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Argentine Tango as a movement language

Let’s consider that learning Argentine tango is like learning a language. A language where we don’t have words but instead movements. And it is through these movements that we communicate with another person in order to interpret the music. 

For sometime now, I have been using this metaphor in my lessons. The more I use it, the more I am amazed by its depth and potential to explain different aspects of the dance. Perhaps one reason that makes it very useful in the context of Finland and the nordic countries, is that people here are usually very aware of the challenges of learning other languages and usually speak two, three or even more languages. In this blog, I share some of insights from thinking of Argentine tango as a movement language.

The learning process in Argentine Tango

When we learn a language, we often start to learn first it’s alphabet (that is, if it is a language that indeed uses a different alphabet from our own). The alphabet, the letters, can be considered as the smallest unit of the language. From them we make different words and from words we will then start to make sentences that will express different meanings. 

What is the smallest unit in the language of tango? It is often said that tango is highly improvisational. This is possible because the smallest unit is not a figure (“the basic step” or the “ocho”) but smaller particles of the movement. I believe the smallest unit is in fact the change of weight. That the leader is able to suggest in which leg the couple is. This is the first particle of this movement language. From there we will be able to make “words”: step, pivot, cross, in axis, out of axis. And only from there we will be able to make sentences, which are the figures.

Beginners will usually expect to learn the figures, the choreographies. In languages, we also often practice by learning ready-made sentences (“My name is…”, “Yo tengo … años”, “Olen kotoisin …”). This is why, we use relatively standard figures to start learning the basic techniques. With the basic step we learn changing directions, change of weight, cross. With the forward ocho we learn pivots, etc. However, I believe it is important to understand that the ready-made sentence is not the only way of communicating the message. And ultimately, we need to pay attention to the smaller elements that compose the figure (which are mostly steps, pivots and changes of weight).

Little by little, as we learn a new language, we start making our own sentences through which we can start communicating something. In a similar way, in the dance, we should begin to mix certain ready-made figures to start exploring variations. 

Moreover, as we continue to evolve in the learning of a language, we start to communicate more complex idea, we are able to use more nuanced sentences and some people even write poetry! In the dance, we are able to do same figures in different rhythms, with more nuanced intentions, we communicate more in the movement and are able to understand  more of the movement of the other.

The communication in the Argentine Tango couple

We learn spoken languages in order to engage with others. To have interactions, exchange information, ideas, observations, disagreements, etc. This is also truth for the language of Argentine Tango. When we dance, we don’t want to have a monologue where only one talks and the other listens. We want to engage with the other person, listen to what the other has to say, perhaps even adapt a bit what we think or what we initially suggested as a result of the interaction with the other. Both dancers are participating in the dialogue.

What is special in this language though, is that we have two distinctive roles: leading and following. I believe that understanding tango as a language allows us to better grasp the complexities of the dancing roles and to avoid a reductionist view. There is often a misunderstanding that the leading role only commands and the following role only follows. I think the leading role’s job can be described as “leading” in two different ways namely, a strong or more simplistic way in which lead is understood as “being in charge or command of something”. And a softer, more nuanced way, as the role that provides a route or means of access to a particular direction ("the door led to a hallway”). The first might be useful only for beginner level teaching and even then it seems to me that it falls short to describe what the leading role actually does. The second, more nuanced definition accommodates better to the notion of the dance as a language because if one leads by opening spaces, then the follower has the task to enter those spaces and might suggest different ways to do so.

In this way, the leading role can be understood as one that is opening spaces, opening dialogues. The following role reacts to this proposition by going in the suggested directions and perhaps adding certain qualities to the movement.  If we return to the idea of the dialogue, the leading role might suggest something like “hey, I think x” and the following role would respond in different ways “yes, I agree” or “yes, but what about z” or “I hear you but I propose you to do this other thing”. A monologue then is transformed into a dialogue with two participants, but what are the topics of the conversation?

Argentine Tango Couple
Argentine Tango Couple /Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi

The topics of the conversation in Argentine Tango

I deeply believe that ultimately, we want to use this language to communicate something truthful. In conversations, people are able to lie or to misrepresent reality intentionally or not, or repeat what others have said without actually going deeper into understanding how they feel about a topic. The same can happen in the language of the dance. As beginners, we use ready-made sentences and this might limit our language. This is OK because you are only learning the language. As the dance progresses though, we don’t want to stay with this. The idea is to put yourself into the dance, to communicate something of your own through this language.

Moreover, in spoken languages conversations can vary from superficial topics (e.g. the weather, etc) to deep topics (e.g. how we feel about one another). I believe that the topics of the conversation need to be connected with the music. The topic of the conversation is related to the way in which we move, and not anymore to the elements or figures that we use. An intense dramatic tango (e.g. Gallo Ciego by Osvaldo Pugliese) cannot be dance the same way as a more funny rhythmical song (e.g. Dejame Ser Así by Enrique Rodríguez) or an uplifting energetic one (e.g. Milongueando en el 40 by Aníbal Troilo or a romantic soft one (e.g. Tus Labios me Dirán by Carlos Di Sarli). Each song inspires something to different people. As the couple meets to dance, the leader might propose one topic (or way of dance it) and the follower might agree with it or instead propose another topic, another angle, another idea. An honest dialogue happens when both dancers are able to express themselves and at the same time listen to one another. And here is, in my humble opinion,  where the magic of Argentine Tango begins to happen.

See you on the dance floor!

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