22T 14 | Tango Adornments

 

Tango adornments refer to the unique styling that flourishes the dance itself. But it is far different from Tango techniques, which is all about the dancer’s actual proficiency. Linda Sutton breaks down the main differences between the two and why focusing too much on the adornments may kill the social part of the dance. She explains why Tango is primarily a dance of socialization, with the partners concentrating on leading and following each other. Comparing this entire concept of putting icing on a cornbread, Linda explores why every Tango dancer must go beyond the aesthetic but deep into the actual human connection that happens on the dance floor.

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Going Beyond Tango Adornments And Deep Into Your Techniques

We’re going to be talking about adornments, putting icing on cornbread. You must be like, “What are you talking about? Icing on a cornbread? What does she mean?” I’m feeling rather nostalgic. I was going to do another episode before this one but as I started to think about and prepare mentally for this one, the nostalgia was so immense that I said, “I’m going to do this episode first.” I’m going to start this episode with something that I’m going to end with. I want to talk to you about a very famous Milonga in Buenos Aires and that is La Viruta. I’m feeling rather nostalgic about that.

I’m taking you on this journey with me when I first started doing Tango. I was traveling a fair amount back and forth to Buenos Aires in order to train and study the dance of Tango. Buenos Aires is the capital of Argentina and is considered one of the capitals of Argentine Tango in the world. I would travel back and forth to spend several weeks and a time to several months training in the dance, studying, and getting to dance socially for hours upon hours at a time.

22T 14 | Tango Adornments

Tango Adornments: You could identify a woman’s skill level through her heel height.

 

When I was first coming up through the ranks, there were Milongas, which is a Tango dance. There are different spots that were well-known for a variety of reasons. When I was coming up through the ranks, all roads lead to La Viruta, which was one of the Milongas. It was one of the locations where a Milonga was held. We would say, “All roads lead to La Viruta,” because to give you a sense of what an evening of dancing Tango would be like, having dinner there is something that happens usually later. Merienda, which is like your tea time, would be served there in your home or in a restaurant between 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM. It would remind you of continental breakfast/tea time. Merienda was usually around that time, and so as a result, dinner usually starts later in Buenos Aires or as a part of this culture. If you’re going to go out for dinner, it’s not usually going to start until 8:00 or 9:00 and go until about 10:00 or 11:00 at night.

In fact, I remember a number of times where we would go out for dinner, we would go a little bit early so we would arrive at 8:00. We would have lots of appetizers because the chef wouldn’t even be there. It’s like, “You’re not going to get dinner until 9:00 because the chef isn’t even here.” If you were going out for dinner or even at home, it would be from let’s say 8:00 or 9:00 to 10:00 or 11:00. Usually, Milongas, the dance parties, would start around 10:00 or 11:00.

A lot of people would go to the Milongas if not by cab, by using public transportation, that would be the bus or the trains. The trains were very common during that time, very prolific and efficient train system when I first started coming up through the ranks. The train system stopped running around midnight. What you would see is that everyone after they left dinner, would go to their Milonga or Milongas of choice. The trains would stop running and so then the dancers would stay out and go to the Milongas. After the Milongas, they go to the cafeterias for a coffee or tea or café until the train started running back up again, which is around sunrise.

Depending on the line, it would be either 5:00, 5:30 or 6:00 when the trains would start running. The dancers would stay out until the train starts running again and then they would go home for the evening. This was like a typical night of dance in Buenos Aires. For those who were definitely going to be staying out all night, some of the earlier Milongas would start and stop around 2:00 or 3:00.

If you can impress the masters, you have done something. Click To Tweet

La Viruta

La Viruta was one of those Milongas that were usually the one that was open the latest. It was a Milonga that was going to be going on until 5:00 or 5:30. All the top dancers would converge on it. Whatever the longer you were at, if you’re going to be out all-night dancing, you would wind up at La Viruta at some point in the evening. They would have their live orchestras or bands earlier in the evening and then all of the best dancers will converge in La Viruta. Usually, around 2:00 or 3:00 after all the other the Milongas ended and dance until the sunrise or until the train started again. That was the nature of La Viruta.

There’s even a famous song about La Viruta and both are classic songs. There’s even a more modern song on La Viruta by Otros Aires. Anyway, one of the other elements that made me so nostalgic about La Viruta is that, not only will the best and young dancers come out, but a lot of the legends would come. We call them the old heads of Argentine Tango, that was not a sign of disrespect, that was just what we call them like the old guard, the old heads, the legends. They had their reserved tables set up at the corners of this very large dance floor at La Viruta. In one particular corner is always the old head, the old guard, the legends would sit every single night. They’re usually a very lively, boisterous, and animated group of dancers.

