Why I Love Tango Music (Part I)

“Flow is a harmonious experience where mind and body are working together effortlessly, leaving the person feeling that something special has just occurred…This is because flow lifts experience from the ordinary to the optimal, and it is in those moments that we feel truly alive and in tune with what we are doing.” - Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, from Joy in Motion

Ever since I wrote about flow on the dance floor, I've gotten emails asking me to explain what I meant by it - to elaborate further on what one type of music has related to another. It's been a bit of a mess trying to explain this well, but here goes.

I have what I think sounds like a simple idea - but for something so simple at first blush, it's gotten pretty complicated to try to articulate. So please be patient while I tug at the threads of this and see if I can unravel the thoughts in my head. I'm limited in my musical vocabulary, so there are some terms I might not be using correctly - or at least not optimally. I'm trudging through the best I can though. Please drop a line if you have suggestions, corrections, opinions etc. As always, I'm all ears. :)

Deceptively simple idea --> Music shapes the dance. The "shape" of traditional tango, is the milonga. Literally, they're made for each other. Simple right?

Take a look at the following video of Chan Park (TangoZen) during a class in Italy. Leave the sound off. If you're able to, skip ahead to about 1:35 or so and start watching from there. At about 1:45, Park lets everyone just move to the music. Not specifically dancing, just moving however the music calls them to move. At about 1:59, the music changes. People are still walking in a circle, but even with the sound off you can tell that the music is quite different. The music changes again at 2:33 - and again, the dancers' movements change.

TangoZen Workshop en Tuscania, Italia

Our bodies want to move differently to different music. Music, especially music composed for the purpose of dancing, shapes the movement of the dancers. Traditional tango dancing looks the way it looks because the music sounds the way it sounds. Clear as mud?

Here's another quote from Karin Norgard, of Joy in Motion, who often refers to flow in two contexts in her articles here - the flow or energy between individuals dancing, and the flow of a group on the dance floor. (I also refer to 'flow' in both contexts, which can be a little confusing - but I haven't really been able to find a way around it yet. In this post, I'm referring primarily to the feeling of flow in a group of dancers.)

"By nature, dance is marked by time and space. The rhythm, melody, instrumentation, and syncopations of the music make us constantly aware that dance happens in time. The size of the dance floor, the number of people that surround us, the space the partnership is able to occupy, and the personal space between us and our partners make us constantly aware that dance happens in space. We are continually cognizant of how much time and space we have available to us. We think this song is too fast or too slow, or that we have too much space or not enough space.

"In moments of flow, you feel as if your body was made to move at that particular speed. You move into and out of space with great comfort and ease. Your body no longer feels contained but rather has just enough time and space to feel free and yet not so much that you feel unsupported or unsafe. Time seems to fly by and stand still all at the same time. You move quickly and smoothly and yet it feels like slow motion. In these moments, you transcend the everyday limitations of time and space and feel uninhibited by temporal or spatial boundaries."

I've mentioned in previous posts that traditional or Golden Age tango music , because it was composed for social dancers, encourages "flow" on the dance floor. Flow meaning the conditions necessary for dancers to dance to the music on a dance floor more or less harmoniously with other dancers. For example, if a piece of music, like many of Piazzolla's works for example, has long, dramatic pauses, to express the music most dancers would recognize the pause and hold their position a little longer, or slow it down dramatically, draw it out, to be "in the music". However in a milonga setting, this causes disruption in the line of dance. Theoretically, all the dancers on the floor would recognize the same pause - but the longer or more unpredictable the pauses, the harder it is to get a group of dancers to follow the flow together. It can be done, especially if the dancers are experienced, familiar with each other, and with the music. It is, however, a communal effort, and it's not easy.

When Korey Ireland, tango composer and musician, was asked why Piazzolla was so hard to dance to, he replied, "Because it's often not written with the intention of accompanying social dancers. Because it is dynamic, and often follows a different energetic/dramatic trajectory than the classic dance music that we're used to. Tango dance is full of convention, and those conventions grew up side by side with the music culminating in the 40's. From there, we find a bit of parting of the ways between tango music, and tango social dance."

