Tango Words

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.