Saturday, September 27, 2014

[Ask Helaine] How can I relax my free leg?

This question has been raised by a number of people, most recently by a tanguero in New York who's working through one of our home study programs.

He writes:

“I find it difficult to relax my free leg with every step while I’m dancing tango. Can you give me some pointers or suggestions?”

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Thanks for your question!

Some of our other home study members have also reported that they haven’t quite conquered “the relaxed free leg thing”. The absence of that critical elementary mastery can show up and interfere with learning in subsequent modules. I realize that I need to be more explicit about the “how to”.  
There’s a shortcut to relaxing the free leg that works 100% of the time.  I’ve been using it in my own dancing for years. I always make sure that my private coaching clients "get" this before we go on to anything else.

But before I tell you my shortcut, I want to make sure that everyone knows why it’s so important in tango to relax the leg you’re not standing on.

The moment we relax our free leg, our body automatically and effortlessly finds its perfect balance on our standing leg. Bingo!  Instant axis!  Effortless mastery of our axis comes from simply releasing tension in the muscles we’re not using. Ideally, there will be no superfluous effort in your tango.

So here’s the shortcut that should give you 100% success in relaxing your free leg:

You only need to relax the muscles around your hip joint, and that’s all it takes to cause the rest of your leg to relax.  

Don’t try to relax every part of your leg.  There are too many different muscles that can work independently of each other.  If we think about our body’s mechanics while dancing, it only creates an unnatural focus that makes everything we’re trying to do become awkward.  There’s the key in what I just said:  “we’re trying to do”.  

Relaxing the free leg cannot be about trying. Trying to relax all the muscles in your leg will create tension - the opposite of what we want.

All you have to do is soften the muscles around your hip joint, and your entire leg will respond, while maintaining the energy it needs to move beautifully.

Here are a few visualizations that can help:

1) Think of the muscles that surround your hip joint your hip joint as a ripening avocado. Let the muscles soften till it feels they’re at the state of a perfectly ripe avocado. 

2) Imagine sitting in a pleasantly hot bathtub or Jacuzzi.  Feel the muscles around your hip joints soften as you relax in your bath.

3) Now imagine that in the space between your hip socket and the head of your thigh bone a soft breeze passes every time you release the surrounding muscles.

Stand up and try at least one of these visualizations.

Are you able to let go of any muscle contractions around your hip joint?  If it's not easy, consider the fact that we were not brought up in North American or European cultures (nor Asian and others about which I don't know) to keep a looseness about our pelvic area. For some people, it's a loaded topic, though perhaps unconsciously so.  

But let's say you've transcended that underlying taboo.
Here's an extra credit question: 

When you release those muscles, can you also feel a sensation of pleasure?

I do!  I’m a hedonist when I dance tango!  With every step I take, regardless of my communication with my partner, I’m grabbing some private pleasure by automatically releasing all tension in the hip joint of the leg that just became free.  Ahhh . . .

The huge bonus in doing this, aside from the pleasure, is that the resulting muscle release throughout your leg automatically locks you into your infinite axis on your standing leg, so you'll feel rock solid with every step!  Your free leg will swing naturally, like a pendulum, and you'll have smooth and elegant steps.

Let us know if you tried this and how it works for you. Please add your observations or feedback, by posting in the "comments" area below this post!

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Do you have a question or a challenge in your tango that I can answer for you in our no-cost weekly program "Ask Helaine?" 

I invite you to submit your question on any tango topic today!  Just copy and paste the form below into an email to  Please use "Ask Helaine" in the subject line.

The fields with an asterisk (*) are required to be completed if you want your question to be chosen.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

[Surprise!] Fun mini-lesson in musical styles of great tango orchestras

My friend Patricia Muller, who for almost two decades has been teaching milonguero-style tango in Florence, Italy, just posted this entertaining video in a private Facebook group for us "tango dinosaurs". I couldn't wait to share it with you.

Here's the Youtube video mini-lesson, featuring pianist Mario Marzán (English sub-titles):  

I found that to be so much fun!!  

Who recognized some of the orchestras' styles, and the famous exerpts Mario played for us?  Please tell us about it in the comments section below!

