In this interview with RO of Last Third Best Third, famous Tango dancer Polly McBride discusses “What is a true Tanguera (also known as a true Milonguera)?” Click on the video above to watch the control and strength of the Tanguera unfold before your very eyes. Read the below transcript of Polly’s passionate portraiture, describing the true nature of the Tanguera, the female partner in the Argentine Tango.
How to Become a True Tanguera? Ask Polly McBride
“So we’re talking about becoming a Tanguera or a Milonguera. The term is interchangeable and it refers to women who go beyond learning the dance. It’s a more complex process. A Tanguera considers Tango, the dance, just a part of what Tango is and she also considers the social, emotional, historical, technical, cultural, artistic and other aspects of Tango as being the complete picture, that involves way more than just learning steps. We’re following, we’re learning more about the music and so forth.
And it’s a process that takes place over time. It’s not something that happens right away and it’s not something people necessarily even set out to be. It just occurs for some people and not for others. It depends on how involved they become and how passionate they are; how much dedication they put into learning about all of the aspects that are part of the whole thing. For most beginning followers, when they enter Tango, they take classes, they attend practicas, they go to Milongas. They may travel. If they do group classes, private lessons, and all of those things, and they have excellent instruction, within three to four, but usually five years, they would be probably qualified as an intermediate-level dancer.
But that takes way more than what it seems like it’s gonna take when it starts out, because it can seem very easy. And it’s very deceiving because there’s so much detail and so many things involved other than learning the steps or socializing or the really fun parts. And then, depending on the passion and intensity that people approach the dance, and how many of the different parts you start to become involved in – the music, the orchestras, the vintage dancers, the older milongueros – all of those aspects are a portion of what makes the dance so full, rather than just steps and being on the floor.
A True Tanguera Considers These Aspects of Tango…
The Difference Between a Dancer and a Tanguera
So the difference between a dancer and a Tanguera is compared to the difference between being a cook and a chef. With being a Chef, that takes more extensive experience, advanced training, life-acquired incidental knowledge, and significant investments of time, financing and dedication. So when you think of a cook who knows maybe a lot about a few things, but a Chef knows a lot about a lot of things, and is much more prepared and understands, not just how to put things together, but why they’re put together in certain ways, and so forth. That is kind of the difference of really understanding Tango, and dancing Tango.
One of the significant elements of Tango etiquette, and of a Tanguera’s life, is the Cabaceo. The cabaceo is a communication between two people who connect with their eyes. One person invites by looking at a woman, and she accepts by returning the look, or not. It’s a very subtle thing between the two of them. No one else is involved. The purposes he knows and she knows, that she’s giving her permission for him to approach her without actually approaching her without her permission. That’s just not done. She can accept or refuse just by looking away, or something very subtle that no one else knows about. It’s between the two of them. It’s very private, and yet when they do connect, and she does return his glance, they know immediately. They have a contract, and a little relationship that they’re going to enjoy on the floor together.
Oftentimes women enter Tango and get hooked on learning steps. It’s very fun. It’s very tempting. And it is part of the dance. It’s a wonderful part of the dance and the whole world of Tango. But, in that they often miss some of the basic elements that are really requirements that enable them to move beyond just dancing. That doesn’t diminish just dancing. That’s a wonderful part of it. But it is a part of it, but not the whole thing. The showy part of it – the showy steps, the fancy steps – is also a very important part of it, but it’s not the underlying basic essentials that make those steps work.
One skill that ranks above all the others, except one other, is learning how to move from our axis instead of moving from our arms, our legs, our shoulders, our hands. In order to make things work, we, without proper training, tend to use those things because it’s easy, it’s logical, and we use them in all other aspects of life. What is not understood, until there’s training, is that in order to communicate with our partner, we send and receive information, and that information – if we use a hand, that’s very very little information you can get and receive, or send. But when you send information and receive through your center, your core, your whole body is sending energy and receiving energy, and that’s what makes the dynamics of the dance and the connection really just flow. It becomes almost effortless when that is in place, and that is working.
How Polly McBride Became a True Tanguera
I had been dancing for about five years in 1996 and a wonderful maestra, named Graciela Gonzalez, gave a weekend workshop in Portland. She spent one entire session on teaching us how to build, and sustain, and dance with and from our axis. When I had first heard that word axis, I thought, “I have an axis?” “Where is it?” I’d never seen it. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t even know where to look. So she spent the entire session, and she demonstrated how she establishes her axis by having each of us stand, one at a time, behind her. Then she had us put our arms around her, and she inhaled, and as she did that we could feel her whole torso and ribcage lifting. Then she relaxed, and we could feel it relax. Then she had us try it. It was a really weird, very challenging experience. She also had us do an exercise where we had used our arms, and bringing our arms up slowly, about 3/4 of the way, I began to feel what happens to your ribcage. It’s lifted. Then, she said, “Okay, now keep your ribcage up and bring your arms down.” Oh my!
