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.

Absolutism corrosive in teaching a skill … and life

“My way or the highway.” “Love it or leave it.” “This is how you dance tango.”

A recent blog post [1] seemed to test the notion that, “There is no such thing as bad publicity, so long as they spell your name right.” People piled on [2][3] to say in adamant, sometimes vehement terms that the notions described there were wrong, wrong, wrong.

I don’t wish to defend or decry the particulars of any of those postings, but rather to urge against the many forms of absolutism — “This is the one and only right way to do things.” — in teaching Argentine tango (or any skill), and in life at large.

The examples in political life are all too depressingly familiar to anyone the least bit socially aware. And you probably don’t have to think hard or long to recall acquaintances who are automatic mismatchers. Whatever you say they take the opposite view, or an extreme view.

In teaching any skill, not only tango, the My Way approach often seems to serve for market differentiation before it becomes dogma. (Proviso: It does seem acceptable for a teacher to say, “If you like my particular style, these are the specific things I think I do to achieve it.”)

Let’s say we acknowledge the problem. What’s your positive intent?

I view Argentine tango as a particularly naturalistic dance. The fundamental movements are actions we take all the time in our daily lives. The language of our dance is an outgrowth of the way individuals naturally interact. (Even la cruzada can be understood as a natural outcome of geometry and the presupposition of the partners confronting[4] one another.)

Viewed this way, Argentine tango is fully accessible to an exceedingly wide range of individuals: long and short legs, thin and thick bodies, erect and slouching postures, old and young, fit and not so, body aware and not so, experienced and not so, fast and slow, high and low energies, and on and on.

With the vast range of possibilities, how can we dictate, “This is the only way you can achieve comfortable, clear, creative dances with others”?

The key, really, is matching a partner’s energy.

What if a partner doesn’t meet your preferences in some or many respects. Do you have a course of action beyond saying “Thank you,” and leaving the tanda?

I never felt comfortable with advice I received from many quarters saying that the dance is the dance of el hombre, the man, the leader. That followers should expect to adapt themselves always and wholly to the leader’s preferences.

The Macho, Sexist, Role-ist view of Argentine tango offends my sense of equality, I won’t impose myself or my views on others. Furthermore, I want to enjoy as wide a range of dances with as many people as I can. I don’t wish to narrow but to expand my enjoyable dance possibilities

In NLP, Neurolinguistic Programming we have a technique called Pacing and Leading. We can begin with our preferred pressure and style of dance, but if we find our partner not responding well to that, then we can begin matching what we sense from them. From there, we may be able to subtly shift to lead them (whether we are leader or follower) more to our preferences.

Among the most magical tandas I have enjoyed were ones that seemed to start off poorly, where there was some mismatch keeping our dance from nicely coming into sync, but that somehow I was able to sense what they wanted to make them comfortable in their dance — a change of embrace, pressure, style of dance, energy of dance.

This, too, is a functional embrace.

Okay, so even enlightened I can’t resist weighing in on the, “this is ‘real’ close embrace” issue that started this whole thing. My answer: it’s not an absolute, it’s a preference!

There exists a continuum of pressure levels that a dancer might prefer, both for selecting partners and over the course of a dance involving a variety of movements. In a neutral state, at rest or just walking, nothing special going on, the continuum can possibly, rationally, and acceptably range among, Space between the bodies, Quite close but no actual body contact, Barely perceptible touch, Skin deep touch, Muscle deep touch, Bone deep touch (maybe only appropriate for stage performance). Our job as teachers is to give students awareness of possibilities, ways of safely exploring them, and guidance as to the ranges that seems more useful for particular circumstances.

The degree of pressure is the key! Some prefer none, others light, still others heavy, plus, some range (narrow for some, broad for others) of variations.

Mostly we are independent, yet well connected through a subtle pressure between our torsos. Sometimes I stabilize my partner, sometimes they stabilize me. “Oh, horrors, you just don’t do that! Each dancer must be perfectly independently stable at all times.” Perhaps in lessons and practice, where we seek to develop and enhance our capabilities, we can apply such stringency. In social dancing I am seeking the success and enjoyment of the partnership, even it if requires occasional compromises.

The preferred pressure won’t be a single point, but will vary with experience, training, practice, and the kinds of movements in the moment.

