Often times I have heard people say that Tango is the hardest dance to learn; that statement is then usually followed by a disclaimer that West Coast Swing may be just as difficult. I think your adaptation to either dance depends on how you are introduced to it, the people you do it with and what your natural inclinations are towards each activity.
Me personally, I think West Coast is sexy and Tango is sensual. Again, that depends on the person. I was at a dance last night, California mix: swing, latin and ballroom dancing, and danced close embrace to a slow song with a woman who is new to the pastime. She did pretty good and didn't melt into my arms the way some ladies do when they haven’t been hugged in a long time. I didn’t try to overwhelm her with complex movements and all we really did were basic Tango steps without the pivots.
We danced the Cha-cha-cha after that to another song and sat down. We started talking about the different types of dances. She knew I was partial to Tango and the current song everyone was dancing to was a West Coast Swing. I presented my aforementioned opinion and she disagreed saying Tango was much more sexual because we were so close.
It's not fair to compare the two dances because everyone experiences them differently. One similarity I’ve noticed between the two activities is in the pauses. There is an incredible amount of expression that goes into that moment where everything seems to stops but doesn’t really.
In Tango they say, “the passion isn’t in the rhythm......it’s in the pauses.”
The same goes for West Coast, when the action suddenly stops it can be like a firecracker exploding or a silent moment of capitulation. A pause in dancing conveys so much more meaning than a simple lack of movement, in fact, it often says much more than any motion can ever express.
When I started dancing Tango I was fortunate to find a large group of people all training with the same instructor who had returned from Buenos Aires to care for her ailing parent. She taught Tango immersion classes designed to get us up to speed in no time. It was a fortunate moment for us all. In no time we all found milongas, the name for those places where Tango is danced, to go to and never looked back. I hooked up with another group who all went to the same milongas. I found the women and the music addicting and couldn’t stop myself from going almost every every weekend.
A year later that instructor had moved on but she had planted seeds in fertile soil and we were growing like trees.
I took West Coast Swing lessons at a dance studio for a year before I got into Tango. After that year I tried going to other places to dance West Coast and failed...miserably. The only person I could do it with was my instructor. That was over ten years ago and I’ve started anew my efforts to attain proficiency. After a year and a half of learning West Coast Swing I feel safe in offering some thoughts at this time.
The biggest difference between West Coast Swing and Tango, in my opinion, is freedom. The best analogy I could give is that West Coast is like the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The lesson I gleaned from that short novel so popular in the 1970s was that if you love something you should let it go; if that something comes back to you then it is your forever. Individual freedom is contemplated throughout the book as seagulls fall in love while mastering the art of flight. Boy meets Girl, Girl dumps Boy and Jonathan searches for meaning to his heartache. To be with someone who chooses to be with you, he one day discovers, is the best outcome of any relationship and that to cling too tightly to someone is not good.
West Coast gives the couples the opportunity to express themselves to the music while revolving around each other connected simply by the fingertips. It is this amazing amount of freedom that results in glorious exultation of joy and amazing acts of flirtation.
Tango is more like the Odyssey by Homer where a man sails a sea of temptations to reach his one true love. Tango dancers do not go blindly into the unknown, they choose, rather, to sail past the sirens bound to the mast and ears free of cotton; they succumb to infatuation but still find the strength to break away and continue towards the goal.
Odysseus makes it home through his incredible ingenuity and it takes a similar kind of ingenuity to learn how to move with another person in close embrace while maintaining your own balance and without breaking the connection. There are so many mental, emotional and physical roadblocks encountered on this voyage that there is only one way to overcome them all and that is to give up your freedom.
Our hero is free to move about the world but he is bound by an oath to another that keeps him making his way homeward. He is in the world but not of it. He is a man of respect for the woman he loves but that does not keep him from experiencing the world in full, moving from one adventure to another, obstructed by his constant foe, the god of the sea. To escape from each predicament he must solve the riddle or make sense of a paradox.
Tango is full of riddles and paradoxes that must be solved by each dancer: how to give the intention of moving without moving, how to ignore primal instincts yet still exude a natural desire, to move on your own axis while sharing a point of balance with another or to choreograph a song you’ve never heard before with a person you’ve never met.
To do these things you must give yourself to your partner. You do this by sharing your thoughts, emotions and body to bind yourself to that person. To dance Tango your head must be clear for your thoughts are only of the song and your emotions arise to the surface unfettered. Your bodies cling together willfully and not by any restraint from the person within your embrace.
It is this voluntary abdication of freedom that makes Tango Tango but it can only happen if the partners do it with absolute respect for each other; it takes a commitment to a higher ideal that what you do together is art and something that must be done even if your work is only as fleeting as a footstep. Together you can solve the riddles and understand the paradoxes but only if the woman feels free to break away at anytime or to move in any direction she chooses, for the dance is all about her and the respect for her balance be it physical, mental or emotional.
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