Tango Musicality: The Compás

I feel I should preface this post with some kind of disclaimer. The opinions expressed are, of course, my own. I have danced Argentine tango (or, hopefully, some close relation thereof!) for a little over five years and still consider myself a beginner… someone at the start of a long and joyous tango journey. And like anyone who has been dancing tango for more than a few months I have strong opinions about aspects of the dance and the music. But they are opinions which have been handed to me by people whom I respect, and who have a lot more tango ability and experience than I have.

The discussion of the compás here may give the impression that I scrupulously follow all the tenets I’ve outlined. I do try to, but frequently fall short. So perhaps these notes are essentially a reminder to myself of what is important in tango, and to where I need to direct my attention. (Not to mention posture, and… and….) But do tell me what you think.

“You don’t have to step on the beat…”

I have been told this, even by a teacher on one occasion. (I didn’t go back.)

As far as I’m concerned, this is a fallacy. Or perhaps better, a misunderstanding.

I was fortunate enough to begin my tango journey with teachers who emphasised 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.

I used to play saxophone and clarinet so I tend to think in terms of ‘beats to a bar’. Few dance teachers, of any kind, use these terms. I remember getting somewhat confused during an early jive class when the teacher talked about the music being in sections of four phrases until I realised that what he meant by a phrase I understood as two bars of four beats per bar.

But you really don’t need to know anything about bars or time signatures to realise that tango music for dancing is composed of a strong beat followed by a weak beat. (Something that is actually true about most dance music.)

So the foot we are stepping onto should strike the ground simultaneously with the strong beat. And our ankles pass on the weak beat.

If you look closer at the dynamics of the steps of someone who walks beautifully you will see that the movement of the feet isn’t constant. There is a slight natural slowing on the weak beat and an acceleration into and through the strong beat.

Depending on the music this variation can be quite subtle or a staccato thrust “like a knife” (una puñalada). For me this is at the heart of being able to dance well to this music.

Time for an example? This is Pablo Rodriguez (one of the Argentine teachers I was lucky enough to work with for a while during his sojourn in Leeds a few years ago) dancing with his partner Noelia Hurtado to Poema.

Of course you don’t have to step on every strong beat. Is that where the confusion arises about ‘not stepping on the beat’? You can step on one strong beat in two or three, or you can step on the weak beats too from time to time. Note how Pablo and Noelia in the example above use a combination of several faster steps to ‘point’ certain musical phrases.

In discussions about tango I’ve been offered arguments against the above interpretation of the compás by those who claim it’s a question of style, or that it doesn’t apply in the same way to tango nuevo dance. For me that’s nonsense. If you’re going to ignore the essential basic rhythm of tango music, then as far as I’m conerned you’re not dancing tango.

Tango nuevo dance may or may not be ‘freer’, as some dancers claim. But you could argue that with great freedom comes greater responsibility; responsibility to be true to the essence of good tango…

What about dancing to tango nuevo (or even neo- or alt-tango) music? Piazzolla extended the classic harmonies and counterpoint of ‘Golden Age’ tango in moving it from the dance floor to the concert hall. Many of his compositions appear have a different ‘pulse’ to classic tango, but I would still contend that in the majority of cases (the danceable ones, I’m tempted to say, but that bring us into a whole new argument!) the essence is still there if we’re prepared to listen for it, and respect it. However complex it might be, we can still hear it and say, “That’s a tango.” (Or, sometimes, not….)

But I’m drifting off my subject again.

Perhaps one of the best-known tango nuevo dancers is Mariano ‘Chicho’ Frumboli. Let’s take a look at how his style of dancing differs from Pablo Rodriguez. The music is, again, Poema:

For me, although the two interpretations are very different, they both share one essential thing: respect for the compás, the essence of tango musicality.

Just a note: Tango vals is a little different in that, being in waltz time, you have a strong beat followed by two weak beats. But the basic principle of the compás is the same, although there is perhaps less scope for variation in the choice of whether or not you step on every strong beat.

~ by magickwords on Monday, 23 July 2012.

9 Responses to “Tango Musicality: The Compás”

  1. […] Like this: Like […]

  2. Just had a call from someone who generally agreed with what I said, but felt that I was in danger of invalidating my argument by my choice of examples. “They’re performance pieces, not salon tango.”

    True enough. But it is difficult to find examples of people dancing in typical milonga filmed clearly enough to illustrate my point. And in any case, the basics of tango musicality have to be there whether you are dancing a demonstration or in a crowded milonga. It is in the nature of a performance or demonstration that the moves and movements are freer, perhaps more flamboyant. But I would still maintain that these two examples show great dancers dancing tango beautifully and with a musicality grounded within the compás.

    Happy to receive any comments, especially if you share them on this post. Even conflicting arguments are welcome. But you’re going to have to be very convincing!

  3. Chicho, Chicho, wherefore art thou Chicho? (sigh)

  4. Dance teachers should be required to know basic music structure and terminology before starting to teach their first class. Sadly, that’s not the case and never will be. At least you had enough training to know that the person who said you don’t have to step on the beat was wrong. That has been an excuse for too long from tango professionals who can’t hear the beat and never relate to the music when they perform choreographies.

    This is the first video where I saw Chicho dancing in the embrace for the entire dance. And even wearing a suit! He studied instrumental music at one time, so he has compas in his veins.

    Pablo and Noelia hit the beat alright, but I pesonally don’t care for her stomping. She does more with her feet above the floor than on it. Their example was never a good one for social dancers to see. Pablo could lower his hand to shoulder height for a more balanced and elegant stance.

    My instrumental music training has been invaluable as a dancer and teacher. Your post will help others decide if they need to find a different teacher and remain true to the essence of tango. We can’t ignore the music when we dance; the music is why we want to dance!

  5. “…the music is why we want to dance!” Absolutely!

    I do believe that knowing something about musical structure has helped my dancing. Nevertheless, I’m not sure whether some are born with the ability to hear the beat, and some struggle to learn how to do so (and, sadly, there are a few who don’t realise that they can’t hear the beat).

    Musicality certainly isn’t something that’s easy to teach, compared with steps and sequences, for example. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to work with teachers who make the effort.

    Thank you for your comments.

  6. As Poema is one of my favourite pieces I recently did a search on Utube to see what was on offer and I found an incredible amount of varied interpretation of the same recording.

    I agree whole heartedly with your comments re the compass. I’ve always seem it as more than just keeping to the beat (rhythm?) but in the way that the dancer keeps to the beat with an empathy for the music, his partner and how much space is available! I see too many people who think they have learned tango trotting out the steps they have been taught without being troubled in any way by the music! (and, in some cases, by the other dancers on the floor)

    I’ve never been a fan of Chicho although I’ll be the first to acknowledge his talent. However, I have to say that is the first time I’ve seen him maintaining a close, flexible embrace and moderating his more elaborate show moves. The result is really pleasing and I hope he does more of it.

    You siad it was hard to find people dancing in a typical milonga to clearly illustrate your point. Check out Ricardo Vidort dancing to Poema on Utube. A totally different style but excellent use of the compas and musical interpretation.

  7. […] 1 The beat. Feel the ‘pulse’ of the music. See also Tango Musicality: The Compás. […]

  8. […] 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 […]

    • Thank you for quoting my words. This particular post concentrated on the ‘beat’, which is of course only part of the story. I’ve ventured to go into more detail in other posts… see those tagged ‘musicality’. I’d be interested in your comments.

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