Syncopation in Tango

[Note: this post is being rewritten, so don’t take it too seriously. – JayTango]

Tango music is popular for listening, but irresistable for dancing.  Tango music has interesting rhythms and melodies, but it has Syncopations unlike any other music in terms of frequency and variety.  Tango dancers improvise their dance – not only to the rhythms of tango music, but also to the syncopations; Tango is a difficult dance to choreograph, but the enormous satisfaction in dancing a well-improvised tango makes it worth the effort to learn how to do it.

The most common syncopations in tango fall into 3 categories:

  1. In Tango music, sometimes a note is displaced.  There is silence when you expect to hear the note, and then you hear the note later, in between other notes.  This syncopation occurs a half dozen times in a song (on average; sometimes there are many syncopations, and sometimes very few).  For a detailed explanation see:
  2. In Tango Milonga you frequently find a measure whose rhythm matches the rhythm of the “Habanera” in the opera Carmen.  This distillation of the Candombe rhythm in Cuba, by Georges Bizet, has become well known and widespread in all of music.  The rhythms in Tango Milonga (which is in 2/4 time) include regular walking tempo, a “stumble” step called “traspie”, and this Habanera rhythm.  The Habanera works with the 4 eighth notes in a measure, and lengthens the first note by 50% (changing it to a dotted eighth note), and shortens the second note by 50% (changing it to a sixteenth note).  This creates a captivating irregular tempo of a long note, followed by a very short note, and then 2 normal notes.  It’s common for tango dancers to suspend on the first long note, and then touch-and-go on the short second note.  Habaneras are rarely found in regular tango or Vals.

3. In almost half of the notes in tango music (which is in 4/4 time), a quarter note is replaced by 2 eighth notes.  This gives a “quick, quick, slow” feeling to the rhythm.  These syncopations are easily heard and danced, but not placed predictably, so they must be memorized.  In Tango Vals, though, these same syncopations are timed predictably, so no memorization is needed.

Tango is called a “walking dance”, and a dancer can just walk; there are many performance examples of dancers “just walking”.  Some tango dancers never understand the rhythms, and learn a bunch of figures instead.  However, the most sophisticated tango dancers learn to feel the rhythms, and dance to them; the feeling of dancing tango in-the-rhythm is unmatched in other kinds of dancing, and causes tango to be the most desirable social dance worldwide.  The leader in tango creates the choreography, including the rhythm, unlike any other dance.  Tango followers seem to prefer the complexity and surprise of improvisations in-the-rhythm, and so tango leaders study “Musicality”, which is the study of the rhythms.  Tango followers sometimes learn the music as well, and then have the opportunity to improvise the dance in sync with their leader; this is the ultimate experience of connection in social dancing, sought by the best tango dancers everywhere.