They were the legends of music and dance who were well-known, who often gave a very loud, opinionated, and running commentary about everything that was going on the dance floor. At La Viruta, this old guard made it very clear what they thought of what was going on the dance floor. As you would dance by them, in Spanish, they were very vocal about what they were seeing. It was almost like when you watch a ballgame, and you’re watching things going back, you had the announcer, or the commentators giving a running description or reactions of what’s going on in the field. Similarly, you will see that at La Viruta. The old guard had much to say about everything that was going on in the dance floor every night. They were very vocal about it and then as you were dancing by them, you would hear their remarks, or if you were sitting near them, you will hear their remarks.

22T 14 | Tango Adornments

Tango Adornments: Your technique must be developed before your styling because your styling depends on how well you execute your dance.

 

At one particular time early on, because I was one of the few women of color who was dancing down there professionally and coming and traveling there regularly because I was a woman of color and I was traveling back and forth with a relative amount of frequency. In the early stages of my dancing, they knew who I was or they recognized who I was. Early on, they thought I was Brazilian. They thought I was Brasileira. Also, because I had been training, when I first started dancing the way that you could identify a woman’s skill level was in her heel height.

Unlike now where heel height is just fashionable, when I first started training, you earned your heel height so a gentleman could look at your heel height and know what your level of experience was as a dancer, whether you’re a beginner dancer, intermediate dancer or advanced dancer. By looking at your shoes, whether what the heel height was, whether or not they were open toe or not, he would use that information as clues on your skill level. He would adjust his lead accordingly based on that information.

When I first started coming out dancing, I hadn’t been training a while and so I stepped onto the floor of La Viruta with 3.5-inch heels. 3.5 to 4-inch heels are considered advanced and pro-level, open toe shoes. In the dance of Tango, to dance with open-toed shoes means you have an extraordinary level of confidence in your technique as a follower. That means that you understand that if your toes get stepped on or your foot gets stepped on, that you are aware of the consequences of that. You have such a level of confidence in your skill that you have no concerns about your toes getting stepped on.

One particular night where they clearly noticed me on the floor, they saw my heel height and they saw my open toes. One of them remarked in Spanish like, “Doesn’t Brasileira know that this is not Samba but that this is Tango?” That was the remark that one of the ladies I believe was making as my partner was bringing me onto the floor to dance. Another one of the gentlemen who was one of the legends was like, “La negra is not Brasileira and she can dance. She can really dance, just watch.” He had seen me apparently at another Milonga.

It was beautiful because everyone heard this exchange. We’ve heard this exchange. I’ve heard this exchange and then when they saw us begin to dance, they realized that I was more proficient at dancing Tango than they realize. That I was not a Samba dancer, that I was a Tango dancer and the reason that I was in an open toe and very high heeled shoe is because I had a great level of confidence in my skill level as a dancer that I demonstrated on the floor. The moral of that story is if you can impress the masters, then you have done something. That is what I want to lead this episode out with. Number one, the nostalgia of what it’s like to be out in a night of dancing in Buenos Aires. A lot of things have changed. Obviously, now we’re in the middle of a pandemic, it’s going to be interesting to see how things are in the future.

Coming up through the ranks, there was so much unspoken communication that’s going on. This is a very vocal and verbal exchange with the elders, and the old guards are having about what they’re observing. Much of the culture of Tango is an unspoken conversation, rules, expectation and etiquette. I want you to have that in the back of your mind as we talk about adornments. Adornments or adornos are what we refer to when we’re talking about a woman’s dance. It also can refer to elements that we’re talking about when it comes to a man’s dance. For the sake of this conversation, we’re going to primarily focus on a woman’s dance as it relates to adornments or adornos because you more hear that phrase used as it relates to a woman’s dance than a man’s dance.

No amount of styling can make your dance better. Click To Tweet

Adornments

What is adornment or adornos? Adornments are usually the styling elements of a woman’s dance. They are her flourishes. They are where she expresses her personality. These are her signatures. It’s the things that make her dance uniquely her, feminine and the woman. You don’t usually see the men doing these particular dance elements because they’re reserved for moments in the dance where the woman has the availability to express herself.

The reason I call this putting icing on cornbread is because one of my biggest pet peeves, and I’m usually a pretty easygoing person when it comes to Tango because I want to bring harmony and synergy. One of my biggest pet peeves in the dance and in the training world of Argentine Tango is when women’s technique training and women’s styling training are used interchangeably. Women’s technique and women’s styling, those two different types of training people use interchangeably. They are training women in women styling and adornments as if that is women’s technique.