So, we tried, did our little feeble efforts, and she kept having us repeat that until we could do it every time. It was hard. It was a really different experience. But for the first time I felt like I was in control. I felt exactly what she meant by core, and center, and control. I thought I’d been dancing Tango for five years. What I realized was that I was moving, or I was invited to move, I was staying upright, but I wasn’t connecting either with my own body or with my partners, without this strong support system. And when there were times now and then that they’d say, “Thank you,” after the first dance. And so I thought, “Oh, well, they just want to dance with as many people as they can while they’re here.” And then, after the training and enough experience, I realized, and I looked back at why they had said “thank you” after one dance. I also realized that retroactive embarrassment has no expiration date. It was, “Wo! That’s embarrassing.”
“Retroactive embarrassment has no expiration date,” Polly Muses
So from then on, when I started teaching, I’ve used that technique in every single class; taught it to every single woman that I can who’ll stay long enough to listen to me: if you don’t have that, you’re not dancing Tango.
What Is the Other Technique to Becoming a True Milonguera?
The other technique that is just absolutely essential, is: doing nothing between weight changes.
When a leader puts us on one foot or the other, after a weight change, we are to idle, not even think about where it’s gonna move, where he might lead us, or take us. Let him – or her, depending on who’s leading – lead rather than anticipating. If you’re a leader, which I have some experience with, not a lot, but I know – I’ve talked to leaders for 27 years. They hate being led and dislike the follower to anticipate, almost as much, if not more, than backseat driving. Because, they cannot lead with the follower anticipating and trying to figure out where she is supposed to go.
So that was another case of watching women who are considered excellent dancers just flow and how they melded, it seemed, with their partners. How do they do that? There’s just no hesitation, no second-guessing. They just go with it.
Finally, probably totally by accident, I did it without realizing, even though I’d been told thousands of times, by different instructors, “Don’t move.” “Don’t try to change anything.” “Don’t think.” “Just respond.” It still is very very hard to do. Until I finally caught on and stayed solid from where I was put, and then it just cleared everything up.
The Mature Tanguera
So those two things between controlling and lifting and moving from our center, and waiting with no anticipation, those two things make the difference between a loosey-goosey, so-so dancer, and the possibility of ever becoming a mature Tanguera. Because that’s so essential to creating a dance that’s above the steps. It’s a dance that is the interaction that I personally did. I know people who are crazy about Tango as I am, it’s the only dance that gives you that kind. There may be others, but nothing like that because of that conversation.
Beyond Anything You Could Have Imagined
Another aspect of becoming a tanguera is recognizing the importance of preparing to take each step. This is something I’d never thought about and it’s also very critical as far as the dynamics that a follower brings to the dance: her personality, her experience. But there’s also that x-factor and the interactions and what she contributes through her personal style – her interpretation of what she’s feeling from her leader, and her own dynamics.
One year at Nora’s Tango Week, Oscar Mandagaran taught us the difference between taking a step and taking a step as if we had prepared to take that step.
So it wasn’t just a response we had. It was actually a conscious decision about making that step. So in class, he invited a student to join him in the center, and they joined the embrace, and he paused for a moment. Then he led a large side step, which is very typical for an opening Salida. When they completed the step, he let go of the embrace, stepped back from her and said, “When did you prepare to take that step I just led?” She said, “Well just now when you led it.” He said, “No. You started preparing to take that step when you were standing in front of the mirror combing your hair, putting your makeup on, deciding what to wear and get dressed. And that’s when you were preparing to take that step that I just led. You prepare to dance way before you get to the floor. I’m going to start again, and this time I want you to put the same kind of energy and enthusiasm in that step that you were thinking about when you were getting ready to come and to dance.”
And it was amazing. You could see her. She just gave all of herself to him. Rather than following she was contributing, and matching his energy. It was beautiful. Just that one step.
There’s a professional couple that have taught all over the world and so forth. When they were talking at Nora’s Tango Week, and we were talking about how they met, how they got connected and so forth. And she said, “The first time I danced with him, the first step he took, that was it. I knew we had a connection that was gonna be beyond anything either one of us had considered.”
So how do men respond after dancing with a true Tanguera?
Some are speechless. They’ve never had an experience like that. Some say they’ve never had a partner who seemed to read their mind. Many say their perception of what following can be is forever changed.
So I say to women, learn to control your axis. Learn to wait. Learn to contribute.
And, you’ll have Tango above and beyond anything you could have imagined.”
Thank you, Polly McBride!
Special thanks also goes out to:
Tango teachers Glykeria Mannis and Nat Willing;
The Alex Krebs Sextet
Si Soy Asi
Romance de Barrio
Ella Es Asi
La Ultima Curda