Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating idea, philosophy, culture, and lifestyle. In many ways, tango is a metaphor of life. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a people and species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. We are humanists. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. If you share this conviction, please join the conversation and let your voice be heard, which is urgently needed and long overdue.

Together we can awaken the world.




April 20, 2018

Tango Music and Its Danceability


One

Classic tango music is quadruple time. Each note is a quarter note and there are four quarter notes in a bar, counted as 1, 2, 3, 4. The first and third beats are strong beats, on which we step. The second and forth beats are weak beats, on which we do ancillary actions, such as weight change, hip rotation, pivot, embellishment, pause, etc.

Each quarter note can be evenly divided into two eighth notes. We count the resulted 8 eighth notes in a bar as 1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and. Similarly, each quarter note can be evenly divided into four sixteenth notes. We count the resulted 16 sixteenth notes as 1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, 3-e-and-a, 4-e-and-a.

The ability to divide the notes and to predict where the subdivisions fall is important, which enables the dancer to feel the rhythm of the song and take advantage of increased footwork possibilities. Feeling rhythm is internal. The rhythm must be in your mind before it can happen on your feet. Without rhythm there is neither music nor dance.

But feeling rhythm becomes not so easy when syncopation is involved. Syncopation is the way musicians spice up the music by shifting, splitting, adding, or omitting beats. Examples of syncopation include shifting the accent from the odd-numbered beat to the even-numbered beat (1, 2, 3, 4), extending a beat (1 - -, 4), starting a note on an unaccented beat and continuing it through the next accented beat (1, 2 -, 4), splitting a note and accenting the subdivision (1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and), adding accents (1, 2, 3, 4), omitting a beat and replace it with a rest, etc. Syncopation modifies the rhythm and makes the music more interesting yet challenging to the dancer.

Nevertheless, dancers welcome the challenge. As long as the rhythm is consistent with the speed specified by the clef, the music is danceable. In fact, songs that we like to dance most are neither mono-rhythmic nor arrhythmic, but complex yet still have regular, recognizable and predictable beats, which is the characteristic of classic tango.


Two

That is changed, however, when musicians started to experiment new ideas like improvisation, counterpoint, cross-rhythms, poly-rhythms, asymmetrical rhythms, complex harmonies, odd numbered meter in which the notes are not evenly grouped (such as 5/4 time and 7/8 time), mixing duple time, triple time with quadruple time, ensemble of different instruments or instrumental part and vocal part of the song with different rhythms, etc. These methods, though creative and may give new listening experiences, made the rhythm too complex and thus unsuitable for dance, which becomes characteristic of modern music.

Musicians still produce classic music in modern times; therefore, not all contemporary music are modern music. Only those contain unconventional elements are modern music. There are gray areas, of course, but modern music all incorporated at least some nontraditional elements, which made the rhythm of the song, or sections of the song, irregular, unrecognizale, unpredictable and undanceable.

Some people argue that any music is danceable if it is playable. That argument is untenable. Perhaps any music is danceable if it is playable with the legs. But fingers can move much faster, and an orchestra of dozens or even hundreds of fingers could make the music extremely complex, especially when it is intended not for dancing, but only for listening.

For music to be danceable, it must have recognizable and predictable beats. Dance is the body's response to rhythm, not noise. We feel comfortable with rhythm because it facilitates our movements. Our rhythm echoes regular occurrences, seasonal changes, biologic clock, heartbeats, and muscle memory of rhythmic motions such as walk, etc. Millions of years of human evolution made rhythm aesthetical and musical to our senses, and our body naturally responds to rhythmic sound. Although it is possible that with practice and rehearsal some people can step on irregular and unpredictable beats that they memorized, ordinary people without special training can't do that. DJs should be aware that the music they play at the milongas is for the ordinary social dancers to dance, not for a few highly trained individuals to show off their skills. The DJ must keep the majority of dancers in mind and not yield to the pressure of few individuals. (Being a DJ myself I am fully aware of such pressure.)