If any woman, young lady or any lady that has ever trained with me will learn very quickly from me that women’s technique and women styling are two completely different things in the dance. There’s nothing that drives me crazy as when women misunderstand the distinctions between those two things, and it shows up in her dance on the dance floor. It drives me crazy. Unfortunately, especially now in the season that we’re in, I’m seeing more women’s technique classes where the drills that women are being given are actually styling and adornment drills, not technique classes.

First and foremost, if you’re going to train with me and you want to become a proficient dancer and a proficient follower early on, is to understand that women’s technique is essential and is the fundamental foundation for your styling. Your technique must be developed before you develop your styling because your styling depends on you executing well your dance and your technique. You must execute the energy that’s coming through the lead in your following first before you decorate it. I call it putting icing on cornbread because it’s like baking cornbread versus cake. If your intention was to create a cake and you’ve made a cornbread, then there was a miscalculation somewhere.

I love grandma’s lemon pound cake. One of the things I love about pound cake is that it’s comfort food and is absolutely delicious. When it’s homemade, it’s finger-licking good. One of the characteristics I like about pound cake is that when a pound cake is delicious and good, it only requires a small amount of icing or glaze on it because the cake itself is delicious and good. It stands on its own. It doesn’t require a lot of icing and glaze in order to be delicious. It is delicious on its own, so it only requires a little bit on it to accent the deliciousness that is the cake itself.

However, if you were trying to make a cake and you came up with cornbread, no amount of icing and sprinkles that you put on cornbread is going to make it cake. Cornbread is cornbread, I don’t care how much anything you put on cornbread, it’s not going to make it cake. I don’t care how many sprinkles. You can pile it as high as you want. Miles a high of icing will not make it cake and will not make it delicious like cake. I like adornments and when I’m training ladies, I say, “Having adornments with poor technique is like trying to put icing on cornbread. You’re trying to decorate it and trying to make it look good or attempt to make it taste good but if it’s not good, it’s not good.”

If your technique is not good, no amount of styling is going to make your dance a better dance. Your dance has to be a good dance in and of itself and then the adornments and the flourishes that you add to your dance just accents it and make it better and make it more pleasurable. If your dance is not pleasurable, no amount of styling is going to make that dance pleasurable and the experience of it pleasurable. Technique is not about adornments. Technique is not about how to style your dance, but rather it’s about how to be the best follower you can be.

22T 14 | Tango Adornments

Tango Adornments: The synergy that comes together between the partners is what makes the Tango so magical, not the styling of it.

 

Leading And Following

The key to Tango is about being an excellent leader and an excellent follower. When those two things come together, it creates an extraordinary magical dance in partnership. The partnership is what makes the dance so glorious. The synergy that makes up the partner, the synergy when the two comes that comes together is what makes the Tango so magical, not the styling of it. The synergy of it is what is the magical part of the Tango. Your goal in terms of being the best follower and being the best at being in partnership with your partner is about how to be the most in sync. How to be the most accurate follower. How to be the most responsive follower. How to cultivate being a part of the conversation and the dialogue that you’re having with your leader. Not a kind of styling and flourishes that you can add to your steps that may have nothing to do with the conversation of his lead.

Adornments, so that you understand them from an advanced standpoint, should be a natural part of the conversation that you are having with the leader. Adornments are not unrelated outbursts. This is why I caution ladies about training and doing drills on their styling and adornment. Your adornments should be a natural outgrowth of the lead that is already occurring, not against it. If you create habits of doing adornments that are unrelated to the dynamic of the lead, then you’re more likely to execute adornments at inappropriate places in the dance.

I don’t know if anyone who’s reading might remember this but I believe it was old episodes of In Living Color with the Wayans brothers. In one of it, they had a skit where one of the gentlemen would scream out random phrases like, “My toe hurt.” You’d be talking to him or having an interaction with him and he would scream out some random, unrelated, obscure phrase. The things that he was saying would be so obscure, and it made it hilarious.

Doing adornments without an understanding of technique and without having a good technique is like those outbursts where you could be talking about, “What was going on with your day at work?” and somebody just screams out. “What does that have anything to do with the flow of the conversation that is going on?” It’s random, obscure outbursts. A lot of times when women are doing adornments and styling without having great technique, the experience of the leader, as well as to those who are observing is like this outburst that came out of nowhere. It’s completely unrelated to what’s going on on the floor. I tell my ladies that trying to do styling without mastering your technique is like trying to put icing on cornbread when you’re trying to make a cake. That’s the reality of it.

