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From Notes to Moves: Argentine Tango musicality II

Updated: Jun 18

When dancing Argentine Tango it is fundamental to connect to the music. But how to do this? In a previous post, I explained the beat of the music and its importance as well as the notions of contrast and pause. In this post, I continue explaining basic notions of musicality for dancers by focusing on the structure of Argentine Tango music. 

It is good to note at the outset that the notions on the structure of the music as discussed here might not coincide exactly with how musicians understand this. Instead, the information is organised in a way that is meant specifically for dancers and it aims at highlighting aspects of the music structure that are relevant to us. Ultimately, this is the way that I have studied it from other dancers through my Argentine Tango journey. 

Do you have to know the songs by heart before dancing them musically? No. Though it certainly helps to know a song beforehand, it is not a condition to know a song by heart before you are able to be musical while dancing to it. Traditional Argentine Tango songs follow a structure that is full of repetitions and reinstatements of the same ideas. Understanding the structure will help you to interpret the music because it will allow you to anticipate musical cues and changes that you can use for your dance. Moreover, the very act of paying close attention to the early parts of a new song in order to discover its structure, will open up the song for you, allowing you to stay connected to it as you move.

Moreover, musicality and understanding the structure of the music is a matter that concerns both leaders and followers. Whenever a change of dynamic proposed by the leader is connected to the music - as it should be - the fact that the follower is also listening to the music allows him or her to perceive the change easier. In addition, decorations should also be connected to the music and here it is immensely useful to understand the structure. Finally, if the follower wishes to propose a certain quality of movement, this proposal will be received more smoothly when connected to the music.

So, let’s visualize the music as a poem written in a notebook: the beat would be the line on top of which the poem is written (it is steady and always the same through the song). Each line of text would be a musical phrase, and each stanza would be a section of the music. Let’s then begin by thinking about the musical phrase.

Argentine Tango song structure for dancers

The musical phrase in Argentine Tango

Musical phrases are a unit which can be compared to sentences in written language. A musical decoration - which is often happening in a moment we can perceive as a silence - is often separating one phrase from the next. 

I don’t think that dancers should be counting the beats to identify the musical phrases (which are often composed of 8 beats) but at the beginning it might help to count to simply be able to listen to them. Once you are able to listen, no need to count anymore! So, start by listening to a tango and notice that every certain amount of beats (usually 8) there will be some kind of musical decoration. In some tangos, musical phrases are somewhat linked so one cannot easily distinguish one phrase from the other. It helps then, to select a tango where this can be heard easily. A couple good examples to hear and easily pay attention to are “El Adios” by Edgardo Donato and "Qué te importa que te llore" by Miguel Caló. While you play them, count the beats and notice that every time you approach 8 there is some kind of musical break/decoration.

These musical decorations can be interpreted as pauses, as they enter when other instruments pull back. So, once you have listened a couple of times to the music paying attention to this quality, you can go back to the pause practice proposed in the previous post: try to make a pause each time that these musical arrangements come in. The pause should last at least 2-3 beats. If you practice with a partner, you can practice to “leave” those beats to the follower to decorate in the place while the leader makes a pause. The idea of this exercise is to start identifying the musical phrase. This doesn’t mean that we need to always dance in this rigid way! This is merely an exercise that will force you to stop and listen to the music as it presents a silence. This is a way to begin to understand the terrain - or in this case, the music - in which we are moving. Once you manage to identify the phrases, you can use this information to add contrast into your dance.

The sections in Argentine Tango songs

Groups of phrases will form a section. Each section will often contain 4 phrases each. Usually tango songs have two sections that are repeated. Section A, then section B, then again A (this is where the singer often enters, if there is one) and again B. The last section, one might call it C, is also known as the variation. Here the musicians show their abilities by varying one of the previous sections or a combination of both including more challenging arrangements that will invite the dancers to do something special. 

The sections contain a certain musical “topic”, that is, a musical idea, that is present again when we hear it for the second time, and it’s present again during the variation. How the singer phrases the song will also be connected with how the music was presented earlier in the same section. The end of the sections often contains a clear musical separation in the form of the classic "tan-tán" sound that also often goes at the end of the songs (I suggest to now go back to the previous song examples to listen to the end of the sections after 4 phrases and listen to this separation yourself).

It is important to note that the structure described above is not always present in the songs although it is quite common. More modern tangos are not following this structure necessarily, making it a bit more difficult for the dancers to follow. 

The exercise now would be to pay attention to a few tangos and try to understand these different sections. I suggest that you would first do that simply by sitting down and listening to the music, before going on to dance it. Then perhaps you can start noticing the changes while you dance. It is often the case that recognizing these elements in the music opens up a new understanding of the music for your dance. 

See you on the dance floor!

*The photo on the cover was taken by Eprahs Retep at Night and Day Marathon in Kiev, 2019.

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