Author Archives: David Phillips

Redirecting follower steps

Uploaded on Apr 24, 2013

April 23rd, Kara Wenham and Javier Antar completed the last week of a month of classes as guests of UT Tango In Orange. This workshop was on redirecting her steps. Any time she takes a step, if he has good position with his feet forming a triangle on the floor with her stepping foot, then he can turn that step into a pivot, including an overturned pivot, or into a rock back in the opposite direction.

First example, he leads her into back ocho to his right, and as she steps back he steps forward on his right to follow her leg from the front. He and she pivot clockwise so that he now backs line of dance. Then he rocks her to a forward cross, stepping beside him with her right leg. As she steps he collects and pivots clockwise, returning to line of dance, and finally changing weight to his right foot to prepare to walk out.

Second example, again he leads her into a back ocho to his right, but this time he steps BEHIND her, blocking her from closing and rocking her to go back forward. This was also demonstrated to the left, open side – harder, and in cadena (chained) fashion with alternating left and right figures.

Last example, starting her molinete to his left, she steps back cross, side open, forward cross. On that last, forward cross step, he steps side open and slightly forward, blocking her, then leads her back the way she came, with back cross, side open, forward to his right, while he hooks his right foot behind left to help with opening his right side to get out of her way and lead her in that direction.

The lesson also included alternate timings. Straight S, S, S timing. For example one, the reversed ocho, 1-3-1, S to enter, Q Q to exit. The molinete, Q Q S, Q Q S.

Goals of physical education

(Previously appeared as

This Monday I took my first ever class with the UT Argentine Tango Club, where @Avi Taicher and @Nicole Shutter conducted a class in molinetes to left and right with parada. I love visiting the University where I spent many happy years learning and working. It’s such an energizing environment.

This class had to be moved from their usual room to Anna Hiss Gym. I enjoyed the huge, high space filled with natural light and fresh air, and with a gorgeous maple floor (albeit covered with various colored sports court lines). Looking around, I was taken with the various posters around the wall. It seemed as if they could all be taken to speak (at least metaphorically in some cases) to tango dancers. Here’s what they said . . .

Goals of Physical education:

  • to learn to move skillfully and with confidence.
  • to learn to encourage and help each other.
  • to understand the importance of regular physical activity for a healthy lifestyle.
  • to learn to value your body and the feelings that come from physical activity.
  • to develop strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance.
  • to enjoy movement and choose a physically active life.

Help Each Other

Levels of Skill Proficiency

  • Precontrol – Successful only by chance, each trial different
  • Control – Can perform the skill with complete concentration
  • Utilization – Can perform the skill while attending to other stimuli
  • Proficiency – Skill is second nature, can perform while attending to a variety of other stimuli

–George Graham

Personal/Social Skills

  • Encouragement/Motivation
  • Responsibility
  • Confidence
  • Effort/Perseverance
  • Initiative
  • Compromise
  • Honesty
  • Caring
  • Sportsmanship
  • Cooperation/Teamwork
  • Communication

[These next two, Skill Themes and Spatial Awareness evoked ideas for creative dancing.]

Skill Themes

  • Traveling
  • Chasing, Dodging, Fleeing
  • Throwing & Catching
  • Kicking, Punting, Trapping
  • Volleying
  • Dribbling
  • Striking w/ Paddles
  • Striking w/ long handled implements
  • Balancing

Space Awareness

  • Location
  • Self of personal space
  • General space
  • Directions
  • Up/down
  • Forward/backward
  • Right/left
  • Clockwise/counterclockwise
  • Levels
  • Low
  • Middle
  • High
  • Pathways (floor/air)
  • Straight
  • Curved
  • Zigzap
  • Extensions
  • Large/small
  • Far/near

Teaching Concerns

  • Hellison’s Levels of Participation
  • Levels of Skill Proficiency -Graham
  • Activity Selection
  • Leading & Safety Considerations
  • Structure of Games
  • Grouping Strategies
  • Scoring
  • Add on Games

Felices caminando!

Tango queer

Andrea leading David

Andrea leads David at the Argentine Tango USA 2013 Festival & USA Championship

Mi nuera (daughter-in-law) Andrea prefers to lead, and for the opportunity to dance with her it suits me just fine to follow. Indeed, I enjoy following occasionally as an interesting counterpoint to the role of leading.

