Simple rules for Argentine tango

  1. I move naturally, keeping “nose over toes”.
  2. I match energy with the music and with my partner.
  3. I seek to confront (be with and chest facing) my partner.
  4. At each step I may: 1) move my weight from one foot to the other over zero or longer distance, forward, backward, or sideways; or 2) pivot forward or backwards on the ball of my supporting foot; or 3) pause. I may step through or around my partner’s space. My partner may do something different.
  5. We create dance sequences by opening space for our partner to flow into, or closing space to send our partner in another direction.
  6. Between steps my body passes directly over my supporting leg, while my free leg wants to swing near and under my body to give me good balance and a small footprint for any possible next step or pivot.
  7. I may test, but not stress, my partner.
  8. I or my partner may intentionally bend or break any rule for special effect.

Not rules in the sense of codigos for behavior at the milonga social, but a framework, a set of principles for a way of being when dancing Argentine tango.

In eight rules and fewer than 150 words we have a complete system to express the rich complexity of Argentine tango. Well . . .

Until dancers reach some stages of unconscious competence, they tend to spend too much time in “System 2” of the mind (Thinking fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman), the slower, more deliberative, and more logical one. That’s good for disciplined practice time, but when we dance we want to be in the flow of “System 1,” the fast, instinctive, and emotional one. How to reconcile the complexity of the infinite possibilities of Argentine tango with the limitations of the novice mind-body? Simple rules give us an emotional and instinctive feeling for how we want to be when we are dancing.

Would you expand or reduce this set of rules?
Does any rule strike you as just wrong?
I’d love to hear your comments on how you express the Argentine tango system to the curious and to new dancers.


Inspired by Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by professors Donald Sull and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, about how we all use simple rules, shortcuts to manage the complexities of daily live, and how we can intentionally devise simple rules to help us grasp and manage complex systems, such as the dance of Argentine tango. We have a good example of this in the way that General Motors CEO Mary Barra replaced a 10-page employee dress code with two words, “Dress appropriately.”

A simple rule for a great connection

Match energy. If you can think-feel just one thing in your dancing, I recommend you make that Energy. (By the way, do you agree with me about how it often serves us to focus on a single thing?)

Okay, there it is, the whole “secret” right in the first two words of this article. You’re welcome! I, too, value highly concise, wonderfully helpful advice.

A girl on the left and a boy on the right play tug of war with a rope.
How to Play Tug of War by WikiHow, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

What’s that? You’re not sure what match energy means, and even if you have an idea what it means you’re not sure you agree? Well my guess is that even if you were to guess at some interpretation of match energy and seek to apply it in your dancing, you would find benefits of mindfulness, calm, clear intention, and connection with your partner.

Despite what computers would tell us, we don’t live in a binary, 1s and 0s, yes/no, right/wrong world. We live in a panoply of possibilities, each with a continuum, a range of choices (and non-choices!). Consider, tension in the body (and tension in the mind!), pressures with our partner’s body parts, timing of movement with (or not) the music, size of steps, elevation, etc. How can we begin to comprehend, to be aware of and respond well to such a complex system of interrelated possibilities? We can begin (and sustain) by adhering to a simple rule that feels intuitive to our mind-body: Match energy.

What to do if there is a mismatch — Matching and leading

But, David, what if I can’t exert that much pressure or don’t like it? What if they don’t know how to use their body to step with the same sustained energy I like for this kind of music? What if we each prefer a different degree of closeness or style of embrace?

Do you Lead or Follow? Does it matter? I reject the traditional and widespread notion that the dance is el hombre’s dance, because “he” has so many more responsibilities, then the follower must adapt to the leader. In my dance world,

  1 + 1 + 1 > 3
  The energy of the Music & Me & Thee makes wonderful dance.

Calibration. How can I know if it is me or my partner causing a mismatch? Consider the ballet barre. It makes for a perfect partner in that it pushes (or pulls) against you with exactly the same force as you use on it! (The ballet barre has a bit of give to it, much like a well organized, energy matching body.) That can give you a feeling for matching, and then how can you know if you are matching when you dance? Check that you and your partner’s body parts stay in a well organized, rather fixed relationship to each other (that will vary as dance geometry dictates). If the hand side of the embrace is drifting toward one of the partners, or up or down, then extra force is coming from somewhere.

I’ll start out in my body’s preferred placement and organization of parts. If my partner’s parts placement seems to be asking for or giving something different, then if it’s within my acceptable comfort and operational parameters, I’ll accept and adapt to it. If my partner is hurting me I will say something, perhaps non-verbally at first, with a shake or a shrug of that part, then verbally if I must.

I will seek to match my partner’s energy indications in as many respects and to as great a degree as possible. I will even seek to match intangible qualities, such as style and expressiveness (or not) of dance. Notice! I must remain alert to the possibility that I misread them, or perhaps unawares I gave them some early signal that led them to dance in something other than their naturally preferred manner.

In any case, once we feel we have done a good job matching our partner, we may then begin leading (whether we are leading or following) our partner to our preferred, most resourceful, natural, and powerful place of dance. We do this by shifting our energy at a rate that they can adjust to.

May I reiterate more simply? Match energy to the extent possible and non-injurious. By the way, you do realize that match energy applies to more than just your partner, right? We seek as a couple to match the energy of the music, and even to la ronda–the other couples dancing along with us. And if not match, to at least be aware of these energies so that we can make intentional choices.

All the energy that we can put into sensing what is happening in the music, in the room around us, in our partner, and in ourselves — will give our partner more to work with and against, and help us create a more wonderful dance.