Here’s an idea, give exercises and games that let a person experience a range of possibilities. Indeed, we switch partners during lessons and practice as a way to learn to accommodate a wider range of responses. Whether as teachers or practice partners, rather than tell our partner what we think they should be doing (or more often, telling them how we think they are wrong!), how about saying, “I would like more of (or less of) X“? In this way you are expressing your personal preference, not dictating.

Can’t we all just get along?

Felices caminando!

[1] Ivica Anteski

[2] Miles Tangos

[3] Melina Sedó

[4] Confront (from French, from Latin: with + face)
I like this word as a way to describe one aspect of the tango connection. For me it seems to capture the highly active (not antagonistic) way of partners seeking to face and be with their partner. I learned the term from Luciano Brigante and Alejandra Orozco.

Respect on the dance floor

Do we really need to say that dance floor relationships need to be the same as real life relationships need to be about respecting other persons’ choices for themselves?

Each moment, every moment.

Greater chances for confusion can arise on the dance floor where we may hold a partner in intimate closeness; but only when we allow ourselves to forget that every situation, every time, requires us to respect the other person’s choice in that moment.

When we offer or accept a dance, it is for a dance, not for a sensual encounter with any implied invitation to grope, nuzzle, caress, murmur, smooch, or use force.

In this essay the word I is you, a dance partner, a teacher, an organizer, regardless of gender identity or role.

One, Personal

Respect on the dance floor, whether of a sexual, sensual, performance, capability, ability, or experience nature, all comes from a consistent approach that we would wish for any meeting of people, on the dance floor and off.

In initiating a dance, conversation, or other interaction, I want to have a clear intent that respects the boundaries of that individual. I want to hold awareness that individuals have personal boundaries that may well, even often, differ from other individuals, and may even differ for the same person at different times and in different situations.

I want to listen to the other person’s signals–whether verbally or through body language–with an intent to not merely hear, but to understand what they do or don’t want from me.

I start slowly and simply, building as our connection grows in comfort and range.

If I feel any uncertainty at any time, I either back up, making things simpler and slower again, or I ask, or I do both.

I respect my own boundaries, and I am prepared to assert what I need from my partner to respect those boundaries.

I am generous in what I am willing to accept, while scrupulous in being careful with what I do and say. That is, I do not automatically assume bad intent from one example which may be explained by accident or incompetence. Nevertheless, I am always within my rights to make my own judgment for myself based on what I experience, my response, and my partner’s response to my response.

I dance within my capabilities. I do not lead by force but by clear, calm intention in my own body movements. I do not follow with abandon but seek connection to my partner, who has primary (but not sole) responsibility for the safe conduct of our dancing.

Two, Educational

We are brought up from childhood to be polite to others, but this serves us poorly if it leads us to disregard or suppress our reactions to threat or abuse. Much as with the kata repeated forms of martial arts, we may have needs to practice our responses to situations that we expect to encounter (or have encountered).

As a teacher I want to know the kinds of situations that can cause confusion or problems, not merely with the dance itself but with the situations that can arise in dance. I want to equip my students to recognize such situations and respond resourcefully to them with words or actions.

As a teacher I seek to both model and explicitly teach respect and empowerment in my classes and workshops. At the milongas and prácticas, in the same way that I seek to exhibit exemplary dancing, I also model exemplary behavior.

I teach my students in a caring way. I hear and respond to them in a caring way to imbue them with the respect to care for themselves and others.

Three, Organizational

As an organizer I am open to feedback on inappropriate words or behavior on the dance floor, and I seek to remedy the problem.

As a participant in an organization, if I see something I will say something. First, I will seek to understand, then I will seek to support.

I will seek to both create and, when necessary, enforce an atmosphere of respect for one another.

Respect is a shared responsibility.

Finally, Your feedback

On my computer calendar I have a repeating event set to every nine weeks show me the following guidelines for right living with others:

THINK, is it:

T – True
H – Helpful
I – Inspiring confidence
N – Necessary
K – Kind

1. Never tell a lie.
2. For every physical, verbal, emotional, and mental action, Focus before, during, and after to make sure nobody gets hurt.

A. Is it necessary to say?
B. Is it necessary that I say it?
C. Is it necessary that I say it now?

How about you? What are the ways you help yourself and others as a dancer or a teacher or an organizer or … a person! Leave us a comment with your thoughts?

