The steps & terminology of Argentine tango


A boleo is a whip-like swinging of the leg. I say 'swinging' rather than 'kicking', because it's not something you do, but something which arises naturally as a result of a change in momentum.

For example, if a follower is standing on her left foot and pivoting to her right, and then is led to suddenly turn to the left, then that change of momentum passes from the place where it starts (her chest), down her body, through her hips (where the change of direction happens a split-second later than in the chest) and to her right leg. Her right leg is the only part of her body that's free (her left leg has her weight on it, and her arms are in the embrace), so the momentum causes it to swing out behind her.

A boleo can be circular or linear. You'll normally come across circular boleos first. In a back circular boleo, the leg swings out behind you in a slight curve, and in a front circular boleo, it swings forwards around your standing leg. In a linear boleo, your leg swings straight back or straight forwards.

Boleos come in different styles. Salon style dancers generally (but not always) do boleos just from the knee downwards – in a circular back boleo, their knees are locked together, so the lower leg whips round in a circle. Nuevo style dancers tend to do the boleo with the whole leg, from the hip.

Although boleos come from that sudden change of momentum, as a follower becomes used to doing them, it takes less and less energy to produce a boleo, and you can then get some very slow or gentle boleos.

Boleos and floorcraft

Boleos are one of the steps you should be extra careful with on a crowded dancefloor. Leaders: don't lead a boleo unless you're sure there's room. Followers, it's worth being careful yourselves, too. Your Back boleo doesn't necessarily have to leave the ground. If the dancefloor is crowded, you can just let your foot make an arc on the floor. (It's possible to lead a boleo in such a way that it 'feels' down, too, to achieve that effect.) For front boleos, you can do a simple lifting of the knee if space is limited.

How to lead a boleo

For a circular boleo, the easiest way to lead one is in the middle of an ocho, doing a cross step. For example, for a back boleo:

  1. Take a side-step together – let's say to your left. Then you change weight without leading your follower to change weight. You now are both on your right feet.
  2. Now you take another side-step to the left, and lead her to take a back cross to step with you (remember to lead her to pivot anti-clockwise before asking her to step!).
  3. As she's about to complete that step, start to lead her to pivot away from you again (clockwise) – as though she's about to take a second back cross and so make an ocho.
  4. Watch her free leg. When it starts to move to take that second back cross, this is when you change the direction you're giving her and lead her to pivot clockwise instead. This change of direction, if timed correctly, will result in a boleo.

Here are Homer and Cristina demonstrating circular boleos from ochos.

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For linear boleos, the principle is the same as for circular, but the movement is all in a straight line. Give her the lead to take a step – let's say forewards – but then as she begins to take that step, give her a lead in the opposite direction instead – in this case by blocking her step forwards.

Here are some slow, gentle linear boleos from Homer and Cristina:

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Something to watch out for when leading boleos is the amount of energy you're using – leaders generally try to use force at first, and that's to be avoided. You don't want to be throwing your follower around! You don't have to push or pull her into a boleo – if you turn your embrace around her she will respond.

How to do a boleo

To do a boleo, you need a very free leg. It takes a bit of practice to finds the feeling you need in the leg, as it needs to be very relaxed so that it can receive the change of momentum, but with enough shape that your foot doesn't drag on the floor and ground you!

Here's a good way to practice. Find something free-standing to hang on to – a pillar or pole, for example. Stand on one leg, and relax the other – but keep the foot lifted a fraction off the floor. Imagine that your torso is built around a steel rod – so it can only move all in one piece, never bending at the waist or tilting at the hips. (This is to make sure that momentum will be transfered to your leg, not lost in a floppy body.)

Now, use your arms to move your body around horizontally (remember that steel rod), and watch the way your relaxed leg moves in response, always a fraction of a second later than what's happening to your body. Once you've got the hang of this, try changing momentum or direction, and let your leg respond freely – when you hit the right level of freedom in the leg, a sudden change of direction will produce a little boleo.

Although the underlying mechanics of a boleo are purely to do with this change in momentum, the fact is we don't just leave it up to gravity. We make the most of the moment by adding a little style, a little movement. But you need to first find the momentum-based mechanics at the root of the move before you can start bigging-up your boleos, or they'll look and feel false.

Header photos courtesy of a Creative Commons license.