Adornments, like intimacy, are not for the audience but your partner. Click To Tweet

Styling And Technique

The next thing to understand is what causes women to want to put their styling before their technique? It happens with gentlemen as well. That is because most people that are introduced to the dance, see the dance more often than not in terms of a movie or a show. What they are exposed to is that they’re exposed to stage or performance Tango and are going to learn social Tango. Social Tango is very different from stage Tango. Stage Tango is done for performance and done for a crowd. It’s usually a couple by themselves on a stage, maybe with an orchestra. All the rules and navigation, the rules of the road, etiquette that comes with the dance, goes out the window. The dance is highly choreographed, highly practiced, and often includes figures that are not possible to lead naturally. They might be a practiced or staged sequence. Whereas social dances are about leading and following, and so the man is leading steps in an environment that is constantly changing. Everything he leads has to be the lead because he may have to change things on a dime that result in creating something different on the fly.

He’s got to be able to respond very quickly and maybe recreate a figure midstream because of a change on the dance floor. In social dancing or performance Tango, all of that is removed. A man can choreograph a figure or idea that he would never be able to naturally lead on a dance floor. When dancers are exposed to that, men and women, their expectation is for the wow factor. Their expectation is that the dance or Tango is about the showy steps, the flashy steps, the big a-ha, fancy things that you do on a dance floor that you see on the stage. However, socially has nothing to do with performing for an audience. Socially is about having a conversation with your partner. The person who’s asked you to dance. Also, to not only enjoy your partner but respect the other dancers who are also on the floor and making sure that everyone stays safe.

It’s a very different set of dynamics. It has to be natural. It has to be completely spontaneous, complete improvisation because the dance floor is constantly changing on a dime. You don’t know what’s going on. You don’t know what the people around you are going to do next. You can’t necessarily read all of their minds at the same time and so therefore, you have got to be flexible, and be able to lead fluidly. Therefore, you have to be able to follow fluidly. Why I bring that up is because a lot of ladies who are excited about the flashy styling moves are so eager to do the fancy steps and use them that they insert them anywhere.

The key thing is that oftentimes when they do that, they are doing them against the flow and energy of the dance or lead. Adornments should never go against the flow and the energy of the dance or the lead, because it could compromise the safety of the couple, including themselves, or the safety of other couples. The gentleman has set energy in motion, so everything that he’s doing is because his expectation is that she’s following him and so she’s going to be in the flow of the energy that he sent.

However, if she interjects an idea that is against the flow of that or outside of the dynamic of that, she could put herself and him in a precarious situation against the flow of the dynamic, which is going to pull him out of his lead. Since he’s responsible for the safety of the couple, by doing that, she could put them in harm’s way. Gentlemen are often managing that idea of giving her the space to express herself, but also being responsible for keeping them safe. As a lady understanding that your technique is the most important and that your styling is secondary, you can support the gentleman in his role as a leader.

Adornments like intimacy are not for the audience. It’s not for those who are watching. Adornments like intimacy is for your partner. They’re a part of the moments that you share within the embrace that’s between the two of you. Some of them can be seen, but they’re a part of you responding to what he is saying, not responding to something that you want to do on the dance floor. There’s a subtlety, a flirtation and a sensuality in that conversation when you bring your feminine creativity to it. That is a response to what he says and it’s a part of the flow and encourages him to respond as well. It’s like a conversation. He says something to you and asks you what you think. You respond and you ask for his contribution. This flow co-creates together.

More than focusing on adornment in terms of styling, the goal in terms of your adornments is about how to work on listening very deeply to your partner. Learning how to restate what you heard and doing that in your figures. Working on your core skills such as your balance, your alignment, maintaining the connection, holding your frame, holding your posture, completing each step as it’s led step by step. These are the technique elements that you need to have in place and then as you execute them well, precisely and more completely, adornments come out naturally from excellent technique.

22T 14 | Tango Adornments

Tango Adornments: Socially has nothing to do with performing for an audience. It is about having a conversation with your partner.

 

It is an advanced understanding of the dance and as you become more and more proficient, as you approach the advanced and professional level, you will realize that adornments come out naturally the more masterfully you follow your partner. What does that mean? When I’m dancing as a professional dancer of Tango, when people see me, they think I’m doing a lot of styling. They’re like, “Your styling is so beautiful in the light. I want to be able to style like you.” A lot of ladies try to imitate some of my stylings.