When Mario played Troilo's "
variación" (variation), the speedy part, of "Quejas de Bandoneon", I automatically envisioned the feet of Maria Nieves flashing in a turbo-charged molinete around Juan Carlos Copes, in some performance 40-50 years ago! 

And speaking of "variaciónes", I loved how he played Horacio Salgán's most famous piece, "A Fuego Lento!"  In milongas, we usually don't hear music by Salgán, nor by Mariano Mores, represented here by his milonga "Taquito Militár", which you may have recognized. Salgán is more of a concert tango composer/performer, and Mores I'd call more of a show tango composer (for example, his famous "Tanguera".)  Salgán is now 98 years old, and Mores 96! 

Mario ends his video with a jazzified tango, "Lluvia de Estrellas" by pianist Osmar Maderna (1918-1951). Many of you may have never heard of Maderna.  A talented young tango musician, his career took off when he was invited to join 
Miguel Caló's orchestra around 1940. He was just in his early 20's, but I'd venture that a large part of what we recognize as absolutely "Caló" is really the orchestra with the distinctive "voice" of Maderna's piano, as important as the distinctive voices of singers Raul Beron, Alberto Podesta', and a few others. 

My only complaint about this charming and educational little video is that, for me, Mario's example doesn't do justice to Carlos Di Sarli

Let us hear your thoughts!  Please post in the comments section below.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Tango in Tight Spaces" survey results!

Last week I ran a survey for the tangueros in our Tango Mojo community, and any women who lead, to find out how people are dealing with dancing in tight spaces, crowded milongas, and "traffic jams".  People are asking for the survey results. 

We had 61 responses to Part 1, and 48 responses to Part 2.  

In this long article, I'll give you the survey results in 3 sections:

a. An "nutshell" summary of what all the tangueros communicated in Survey Part 1.  I found the results surprising!

b.  The complete, unedited report of all the tangueros responses to Survey Part 2.  Most of the responses were so unique and special that I couldn't easily group them into categories.  See if you can identify with any of them. 

c.  A few tangueras' responses for Part 1 and Part 2, which I pulled out separately, because they were not from the leaders' point of view.  However I included them in their entirety, because I thought our tangueros might want to know what's going on in some partners' minds!

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Part 1 of the survey had these 5 questions:

1. When you arrive at a milonga and see that it's very crowded, what are your thoughts?
2. How do you usually deal with dancing in tight spaces?
3. How does it affect the quality of your tanda when you have to dance in restricted space? What do you experience deep inside?
4. What about when the traffic comes to a complete stop for more than a couple of seconds?
5. Is there anything else that you'd like to say about your experience with dancing in crowded milongas, in tight spaces, and when the flow of dance is at a standstill?

We tallied the responses from tangueros by interpreting the detailed answers and dividing them into 5 categories. 
Includes one response from a female leader too.  

Here are the Part 1 survey results:

1) LOVE dancing in crowded milongas/tight spaces and feel competent: 7 

2) Happy to dance in crowded milongas/tight spaces, coping very well, perhaps with a little compromise:  18

3) Are developing coping mechanisms, have a positive attitude, getting better at it:  

4) Experience more discomfort than pleasure, often with high stress and/or anxiety: 24  

5) Dance a lot, but no experience yet in crowded milongas: 2

Tangueras responses: 3 (Posted in full, at the bottom of this post, with other tanguera responses.)

Total responses - 61

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Part 2 of the survey was just one more question.  48 people responded.  

We tried to tally up the responses and put them into categories, as we did above, but in this cases the responses were too unique and special!  

So here they are in full, below the survey question.  We did not edit any of the responses, which come from countries around the world!  (I even translated one response from Russia, using my high school/college Russian, and checking only a few words with a dictionary.  So proud of myself.)

How would you answer the question?  You can type your response in the comments section below this article!

Single question from Part 2 of the survey:
If you could wave a magic wand and in an instant be dancing in tight spaces joyfully and to your complete satisfaction, what would that look like? What would change from the way you're dancing now?

