This page and the other website pages referred to below, have been prepared for Argentine tango dancers who may be interested in ideas about how to dance tango more musically.

The four accompanying website pages provide brief visual / audio / visual profiles of a small number of the most basic rhythms of tango (3), vals (3), milonga (2) and chacarera (3), as well as brief profiles of a number of more complex rhythms.

Of the rhythms profiled, by far the most important is the “compás” rhythm (i.e. the navigation rhythm or underlying pulse) of each tango, vals and milonga. In social dancing at milongas around the world, it is apparent that milongueros dance more to the compás than to any other rhythm. Dancing to the compás is (nearly) always musical; no matter what rhythms are overlaying the compás. Being able to recognise and dance to the compás with precision by a tango dancer, is an essential first step towards being able to master more complex rhythms, to dance in sync with both other dancers and the music being danced to, and to dance more musically.


There are simple dance exercise patterns that can be used to test (or self-test) whether a dancer can step consistently to the compás with precision. These can also be used by dancers to practice dancing to the compás or to more complex rhythms.

The simplest of these is to take three steps forward in time with the first three compás beats of a phrase of music, close the feet together on the fourth count, then (without pausing) repeat this series of steps throughout an entire track of music. If the music adopted has the standard four, eight or 16 count phrases, verses, choruses and other sections throughout, then a dancer (who is stepping in time with the compás starting from the first count of a phrase) will always land subsequent first forward steps to match the first counts of each subsequent section of music.

This simple pattern can be expanded by incorporating sidesteps and backsteps to result in a variety of box-pattern structures.

As an example, the leader takes four steps forward, then a side step, a close step with weight change, a side step, a close step with no weight change, then (without missing a beat) the partner takes over as leader to lead the same eight steps in reverse and thereby return to the starting position of the box to repeat the full cycle. Ideally the hold should be palms-to-palms with (just) enough connection so that a credit card or piece of paper would not fall to the floor. The first step should land precisely on the first count of a musical phrase, and communication of the intention to take each step should occur ahead of each count.

This pattern has the extra benefits of enabling both partners to test and improve their understanding of how to:

  1. Communicate leader intentions (and follower acknowledgements) to move forward and sideways through softening of the knee of the standing leg with a change in weight balance to either ball of foot (for forward or backward steps) or evenly across ball and heel of foot (for sidesteps)
  2. Maintain balance and a consistent connection
  3. Lead and follow forward, backward and side steps
  4. Match the timing of movements and weight changes with the music and with each other

The box pattern described is also useful for an individual to practice and self-test stepping to the compás (without all the peripheral benefits). A partner isn’t essential to use the pattern for timing practice or to test timing.

Ideally, these base exercises should be able to be executed consistently with precision, before a dancer takes on more challenging steps and rhythms; such as to incorporate stepping to the compás for some phrases and stepping to either the half-time or double-time rhythm for other phrases, or to refine the exercises (on-the-fly) for music with non-standard structures.

On-going ideas for improving musicality

From the base that the preceding exercises provide, other progressions towards more musical dancing include:

  • Carrying out the exercises in normal open or closed embraces
  • Incorporating known pre-learnt “lick” sequences (e.g. “the basic”, ochos, giros, etc) within four or eight count blocks
  • Incorporating improvised steps within four or eight count blocks
  • Recognising and improving understanding of music phrases – beginnings, endings, fermatas, cadences, chords, orchestration, harmonies, counter-melodies, etc
  • Executing movements to match changes in rhythms (e.g. half-time, double-time, off-beat, habanera, duplets and triplets, syncopations, etc) as and when they occur in the music
  • Recognising and dancing appropriately to the rhythms generated by different instruments and orquesta members, including the rhythms of melodies
  • Applying smooth movements to legato music and crisp movements to staccato music
  • Adopting different movements and patterns (e.g. large or small, linear or circular, fast or slow, etc) as appropriate for different music
  • Varying dance timing to temporarily move ahead of, behind or away from the beat before (always) returning
  • Listening to more tango music and in greater depth to improve understanding of musical nuances of different music
  • Analysing selected audio or video clips of music to better understand it and to consider movements that could be made to it
  • Viewing live dancing or reviewing videos to ascertain how other dancers have executed musical movements to interesting musical phrases or accents

In the preparation of this webpage I have drawn on my background of over five decades as a professional musician, composer and arranger, as well as content presented in the publications and in workshops and one-on-one lessons with the tango maestros listed below.
Stu Johnstone
October 2018

Tango Therapist – Reflections on the powerfully therapeutic – “Three M’s” of Argentine Tango: Music, Movement and eMbrace – Musicality Workshop: Triplets – August 21, 2011 

Tracing Tangueros: Argentine Tango Instrumental Music by By Kacey Link, Kristin Wendland

Maestros –
Joaquín Amenábar
Virginia Gomez & Christian Marquez
Murat Erdemsel & Michelle Lamb
Murat Erdemsel & Sigrid Van Tilbeurgh
Guillermo Barrionuevo & Mariela Sametband
Lorena Ermocida & Pancho Martinez Pey
Lautaro Cappella & Paula Pandol
Ariadna Naveira & Fernando Sanchez
Homer & Cristina Ladas
Felipe Slimobich