By personality and traditional gender role, I dance as a leader and find it challenging and rewarding (notwithstanding occasional bouts of doubt about rising to the level of what I’d like to see in my dancing). But I also enjoy the role of following to experience the dance and the compañero in a different way. It means that I can observe the music and my partner in a more relaxed manner with fewer responsibilities. It even helps my leading to observe as a follower what feels good or not.

When I first came to Argentine tango (I’d not experienced this phenomenon in my earlier dance history), I developed the chauvinistic attitude of what does the follower get out of it? Nearly all the attention seems to be paid to the leader, and to listen to some teachers you’d think the leader controls everything the follower does down to the nth degree. But when you see gifted dancing by followers such as Daniela Arcuri and Noelia Hurtado you realize how naive it is to not appreciate how much the follower independently contributes to the dance, and how they support and make their leader look good.

But I don’t get many opportunities to follow. Teachers use it as a way to show what the lead should feel like. In classes where there are too few followers, I’ll follow, but that’s not really the same experience as a dance at a milonga. There are a handful of women I know in Austin who sometimes or full time lead, and only one who sometimes leads men (and more often follows beautifully).

When I mentioned as a comment to the Facebook blog of Terpsichoral Tangoaddict about the utility and interesting experience of following, they suggested going to queer milongas. So when I saw a Tango Queer Buenos Aires blog in the latest issue of the Tango Weekly email newspaper I went to check it out.

Tango Queer logo with female couple

Tango Queer Buenos Aires blog

Their What is Tango Queer? page made an impression for its common sense, broad coverage, and deeply thought out expression of ideals. No simplistic guys-dance-with-guys and gals-dance-with-gals and sexual shenanigans. Not only does it go beyond role stereotypes and advocate role versatility — something I, too, have been advocating, but it also covers origins use of the word queer, queer as a symbol, tango as a symbol, communications, women in society, tango in society, and artistic expression.

Felices caminar!

Leader-follower pairings

Fixes for imbalance in companieros pairings

Argentine tango workshops, in my not yet two years of experience, generally have more leaders than followers, and this seems common sense, since most workshop material focuses on the leader’s role. (I’ve observed but not noted — will do so in the future — where a strong follower of a teacher-pair can make sure that the follower role gets good attention. Even then, unless it’s a follower-specific workshop, the leader role gets most of the attention.)

In Austin there is often a significant imbalance in numbers. Leaders have taken a course of sensible self-interest by recruiting their own follower for a workshop. But then they don’t share!

From the follower’s perspective, they may prefer to stay with a partner because they know and are satisfied with that person’s abilities. A tanguera told me, “I’ve paid my dues. I don’t want to be jerked around that floor by guys who don’t know what they are doing.” But then a teacher told me, “Followers want to dance with leaders, but how will they have leaders if they don’t help grow them up?”

But what about the competent dancers who haven’t found a regular partner or who prefer to switch so they can develop their lead/follow with a variety of partners? Or the person who gets stuck with a dud? (I’ve been that dud when I took a too advanced class that I should have left but stayed to complete the pairings. No fun for anyone.)

I wonder how many people would leave a workshop dissatisfied if told that everyone must change partners, versus how many who would leave dissatisfied – or simply not attend in the first place – if they knew they would either have to twiddle their thumbs or attempt to lead guys who don’t know how to follow. For those people who don’t want to switch I might ask, “Do you dance with other people at milongas? Well then you’re going to dance with others here.”

But I appreciate all points of view. What to do? My thesis is that all dancers should learn both roles, to at least some minimal level. My thinking is that you would do your secondary role primarily with your same sex, for two reasons. First, you wouldn’t get a “true” experience of being in the secondary role unless dancing with someone for whom that opposite role is primary. Second, there’s the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” thing about communication style. For example, there’s only one woman I can think of in today’s Austin community from whom I could have the experience of dancing with a strong, highly competent leader, and even then I wouldn’t have the same style of communication that I would have from a man.

Benefits of learning both lead and follow:

  • Both leaders and followers do the same adornments, even if with different styling.
  • Leaders who understand how to follow can have teachers or knowledgeable fellow tangueros lead them, to learn what the follower is supposed to feel from the lead.
  • The person leading a skilled leader, or following a skilled follower, can get invaluable mentoring feedback from a person who can reflect not only what they are feeling, but also what they do to succeed with particular maneuvers.
  • Leaders who follow can learn both from poor leads – what not to do, and good leads – what to strive to do.
  • Followers who understand something of the lead can give more useful feedback on what they need to feel and how to produce it.
  • Both leaders and followers can gain some empathy for the opposite role, while learning about what feels good and what doesn’t feel good.
  • Whether there is an excess of leads or follows, everyone can, with some measure of success, pair up.

