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Robert Abrams
Learning Theory
American Tango

An application of learning theory to American Tango: short-term memory

by Robert Abrams
February 2, 1998

An application of learning theory to American Tango: short-term memory

Robert Abrams, Ph.D.

February 2, 1998

Note: This article was originally published in Dancing USA.

The Double Fan combination is a difficult pattern that I half learned when I started doing Tango. Ever since, I have found that sometimes I could lead it and make it work (all the while knowing that I was leaving a few steps out), and the rest of the time I would fail miserably.

I believe I have now mastered the step (I don't claim to have perfected it yet). My mastery of this step can be linked to a fundamental finding from learning theory.

The theory of education as formulated by Novak and his colleagues (Novak 1977) states that short term memory can process seven plus or minus two pieces of information (Novak 1993, Novak & Gowin 1984). This information must be transferred to long term memory before new information can be added to short term memory. If the first set of information is not transferred, it will be forgotten as new information displaces it in short term memory.

If we take a close look at the Double Fan combination in the American Tango, we see that it is composed of the following steps (from the leader's perspective): {slow slow quick quick slow slow quick quick slow slow quick quick slow}. If the steps outlined above are counted, it becomes apparent that there are thirteen steps in the Double Fan combination. This is four more steps than the maximum of 9 that can be handled in short term memory. The Tango Basic, by contrast, has only five steps: {walking steps [slow slow], tango close [quick quick slow]}. Thus, learning theory confirms what is apparent from experience: the Tango Basic is easier to learn than the Double Fan.

Since there is no effective way to simply cram thirteen bits of information into a short term memory system that can only handle seven plus or minus two, we need a method which will reduce the number of bits of information about the Double Fan down to a number short term memory can handle. Fortunately, such a method exists.

This method is called "chunking". To make chunking work, you need to recognize that some bits of information can be grouped together in a logical and repeatable way. We call such a group of bits a "chunk".

To apply chunking to the Double Fan, a good place to start is the realization that most Tango steps can be divided into three components: a base, a middle composed of extender units, and a cap. The base is usually a [slow slow]. The middle is composed of units which can have a variety of rhythmic patterns, but which are usually either [quick quick slow] or [quick quick slow slow]. The cap is the Tango Close [quick quick slow]. This reduces the rhythmic complexity of Tango to a [slow slow] unit followed by a series of rhythmic chunks.

If the above method of chunking steps into rhythmic units is applied to the Double Fan, where we originally had thirteen steps, we now have four rhythmic units. The Double Fan can now be written as {walking steps [slow slow], an extended fan [quick quick slow slow], another extended fan [quick quick slow slow], tango close [quick quick slow]}. The information in the Double Fan has now been transformed so that it can more easily be stored in short term memory.

The Double Fan is a sufficiently difficult move that just knowing there are four rhythmic units is not going to be enough to lead it properly. It would also help to know that each rhythmic unit ends in a specific direction relative to a diamond: walking steps (facing in from home), first fan (facing in from first), second fan (facing in from third), tango close (facing out to line of dance). This additional information brings the total information needed for the Double Fan up to eight bits, which is still within the limits of short term memory.

An alternate way of chunking the Double Fan requires six chunks. What I describe above as an extended fan can also be thought of as {quarter turn to the left [quick quick], fan [slow slow]}. The part of the double fan that I still have some difficulty with is the fan itself, and particularly leading the woman to fan with my hip while keeping my frame intact. If you have the same trouble, try working on just the two steps of the fan itself, then add the quarter turn to the left, and finally rebuild the entire Double Fan pattern.

It is true that the Double Fan is greatly helped by technique such as balance, small steps where appropriate, and keeping the frame intact as one rotates the body. These aspects of technique can be transferred from short to long term memory (in other words, learned) separately from any particular move, and thus should not make the Double Fan any more or less difficult to learn than any other step in the Tango. Moreover, knowing that you can break a complex pattern down into smaller units may help you refine such technique where you need it most.

This method that has been applied to the Double Fan in American Tango can also be applied to other steps, both in Tango and in other ballroom dances. Analysis, of course, is no substitute for quality private instruction, but it can help you get the most out of that instruction.


Novak, Joseph. (1993). How do we learn our lesson? The Science Teacher 60(3):51-55.

Novak, Joseph. (1977). A Theory of Education. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Novak, Joseph & Gowin, D.B. (1984). Learning How to Learn. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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