32 Spanish Dance Terms You Ought to Tango With
Just getting into tango or other Latin dances?
Perhaps you are still skeptical—or doubting your ability to learn Spanish language and dance.
No matter where you are at, you can harness any interest in dance (whether you will be doing the moves yourself or watching others) to learn quite a bit of Spanish.
Understanding the Spanish terms used in dance is not just great for motivating your language learning or being able to chat locals up on a Porteño dance floor.
The terms used to describe posture and steps often over very significant clues as to how they should be visualized and performed. For example, understanding what gancho and sacada (numbers 13 and 14 below) describe in the Spanish language can actually help you get a mental or physiological “image” that carries over into performing the steps better.
In this post I am focusing on terms from tango, but you will find these quite useful for other dances. Most closely, there’s tango’s funkier Brazilian cousin, samba de gafieira, wherein you will find nearly all of these terms (or similar, lusophonized variants). And if you do other serious ballroom dance classes in Spanish you will certainly hear terms like eje (see number 11). There is even a bit of overlap with vocabulary from dances that I have previously covered on this blog: salsa and bachata.
For those who are clumsy, timid or disgusted by touching other humans, but who still want to learn a bit of Spanish from music, I will cover listening to tango and analyzing the lyrics in the last section of this post.
Tips for Learning Spanish with Tango
The obvious impulse for tango nuts is to book a flight to Buenos Aires, and it is indeed one of the world’s greatest cities—smart, cutthroat, fascinating people, great nightlife and fantastic theater and music scenes. Language schools there cater to tango aficionados as well, with combined tango and Spanish programs, although what they are really offering is usually just a referral to a dance school that they have partnered with.
I would recommend just going to Buenos Aires without booking a particular class in advance, and trying out different dance schools in person before committing to a full class. Quality can vary quite a bit, and you want to find a teacher who knows not just how to dance well, but also how to teach in a way that you respond to. There are plenty of options, and when you go there you can find the best one in your neighborhood and the one that best fits with your schedule and style of learning.
If you can’t hop on a plane, you can always look for dance and language lessons in your local area. One cool option that blends the two lesson types is Wyzant, where you can search for local tutors of all kinds in your region. You can go there to immediately search and filter tutors by rates, availability, distance from you and more. You can look at a tutor’s profile and get an extensive idea of their experience and their schedule before even contacting them! If you live in a major city, there’s a good chance you can find a Spanish tutor with dance experience, or a dance tutor with Spanish experience. Click here to see who's close to home.
As for language learning, online classes tend to be a better value than language schools, even if you are already living in Buenos Aires. You can do classes over Skype after your siesta and then go out and lose yourself in milongas and Porteño life; if you do all this, you will advance in your Spanish at lightning speed.
Arguably the best option for finding online Spanish classes is Verbling. Skip over to Verbling, and you can browse hundreds upon hundreds of language teachers from all around the world. It makes the whole process of searching for and finding an online language tutor super easy and comfortable. You can search by language, availability, rates or even specific words of your choosing! Verbling even offers their own video technology, so you can have your lessons right on their site. In addition to the live, one-on-one video lessons you can take with native teachers, you can also learn foreign languages via group classes streamed live—maybe you can ask the teacher to do a sweet tango move for you during class!
32 Tango Terms in Spanish for Dance, Melancholy and Passion
The following video contains 50 basic steps from tango, some with translations in English. (Note that these teachers’ pronunciation of Spanish is not so perfect, but the step demonstrations are excellent.) These are steps that you have probably learned if you have taken tango classes (or will learn once you do), but you may not have realized what the words really mean.
Below I will discuss not how to do the steps (you have videos and dance classes for that) but rather some of the most often heard words used to describe tango dance steps, postures and more, as well as how these words can be incorporated into your vocabulary and used in other situations in Spanish.
In the step descriptions I assume traditional gender roles as in the video (male lead, female follower) for simplicity, but see the later section on queer tango for even more fun.
Tango step vocabulary
1. paso — A paso is a step, so paso básico is a basic step. You will also hear the verb form pasar (to pass, to cross) in tango, as in pasar de un lado al otro (to cross from one side to the other).
2. figura — When things start to get more complicated, you will move on from pasos to figuras (sequences).
3. salida — You have seen this word on Spanish exit signs; it is also your “way out” in a tango step.
4. ocho adelante — The basic ocho adelante literally means eight forward (and the woman designs a figure-eight moving forward); you can also have an ocho atrás (backwards figure-eight).