Men's responses (plus one female leader):

  • I would feel more confident
  • No couple would bump into me, no one would lead dangerous boleos around my partner . I would like to have a wider repertoire of moves.
  • Continuous movement
  • It would look like the couple dancing on the table.
  • The intensity would increase. The senses would be more enlivened and every breath every heartbeat would count.
  • Nothing will change in the way I dance.
  • To effect turns more compactly and comfortable to my partner
  • The space would be all mine, with no intrusions from other dancers from the front or the rear.
  • More confident and relaxed and also focusing more in the partner
  • When there are some couples near me I'm induced to move at the same speed and, sometimes , with the same grade of agitation (as molecules in a gas). I'd have to do an effort to calm myself and my way to traslate music in movement.
  • I'd have a larger selection of steps for small spaces, better balance, better musicality and greater confidence(the things I said would lead to that probably).
  • Sure, you could turn me into Ricardo Vidort, that would work for a start. What would change? Oh, everything, of course. I was watching the video (believe you posted it) of a milonga in B.A. where the camera lingers on Javier Rodriguez and Geraldine Rojas. OK, they're professionals, but I'd sure like to move like he does when he leads those turns. Amazing stability, balance, and intention - and smooth as silk .
  • It would look just like Ricardo Viqueira dancing on the table (that cute Japanese "Fish" included please) or just like Murat dancing in this tiny space in the middle of students crowding him. All the corridas with long strides, I love, would have to go.
  • It takes two to tango and it would mean dancing with a very advanced woman... and it would look something like the table top demo that you showed... only I wouldn 't want to do it for more than one song..what would change would be to find women as interested and invested in the dance as I am.
  • I come from a ballroom (big movements in lots of space), then Latin (less space), then Salsa (tighter space especially Cuban style), and lastly Argentine Tango but not in tight spaces. One wish from the magic wand would be to still move "big" but gracefully amongst the other dancers - anticipatory floorcraft. The other wish would be to radiate a protective shield around the two of us in which the woman feels particularly safe. 
  • Joyful, playful tiny steps and turns that are clearly lead and easy to follow as well as an embrace that can dance with musical breathing
  • I'd look like I wasn't dancing in a small space and trying to take small steps and make small movements.
  • A) That the crowd around me really want to dance with me and everybody else on the dance floor, flowing together with very elastic movements. B) (Maybe I misunderstand your question) I have only been dancing for 18 years. I believe I'm walking in the right direction (pun intended), but honing, honing, honing is still the agenda . Fortunately we both (my dance partner & I) enjoy the journey immensely :)
  • Controlled and elegant
  • Do not have a clue.
  • I'd own a milonguero's walk. Within a soft and communicative embrace and out of my sense of purpose and intentionality, she would commit fully to one weighted foot and extend instantly and in direct proportion to the size of my clear but patient downward mark. I'd nail my departing heel to the floor until physics demanded release . My right shoulder would not sag and my collar bones would tug upward on my floating ribs. I'd neither hunch over nor project my head forward. I'd know the music sufficiently well to anticipate major/minor transitions and temporal variation. I'd suppress the urge to speak with posture-embrace-musicality mantra.
  • It would look SMOOTH. Doesn't really matter what I was doing, just as long I didn't stop and start again. The music doesn't reset, so why should I?... if it looked and felt smooth as I changed direction in moving toward a free spot or away from a bottle-neck, then I would be happy!
  • It will probably be , not as busy , simplified , more pauses , accenting more the tension and relase .
  • Well, it depends on how well the floor is moving...if it's still moving forwards but at a slower speed then I need a way to handle the pressure from dancers arriving from upstream (this is important to me because a couple of particularly perceptive followers have said I feel more tense when I get pressured like that, and I don 't think it's right that I should be transmitting that feeling to them; so I think I either need to relax my attitude to the upstream dancers, or else develop some way of flagging to them that they'll have to wait until the floor clears ahead of me). On the other hand, if the floor is stationary, then I will be inviting a lot of small movements that don't generate persistent forwards motion - when this happens, I know that I quickly exhaust my repertoire, so I would like to develop a wider variety of small moves - eg, different variations of the ocho cortada, so it doesn't feel like I'm repeating myself.
  • I consider myself an advanced beginner to beginning intermediate dancer. Therefore , what I need most is just more dance time. Where I live we have a small group of dedicated tango dancers. I have to travel over 200 miles in order to dance at larger milongas. When I have it has been fine, I just simplify my dance to fit the space. Everyone else seems to be doing the same. I try to pick my spot to lead a nice Giro or do sacadas. Generally it goes well, but I still need more dance time with different partners.
  • Would involve very small steps or maybe no steps, only leading with the frame. More flamboyant moves like boleos and ganchos would be out, indeed impossible. Ochos and giros would predominate but even the turning involved in these could prove difficult in a restricted space.
  • I would be more musical, have more variety in my small space dancing, and be better at maintaining the line of dance.
  • Absorbed in the music and each other in close embrace, we move together but without dramatic figures, feeling each pulse of the music in our bodies uniquely and without boring repetition -- playfully and sensually.
  • I would move effortlessly with my partner with rhythm, variety, confidence, playfulness without having to think too much about stepping on feet, bumping knees etc.
  • Not a whole bunch. Smaller steps, concentration on the Angles instead of down the line. And through her axis not around it.
  • (Translated from Russian:)  I didn't understand the question.  I think that it's good to dance in a confined space. That's mastery.  
  • the difference is that now i am sometimes too focused and anxious what to do and most of the times i am repeating me and sometimes this leads to losing the flow ,,, if i were so confident to tango in tight space my mind would be concetrated to the music and to my partner
  • Imagnie the couple dancing on a table. Followers tell that it feels very nice to walk together and they dont like to be at the same spot for too long!
  • want to let go of control and thus experience to forget time and place
  • I would be confident that my partner enjoys the dance even with lot of pauses and small moves.
  • I would move without worry that I will hit on someone.
  • wld b more cofident tht I wont hit or b hit by accident on z dancefloor ...
  • A place where everybody cares about the other dancers, be polite, where the ronda is fluent and tangueras and tangueros happy to be together, in a tight embrace, it is no more important that there is large or narrow space. It is the tango paradise :)
  • My embrace, both close and more importantly the standard one. Leading with my shoulders I could do all the figures around my and follower's axes.
  • I am trained to dance in tight spaces (and I already saw that Ricardo Viqueira video ) but fluidity is still an issue.
  • I would be feeling relaxed n confident, moving comfortably, not stepping on my partner 's feet or knocking into another couple or being stuck in a corner trying to get out or dancing only small repetative steps with my partner feeling bored or feeling my muscles tensed up and my chest slouching!
  • I would know how to take steps of satisfying length, link them together rhythmicly and still not go anywhere.
  • The ability to dance using very small steps while almost stationary without looing the rhythm.

