Musicality exercises for tango

Clay Nelson, who used to teach in Portland, called me one day. "I'm trying to design a software program that teaches musicality to dancers.  Any suggestions?" For me, musicality needs to be taught through movement because it is mapped neurologically on/in the body. The body experiences the combination of sound and movement.  It FEELS music, rather than THINKING music first. As the feeling moves into the body's set of experienced memories or its comfort zone, then thinking can enhance it.

I am currently teaching dance to preschoolers at my son's daycare. Although it is certainly a huge step from my lifetime of teaching adults, experiencing dance and music with this group teaches me a lot about how humans learn musicality. I see four groups of learners: the naturals, the interpreters, the mimics, and the not-interested-can-I-play-on-the-swings group.

There are a few children who bounce in time to ANY music I put on, literally unable to wander off to the playground and ignore the beat (I'm one of these). Their bodies understand the beat and feeling of music: the teachers tend to call them "naturals" (i.e., "John is a natural! Look at him!"). Those kids can copy anything I do, with less fine motor skill ability than an adult. They CANNOT dance off the beat. They don't have to count or think about the music, so they can learn the movements easier than the other children. As adult dancers, I probably don't have anything to add to tango musicality: they just "get" it without any help.

Then, there are children who want to participate, are interested in dancing, but tune into the idea of the dance, not the beat; I call them "interpretive" dancers (i.e., "Suzie is being a snowflake!" despite the pounding disco beat to which the others are dancing). These kids like the idea of learning new movements, but they don't worry about the music: what counts is pure motor activity, preferably flowing motions. As adult learners, these are the folks for whom I originally created Naughty Toddler and my other games: less structure, more participation than technique drills (which they won't do!). On the other hand, I think that learning how to flow and play with the movement is fundamental to tango, but not my focus when I talk about musicality.

The third group in preschool dance class are the mimics: they don't necessarily dance on the beat if I don't dance, but if I model a movement to the beat, they repeat it on the beat. After a few sessions, I now see some of them doing those motions to the beat without me. I see a lot of adults learning dance who are in this category: they hear a beat, they like the movement, and they want to learn to put them together better. The exercises we did last night had this focus (see below).

The last group are those totally disinterested in the idea of music and dance, or not willing to try the new activity on the playground yet: each week, one child stands next to me, watching, until I ask him to dance. "No, I don't wanna," he says, and walks off. I think there are a lot of shy kids in this group, so I'm guessing that tango also includes many folks who would have only watched dance as a kid. My guess is that all three divisions of music/movement learners above are also represented in the "I don't wanna" group ;-)

Musicality exercises from Portland Tango II class

Clapping exercises:

  • Find the steady beat of the music
  • Find the endings of phrases (8- and 16- bar)
  • (One we didn't get around to this time) Clap with the melody while someone else claps the rhythm (aha! now you know how we are going to start next week!)

Dancing exercises:

  • Pause at the end of each phrase (7&8 or 15&16)
  • QQS at the end of each phrase (we did corridas, but try resolutions or . . .)
  • Half-speed (step on every other beat, keeping time)
  • Slo-mo (Jedi dancing, breath like Darth Vader--hey, it works, don't knock the weird Star Wars jokes!): this is different from half-time movement, as the effect is completely removed from rhythm, so the return to rhythm creates amazing moments of clarity in the dance.

Specific moments to play with musicality:

LISTEN TO THE MUSIC!  Recently, I've seen a lot of intellectual exploration of musicality on the dance floor in Portland that is not connected to the song being played. That is, I've been subjected to slo-mo or pauses or lots of QQQQQQQQQS that DOES NOT fit with the music, simply for a "dramatic" effect. Let the music suggest what to do. What does it feel like?

Pauses: Incorporate in the following moves:

  • salida
  • walk
  • at the cross
  • in the middle of ochos

Slowing down (the idea of slo-mo instead of a specific count):

  • at the cross
  • side steps
  • anywhere, really :-)

Adding more quick moves in a row (QQQQS, for example):

  • ocho cortado variations
  • corridas
  • in turns

Different orchestras suggest different musicality elements (in my humble opinion):

Pugliese: For me, Pugliese works best with playing with different length pauses, slo-mo, extra syncopation (QQQQS) and pretty much anything within the scope of tango expression. This music changes tempo, lending itself to the idea of speeding up or slowing down, rather than worrying about double- or half-time. It is not contained music: it gives you tons of energy, of flow, of, well, DRAMA. Go for it! You don't need fancy moves for Pugliese, but fancy musicality: yes!

