Notes on the Tango Lexicon

Notes on Tango Lexicon Bootcamp
by Mitra Martin and David Lampson of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles
August 19-21, 2016

Notes by David Phillips, published January 24, 2017

Published with generous permission from Mitra and Dave, who feel that the tango communities will get the most benefit from these ideas when more dancers know them and can practice them together.

Revised with notes from email exchanges and a second bootcamp delivered in Austin, Texas, January 20-21, 2017.
Friday, Ben Hur Shrine Temple, 7pm
Saturday, Balance Dance Studios, 1-6pm
Hosted by Tango Tribe

Tango Lexicon bootcamp – Mitra & Dave
Mitra Martin <>
David Lampson

Facebook Event
Tango Lexicon

Oxygen Tango, Los Angeles
12811 Venice Blvd, Los Angeles, California 90066
[ They have since moved to 12958 W Washington Blvd, Los Angeles CA 90066
(310) 737-8438 ]

Workshop 1: The Five Parallel System Translations – Friday, 8pm
Workshop 2: The Four Crossed System Translations – Saturday, 1pm
Workshop 3: The Six System Changers – Saturday, 3:45pm
Workshop 4: The Nine Sacadas – Saturday, 5:30pm
Figures as one significant element of all that is tango.

First day, all Parallel System PS

[ Definitions

  • The sagittal plane is the one dividing our bodies into left and right halves. For dance purposes we also consider this plane as extending through our and our partner’s vertical midline.
  • A cross-step is one that crosses the sagittal plane. A front cross-step crosses our midline in front of our body, while a back cross-step crosses our midline in back of our body.
  • An open-step, in contrast to the cross-steps, does not cross our midline. (The out-of-fashion term for this, because it is misleading, is ‘side step’.) They suggest another way of telling whether a step is open or crossing. Say your partner is stationary and you step around them. The direction in which you can only step once, is an open step. The step in the other direction, where with pivoting you could step either behind or in front of yourself around your partner, is a crossing step.
  • The parallel system (PS) is where the dancer’s legs move together in train track fashion, that is, both leg’s on the hand-side of the embrace (leader’s left, follower’s right) or both leg’s on the arm-side of the embrace (leader’s right, follower’s left) move together.
  • The cross system (CS) is where the dancer’s legs move in cross body fashion, that is, the leader’s left leg moves with the diagonally opposite follower’s left leg, and the leader’s right leg moves with the diagonally opposite follower’s right leg. In other words, the hand-side leg of one partner moves with the arm-side leg of the other partner, and vice-versa.
  • A cross direction movement is one in which the dancers move in opposite directions to each other, rather than together in the same direction. They call this a “chasing” step, with each going after the other around a common axis. They call a step that sends the partners’ paths across each other, such as the Americana – a front-cross x front-cross – a “colliding” step.


Any step can be defined as a weight change (ranging from large to small to in place) that is one of:

  • Front-cross F fc
  • Open O o (a step that does not cross our midline)
  • Back-cross B bc
            | F | O | B |
       L  F |   |   |   |
       e  --+---+---+---+
       a  O |   |   |   |
       d  --+---+---+---+
       e  B |   |   |   |
       r  --+---+---+---+

    In parallel system, which of these Leader-Follower step combinations can be done as ‘normal’ steps, that is, together in the same direction?

        PS  | F | O | B |
       L  F | y | ? | y |
       e  --+---+---+---+
       a  O | ? | y | ? |
       d  --+---+---+---+
       e  B | y | ? | y |
       r  --+---+---+---+

    The “?” combos must be done in Cross-Direction (not the same as Cross-System) and circling, CW or CCW. In other words, Sacadas.

    For PS we will choose a name signified by a life “role”, where the first letter of the name signifies the leader’s F, O, or B step, while the number of syllables in the name corresponds to the follower’s 1) F, 2) O, or 3) B step.

    The (name) roles corresponding to the “?” squares above are special. We will designate them by magical roles.

        PS  | F     | O        | B         |
       L  F | Fool  | (Fairy)  | Fisherman |
       e  --+-------+----------+-----------+
       a  O | (Oz)  | Orphan   | (Oracle)  |
       d  --+-------+----------+-----------+
       e  B | Boss  | (Buddha) | Bartender |
       r  --+-------+----------+-----------+

    [ Odd dancer out? Let them practice with a pair of walking sticks! ]

    Some dance sequences:

  • Oracle – Fisherman – Oz
  • Fool – Fairy – Orphan
  • Fisherman – Buddha – Boss

Now, practice routines with the Follower doing the sacadas. For example, Fairy, and we are on our hand-side feet. I can invite my partner to step open, while I sacada forward, under their trailing leg, or I can step forward, while inviting my partner to step open, under my trailing leg.

