Las Rosas del Tango


Walking the Walk


I can still remember vividly an experience at my local milonga which opened my eyes to something I had not really understood about tango. I was asked for a dance by a relative newcomer who had an intuitive knack for leading voleos, spot on every time - weight placement, timing, preparation, you name it. But the same leader had great difficulty to keep his balance while walking, or to otherwise connect with my movement. I left the floor feeling puzzled. ’How can it be that you can lead a complex movement like a voleo perfectly, but you still can’t walk?’ I wondered out loud to my friends afterwards.


Hindsight is a great thing. Learning to lead, teaching, communicating about this dance, I realise that being able to walk the walk in tango is probably the most complex thing we will ever do.


Walking well. Smooth, grounded, balanced, flowing steps, perfectly synchronised with the music and with your partner’s walk. The ability to ground and move smoothly from one step to the next, to smooth out all the kinks and instabilities in each weight transfer. The natural contra-rotation that arises from the co-ordination of hip and shoulder joints in a relaxed, integrated body. The magical resonance when your partner falls into sync with this flowing, internal movement. The completion of each step, weight poised as your free leg moves fluidly through into the next step. The felt sense of one’s axis, the internal plumb-line which, once found, makes finding dynamic balance in each movement effortless.


Is it only tango dancers who get lyrical about walking? How can something apparently so simple and obvious be transformed into an experience that verges on the sublime!?


Most of us learned to walk for the first time sometime after our first birthday, long before we had the capacity for explicit memory - the sequenced, narrative memory which allows us to process and recall our lives in a kind of storyline. Our first steps are not something that we can directly remember; rather we know about them from our family’s stories, photos or videos. Our habits of walking belong to a kind of unconscious, procedural memory which is not open to recall, analysis, questioning. They’re something that we take for granted. It just happens.


As we get older we pick up the cultural habits and mannerisms of walking that we see around us - the whole game of mimicking ‘how do men or women walk’ or ‘how do people of my social class move?’ that is quite particular to each culture. It’s kind of fun to move from one culture to another and to observe that the unspoken conventions are quite different. To move in my familiar, unthinking way suddenly marks me out as foreign. Boom! a little piece of self-awareness falls into place.


The point is that most of this is unconscious. Unless we lose the ability to walk through illness or an accident and have to re-learn, we never think about what we’re doing or why. Learning to tango is a voluntary process of making what was unconscious conscious again. Opening it up to change, bringing it out of the ‘it just is’ zone and into critical awareness. It can be quite uncomfortable to do so, and I understand why it can be tempting to skip this, cut loose, and just go for having some fun. But to do so is to miss the point: tango in essence is walking. Walking together.


When I try to describe tango to my non-dance friends I often end up saying that it has at least as much in common with walking meditation as it does with other forms of dance. Probably more. There’s something quite ascetic about stripping all the excess away and just focussing on one’s own walking. Paying attention to placing one’s foot in fully-conscious contact with the ground. Rolling through all the articulations of the foot, ankle, knee, hip, and in doing so making that self-knowledge lived and embodied. A detailed, real-time experience of the anatomy of feet, legs, pelvis, spine, shoulders and skull. Listening to one’s own breath and how it does or does not flow in sync with the movements of one’s limbs. Sensing one’s personal relationship with gravity, and whether that is welcome, or perhaps not… Practising this alone, or with one’s partner, does more than just change our patterns of movement: we’re called to lengthen our span of attention, to cultivate patience, to sense deeper than normal, to get to know ourselves (and our partner) in a non-quotidian way.


I can remember starting to learn leading and being astonished that suddenly I couldn’t walk in a straight line! No alcohol needed!! My everyday, ‘good enough’ walking pattern which had been getting me from A to B for more than 35 years suddenly unravelled and all the compensations and fudging were laid horribly bare. My right hip was weak, and my right leg could not be trained to ‘set off’ with the same force or clarity as my left leg. An unmistakable wobble through my right ankle made me roll off to the side, uncontrollably. I’d got away with it (just about) following, but the need to give orientation and direction for two dashed my wobbly, patchy balance. Deep sigh. Back to the drawing board then.


I listen to a friend telling her story of a tango epiphany to a group of friends at a salon. She’s invited to dance by a leader who has caught her eye throughout a tango event. It’s the last, or second-to-last tanda - a special moment. As they start to dance he walks, slowly, deliberately, in half tempo. ‘And you know, after two bars of the music I realised: this is it, he isn’t going to do anything else than walk like this, very slowly, for the whole tanda!’ She pauses. We wait, hanging on to her words, waiting for the punchline. ‘I just fell in love!’ she exclaims. We fall about laughing, in recognition, enjoying her dramatic timing.


I still find it strange that we can find so much pleasure in walking like this with each other, but it is the most fundamental experience we share in tango.


Never believe a tango teacher if they tell you that tango walking is just like your everyday walk on the street. It really, really isn’t! Yes, they share some DNA, some common features, but beyond that they’re completely different beasts. For the simple reason that in our everyday lives we either walk alone, or side by side with a companion. In tango we learn to walk together, face-to-face, in a kind of paradoxical harmonious confrontation, connected in an embrace. We walk consciously. A fusion of two bodies, with all their idiosyncrasies, into one movement.


And so it is that tango dancers walk many thousands of kilometres during their tango lives. A sort of quirky, self-imposed pilgrimage, like the Camino of old. Following an age-old human desire to walk together without too much baggage. Walking that isn’t just about getting from A to B, but instead to experience the way as a moving meditation. A way to be with oneself, to meet, to let go again: the old spiritual tradition of symbolically re-enacting the journey of human life. Walking elevated to another purpose, towards an end-point whose meaning we can’t know until we get there.


Bring this blog to a friend's attention

reaction from Guilherne Crain --- 07-Jan-2017 10:46

Hi Siobhan, I really like this blog about walking!! And I do agree!! It is the best part of tango, to walk with someone in connection, as one..

reaction from Patricia Nunn --- 07-Jan-2017 11:59

This eloquent description of the tango walk is a delight to read, it describes perfectly the profound complexity of movement which can bring such inner joy.

reaction from Klaas van Noord --- 07-Jan-2017 21:22

Hi Siobhan, Yes, walking, caminar, is the very base of tango. And of other dances too. In my ballroom period, long time ago, the first hour, or two, of our training we only practised walking. Nothing is more beautiful then just walk a tango with a lady that understands the beauty of it. Unfortunately: they are rare. Nice blog! Klaas

reaction from Jesse Pauwels --- 08-Jan-2017 14:53

Wonderful analyses and oh so true ! Thank you very much Siobhan!

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