5. cortado — Off the dance floor, you are most likely to hear this word in a café. Literally, it is the participle “cut” or “cut off,” but it is used to order an espresso that has been “cut” with a bit of milk. In tango, it refers to a step, like the ocho, being cut off.
6. calesita — The “carousel” (both the Spanish and English are misspelled in the video) is when the man (or whoever is leading) takes a backwards walk around the woman while holding her, allowing her to turn like a carousel. Getting the step right, for the man, is all about understanding the woman’s eje (see number 11).
7. parada — A parada is a stop. You can use this word for a bus stop or taxi stand, and for the general idea of stopping. In tango, the lead stops the follower by catching her foot.
8. paso cruzado — This is a crossed step. The verb cruzar means to cross in many of the same ways as in English. Cruzar la calle is to cross the street and cruzar miradas means to exchange looks.
9. castigada — Do not actually punish your lovely lady with a kick in the leg! Her response in this step does look/feel just a bit like a reflex from being “punished,” however, which is the actual meaning of this word. Men can of course be castigados as well, just not in tango, unless they take an accidental shin-slashing from a sharp heel.
10. giro — This is a “turn,” and there are lots of variants. Outside of dancing, any change in direction, geographically, ideologically or emotionally is a giro, as is a turn of phrase or piece of slang. “Es un giro que significa…” is a phrase you might hear when someone is about to explain an expression that you have not understood.
11. eje — If I can recommend learning just one word before departing on a first tango trip to Buenos Aires, it would be this one. Un eje is an axis. Teachers talk constantly about how you need to maintain it (mantener el eje). Outside of dancing, you will hear the word in geometry, of course, but also to describe the main idea: El eje del discurso (the main idea or theme of the lecture).
12. variantes — Every paso has its variantes (variations), and this word also means pickled vegetables.
13. gancho — This means “hook,” and the visual metaphor for what the woman’s leg does is obvious. As in English, the word can also be used in marketing, to talk about the special appeal of something. Tener gancho when describing a person means that she has a lot of charm or appeal.
14. sacada — This is a South American word for “extraction.” The woman extracts her foot from the man’s in this step.
15. caminata — Outside of the tango step this means a stroll or a jaunt, and like those English words it is less common in everyday Spanish than just un paseo (a walk).
16. molinetes — Ready to get dizzy, ladies? A molino is a windmill so it makes sense that the diminutive molinete is a window fan, as well as this turning step.
17. atrapadita — Atrapar is to trap someone, and atrapada is a trapped woman. This step uses a diminutive form, so she can be thought of as just a little bit trapped, in a rather cute way.
18. sentada — A woman who is sitting is sentada; sentar is to seat someone and sentarse, the reflexive form, is for when you do it to yourself (thus, to sit down).
19. lápiz — The pointed form of the woman’s leg and the way that she traces a pattern on the floor gives this step its name: “pencil.”
Vocabulary for understanding tango
20. girar en sentido contrario a las agujas del reloj — This means to go around (the dance floor) in a counterclockwise direction. Unlike salsa or bachata, tango involves a lot of movement across the floor, and there is a general rule that this should always be contrario a las agujas del reloj in order to avoid collisions or traffic jams on the dance floor.
21. salón — The dance hall or ballroom is called a salón; the word also means living room or lounge. Tango de salón is a specific style of tango with a looser embrace that allows for showier figuras, but without flashy acrobatics.
22. milonga — This word can refer to the somewhat simpler style of music and dance that was the forerunner to tango; it is still quite popular. A milonga is also any tango event as well as the physical location that hosts such events.
23. tipos de abrazo — These are the “types of embraces” in tango, or how the dancers hold each other. An abrazo cerrado (closed embrace) has the dancers’ bodies wound tightly together and the man guides the woman with his torso. An abrazo abierto allows more space between the dancers and thus also more space for complex footwork. The word abrazos (hugs) is used all the time for ending a phone call or text message, it is an affectionate way of saying goodbye, of hugging when you physically cannot.
Vocabulary for a night out
24. cabeceo — This is the idea of the slight nod that is performed across the room in a milonga in order to indicate your invitation and agreement to dance with someone. There is a great full description of it in English here; in brief, just remember the more subtle the better. Cabecear is to nod or shake your head in all sorts of ways, and cabeza, of course, is the head.
Vocabulary for queer tango — but not just for gay dancers!