Some moves we consider ‘colliding’, such as Fool, where the Forward-Forward would collide, but we turn that into a side-by-side Americana.

Some move we consider ‘chasing’, such as Fairy, where our Forward step chases after our partner’s Open step.

A principle: interspersing Opens in a sequence smooths out the flow.


  • Superscript\S = Leader’s sacada Ls
  • Subscript/S = Follower’s sacada Fs

Consider also the many ways one could change the character of a move by changing its size or direction. Mini-steps. For example, crosses.

Notice all the different ways of doing the same Open step. You have a 180-degree semicircle in which to direct your step. (From forward in line with your partner, to diagonally forward, to side, to diagonally back, to straight back. How to tell if a step is open or cross? Leaving your feet in place, turn toward your partner. If your legs twist tighter you are in a cross step. If your legs open wide you are in an open step.)

Notice also how if you pivot one or both feet at the end of a move, you can not only change the look of the move, but also makes it easier to flow into the next move. Consider Orphan-Bartender. If at the end of our open step in one direction, we then pivot our feet into the opposite direction, does it look something like we’ve crossed? Then see how easily it sets us up, while we both have both feet on the ground, for the mutual back-cross?

Now consider Cross-System (CS), in which the dancers move with legs from opposite sides of the body/embrace. That is, hand-side to arm-side and vice-versa.

In cross system, which of these Leader-Follower step combinations can be done together, that is, in the same direction?

    CS  | F | O | B |
   L  F | ? | y | ? |
   e  --+---+---+---+
   a  O | y | ? | y |
   d  --+---+---+---+
   e  B | ? | y | ? |
   r  --+---+---+---+

In other words, just the inverse of the parallel system matrix.

The “?” combos must be done in Cross-Direction (not the same as Cross-System) and circling, CW or CCW. In other words, Sacadas.

For CS we will choose a name signified by an animal, where the first letter of the name signifies the leader’s F, O, or B step, while the number of syllables in the name corresponds to the follower’s 1) F, 2) O, or 3) B step.

The (name) roles corresponding to the “?” squares above are special. We will designate them by ‘winged creature’ names. (Flying is sort of magical.)

    CS  | F       | O         | B           |
   L  F | (Finch) | Ferret    | (Flamingo)  |
   e  --+---------+-----------+-------------+
   a  O | Ox      | (Ostrich) | Octopus     |
   d  --+---------+-----------+-------------+
   e  B | (Bat)   | Baboon    | (Butterfly) |
   r  --+---------+-----------+-------------+

Note. This is only a tool for exploring creativity in practice.

Now, how do we combine Parallel and Cross systems? One or the other partner must take an extra step. Any size step, including in place, can work. Any such extra step (one partner changes weight but the other one doesn’t) will switch between cross-system (opposite hand/arm sides of the embrace) and parallel-system (same hand/arm side of the embrace).

The Six System Changers

Transition steps for weight changes between cross/parallel systems.

       Follower moves
     | F       | O         | B           |
       Eve     | Emma      | Eleanor
     | Leader moves
   F | Frank
   O | Oscar
   B | Benjamin

The Nine Sacadas refers to the “?” boxes in the matrices above, four in Parallel System and five in Cross System. These are the cases where the dancers are moving in cross direction, opposite to one another. They call this “Chasing steps”. Depending on the direction of the indicated steps, it can be a leader sacada, a follower sacada, or no sacada – where the chasing step goes around the partner’s trailing led, instead of under it. “Colliding steps” are where they paths would naturally cross each other. For example, Fool, the Front-cross x Front-cross step that produces an Americana.

For a Follower sacada who moves first? I say we give intention, and our partner moves first, as usual, because even though we have to make space for the follower’s sacada step, we must first prime them to move. Follower’s frequently hesitate to step into or between the leader’s legs (except for the well known back step that is #1 of the full 8-Count Basic).

A rock step or even only a pulse in the opposite direction can produce a rebound that propels the sacada step.


