Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Teaching Argentine Tango in New York, 1914.

Mrs. and Mr. Vernon Castle

he Tango is not, as commonly believed, of South American origin. It is an old gipsy dance which came to Argentina by the way of Spain, where in all probability it became invested with certain features of the old Moorish dances. The Argentines adopted the dance, eliminating some of its reckless gipsy traits, and added to it a certain languid indolence peculiar to their temperament.

After Paris had taken the dance up a few years ago, its too sensuous character was gradually toned down, and from a rather obscene exhibition, which is still indulged in by certain cabaret performers, it bloomed forth a polished and extremely fascinating dance, which has not had its equal in rhythmical allurement since the days of the Minuet. Beyond doubt, the Tango correctly practised is the essence of the modern soul of dancing, the autocrat of the up-to-date "soiree dansant." For it is not only a dance, it is a style; to master the Tango one must first master its style, absorb its atmosphere.

Among the many points in its favour, not the least is this: that it not only commands grace, and especially repose, but it develops and even creates these endowments. The only drawback in America to this lovely dance lies in the fact that nearly all teachers teach it differently. A variety of steps which do not belong to the dance at all nor to the ball-room, for that matter-have been taught and practised by inefficient teachers. In order to give the dance the absolute popularity it deserves it must be "standardized."

The Argentine Tango is unquestionably the most difficult of the new dances. Perhaps that is why some people still maintain that they "do not like it." Others, never having seen it, declare it "shocking." On broad general principles it is human to disapprove of that which is beyond our understanding or ability. We like best the games we play best. And so for a long time society looked askance upon the Tango. Here and there in the corners of ball-rooms one saw a few hardy couples tripping a tentative measure. But usually as soon as the music slides into the wailing, seductive notes of the South American dance everybody developed a sudden interest in supper! Moreover, it was rumored that the. Argentine Tango was composed of one hundred and sixty different steps. Enough to terrify the most inveterate dancer!

There may be one hundred and sixty different Tango steps, but I doubt it. I have never seen so many, and Mrs. Castle and I do not dance anything like that number. For the average ballroom Tango a knowledge of six fundamental steps is quite enough. One may work out variations of these. But you will find that when you once have mastered the Cortez, the Media Luna, the Scissors, the Promenade, and the Eight Step you can dance with any exponent of the Tango you are apt to meet.

Nor is the Tango as difficult as it was at first supposed. More difficult than the old-fashioned Two Step, yes. Certainly more difficult than the One Step. But once you get into the swing and rhythm of music more alluring than a Viennese Waltz -well, you are lost. You have become a Tango enthusiast. Personally I believe the Tango and the Maxixe Brésilienne are the dances of tomorrow. The Maxixe is described in the next chapter. More and more people are becoming proficient in the variations of both these South American dances. In the smart ball-rooms of New York, London and Paris the One Step and the Hesitation Waltz lead the dances this season. Next season it will be the Tango and the Maxixe.

I would like to add a word of warning to those who take lessons in the Tango, and that is: Take your lessons, if possible, from some one who has danced professionally in Paris, because there are so many good dancers there that anybody who can dance the Tango (and get paid for it) in Paris must really be a good dancer. American teachers go abroad for a few weeks, take a few lessons in the "Abaye" or some of the other places which live on the American tourist, come back home, and, having forgotten all they learned coming over, start in teaching. There are others who go to one of our seaside towns, such as Narragansett, and read of a new dance and begin teaching it. There is, unfortunately, no way of stopping these people. You can only pay your twenty-five dollars an hour. If you don't learn the dance, you get a little exercise and a lot of experience.

The most important thing about the Tango is its tempo. You must, before you can dance at all, understand and appreciate the music, and the best way to learn this is to walk (with or without a partner) in time to it. By doing this you impress upon yourself that it is a slow dance, and that it should be simple, and not full of jerky and complicated steps.

This walking to Tango time is not as easy as it may seem; it should be practised frequently, so as to make it smooth. The shoulders must not go up and down, the body must glide along all the time without any stops. It is correct either to walk on your heel and toe or just on the ball of the foot; but the Argentines nearly all seem to walk flat-foot, or else they step out on their heel first. I advise dancers to do what is the easiest for them, for when one is walking comfortably it is easier to do the steps naturally. The first step to master, and one of the most difficult, is the Cortez.

Let us suppose that the gentleman is walking backward and the lady forward (the position is exactly the same as in the commencement of all the dances I have explained so far). Now when you are ready to do the Cortez you pause for two counts on the left foot, which should be in the position shown here. Now the right foot passes back of the left for one count. The left shifts to the side a few inches for one count, and the right does the same thing for one count (keeping behind the left). Thus five counts have been occupied, and the feet should have shifted to the music in this way, provided, of course, that the music is very simple.

