My Year in Tango: Part Two

Before we dance, we must learn to walk...

The walk should be natural, beautiful, smooth.

The walk should be natural, beautiful, smooth.

The time has come, the Tanguera said, to talk of many things, of shoes, and slips, and varnished floors…

… and walking. Not just any walking, either. Tango walking. You venture into a beginning tango lesson with little realization about how profoundly your life can change, starting with your everyday gait. Forget all the innuendo-laden comments from friends, all the sweaty embraces, warm smells, and unexpected closeness, because your tango walk is what matters. Let’s chat about this for a bit.

Editor’s Note: You can catch up with My Year in Tango, by starting with the Intro (“I signed up for a tango lesson”) and then hitting Part One (The Perfect Partner).

Walking, as dance, seems to have merged with modern popular culture in a most serious way with the age of disco: THE age of enlightened walking in the USA. We crooned about it, strutted it, and undulated ourselves trying to tempt fate and maybe a potential mate.

With “You can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man” blasting, cosmopolitan dance floors were stayin’ alive, shaking and bouncing with the pulse of walking, which was actually dancing, to music. My early youth was tainted by memories the Bee Gees not to mention John Travolta. Then came visions of Michael Jackson’s oddly oozing jazz funk moonwalk which was to me as a teen, well, frankly, thrilling.

Even with these examples culturally implanted, I hadn’t given very much thought to walking as it pertained to dancing. The walk as the dance? The pop stylings of Michael Jackson let alone the Bee Gees, please kindly step aside; something more is happening with tango.

Tango walking is upright, attentive, captured yet swaying, visually and mentally transporting.

Tango walking is upright, attentive, captured yet swaying, visually and mentally transporting.

You meet tango and suddenly, your dance is completely defined by how you walk. The walk is EVERYTHING. And it is difficult. When I first tried it, I felt as though I was crawling backward out of the La Brea tar pit. It may take years learning the tango walk. And, even then, I am told, someone higher in the tango hierarchy will turn to you and say you are doing it with the wrong technique.


First you worry about your partner, or lack of one. I get past that hurdle, and bring my attention back to the dance. I realize there are some fundamental steps taking place here. We are learning how to walk. For weeks and weeks, we walk, walk, and walk some more. Yawns sometimes swirl around the class, the contagious effect of nerves and apathy. I might be forgetting to breathe. Where is the passion? The flights of Argentinian verve? Apparently all this walking is very necessary.

They tell us: in tango you must first learn to walk. And it’s no ordinary, walk-to-the-store kind of walk (don’t believe your instructor when he tries to tell you it is like “a walk in the park”). Because, in the tango you must simply float. You are stripped right down to your most humble gait, fervently attempting to look somewhat smooth and presentable moving in a circle on the dance floor. Remember: in the line of dance, there is order and reason, the counterclockwise version. You must know the rules before you can flow beyond them.

The instructors launch us in a loose orbit around the mirrored room. We are given ample opportunity to watch our appalling attempts at a seductive and flowing gait. Is it worse watching, in all those revealing mirrors, my leader try to walk “into me” or witnessing my backwards flight away from his approaching feet and thundering knees. It hurts if you don’t get out of the way fast enough. Some pain has begun to accompany my sense of ennui.

Why is it so difficult? Tango is the walk born in the dusty streets of Buenos Aires, innovated by penniless European immigrants and danced to display pure pride and male macho when one had that and little else to call one’s own. It is the walk of nostalgia and compassion, of feeling and emotion. It is the walk of owning yourself and your dignity. And it is the walk in which music becomes poetry the moment leader and follower fall into step. And, so to tango, first you must learn that walk.

Students at all levels get used to practicing the walk, over and over, and over, again. Here at Dance with Joy Studios.

Students at all levels get used to practicing the walk, over and over, and over, again. Here at Dance with Joy Studios.

No bouncing allowed. And no strict machine-like gait. Machines are not poetic, neither are tar-pit drowning saber-toothed tigers, for that matter. Tango walking is upright, attentive, smooth, captured yet swaying, visually and mentally transporting. And fluid: a linear flow, soft but strong. For lesson after lesson after lesson, we tried to learn “the walk.” At this point, many of us even left the dance floor. The dropouts sidled, pounded, promenaded, locomoted, swaggered and generally pedestrianized off the floor, permanently…no walk for them.