Attracting followers:

  • Be certain that workshops, and each session of workshops, contains significant material for followers.
  • Let women attend leader focused classes for some reduced price.
  • For women that don’t want to be jerked around by novices, what about sharing yourselves among leaders you know and trust. For example, I’ve seen it work well where excess pairs of men shared one women. This was actually additionally helpful in that you had an interested observer who could offer useful feedback.
  • Have an excess of men and women door monitors. Take a census of people entering the workshop sessions as you check their credentials, then when sessions start, shuffle the volunteers as necessary to make up pairings.

Regardless of whether there is a perfect pairing of leads and follows, if there is to be *any* changing of partners, then the class leaders has a duty to ensure that it proceeds consistently and smoothly, so that everybody gets treated fairly. I would make sure in each class that there is a well known, routinely followed pattern of changing partners. (With, perhaps, some reasonableness exceptions to skip over, for example, a couple that really does only dance with each other, or the couple that is just about to “get it” and isn’t ready to switch yet.)

Just before starting the FIRST practice song I would announce:

  1. We will all be changing partners in this class, and near the end of the class we will announce and play a couple of songs for you to dance with your preferred partner.
  2. Everbody pairs up. If there is an odd person out, that is a hole that moves around the room (against line of dance) as each change happens.
  3. If there is a same sex couple where both want the same role, one of them starts as leader. At the next change the leader moves on and the follower in that same sex couple becomes the new leader for that couple slot.
  4. Followers, please see where you are standing in the room. See who is the follower to your right and the one to your left. Return to this spot with your current partner at the end of each song.
  5. Leaders, at the beginning of each song, whether I say to or not, always please thank your partner and move in the line of dance to the next follower. (The class leader should remember to say “change partners” before starting each song.)

Felices caminar!

P.S. In a discussion on the Facebook page for Terpsichoral Tangoaddict about the problem of people in classes too high for their abilities, it reminded me of a situation where it really is desirable to have couple-pairings: in (truly) advanced classes. Two people as a couple probably have a better shot than a single person at assessing their skill level, and if they are under-qualified, then they are only inflicting themselves on each other.

Sandy’s practice playlist

At the end of a lesson with Daniel el latigo Ponce I asked Sandy — tanguera, friend, and sometimes mentor on tango and español — about music to practice to. As soon as I got back to Austin I found this nice list (see below) waiting in my email. Thank you, Sandy!

My main teacher, Daniela, and others have advised: in your practice, work with a single song for a while. Try different interpretations with your dancing. Work to perfect the things you like. You will come to know the song and own in it your repertoire. (Not by any means to say that you are creating a set choreography for it, everything may change depending on compañera, milonga compañeros, your mood that particular night, and so on.)

Two places that have helped me in musical knowledge and material:

Mandrágora Tango
ToTango Restorations

The list

Milongas (faster):
Flor De Montserrat
Ella Es Asi
Milonga Brava
Milonga del Recuerdo

Milongas (slower):
Silueta Portena
Milonga Sentimental
Milonga Criolla
Milonga del 900
De Pura Cepa

Tangos (slower):
Anything by Pugliese – Chique, Nochero Soy, La Bordona, Pata Ancha, Si Sos Brujo, etc.
Indio Manso
A La Gran Muneca
Fueron Tres Anos
Fumando Espero
Tigre Viejo

Tangos (faster):
Loca de Amor (Juan D’Arienzo version – not to be confused with a waltz – see link for the version)
Vida Mia (Fresedo)
Racing Club
Alas Rotas
Sin Sabor
El Flete

Good valses to become familiar with:
Viejo Porton
Palomita Blanca
Ronda Del Querer
Desde El Alma
Sonar Y Nada Mas

Notes from Daniela Arcuri’s Master Class 4/24/2013

Tonight’s class by Daniela Arcuri covered the milonga dance space and how to move through it in a way that works with the flow of traffic while producing a dance that is varied and interesting, and reflects the music.