Other resources

A possibly helpful wall poster

Honor each person’s right to make their own choices.
Be shiny and clean in your actions, body, breath, dancing, intent, and talk.

Codigos De Milonga

Tango Etiquette On The Dance Floor

Never-ever beginner class script

Point A to point B, Left-Right

The Sunday, February 4, 2018 issue of Parade, the Sunday newspaper supplement, had a couple of articles with notes for teachers of Argentine tango.

Sunday, February 4, 2018 | PARADE.COM

First, in the Personality section Bode Miller, the most decorated US Olympic alpine skier, talked about advice to young skiers. “Ski racing is, fundamentally, a very simple sport. It’s about going from point A to point B quickly. I think it’s easy to get distracted and start thinking that you have to look a certain way or have to do a certain thing.”

Argentine tango (escenario, stage/performance tango aside) relies on natural, functional movements. It’s either shifting our weight from one foot to the other (forward/backward/sideways, over a long/short/no distance, walking/momentary), or it’s pivoting over a foot. Teachers can confuse and drive away newcomers by insistence on a particular posture, look, manner, and style of walking. Let’s first get them moving comfortably and naturally alone and then with a partner.

Then in the Ask Marilyn column Marilyn Vos Savant weighed in on gender differences in left-right confusion. Let us as teachers make it simpler for all (including ourselves) regardless of gender or left-right awareness, by avoiding relative references (“My left or your left?”) altogether. I like talking about the hand-side of the embrace or the arm-side of the embrace. These are clear and obvious, and the same for either partner.

I’m still looking for the best way to refer to Inside-Outside positions. You are aware that it changes relative to which partner is stepping into the space, yes? “Is that inside/outside the circle (la ronda),” and “Is that outside the inside of my partner?” The DVIDA syllabus refers to LOP (Left Outside Position) and ROP (Right Outside Position), which have the benefit of being unambiguous for either partner stepping in any direction, but also have the left-right possible confusion factor.

When it’s necessary/useful to orient students in the room we prefer to have them face or face their back to some prominent feature of the room (our front windows, the mirrors, the paintings, the Exit sign).

Setting up la ronda: “Everyone spread out to the edges of the floor, with equal space between you and the person on either side of you. Raise your right hand to point to the person on your right side. [Right, it’s not perfect.] Now turn to face in that direction.”

Never-ever beginner class script

A photo of a running track, with the sun setting beyond it. This curved portion of the track shows numbered lanes 4 - 8.

Background: In most every dance community at one time and another there will be outcries about how wild dancing and poor floorcraft threatens the health and wellbeing of others. This was my response to a recent such outcry in our community, to tell how I address this in my classes from the very beginning. If any of this seems at all useful to you, I invite you to modify it however you like to serve your purposes. A comment here or email note is always appreciated.

Floorcraft and dance etiquette can and ought to be taught from day one onward, not as a separate skill or subject, but as an expectation, an underlying quality for dancing Argentine tango well.

This article describes how I teach a first class for never-ever danced tango beginners, and I invite you to use or adapt it to your own purposes however you wish.

For the sample script below, we precede it with a demonstration (students copy) of the first fundamental movement of tango, “Changing our weight from one foot to the other. A weight change can be in place or over some short or long distance; it is in relation to the direction the hips face: forward, backward, or sideways; it can be momentary or walking.”

[The second fundamental movement is the pivot, to face the hips in a new direction.]


[Using your remote, begin your cued up music, one with a clear compás beat, set at a calm, comfortable volume. A wireless microphone helps dancers hear the class leader, the teacher speak in a calm, natural manner with the music.]

Everyone spread out to the edges of the floor, with equal space between you and the person on each side of you. [Give directions for couples that came together to join hands, side-by-side; and to pair up the others.]

Now turn so you both face in this direction [showing a quarter turn to the right with my partner] and let’s start walking around the floor together.

If you see anyone [me!] doing something you find interesting and you want to try it, go ahead. Argentine tango is a community and we learn from each other.

We call this circulation around the floor, la ronda, the round. Even though we move in race track fashion, this is not a race! We don’t pass here. We are dancing with the music, with our partner, and with the couples ahead of us and behind us! We don’t tailgate the couple ahead of us, and we don’t create traffic jams by staying in one place too long.

