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“Embracing Tango: A Ballet Master’s Journey into the Heart of Argentina.” – by Michael Cornell

As the founder of the Align Ballet Method, I spend a great deal of time in a dance studio. You would think that the last thing I would wish to do in my free time is go into another dancer studio, and you would be wrong. My primary activity outside of Align is spent dancing authentic Argentine tango, which I came by accidentally when over 15 years ago, a friend asked me to join her for an Argentine tango class at a Hollywood ballroom studio.

I had no idea what to expect at my first tango class. In my mind, tango was an old dance tourists watched when they visited Buenos Aires or something they threw into a movie for dramatic effect. It seemed a bit cliché with guys in fedoras, women with roses in their mouths, and cheesy dips. Luckily, none of those things came true, and after my first class, I quickly understood I had no actual understanding of this incredible art form, and I certainly did not understand tango had a long history of people dancing tango in their local neighborhood social club.

Argentine tango is not what most people think it is and, generally speaking, is not what you see on Dancing with The Stars, which is more of an American ballroom tango, not authentic tango as it is danced in Buenos Aires.

Tango in 2024 is a worldwide phenomenon practiced socially in every part of the globe, and tango is danced by all ages and body shapes. One of my favorite tango dancers, Javier Rodriquez, recently said at a class he was instructing that “tango is not a dance for special people with special bodies.” Javier is correct; tango is a beautiful dance of precision which can be mastered by anyone willing to do the work. Javier’s comment resonated with me deeply in terms of my long relationship with ballet training where the perfect ballet body is fetishized to the point of nauseam.

Tango is incredibly social, and dancers “go to” Milongas, which is a tango word that means a specific organized event for dancing tango. Milongas are held all across the globe so when you travel you could actually drop into a milonga and meet local people instead of simply visiting generic tourist attractions. In our era of loneliness, tango dancers always have a social outlet, and in Los Angeles, you have the ability to dance socially every day of the week. If you learn to dance tango, you will always have a place to go.

The gender boundaries of tango have dissolved; these days women lead if they wish, and it is not uncommon to see same-sex couples on the floor. I will frequently assume the role as a follower as this is a great way to learn to lead, and it is fun to explore the other side of the dance. A few times a month in Los Angeles, there are also specific LGBTQ tango events, so the old custom of a macho dude pushing a female around the dance floor is no longer accepted.

Tango is elegant, beautiful, and gentle. Where can you go in Los Angeles where the men will be in dress pants and the ladies in something sophisticated? I would argue almost nowhere. As one who has tired of the Hollywood super casual look, tango requires (most of the time, but not always) a more upscale attire. One of the first things my instructor told me, “If you go to the milonga you don’t wear jeans, and you don’t wear tennis shoes.” Tango originated in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which at one time was one of the most glamorous and affluent areas of the world. The culture of tango is that one goes to the event well dressed. This will vary depending on the event and its level of prestige in the community. Much like religious services, you wear your best stuff on the high holidays out of respect for the gravity of the event. If dressing up is not for you I assure you there are also ample less formal events where casual is accepted.

Another gentle aspect of tango, which I believe would be well incorporated into American culture, is how in tango you ask a follower to dance. In tango, there is a custom called the cabeceo, which in general means an acknowledgment through eye contact. You never simply walk up to a follower and verbally ask them to dance in tango. In fact, I have been told in Buenos Aires if you make this verbal attempt, it is the law of the land the follower will automatically refuse; the Argentines love their customs. The cabeceo is an incredible tradition. First, it saves followers from feeling obligated to dance with someone they do not wish to interact with, simply avoid eye contact, and it relieves everyone’s embarrassment when the leader must walk across the room to be rejected; this is not fun for anyone.

Tango is beautiful, and YouTube has helped people understand this. I began tango at the very beginning of the YouTube era, and it gave me a portal to see the best dancers in the world, some who are no longer with us. I think the video that inspired me the most was Javier Rodriquez and his stunning partner Geraldine Rojas. This beautiful young couple danced with such passion, precision, elegance, and musicality; I was in awe. I had seen some of the best ballet dancers in the world, and these two from Buenos Aires left me speechless.

At its heart, tango is a gentle, beautiful conversation between two people. Good leaders do not force their partner into moves. I will never forget one of my first master classes with a visiting instructor. As he danced with his follower, elegantly moving her into different positions he said, “she likes to dance with me…….because I care about her.” For me, it was a beautiful lesson in how to be a man, and I realized as I age, this is the type of man I wish to be.

I’ve always loved to dance, and not simply ballet. I would say my first dance experience was as a teenager, 12 years old, the height of disco, the roller rink was my obsession. When I dance tango, it takes me back to my youth, I am still the kid who wants to find a girl and crush it on the dance floor, and studies show that this is incredibly beneficial as we age. When we cannot understand a specific sequence or step this challenges the cognitive functioning of the brain. One of the longest-running breaks I had from tango was when I cared for my father who was passing from dementia. Scientists believe studying any unfamiliar dance may prevent cognitive decline. Another physical benefit is dancing 3 hours of tango is equal to taking a 3-hour walk. As I age, I am determined to keep moving. Tango allows me to do this consistently in a low impact formula.

