The structure of a tango, choreography and how it might improve your dancing

Meditation Labyrinth by aperte, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  aperte

If you prefer your naïve, pure emotional interpretation of the tango, you might not want to read this. If, on the other hand you think that knowing a little about how tango music is organized might increase the breadth or depth of your musical appreciation, then this could be for you.

Like Tangocommuter writes in the discussion of how a tango became approximately three minutes long, a prototypical tango has the structure ABA:

Most tangos, and most songs generally, are A-B-A in structure. It's a structure people seem to like, it works well musically and in a song. 16-bar blues follow much the same pattern. In practice, we get three segments of around 16 bars each. 16 bars to a minute, mas o menos, 48 bars start to finish. 48 bars of four beats each, that's 192 beats in three minutes, which is... 64 beats a minute. A familiar number. 192 heart beats to a tango.

The best example to look for in my knowledge is the orchestra of Carlos Di Sarli, which adhered fairly strictly to a regular scheme for all his tangos.  A musician I met in Buenos Aires told me that Di Sarli was known as the master of something I think he called the quadratic form or something similar. The 16 bars (or measures as they are often called) can again be divided into four phrases of 4 bars of two strong and two weak beats each.

Now, what is more interesting than this little arithmetic is that these 4 sections of 4 bars form a structure of theme and variations inside the main structure of the tango. Gustavo Naveira called this ‘call’ and ‘response’ or ‘question’ and ‘answer’, I don’t recall exactly. My musician friend objected to this and called them variations.  Whatever you want to call it, it is there, and you can hear it and use it in your dancing if you like. With the second being a response to the first and the fourth being a response to the third, there is also some sort of nested structure of dialogue between the first two phrases and the two last. Very neat.

Now, creating a choreography is an art in itself, and sadly there are very few that master this art ‘a full’, as they would say in Buenos Aires. Taking this structural knowledge into the choreography would be a good framework to build a choreography around, one would imagine. In my own attempts to do semi choreography dances, matching the main turning points of the music was always a major concern, and that is why I find it so surprising (and disappointing) that so many performances seem to pay no attention at all to the general structure of the song they are performing to. Not even the main structure of main theme (A or AA), the contrasting theme (B) and the final variation (A again). I mean, not even reflecting the development from beginning to end. Just unmotivated throwing out of crowd pleasing steps in all directions from the start. I don’t get it. It is soooo boring.

And this seems to be a disease which is prominent with the followers of the maestro that first taught me about this in a dance context. I find it somewhat ironic that the dancers most concerned with the ‘structure of tango’ (the dance) seem to overlook completely the structure of tango (the music). Maybe it will come later in the reinvention project?

But we are not doing choreography, you may protest. True, but still you have to listen to the music, and knowing just a little about what to listen for, might improve your listening (and thus dancing) experience. One gringo that was also taking the same seminar with Naveira found that part of the class utterly uninteresting  – clearly you can already hear this, he said. Which is sort of true for many dancers, on the other hand, watching many people dance, one has to wonder…

Now, I do not suggest that you start counting over and over again while you are out at the milongas dancing with your friends and strangers in the night, far from it. However, it can be useful to listen carefully for the specific developments of the music during one tango and try dancing to it. It should come as no surprise that a large number of step combinations taught are actually matching exactly one phrase in tango (8 strong beats or four measures/bars). Try it with the normal basic step if you still remember it… Also it can be useful to try combining walking exercises (which you still do regularly, no?) with phrasing exercises. For example doing one kind of adornos for one full phrase. No less and no longer. Exactly one phrase. I suggest you try with Di Sarli, pick any song basically, as he conforms fairly closely to this scheme. We have good experience with walking our student through these exercises, even without much explanation, as moving with the phrases gives an intuitive understanding of the music, which you will eventually bring to the dance floor.

When Jorge Dispari talked about how people used to interpret the music in a more similar fashion in the golden age of tango, I suspect this might be part of what he was talking about (the A(A)BA structure). I everyone is saving their giros and extra stuff for the final variation, then everybody stops progressing at the same time, and nobody gets hurt.. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to take his music seminar, so this remains my theory or speculations if you prefer.

As always, comments and corrections from more knowledgeable readers are most welcome…

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