I found a couple of videos that might do a better job of explaining what I mean. The first video at Milonga Porteno y Bailarin, is a more traditional milonga. The Portland video is an alternative milonga.

Milonga Porteno y Bailarin - Buenos Aires

Compare the movement and flow of the line of dance to the one below:

Alternative Milonga Portland, 2004

There's a reason classic tango music follows a structure, has somewhat predictable patterns and phrasing and that is to make it easier to dance to, not just for the individual or the couple - but for the entire dance floor of dancers sharing a space. In other words, the environment created by the music is for the enjoyment of all the dancers together, not just for the creative expression of one couple - though each couple will always express the music in their own unique way, within that structure.

This is not to say that other dances can't be danced to tango music - it certainly can. And you can use tango steps and sequences to dance to non-tango music with beautiful results. However elegant those various combinations of tango and non-tango (in music and dance) are, for me it's frequently missing my favorite part of tango - falling into that groove, into the flow, with the music, with my partner and with the other dancers on the milonga floor. The difference is the intentional feeling of the music to encourage dancers to move in harmony.

One example, Juan D'Arienzo Leader and violinist.
(December 14, 1900 – January 14, 1976)

When dancers talk about the evolution of tango music through the decades, it's pretty clear that the music has always been changing. There has always been controversy and debate over which composers are better for dancing, which songs are easier, and which are harder - or downright "undanceable".

Once you get past the ad nauseum debate over whether or not Piazzolla's work is danceable, another name tends to turn up in conversations - Juan D'Arienzo, "The King of the Beat". In the mid to late '30's tango music was changing. In the opinion of many, it was moving away from the dancers.

Contemporary tango orquestra accordionist/bandoneonist/bandleader/arranger for Mandrágora Tango, Bob Barnes, wrote, "We all fell in love with classic tango by following Piazzolla's roots. If you look down your nose at D'Arienzo and DiSarli for being too "simple", you probably should stick to playing Piazzolla at jazz clubs and coffee houses."

From TodoTango: "Tango, which had been an ostentatious, challenging almost gymnastic dance, turned one day, according to Discépolo, into a sad thought which can be danced to... It can be... The dance had become subsidiary then; but then had been displaced by lyrics and the singers, and now it is displaced by the arrangement. So: D'Arienzo gave tango back to the dancers´ feet and with that he made the tango be again of interest for the young. The "king of beat" turned into the king of dancing, and by making people dance he earned a lot of money, which is a nice way to get it."

The Future of Tango Music

So just as music shapes the dance, the dance, in turn, shapes the music. As Glover Gill told the Houston Chronicle , "The dance community and the tango musicians are a symbiotic relationship." And if changes in tango music are cyclic, it makes me wonder what the future holds for the music, and musicians, of tango.

From Korey Ireland, "Tango as music has continued to evolve and develop, but it's done so separately from tango as dance. I look forward to a happy reunion, and I see signs of it. There are challenges, economic, attitudinal, logistical, but I'm especially encouraged to see more and more dancers becoming actively involved in creating tango music, and even some musicians becoming interested in the dance."

So what about dancing to nuevo, and alternative tango? I defer to the experts, in this case, Ireland again, "we grow by dancing to this sort of music, we expand our expressive palette and then we have more to offer to the music which is already familiar." So in terms of improving our dance, nuevo and alternative music pulls us out of our comfort zones, helps us expand what Korey calls our 'dance tool kit'. Which is why I love the more challenging music at practicas in particular - so I have the chance to work outside my comfort zone. In the milonga it's, for me, a different matter. I go to the milongas to relax into the embrace of the music that (potentially) pulls all of us together.

So to answer an email I got from a reader in California, that's why traditional tango music "floats my boat".

Coming in Part II of "Why I Love Tango Music - Tango tells our stories.")

1 comment:

Tangocommuter said...

Thanks for that. All very interesting and thoughtful. 'Music shapes the dance' - indeed, and I've heard it said that the song shaped the music, the breathing and phrasing that came from the operatic tradition, via Gardel... Is dancing like singing?

Look forward to Part 2.