The Wisdom of the Basic 8 Count


By Jean-Pierre Sighé





When the enthused Tango student walks into the first class, the usual immediate impressions include a sense of embarking on unknown territory. Here, everything seems sophisticated and complex, somewhat intimidating. Hopefully, the student has opened the right door for proper and accurate information. In this case, words such as “walking”, “posture”, and “balance” should soon emanate from the instructor’s lips. They will help build the needed foundation in the student’s mind. The student will soon begin to work on the structure of the dance itself, as a composing exercise. The Basic 8 Count - perhaps mentioned once or twice during the course of the general conversation about Tango - will be studied.


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The path to the Basic 8 Count seems unavoidable to the student. But, is it so? Could Tango be taught without the introduction of this technique?


I fondly remember that my very first Tango classes were about walking … walking and walking. To the challenge of walking in front of my partner without pulling her off balance, yet fighting to maintain mine was added the ordeal of negotiating curves. I have since met many dancers who have had a different learning context in which the Basic 8 Count constituted the very beginning lessons. Invariably, I have noticed great difficulties with these dancers in properly executing some basic complex moves. Some students who joined our classes after repeatedly struggling with their balance expressed the same difficulties. It is obvious that Tango instruction cannot be approached with the Ballroom structure where a series of patterns defines the curriculum. I remember my own dissatisfaction and frustrations with that structure studying Latin dances. Coming from the African culture of improvisational dancing it did not make sense to me that I had to memorize a series of steps in order to dance. In fact, I recall a certain discomfort watching a room full of people executing those patterns. It was truly a scene of similarly disarticulated, mechanical and unfeeling movements; the bigger the crowd, the more painful my experience.

The Basic 8 Count should be taught with an immediate warning that students quickly free themselves from its structure. It should never be taught as THE basic for Tango dancing. Such fallacy has tremendously regrettable consequences. The unlucky student who falls into the hands of the false prophet will have to face the pain of going back to unlearn or re-learn. It’s just a matter of time. After about a year or so, the truth will surface, starring mockingly at the student. The religiously blind execution of the 8 count suddenly appears quite inadequate to the floor navigation; the dancing proves to be empty and unfulfilling; the unlucky student turns out to be predictable and boring (for a presumably improvisational dance, such an oxymoron is inexcusable). Moreover, the musicality that should be projected or evidenced with the dancer’s movement is forgotten. For many, the misuse of the Basic 8 Count has greatly impoverished the Tango experience.

It should be observed that the Basic 8 Count incorporates precious elements that I call “Events”, which allow the dancer to compose or dance. There are three of them: Salida, Cruzada, Conclusiòn. It does not matter how many steps are taken, as long as the “Events” are understood and injected into the dancing. The 8 Count could have been a 10 or 12 Count for that matter. Good instruction would point out the meaning of these “Events” and demonstrate their use outside of the 8 Count or any other type of counting. Then the Basic 8 Count will yield its secret to the learning mind. It is quite possible to teach Tango without ever mentioning the 8 Count. However, one cannot ignore the risk of keeping the student’s mind closed. The 8 Count subject has been so used and misused that it does not actually make sense to try and shield the student from it. Tango instructors actually have the obligation to bring the subject up, study it, demystify it and leave it to good analysis where common sense will enlighten the way.


I will not resist here the temptation of pointing out an example of the misuse of the Basic 8 Count: the famous backstep often executed on the step 1. Quite frankly, common sense should indicate to anyone that taking a blind backstep on a dance floor is adventurous and could eventually lead to colliding with another dancer. Good technique should teach the student how to change weight on the same spot on the dance floor. We hope any Tango instructor in the land will expose his students  to the chapters of “Economy of Movement” and “Economy of Space”.


The Basic 8 Count is a great tool in Tango learning, the same way the recitation of great poetry is to the mind seeking literary knowledge. The poor users of the great tool must be differentiated from the tool itself. A lancet in the hand of a trained surgeon will accomplish miracles. We put the same instrument in indelicate hands and we have a serious problem. In my view, there is nothing wrong with using the Basic 8 Count, as long as the instructor is committed to freeing the student from its limiting walls. The goal and the mission remain - allow the mind to fly high and touch the Infinite Sphere of Hermes. Dancing from such a place can (and will) only make Tango, the true Place of Gathering.


© February 2007


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