These are thoughts I added to my notes from the first Lexicon experience. Subsequently, after I shared my notes with Mitra and Dave, he and I had useful email exchanges regarding the system, and he incorporated some of this in the Austin presentation. In particular, he emphasizes that the names are but one approach to the concept of using the matrix as a way to inform (and even direct; more later on generating test or practice sequences) our tango practice. I found their presentation delightful, and it seemed to me that the fanciful names had the useful effect of taking us participants out of our usual tango work mode. The names acted as a social lubricant, even, where we were each reminding and helping each other. The rooms at every session were always buzzing with people exclaiming over discoveries, sharing ideas, questioning and helping each other, and more!

What we have with this system then, is both a way to generate movement challenges, and a nomenclature for recording interesting movement combinations. A nomenclature that is possibly more memorable than a series of abbreviations or letters or numbers. There is some redundancy, in that the 3 x 3 matrix is identical for cross or parallel system, you only need know which system you’re in. However, there is also some extra information encoded in the name choices, with magical role names telling you that you are in cross-direction territory of the parallel system, while flying ‘animal’ names give you this signal for cross-system. That extra information does not seem essential for recording sequences, but it might be helpful to dancers figuring out sequences.

On the other hand, memorizing 9 + 9 system names, plus 3 + 3 change system names, for a total of 24 names, seems like an undue burden on the memory. And even though the names carry explicit coding (first letter = leader’s move; number of syllables corresponds to follower’s move), one still must do the translation, unless they internalize not only the names but also their meanings.

Another consideration in any recording and encoding system is concision. Studying systems for recording chess positions or puzzles (e.g., Twitter format for reporting solutions to the Zobrist Cube) can be useful.

My interest in this project stems from the possibility for generating move challenges, to explore movements we typically don’t use, but which can be quite useful and interesting. So when I see a 3 x 3 matrix with nine possible values my mind immediately jumps to Rubik’s Cube!

At a Houdini’s Magic Shop in Las Vegas I happened to find a Rubik’s Cube with numbers instead of colors for each little cube. Here is a nice, fast example of such cubes: CuberSpeed Sudoku 3×3 Speed Cube.

You can use any one of a cube’s six 3 x 3 faces to represent the FOB x FOB matrix. Or (and!) you can use the numbers 1 .. 9 to also represent the matrix:

       | F    | O    | B    |
   l f | 1 Ff | 2 Of | 3 Bf |
   e --+------+------+------+
   a o | 4 Fo | 5 Oo | 6 Bo |
   d --+------+------+------+
   e b | 7 Fb | 8 Ob | 9 Bb |
   r --+------+------+------+

Is there any matrix of numbers more familiar to us that the digital keypad of phones and locks?!

[ Thoughts on the matrix nomenclature above. One, the layout above gives a nod to my pet teaching theory that the Follower’s actions are the first priority in understanding the movement we want to invite and giving a movement intention. As a leader, I can best understand a figure by first knowing how I would like my partner to move. So FOLLOWER comes first and in capitals!

Two, the map is not the territory. The cell designations, whether number, letter combo, or name are only placeholders for the action. We can use numbers, names, or letters as a shorthand for recording sequences of movements, and for generating designed or random challenges. (More on that in the final section of these notes.) Now, a bit of teaching pedagogy. Do you remember on high school SAT tests where they had you answer questions from a map by using the legend or key to look up information? It’s not an efficient operation for the human brain. Do you remember when someone said, “On the left,” and you’re wondering, “My left or your left?” “Facing which way?” “Which one is my left?” We work better, faster when we can move toward things we actually see, without having to interpret. That is why, I tell students to step to the hand-side or arm-side. (Except when referring to “Outside Position”, where it is ambiguous, depending on who is moving forward, to refer to ‘outside’ – the hand-side of the embrace, or ‘inside’ – the arm-side of the embrace; here I like using the unambiguous DVIDA terms, Right Outside Partner (both our right sides are together at step #3 of the Basic-8) and Left Outside Partner.) ]

You could also color the numbers (or maybe just 1, 5, 9; representing FF OO BB) on a couple of faces to add indications for leader or follower weight change to switch between cross and parallel systems. Red number: leader does a weight change using the movement indicated by the number; Green: it’s a follower weight change.

Regarding the “nine sacadas” it is possibly interesting to note that in the parallel system these sacada or cross direction movements are the ones with even numbers, while in the cross system it is the odd numbers. This could be a way to know in advance from looking at an encoded sequence, whether the couple moves in “normal” fashion or cross direction. Presumably, on actually attempting the designated movements, one could tell which type of movement was necessary to make the move work.