The walk quickly sorted us out. A hierarchy emerged: mere weeks into this, the survivors already felt a sense of muted elation: we who had the dedication to keeping walking. I remained, caught up in this misplaced arrogance, proudly and metaphorically shuffling two steps forward, one step back. I wondered when the real fun would start. Strangely enough, the tango evolution was the most dramatic during these weeks of walking. Looking back, I can see myself struggling to find my own roots in this culture of tango.


This whole walking thing does not feel natural, seductive, or beautiful. It is embarrassing that it is none of that. This is not like the tango YouTube videos I have watched where men with names like Osvaldo romance women with names like Lorena in a magical, silky trance-like flow. I cannot float, neither can I glide nor soar. No, we are like bumper cars struggling to stay attached to one another at the arms. For me, the woman, the follower, I must learn to extend my gloriously straight leg back so far it feels like I am reaching into another galaxy. I move backwards. And, these legs of mine are expected to be long, strong and tight, no bent knees. I believe this is what gives tango its gorgeous low, slow extension into never-never land.

The woman of tango needs to sink down effortlessly relying on superhuman hamstrings, taut knees, and a lower back of pure titanium. All the while she maintains a perfect upright core and the posture of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, allowing her lead to feel her, resting and receptive.

I am not yet that woman.

Weeks of lessons flowed into months. I bought a $120 pair of kitten-heeled tango shoes, which I did not consider in the least bit “sexy,” I promise. They were “functionally black” and European-made, maryjane style, with supportive arches, suede soles, and red insoles that stained my feet bright cherry. These little slippers of tango purity promised feet that would effortlessly slip across the floor, barely grazing, soft and sensual. It felt like an investment, a durable good, tangible and form-fitting. I was now committed.

It becomes a "thing"--noticing people's feet, watching them move, seeing what kinds of shoes they are wearing.

It becomes a “thing”–noticing people’s feet, watching them move, seeing what kinds of shoes they are wearing.

Once I could not walk. Now I craved the opportunity to try. Was I turning into a tango junkie? How was this metamorphosis happening? Before my very eyes, I watched myself as I scheduled weeks and weekends around making it to tango lessons, now on both Saturday with Mike (who had evolved into a rather spectacular instructor) and Tuesday nights at Tango Berretin with Alex Krebs (I soon discovered Krebs is Portland’s tango instructor magnifico—turns out both Mike and Rachel had studied with him, as well).

For some reason, right around mid-winter, Rachel had stopped coming to the lessons to dance with Mike. And, Mike was left to his own devices having to grab unsuspecting demonstration partners from the dwindling number of remaining students. In this newfound independence, Mike and his teaching blossomed. I felt genuinely fortunate to have not one, but two instructors who were steering my progression into tango. Things were going well.

I suppose I blossomed, too. I walked the halls of my workplace practicing ochos, and molinetes, a furtive cabeceo thrown in here and there for practice sake. And when I stood still I “collected”—brought my heels tightly together as if in a body-hugging pencil skirt. The essentials of tango were becoming a part of me. I bought a black dress and footless black tights—(at this point, I didn’t know that it makes no difference what you wear to tango as long as movement is not hindered). I wanted to speak Spanish. I practiced by myself in our living room on Thursday afternoons, watching Alex Krebs’ online tutorials. I knew the difference between a gancho, an enganche and a gaucho, and I knew I wanted to do two of those things with the third. I dreamed of a trip to Argentina…

The walks of the class had improved—everyone looked better, smoother, more graceful, strong and controlled. Some of us had come so far, we could walk with a nuevo beauty and strength, extending legs with the length and elegance of an Argentinian local. Well, maybe not quite that good. But the walking was starting to feel really, really fine.

I knew I was nearing this point, when one of my partners was watching our dance so intently in the mirror that llhe walked me backwards right into a pole in the middle of the room. His profuse apology centered on the distraction he felt from watching us walk together, “Look at that line!”

I had to admit that line, my line, looked stunning. I had never seen my legs extend thusly, knee straight, toe delicately turned to touch the instep. This was beginning to look like real tango: we had laid down the foundation.

I could walk, the rest would be easy. Or so I thought. Of course, I was dreadfully wrong.


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