I am very slowly, and very badly, learning castellano for my trip to Buenos Aires. I still know very, very little - barely the essentials - and I have very little confidence using what I do know. But it's a work in progress. I am (mostly) enjoying the adventure. One surprise, although it shouldn't be, is how it is changing my dance to suddenly be able to understand some of the songs.
Let me state for the record that you do not have to understand Spanish to enjoy dancing tango - after all, a great deal of it is instrumental. I was told that very statement again and again, in very reassuring and encouraging tones. But the truth is once I started understanding more of the lyrics, everything changed. I had learned some of the lyrics already simply by looking them up for myself - there are loads of great websites with translations (I've listed some of the below.) I don't know specifically how my dance has changed - I do know that how I understand and interpret the songs has changed. Which songs I feel like dancing to, and with whom, has changed.
A Modern Example at an Alternative House Milonga
The song, "Epoca" by Gotan Project
(Lyrics can be found here: http://alwaysontherun.net/gotanproject.htm)
I've heard this song dozens of times. When I first got the CD, I looked up the lyrics out of curiosity because the tone of the singer's voice seemed not to match the mood of the music. If you do the same and read the lyrics, you'll notice that to have a direct translation of the words doesn't help very much. I knew roughly what it was about, but had to ask friends to fill in the blanks - allusions I wasn't getting. It is about Argentina's Dirty War, about people who are still missing, and a reference to the "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" who are still searching for information about their children who were "disappeared." (And in some cases - the children of the disappeared.)
If you listen to the song (here is a video: http://youtu.be/OSxpaYHhegs), it has a strong, danceable beat. The vocalist conveys the heaviness of the lyrics very well, I think - but the beat and the background music are more of your typical Neo-tango club beat. So if you' don't understand, or pay attention to the lyrics, you could dance it the same way you dance the way you could dance to most of Gotan Project. And many people on the dance floor were. Laughing voices, ganchos, boleos, colgadas, waist high leg wraps.
(Warning, in case any readers need reminding - this is only my personal opinion.) While big, flashy moves may have been appropriate to the music - they felt highly inappropriate to the subject, the lyrics, of the song. As my partner and I entered the dance floor, he looked around at the dancers around us and whispered, 'this is a very sad song' - it seemed very few around us noticed. There were a few people sitting along the periphery of the floor with somber faces - I wondered if they were sitting out rather than reconcile the pop-beat with the melancholy lyrics.
We danced the song - on the music, respecting the beat and the melody, but reflecting it very simply. We danced it, how can I describe it - heavily and yet softly. My partner felt as though his body were weighted. He danced with a sense of suspension, waiting - like the singer suggests - for someone that may never return.
I could have used any number of traditional "Golden Age" songs to illustrate the same point, this is just the last incident that was so memorable. Cambalache, Pensalo Bien, some versions of Uno - they all have very somber lyrics, with music that doesn't convey the same heaviness.
There seems to be a school of thought that discourages teachers (or anyone really) from suggesting that you should try to understand Spanish to appreciate tango. No one wants to discourage non-Spanish speaking students, and as one of those non-Spanish speakers, I found that statement very reassuring - especially in the beginning. However, as I have gradually learned more and more lyrics I have also found that statement to be misleading at best. While it's true, you don't have to understand Spanish to enjoy the dance immensely - but knowing the lyrics will change how you feel the song, and how can that not be reflected in your dance?
I'm sure I'll take some heat for this, but I think tango students should be strongly encouraged to explore the lyrics of these songs. Learning a foreign language 'just to enjoy dancing' is a little unrealistic for most people, I understand that - but so many of the translations are out there. Explore them - there is so much to the story that we miss when we ignore the lyrics. Once you hear them, really hear them - it changes everything.
For a more classic (non Neo-tango) example of what I'm talking about, have a listen to D'Arienzo/Mauré's version of Uno (in my opinion one of the saddest tango lyrics ever written.) http://youtu.be/
Websites with Tango Lyrics Translations:
Todo Tango: http://www.todotango.com/english/biblioteca/letras/letras.asp
Poesia de Gotan: http://poesiadegotan.wordpress.com/