How to Learn Tango Musicality

by: Jay Aland

But first . . . Why to learn musicality. For men, dancing, there is an instant feeling of satisfaction in taking a step which exactly interprets the music. For their partner, the feeling is similar but much stronger – being led to step in sync with the music; the beat, the melody, the intensity, the whole feeling of that note in the music. When you dance, step after step, exactly in sync with the music, there is a feeling of exhilaration, a tension which is often released at the end with spontaneous joint laughter. Watch how the steps match the music in This Video and notice the dancers’ expressions at the end. This is musicality taken to the Nth degree. Can you extrapolate from this performance to imagine what it could be in your dance?

What is it exactly which gives dancers that thrill (where you feel shivers down your back)? Let me extrapolate a bit from my own experience. Advanced dancers, with good musicality, are not conscious of musicality at all; it just happens (some call this muscle memory, some call it the subconscious, I call it “right brain” because that’s where you can hook up a probe and measure it exactly). The leader leads a step matching the music (beat, rhythm, tempo, intensity, melody, and other factors). At the exact same moment, the follower hears the music, and takes the exact same step, also driven by her right brain. Both of them heard the exact same step in the music, and took the step. Leading and following actually disappeared, and they moved as one. The right brain exists to “be one with another” and when this happens pleasure centers erupt. Note that this cannot possibly happen if the left brain, with its dominance, is active: thinking, planning, remembering, interpreting, choreographing, the “little voice”, or trying to make this happen.

The Old Milongueros in Buenos Aires dance close together without holding on to each other. Arms are very light; “leading and following” is almost non-existent; they move perfectly together, each flowing into the other (like batter on a waffle iron). American embraces include holding your partner against you, even though it may be a light hold.

So where does Connection tie in? There are physical parts of connection – such as axis – that are part of a different discussion. In terms of the non-physical part, though, it may be that the synchronization which is the key of Musicality requires additional connection in order to be perfectly in sync. Each person hears a certain note in the music differently. I know that I hear an “ocho cortado” (for an example) 50 different ways. For each different way I hear an ocho cortado, I have a dance that matches it. My partner will also have a different dance for each ocho cortado she may hear, and if I want to be in sync with her, I need to adapt to her interpretation, or invite her into my interpretation, so that we are exactly together. The first thing is to learn all the interpretations of ocho cortados for each of my partners, and, in each case, which interpretation will apply to the music being heard right now. I add this information to my database for this partner (along with how much she dissociates on backward ochos, whether she prefers to syncopate on the 2 or 3 in Vals, and a million other data bits needed for synchronizing with her).

If I were to try to add the details for ganchos or barredos or sandwichitos, it would overflow my memory. So I just avoid such figures, and try to become good at walking, and ocho cortados. Now I see why other dancers cannot do a gancho or barredo or sandwichito unless they grip their partner tightly and push her, or train her in what to do “when we get into a certain position”. Unfortunately, while they are trying desperately to train or force their partners, they never get to learn to do a great ocho cortado. After years of “dancing tango” and learning hundreds of complex figures, they have yet to experience actual connection. They’ve never experienced that thrill that keeps the Old Milongueros dancing year after year, and so they quit. We shake our heads wondering why they quit just when they seemed to be starting to get it, but the truth is that they never got anything that they couldn’t get doing ballroom dancing. So why bother. (If you happen to be satisfied with the feeling you get in ballroom dancing, I recommend that you forget about Argentine Tango and stick with ballroom. Why do all that work?)


And now . . . On To the How!

There are 2 ways to dance: 1. Memorize some choreographed steps, and make sure your partner has memorized the same steps, then just do a sequence of these steps, or repeat the same one over and over (already tried in tango), or, 2. Improvise as you go, step by step, expressing the nuances of the music, and lead and follow skillfully to stay in sync with your partner. Method 1 is much easier and more popular (we call it “ballroom dancing”) but the best it can ever get is not as good as some people would like. Method 2 is known as “Argentine Tango”. It is challenging; it takes more learning; but at its best, it is deeply satisfying. At its very best (for some of us) it has moments of transcendence where you become one-with-everyone; these moments you will remember in detail for the rest of your life. (See Left Brain / Right Brain.)

Argentine Tango is about “Musicality and Connection” say the experts. The place to start is Musicality, because it gives you something concrete, explainable, memorable and understandable. Musicality is not nearly as concrete as choreographed figures, and completely lacks visual appeal, and so you might be inclined to go for figures first. But the experts say “Musicality and Connection” and never mention “Figures”

Warning: I have never seen or heard of musicality being taught, so I am improvising here; and it is a work in progress, subject to change.

Musicality is intimately intertwined with tango music, and must be learned in conjunction with the music. (Tango music is unique – not like any other dance music, and not able to be duplicated by today’s musicians. Tango dancers are stuck using old scratchy 78rpm records as their only source of music.)

Listen to tango music. The best is “Golden Age” tango music and is the place to start. Listen to it over and over, and listen for the rhythms. The base rhythm is 4/4. We usually step on beat 1 and 3. Easily heard over that is a “quick, quick, slow” rhythm, caused by emphasizing counts 1, 2, and 3 only so that you don’t take another step on 4 (or emphasizing 1, 3 and 4 and not stepping on 2 to give SQQ). As you listen, you’ll soon hear a repeating pattern of SSQQS, so pervasive that it is the universal step in ballroom tango (which is the tango brought here 100 years ago, before the evolution of rhythmic complexity known as the “Golden Age”). If you keep listening after picking out these basic rhythms, you’ll start to hear many more rhythms, but you now have enough to start dancing.

Step to the rhythms of the music (no partner needed). Walk on the slow steps. Use a rocking step on the quicks. Try taking faster steps, or moving forward and back, on the quicks. Most importantly – use easy familiar steps that don’t cause you to start thinking about where to step. Learn one thing at a time, and the first thing is moving in rhythm with the music (until it becomes automatic – see “Left Brain / Right Brain”)

When you can move automatically move with the rhythm, listen for more complex rhythms and improvise more complex steps to match them.

When you learned to walk or ride a bicycle, you learned the balancing thoroughly before even attempting fancy maneuvers. Do the same now: learn to move in the rhythm of the music without having to think about it. Then take a partner, and move together to the music, each following the other. Don’t worry about where your feet are going – just keep them under you. Don’t try to introduce fancy figures – just move together until 1. Moving in the rhythm is automatic, and 2. Being in sync with your partner is automatic.

As you move on to learning connection, and maybe even fancy figures, you may find that you start having to think about the rhythm, or when your feet are moving. Come back to basics, and get back on automatic.

You can also practice dancing while driving, with your fingers on the steering wheel. Or you can tap your toes in rhythm while sitting and reading. Practice to the complex rhythms, not just the underlying walking rhythm.

Note to teachers: Dancers generally learn from doing, not hearing, so talking about it doesn’t help much. Explaining moves can actually be counterproductive, as a dancer may forget what he already knows while trying to file away new information. Say “quick, quick, slow” until the dancers can hear it in the music. Then be quiet. Watch for successes and compliment them. Watch for discoveries and point them out to the other dancers. What the dancers discover or invent for themselves will be theirs forever; what you tell them may not last long.