The dance space at a milonga is organized as one or more concentric oval tracks (much like a horse race track) running counter-clockwise around the perimeter of the dance floor bounded by the tables at the edge of the floor. A tiny space, such as a house milonga, may have only one track, but most spaces will have two tracks, one inside the other, and very large, very crowded spaces may have even more. In the very center, away from the people circulating around the room, you may find people dancing nuevo or other open patterns requiring more space. Generally the more skilled dancers will be in the outside track, nearest the tables, so they can be seen by spectators (and it gives them the longest track).

The width of the track will shrink or grow according to the size of the space and according to what other dancers are doing around you at any time, but it is roughly two or three couples across.

At all times you are expected to maintain your position within the track (unlike a horse race) between the couple ahead of you and the couple behind you. (When you enter the dance floor with a song in progress, seek to catch the eye of the leader of the couple you want to get in front of. A savvy leader will either avoid your look if they don’t want you in front, or they will nod in agreement.) Don’t crowd the couple ahead of you, and don’t lag behind so that you create a traffic jam behind you. It helps when dancers on the floor share a musical sensibility and move similarly.

The music is composed generally of 8 count phrases, and often two 8-count phrases – a call and response – will make up longer 16 count phrases. A couple might expect to make only one complete circuit of the floor in the time of an entire song, or a quarter – one side – of the room in four 8 counts.


The couples move generally in a counter-clockwise direction around the track. This is called the line of dance. But they vary this by dancing in a zig-zag back and forth across the path, and even moving for brief times against the line of dance, or they may be somewhat stationary – momentarily – in the track as they execute some pattern, such as a parada/pasada, or they may be making a circle within the path, as for a molinete.

In all the travel: walking, pivoting, standing, circling; the leader, perhaps assisted by the follower in a very crowded or hazardous situation, must seek to ensure that the space into which they want to move is open and likely to remain open while they move into it. They are aided in this by orienting themselves initially to face outside the track towards the tables. In this way the leader has an easy 180+ degree view to the open side of the embrace. Then as they zig-zag across and along the path, and circle, they can observe and make use of spaces that become available to the sides and behind them.


Rather than facing straight down the track and moving in that direction, your force variety and give yourself better opportunities to observe traffic by moving in a zig-zag fashion across and down the track. This gives you opportunities to observe the traffic all around your couple, and opportunities to present your couple in a variety of orientations.


Even with only a basic 8-count pattern one can create dynamic angles throughout the pattern. Every step is an opportunity to pivot and reorient the couple to a greater or lesser angle from a square box pattern. The pivot can be a dynamic movement with the step using its inertia, or even a subtle shifting in place after stepping, perhaps accompanied by weight changes.


Molinetes, calesitas (carousel), colgadas, overturned pivots, walking in a circle. Use these to both the left, open side, and the right, closed side for variety and interest. Use zig-zags and all the other elements to allow you to observe and clear the space you will move into when circling right.


Use pauses, both to help express the music, and as a tool to help keep a good connection with your partner. Use a pause whenever necessary to reset your embrace, your connection with your partner, your attention to the music, your awareness of the room and its traffic — whatever. You don’t have to wait for a pause in the music to take a pause. Some elegant milongueros will reset everything with the beginning of each phrase of the music, or after a pattern.


Different altura (height, levels) of the couple, or even just one of a couple: High – fully erect with straight legs, low – bent knees, working into the floor, and in between make for more interesting variety, help express the music, and in many cases help execute a movement. For examples, in a calesita you want her high on one foot so that she has a small axis and pivots easily; a volcada starts high to unweight and free one leg, then goes lower to swing her leg forward, and finishes coming up again; a boleo might start low and end high with a leg wrap.


In very general terms, slower music can call for larger steps, while faster music may require shorter steps to keep on a beat. But in tango the step size might also be used to express some quality of the music. Perhaps a light, high sound would evoke small steps, while a booming sounds calls for a grander step. Except for milonga and vals music, which do have significant beats, the beat in a tango can be subtle and difficult to find, a singer may not follow the beat, and the tempo may increase or slow. Also, a dancer may take one, two, three, or four beats to execute a step. So the beat in tango can inform but does not dictate when to step.


Is the music loud, soft, high, low, complex, simple? Tango music is sophisticated and generally has many parts and sounds. A dancer can’t possibly express everything in the music in their body. There is too much going on. So, choose an instrument to follow for some portion of a song, or the melodic part, or the rhythmic part, then use the dynamics of your movement to express what that musical component is saying to you. Hard, soft, legato, staccato, complex, simple, fast, slow, high, low, happy, mournful, angry, sad, elegant, rough.


