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 or 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 no music and 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, makes 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 causes 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.  

This obsession to creativity is also the reason why some DJs made their music selections unconventional and novel. They collect songs that are rare, abnormal, exotic and hard to follow. They try to be different 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 understanding of what is beautiful and danceable. They ignore the fact that sixty years after 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 first 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 rules of dance, which give leeway for creativity, but also require 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.)


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