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A few women's responses 

- to Survey Part 2.  We thought you'd be curious:
  • I will be relaxt and enjoyed tha dance, be more concentratet on my partner and the magic of tango and not totaaly stresssed
  • I have been dancing for 15 years and my teachers are and were performers at Cirque De Soleil in Las Vegas, I took 7 years of lessons 3 times a week, plus Saturday Milongas and sometimes Sundays. If I had my magic wand I would make everybody collect their feet on every step. I am always improving and everyday I can do something better.
  • I would be dancing with my partner and enjoying each other. What would change I would have the mobility to move freely back wards forward,step by step, feel the strong connection being in tune with each other dancing, feel more passion with each other, feel the connection in the embrace, pivot,comes natural, enjoying the beautiful,touching feeling dance together with my partner as we dance.
  • When I dance tango at a very crowded milonga, I appreciate the leader leads me save and with great creativity, and the leader looks positive at the dance floor as a big organism and finds the small places with entusiasm - it feels like magic - and I don't need a magic wand :-)

- to Survey Part 1 (questions at top of post):

"I just dance with my partner on the outer side it is comfortable and we dance with ease,it feels great our connection.","It doesn't bother me or my dancing partner.","A feeling of Joy, I feel the love connection, it is a beautiful feeling with my partner.","We stop and talk with each other.","Very peaceful within us!"

"great!","I keep my feet on the floor for boleos and everything else and try to prevent my partner from bashing into someone if I can see it's about to happen.","a little frustration at not being able to ake big steps","I hope my partner is good enough to lead in in minimal movement steps."

"I think I have to bring more curage to come to crowded places and dance, and not stay away. Its a difficult one but the only way to learn.i do get frustrated by leaders hoe do back steps and ladys doing high kicks....."