25. tango queer — In English the adjective of course comes first, so we call it “queer tango.” In both languages this is a movement to open tango up from the traditional gender roles. So, as in the first half of the video above, you can have a woman leading a man, and then they can even switch roles in mid-dance, as you see when they change their embrace at 1:07. Of course, men can also dance with men and women with women once heteronormativity in roles is no longer enforced.
26. intercambio de roles de género — You may have already heard of intercambios de idioma (language exchanges); this phrase instead refers to the “exchanging of gender roles.” Rol is obviously from the English “role” and is usually used in this context, but note that the more normal Spanish word for a role (in a play, function in life, etc.) is papel.
27. danza machista — People in the tango queer movement talk about how traditionally this is a danza machista (sexist/chauvanist/macho dance) from a país machista (sexist country); the hope therefore is to invert all of that through dance.
28. conductor/a — If you are no longer using the traditional and still-currently-popular roles for men and women, you designate the lead as the conductor or conductora instead of just hombre (man).
29. conducido/a — This is the follower, and the past participle from the verb conducir (to lead, to drive), so he or she is literally the one who is “driven/led.” Sometimes leaders comment that having a great follower in dance is like driving a really finely tuned, responsive car; they might avoid reducing the follower to that in his or her presence, however.
Feeling all sad, sexy and tango-y in Spanish
There are plenty of books and movies devoted to how tango should feel. Here’s the short version, from Argentine writer Ricardo Güiraldes; it also gives you a lot of great vocabulary to describe your most profound, ecstatic depression:
Tango fatal, soberbio y bruto. Notas arrastradas, perezosamente, en un teclado gangoso. Tango severo y triste. Tango de amenaza. Baile de amor y muerte.
A lot of these words could be interpreted in a few ways. That’s rather the fun of it. So here’s one effort at translation:
Disastrous, magnificent, and brutish tango. Notes that are dragged, lazily, on a twangy keyboard. Stern and sad tango. Threatening tango. Dance of love and death.
Particularly problematic for a translator are fatal, which can mean terrible, fatal, deadly and awful; as well as severo, which can mean stern, grave and strict. So interpreting this sentence can involve throwing your own vision of tango into the mix.
Getting back to our list, here are few more key pieces of vocabulary about feelings:
30. deseo sexual — This is sexual desire. The verb desear (to want/desire) is a lovely middle-ground verb to know when you need to express a mounting sexual need for someone but you don’t necessarily want to say te quiero yet—which literally means “I want you,” but actually always means “I love you.” Te deseo is “I want/desire you,” and sounds sexy as hell.
31. tristeza — Another key aspect of tango is “sadness.” You should sentir una gran tristeza (feel great sadness), at least sometimes, in tango.
32. melancolía — Or maybe you think your sadness is of a more profound, literary sort? You can then sentir una gran melancolía (feel great melancholy), you deep thing you.
Learning Spanish from Lyrical Tango
Here are a couple of lovely tango songs with quite simple Spanish to learn from.
Carlos Gardel — “Volver” (to come back)
Here’s a key line:
con el alma aferradaa
a un dulce recuerdo
que lloro otra vez.
with the soul held fast
to a sweet memory
that I cry over again.
He also says that veinte años no es nada (twenty years is nothing), which I find to be the most tragic line of the song. How difficult it is to get over that first love. You can spend the rest of your life longing for that evil, lovely creature.
By the way, el alma aferrada is not a mistake. Alma is feminine and so the adjective aferrada takes an -a ending, but words beginning with a stressed a get preceded by the article el instead of la. For the same reason, you say el agua fría (the cold water).
Soha — “Mil Pasos” (Thousand Steps)
This absolutely gorgeous song has a woman singing about going away, and the male voice joins in the chorus to ask ¿y cuándo volverás? (and when will you come back?). Don’t worry if you don’t understand her response in the chorus—it’s in French—suffice it to say, it just makes you want to cry even more.
In the opening verses, she sings:
Un paso, me voy para siempre
Un paso fuerte
Un paso hacia adelante
Dos pasos, me voy sin mirarte
Tan lejos pisé
Dos pasos ya te olvidé
A step, I’m getting out of here forever
A strong step
A step forward
Two steps, I’m going without looking at you
I stepped so far
Two steps and I already forgot you
If you’ve properly learned your Spanish numbers, in later verses you will understand that she is certainly not getting any closer.
Life and tango as per Cortazar…
Julio Cortázar once wrote, “fui una letra de tango para tu indiferente melodía.“ (I was a tango lyric for your indifferent melody.)
May your experiences in the worlds of dance and beyond be a bit better than that, but, if not, at least you will be truly living and feeling tango.
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