December 13, 2018 § 3 Comments

Gavito: A good tango dancer is one who listens to the music. R: Is that the only criterion? Gavito: Yes. We dance the music, not the steps.

Musicality in tango is often discussed but rarely defined. In broad terms it could be described as the ability to match our movements to the music, a way of being in harmony with it, whatever that might imply in terms of actual dancing. We can think of it as a form of personal interpretation, or translation to a different medium—from sound to movement.

From a learning perspective, it is common to express musicality as the ability to dance to the compás, to keep in sync with the beat (the downbeat) of the music. Here are a couple of illustrative quotes expressing this idea, the first from a blog called “Tango Words” and the second from “Todo Tango”:

I was fortunate enough to begin my tango journey with teachers who emphasized the basics of social tango. They taught me that the beat in tango is called the compás, and that the most important thing in dancing tango is learning how to express that by stepping precisely on the strong beat. Tango Words – the compás

And for a slightly more complex approach:

Dance music can be thought of as comprising four elements: beat (compás), rhythm, melody, and lyrics. . . . The first step in developing our listening faculty is to learn to listen to these four elements. These form four listening skills, which for the dancer will map to four dancing skills—the skills of dancing to the beat, to the rhythm, to the melody, and to the lyrics. TodoTango

For those interested in how this might be taught, how we can identify the underlying beat of a tango, here’s a straightforward demonstration (using Caló’s “Al compás de corazón”) by Helaine Treitman from 2010: Helaine Treitman, musicality demonstration.

Although I studied music for a couple of years when I was in my teens, I’m not a musician, so I’ll forego exploring the technical elements of tango music. Good discussions of its structure and its historical antecedents can be found elsewhere  (for example: Structure of Argentine tango music).

While following the beat might serve as a useful guide toward becoming “musical,” it would be limiting given the number of songs in which the beat dissolves into the rhythm or melody, or is simply silent (although implied) for an extended period of time. And, as noted by the TodoTango blog’s author, advanced dancers will often dance to the rhythm or melody of a tango, and sometimes the vocals. Moreover, consider the distance between the pronounced rhythms of an orchestra like the Orquesta Tipica Victor and later recordings from the 1940s and early 50s by Pugliese or Troilo. For complex musical compositions such as these, attempting to move to the beat alone would result in a disconnect between the dancer and the music, overlooking a great many of the subtleties and nuances of the song. In a way it would be a disservice to the music.

In the social tango, dancers improvise within a basic vocabulary of steps and figures in an intuitive, spontaneous translation of sound to motion. This form of tango beautifully illustrates how dance translates music into physical motion.
Kristin WendlandMusic Theory and the Tango

Yet, we shouldn’t get too deep into the thickets of technicality (counting beats, planning steps) or we risk losing sight of the dense forest of emotion that we are moving through as we dance. Because the music of tango is the driving element of the dance, we must look beyond its formal structure and draw upon the emotional power it offers the dancers. In turn, our interpretation of the music should transmit this content to our dance partner (ideally, both partners will have a shared sense of a song’s musicality). Our ability, and our willingness, to express a feeling are more important than the mechanics of the dance.

Just as it is important to bear in mind that it is only when we have internalized technique that we can begin to dance tango, we can only dance to and with the music when musicality becomes a kind of second nature (in actual practice, these elements are inseparable from one another). Our interpretation of a tango must become a kind of reflex, something that happens below the level of consciousness. The problem with musicality training (as with the problem of learning tango generally) is that we focus on the elements of the music (and the elements of the dance), the bits and pieces that make it work, without engaging with their overall unity and organicity. (In this respect, learning tango resembles other kinds of learning in that we must forget the “grammar” in order to speak or play or paint or compose fluently. Technique is always relevant, of course, but it is there to be forgotten.) The real problem with musicality is not necessarily a lack of technique or even a  lack of awareness of how the music is structured but a failure to listen.

“To listen, as well as to look or to contemplate, is to touch the work in each part—or else to be touched by it, which comes to the same thing.” Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening.

Hearing and Listening

Being attentive to the music involves listening closely throughout the song rather than letting the music wash over us. If there is a “problem” with musicality, it may be tied to the failure to listen. Can this failure in turn be associated with the question of understanding and openness, with a lack of empathy?

