Tango in New Zealand Tango in New Zealand

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One of the first musical challenges for new tango dancers is "hearing the beat" in tango. In most other types of music - pop, jazz, salsa, even classical music - the rhythm is marked by a nice clear drum beat, and it's usually pretty unmistakeable. In the classic tango orchestra, however, there are no drums - the line-up is usually double-bass, piano, violins, and bandoneons (other instruments can be heard in tango throughout its history, but these four are the staple diet).

What happens with the rhythm then? It's marked out by other instruments; usually what happens is that one instrument is playing the main melody, leaving the other instruments to mark the main beat. The beat is almost always there somewhere, it's a question of tuning in to it.

The following is a part of El Choclo by Di Sarli's orchestra - at the beginning the piano is playing the tune, and the violins make staccato sounds, marking the main beat with strong notes. Then, they change roles - the violins sweep through the melody, while the piano plonks on the main beat, and finally the bandoneon plays the melody, while the violins and piano mark the beat:

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[Carlos Di Sarli - El Choclo]

Why is the rhythm of the tango important? Firstly for the more or less obvious reason that it helps us both put our foot down exactly at the same time - if we're both tuned into the pulse of the tango, we'll be dancing with each other (rather than just near each other).

However, once you can synchronise yourself with the main beat, there are some interesting subtleties that you can start to appreciate and make use of, to do with what goes on between the main beats; details  that can help make the dance more interesting, and can help you discover new ways to dance.

The first thing to notice is that in some music the beat is really clearly marked out:

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[Osvaldo Pugliese - La Yumba]

...and other times, it's somewhat less clear:

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[Osvaldo Pugliese - La Yumba]

As dancers, the first thing to get out of this is to dance differently depending on how clearly the beat is marked - when it's unmistakably driving ahead, stride out with it, step firmly on every beat. But when it's more hazy and ambiguous, pause in your dance, let the moment sink in, leave a space for adornments or flourishes.

Main-beats and Half-beats

The next thing to hear is that not all beats are created equal - usually there's a strongly marked, constant beat, normally at about the pace you would walk in tango:


...and then quieter 'half-beats' right in the middle between the strong main ones. Depending on the orchestra and the tango, the half beats are sometimes not emphasised much at all (e.g. the La Yumba example above), and often there are different instruments marking out whole and half beats. Here's an example of Carlos Di Sarli's orchestra playing Comme Il Faut - while the bandoneon is playing the melody, you can hear the violins giving a strong emphasis on the main beat, while the piano (except for a flourish in the middle) is playing the whole and half beats evenly:

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[Carlos Di Sarli - Comme Il Faut]



What can you do with the half beats?

Sometimes, when the leader is simply striding out reliably on the main beats, this leaves the follower a nice trustworthy opportunity to 'decorate' the structure provided by the leader, by doing something on the half-beat. The 'something' she does might be as simple as tapping her foot on the floor, or could be some other more tricky adornment (which she's careful in ensuring is executed quickly enough to be ready for stepping on the next main beat).

So followers: this is your chance to drop in some of the adornments you've learnt in classes. And leaders: this is why sometimes just simple walking in the dance, without lots of tricky maneouvers, is nice - it gives your partner a chance to say something; otherwise it's the leader talking all the time, which isn't much of a conversation... It also gives you a nice rest while you think of what to do next.

Of course, another thing you can do with half beats is step on them... There are many steps in tango (e.g. the 'cross') which lend themselves to stepping a little quicker than the 'main beat' rhythm. If you can train yourself to step exactly on a half beat while doing these, it helps to keep you and your partner stepping together while doing these 'double-time' tango steps, and you come out of them right with the music.

So these steps, with the music, would be something like this:

steps: step
  step step step   step   step   step step step  

This is a good start for understanding the 'beat' of ordinary tango music. But this also brings us to another style of tango music - tango vals...

Next Page - Vals

text: robert©fromont.net.nz August 2008

The tango is seen as a music of passionate love. It is not. It is the music of loneliness and lust.

Ricardo Gomez