[All along, as we see things we like among the students, such as walking on the beat or creativity in trying different movements, we call it out.]

This direction we are moving, counter-clockwise around the room, we call the line of dance.

Now if this were an actual milonga — that’s what we call the social dance party for Argentine tango — the lights would be lower, and around the perimeter of the room there would be tables where seated people might be enjoying wine and conversation, or simply be enjoying the music and watching the dancers.

If this were a very crowded milonga there might be one or more tracks to the left of our track.

Before each tanda, a set of dances, the dancers will give mirada, a look around the room for the person they want to dance with. When they catch eyes with a possible partner they give cabeceo, a nod of the head, and if the other person gives the same reply, we continue looking at them as we go to meet them.

Even when dancers are entering a crowded floor, they will go to the corners where they can give mirada and cabeceo to an approaching couple, asking for and receiving permission to enter ahead of them.

[Amidst all of this, during the walking, we would give suggestions and demonstrate to:

  • Invite your partner to turn around you. (How do they know who is the leader? It doesn’t matter.)
  • Now you turn around your partner.
  • Continue walking straight while you face your partner {dissociation}.
  • Continue walking straight while you face away from your partner.
  • Both of you walk backwards.
  • etc.



If this were the end of a tanda, a set of three or four similar songs that we dance with the same partner, we would hear the cortina, or curtain–a bit of non-tango music. At that time we thank our partner and escort them to their table. If it’s not the end of the tanda, and we are having a good time, we stay with this partner until the group of songs ends.

The person who was leading for that last song will now advance in the line of dance [demonstrating] to the next partner, and you will now be the follower. For this dance we will have the leaders walk on the side closest to the center of the room. [Foreshadowing how, in general, the leaders face diagonally out, away from the center, to keep the ronda from collapsing into the center.]


We feel, for several good reasons, that practicing both the leading and following movements are important to learning Argentine tango.

  • We learn more deeply when we experience the dance from both sides of the embrace, so that we can know what our partners want to feel.
  • At the higher levels of dancing, both partners will be doing all the same kinds of moves at different times.
  • It honors the historical roots of the dance, which arose out of migrations from Africa, Spain, and other parts of Europe to Argentina and Uruguay. These were men, mostly, seeking opportunities in a new land. Some reports say as many as 50 men to 1 woman. So men would learn the dance together, starting out as followers, and when they learned that well, then learn to lead, until they were finally good enough to compete for the attention of women at the milonga. Meanwhile the women learned together from their mothers and sisters.

I liken Argentine tango music to a sort of orchestral jazz. Among the migrants there were many talented musicians, some of them classically trained. The composers of lyrics, the letras de tango, would speak in poetry that puts Country & Western songs to shame of the pain of missing one’s country, community, loved ones. There is so much richness going on at so many different layers. Each dancer will feel drawn to different parts of the music at different times. You will choose how you express how the music speaks to your spirit.

[The class continues with walking in a close embrace apart, walking in a close embrace, and pivoting. Those aren’t covered here.]



The Philosophy

That is a LOT of talking!! It covers lots of topics. If you were to do that as a separate speech, with people standing around listening to you, it would bore them out of their minds. But walking and talking, listening and learning has a time honored tradition from the times of Socrates and Aristotle, and undoubtedly well before that, when hunter-gatherers would share knowledge and ideas on their walks about. (See The Walking Classroom for a modern take on it.)

We don’t command, “Now you will learn about and ever after respect tango etiquette!” Instead, students subliminally internalize behavior by seeing teachers always demonstrate it and mention it (where and when appropriate) as a subtext to every subject that they specifically teach.

This also creates a safe, easy, non-demanding way for people to experience dance as a natural activity, something where they already know the rudiments — it’s walking plus music! Who knew?

Starting out walking side-by-side gets past the fear of stepping on each other. Encouraging experiments — “Have your partner walk around you.” — lets students know they can solve problems on their own. They can deal with uncertainty and make sense of it. They discover that they already know something about how to lead and follow.

With all the teacher demonstrations and student experiments, all while walking, that script will take a couple of songs to cover. We use the break as an opportunity for more information (tandas and cortinas, “Thank you”), and we create the expectation that in Tango Tribe classes we rotate partners and we rotate roles.

