Deconstructing tango

Over my nascent tango dance life, I have been asked very often by many, men and women, about my path to tango, the classes I’ve taken, and how I have acquired my skills. The knowledge and my approach that I have shared with the many, have been apparently beneficial to them in both their dance and personal approach to life; I know this as they have shared this sentiment with me. Today, on almost the eve of my departure from Buenos Aires, where I’ve resided for the last 18 months, I have thus been moved to write this piece.

Perhaps I have been moved in this way due to my recent encounter with beautiful seraphim from Germany who I serendipitously encountered last night at the milonga at La Catedral. Her comments about my dancing, has ushered me to the computer keyboard, and directed my mind to address the issue of the tango process which I have written about before, but sparingly. I will now share my personal tango journey and the avenues I have chosen to walk, avenues which I feel were responsible for my growth, and specifically, my growth in a particular direction.

I began dancing very early in life, thus the foundation of Indian classical dance (khatak), which was later over-layered with ballet, ballroom, and Latin dances. Also, I spent most of my formative years in Guyana, and the Caribbean, so it is undeniable that this intercultural foundation of rhythmic consciousness laid a groundwork for musical affinity and understanding; this serves well to accelerate one’s learning curve in any dance.

In tango, very often there is a separate class that is being taught, aside from actual dance figures, it is called ‘musicality;’ the essence of which is to teach the students how to listen to, and move to the beats of the music. Now coming from an Indian, West Indian, South American background, where every household has a weekly dance session of bangra, chutney, and soca music, and where every month there are weddings that will blast the Punjabi music, mixed with reggae, and calypso sounds, I would scarcely think that I would need a special class in music interpratation.

Additionally, if I happened to be thick and missed any of the above training, then I would certainly catch it at the night-clubbing, which is also a part of a city girl’s indoctrination into the gaiety of womanhood. The standard fare of music and dance would range from  Rumba, Guaracha, and Samba to the variety of Waltz, Reggae, Chutney and Soca beats, depending upon the flavour and mix of the audience.

So this percussive persuasion explains why I dance ‘with a very unique style,’ a comment I  hear very often. It also explains why I dance precisely ‘on the beat,’ a foreign concept to many on the dance-floor, who feel that they need to follow the tune when dancing. I am neither a certified nor decorated dance teacher (I am not even a teacher!), so I will go out on a limb to say here that in tango, the beats are used as a way of establishing common ground between the couple, and the tune is what allows them both to improvise and integrate their own adornments, called adornos in tango.

In other words, if we were to allign tango dancing with a conversation, the beats of the song would be the equivalent of the subject in a conversation. And just as we need to stay on the subject when engaged in a discussion (many still haven’t grasped that simple rule of communication), so that the participants can follow exactly the line of thought and know to what they are responding, just so, in dance, the couple need to stay on the beat so that they can understand the common time signature to which they are both executing their movements.

The beats then, in the song, is the guide that tells both parties the limits of their movements, just as the topic of the conversation will guide the participants to determine how to participate meaningfully. When you get off the subject, you confuse others, and just so, when you are off the beat, your partner is confused. It is essential then, that both people hear and interpret the music the say way. If they don’t, the experience will not be pleasant. In tango, the beats then are the area of commonality, and will determine the ability of the couple in partnership to remain connected.

Without that, if both people follow their own beat, or interpret the beats differently, there they are simply two people coming together to embrace and sustain each other through their own singular dance adventure. At every milonga I attend, this is the case with at least fifty-percent of the couples; in some cities and venues that number is higher (the Mid-Western cities in the USA), and in other cities (Seattle, Vancouver BC, Buenos Aires) it is lower.

For me, this determines whether or not I will accept a dance with a fellow. It really matters very little if he is an acclaimed ”good” dancer; if he is dancing in a different beat to mine, the connection will not be good, we would do better to just have conversation. And by the way, that may more than likely be mis-alligned also. So essentially, the first step in establishing one’s dance is determining one’s rhythmic style.

Some people are attracted to the on-beat, and some to the off-beat (Michael Jackson, for instance, dances on the off-beat, or the down beat as it is commonly referred to). This is critical in tango, as the couple must move in unison and a slight movement in error can have two people in a tangled mess on the dance floor. Or worse, as happens very often, they are kicking and bumping other couples, or being the cause of a train wreck. No fun for anyone!

After figuring out one’s rhythmic propensity, the next step would be to identify a particular style of tango to which one is attracted. And that is not to imply that the individual has to select one style, but it is to say that it helps to understand yourself, what is appealing to you and why you are drawn to certain things. This all makes the assumption that it is the dance that is being pursued and not the physical attraction of the opposite sex, or the pursuit of a romantic involvement masquerading as a tango interest (there are many of those).

The next step (in my humble opinion) is to first master the basics in the classicaL style (I trained in this area for some two years) before attempting the nuevo and alternativo. Again, this is a matter of choice, but, it is comes down to this: many fantastic and accomplished dances have a solid background in ballet or tap dance or both.

The significance is that there are classical, time-tested fundamentals of dance and movement that serve to lay a great foundation to any dance, and would thus make the acquisition of tango and other ballroom or Latin dances easier to acquire. If the basic foundation were absent from the individual’s early life (many people find an attraction for tango later in life), then the best approach would be to stay with the classical tango, and after securing a foundation (particularly in balance, posture (frame) and walking) then to dabble (if desired) into the other styles.

The undertaking of Argentine tango is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for one who seeks instant gratification, for tango will frustrate you more than it will satisfy you. After you have paid your dues, however, I will say that the rewards are monumental!