"I look after a nice place to sid near the dance floor. Not to far away. I some times must overcome a feeling of 'drowning' in the big ocean of tango dancers. ","I find it okay, if the other dancers respect the rules at the dance floor. If some of the other dancers are bumping into me in a regular time, I some times decide going home again or find a more quite milonga. I do not like if a couple take a lot of space, and all the others must be ware of them. Fx if the woman do high boleros even if there is a risk of kicking other couples. ","I find it like a great challenge to do some nice small steps and get a nice feeling with my partner. To have a feeling, that the leader takes good care of me, even if there is a little space. If there is a nice flow at the dance floor, it doesn't matter how crowded the milonga is.","It's okay to make some small turning around ore some rebounds. I find it nice if the leader is creative and get the best out of the situation. If the leader gets irritated, it afects me in a  negative way, and I loose my energi and concentration.","When I get a feeling from the leader, that it dosn't matter, how many 'problems', there are at the dance floor, because he likes dancing with me and takes responsebility for, we have a good time in the tanda."

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Did you get through it all?  How would you have responded?  Which "tight spaces" category would you be in right now? Did you identify with anyone's comments?  Please comment in the area below!!

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Dancing tango in tight spaces

[Thank you so much for your participation in Part 2 of the "Tango in tight spaces" survey!"  The provocative question I want you to ponder is four paragraphs below the video in red."]

Blog Visitors, if you want to take Part 1 of this brief survey CLICK HERE]

This intriguing video, sent to me by Carlos, a tanguero in Canada, is from the 2011 tango festival in Seoul, Korea.  In it we see Ricardo Viqueira and "Fish" dancing to "Pocas Palabras" by the orchestra of Ricardo Tanturi with Alberto Castillo singing.  

They’re dancing on a small table!  

What is the value to you of this performance beyond it's being an entertaining stunt?

You probably don't need me to connect the dots, but just in case someone wants clarification:

If you could confidently dance a whole tango in the surface area of a small table and totally have fun with it, imagine how you could dance in crowded milongas! 

Now, if you did the survey and are watching this video for the second or third time or more, please answer this question for yourself, and below in the comments area:
Are Ricardo and Fish dancing with only "very small" or "tiny" steps?  Do you see how you have options for moderate-sized movements even when restricted to 80 cm/2.5 feet (the  short side of the table)?

Please watch, and tangueros, think about whether this is a skill you'd like to have . . . and soon!   It's not so much about the table, but about dancing freely and joyfully in very restricted spaces!

(In a few days I will be giving you information that can help you do exactly that.  Email my team at if you want to make sure you receive it!)

CLICK HERE to take Part 1 of my brief survey about your own experience of dancing in tight spaces. (5 questions.)

Please comment below about your own experience with dancing in crowded milongas. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The musical "trigger" that does NOT mean "go!" (musicality lesson with audio example)

In Saturday's post, "The magical 7th beat - and the real reason you rush!" I revealed that in a normal 8-count phrase of tango, the 7th beat is often the last beat of rhythm that the bassist plays in the phrase

When he then takes his hand off the strings, he creates a pause!  That is, he gives the orchestra and YOU, the dancer, the counts of "and-EIGHT-and" to rest.

But many of you don't realize that the phrase hasn't yet ended, and that there's a whole 1.5 beats left after "SEVEN", the last rhythmic note! 

If you don't realize it, it's because the "and-EIGHT-and", while empty of rhythmic sound, is not silent.  It's usually loaded with something else that's melodic and interesting.  

And that "something else" is what so many of you are responding to.  

When you hear something new starting, you feel the urge to move! (Very many of you are doing this, tangueros and tangueras alike.)  

This is exactly where we find the "trigger" that makes you rush!  

Whenever the bassist gives the orchestra a pause, one or more of the melodic instruments usually take the opportunity to do one of three things:

1) They may embellish - like when the violins do a flourish, or the piano plays a melodic "plink-plink-plink". Melodic embellishments decorate the end of the phrase, and sometimes the middle of the phrase, adding artistry and expression to the tango being played. 

2) They may play an accent - just a single strike or two of a piano key.

3) And they may use the pause to introduce the next phrase!!

BINGO!!  Number 3 is your trigger!  

It's a melodic introduction to the next phrase, but it happens at the end of the current phrase.  The phrase you've been in hasn't ended, yet you hear a new musical theme beginning. And that makes many of you want to "GO!"  

