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From Notes to Moves: Argentine Tango musicality I 

Music is an essential part of the dance. In the words of Olga Besio, tango is trialog: A conversation between three parties: two human beings, and the music. Music is what inspires the movement and the movement vocabulary of Argentine Tango is a consequence of Argentine Tango music. 

In this post, I share basic notions of Argentine Tango music for dancers. At the outset, I should say that musicality works differently in Argentine Tango dancing than in other dances. When teaching beginners, people with a dance background often ask: what is the count of this movement? The question assumes that there is one correct way to move in that given figure. Yet, interpretation of the music in Argentine Tango is a bit more free than this. In Argentine Tango, music is not providing a strict guidance that can be interpreted as the sole way of moving e.g. to only start dancing in the first count of the musical phrase. Instead, music works as a source of inspiration for the dancers who can freely choose their movements, the pauses, and the way of executing the figures with a connection to the music that is personal.

The beat or El compás in Argentine Tango

The beat of the music is a constant accent at the base of the music that remains the same throughout the song. It is often the case that when one hears a song one starts to move naturally in the beat of the music. Being able to identify the beat of the music is a fundamental part of dancers’ musicality. At the beginning, however, some people struggle to hear the beat in Argentine Tango because traditional songs lack any drums. This was also my case as I started to dance tango. If you can hear the beat from the beginning, great for you! If you struggle, no worries, it’s easy to overcome this difficulty with a bit of patience. 

In order to become familiar with the music and to train your ear, it is important to listen to tango. I mean to play tango outside of the tango lessons in your house, in the car and perhaps also to see dance demos in order to study how dancers are connecting with the music. You should also practice to walk alone in the beat, that is, that every step coincides with the beat of the music. 

Learning how to walk in the beat, though important, does not exhaust musicality. On the contrary, it is merely a starting point. From here, one can start to think of more nuanced ways to interpret the music. Ultimately, the beat can be understood as an element we need to know, in order to return to it, but we don’t always need to step in the beat of the music.

Argentine Tango: a music of contrasts

A couple dances tango to live music played by violin and harp

I firmly believe that one important aspect of musicality in Argentine Tango is the concept of contrast. The richness of the music is that it is offering beautiful contrasts all the time. We, as dancers, can be inspired by this quality of the music to create contrasts in our movements. 

Thinking about contrasts means to change dynamics when the dynamics of the music change: to go from fast to slow, from movement to pause, to drop to a lower level, etc. The quality of the contrasts you are able to interpret will develop through your tango life because it largely depends on the control we have over our body. However, despite the level of ability, you can start thinking about contrast already at the beginning of your tango journey simply by focusing on finding pauses in the dance.

Less is more: learning to find pauses

The first contrast you can use is simple yet profound: movement and pause. And, as simple as it seems, it is actually quite rare to see on dance floors. The thing is: as long as the song is still playing we tend to think we need to move. But if we are always doing we miss an important element that will help us incorporate some contrast to our dance: the silences. 

During the songs there is normally no actual silence, because there is always some instrument playing. However, we can think of trying to find the sensation of silence. How do we do this? Because the music has different layers as there are different instruments playing, sometimes an instrument comes to the foreground and others go silent or go to the background. Depending on the instruments that you are paying attention to, you will have the sensation of a silence when that instrument stops or goes to the background. While other instruments will probably continue on that space left by the one that just left we, as dancers, don’t need to resume the movement immediately and we can convey the sensation of the silence in our movement - or lack thereof. 

So, a good practice is to walk alone and “hunt” silences or pauses, try to catch the sensation of a pause and keep it. There is no rush. You can stay there for a few beats. And then you can resume walking. Then, of course, try to add this idea to your dance with a partner. As simple as this sounds, even dancers with a rich movement repertoire will sometimes fail at simply making a silence. It is incredible how much this adds to the dance because, when you make a pause, whatever you do after it, feels more meaningful. Conversely, dancers with a limited vocabulary may actually enrich their dance enormously if they learn to make pauses.

How long should the pause last? Well, it depends, but I’d say at least a couple of beats, otherwise it just feels like you are continuing in the mode of dancing every beat. And what to do during the pause? First, “stay in character”, I mean, you are still dancing, still connecting with your partner. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to make silences: it leaves us alone in that connection with our partner with nothing else to work as a buffer. A silence might be difficult because it might feel intimate. So the simplest thing might be, just breath, focus on the sensation of the hands in the embrace, check your body, are you tense? can you find some relaxation in the shoulders?. You might use the silences to accommodate your embrace, and start thinking how and when to resume the movement. Try to make the next step you take as meaningful and connected to the music as possible. 

Beginner leaders tend to worry a lot about boring their partners because they lack a rich movement repertoire. This is normal, but what if you can sharpen up those few movements by simply focusing on the pauses? I cannot emphasize enough how much this adds to the dance. By pausing you have time to reconnect to yourself, to your partner, to the music, and carry on in this beautiful trialogue that we call dance.

See you on the dance floor!

*I'd like to thank Daniel Valenzuela for his editorial remarks that helped improve this article.

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