Three

It must be pointed out that the changes in modern music are not coincidental. We live in a society where capitalism and commercialism constantly pushes for innovation, impression, repackaging, exoticism, eye-catching boldness, etc., in order to increase sales. Innovation improves life, but it also leads to tremendous waste. Every time I bought a smart phone, a smarter one is created the next day. In economic terms that is called "creating demands", so consumers would throw away their perfectly functional old phones and keep buying new ones. People grown up in this culture exhibit a lack of depth and lasting quality. They confuse bizarreness with beauty, focus too much on the flashy form rather than the substance, and constantly seek novelty. The following quote from a reader's comment reflects such mentality.

"Most of us did not start doing the tango in order to get the ocho just right. Most of us saw elegant, dramatic and erotic moves in a performance that took our breath away. Then we take tango lessons and dance among older people who look down their noses at beginners for not doing the details as well as they can, who are quite conservative in their tastes, who are uptight about the eroticism, who are offended when attractive young people look better at the erotic movements than they do, and who are too weak, inflexible, heavy, and cowardly to do the more dramatic moves... The idea of dividing tango into social dance and 'show' dance trivializes efforts to be more creative and to actually do the dance that we were attracted to in the first place. Performance is not just for tourists. It includes ballet, modern dance, jazz and other rich, culturally important forms. It can be brilliant and revolutionary, changing the way we think. It can give tango dance its Isadora Duncans, Sergei Diaghilevs, Merce Cunnihams and Astor Piazzollas. Tango and dance have always included a conversation between performance and social dance. Both should be respected at spaces in which creativity can take place. That's how art and culture evolve in living ways."

I'll not get into why the milonga is not the place for performance (See Social Tango and Performance Tango), but will concentrate on creativity here. No doubt, creativity has changed our way of living. But despite its contributions, we should not overlook its drawbacks. Human creativity is a double-edged sword. It provides us with cars, computers, GPS and beautiful, danceable music like classic tango; it also provides us with narcotics, weapons of mass destruction, high-tech crimes and undanceable noises. Creativity can improve life if we use it wisely; it can also destroy life if we foolishly think we can do whatever we like just to be creative and ignore the power of the force beyond our control that produced and conditioned us, whether you call that force the Cosmos, Nature, Law, Tao, or God. In fact, human creativity has already caused many problems to our very existence such as the irreversible damages to our home planet, pollution, environmental catastrophes, the exhaustion of natural resources, the collapse of the Eco-system, the astonishing number of death caused by automobiles, drugs and guns, cyber crimes, the chemical, biological and nuclear threats, the disintegration of family, LGBTQIAPK, same-sex marriage, toilet dispute, polarization and dysfunction in our governments, etc.  

The obsession to creativity is also the cause of the relentless efforts by many DJs to make their music selections unconventional and novel. They collect songs that are rare, abnormal, exotic and hard to follow. They try to be unique and different from others, but pay little attention to the danceability of the music. They flaunt the banner of creativity and look down at the classics, despite that the classics are the time-tested quintessence embodying the common human perception of what is beautiful and danceable. They ignore the fact that sixty years after the end of the Golden Age dancers today still love classic tango whereas the "revolutionary" music created during the same period has long been forgotten. They are blind to the fact that in every generation there are people who have created lasting classics and who have created fleeting rubbish. They don't understand that creativity must serve the best human interests, needs and aesthetics to have a lasting value, which in case of dance is danceability, not outlandishness. Although they love music and may have collected a big number of songs, they don't know what constitutes danceability and what does not. And worst of all, they tend to play rare, abnormal and undanceable songs in the milonga since the danceable ones are traditional.

Dancers don't reject creativity and innovation. In fact, that is what we do on the dance floor. We welcome challenges that make the dance more interesting. But we also desire music that is danceable. We want our DJs to put danceability above anything else in their selection of music. We want them to carefully listen to every song from beginning to end to make sure it is entirely danceable before playing it at the milonga. We want them to play music according to the law of dance, which gives leeway for creativity, but also requires danceability. And, we want them to play for us, the majority and average dancers at the milonga, not only for a few elites or weird dudes.

