We dance in our partner’s embrace and all too often our thoughts are of steps, patterns, leads, follows, dodge this couple, “is that what he wanted?”, “is she getting bored?” Thoughts going through our mind, and while we are so cerebrally engaged, the true genius of the dance world is all around us, tempting us to follow him on an emotional journey that takes us from the mundane to the sublime.
That genius of course, is the composer and the music he or she creates. That person who spends much of life alone, playing with sounds and discovering how sounds can be arranged and tweaked to provoke an emotional response in the listener. It becomes a vocabulary to the composer that reaches out through time and space and speaks to us long after they are gone. It is amazing to think that symbols and marks on paper can be translated by the talented musician into sounds that reach into our souls, and it can be repeated anywhere, anytime by the person with the talent to convert symbols to sound and emotion. Just as musicians have the talent to convert symbols to emotion, dancers have an opportunity to convert those sounds into movement that reaches into our souls and plays with our emotions, and this is what I always seek in dancing. Those brief, fleeting moments that occur far too infrequently in life. Unfortunately, far too few dancers avail themselves of the gift that they have been given, and far too many move as though it makes no difference what the music is saying.
Perhaps the main reason I love the tango above all others is it allows the dancer to interact personally with geniuses from other times and places and to express their music with few structural constraints. A great tanda is when the music reaches into me and I am with a partner who feels the same and together we explore the music. Steps are irrelevant. The music tells you what to do if you listen. As Carlos Gavito said, "When you dance with a partner you are close and the dance is very suggestive, but it is not personal… Close is what the music inspire you to become. The embrace looks personal, but what we are actually embracing is the music.”
Music is the universal language that speaks to all, and we need to understand its language. All too often dancers approach music as a metronome that simply gives us beats to be accounted for. Music is not just a series of counts or beats that have equal weight, texture and importance, but rather a flowing of sounds that carry us along, evoking an emotional response that only music can. These composers are taking us to a vision they have and we need to follow them. This is what we, as tango dancers have to learn if we are going to honor the composer and musicians and as a result, elevate our own experience.
I bring this up because I believe that musicality in tango is the missing ingredient for many dancers trying to make the transition to being high level dancers, not the mastery of steps or patterns. This is a hard concept for many dancers to understand. Our lives are generally rewarded as we learn more. Tests, reviews, competitions, achievements are predicated on learning and demonstrating knowledge and then we are rewarded and we feel accomplished. It is no surprise that people come to tango with the same approach. “I want to learn ten signature tango steps” or “I am going to be a gold level Argentine dancer in 3 months”, and other versions of that sentiment have been said to me many times by beginning students, and unfortunately that is the way far too many dancers approach the dance. The music is playing a beautiful melody and you are trying to flow with the music and your partner simply has an agenda to execute certain moves with no awareness of the music. This can be the leader who goes through a litany of steps and patterns to show his extensive mastery of these elements, or the follower who is constantly throwing in embellishments to impress her girlfriends, all the while missing the beauty of the music. I realize this no doubt sounds pedantic because if those people have a good time together then that is a good end unto itself. I just would like to have more people learn to enjoy a higher level of tango experience and I believe that is accomplished through the music.
Music is unique in our lives in that it evokes an emotional response in us as nothing else can. We live our lives moving around and thinking all the time, but in an instant we can hear a song or melody and suddenly be transported to another time and place and be aware of that total sensuous experience. Feelings, smells, emotions all rush back that we had forgotten about over time. That is the power of music that is sadly ignored far too often. So how to remedy that? It is not something that is generally worked on in group classes, so I will give you my approach.
Fortunately music is organized in a way that is buried deep in our DNA and is shared by our fellow humans. Pythagoras – yes, that Greek who was so annoying to so many math students – also played with sound and discovered that certain vibrations made us feel good, and others gave us unease. He also discovered that when you doubled the vibrations you had a harmonic duplication. Over time that distance has been divided into different numbers, but generally the music we listen to is divided into eight parts, or an octave. As with many things in human history, this evolution is natural in all humans and this awareness of vibrations also evolved in Asia independently. Why is this important? Because it gives us map on how to listen and dance to the music, and when we do this, our partner is more likely to connect using the music as a vehicle even if they are not consciously aware. It is a visceral desire to move in harmony with music.
Music generally starts with a theme or melody that is intended to evoke a certain emotion and therefore it dictates certain ways to move that are in harmony. Good music, like good dance has limits. A cacophony of sounds is discordant, as is a multitude of movements with no connection. Just as music typically has a theme and then repeats or builds or varies a theme, any dance should find the movements that are evoked by the music and then start playing with variations on a theme. I like to keep the movements simple, generally walking in the beginning, and listen to the music and feel it. I do not connect with all music and sometimes I just give up and realize I am not going to feel a piece of music and wait for another. Sometimes I sadly realize that the music will not be realized because of my partner and a failure to connect there. But when it comes together the feelings is sublime and worth all the work to get there. Once I feel that I have found the flow of the music it becomes simple to just let the music carry me along and it frees me from having to think about what to do.
So the next time you are on the dance floor give a thought about what the composer is saying or feeling, and for just a few moments really listen to the music and discover new worlds through the genius of the composer.