Cabaceo, compás and cortina

A glossary of tango terms

Tango’s home is Buenos Aires, Argentina so the lyrics to tango songs are all in Spanish. What’s more, you’ll soon find that many of the moves and most tango terminology remains in the original Spanish.

To help you out, here’s a brief glossary of words you’re likely to come across in your first months of dancing with us at our Cambridge beginners classes and tango courses.

Bandoneón: A type of large accordian with a distinctive sound, one of the four instruments in a tango orchestra. See The anatomy of a tango track. The bandoneón is often referred to in tango lyrics.

Cabaceo: An invitation to dance made by the leader at a distance, usually consisting of a sideways, enquiring motion of the head. The acceptance of the dance, by the follower, is usually a nod. See An invitation to dance

Compás: The beat of the music.

Cortina: Literally, a curtain. A break between tandas, indicated by the playing of a short burst of a different style of music. During this time couples return to their seats in anticipation of the next tanda, usually danced with a different partner.

Golden Age: The Golden Age of tango was roughly 1935-1955. This is when most classic tango music was recorded. Traditional milongas will often specify that they play music from the Golden Age, as opposed to newer tango music.

Milonga: Confusingly, milonga has two meanings. 

1. A milonga is a social event where people come to dance tango. 

2. Milonga is a style of music that has a 2/4 beat and a syncopated rhythm. For example, Milonga del Corazon by Juan D'Arienzo. See also All about milonga music

Practica: An informal dance event where people go to practice. At a practica it’s acceptable to stop on the dancefloor and discuss the dance, to ask your partner to repeat or adjust some steps. The formal rules of the milonga are somewhat relaxed. Usually, music is played continually without cortinas. Simply Tango hold practicas on Wednesday evenings at St Paul's.

Ronda: The pattern of couples dancing tango, which moves around the dancefloor in an anti-clockwise circle. The ronda can feel and look organised or chaotic, it can move slowly or not. Part of a leader’s skill is in how they navigate and respect the ronda – i.e., not overtaking other couples, keeping adequate space between other dancers, and making good progression around the dancefloor without holding up the flow of the dance.

Tanda: A group of 3 or 4 tracks played together at a milonga. A couple dances together for the whole of the tanda. Tandas are divided by cortinas, at which point couples return to their seats.

Tanguero/tanguera: A male/female tango dancer. Spanish is a gendered language.

Vals: Tango music with a 3/4 waltz rhythm. For example, Pobre Flor by Alfredo de Angelis.

Mirada: A look that the leader or the follower directs towards someone they’d like to dance with. For more on this, see An invitation to dance.

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