January 3, 2018

Dancing to Melody - Poema


Stepping on the beat and dancing to music are not one and the same thing. The former is the basic of musicality, but it is not the most important and sophisticated. Beats are rhythmic stresses that regulate the speed of music. They are interrupted and unemotional. Stepping on the beat is like jumping, the focus is on the accent, and the movement is broken and dry.

The most important thing in dancing is to express the emotion of music, which lies not in beats but in melody. Melody is the linear, sweet and emotional tone in music that adds feelings, beauty and fluidity to music. Dancing to melody is like driving, the focus is on the linear tone, and the movement is continuous and smooth.

In dancing, we can focus on the beats, or we can focus on the melody, which lead to different dance styes. When we focus on the beats, we wait for the beat to come and step on it with force, the movement is sudden, short and incoherent. Here is an example.




This song, Poema, like most tango songs, is nostalgic and melancholy. "Tango is a sad feeling that is danced." - said Enrique Santos Discepoloo. The lyrics of the song were written by Eduardo Bianco, who played the first violin in the orchestra of Teatro Apolo in 1927. Bianco learned that his wife cheated on him with the pianist of the orchestra and shot his rival to death in a fit of jealousy. The lyrics reflected his pain and regret. Here is the English translation by Alberto Paz.

                        It was a dream of sweet love,
                        hours of happiness and loving,
                        it was the poem of yesterday,
                        that I dreamed,
                        of gilded color,
                        vain chimeras of the heart,
                        it will not manage to never decipher,
                        so fleeting nest,
                        it was a dream of love and adoration.

                        When the flowers of your rose garden,
                        bloom again ever so beautiful,
                        you'll remember my love,
                        and you will come to know,
                        all my intense misfortune.

                        Of that one intoxicating poem,
                        nothing is left between us,
                        I say my sad goodbye,
                        you'll feel the emotion,
                        of my pain…

The music was composed by Mario Melfi in 1932, which was arranged by Francisco Canaro in 1935. Only the last two stanzas were sung in the Canaro's version, by Roberto Maida.

Dancing to Poema, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the poet - like you were biding sad farewell to your past love. You still need to step on the beat, but you don't do it in a sudden and broken way. Rather, you focus on the emotion of the melody and let your steps be even-paced and continuous. Here is an example.




Notice that the couple in this example did not chase the beats, but danced slowly, as were reluctant to let go each other. Their steps are much more supple, fluid and melodious, matching the melancholy mood of the song.

I often feel my partner still focuses on the beats when I try to lead her dance to the melody, which is not surprising given that most students are only taught to step on the beat. Next time you dance Poema, try to focus on the melody instead of the beats. The key is to control the speed of the movement to let it be even-paced rather than sudden and broken - especially if you are a woman, who represents the melodic or feminine mood of the dance. (See The Characteristics of Classic Tango.)


Related Reading

Self-Centered Leading and Partner-Centered Leading

The Elegance of the Mionguero Style


December 28, 2017

The Elegance of the Milonguero Style


In contrast to other styles that remind me of a bustling casino, the milonguero style of tango reminds me of a Zen garden - an oasis of austerity, peace, serenity and natural beauty for quiet contemplation. The style aims at inward experience, so the look becomes less important. In fact, it is danced in simple and natural steps, very little adornments are used in order to avoid complication and distraction, thus enables the dancers to focus on the feelings.

That, however, does not reduce its aesthetic value. On the contrary, the style possesses a natural, simple and elegant beauty second to none.




Using cadencia to make the dance elegant

The key element responsible for the elegance of the style is cadencia. The woman leans chest-against-chest on the man's torso, and the man uses the connection as the fixed point to swing her torso, which brings the sway of her hip and leg in a chain reaction, causing the movement of her body to look elegant and graceful. Notice that the woman does not use her thigh to move her leg, but lets the leg follow the hip to sway. Her focus is on the horizontal lilt of the body instead of the vertical action of stepping down, and she does not rush to chase the beats. Rather, she lets her body take its natural course to swing gracefully in accordance with the tempo and mood of the melody.

