The Karate Kid Learns Tango

I saw the original "The Karate Kid" over the Thanksgiving holiday. It reminded me of an article I wrote for a tango magazine on learning tango. The article is below and slightly updated.

The Karate Kid Learns Tango

More than 30 ago, Sony Pictures released “The Karate Kid.” It’s a very sweet story about a single mom and her son, Daniel (Ralph Macchio) who move to California to begin a new life after her divorce. Daniel has a crush on a girl (Elisabeth Shue) who is sought by another student who takes karate lessons from John Kreese (Martin Kove) a mean-spirited karate teacher. The girl prefers Daniel. Out of jealousy, the student and his friends kick and punch Daniel. Neighbor Kesuke Miyagi, who was taught karate as a child, (Pat Morita from “Happy Days” TV Show) saves him. There is going to be a karate tournament Daniel wants to enter to exact revenge but first he has to learn karate. Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach Daniel, striking a deal with the mean John Kreese that his students leave Daniel alone while he trains. Kreese agrees, knowing that his students will destroy Daniel at the competition. The rest of this article deals with Daniel’s training.

Daniel shows up for his first day of training. Expecting to learn kicks and throws, Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel to wax his antique fleet of cars. He tells Daniel to wax in a circle. With a rag in the left hand, he is to put the wax on and rub it into the car with the right hand. He repeatedly tells Daniel “Wax on” (one hand moving in a circle), “Wax off” (the other hand moving in a circle in the opposite direction.) Daniel spends the entire morning, afternoon, and early evening waxing the cars. Daniel shows up the next day and asks Mr. Miyagi if he has more cars to wax. But Mr. Miyagi has something else in store. This time, he wants Daniel to paint his fence. He carefully instructs that the paintbrush should reach as high as he can reach and then he should flip his wrist and start painting downward. When he gets to the bottom of the fence, he should flip his wrist upward, and paint upward. When Daniel sees the length of the fence, he almost faints. It’s as long as a fence that surrounds a fort.

After a period of unspecified time in the movie, Daniel, in frustration, yells at Mr. Miyagi “You said you would teach me karate. I’ve been waxing cars and painting fences for weeks!! When are you going to start teaching what you promised?” Mr. Miyagi makes a fist and starts to punch Daniel. Instinctively, Daniel blocks his fist with the circular motion from waxing cars. Mr. Miyagi tries another move and is blocked by Daniel who uses his “painting” skills to block the punch. Daniel wanted to learn karate moves before he had the technique.

I remembered this movie when I started to learn tango. I wanted to learn flashy, difficult figures because I thought that was the only way I could attract women to dance. I couldn’t lead flashy figures because I didn’t have the technique or flexibility.

To learn how to move the upper body, I practiced with a dining room chair in my second bedroom, which has a hardwood floor, bookcase, filing cabinet, desk for my computer, and most importantly, plenty of space to practice. The goal was to move the chair without moving my foot. If my foot moved first, it meant my upper body wasn’t moving first. This exercise, which I did for MONTHS, was the equivalent of “wax on, wax off.” My teacher, Joe, corrected me EVERY week. Like Daniel, I wanted to learn moves, but didn’t have the technique. How could I lead ochos if I couldn’t syncopate?

To learn how to lead molinetes, I needed balance exercises. I had to learn how to turn on one foot. I’ve forgotten or try to forget the number of times I crashed into the wall or fell to the floor. (I guess that’s how I got my bald spot!) The key to learning how to execute figures was to do exercises that had absolutely NOTHING to do with dancing. Whereas Daniel had to learn how to paint correctly to learn how to defend himself, I had to learn how to turn on one foot so that I could learn how to do enrosques. An enrosque is when one foot sweeps the floor in a circle while turning on one foot. Learning enrosques without having balance is a waste of time.

Well, now I can do the figures I wanted. The problem is I want to learn more figures, which means more waxing and painting!! AHH! Nothing comes easy in Argentine Tango.


Well-Known Member
...After a period of unspecified time in the movie, Daniel, in frustration, yells at Mr. Miyagi “You said you would teach me karate. I’ve been waxing cars and painting fences for weeks!! When ... Mr. Miyagi makes a fist and starts to punch Daniel...
Hi tangomaniac, with me it, was the other way round: in karate I had to drill complex routines from the beginning, and in tango I had to "waste time" incredibly long with posture, axis, and balance. Finally I cried out, when..... the way, thanks for sharing!


Interestingly, I trained in taekwondo from age 5 and till age 21. I got injured two or three times as it became more of a contact sport. Then I found ballroom dancing, and that was it for martial arts. I prefer to work with a partner who is trying their best to work with me, not against me. Ha ha

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