Hearing is passive. We are exposed, for better or worse, to the auditory stimuli of the world around us. It is a form of perception, a physical sensation, meaningless until we give it meaning. Much of what we hear we learn to dismiss as we mature, developing the ability to filter out all but those salient auditory inputs we choose not to ignore (or cannot ignore because of their violence—screams, sirens).

Listening is an active process of attending to what we hear. It requires focus and, at some level, analysis and interpretation. It is a form of understanding, or an attempt to understand what is presented to the senses: not only speech in any of its manifold forms but environmental sounds that may be useful or even critical for our wellbeing. Listening to music is a matter of deeper (or maybe only different) complexity because it is more abstract than other types of listening. (Consider the trajectory and increasing complexity of 20th-century music, from Satie to Stravinsky to Boulez to Cage, as well as broad swaths of jazz and electronic music. Popular music is designed to be immediately accessible to its audience.)

With respect to tango, the failure to listen leads to a lack of musicality, or a skewed sense of musicality, because we are likely to misunderstand or misinterpret the music, or ignore its subtlety. We hear it but don’t allow it to touch us. Some of this may arise from a lack of familiarity with the music, a lack of awareness of its complexity or sophistication, of how it is integral to the dance. These are matters that can often be corrected or moderated through study and experience.

But there is another reason for the lack of connectedness to the music and it has more to do with ego and self-centeredness than a failure to learn. Traditionally (during tango’s “Golden Age”), we can assume that musicality would have been achieved through long exposure and a process of organic development—growing up with the music and the musicians who played it, as well as being part of a broad popular movement of social dancing, coupled with regular practice. The very modern phenomenon of stage tango, exhibitions, performances, choreography, competitions, and professional dancers who travel the world was not a part of the traditional social scene of tango. In a way tango has moved from a homogenous, large-scale social phenomenon (notwithstanding local variations) to an individualistic, professional model based on performative excellence and name recognition.

While it would be foolish to deny that there were good dancers and bad during tango’s heyday, as well as individual dancers known for their skill and technique, and for the development of individual styles of dance, overall, dancers were comfortable being absorbed into the community of dancers making up the ronda. This helped create a more unified, synchronized flow of movement around the floor, where couples moved in harmony with the music (see: floorcraft). There are two related elements here: social behavior and musicality. Dancers’ ability to understand musicality, to understand the music they were dancing to, and to really listen, contributed to the harmonious beauty of the ronda. In a sense, this implies a kind of collective understanding of the music, which is to say that all, or most, of the dancers interpreted the music in roughly the same way. It also implies a deep respect for that music and the willingness not only to submerge oneself in it but to recognize its primacy—as well as a desire to create something not purely individualistic in nature.

It would seem, then, that the kind of musicality that is presented as the backbone of tango would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop if our ego, our desire to stand out, becomes the predominant element in our interpretation of the music. What works on stage does not work in a crowded milonga. In less crowded venues, when there are only a handful of other couples on the floor, this tendency becomes even more obvious. And there is another danger with this foregrounding of self because it is liable to preclude the other critical element of tango, namely, the need to listen to our partner. There is always a performative element to dance (we want to dance well, we want to dance elegantly), but it must be coupled to a desire to dance with and for our partner, to create a unity of sorts, rather than simply leading or simply following or simply being the star of our own private performance.

Perhaps dancing musically requires a kind of humility in that we allow ourselves not only to be subservient to the music but open and alert to what the person in our arms is telling us. To listen not only with the brain but with the body.

“If you are too narrow in your awareness of sounds, you are likely to be disconnected from your environment. Ears do not listen to sounds; the brain does. Listening is a lifetime practice that depends on accumulated experiences with sound; it can be focused to detail or open to the entire field of sound.” Pauline Oliveros

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§ 3 Responses to Musicality

  • jantango says:

    A masterpiece on a very important subject for dancers.


  • Ben says:

    Thank you for an **excellent** post on musicality. I’ve been similarly frustrated by the insufficient vocabulary available for students of tango, outside of a few teachers and writers like Wendland. Frankly, I find it hard not to become jaded as tango, as an industry, is driven by demos, stage tango et al, but I suppose it is a double edged sword as we have that to thank for its surge in popularity.


  • Patricia says:

    Listening deeply, feeling and responding to the music is at the heart of social tango. Anything less feels superficial.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.


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