The lexicon as a way to encode observed figures. The atomic movements with names: roles, magical roles, animals, flying; does have a charm to it.

Parallel System 8-Count Basic

  1. 5 Orphan
  2. 5 Orphan
  3. 3 Fisherman
  4. 5 Orphan
  5. 4 Oz
  6. 5 Orphan
  7. 5 Orphan
  8. 5 Orphan

The numbers 55 35 45 55 provide information equivalent to the names, in a more concise form. But neither gives enough information to understand what is going on solely from the encoding.

A DVIDA description (but omitting most of its details) for the leader’s part of a Basic could be:

Parallel System 8-Count Basic

  1. Right foot back, B LOD (backing line of dance)
  2. Left foot side, Prep ROP (prepare right outside position)
  3. Right foot forward in the same track, ROP
  4. Left foot forward, ROP
  5. Right foot closes to left foot (F: Left foot crosses over right foot)
  6. Left foot forward
  7. Right foot side
  8. Left foot closes to right foot

But the somewhat nebulous nature of the Lexicon encoding is exactly the point! We have so much more freedom to move with various interpretations (for example, every step of the Basic can take a non-rectilinear direction) when we consider the atomic movements in their simplest, least constrained form.

Another interesting move generator method, still using the Sudoku Rubik’s Cube, comes to mind. Using the arrangement of the numbers on a scrambled cube, you could, for example, go forward, backward, sideways, or diagonal as indicated by the relationship between sequential numbers, and if the numbers aren’t immediately adjacent, switch systems.

It might be interesting to encode some DVIDA figures in this way. Then without reference to the manual, see how a sequence of pure movements could be interpreted. Does it come out looking like the manual, or something more interesting?

Ways to create practice challenges

Have your partner pick any three names, and you repeat those movements. Three steps puts you back on your starting step for an easy repeat. Vary size, direction, and dynamics of step. Practice until it feels smooth.

Label the faces of a Rubik’s cube with the names. Assign each partner a system changer color. Scramble the cube, pick a face and do it.

Using numbers instead of names, use a smartphone random number generator. Tell it you want numbers 1..9, and how many you want.


You read all the way down here? Wow! I am impressed. Maybe I should have told you this up top of these notes. I’ve also created a simplified, more concise version of this. I call it the Tango Keypad.


The Tango Keypad

door keypadThis is a derivation of the Tango Lexicon developed by David Lampson and Mitra Martin of Oxygen Tango in Los Angeles. I feel grateful for their inspirations: in the method itself, in their teaching style, and in their generous sharing.

What is this good for?

This deals with a single aspect of all that is Argentine tango: the fundamental steps, Open, Front-cross, and Back-cross. By looking at all the possible combinations for two partners, two feet, Parallel and Cross Systems (defined later), and just these three three unique steps, we get 24 combinations that can be strung together in an infinite variety.

These simple, fundamental movements that don’t require memorizing have helpful uses as:

  1. Glue to connect our memorized big figures.
  2. A lens to help us see new possibilities in the movements that make up big figures.
  3. Navigational elements to help us out of a jam.

  4. The fundamental steps

    David Lampson describes these this way. My partner is stationary in front of me. Standing with my weight over one leg, I can make a move to step around my partner by opening my legs apart; we call this an Open step. But if I try going around my partner with that same leg in the other direction, I have two choices. I can pivot and move my free leg across in front of me; we call this a Front cross. I can also pivot and move my free leg around behind me; we call this a Back cross.

    Open step — a step anywhere in an arc of 180-degrees, ranging through straight forward, forward and slightly side, sideways, back and slightly side, straight back, and anywhere between those.

    Front cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line from my middle to my partner’s middle. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)

    Back cross — my moving leg crosses the imaginary line behind me that came from my partner’s middle, through my middle and out the back. (Try turning your torso toward your partner. If your legs twist against each other, you are crossed.)

    The Systems

    Parallel System (PS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on the same side of the embrace. Both partners together move their legs on the hand-side of the embrace, or both move their legs on the arm-side of the embrace.

    Cross System (CS) — refers to the situation where both partners move their leg on opposite sides of the embrace. Hand-side to arm-side, and vice-versa. So the leg movement happens diagonally across the embrace.

