Dancing Tango on Tango
By Jean-Pierre Sighé
Identifying the pulse of the music, then stepping on its upbeat or downbeat and, depending on the ability to comprehend the rhythm, executing steps on the ½ or the ¼ or even the 1/8 of the beat … we are pretty soon, dancing! Because each type of music has its rhythmic structure, we, the dancers will be “forced” to step in a certain rhythmic sequence that would satisfy the structure of the musical piece itself, in a harmonious way. That harmonious condition would be such that all the steps executed will be automatically inscribed within the structural parameters of the music. In other words, any proper step (that is, a step satisfying the structure in the manner I just mentioned), will have to be circumscribed in the structural boundaries of the specific rhythm we are stepping on. We are therefore obliged to pay attention to that structure.
To randomly step (or to step in such a way that we project random stepping), while listening to a piece of music could never alone, constitute dancing. The immediate lack of attention actually paid to the piece would be obvious. Tango dancing to us, requires a little bit more than just stepping on the pulse or the beat of the piece (downbeat or upbeat). Because we are listening to the lyrical instruments that convey both the rhythmic phrases and the melodic phrases, we must allow these other expressions to transpire through our bodies as embellishments or accents. Our awareness is heightened and we feel the need to satisfy the harmonious relationship between our steps and the music. The rhythmic structure does indeed mean a lot to us. We are not randomly stepping. We too, are constructing rhythmic phrases, the same way musicians do. Pretty soon, the coloration of the piece, moreover, its overall acoustic environment will mean something significant. In this context, could we pretend to dance Tango on a piece that has NO structural context to Tango and still call it Tango dancing? Obviously not! Not to any dancer who feels the love or the passion for dancing. Something within us would have to feel off, awkward and most likely off beat. That is disharmony.
Improvising on a piece of music that is not a Tango piece per say but a piece that has a virtual Tango beat is definitely possible. Pretending to dance Tango on a structure that has nothing calling for a Tango stepping is quite a different story. First of all, it would take someone who clearly understands the rhythmic structure of the piece listened to and who can therefore in a way add syncopations here and there, so as to inject the full Tango structure that would have been only virtual, to the trained ears. Such dancer would be a professional dancer or a musician or a combination of both (I do not exclude a great “natural” dancer who by instinct would comprehend the characteristics I mentioned).
The need to satisfy the rhythmic structure of the music implies some important things such as the specific cultural signature expressed in the piece, which in turn ought to be respected; the effort to better understand the author(s) or composer(s) and the dancer’s personal enrichment that would automatically ensue.
Shouldn’t these few things matter to a dancer?
Referring to my Cameroonian background with its cultural diversity, it would be unthinkable to try to dance a Soukous on a Bikutsi rhythm, for instance. It simply would not be possible, would not make sense and could never be called dancing. At best, it would be a caricature. The main reason why it would be viewed as such would come from the lack of attention paid to the cultural signature that a Bikutsi rhythm calls for. It would furthermore demonstrate how unaware the person engaging in the caricature is.
In Tango, as in other musical types, the sociological imprints are exposed through the poetry as well. Just listening to the music does not give the whole appreciation of the piece. Those of us who were not born in a Spanish environment have a slight disadvantage when it comes to spontaneously understanding the lyrics. That disadvantage is rather an encouragement to seek information, therefore enrich ourselves. The easy and cheap way out to simply come up with an “Alternative” solution that totally disregards the characteristics I indicated earlier can be easily described as a despise; a despise of the same kind that Europeans displayed in the colonies: systematically going around and renaming things they did not understand. What does “Alternative” to something that is not yet fully understood mean?
I recognize the right of anyone who is capable of playing around with rhythms, to improvise on different structures. However, as I indicated earlier, that quality does not occur accidentally. It is a learned and mastered condition. Playing around from time to time is perfectly fine. But creating a system in which Tango is systematically “danced” on anything that has musical notes is aberrant. Carlos Gavito once made the comment to us in a class that “ if Tango was just a matter of beat, all we would have to do would be to hire a conga player to hammer the beat. It’s more than that…”. To that, I agree.
What about the “Nuevo Tango” music? Some might ask. It is a different matter and subject. The musicians who are doing their best to create new expressions of the Tango music, different from the Golden era, are fully aware of what a TANGO RHYTHM IS and IS NOT. They have incorporated to Tango, other rhythmic structures, often wisely chosen for their complementary structures. In other words, these selected rhythms would serve to “evoke” the full Tango rhythm that remains implied (but clear enough) to the trained ears. It is actually very fun to do these kinds of mixes. They do not betray the original structures and can very nicely give birth to other complexities in the rhythmic world. Many new rhythms were precisely created that way.
It seems to me that confusion is created in the mind of those who are not already at ease with rhythm, when they lazily engage in this strange habit of faking Tango with music uncalled for. The immediate observation is the uneasiness that they display. They clearly often have problem understanding what the downbeat is and what’s the upbeat. Although there is a lot of room for improvement and creativity I believe that we still have a lot of beautiful Tango songs and music to explore and enjoy for a long time to come, just like in Jazz or Classical Music. The musicians of the current generation who want to add to the Tango repertoire have a great challenge to overcome, as they follow up to the great creative era of the Tango Golden Age. There is no pressure though. They can and should take the time they need, to create great music. A salute of encouragement to them!
In the meantime, we, the faithful dancers of Tango will continue to step and walk, harmoniously expressing the structure of the rhythm, expressing the Beauty we are capable of conceiving.
© October 2007