My styling is my own signature. It plays on what my strengths are as a dancer. It plays on my experiences as a dancer of other different dance forms. It plays on the fact that as the old guard used to say, I’ve got legs that come out of my armpits. I have exceptionally long legs and so my styling and my adornment, if you will, are a reflection of those elements that make up me. I never tried to imitate another woman’s adornments and styling. There are ideas that I like to see but I don’t try to imitate or train in adornments. I try to train in my technique as it relates to my figures, but never adornments. Why? It’s because to an untrained eye, it looks like I am doing styling and I am doing adornments in my dance.

However, to a trained eye or a master, they can see and understand that I am constantly managing the energy of the lead that is being given to me. The amount of force, the amount of power, the amount of dynamic that my leader is giving to me. I’m constantly taking that energy that he’s transferred to me and I am translating it into the figures. Sometimes I may need to redirect it. Sometimes I may need to dissipate it.

For example, because I’m wearing very high heels, if I’m dancing with a gentleman that I’ve never danced with before, he may not understand that he’s giving me more force than is needed to move me. Therefore, I may be at greater risk because he may not realize that giving me too much force with wearing heels that are as high as they are, could turn my ankle over, or he could be giving me to form too much force that could throw me off my balance.

If he’s giving me a lot of extra force and maybe still learning to calibrate it, let’s say in the first couple of dances that we’re dancing. In the meantime, I’m managing and absorbing all of that extra energy and determining how to translate this so that I can dissipate some of it to keep us both safe. That’s the dynamic that I’m always managing. Managing my balance, my access, and the dynamic and energy that he’s giving me. For example, he may have led a Boleo on the floor. A Boleo is a place where the leg flies and the heel comes off the ground.

If he’s leading with a lot of energy, then that could mean that my heel could come very high above the ground, which could be a danger to the other dances around it. I may take that energy, still follow it, but I may redirect it, dissipate it or ground it in a way that keeps my leg from flying and keeps the women around me safe as he’s learning to modulate my following. It’s not that I’m not following him, it’s that we are both unconscious of it and he may have given me more force than I realized. In order to keep my balance, I have to absorb it in a different way. The way that I translate that look is as if there’s an adornment because I’m going to take all of the energy, I’m going to fully express it, I’m just going to redirect it maybe upwards or redirect it downwards. I do that in a way that keeps us still within the flow of the energy, but takes into account the other elements of the dance.

It may appear that I’m styling, when all I’m doing is I’m following my leader at an extremely precise level, where all of the energy is coming through to me and so I’m managing that lead. I’m managing the space. I am translating it through my body in a way that is beautiful, graceful and safe because I am usually one of the more experienced dancers. I have a different skill level as it relates to following but also leading in my following because I have the experience that perhaps my leader may not have in terms of the psyche dynamics for example.

I want to share that with you because with a trained eye, they can see that’s what’s going on. Sure, I do some styling and I’m extremely creative in my dance, but more of that styling than they realize is the management of my dance. It’s the management of the energy that is given to me and the management of it in the most beautiful, creative, and artful way that I can express through my body. I wanted to say that and share that with you.

Adornments come out naturally the more masterfully you follow your partner. Click To Tweet

Once again, men and women do adornments to show off to their other friends what they can do, but the skill and the art of being a great follower is to develop outstanding technique. If you develop outstanding technique, you will find that your adornments will be otherworldly, if you will, because they will be unique. They will fit and will make perfect sense into the dance and it will elevate what will already be an exquisite dance that you and your partner will experience and those who are around you and watching will also experience.

It’s easy to impress someone who has no idea what you’re doing. It’s easy to impress someone who doesn’t know any better. It’s easy to get seduced by the allure of doing adornments and doing a lot of great styling and showing off to those around you. For a beginner dancer who’s seeing you do all these flourishes and all these fancy moves, they might go, “This person must be amazing,” but to a trained dancer and professional, many of them are cringing on the dance floor. They’re like, “Will they please stop doing that? They look crazy and they’re about to hurt themselves and hurt others on the dance floor.” I leave you with this thought again that I gave you at the top. If you can impress the masters, then you have done something.

I want to encourage my ladies and gentlemen, but my ladies, to focus on your true technique, not styling, not adornments, so that you too, when you step on the dance floor of your La Viruta, you impress the legends and the beginners alike. More importantly, you will have and share an exquisite experience with your dance partner. As we say here on the 22Tango Show, “It not only takes two to Tango, it takes you to Tango.” La Viruta, Ciao.