Mickey Mousing

2010 June 2
by Simba

It seems to be spreading, a new way of interpreting music in tango. Every so often I hear people rave about some couple’s outstanding musicality and more often than not it translates to their mimicking every little plink and plonk in the music with a corresponding movement.  Naturally, it requires good knowledge of the song to do this, but does it really demonstrate such great musicality?

I once heard this way of dancing called Mickey Mousing, as it was like this music was often used in animations, many from the 1930s and the 1940s. Except, of course the musicians put on the music to follow the cartoons, not the other way around.

It is interesting to note that the wikipedia page says: “Frequently used in the 1930s and 1940s, especially by Max Steiner, it is somewhat discredited today, at least in serious films, because of overuse.” As this thechnique was much used at the prime time of tango, it is also interesting to see that this overuse was pointed out already in the 1940s:

For some reason, many cartoon musicians are more concerned with exact synchronization or “mickey-mousing” than with the originality of their contribution or the variety of their arrangement. To be sure, many of the cartoons as they reach the musician are something less than inspirational, but most of them even the best, gain less than they should from this contribution.

Hollywood Quarterly, Vol 1, No 4 (Jul. 1946), p 365

Less inspirational, indeed. While I do find for instance Chicho’s dance extremely musical at its best, there are so many aspects of music and musicality, that going mainly for the Mickey Mousing is somehow one-dimentional, and when other people try to repeat Chicho’s feat, it easily gets totally uninteresting, at least to me. At times I also get the feeling that the dancers are ‘too clever’, and not conveying any emotional content corresponding with the music I hear. It was thrilling the first time, maybe, but it is an effect that should be used with care, like all effects.

It is difficult to argue that someone else’s musical interpretation is wrong, but if it differs too much from your own, it is hard to connect to what they are doing. It gets distracting, and it feels like they are not even listening to the music, which is ironic when in this particular case they are working so hard to match it perfectly. That goes for performances as well as social dancing. Instead of chasing the music, trying to match every instant of it, let go and wait. Let the music move you, then take control and make it yours. Don’t rush it. Don’t worry if you miss a plink. It’s your dance.

To make an impact, be it with the audience or with our partner, we need to share a common understanding of the music, finding its substance together. All the effects in the world cannot compensate for a lack of substance.

14 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 June 2

    I think of it as no beat escaping unmolested.

  2. 2010 June 2

    Hehe, that’s a good one 🙂

  3. 2010 June 2

    I saw a couple doing this in La Catedral a few weeks ago. The leader obviously knew the music inside out but hittting every accent in ever more bizarre ways just looked ridiculous. In fact very much like a cartoon.

  4. 2010 June 3

    Bravo Simba! Well put. It has been put more generously as “illustrating” the music vs “interpreting” it. I like “mickey-mousing” very much, though, it is nicely dismissive… 😉

  5. 2010 June 4

    I had never heard the term “mickey mousing” before, but it’s a great way of framing a concept that can be difficult to explain to others. I’ve also heard this called “literal” musicality. Definitely worth discussing and thinking about. And always fun trying to come up with clever analogies like Ms. Hedgehog’s. 🙂

    Nice post, Simba!

  6. 2010 June 11

    Guilty as charged

  7. 2010 June 12

    On the other hand, occasionally people do a little bit of it because they are just messing about for fun. If you laugh, they calm down.

  8. 2010 June 17
    Adam permalink

    “Mickey Mousing” to me mean going about doing something in an amaturish way such a tenant taking it upon himself to repair a damage with minimum effort and resources to save his security deposit. I guess you can say the same thing for BP and the Horizon Well in the Gulf.

  9. 2010 June 18

    Sorry I’m late guys, I’ve been busy fighting a virus and haven’t been feeling too good.

    @Mark: I know what you’re talking about!

    @Andreas: Thanks, somehow ‘illustrating’ doesn’t sound too good either..

    @JiM: Thanks!

    @Jaimito: 😉

    @Adam: I never heard that usage, I did however once hear someone refer to the automatic functions of an SLR as “Mickey Mouse” functions, so is seems to have a certain negative ring in several contexts. Any reference for early use of that other meaning?

  10. 2010 June 18
    Captain Jep permalink

    Well I know its the orthodox position to deride “Mickey Mousing” in tango. But I think it does to some extent depend on the music.

    If the music is neo tango, then – by definition – it is mostly plinky plonky. There are less beats in the music and less to play with. I can see in this circumstance why people play with as much of the melody as they can. Sometimes that’s better than reducing the tune even further.

    With Golden Age music on the other hand there’s usually such a wealth of information that the opposite applies. Marking every beat becomes more of an exercise in technical virtuousity than one of musicality. “Musicality” is then about syncretism/bringing out the essence of the tune.

    So – different strokes for different folks…

  11. 2010 June 20

    I’ve been meaning to write a post about this after a recent post where I alluded to this. Now I know where to point people to. 🙂

    Just like any ability, it requires practicing and a tasteful approach. While Chicho is very know for this, others have used it in the past, but maybe not as much or so prominently.

    This is definitely a new trend and after you’ve seen it once, you’ve pretty much seen it all. As a dancer, it’s hard not to do it sometimes and I realize more and more how followers expect that and fail to sometimes let you NOT dance. This, to me, is the most unfortunate of all this. It is much harder to present new musicalities that involve less dancing.

  12. 2010 June 21

    @Captain Jep: I’m not sure where the orthodoxy comes into this, except if you consider dancing tango to — gasp — tango music — orthodox. If Mickey Mousing is a reaction to there being too little substance in the “neo-tango” music, that demonstrates the problem with dancing to that music IMO.

    If you like it, good for you, it seems to be very popular lately.

    @Padawan: Thanks, Chicho was just meant as an example to make sure people know what I’m talking about, as you point out others do it as well and apply in different doses. Interesting to note that you find your partner expecting this, making it more difficult to do otherwise. Thanks for your comment.

  13. 2015 November 18

    I can’t believe this post was published 5 years ago! Thank you for introducing me to this topic, Simba! It has made me think more deeply about what musicality really means.

    To keep the conversation going, I thought I would share two articles about Mickey Mousing that have been published in the past week or so. The first is by Tango Immigrant and the second is mine. Here are the links:



  14. 2015 November 19

    Nothing is new under the sun, I guess… I am glad it was of use to you, and thanks for the links to the recent posts, both quite interesting I think, even five years later ;-).

    I tend to think of if more as about how you apply it than whether or not it is “too much” or “too little” musicality. The same goes with technique. You need a certain level to be able to do interesting things, but a mere display of technical or musical proficiency doesn’t necessarily make it very interesting.

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