Musicality in Tango Dance

Igor Polk, 2005 September 10

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Other articles you might be interested in:

Deep knowledge of technique is required for the highly musical dance ( not figures! ). Here is some insights about deep tango technique;

Here are 2 more powerful methods of making a dancing phrase interesting.

Do you want to SEE what I mean? Right now? Here, an external link: a good illustration of musicality ( this is a juggler performance! );

Here is another, better example. Simple, but highly musical belly dance; Look how she moves with musical phrases and emphasizes notes! All her body dances, and that what supposed to be in tango too.

What is music



So, it is improvisational. No rhythmical patterns ?

I always wondered why some people have good sense of rhythm, some not. I guess those who do not are better tango dancers - they do not follow outdated rhythmical patterns! They improvise! They stop in the middle of the musical rhythmical sequence and think what is the next step. Ah! They step outside of the right moment and call it rhythm improvisation! Ah-hm!

Somebody says: "it is improvisational - any step is possible next. And at any moment". Then what step is better? What moment is right? Is it dancing or mess?

Well, even if any step is possible as the next one, there are patterns in the tango dance. You can not just stop and think. There are patterns. Dance is structured like everything in life. A stable stepping sequence is a figure of the dance. It is not artificial, the parts of the sequence just fit together very nicely: it is natural. And figures have certain rhythm patterns on their own.

Music also has rhythmical patterns. There are very specific rhythmical tango phrases. So we have 2 source of rhythm: music and your dance. I understand musicality as a complex skill, but there is one thing it includes for sure: an ability to put current dancing pattern on top of the current musical phrase. If they match, it is great. It is called musicality. If they do not - it is a mess.

Here are levels of musicality skill:

1. At first, musicality can be viewed as the ability to follow the rhythm very well. Then to interpret rhythm changes in music which are abundant in tango and are the characteristic of the dance.

2. Then comes the ability to emphasize a musical phrase: divide the dance into little parts with the beginning, development, and the finale in accordance with similar patterns in music. The beginning is not necessarily has to be aligned with the very first step of a figure and end with the last one. This is impossible to do in an improvised dance. On the contrary! One can easy make any step be starting or final by putting an emphasis on that, slowing it down, making a pause. To follow the music, one does not have to invent new steps all the time. And predict the figures. It is only enough to be able to lead steps slower or faster, that is all. And new will be born. Music already curries a blueprint for that.

Have you noticed? I mean it includes an ability to break memorized figures! This is not as difficult as one might think.

Also here comes the ability to emphasize small rhythmical variations, individual notes, including slightly off-beat ones. That is where the knowledge of micro-technique and asynchronous dancing with different parts, total "dissociation" comes into play. Every step can be unique!

3. Then comes an interaction with individual instruments and the orchestra as a whole. You dance your own musical part along with that orchestra, asynchronously with other instruments ( of course, otherwise it would be 1. or 2. ). Your step is a note, even several notes. And you can even bend a string. You can support other parties or counterpose them. Off-beat dance comes to this category. And not only you! Your partner should be able to love it too..

For all that to happen, for a dance to be highly musical, the body parts have to be like other musical instruments played along with the orchestra. Yes, not only one instrument, but many: legs dance one part, torso dance another one,.. Slow or fast, jazzy or classical is pretty much up to dancers.

The body itself should dance - it is musicality! Legs, torso, feet, arms, hands, the head, eyes, lips, everything dances. The spirit dances too! But now we are talking mostly about steps.

In an improvisational dance there is no place for thinking. The spinal brain figures it out. Let it use the opportunities appearing in a dance on every millisecond. The body and soul is totally incorporated into your partner's and your own movements as a couple, in the music, in the surrounding place and other dancers around.

To be very musical, knowing what is musical is not enough. One has to have skill and abilities to variate figures, individual steps, and parts of steps in all possible ways. But as a simplest way, just slowering the dance, and changing the direction in preparation to the next move is enough.

To be highly musical does not require complex steps. But as far as I know, musicality is valued as the most important dancing quality beside the ability to lead and follow well.

And I still did not answer to the question what step is better next. The one which complements the musical phrase, of course, but not only. Surprise. A step which surprises. That is a powerful instrument of making the dance interesting and your partner screaming with excitement!

* * *
A working definition used in here and in all other articles on this site:
Step - transfer of body holding force ( it might be your weight ) from one foot to another.
Contrary to Figure - a stable, self-contained sequence of steps.

* * *
To finish another side of the story, to make the picture complete, I should develop an idea of "One step as a figure". Later.


* * *
Here are some citations:

"I try to explain the 'complexity' of tango rhythms to my students as

a) lack of a fixed pattern in accents. There are many different patterns,
and musicians like to play and change them, so one has to LISTEN to the
music instead of learning THIS pattern IS TANGO.

b) there are multiple rytmical figures simultaneously carried by different
exercise: make people clap to different instruments

c) the instruments are not 'precise' on the beat. i.e. there is often a
certain flexibility, and if one listens carefully one will notice who
sometimes one instrument comes early on the accent and other times late.
This is (usually) on purpose, just like in jazz.
Exercise: make people clap:
* early on the beat (='aggressive, hectic)
* late on the beat (='lazy', laid-back)
both should be done in the same tempo, without loosing the sense of tempo.
I use a CD with a drummaschine, to give a dead-fixed-beat. When students
realize, how being on a different part of the beat, changes what they (or
the instruments) are expressing suddenly there is much more musicality in
the dance. It is not about being 'on' the beat. it is about 'relating' to
the beat.
exercise: listen to the instruments, and try to find out when they are
'early' or 'late'."

-- eero [Link] [Website of Eero about Tango]

Igor: I just want to point out that before experimenting with individual instrument rhythm patterns and phrases, off-beats, and syncopation, one has to master the ability to dance precisely on beat. And that is not a trivial task for many! I know people who talk about musicality and following complex rhythms without being able to step steadily with the main beat and the main rhythm changes of a tango piece.

* * *
There is one delicate but sharp instrument to find if a dance is musical: dancing without music. Dance without music, make music with your legs and body, listen to the music of tango figures!

It can be used in another way. Switch off sound of a performance video: and you will see the musicality flaws as if they are under a looking glass..

* * *
My video links page has numerous examples of musical dancing. Check it out to see it with your own eyes.

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My name is Igor Polk. I dance Argentine tango in San Francisco.

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