Why Musicality in Tango?

  JA 4/24/19

What is musicality in tango?  Why are we concerned with musicality?  How can we dance musically?

In short, musicality in dancing means moving in a way which expresses the music.  In tango the music is full of different rhythms – more than in any other kind of music – and so expressing all these rhythms makes tango musicality particularly complicated – and satisfying.  Tango music is written in 4/4 time (Tango Vals is in 3/4, and Milonga is in 2/4); separately there is a rhythm of Quicks and Slows; there are syncopations formed by the displacement of a note; there are Habanera-like rhythmic phrases; there are interjections of embellishments, accents and occasional solos by one instrument or the singer.  There are also non-rhythmic musical variations such as crescendos and diminuendos, staccato and legato sections, louder and softer phrases, chord progressions, minor keys, disharmonies, . . . .   All of these nuances can be specifically danced – or not – adding to the dancer’s interpretation of the music.

We dance musically as a way to connect with our partner.  “Connection is the objective” says Jorge Firpo; we connect by first focusing on our partner, and then moving with an enhanced awareness of our partner.  When we move in an interpretation of the music, rather than a repetitive movement such as in ballroom dancing, we grant our partner the opportunity to match our interpretation of the music.  When our interpretation of the music matches our partner’s interpretation, and we are both also in sync with the music, there is a transcendent feeling – a thrill – of oneness, which might be the ultimate in “connection”.

Dancing musically starts with a left-brain process of examining the music in its rhythmic details, and consciously examining the possibilities for how to dance to individual nuances.  Then in actually dancing to this music, some of these intellectualizations will emerge as moves – unplanned and without thinking.  Other steps figures will still be occurring in the thought process, but over time and repetition, more moves will be spontaneous – improvised – and fewer will require thinking.  Eventually all the tango dancing will be an improvisation.

Obviously, musicality in tango can only happen within the context of improvisation.  When we dance known figures, our focus is on the formation of the figure, the correctness of its execution, the selection of which figure to dance, the compilation of these selections in a whole tango, and the communication with our partner of which figure we are doing.  By contrast, when we improvise, we turn off the mental processes of remembering, checking, calculating, planning, anticipating, preparing, correcting, adjusting, and all the details of the figures.  Instead, we feel the rhythm and our partner, and we move, without thinking, or even knowing where we’ve moved.  Ideally our consciousness is empty; our left brain is quiet; we are dancing in our right brain only.  (To me, dancing occurs in the right brain while learning to dance occurs in the left brain.)