Tango as an expressive language

Feeling satisfied with my Duolingo progress that morning, I was just relaxing and poking around when I came across a blog article, Dear Duolingo: Why is spoken language so hard to understand? by Cindy Blanco.

Blanco begins by making the point that comprehension of real-time language production is not only a common problem with spoken languages but also visual languages, such as American Sign Language. We will add movement languages, such as the Argentine tango, and call these “expressive languages,” as Blanco does.

The problem comes from the missing spaces. In written language, spaces and punctuation separate words, phrases, and thoughts. In expressive language, the “words” tend to run together. Also, our brain is working to comprehend in real-time, with no opportunity to back up and reread or slow down other than to ask, “Can you please repeat that?”

So, insteadofrunonwordsandsentences, and without going to the extreme of … the … Duo.Lingo … slow … mode, what can we do to make our dance easier to understand for our partner, and more expressive to our partner and spectators?

We can vary our cadence, rhythm, accentuation, intonation, and pitch in speech. We have the same sort of tools in our movement language.

  • Rising onto our axis often marks the end of a phrase. We may also use a “gathering of energy” pause to mark these.
  • A step-together QQ change of rhythm can highlight a ta-ka element of the music.
    A continued lower elevation signals that we are within a phrase.
    When we dance with someone unfamiliar with our language: new to us, new to the language, or with other limiting factors — we use common strategies.
    • Start more simply.
    • Slow down at signs of trouble.
    • Say again more deliberately. (Strong intention).
    • Say again in different words. (Was my lead clear?).
    • User simpler words. (Can I “train” what this means by using other moves?)
  • Use pauses. (A micro-pause, like a sharp intact of breath, to indicate a change in rhythm.)
  • Provide context. (There’s a good reason why some entrance and exit moves are so common; they work better or more easily.)

“You’re rushing!” What does a teacher mean by this? It has to do with the intonation within words (movements). Let’s disregard whether a person intentionally chooses to land on the beat, start on it, or something in between. We can also ignore whether a movement’s higher energy or speed occurs on the front or back end.

The key to comprehension is by our providing a strong base (grounding) for each word (movement), regardless of the overall rate of speech (dance). At Windup reveals intention [the Game of Argentine Tango] ( we learn about the importance and manner of setting a clear intention as a grounding for any movement. Our windup grounds our base and conveys what direction, elevation, and energy we will carry into the movement.

But how can that work in a figure of several, perhaps many moves? A full preparation at every step would look like talking … word … by … word. Weird! Yet we still want the ability to convey the same kind of intention information at every step, because tango lets us change things with every step.

We prepare for the next step when we roll through the ankle of the landing leg. That is, the ankle of this new heavy-leg flexes as we arrive at and pass over the foot. (We flex the ankle with each arriving step to absorb height changes, keeping our movements level over the floor.) It also has our foot absorbing our weight, momentarily lowering our center of gravity and increasing our stability.

Foot-ankle strength and stability support everything else going on in the body. (Our Warmup every day [the Game of Argentine Tango] ( has a simple exercise we can do to a tango song, just about anywhere, one or more times a day.) By controlling the passage over our ankle joint, we “finish” the movement with a sense of ending and stability—a space.

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