Category Archives: musicality

Hearing not Listening in Tango

I was at Leroy’s class today and he said something that really struck a chord. He said that he hears – whereas others just listen.

I thought this was really an interesting concept. Don’t just listen to your partner -that doesn’t change anything – instead – make sure you hear them. Work harder.

Once we become a reasonable standard of course we want to listen. It is all about our shared dance – the music – and how we interpret it and communicate with each other. So we listen – of not with our ears – but with our bodies,

She – or he – may not have much to say. Or they do – but they speak very quietly. Or perhaps you aren’t the kind of person they normally show themselves to on a first date.

Or they have a lot to say – and they are saying it to you – but you really can’t hear them. How frustrating is that – I am actually trying very hard to talk to you and you can’t hear me. You are on the wrong frequency.

Or – if you can hear me you don’t take any notice. You just blunder through it all.

You listened but you didn’t hear.

Leroy was I think saying that he hears everyone. The quiet ones, the distracted ones, the loud ones, the people he doesn’t normally feel a fit for. The incoherent ones,

He listens so well that he hears them all.

And then he acts.

I am sure we can imagine a farcical situation where both tango dancers are listening so much that no-one is in fact saying anything at all. But to me this is not normal – I think reasonable Tango dancers are both trying to hear and to communicate.

But they might be listening instead.

Tune yourself to hear …  Listening is for Wimps.

Dancing in the Eye of the Biagi Storm

Students like me often respond to Biagi in mysterious ways. Ways that frankly – given our experience levels – are borderline suicidal.

I am talking here about rhythmic Biagi of course – we all know them – amazing, exciting sides like Humiliación, Indiferencia, Pura Clase and perhaps the most challenging of all – Bélgica.

As leaders the default is that we up our energy levels – we try to catch the cuts. We run and run to keep up with him.

But he is always an annoying half beat and a wry smile ahead of us – unless we have 10+ years of experience.

In our practise sessions recently we have been working on dancescapes for individual composers – especially to D’Arienzo and Biagi. And with Biagi I have been concentrating for months now on lowering the energy and finding the humour and playfulness that he offers us.

Last week we recorded this session – and I was so interested to watch it.

It seems to me that I have learned – at least a bit – to change my approach – to be patient and playful – and not to chase the cuts. Of course I can see a million errors – practise videos show all as it is – that is their value – they have no concerns with our self perceptions.

But it is calmer. So much quieter than I used to be. Simple movements – often just syncopated walking – always repeating, allowing the follower to relax more and more.

And the result of this lower energy – this calmer approach to Biagi – is that my partner Jo is able to follow this naturally, and to smile, relax and join in the game. She has time to be neat and beautiful with her feet – to laugh with me, and with Biagi, at the endless fun of improvised Tango.

And that  – surely – is what we as student leaders are striving for?  To help her to enjoy the dance.

Tango, Poetry and Spanish

Recently I have been trying to understand what makes Spanish tango lyrics so beautiful – when their English translations are normally less than inspiring.

I suppose there are some obvious linguistic differences –

  • Spanish has softer consonants and longer vowels, and this helps the words to flow easily.
  • Spanish requires verb conjugations, so it’s easier to create rhymes in Spanish, which makes it an ideal language for poetry and music. And for that reason when we are translating back to English we often  find it impossible to generate a rhyme in quite the same way – if at all.
  • As a descendent of Latin, Spanish also builds upon a long heritage of music, poetry, art and culture that contribute to its overall romantic essence.

To me the Spanish of Tango often seems to me to be in some way clipped – like modern Latin American fiction it often uses the rhythms of small words that leave big spaces for your mind. Spaces into which we fall, and are invited to fill with our thoughts. An english translation often feels more cluttered – and less inviting to our imagination.

And then there is the Lunfardo issue – the local prison slang of Buenos Aires full of sexual innuendos, references to drug dens and speakeasies, and melancholic verses expressing pain and destitution.

Lunfardo is a barrier to us both in the complete lack of understanding of a word – but perhaps more dangerously that we don’t understand at all what a ‘Mariposa’ [butterfly] really meant in Lunfardo – so we don’t know what we are missing. But we know we don’t get it – because it just doesn’t make sense.

