Tango dancing has a unique freedom of musical interpretation. Unlike all other partner dances, tango does not have a set basic rhythmical pattern. Even what is known as the “basic step” can be done in different ways rhythmically. This feature of tango at once makes a dancer’s relationship with the music more challenging, but also more exciting. THE MAIN CHALLENGE in musicality is to be able to interact with the sophisticated patterns – phrases, accents, and silences – inherent in tango music.
To begin with, it is best to keep one’s musicality as simple as possible. The most fundamental way to dance tango is to step on the 1 and the 3 in the four-count measure of the music. One does not need to know what the four-count measure is – even most beginner dancers can hear the basic heartbeat of traditional tango music. But some practice is usually necessary before one can keep stepping on to the beat consistently. I recommend keeping this simple approach to musicality as one learns the basics of the dance.
The next degree of freedom to explore is syncopation. For example, one can put an extra step in between the “walking” beats - the 1’s and the 3’s - making either a 1-2-3 or a 3-4-1 pattern. These patterns have a “quick-quick-slow” feel, and are sometimes called that. This concept can be expanded to making several more quick steps in a row, for example: 1-2-3-4-1 (quick-quick-quick-quick-slow). These are used particularly for fast molinettes or for corridas, but they are much harder to do well (particularly to lead well) and are therefore a lot less common than the 1-2-3 or the 3-4-1 patterns.
In addition to speeding up with such syncopation, one can also slow down the basic rhythm. The basic way of doing that is stopping to skip one or more of the slow beats (the 1’s and the 3’s). This is the most basic form of the pause, which is very important for advanced tango dancing, as I will explain shortly.
These three options (akin to half-notes, quarter-notes, and pauses in music) are the fundamental rhythmical patterns in the modern social tango dancing. In Buenos Aires, an overwhelming majority of social dancers in the center of the city will not do anything outside of that. Since the sequence of slow steps, quick steps and stops is never predetermined, these three options provide endless possibilities, enough to never dance a tango the same way twice. Moreover, one can slightly vary the speed of some weight transfers while still stepping according to these basic patterns, which further expands the variety of rhythmical sensations.
But the best of tango music lends itself to more than that. If one listens closely to the 1940’s recordings of the orchestras of Ricardo Tanturi with the vocals of Alberto Castillo or Enrique Campos, Pedro Laurentz with Alberto Podesta, Lucio Demare with Raul Beron, or the orchestras of Anibal Troilo or Osvaldo Pugliese, one can hear phrasing of outstanding freedom and at the same time rhythmical integrity. In the 1940’s, when tango reached its peak as a popular dance, some of the more adamant dancers were responding to that freedom. Till this day, mostly in the region of Villa Urquiza, one can see dancers who make one slow step over several counts of the music, or step slightly before, or slightly after the beat. That is when, in my opinion, the dance becomes truly worthy of the best of tango music. A tango dancer then becomes akin to a jazz musician, who syncopates and phrases his lines in ever more spontaneous and sophisticated ways. But an immediate problem with opening up such musical freedom is that it becomes difficult to maintain criteria of good musicality. It can sometimes be hard to tell someone who hears the music in a very advanced way from someone who does not hear it at all. Certainly, this degree of freedom is used by some as an excuse to not pay much attention to the music. Usually, the men are the ones who have this problem. It is easier to tell an advanced musicality from a non-existent musicality by dancing with the person. A musically advanced person will always harmoniously blend his rhythm with the rhythm of the partner, and will only step off the beat if he feels that the woman is doing it with him comfortably. In the opposite case, when the man certainly does not hear the beat, the woman feels extremely uncomfortable, and is torn between wanting to dance to the music and matching the random timing of the partner. In that case, the woman can actually help the man with the beat, transmit it through her movement and the embrace. It takes a great degree of skill, but it is possible - I have seen it done. If the woman is not up to such a challenge, it is better to stop dancing with the grossly unmusical man – this way he may get the message faster.
To go beyond the three fundamental rhythmical patterns is very difficult, especially if one is going to do it well. This is why even some of the experienced dancers and teachers do not believe in it. It requires an extraordinary ability to tune in to one’s partner’s rhythm and musicality, as well as an easy control of one’s weight transfers, neither of which is very common. It demands a high degree of balance and stillness (see Partner Connection and Body Conditioning sections). It also requires a sense of rhythmical phrasing – a concept which I discuss in more detail in the MUSIC section. But in spite of these difficulties, to me the rhythmical freedom constitutes probably the most profound expressive aspect of tango dancing. Once I began touching it, there was no going back. It feels like the ultimate boon of all the work that I put into it – when suddenly unprecedented but perfectly sensible rhythmical patterns are coming out spontaneously, as though on their own accord, through my body, in harmony with my partner and the music at once. Such perfect moments are still rare, but more frequent than before. In my experience, choreographic freedom of this dance is nothing compared to its freedom of musicality.