D'Arienzo: For me, d'Arienzo establishes a strong beat underneath the music, whoomp, whoomp, whoomp. It is like a strong heartbeat driving the music. At the end of phrases, I really hear that QQS (7&8) that we worked on. I don't hear pauses at the end of phrases. I hear sprinklings of syncopation, but not a constant flurry: use them with discretion! Half-time is dramatic here, while slo-mo just doesn't work as well. Various playful mixings of syncopation work sometimes (QQQQS), but listen to the music; don't fabricate!

Tanturi: We'll work more on Tanturi next week, but this is my favorite orchestra. The beat is steady and easy to hear, but the focus is more on the melody and the songs. I sometimes dance on the melody with these songs, returning to the underlying beat in between verses. A steady walking beat is nice, and pauses work well (remember to use different lengths of pauses: listen to the music). Syncopation is found here, but it's not the focus, in my opinion. Slo-mo doesn't work as well, and I use more of the QQS than QQQQS to Tanturi. Because I know these songs really well, I have to try not to hum while I dance. For me, these songs are about the experience of the entire piece of music, not as a vehicle to show off my tango prowess.

Firpo: Sometimes, Firpo's songs sound like tango on crack to me. It's not my favorite orchestra, but its zippy, strong beat provides space to really play with QQS, QQQQS, and other variations of syncopation. Pauses tend to be short (I really use half-time here, not pauses, I think). Slo-mo does not work. I don't feel as if I have much space for interpretation, but other people may not agree with me.

Laurenz: Ah! Here is a tricky one. When you listen to Laurenz, there are a lot of different possibilities within the music. The melody is strong, so you can dance to that. The beat is clear, so you can dance to that. BUT . . . Laurenz has a lot of fun establishing expectations and then trouncing them. For example, he may end a few phrases with a QQS, and then NOT do that, leaving you hanging if you weren't listening. Or, he may emphasize the 2 & 4 beats, rather than the 1 & 3 beats of a measure, so that it moves against your expectation. It's more subtle than Pugliese, but it has a lot to play with.

D'Agostino: I've listened to this orchestra for years. It's not my favorite, but I find that certain songs really attract me. There is depth of feeling, especially through Angel Vargas' lovely voice and interpretation of these tangos. The main element for me is an elegance. The beat doesn't just pound along, but works along with the lyrics, the melody, the singer. I find that I dance the feeling, so I do a lot of pauses, some slo-mo, some half-time, with (I hope) well-placed QQS (not a lot of QQQQS). It is a deliberate, slower tango for me.

ColorTango: I've included a modern orchestra just for comparison. I'm not crazy about them, but they take the songs to an extreme. You wanted slo-mo opportunities? Here they are! You wanted dramatic pauses? You've got it! You want tango on crack, where you can take twenty thousand quick steps before a pause! Here! I don't find it restful to dance to them, but as a musicality exercise, they can't be beat.

Comparative song exercises:

Even the same song, when played by different orchestras, asks for different interpretations by the dancer.  We danced to the following songs:

  • Sabado Ingles (d'Arienzo, Firpo)
  • Rondando Tu Esquina (Pugliese; next week, d'Agostino)
  • Gallo Ciego (Pugliese; next week, d'Arienzo)
  • Emancipacion (Pugliese; next week, ColorTango)
  • Que Nunca Me Falta (Tanturi, Laurenz--these are next week)
  • Amurado (Laurenz, Pugliese--these are next week)
  • Doug M. brought Danzarin as his favorite: we'll do this next
  • Doug N. is bringing a favorite song next week
  • Mike: thanks for the Sabado Ingles by d'Arienzo request!

Other class members: if you have a favorite song, let me know, and we'll add that to the list. We'll keep doing musicality as we tackle the other (movement) requests of the group. See you next week!