Many people are attracted to tango because they watched some young sexy couple. I was attracted to tango by what I witnessed from the older milongueros. Often these legendary leaders were the last living generation of tangos glorious past and they fortunately trained many of the great today. Their followers are to be equally respected. Fortunately, through their generous instruction their many lessons still live with us. I could not believe the precision and grace produced by men in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. I especially loved that some of these men, if you looked at them sitting at their table, you might think they were your local mechanic, these men appear as if they could pull your transmission, yet they could get up from their table and dance beautiful circles around men half their age. Below are a few videos of my favorite older dancers, (but I have many favorites) who are unfortunately no longer with us.

My teacher’s teacher, the legendary Pupi Castello and Luciana Valle

Julio Balmaceda and Corina de la Rosa

Dani “el flaco” and Luna Palacios

Tango has helped me in business. As a dance instructor, my love for tango has helped me understand my students’ love for ballet. I understand why our student’s come week after week and spend their hard-earned money to develop. I understand that it fills your life with joy. Ballet did that for me at one time but does not pack the same punch after a professional career. Tango puts me back in the shoes of a beginner dancer which also helps me understand my students’ perspective. Studying tango has helped me identify what makes a popular instructor and why some are successful while others are not. Yet my experience has shown that sometimes great instructors are not always the most popular, which is disappointing. In general, I believe dancers will always and should have many instructors along their journey and all instructors have value. Finally, when I am inspired by a great tango class, it inspires me to come into the studio and provide our ballet students with an equally great experience.

Now let me give you the downside of tango. As always, youth is wasted on the young. Some say older female dancers are not frequently asked to dance as the leaders tend to only want to dance with young females. I see both sides but generally see that older followers who have poor technique do not dance. Older followers who are strong dancers are constantly asked to dance. Often my favorite followers are in their 60’s.

Another downside to tango is that despite a large metro area like Los Angeles, Argentine tango is a small subculture and it has cliques, social hierarchies, and some gossip. I chalk it up to the fact humans are humans, but it is one of my least favorite aspects of tango. I do my absolute best to keep my mouth shut, avoid drama, and move through all groups with a positive attitude. I support tango for everyone, the good, the bad, and the slightly awkward. Yet generally, I do not attend tango for the social aspect. I don’t wish to talk at tango, I will socialize politely, but I go to a milonga to dance. I attempt to keep my relationship with tango about the dance and only the dance.

To extend this idea further here is a pro recommendation, don’t date at tango. Do people form relationships at tango? Absolutely, but I do not recommend it. Tango is an intimate dance and it can be easy to confuse excitement with something deeper, but my suggestion is to leave it on the floor. I have the same rules for tango as I apply at work, no dating. Adhering to these principles keeps life uncomplicated.

I have recently heard advice for lonely men to meet women; they should take a social dance class, and I would imagine this is generally good advice, except for tango. Learning to lead is hard. If I was not already a trained dancer I don’t know if I would have ever learned to lead. I have a great amount of respect for men who learn to lead but I would say if you were attending as a man to meet someone to date, there are many easier ways to find a mate than learning the tango.

You may be saying to yourself, I want to dance tango but my life partner won’t? This is not an issue in my opinion. I know many dancers both male and female whose partners stay home. If you are secure in your relationship and your spouse is not the jealous type of person, the tango scene is a safe space. 99% of tango people are like me, they are dancing for the dance. Additionally, you always have the ability to set boundaries on who you wish to dance with and how intimately you dance; close embrace is never required.

Tango has given me so much and now I am attempting to give back to tango. I am helping to organize classes for new students to help build a following for one of my amazing instructors Monica Orozco and I am attempting to help increase the vibrancy of the Los Angeles tango scene of which I do genuinely love with all my heart. Tango is a community, and it is each member’s responsibility to give back to the community. If I bring in more people it will help the current instructors and event promoters. Maybe the few people I bring to tango will bring in more.

I also promote tango to my current ballet students as I think it is good to study multiple forms of dance, the goal is to master your own body awareness. Many Los Angeles tango dancers are currently visiting ALIGN as a way to improve their tango, as a small amount of technical ballet training goes a long way in creating strong tango dancers. I have had several famous leaders quietly admit to me they had studied a great deal of ballet and right now if you asked me, the greatest followers in the tango world have had serious ballet training. Tango is a dancer’s dance.

Finally, I hope my journey in tango inspires you. Much like you, I involve myself in a form of dance that I have not mastered. This is a humbling journey but one that I love. When I was a professional, the director of our company always insisted that we would not simply be ballet dancers, but strong versatile dancers. When I entered tango I was soon approached by one of the scene’s strongest female followers who had performing ambition. She needed a partner and due to my experience in dynamic lifting felt I would be a strong candidate. We went about rehearsing and I learned a great deal from her, in fact, I would say females have been my biggest tango influence. My primary coaches have been female. So in summary I present to you an old video of my first tango performance with my first partner. It is not great, but it is not terrible, and put into perspective I had only been dancing this challenging form for roughly 1 year, but my ballet director drilled into my head that I should be versatile, and I can dance anything. Be aware this video is a concert performance show tango style and not social style. It is not socially acceptable to perform giant performance lifts on a social floor. 

Thank you for reading. I love you! I believe in you. I know if you set your mind to it, you can dance anything. I hope you will join us for tango and I will see you in ballet class.


My first performance with less than 1 year of tango.
You can achieve your goals with hard work!

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