Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search 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 community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

April 20, 2018

Tango Music and Its Danceability


Classic tango music is 4/4 time. There are four quarter notes in each measure and each quarter note receives a beat, counted as 1, 2, 3, 4. The first and third beats are the strong beats on which we step. The second and forth beats are the weak beats on which we do ancillary actions such as weight change, hip rotation, pivot, embellishment, 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 predict where the subdivisions fall is important. It enables the dancer to take advantage of the increased footwork possibilities. Feeling rhythm is internal. The rhythm must be in the mind before it can happen on the feet. Without rhythm there cannot be 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, which includes shifting the accent to the even-numbered beat (1, 2, 3, 4), extending a beat (1 - - -), starting a note on an unaccented beat and continuing it through the next accented beat (1, 2 -, 4), splitting a note into subdivisions (1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and), accenting the subdivision (1-and, 2-and, 3-and, 4-and), adding an accent (1, 2, 3, 4), omitting a beat and replacing it with a rest, etc. Syncopation makes the rhythm more interesting yet challenging to dance to.

Nevertheless, dancers welcome the challenge. As long as the beats are consistent with the 4/4 time signature, the music is danceable. In fact, songs that dancers like to dance most are neither arrhythmic nor mono-rhythmic, but complex yet still have regular, recognizable and predictable beats, which is the characteristic of classic tango.


That is changed when musicians started to experiment new ideas like improvisation, counterpoint, cross-rhythms, poly-rhythms, compound 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, make the rhythm too intricate to dance to, which becomes the characteristic of modern music.

Musicians still produce classic music today; therefore, not all contemporary music are modern music. Only music containing unconventional elements are modern music. There are gray areas, of course, but modern music all are incorporated at least some nontraditional elements, which make the rhythm of the song, or sections of the song, irregular, unrecognizable, unpredictable and undanceable.

Some people argue that all musics are danceable. That argument is untenable. Perhaps all musics that can be played with the feet are danceable, but fingers can move much faster. An orchestra of dozens or even hundreds of fingers could make the music extremely intricate, especially when it is intended only for listening and not dancing.

For music to be danceable, it must have recognizable and predictable beats. Dance is the body's response to rhythm. 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 evolution made rhythm aesthetic and musical to our senses, and our body naturally responds to rhythmic sound. Although it is possible that with practice some people can step on irregular and unpredictable beats they memorized, ordinary people without special training can't do that. DJs must be aware that the music they play at the milongas is for the ordinary social dancers to dance, not for a few highly trained performers to show off their unique skills. A DJ needs to keep the majority of dancers in mind and not yields to the pressure of few individuals. (Being a DJ myself I am fully aware of such pressure.)


It must be pointed out that the changes in modern music are not coincidental. We live in a society where commercialism constantly pushes for innovation, repackaging, impression, exoticism, eye-catching boldness, etc. in order to increase sales. Innovation improves life, but it also leads to unintended consequences. Every time I bought a smart phone, a smarter one is created the next week. In economic terms that is called "creating demands" so consumers would throw away their perfectly functional old phones and keep buying new ones, causing tremendous waste. People grown up in this culture exhibit a lack of depth and lasting quality. They confuse novelty with beauty, focus too much on the flashy form rather than the substance, and constantly seek for changes and innovation as this documentary discloses. The following quote from a reader's comment reflects such a 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 am not going to 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 many contributions we should not ignore 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. Our creativity can improve life if we use it wisely; it can also destroy life if we foolishly think we can do whatever we wish just to be creative and ignore 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 damage to our home planet, pollution, climate changes, environmental catastrophes, the exhaustion of natural resources, the collapse of the Eco-system, the astonishing number of death caused by all kinds of modern inventions, cyber crimes, the chemical, biological and nuclear threats, and the dysfunction of our government thanks to the creativity of our politicians, etc. 

The obsession to creativity is also the cause of the relentless efforts by many DJs to make their music selections unconventional. They collect songs that are rare, abnormal, exotic and hard to follow. They make their own brands by paying little attention to the danceability of the music. They flaunt the banner of innovation and look down at the classics, despite that the classics are the time-tested quintessence embodying what is considered beautiful and danceable by most dancers. They ignore the fact that sixty years after the end of the Golden Age tango dancers today still love classic tango while 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 people 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 abnormal, rare and undanceable songs in the milonga since the danceable songs are traditional.

Dancers don't reject creativity, which is what we do on the dance floor. We welcome challenges that make our dance more interesting. But we also desire music that is danceable. We want our DJs to put danceability above other concerns and carefully listen to every song from the beginning to the end to make sure it is entirely danceable before playing it at the milonga. And we want them to play for us the average dancers, not only for a few elites or weird dudes.

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