The lady's part of this step is, of course, just the opposite. She pauses for two counts on her right foot, going forward, her feet following the gentleman's as closely as possible treading on him.

You must not be discouraged over this step. It is very difficult to do smoothly, and you will not get it without a great deal of patience and trouble. Indeed, many good dancers have never mastered it at all, and probably never will. But that is because they do not appreciate its difficulty or are unwilling to give the necessary time to the step. It can be done, and done well, by any one who has patience enough to learn it. To get it perfect you should do several steps of the Cortez and then walk, and then go back again into the Cortez. If you can do this you have practically mastered the Tango Argentine.

The position is the same as in the figure eight of the One Step. The man, who should be walking forward, turns the lady so that she is facing in the same direction as himself, They then walk forward, the man with his left and the lady with her right, one, two and three. On the "and" the man steps forward on his left heel, and on the third count the right foot shifts forward to the back of the left heel, taking the weight, so you see there are really four steps to three counts like this one, two, and three; left foot, right, left-right. This step can be repeated as many times as desired.

This step is practically a double Cortez. The man steps forward with his right foot, holding it two counts. The left slides forward one count, and the right takes the weight for one count; thus four counts. have been occupied. The. man then steps back with his left, holding it two counts; the right slides back one count, and the left takes the weight for one count. The complete step itself occupies eight counts, but to get the effect the dancers must keep in mind that it must be done smoothly and easily. The position is the same as in the Cortez. The lady's step is, of course, just the opposite. She steps back left, holding it two counts, and then slides the right back one count; the left takes the weight for one count, repeating the step forward with the right.

The dancers promenade once, and instead of continuing forward with the outside foot they do a half-turn inward -that is, the man crosses the left in front of the right; now they do the Promenade Step, the man with the right turning inward, crossing the right in front of the left. This can be done as often as desired and can be finished with the Cortez or by continuing the Promenade. It is rather difficult to explain, but the photographs should convey the meaning.

This step is begun with a Cortez. The man turns the lady so that she walks backward three straight steps, the man going forward three straight steps at the right side of the lady. Keeping this position, the man walks backward three straight steps, the lady going forward, the man goes forward, etc., as many times as desired, turning to the left as much as possible. They finish the step by the man leading the lady into the Cortez step.

This is a very pretty step in the Tango. The best way to go into it is from the Promenade. The gentleman stands still and crosses the right foot over the left, having the weight of the body equally distributed on both feet. The lady does a Single Step (just like the Single Step in the Maxixe) right around the gentleman. This will, of course, turn the man around, and in doing so uncross his feet; when this is done the lady puts her right foot slowly forward and the man his left foot slowly back, and they go into the Cortez. By practising this step well you will find it quite possible for the lady to make a complete ring around the gentleman, but it depends greatly on his balance, and if he finds his feet getting wound up again all he has to do is to lift the left foot up and place it at the back for the Cortez. Care should be taken to go into and out of this step very slowly, easily, and deliberately.

This is simply an ordinary Waltz step done very slowly in time to the music, one step to each count left, right, left, and right, left, right; it is a very important and useful step, and should be used to fill in between the more difficult steps.

The Eight Step has already been explained in the chapter on the One Step. In the Tango it is exactly the same except that instead of the dancers looking over their elbows, as in the One Step, they remain as much as possible facing each other, and the knees are a trifle more bent, which gives a slight up-and-down motion to the walk very similar to a very modified Cake Walk. This is important, because it is only done when the dancers are doing plain walking steps, and so when the lady feels her partner doing this slight "Cake Walk" she knows, or should know, that he is going to do plain steps, and not Cortez or fancy steps. In this, as in all Tango steps, the knees must be kept as close together as possible; don't try to take big strides; the charm of the Argentine Tango lies in its apparent simplicity.


The much-talked-of Innovation is nothing more or less than the Tango lanced without touching your partner. This is naturally very difficult, and can only be done by good dancers. However, a word of advice may help those who would include it in their repertoire. First of all, the man must learn to lead with his whole body; by this I mean he must convey his steps and direction to his partner by means of head, eyes, and feet. The steps should be broader and more deliberate, and the dancers should travel at the same pace all the time. If by any chance the lady does not follow, and goes into the wrong step, don't stop dancing, but get as closely together as possible, and the man must do a plain walk backward.

When both are ready the man must try to convey the step in a better way. If, when mistakes happen, you keep on dancing, in nine cases out of ten no one will know about it but yourself. On the other hand, no one can miss your mistake if you get confused and stop. The lady should not look at a man's feet in this Innovation, but rather try to get a general view of her partner, so that she may see what he is doing without actually scrutinizing the steps. The hands may be either kept behind your back, on your hips, or in your pockets, look at yourself in a mirror and decide which position suits you best.

From the book "Modern dancing", chapter V, by Mr. and Mrs. Castle Vernon. New York, 1914.

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