Tango steps notation

Peter Forret wrote about his choice for a notation for tango steps (Tangotation: writing tango steps).
He bravely developed “tangotation“, an alphanumeric dance notation that might have a sufficient vocabulary for a beginner.
It’s not a bad system at all and quite easy to read because the character assignments are logical, but I think it will become overly complex or unfit for more complex movements over time.

What about … ?
What about directions (e.g. pivoting 90° or 180° or more), boleos in all directions (circular and linear) or colgadas and volcadas or planeo and lapiz? They can be assigned new characters or combinations of characters or modifiers, bu it will quickly become quite complex.
And when tango becomes more than executing steps you will also need explanations on how to lead (with torsion of the torso, by slightly lifting or lowering the partner, by shifting the partners weight but not your own, or whatever …).

I challenge Peter to use his notation for the steps and figures below.

My experience.
Years ago I did the same research and for me the very pragmatic requirements for such a notation are that:

  • It should be easy and intuitive to write. After all you’re going to write down your steps as soon as possible after a class or workshop, late at night, being very tired, … I don’t want to use a reference book for my notation at that time, it should be as fast and easy as possible.
  • It should also be easy and intuitive to read. I often want to quickly refresh my memory on a few figures right before going to a milonga, so I can throw them in now and then to surprise my regular partners with something new and see how I can integrate them in my dance patterns. Again I don’t want to spend much decoding time, I need instant visual clues and patterns to refreshen my memory and try out the steps a few times.
  • It should be able to represent enough information to recreate a figure that I forgot. Not only positions of the feet but also relative body movement, dissociation of upper and lower body, pivots, weight shifts, changes in axis, clues for leading, relative position to partner, rhythm, timing, …
  • The notation is for personal use and reference in the first place. It’s nice but not essential if other people can use it.

I chose a visual representation to be able to recognize a pattern when I look at my notes again, in short I draw feet and arrows with additional notes.

The principles of my system:

  • I use L and R for the position of left and right feet, the direction of the character corresponds to the direction of the foot. L and R in gray filled circles are follower’s feet. But most of the time notation of follower’s steps is completely unnecessary, I use it only when it clarifies what the leader has to do.
  • An underlined L or R means weight on that foot.
  • Lines with arrow heads at the end (normal arrows) indicate the feet’s path of movement on the floor or a direction of rotation.
  • Lines with arrow heads in the middle indicate movements in the air, like boleos or ganchos.
  • A small circle in the middle of an arrow indicates a pivot.
  • Numbers next to the arrows are for the sequence of steps and for a link to the additional explanatory notes.
  • Parallel lines link displaced drawings to avoid drawing over the same drawing again.
  • I sometimes draw stick people to clarify or show body positions or other things.
  • I always refer to a starting position from the basic 8 step (e.g. giro starts from 5th position = cross).

It’s far from ideal but I’ve been using it more or less to my satisfaction for tango steps (and other dances as well) and I can still decipher my old notes 😉

Here’s my very first attempt from 1997, my very first tango lesson, the basic 8 step salida with some variations, the second image is the giro to the right from 2001 and the third a complex variation in a giro from a workshop with Javier and Geraldine in 2002:

1997 lesson 1 2001 giro 2002 Javier-Geraldine

These con-tra-time exercises and colgadas/volcadas by Adrian and Alejandra indicate the problems of the system to adequately represent rhythm and changes in axis, I could not draw it in 2 dimensions but had to explain:

2003 con-tra-time 2004 colgada-volcada

Boleos are difficult to represent. In the first image the principles of linear boleos according to Dana and Pablo need stick figures. The principles of circular boleos need other drawings and words to explain. In the second image the circular and linear (backwards/forwards and to the side) boleos by Lautaro and Lucila also use almost only words:

2006 Dana y Pablo boleos linear y circular 2006 Lautaro y Lucila boleos linear y circular

Looking back.
Looking back at my notes I notice that there is an evolution in my notation style that is parallel to my evolution, experience and knowledge as a dancer.
Where in the beginning I wrote down all the steps “foot by foot”, building a basic steps vocabulary, I now have an active “vocabulary” of steps and figures that I can concatenate easily and without thinking. I only actually draw the new stuff and pay more attention to clues for leading, relative positioning and style. I also try to split up long sequences in manageable and reusable chunks.

Edward Tufte.
Information visualization guru Edward Tufte talks about dance notation in his book Envisioning Information. He indicates the difficulty and frustration of dance notations:

The microscopic and abstracted encodings of contemporary dance notation – so fussy and clumsy and contrary to the wholeness of the substance- …
… for work in determining the essential nature of old dances … they are all equally worthless.
… the systems are so difficult to decipher …
… how to reduce the magnificent four-dimensional reality of time and three-space into little marks on paper flatlands.