Using only a few simple elements, such as the cross, the tap, and the circle, experiment with where you can add these. Do they help express the music? Do they help facilitate a movement? Do they serve to give a visual lead?


Before a milonga make notes of a handful of things from the above list and any other that interests you, then before a tanda select just one of those things that you want to focus on. As you get better, and as an element becomes a natural part of your dancing, you can add additional elements.

My olla podrida

After carrying a cup of tea a través de la casa to my wife I said, “This is good practice for my tango walk.”

Gym with Sam's Club mat topping

The gym originally had a soft foam matting so that if I dropped a kettlebell it would have a soft landing.

Recently tango practice has been on my mind – and To Do list – as I seek to convert thought to action to results. And this website,, will become my olla podrida of Argentine tango, en la mayor parte made up of my notes, thoughts, and ideas on learning and practicing the dance, y tal vez spiced occasionally with other observations.

I had my first serious engagement with Argentine tango in August 2011 at Esquina Tango in Austin, Texas. I’d taken a workshop at Fandango de Tango many years earlier, but it didn’t “take”. That introduction had left me with no understanding or appreciation for what the dance was about. When I mostly retired from a life of computer technology businesses and programming I had some notion that I wanted to explore the tango to see what I might have missed.

Spending the next year at my new “job”, it was dancing at least a couple of hours most every night or day of the week: Argentine tango several times, West Coast Swing, Blues, Salsa, various ballroom styles, and what have you. Balboa anyone? Then I mostly narrowed that down to tango, swing, and salsa; then tango and swing; then mostly tango. (But I’ll have more to say about what we can learn about tango from swing and other dances, in future articles.)

So what’s that got to do with starting a blog? Well when I get involved in a subject I like to learn everything I can in every way I can, so that I can excel. The thing I loved about working with computers is how they always offer opportunities to learn something new. I think I’ve found the same thing in Argentine tango, in an activity, a discipline, one might even say an art form, that involves all the senses, both halves of the brain, and a lot of the heart.

Yet it has been exceedingly frustrating at times, with wild highs and deep lows — the most difficult of the many dances I’ve pursued over parts of the past thirty years. I’ve reached a point where I “know” so much from all the groups classes, private lessons, workshops, books, and DVDs that I’ve studied, yet I don’t feel that my dancing really shows the benefit of all that investment of time and money.

Horse stall mats on the gym floor

Horse stall mats further protected the floor from kettlebells.

So I have determined to take my dancing to a new level through rigorous practice. For months I’ve been asking around for a practice partner but struck out. My wife will dance with me when the opportunity is appealing enough and I appeal hard enough, but mostly she has other priorities. We live a ways out of town, and I haven’t found anyone with the regular interest, the time match, or the location.

When my friend, Peter, suggested a “if you build it they will come” approach, I decided to take up that challenge, AND, I’ve come to realize that there are many, many things that I can be working on solo, on my own.

New dance plus gym room

Sala de baile con gimnasio.
New dance floor with cork over Whisperwool blanket. The domino dots in the floor mark practice spots for molinetes. Now I’ll simply have to not drop the kettlebells!

So that’s what this is about. I’ve converted our spare room, a 12′ x 16′ space, from a gym into a sala de baile-cum-gym. I have 30 or so DVDs, lots of books, innumerable “didactic demos”, and notebooks full of notes. I am going to work on practicing, making some organized sense of all the material I have, organizing my practice and reporting on it, and providing a practice space for anyone who wants to join me in a true practice, learning, rehearsing, improving mode.

molinete side left

Water bowl exercise. Beginning molinete side left.

molinete forward cross

molinete forward cross

molinete side open

molinete side open

molinete back cross

molinete back cross

I don’t expect future articles to be so long, and I don’t want to leave this one without something to practice. Luciano Brigante and Alejandro Orozco suggested this one to me. Hold a bowl of water in both hands, arms circled in front of you. The bowl represents your partner. Now walk, pivot, and molinete while keeping the water as still as possible.

This illustrates several principles of mindful practice. The shorts I’m wearing let me see more clearly if I am neatly collecting my bowed legs. Mirrors let me check that and other factors, and a video recording gives me a “third person” view of myself to more objectively evaluate.

Felices caminar!