Tango Musicality: The Compás

•Monday, 23 July 2012 • 7 Comments

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.

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The Importance of Anticipation in Tango

•Saturday, 23 June 2012 • Leave a Comment

Anticipation in tango… a bad thing?

I’ve always been told so. Of course a follower shouldn’t anticipate the lead, but doesn’t it happen naturally the other way around? Or even develop through a good connection?

I dance differently with every follower, of course, for the same reason that I dance differently to different pieces of music. And tango is a three-way conversation between the music, the woman and the man. Each has an effect on, and expects a response from the other.

The woman and the man respond to each other and the music. And although the music does not respond in turn, the way it is heard depends on the emotional state of the dancers and their ability to work with the complexities of rhythm and melody.

So when I dance with a follower I should begin to understand the way she responds to the music and my lead, and therefore, perhaps, to anticipate a little the possibilities of her response.

A good leader should also be aware of the dancers around him and his partner, and be able to anticpate a little their possible movements in order to protect his partner… here’s an experienced dancer: no problem; the couple over there are less experienced and don’t seem to be paying as much attention to the music as they might: best keep a safe distance in case of unexpected back-steps or flamboyant moves.

Of course there’s also the other kind of anticipation which begins before the dance. The anticipation which builds before and during the day of the milonga… listening to tango music at home or in the car on the way to the venue. That’s the sort of anticipation we should all feel.

A tango senryu

My heart moving
To the way her body moves
Anticipating

Dancing in the Dark

•Monday, 11 June 2012 • 1 Comment

We’re in a small, neat one-bedroom flat. The curtains are drawn. We hear a key being inserted into the door. It opens and George enters. He is in his late seventies, dressed in a rather shabby but neatly pressed dark suit and a heavy overcoat. There is a black band around the sleeve of his coat.

He removes the coat, takes a hanger from the line of pegs in the hallway and hangs it up. Below the pegs is a crocheted draught excluder in the shape of a caterpillar. He picks it up and places it along the bottom of the door.

In the living room he draws the curtains, switches on the television then sits down to take off his shoes and put on his slippers. After putting his shoes in the hallway, he switches off the television and turns on the radio. It is an old model with a dark brown plastic case and an illuminated fan-shaped dial. It takes a few moments to warm up. An orchestral version of ‘Isle of Capri’ replaces the silence. As if he needed the silence to be broken before he could speak, George begins to talk to himself.

She always used to switch the television on as soon as she got in. Don’t know why. She hardly ever used to watch it.

He goes into the kitchen, fills an electric kettle and plugs it in. He returns to the living room and sits down. The same record is still playing.

She wouldn’t go abroad. We usually went to Morecambe. Same guest house. Mind you, last time we went she said we’d never go again. Never did. Never shall now. Four months after, she was in hospital.

The place never changed much all the years we went there. But she saw differences every time. Last year they’d stopped bringing your tea in bed in the mornings. There was a little tray in the corner under the window with a kettle, two cups and a bowl with packets of tea, dried milk and sugar. “I’ve come on holiday to get away from that sort of thing,” she said. Didn’t make sense; I always made the tea in the mornings anyway. Brought it up to her while she sat up in bed with one of those shawls on she used to crochet.

He gets up, goes to the kitchen and makes a pot of tea. He returns with it on a tray with a sugar bowl, a jug of milk taken from the ‘fridge and a cup and saucer. By his armchair is a nest of three tables. On the top is a lace-fringed square, a photograph of a middle-aged couple (George and his wife when younger), and a small bowl containing a single orange. He pulls out the smallest of the three tables and places the tea tray on it. He sits down and pours himself a cup. He adds milk, one lump of sugar, hesitates as if about to add another, then stirs the tea.

I suppose she would have been upset if she knew I haven’t asked anyone back. Don’t see the point. I’d hate it. They’d hate it. Might have been different if we’d had children. And I never did get on with her sister.

The record on the radio has ended and another starts — Bing Crosby singing, “Dancing in the Dark”.

She loved dancing. We used to go every week. Funny, when she was in hospital she’d try to persuade me to go on my own. So I could describe it to her. She missed it. I couldn’t have gone on my own. Never liked dancing much anyway. Except…

He pauses and listens to the radio for a moment…

Dancing in the Dark. That was one of Laura’s favourites.

He listens to a few more bars, then gets up and switches off the radio. With his hand still on the switch he stands looking down at the radio for several moments before returning to his chair.

It’s funny, that day at the hospital when they told me she’d gone. I didn’t know what to do. I’d sat with her all night, holding her hand, listening to her breathing a slow, ragged rhythm. It stopped a little after six o’clock. I looked at my watch before calling a nurse. By the time the nurse arrived she’d started breathing again. Apparently that often happens.

A few minutes later, “She’s gone,” the nurse said.

I stood up, then waited for someone to tell me what to do.

On the bus on the way home I kept thinking of Laura. As if part of me was saying, you’re free now, perhaps somewhere Laura is still waiting for you.

And then I felt guilty. Mary had died and my thoughts immediately went to woman I’d danced with a few times all those years ago. She’s probably dead too.