Using the hips to highlight her femininity

In doing so she often needs to swivel her hips so her free leg can take advantage of the inertia of the body to sway. (See Cadencia and the Flow of Tango.) Since she dances around the man, she also needs to swivel her hips in order to step on his side. She needs to swivel her hips in her walk in order to use the hip to move the leg. (See Women's Walk in Tango.) She needs to swivel her hips when she does front ocho and back ocho, and when she turns around him in molinete... (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) In short, hip rotation is used all the time in the woman's dance, which highlights the beauty of her supple and pliable body. The style does not emphasize the footwork, so she is able to focus on the hips, controls them to make their movement gentle, subtle yet noticeable. She does not over turn the hips, but turns them only to a degree necessary to let it look natural and elegant.

Dancing with simple and natural steps

Another element pertinent to the elegance of the style is using simple and natural steps. Some tango styles are known for their fancy movements and flashy figures, which, although may be beautiful in some way, lack naturalness and elegance. The following is an example.




As you can see, impressive maybe by some standard, a display like this relies on fancy footwork, intricate movements, exaggerated steps, abrupt turns and hasty actions. It looks busy, garish, farfetched and beat-chasing, but lacks the confidence, serenity, ease, simplicity, naturalness and elegance of the milonguero style. And, it does not match the melancholy mood of the music.

In contrast, the first couple use austere steps to allow themselves to concentrate inwardly on quiet contemplation. The man leads by swinging the woman's body. The woman keeps her body tall and straight while swinging it gracefully, allowing its intrinsic, natural beauty manifest itself.

Audrey Hepburn Said, "Elegance is the only beauty that never fades." I am convinced of that.


Related Reading

Self-Centered Leading and Partner-Centered Leading

Dancing to Melody - Poema


December 17, 2017

Self-Centered Leading and Partner-Centered Leading


A leader is either self-centered or partner-centered. A partner-centered leader leads the woman gently, thoughtfully, attentively, patiently and comfortably, that is, in accordance with the physiology of her feminine body. A self-centered leader, on the other hand, tends to lead her do things beyond her comfortable zone. For example, he leads her take large, awkward steps, which a partner-centered leader would divide into smaller steps; or leads her chase the beats, whereas a partner-centered leader would allow her time to finish her steps; or leads her do arbitrary performance, whereas a partner-centered leader would use natural steps to display her natural beauty; or regards himself as the leading performer and uses the woman as a foil to his performance, whereas a partner-centered leader would accommodate himself to her, shine her, and let her be the center of attention.

Here is an example of self-centered leading.




In this example, the man only focused on his own performance. He hastily chased the beats and rushed the woman to make big moves and drastic turns, but failed to follow the melody to allow her feminine beauty to shine. (See Dancing to Rhythm and Melody in Milonguero Style and Revealing Her Beauty in Tango.) As a result, his self-exhibition led to the eclipse of the woman.

In contrast, a partner-centered leader dances for the woman. Here is an example of partner-centered leading.




As you can see, in this clip the man did not lead the woman do big, awkward steps, as being the case in the first clip, but led her dance in normal steps to reveal her natural beauty. He did not coerce her by the hands, as being the case in the first clip, but kept her in the comfort of his embrace and used his torso to lead her very gently. He did not make her dance against the inertia of her body, as being the case in the first clip, but led her by the inertia to make the step easy for her. He did not force her to dance around him with himself as the center, as being the case in the first clip, but adjusted his position to suit her and facilitate her dance. He did not lead her do abrupt turns, as being the case in the first clip, but waited for her to finish each rotation before he led the next step. He did not rush her to chase the beats, as being the case in the first clip, but allowed her time to complete her steps.

These made it possible for her to concentrate on the connection and feelings, and also on making her dance elegant and graceful. Because the woman dances around the man and mostly walks in ocho, she needs to swivel her hips and use the hip to swing the leg. (See Dissociation and Gear EffectWomen's Walk in Tango and Cadencia.) The hip action, although highlights her femininity, takes time to complete. The man must understand that and allow the woman time to display her feminine beauty, as being exemplified in this dance thanks to the excellent lead, and we can tell her appreciation by the way she looked at him at the end.

Please watch the video again in full screen to see how beautiful a woman's dance can be when she has a good leader. I recommend you use this clip as a learning tool. Every man, novice and veteran alike, can learn a lot about how to lead from this video.


