Spanish for Tango Dancers – Lesson 1

If you read and speak English, you can learn basic Spanish if you also are a tango fanatic.

Let’s start with vowel pronunciation. Spanish is much easier to pronounce than English because each vowel has one, and only one!, sound no matter where the vowel is in the word.

A” is always pronounced as in the bold letter in “Occupation”

E” is always pronounced as in the bold letter in “Excellent”

I” is always pronounced as in the bold letters in “Eerie”

O” is always pronounced as in the bold letters in “Ohio”

U” is always pronounced as in the bold letters in “bazOOka”

Great, now you can easily read aloud 95% of any Spanish document (you may not understand what you say, but your pronunciation will be good). By the way, the name of the language is Castellano, not Spanish. Spanish means “from Spain.”


The tango phrase of this week is: “Por una cabeza”

“Por una cabeza” means “By a head.”  This is the title of the famous and beautiful tango (1935) from Carlos Gardel (music) and Alfredo Le Pera (lyrics). The lyrics are a metaphoric analogy between horse betting and love betting. “Por una cabeza” refers to losing the horse race by just a head, or losing your lover to another man by a small margin. This tango was also played by Isak Perlman under the direction of John Williams for the movie Scent of a Woman (acting Al Pacino). Watch and listen the melody starting a 1:43 in this video.

Listen Carlos Gardel’s interpretation:

The 8 “S” in the Close Embrace Tango First Step (for beginners)

 After 7 years teaching beginner’s level tango lessons, I have devised this mnemonic to help students memorize
the preparation for, and the execution of, the first step in close embrace tango.

** I am going to use “he” for the leader’s part, and “she” for the follower’s part.

1) S for SMILE
Bring your smile to the floor and be open to the experience. Nobody likes to dance with a sad or angry person.
Natural selection in the humankind is heavily dependent on the power of the smile!

2) S for STANCE
Project your chest up and forward. Feel how tall you are. Relax and open your chest to your partner.

For a beginning leader, it is common to step on his partner. One way to reduce this problem is
having about 2 to 3 inches between his shoes and hers.

This is when you literally surround each other with your arms. The close embrace has many contact areas,
but the important ones are:

  • The front of your torsos (wherever the contact is, without compromising your stance).
  • His right bicep with the her left side ribs. This contact area is a reference vertical axis for her
    around which she may hinge depending on his lead.
  • His forearm and her back (no pressure is required, but this contact defines her “working space.”)
  • Her forearm and his shoulder (or back). No pressure is required, but this contact help her to detect his moves.
  • (optional) Heads contact each other. Again, no pressure required, but this contact helps her to feel his lead.

The goal for him is to make her feel comfortable. She has the final word on how the embrace will be.

5) S for SMELL
This is the time to enjoy the embrace before the dance. Feel his/her perfume, his/her warm arms, his/her
firm embrace, his/her pressure, his/her steadiness, his/her trustfulness. And then fall in love for the next three minutes!

6) S for SWING
Beginning leaders may have hard time finding out what foot she is standing on (she should always be 100% in one foot).
By swinging his chest side to side, no more than a few inches (without stepping!), he will find out whether her weight
is on her left or right leg. Swing to more than 2 times.

7) S for SINK and STRETCH
Once he knows where her weight is, he will initiate a sinking-forward motion of his hips what will project his chest forward
by less than an inch. This little motion of his chest is enough for her to start stretching her legs in anticipation of his step.
She should not step before the music hits the beat. This means that his sinking motion has to happen before the beat to give
her time to stretch and step. This is very important, otherwise you both will dance off-beat (delayed).

8) S for STEP
This is the consequence of the previous move. It happens because of the sinking/stretching combined with his forward motion.
The hard part for her is to maintain her chest pressing up and forward while stretching and walking backwards.
The hard part for him is to maintain a steady chest, with steady speed that won’t send mixed signals to her.

The most standard way to step with your shoes is:

  • forward walk: heel -> arch -> toe
  • backward walk: toe -> arch -> heel

But there is no rule on how to step other than being “flexible” with you joints (foot joints, knee joint, hip joint).
Stiff joints reflect vibrations on your chest that your partner will be annoyed by.

Having said all this, the truth is that the best way to learn tango is by dancing it!
Nobody learns swimming without jumping in the pool.

In one line, the 8 “S” are:

Smile, Stance, Separation, Surround, Smell, Swing, Sink/Stretch, and Step.

C.A. Soto Aguirre©