Funny how these things stay with you. Mary never knew. She wouldn’t have wanted to. Things like that didn’t happen to people like us.

Not that anything did happen. We just danced. But something did happen in those moments over the weeks before she stopped coming to the dances. Something I can’t explain, between the two of us… a deep, overwhelming connection realised and acknowledged. Nothing was said.

I was sure others must have noticed. Nobody commented. And after that first time… well, at home later I put it down to imagination.

He takes a last sip from his cup of tea and replaces it on the table. As he does so he catches sight of the photograph. Although it has been there for many years, it is as if he is seeing it for the first time. After a few moments he whispers.

Dancing in the dark…

We leave him sitting in the chair. Perhaps he goes to close the curtains. Perhaps he takes the tea tray to the kitchen. Perhaps he turns on the radio again and waits for the music.

Tango Quotes: The Slow Version!

•Tuesday, 5 June 2012 • Leave a Comment

Several people commented that they liked the previous version of this video, but that it was much to fast for them to read most of the quotations. Sorry about that; maybe I’m just a fast reader.

This version is more than one-and-a-half times slower, so I hope everyone is able to enjoy it.

Tango Quotes

•Thursday, 17 May 2012 • 2 Comments

Tango, its history and the thoughts and ideas of those share the passion for tango music and dance, are a constant source of fascination. As an exercise in getting to know Adobe After Effects (almost as difficult as tango!) I put together a short video of some of my favourite tango quotations.

Here’s another, from Miguel Angel Pla:

The Tango is the ultimate communication between two people. It begins with an embrace, an initial sharing of affection, yet stresses individual balance… The mastering of one’s individual balance is what allows two bodies to dance as one, along with a technique that is clean and uncluttered, a form that is pure, a line that is classical and an elegance that is sublime.

Do you have favourite tango quote? Feel free to add it as a comment to this post.

 

Thoughts on Tango Teaching

•Wednesday, 25 January 2012 • Leave a Comment

A friend who is a pianist as well as a tango dancer sent me this. It’s from a book called Piano Notes, but I wonder if it could apply equally well to the teaching of tango (or perhaps  any form of interpretative art)?

The greatest teacher does not impose an interpretation, but tries to find the way the student wishes to play and to improve the effectiveness of the interpretation. This is psychologically difficult for any teacher, who has naturally developed a set idea of the proper style of playing and of the correct interpretation and the temptation to force this on every student can be overwhelming. Trying to let the student’s personality reveal itself demands a renunciation on the part of the teacher, even sometimes an abdication of taste and of the legitimate prejudices of a lifetime.

Obviously, as my friend said, it assumes, of course, the student has reached a certain standard of proficiency already! (Until you can hit the right note there’s not much point in considering the how and when…)

Comments?

Tango Poetry

•Saturday, 21 January 2012 • 12 Comments

Two of my passions in life (not a phrase I use lightly) are poetry and tango. I see many correlations between the two forms, a subject to which I shall doubtless return at some later date.

Nevertheless (or perhaps because of this) I find it deeply depressing that when I type ‘tango poems’ or somesuch phrase into Google, with a few extremely rare exceptions, I uncover a swamp of ill-considered, turgid dross. OK, one man’s metre is another man’s cacophony, but there are ground rules. Although tango is perhaps the most improvisational of all partner dances, for it to work, the improvisation must be within a structure and relate to the phrasings and rhythms of the music.

So too in poetry. Whether you’re writing haiku or a limerick, blank verse or a sonnet, there has to be a rhythm, although not necessarily a rhyme. (Even prose should have a rhythm.) Write for yourself by all means, but if you want someone else to read it your words should waken some feeling or emotion in a way that is fresh and exciting. Self-indulgent maundering doesn’t cut it.

When  you dance tango you don’t dance just for yourself, but for your partner and the music. And, in those heightened moments, for the feelings that the music and the instant touch.

I confess I have a problem too with many tango lyrics. Unfortunately I don’t speak Spanish so I’m restricted to reading English translations. Translating poetry or lyrics is a difficult task. Do you stick to the literal meanings, or do you go deeper and try to convey the feelings and emotions being expressed? And there’s the problem, again, of rhyme and rhythm.

I am grateful to those who go to the trouble of translating tango lyrics. Those of us restricted to English at least get an idea of what the songs are about (although the music and the singer’s voice convey as much or more). The result, however, is often as unsatisfactory as translations of poetry.

I love the poems of Pablo Neruda. An internet search will reveal many translations of varying quality. For me, among the best are the versions by Christopher Logue. I call them versions rather than translations because Logue, being a poet himself, has not translated the words and sentences literally, but rather has he translated the essence of Neruda’s poems into something fresh and valid in its own right.

The translation of poetry is a fascinating subject, but I’m getting a little away from my original theme…

Most of the poems I come across which have the ‘tango feel’ are not really tango poems at all, at least not in the writer’s intention. I’ve already mentioned Neruda (and linked to one of his most famous poems in a previous post) so I’ll finish with an example by Theodore Roethke:

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

From The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (Random House Inc., 1961).

 
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