Related Reading

The Elegance of the Mionguero Style

Dancing to Melody - Poema


October 1, 2017

The Issues on Cabeceo


Last week I went to En Tu Abrazo - Encuentro at Grand Geneva, Wisconsin, a mesmeric event through which the organizers, Ray Barbosa and Richard Miller, pushed the Midwest tango to a new height. The event was well organized, with an intimate and friendly environment governed by milonga codes, like-minded and experienced dancers, excellent DJs, golden age music, close embrace, and high quality dancing, all reminiscent of a Buenos Aires milonga.

The venue is a rectangular room with fixed seats. Men and women sit separately on the opposite sides of the room, so they have to use cabeceo to invite partners. This arrangement created a coherent atmosphere as the participants must pay attention to each other and be emotionally engaged even before the dance started.

But, using cabeceo from a distance is proven to be a challenging task. First, the woman I try to invite is sitting among other women who may also want to dance with me. Second, when two or more women respond to my cabeceo, how do I make them know whom exactly I am inviting? Third, if two men nod at the same woman, how can either man tell that she is responding to him and not the other? Finally, her response may be so subtle that it could be overlooked.

Perhaps due to cabeceo is still a relatively new skill to a lot of us, I made more mistakes in this event than I have ever made in Buenos Aires, even with such an experienced crowd. I learned later that someone had responded to my cabeceo, but I failed to recognize. In one case I walked to a woman who did not respond to my cabeceo, but I thought she did. There was also a case in which the woman who accepted my cabeceo did not look at me as I was walking towards her, and I ended up danced with the woman next to her who kept her eyes on me. Two times I walked to someone only to find that they had accepted other's invitation. There were also occasions two women stood up when I reached their table, both thought they were the one I was inviting.

In retrospect, I believe I should make my cabeceo more conspicuous and unambiguous. I should be more aware that a subtle cabeceo is difficult to detect from a distance. When there could be confusions, I should make sure that all involved parties knew exactly whom I was inviting. I should turn around to see if there were others communicating with the same woman. I should stand up to make eye contact with the woman sitting behind other women. I should move closer to the woman sitting far away from me before cabeceoing her. When walking towards a woman, I should stare at her exclusively and avoid making eye contact with another woman to avoid confusing both.

On the women's part there were also problems. I must say in Buenos Aires portena women respond to cabeceo quiet differently from most women in this country. Their facial expression is more expressive and unmistakable. If they are not sure about my cabeceo, they would make gestures to let me know they need more information, such as tilting their head, leaning sideways to let me see them more clearly, looking around to see if someone else is responding to me, standing up if they are behind others, pointing at themselves with a questioning facial expression, or using lip or sign language to communicate with me, etc. An Argentine woman would not look at me with a blank face, as many women in this country do, but would use facial expression and body language to convey her emotions. She would accept my cabeceo with joyful smile, nod, wink, bow, or other expressions to let me know she is delighted to dance with me. She would also stare at me intently when I walk towards her, so I know there is an unmistakable agreement between us. In other words, an Argentine woman is more proactive, which makes a huge difference because such openness and expressiveness could prevent errors not only by the two involved, but by the third party who may also be involved as well. Also, such enthusiasm would lead to a more intimate and satisfying dance. 

Here again we see the influence of culture on tango. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) We Americans have an exaggerated ego due to our individualist, feminist ideologies, which emphasize personal dignity, rights, liberty, individuality and independence. (See Tango and Individualism and  Femininity and Feminism in Tango (I).) Many are ashamed of showing dependence on others, or letting people know that they need others, or begging others for a dance, etc., which could lead some to seem aloof, cold, reserved, indifferent, arrogant and rude in the milongas. When doing cabeceo, the Americans tend to show less spontaneity and more self-esteem,  especially if they do not get the expected attention or response, whereas in Argentina people would take very different approaches in the same situation. For example, in Buenos Aires, a portena woman took the trouble to walk to my seat during the cortina to tell me she had been trying to cabeceo me, and she pointed to where she sat so I could cabeceo her later.