In order to begin touching such musical freedom, good partner connection and body movement are necessary, but not sufficient. Also needed is a productive intention. To begin with, what is one listening to in the music? What is one dancing to? There is a variety of instruments which one can pick out and follow – bandoneons, violins, base, piano. I had a phase when I wanted to dance every sound of the dominant melody – and was finally able to do it! But then I realized that it was a dead end. It meant taking the music too literally, enslaving myself to it, and enslaving my partner along with me. Rather than following anything in the music, it is possible to interact with it, not exactly obeying the rhythmical patterns of the music, but rather “riding” them, as a surfer rides the wave, or as a bird rides the wind.
The main doorway to musical freedom in this dance is the pause. Some old-timers understood the importance of it enough to conceptualize and talk about it. The Villa Urquiza style is particularly known for its “paused” quality. The pause here means more than just stopping once in a while. It means creating a pause in the midst of movement, as often as possible. In order to do this, one must gain control over one’s weight transfer, learn how to slow it down and stop effortlessly in the middle of it (see Body Conditioning section). When one can do it, one frees up one’s instincts to move the body with a spontaneously appropriate timing. In connection with this, I am always reminded of the beautiful metaphor for shooting an arrow from Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery”:
“You can learn from a regular bamboo leaf what ought to happen. It bends lower and lower under the weight of snow. Suddenly the snow slips to the ground without the leaf having stirred…it [the shot] must fall from the archer like snow from a bamboo leaf, before he even thinks it.”
Only if one waits can one find just the right rhythm and timing that would harmonize at once with one’s partner, the music, and the physical space. One can begin by trying to stop and wait as often as possible. But ultimately, the whole dance can proceed in the state of balanced stillness, so that there is a pause or a near-pause in every step. This may be hard to imagine, but I attest that it is possible, and that it opens up unprecedented levels of freedom in all aspects of the dance, particularly musicality. This way, nothing is ever preprogrammed, nothing is contrived intellectually. With each step, one is opening to the music, the space, and the partner’s movement. The ability to do this depends greatly on the quality of one’s partner connection and body movement. The true pause is enabled by the balance and stillness of each body and of the whole couple.
Out of the pause, there develops a more organic and subtle relationship to the rhythmical character of the music and to the rhythm of the partner. This creates a totally new experience, even if one is just walking to the basic beat. When I started to find some stillness in every step, simple in-line walking suddenly became very exciting. That was also when I started stepping slightly off the beat in ways which somehow made sense to both myself and my partners. By waiting, both partners can enter into a freer musical dialogue, in which the timing of each step is never predetermined. The pausing and the waiting open up the musical freedom of the woman – the man does not always dictate the timing, but rather invites the woman to step and waits for her to interpret the invitation according to her own musicality. A unique reading of a particular piece emerges from a blending of both partners’ musical sensibilities. With practice, one’s instincts also begin to find rhythmical patterns which grow organically out of the pause. They are like phrases or sentences created spontaneously. For the man, they are the sequences of “steps”, while for the woman they are the sequences of embellishments. Such patterns are very different in nature from sequences which are first planned in the mind. The difference is like that between a tree and a concrete structure. A true phrase is not planned, but it is often set, meaning that the same phrase is often used by a dancer on many occasions. Phrases evolve, but they do so slowly. That is why they should not dominate the dance, otherwise it becomes less free, more predetermined. For a larger part of a tango song, both partners should try to pause and wait inside each step, whether in the process of a weight shift, at the beginning, or at the end of it. This way, unprecedented sequences and rhythmical patterns keep emerging.
If all this seems a little far-fetched or vague, I am not surprised. It took me years to even consider the pause. I remember some old-timers telling me to slow down, telling me that I was “running”, “jumping”. I did not want to hear any of it. I did not want anyone to tell me how to feel the music. But in due time, all those comments came back to me and helped me discover completely new levels of this dance. It probably takes anyone years of dancing before the pause begins to make sense. I have been at it for 12 years and only in the last year or two began to experience its power with any regularity. In the first several years, I believe it is best to stick with the three fundamental rhythmical patterns which I described above. When trying to pause, an inexperienced male dancer is likely to lose connection with the partner, or rob her of her balance. It is better to first get into some rhythmical pattern, and feel an unbroken connection – both with the partner and with the music - through it. At the same time, it is good to be aware of the possibility of a freer musicality, so that when one is ready, one can begin taking advantage of it.