Or we sort of get it  – ‘Mina’ – yes its a mine but it of course in Tango is a beautiful woman as precious as a jewel – but still as Europeans in 2018 we are not so likely to  understand the historical context and  pejorative implications.

And they can imply all of this in just one short word.

So for all these reasons – it’s not my native language, it rhymes better, it sounds easier and it is packed full of Lunfardo and historical context – I am just not going to get it and no translation that could be sung to the same music is ever going to work as a lyric for that melody.

But to me there is something else – something I feel quite strongly but I can’t easily explain.

It is to do with an emotional emphasis – that in some way the Spanish word in Tango sometimes seems to call up an emotion that explains something – whereas the English word just stops with the thing itself.

The example I often think of is the iconic Pugliese album – ‘Ausencia’ – and that amazing image of the rose on the piano because once again Pugliese was held by the authorities and so the Orchestra was playing without him.

Layers upon layers of meaning. But my point here is more basic – I can’t really find any other way to translate ‘Ausencia’ than with the English word ‘Absence’.

I cannot imagine even the most talented of British bands singing a song called ‘absence’ – I am sure someone has – but to me ‘absence’ is what gets you a bad mark at school.

I think this is a good example that brings many of these things together. Ausencia is indeed full of longer vowels and softer consonants. There are layers of meaning. Not in this case Lunfardo – just a context that it is hard to recapture.

So you are absent, in English we are inclined to write down a bad mark and move on to something more interesting – in Spanish we ask.. and desperately want to know .. why?

When it’s all worth it

We work so hard at Tango.

Sometimes we can get a bit lost, feel that it isn’t worth it – that nothing should be this hard.

 

But then you dance with someone and you both just smile.

Tango is often such a wistful, sad and yearning experience. But inside so much of it is a wonderful chance to experiment, to play and just to enjoy yourself and the way you are both moving so freely to wonderful music and to each other.

In these tandas we absolutely understand why we do this thing. We do it for this. To celebrate our acquired skills. To enjoy the miracle of moving as one.

 

To dance.

Dancing with a Goddess – part I

Last weekend I had the chance to dance a tanda with a goddess – someone so far advanced of me in every aspect of tango that we do indeed inhabit different realms.

And true to the tango leader wimpiness that is alas so very common – even though she told me days in advance that at this milonga she wanted to dance with me – I still did not have the courage to actually ask her. I am such a mortal.

Fortunately for me in the end she gave up waiting and cast a mirada in my direction that made it very clear that if I didn’t actually dance with her this second I was very likely to be vaporized. Or worse.

 

 

This was not my best moment – goddesses like to be worshipped and for her to have to initiate the invitation was more than a little inappropriate.

After this hopeless start I am pleased to say that for me this tanda was a whole new experience.

During the sleepless nights I had had before the milonga I had thought of what to do – how to approach this opportunity.

I made some fairly sensible plans and approaches ..

1. Do not pretend to be something I am not

Legends are full of people imitating gods, venturing too close to the sun and to their domain – and coming to gruesome ends.

Unfortunately being in the arms of a goddess does not make you a god – just terrified.

Be quiet, still and as confident as you can be – and never rush anything. In fact what you think of as fast is painfully slow to a goddess – just as what you think of as slow is kind of average. They are physically so adept that you are best to move at a pace that is the most appropriate for you – do try to vary the emotional landscape using musicality, compression and step length but stay in your executable zone as much as you can so that your lines are clean.

Goddesses don’t like messy lines – they are a sign of mortality.

2. Concentrate on the music

I have thought for a while now that the conversations people describe in tango are often not between the leader and the follower but instead between the follower and the music.

When you are with a goddess you have insufficient shared  vocabulary to say anything other than the dancing equivalent of “Hello – what’s your name?”.

But she has an almost unlimited way to talk to the music in the most complex and sophisticated ways – so try to give them space and to stay out of their way.  Then listen like you have never listened before. Listen with everything you have – apart from letting the music in your ears are nothing to do with it.

Listening to the way a goddess expresses the emotions of tango is a powerful shot of understanding. Don’t miss out.

3.  Don’t be too simple

Many well meaning teachers explain to us student leaders that a good follower will enjoy a beautiful walk more than a poorly executed complex figure.

