Dancing to tango music: what does that mean?

Students often get frustrated by tango music. After all, we have grown up with rock music here in the United States. Many of us dance by moving to each beat of the music, repetitively. We shimmy; we play air guitar; or we sit still, listening.

Our grandparents' music is swing if we are older, or rock if we are younger. Tango is not something we heard as children. Many of my students say that they prefer dancing tango to alternative tango, because it feels more like rock music. So what do you do to tango music? How do you learn what to do?

One approach is to dance on each beat of the music. Those of us with musical training, or with natural rhythm, can do that. Some people are able to watch others dancing and cheat off of their rhythm. Those for whom music is a foreign language from a distant planet, struggle with stepping to the musical beat. After a long battle, most are able to do this with practice.

I think that tango music yields a much richer experience if you dare to leave the beat behind, at least from time to time. As North Americans, we seem to find pausing to music a bit nerve-racking: our Puritan ethic of looking busy and keeping busy, does not jive with the enjoyment of a moment in dance where we are doing little more than sharing a moment of doing nothing!

If music is easy for you, consider listening to the melody and the feeling of a song as a place to start learning how/where to pause. There are natural pauses and breaks in the music that encourage the dancer to pause and play. For beginners, I tell people to stand on one leg, and "draw your name in cursive on the floor, as if you were drawing in the sand with your big toe." This way, the whole process of deciding WHAT to do with a pause is eliminated, letting the dancer focus on the music. Then we dance, incorporating our "adorno" into the dance.

Then, we practice using pauses of different durations. Most leaders think they are pausing when they don't move for one count of the music. Before the follower has even figured out that there is a pause, the couple is off and running again. To avoid this, I have students count while pausing: "one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, etc." up to "six-Mississippi" or "eight-Mississippi." At this point, the followers have happily done an adorno, and are ready to move. The leaders are usually frothing at the mouth. We can ALL slow down.

The difficulty with pausing, is to figure out how to pause appropriately with the music. We have all seen the "advanced" dancer who plays with the music so self-consciously that every beat is accounted for, but his poor follower does not usually look happy. How can we pause organically, fitting it into the music?

Unfortunately, the answer is "get to know the music." If you know a song, you dance better to that music. You know where the pauses are. You know how emotional, or relatively steady, that singer sings. You know where your partner will try to end early, or if the final "bum-bum!" will be missing. Start listening NOW! Play tango until you are (almost) sick of the songs that you hear each week at the milonga.