OK, don’t give up, think positive, we can at least try it for ourselves! 🙂


8 Responses to “Tango steps notation”

  1. Peter Forret Says:

    Your notation is better than mine, because I wanted a system that would be alphanumeric only. I like the way you use arrows with modifiers!

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    […] Tango steps notation […]

  3. Fred Guth Says:

    I loved this post on Tango steps notation. I am an amator dancer looking for a notation to register Gafieira Samba steps just for the sake of my love for it. All notations I had seen before didn´t seem to fit what I thought was “right”. When I saw your principles I understood why… you got it.

    I congratulate you for the imaginative work you did with your own notation and despite of agreeing that it has its flaws (you pointed some) I think it is the best I seen for what I want.

    The biggest problem for me is not the lack of time counting, but how to describe the rest of the body movements and the conduction. I followed Peter Forret blog´s link on Labanotation, but not only it is too technical and complex but it also seems to fit any step into a robot dancing one (this may be just a matter of personal point of view. I don´t like the ballroom dancing style I see in international ballroom dancing competitions on TV).

    Have you found other attempts to make easier notations? Could you send more examples of your own notation? (sorry, but sometimes they were not very easy to understand)

    I don´t have in hand a copy of Tufte´s design bible, could you tell me if there is more on this subject there?

    Thanks a lot!

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  6. petere Says:

    @ Fred:
    Thanks for the compliments! and sorry for the late reply…
    Regarding Tufte, there are 6 pages on dance notation in the book. He speaks about and shows a few 18th-19th century notations, combining text, figures, symbols and musical notation, some as elegant as the dance itself. There’s also a scientific attempt at movement notation and a modern notation, where symbolic abstraction is the prevailing doctrine, namely the very abstract labanotation about which he even makes a joke: “Shown are variations on the handstand, as surely must be obvious”.
    All notations quite logically use the “small multiples” technique. All laying out the fundamental movements in a visual dictionary of dance elements.
    Unfortunately there is no “search inside” or “look inside” on Amazon for “Envisioning information”, so that’s not an option for you to see what he wrote. Tufte’s website has a section “Fine Art” with a poster of 2 pages, but it’s too small to really make something from it. Try to find the book in a library (maybe through interlibrary loan) if you don’t want to buy it.

    I’ll do an update or a new post on my dance notation with better examples when I find the time.

  7. Frede Stuber Says:

    I started tango 3 years ago, have spent a great deal of time trying to come up with a step notation for my own use. Now I have just read what you and Peter Forret have to say about this. My experience is exactly as yours: “looking back at my notes I notice that there is an evolution in my notation style that is parallel to my evolution, experience and knowledge as a dancer”.

    My second to last notation version was very close to Forrets but now I am rapidly moving to a “vocabulary of steps and figures” version as you mention.

    I have also made a collection of very short video clips (e.g. from YouTube videos, DVD’s or class videos using QuickTime) of figure elements that are easy to learn and can be easily combined or improvised with. These videos, annotated with my vocabulary of steps and figures have resulted in a real boots to my learning speed. I sometimes even take them with me to milongas on my phone to have a quick look.

    I am quite convinced that this is the best way for learning at an intermediate or advanced level. Talking to others I have come to the conclusion that there could be a market for a DVD based on this principle.

  8. petere Says:

    The collection of short video clips of figure elements is a very interesting idea and I’m sure it can be very helpful. I also find myself recording workshops when allowed. It’s a very good way to remember the steps, but when I do this I don’t bother writing down the figure so that in the end I tend to forget the ones I recorded, maybe because portability and accessibility of such a video catalog is a problem. I have used my video iPod to carry around those videos until I had too much music and no more space on the iPod.

    The way I used my notes the first years was mostly by looking at a few figures to refresh my memory each time before I went to a milonga. This way I could best incorporate the elements into my regular dancing and expand my vocabulary.
    Now I tend to just pick one or two elements that I like from a workshop and try to incorporate them in my dancing the milonga’s after that workshop.

    Anyway I think that after a while everyone creates his own catalog of favorite figures/elements that he uses a lot and that define his style. When the catalog is big enough there is less need for notation but I still find it useful for the continuing evolution of my dancing. The notes give me ideas to incorporate fresh elements or some steps that didn’t work in the past can suddenly make sense. It’s the joy of learning 🙂

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