This is true – the problem when you are with a goddess is that ‘beautiful’ has just been radically redefined. Me leading a goddess to walk for even one whole bar is quite likely to result in her conjuring up a taxi to rescue her from such a painful experience.

So find the middle ground. Of course a mortal should never try to back sacada a goddess – but if you love your close embrace volcadas you shouldn’t shy away from them just because they are off axis. The sensitivity and control in the axis of a goddess and their ability to suddenly become virtually weightless in your arms are a complete joy to experience – so don’t miss out by safely sticking to a true beginners vocabulary.

4. Allow her to look like a goddess

Remember that she is actually taking a risk here.

If I don’t give her her axis, if am not musical – if I block her from moving how she wants to then she is going to look mortal – and that for her is hell.

So above all let her be feminine elegant and beautiful – let her move in the way that only a goddess can.

5. Try to remember to breathe


Life after a tanda with Her

There are risks of course. Every tanda ends and once you have danced with a goddess dancing with mortals is always going to feel different.

The optimist in me tries to think of this as progress. The realist sees a narrowing corridor down which i must progress – with fewer and fewer possibilities.

My goal now is to find a wannabe goddess practise partner who has had the same all too brief encounter with a god and is as motivated as I am to experience it again. To find someone that that wants to work and work and work so that they can again tempt the god to spend just 12 minutes in their arms.

I don’t want to push the metaphor too hard but i have been quietly thinking how mortals have tried  to appease the gods over the millennia and how they have attracted their favours.

Unfortunately I don’t have the skill or strength to build a temple. Sacrifices are basically out of the question. I am no prophet and I lack the ability to move mountains or to part the waters.

So I am pinning my foolish mortal hopes on nice chocolates and flowers.

And that practise partner.

Call and Response as Tango dancers

There is a fantastic explanation of the call and response ( question and answer ) nature of much Tango music here – by Tangomonkey.

This is part of the great site Tango Musicology.

This is such a good article to read – in fact for non-musicians like me the whole site is well worth browsing through. But I particularly have been thinking about the whole issue of call and response – and that once we become sensitive to this as Tango dancers how should we dance within this intricate musical structure?

Hearing it clearly is one thing, and fulfilling in itself – but as one of my teachers expressed so well – “our job is to show the music dance”.

So how should we move within the structure of a call and a response? How do we express this dialog between our bodies as we dance?

The first  way I think is purely a matter of phrasing. Phrasing is so important to the enjoyment of Tango – and in the context of this post it could clearly be a foundation in our response if we make sure that we pause at the end of the question, and again at the end of the answer.

Blundering through everything is just going to be inappropriate and frustrating for our partner. In other words we clearly acknowledge the two sections.

The second is perhaps a little too literal for some – but we can echo the rise and the fall of the question and answer by how we pause. The end of the question, for me at least, cries out for a suspension – and the end of the response can be more down, more into the floor.

Executed well level changes have a lot of meaning that I think can be used within this structure.

Then we have the inevitable and for me fascinating exploration that at least in the traditional world, and within the structure of the Tango dance itself – it is the leader who might be expected to pose the question – and the follower who might – if she wishes to do so –  indicate a response.

At a basic level the response might be ‘not yet’ or ‘perhaps’  or ‘no’ or ‘yes’,

Or perhaps even ‘yes but I cannot’ – or ‘prove yourself first’.

Or she may wish to indicate that she heard the question, but wishes for now at least to hide her answer. Or that she is not interested in even finding an answer – but then perhaps this might not be Tango at all.  She has decided to dance by herself.

So perhaps the leader can confidently and clearly lead her to the cross as a question, where really the follower is strongly lead and she responds by moving very confidently and connected to him as she clearly acknowledges the question. But as she comes back towards the leader, pivots and turns across him the leader might provide a lot of time for her to execute this response with many different approaches and styles.

So it seems to me that the call and response is a way to hand over and take back the essence of leading, just as we would speak and then listen in the natural flow of a conversation that involves a question and an answer.

It is another aspect, I think, of the essence of inviting her first, seeing that she responds and only then as a leader following her – that we all feel in the essence of the way we walk in Tango.

What must be very frustrating is when we as leaders do ask the question, but completely forget to listen to the answer that our partner has all the technical skills and emotions to provide.

She too is with the music, let her show you her response.