In fact, that trigger to "go!" gives many of you anxiety, because you're afraid you'll miss the beginning of the new phrase . . . and look like you don't know what you're doing!  Well after this lesson, you WILL know what you are doing.

So when you hear the trigger of the melodic instruments introducing a new phrase during the pause at the end of the phrase you're in, what should you do? 

Your job as interpreter of the music is to stay where you are and complete the phrase with your axis still, enjoying your possibilities within the pause.  (In my next post, I'll talk about those possibilities.)

The bottom line for your dancing is that by learning to recognize and respect those 1.5 second pauses, staying calmly in your axis with your free leg relaxed, and being present with your partner, you start to become a dream to dance with.

* * * * *

Now I'll show you some examples of the melodic introduction of a new phrase during the rhythm-less 1.5 seconds after the 7th beat.  We'll look at a tango that everyone knows well, "Al Compas del Corazon", by Miguel Caló with Raul Beron. 

"The trigger" - that is, melodically introducing a new phrase in the pause after "SEVEN" of the previous phrase - happens in 9 phrases of this tango!  The introductions are sometimes played by the violins, sometimes by the piano, sometimes by the whole orchestra and sometimes by the singer. 

So there are 9 points at which you might otherwise rush, by anticipating the new phrase!  I'll show you two of them right now.

Please play this Youtube recording of "Al Compas .  . ." so you can follow along with my description below:

Preliminary note:  At the end of the first phrase, at around 0:8 seconds, violins introduce the next phrase, but the bass plays rhythm all the way through "EIGHT-and", so you'd be driven to keep walking or stepping. And you'd be accurate and correct.

Now for the two example triggers: 

Example AThe second phrase starts at 0:9. Here the bassist plays "ONE-and" through "SEVEN".  At 0:15 there's a deep piano accent on the " 'and'-after-the-'SEVEN' ", followed by the whole orchestra's introducing the next phrase on "EIGHT-and". The new phrase begins at 0:17, when it's time for you to "go".

That means that for 1.5 seconds, from about mid-0:15 (deep piano accent) through 0:16, you are still!  STILL!  You're not traveling in any step, until the "ONE" of the next phrase, which you'll hear at 0:17 seconds.

Will you take a moment now and go through the second phrase of this tango, from 0:9 - 0:16 seconds, and make sure my description makes sense to you?  If this is new for you, you may have to listen to the phrase and review my notes a few times.

About that moment of stillness at 0:15 - 0:16, during which you make no steps on the "and-EIGHT-and":  Saturday I said that you don't have to "stand there like an idiot" while there's music going on.  

Do you have any ideas about what you could be doing instead, during the 1.5 second pause? Make a note of your ideas. I'll make some suggestions in my next post. 

Here's Example B - It's a solo violin introducing the next phrase, and it's the only one in this tango using the entire "and-EIGHT-and".

This passage occurs at about 2:08 in the recording, in the first phrase the orchestra plays when Beron stops singing. For the next seven counts the bassist rhythmically accompanies the orchestra as it repeats the main theme, but in a new key. 

Then, at 2:16 (on "SEVEN"), the bassist plays his last beat of the phrase, then disappears, as a single violin enters to melodically introduce the next phrase during the "and-EIGHT-and" pause!  This is really a classic formula that you'll find in many tangos.  (The violin solo continues for the whole next phrase, but you can dance on that because there's bass rhythm accompanying the violin through "SEVEN". We're just concerned right now with the pause at the end of the preceding phrase.)

So for the second half-second of 2:16 ("and-"), and all of 2:17 ("EIGHT-and"), be still and don't go anywhere!  

If you're traveling on those first notes of the violin solo, before the bassist comes back in on 2:18, you are rushing!

When that solo violin starts playing, you're still in the same phrase!  There's a rhythmic silence, so stay where you are. No steps, no figures for that 1.5 seconds.  

But that doesn't mean "stop dancing".  On the contrary.  These silences in your dancing can be the key to your greatest moments of connection, communication, and even seduction in your tango!  

And that will be the subject of my next post.  I'll also have another audio example for you.

* * * * 
Did you jot down some thoughts about what you could be doing in the 1.5-second pause when the bass disappears after the 7th beat?  Please leave your ideas, or tell us what you already do, in the comment section below!