Dynamic Adornments

2nd September 2010

"If you let your heart be moved, you will change. Tears turn into smiles, anger into embraces" ~ Gabrielle Roth


Sooner or later, women want to learn adornments. There's loosely two schools of thought on this (I consider a 3rd option later on, but you can skip to it now if you want):

  1. Learn specific adornments by heart
  2. Don't learn any adornments and wait patiently until you reach the stage where they just start showing up on their own.

Personally, until recently, I've been a fan of the second approach. The first approach has a number of problems; pretty much you end up with all the drawbacks leaders get when they memorise sequences.

The Seven Dwarves Syndrome.

Try and list the seven dwarves. Chances are you'll name 4 or 5 of them and then start repeating the same couple of names over and over.

You've experienced this as a follower when you've danced with a leader who keeps dancing the same 4 or 5 sequences over and over again and eventually in the same order! "At that point I know exactly what he's going to do for the rest of the tanda - I don't actually need him to be there" one lady pointed out to me.

The same thing happens with adornments. It's hard to keep more than 4 or 5 in your head at one time. Now admittedly a lot of leaders won't give you much opportunity to use them, but still 4 or 5 isn't much for a tanda.


"Just a little deja vu." ~ Neo

A common problem is an adornment that's associated with a certain move such as a block or an ocho. Most leaders have hang-ups about repetition being boring. If you do exactly the same adornment every time you do an ocho, they start worrying that you're getting bored. Unfortunately the solution that springs to mind is to stop leading ochos. So if you're repeatedly doing the same adornment on say 3 fundamental moves, the poor guy doesn't end up with much to work with.

Two types of adornments

Either the leader has given you space to adorn or he hasn't. If he hasn't, then your adornments tend to be small half-beat things that don't affect the timing of whatever he's led. Say for example he's led a forward ocho and is planning to collect immediately afterwards to mark the end of a phrase; Follower A does a small, quick flick of her foot during her ocho and everything works as the leader plans. Follower B however pauses mid ocho, does an elaborate leg raise that takes three beats and then continues; now it makes no sense with regards to the phrasing and there's nothing the leader can do about it. And given that he's leading...

But what if the leader has given you space to adorn?

Well the obvious question is "Why has he done this?". And it's an important question. The two main answers are:

  1. Floorcraft. Something's happening nearby and there's just no way he can lead anything else at the moment
  2. Musicality. He either wants to mark something in the music, or he's adding a pause to fit the music.

If you're doing set adornments, the odds are quite high that the following problems will occur.

  • Too Short.
    Your adornment last two beats. But the leader's still stuck with floorcraft issues. Now what? Or the pause in the music actually lasts 4 beats. Oops.
  • Too Long
    Your adornment last 4 beats. Not a huge problem with floorcraft issues to be honest. But if the pause was only 2 beats long then, like the ocho example above, the musicality just went out the window.
  • Doesn't match
    The music goes "quick, quick, quick" but the timing of your adornment goes "Quick, quick, slow". The longer your adornment the more likely this is to happen.


So, am I advocating the second method of just wait until they show up naturally? Well I used to, but it has a few problems too. It's great for when the leader hasn't given you any space and you're just doing something quick and small. Because frankly if you don't do anything it won't detract from the dance. It is however a bit of a problem when the leader gives you some space.

"I thought "This is nice, we're having a rest." Then I realised you were doing something with your foot..."

It's still not the end of the world though. There's nothing stopping the leader doing adornments while you stay still.

A Better Solution

(From memory I've only heard the following mentioned in classes twice. Ever. So you may have to ask a teacher directly for more information.)

There's an idea in tango often called "dynamics", though there's no fixed name and different teachers may call it different things. Try asking your teacher about "staccato and legato". What it means is there's different ways of moving other than the standard tango way.

To get you thinking along the right lines, have a look at the first minute of this. The verbal descriptions are in the right order, but start to lag a bit behind what's happening in the video. Obviously I'm not advocating doing this the next time you want to do an adornment. I just want to get across the idea of different ways of moving.

It's worth noting that the above video isn't choreographed. It's just spontaneous movement to the music using one of Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness as a way of moving.

Some music

OK, so how does this help? Well put on some music. There's quite a variety of interesting things going on in these two pieces, but feel free to use something different if you prefer.

N.B. I've chosen them based on the music, not as an actual example of this, though there are some adornments in there that fit this idea.

Some exercises

Stand in a tango collect and move your free foot a bit. Well that was helpful wasn't it?

OK, now listen to the music - don't worry about getting the "right" answer, but is the part you're listening to Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical or Stillness?

The two standard adornments are taps and curves. Choose one and do it in whichever way you feel suits the music. Play around with this. Once that works, you can try different speeds, different sizes. Then you can combine different types together; maybe the music is a couple of quick staccato violin notes and then becomes a long slow lyrical note? And then you can combine curves with taps.

Now try this with the other poses you typically get asked to do adornments in eg boleos, blocks and ochos.

At this point you can spontaneously create unique adornments that perfectly fit the music every time. More over they're unique to you and the way you feel inspired to move at that moment, rather than a copy of how someone else felt like moving at a different time and place with a different partner to different music.

Now go back and repeat: but bear in mind this rather important piece of advice. You don't have to do everything the music is. You can choose to follow one instrument. You can choose to mark only a particular strong note in the midst of a flurry of notes. And so on.

Side note

The biggest problem leaders seem to have when giving space to followers is knowing when to re-start dancing. The answer simply is to fit the music. There are natural pauses and endings built into tango.

In fairness, don't assume the leader knows this. But you should try to be aware of what the music is doing, in case he is.

~ Christopher O'Shea, 2nd September 2010

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