ or a ‘trendy’ at the height of its popularity.

Concentrate on figures which fee/right to YOU.
We built up our own personalised collection of groups, perhaps loosely based on ideas or performances of our mentors which looked effective and attracted us, but always modified in construction, timing, emphasis, and styling. No single part of a group of steps or variation would qualify for inclusion, unless, having been given a fair trial for some weeks, it ‘felt right’.

In order to qualify for inclusion in our choreography the following criteria had to be met:
The step/figure should not be “off-the-peg” but had to be personalised by Doreen and I to look different to the popular variations of the period.
It had to convey our perception of the essential character of Tango.
It must add some visually effective dramatic element to our carefully selected range of variations.

Supreme in importance, was that our most dramatic, most effective, most eye-catching group – our pièce de resistance – should be the step combination which we would select as our Opening group. Our philosophy was to “catch the adjudicators’ eyes immediately”. Place the grouping where everyone in the hall can see it in the first few bars…right in the centre of the dance floor! (But not over the centre!!!)

Or, as is often done today, you can go only round the outside, brushing – maybe being in collision with (irritating!) – the adjudicators and the dance is nearly over before you have made the circuit of a large hall. Definitely not my tactical choice!
Another instalment on Tango to follow.

source: Dance News newspaper Edition No.1514
Harry Smith-Hampshire, Making of a Champion series