    Now consider that at any time both partners have a choice of making an Open step, Front cross, or Back Cross. Let’s abbreviate those ‘O’, ‘F’, and ‘B’ and put them in a matrix to show all nine possibilities.

            | O    | F    | B    |
       l  o | 1 Oo | 2 Fo | 3 Bo |
       e  --+------+------+------+
       a  f | 4 Of | 5 Ff | 6 Bf |
       d  --+------+------+------+
       e  b | 7 Ob | 8 Fb | 9 Bb |
       r  --+------+------+------+
                   | 0 p/c|

    (Later, we introduce the ‘0 p/c’ as a parallel/cross system changer.)

    We put the Follower at top, in capitals, and list that movement first, because typically my intention asks my partner to step before me. (But you are free to reference the matrix by row before column.)

    As a shorthand for identifying the matrix combinations we can number the boxes like a telephone keypad.


    We assume that any sequence of movements stay in whatever system that we started in, PS or CS, until we change system.

    To change from one System to the other it requires that one, and only one partner takes an extra step. They can take that step as an O, F, or B. (Keep in mind that a simple weight change is merely an O step in place!)

    The 8-Count Basic figure in PS would be: 11612111.

    Forward ochos would be a switch into CS, then 222…
    Back ochos would be a switch into CS, then 333…

    A choreographed figure could be represented by a specific sequence of numbers 1..9, while a challenge sequence could be some random sequence.

    How to denote a System change

    In order to allow every step to be represented by single digit numbers we will add ‘0’ to indicate a system change. Then take the digit after the ‘0’ to indicate who does what kind of extra step. 1, 2, 3 for Follower’s O, F, B; and 4, 5, 6 for Leader’s O, F, B. Ignore anything else.

       Follower system changer
    0  1  2  3
       O  F  B
       Leader system changer
    0  4  5  6
       O  F  B

    So a CS 8-Count Basic would be: 1 1(04) 34(02) 1 1 1.
    (The parentheses just make it easier to read.)

    From the Leader’s perspective:
    1, 1 = Back, Left
    04 = Leader’s weight change in place, Follower holds position
    3 = Bo
    4 = Of
    02 = Forward intention invites Follower’s extra, (mini-front) cross step, leader holds position
    1, 1, 1 = Forward, Right, Close

    Tango practice challenges

    10-Sided Dice
    10-Sided Dice
    For random challenge sequences you could go to a teacher supply store and get a handful of ten-sided dice. Throw them, gather them in a row, then do the indicated moves in order. That way makes for a nice tactile, visual, auditory sensory experience.

    Even more simply, there are LOTS of random number generators available for smartphones. Pick a simple one that lets you specify the range of numbers, 0..9, and how many random numbers you want to generate.

    For exploring new possibilities in existing figures you know, walk through the figure with your partner and encode each movement. Now dance that code sequence using any of the many possible choices for direction, size, and dynamics of the movement.

    Where a figure doesn’t flow as nicely as you’d like, encode the three: Before, trouble movement, and After steps. Try varying foot pivots and geometry of foot placements to discover the nicest flow.

    Design notes

    I sought to make useful simplifications in nomenclature. Where Lexicon defines 24 terms with special characteristics to denote 9 possible movements in Parallel System, 9 in Cross System, and 3 possible movements for each partner to switch between systems, I have chosen to merely number the movement matrix with 1..9, then use ‘0’ in a simple convention with the numbers to indicate a system change, who does it, and how.

    Additionally, I took the liberty of rearranging the FOB movement order to OFB, with the thought that this goes in order from most simple to least simple movement. Note, this does break the pretty symmetry of sacada opportunities in the original, where the “chasing” steps for PS are the even numbered cells, while for CS they are the odd numbered cells. But I did away with any special consideration for sacadas, as they can be either Leader or Follower sacadas (a distinction the Lexicon doesn’t make either), or no sacada at all (since it is possible, though maybe not as elegant or interesting, or maybe more interesting, to simply step around your partner’s supporting leg). The dancers decide how to make their chasing step; the choice isn’t dictated.

    When I am decoding a number I find it easier to place the number on the keypad in my mind’s eye, then look up for partner’s move, then left for my move. When I am encoding a movement I find it easier to get my movement from the row on the left, then look right for the column corresponding to my partner’s movement, to get the number at the intersection of that row and column. With extensive practice I expect for the number-movement association to become automatic.