I also like to introduce the importance of the music, because for me, connection to the music comes before connection to our partner. Our connection, each of us, to the music, enhances our connection to each other.

The Tools

A REMOTE CONTROL for the music becomes an important tool. It allows us to keep the learning state intact, without the disruption of running over to the player to play/stop music and adjust volume.

I use a Pebble watch to control my Android phone. (Alas, FitBit acquired and killed off that wonderful product.) Android Wear will control both Android and iPhones. There’s the Apple Watch. An app on your phone can control your PC/Mac . There are also dedicated bluetooth media remotes.

A WIRELESS MICROPHONE is another essential tool. When the teacher can talk in a calm, natural tone and volume of voice, while still being heard clearly, it projects that calm to the students. As if to say, “This is just a pleasant walk about, with no special expectations, and, Oh, hey! Let’s try this thing.”

The PylePro PDWM3400 package is a wonderfully economical and effective package that provides two microphone sets. You’ll also need a mixer, such as the simple and economical BEHRINGER XENYX 502, plus cables to connect your music source.


I love Argentine tango (dancing and teaching) for many reasons. One reason that especially fits here is the low barrier to entry — it is walking to music — and yet we can take a lifetime pursuing mastery.

Taking a low-key, informational, walking and talking approach at the beginning (and always!) fosters expectations of success, and use of good floorcraft and etiquette.

Paint your picture

Coaching wisdom from 50 year pro wrestling veteran George de la Isla, owner of America’s Academy of Professional Wrestling in Pflugerville. Wrestler Ricky Starks recalls George’s words on his first day there, “What I want to do is help you paint your picture how you want to paint it, but I want to show you how to use the paint, how to use broad strokes over here, the small strokes over there. Whatever you paint with it is up to you but let me show you how.”

As reported in the 25-June-2017 issue Austin American-Statesman.

The squeeze, rub technique

Summary: We can use silent, invisible signals that communicate in a positive way to our student or partner, where a hand squeeze indicates, “There’s that thing we talked about,” or “a thing we should talk about.” A back rub indicates, “I like what you did there.”

Please forgive the titillating title for this article, a full title should be The hand squeeze, back rub feedback technique. One of my Austin teachers has a handy (also, forgive the pun) way to unobtrusively give instant feedback. We talk about an issue to improve, then during our practice/test dancing they will give a quick hand squeeze whenever feeling the problem.

Studies show that for early stages of learning, positive feedback can be most helpful: “Yes, do more of that!” Then at higher and the highest levels of skill development, negative feedback, pointing out errors serve best: “Don’t do that!” Wouldn’t it be useful to have an easy way to give feedback in both directions, negative and positive?

Check or X
Now here’s an idea for practice sessions, whether teacher-student or practice partners.

  • Either partner can give the signal.
  • Hand squeeze equals, “I want to feel more comfortable,” or “I want greater clarity.”
  • Hand rub on back equals, “That felt good. I want more of that!” Or, “Nice correction.”


  • Stop, back up to the step(s) immediately preceding signal.
  • Receiver of signal tells partner what they think the partner wants more of or less of, and why.
  • Hand squeeze is used to say, “May I have a word with you?”
  • Back rub is used to say, “Yes, that’s it!”

Note, however, that the hand squeeze need not interrupt the flow. If you and your partner have already discussed an issue, the signal could say, “Yeah, I felt that thing we talked about.” This could even be applied surreptitiously at the social milonga, assuming that you and your partner have agreed that this is desirable for a particular correction.

It’s also useful to know that we already get these sorts of signals unconsciously from our partners. Pulling the hand in or up, squeezing. Rolling the head or shoulders after a dance.


  • Peer-to-peer
  • Two way
  • We aren’t getting blamed or corrected.
  • We are actively analyzing our own dancing.
  • We may identify issues the partner wasn’t signalling. Maybe they weren’t aware of it but you are. More benefit for the buck.

examples . . .

  • You wanted more space to pass, because you felt like you might step on me.
  • You wanted that space closed off so you wouldn’t think you should move there.
  • You wanted my embrace to slide more so that my step wouldn’t pull you off axis.

This models the best practice for good communications, first seek to understand the other and let them know you understand.

