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Argentine Tango: Music and Musicality

by BTM


"The Tao that can be told of is not an Unvarying Tao;

The names that can be named are not unvarying names.

It was from the Nameless that Heaven and Earth sprang;

The named is but the mother that rears the ten thousand creatures,

each after its kind. " 

I have become reluctantly embroiled in a conflict about what constitutes "traditional" tango and what is neo-tango and what it is okay or not okay to dance tango to.

I have just finished reading "Tango; The Art History of Love" by Robert Farris Thompson. Thompson has made a brave attempt to trace the origins of tango and they are as obscure and labyrinthine as an Umberto Eco novel. He reveals that the tango has African roots and probably drew on other dances and much like say, Ceroc today takes movements from tango, it drew on other influences. Tango styles would seem to have varied from club to club or area to area. As a musical form it has to be remembered that tango was a ballad song before it became music to dance to. Thompson also traces the changes in music and how different orchestras produced different sounds. 

Dancing in different places in the UK one can see that different milongas dance with different styles, moves. So what is traditional; the dance lives on and music from the last century is still danced to. Is this an anachronism?  

The first time I was at a milonga and I heard Tom Waits' "Tango 'til they're Sore" being played I was delighted because I suddenly heard something that was part of my musical history (In some ways I think Tom Waits has the same quality of baladeering as Gardel).

As a teacher I want to inspire my students to dance authentically with what they have and with what they hear, with the feelings that they experience.
Joaquin Amenabar is an authority on how a tango is structured musically and is an excellent teacher of musicality ie how to listen and interpret what you hear into dance form. The key word here is "interpretation" once you have enough skill and experience at dancing tango you will inevitably start dancing it with your own interpretation, consciously or unconsciously. We watch others dance tango and admire (or not as the case may be) the differing qualities of dancers, but for me what happens when I am dancing is primarily internal and is about my relationship with the music, my partner and the floor. The occasional applause I have received is mystifying to me since I am not a performer. 

As a teacher I want to inspire my students to dance authentically with what they have and with what they hear, with the feelings that they experience. But suddenly I have been given the label "neo" by someone who wanted to dance "traditional". I admit to playing non-tango music; but I also play tango music recorded by musicians who are still alive, and bands who are writing their own tango music.

A schism has arisen but in my mind the dance itself feels more like a spectrum. I can dance close and small and tight or large and expansive; I can dance rhythmically or lyrically. I can dance fast or slow. (My observation leads to me to conclude that many people do not know how to or perhaps even afraid of dancing to a melody or musical phrase).  I don't want imitation of what I do or how I dance; I require my students to hear for themselves what moves them in the music. Some students get caught in trying to do flashy complicated moves when they could be dancing with feeling far more simply and beautifully.  

  "I do not wish to further thinking that there can be something inherently right or wrong with the actions I'm seeing or the piece of music I'm hearing.  Hence my position that our reactions, emotional or mental, to a piece of music are never caused by this piece of music, but always by the needs and values we hold dear.  In the course of history, riots have broken out, and composers and performers have been physically and verbally attacked over pieces of music."

Paul Tingen "Miles beyond" 

What this person (who me as called me neo) has perceived of my teaching is superficial. My view is he has seen the dancers he would like to dance like but has made an intellectual decision that that is how tango ought to be danced. He is obsessed with rhythmic tangos, ones which have metronomically regular beats. Tango is more than technique. 

What I am teaching most of the time is skill, technique and connection. Though this is not necessarily explicit. I work with feel (of the body) a lot of the time and I get both leaders and followers to feel how my body is moving. It bypasses intellect. 

  I once danced across the rhythm as a demonstration to see if people could see a difference. My partner was confused, but followed me nonetheless. A couple of people felt intuitively that something wasn't right but couldn't say what, a couple could see that I wasn't stepping in time.  Then I gave a class on dancing slow; by just giving people permission to make a step last 4 beats; the whole atmosphere in the class changed. It was electric! The energy in the room was amazing and the way people moved had changed.  

Last year I went to Javier Cura's workshops on Tango and Contact Improvisation. It was a real eye opener (or maybe heart opener). Sometimes you have to take people out of tango to something more primal, simpler, maybe like a kindergarten class " Now move like a tiger!" then bring them back into the structure that defines tango movement, the quality of the dancing changes - for the better. 

Despite what other people may think or say, I will dance to the music I think works and moves me be it Pugliese, Gotan or Tom Waits. As in Marcia Rock's documentary "Surrender Tango" where Mariela Franganillo and Jorge Torres dance beautifully to Piazzolla's Escualo ( The Shark) and start the dance with a slow movement across the pace of the music.  Piazzolla challenged Argentian people with his music. 

As Rumi said.. "Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing 
and rightdoing there is a field.  
I'll meet you there. "

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