One reason we all love our Argentine tango is the opportunities it gives us for intimate, secret communications that create our dance. When we’re working on improving our dance it can feel nice, helpful, and supportive to receive intimate, secret signals that aid our awareness in a positive way.

Tell people what you want

Tell people what you want, not what you don’t want, and keep it simple.

From TOOLS OF TITANS by Tim Ferriss, “ACROYOGA – THAI AND FLY” p. 52

“I want more space in that direction.” Not, “When you rotate your upper body, your leading shoulder pokes forward.”
“I want this space pointing in the direction you want me to go.” Not, “You’re sending me away from the line you want.” (How, specifically?)
“I want to feel contained here.” Not, “Don’t let your elbow drift behind you.”
“I want to know when I invite you to step, that you will stay above that foot until my next clear invitation to pivot or take another step.” Not, “You keep changing your weight.” Not, “Don’t take extra steps.”

The difficulty of mentally processing double negatives. Say, “Do something wanted.” Not, “Don’t do something unwanted.” In the second, undesirable format, the last thing they hear is, “… do something unwanted!”

We want to leave them with a simple, positive image of the conditions they want to create. By avoiding specific instructions for what to do, how to move, what to feel, we instead encourage them to discover for themselves how they can use their body to create the desired effect.

Breaking out of the shell

I so much admire my singing teacher Gene Raymond. Were it not for his patience, creativity, and support I would never have made it (such as ‘it’ is) singing, coming from such a deficit. And so, oftentimes our sessions will diverge to topics of teaching and learning, where we share ideas and experiences from our learning and our teaching, he teaching singing, and me teaching Argentine tango.

Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.
emergence (5) by dubh, a Monarch butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

We spoke today about the inhibited student, the one so fearful of a perceived sense of censure (by self, by others?) that rather than try they just shut down. Over the weekend I had observed a class exercise where such a student stolidly refused to move. Multiple people tried, and no amount of cajoling, no clever NLP language (“Well, if you DID know what that was like, how would that look?”), nothing worked.

A key element comes from the teacher as a person. Does your teacher/partner come across as a caring, genuine person? Someone who believes in you. Someone you can trust and feel safe with.

Gene’s grandmother encouraged him as a young boy to sing at family gatherings. Gene was shy, so she would have him stand behind a tall rocker so he wouldn’t have to see an audience. She created a safe place for him.

Gene described how as a new teacher, and an introvert, he would feel nervous anxiety at the beginning of each semester, and he found he could get himself beyond that by mentally taking on a character. Acting as if he really were that confident, smart, successful teacher. Indeed, he became his character.

He had other good ideas for me.

Your student is afraid to fail? So encourage them to fail! Make it a challenge to see how big they can fail. That is, make it a game. It is okay to fail. There is no wrong answer. We have no need to be sorry (unless we’ve actually hurt someone) for ‘mistakes’. All the different ways we can discover to be less than perfect are exactly the things that move us toward being somewhat less imperfect than we all are.

“If you make a mistake, do it like it was everyone else who made the mistake!” He gave the example of a drum major that missed a turn and walked away from the rest of the band. That person had the confidence to own the moment, stepping in time, making a smart turn, and returning in an orderly fashion. I could relate to that one. Many years ago at a summer ballroom dance camp at BYU, in a choreographed performance I missed a cue and took my partner and myself in the direction opposite to the group. Disaster? Well, it kind of seemed that way in my embarrassment at the memory of it, but in the moment I treated it as our solo, enabling us to smoothly rejoin the group without losing our place.

As a teacher (or dance partner) I can help by taking any blame on myself. The student/partner perceives a mistake. “No, not at all. If I had chosen a better exercise, movement, timing, … we (We are in this together!) could do better.”

Are there times when you have to point out a mistake so the person can make progress? Well, in the Tango Tribe teaching philosophy, saying “Don’t do x” where x is some kind of less than desired performance, is like a double negative in speaking. It takes a bit of mental effort to turn it into the positive thing you DO want us to do. So why not start, and stay, with the positive.

I can take an example from my childhood, “Don’t slouch!” The subliminal message I receive is, “You’re a sloucher. Don’t be what you are!” Maybe another, positive approach would work better, also giving a model of what we want TO BE. “Stand tall and proud, like the way you are made.”

Bottom line: see our learning-teaching partner as someone we love and care for, and in that way we create a safe place where we both grow from the experience.