Friday, March 21, 2014

Ask Helaine: At a milonga, how can I catch the pauses and stops in tangos I don’t know?

Hi Helaine,

When a piece of tango music you know is playing, its fairly easy to know when to walk, when to pause, when to go into figures and when to prepare for the end.

When you go to a Milonga, and you are fairly new to tango, most of the songs will be full of surprises, often with the end coming at the most unexpected moment, especially if you are not familiar with Spanish.

Do you have any suggestions for navigating elegantly these pieces of music without getting caught off guard?

Thank you,


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Excellent question, Maurice!

I know you have recently joined our musicality program, and in just a few weeks you will be be able to answer that question yourself quite thoroughly! 

But in the meantime, and for all our readers who have not yet had the opportunity to study tango musicality, here’s a clue that should help you to quickly understand the phrasing of popular tangos, and be able to anticipate when they end!  

There is a standard format for many Golden Age tangos, with which you can easily become familiar, even before you go deep in our InformedTango Musicality program. 

I call tangos that follow this basic structure, “regular”, and those that deviate from this structure “irregular”.  Lots and lots of “regular” tangos are played in milongas; understanding the basic structure of this group of tangos is an good first step in building your musicality foundation!

The tangos I call “regular” are made up of twenty phrases of 8 counts, by which I mean 8 downbeats and 8 upbeats (like the “BUDupp” of a heartbeat).  And they’re all organized the same way, including when the singer comes in and goes out. (I show you this with a simple diagram in Module 3 of “Informed Tango Musicality”.  But you can easily figure it out by listening with pen and paper and counting phrases of 8.) 

I don’t advise you to count while you’re dancing.  But I do recommend that you take time to study and analyze some tangos that sound simplest to you (start with Di Sarli, Calo’, D’Arienzo, or Tanturi), and see if you can identify the end of each phrase.  You can practice an exercise of counting the 8 downbeats, or strong beats, and see if there’s a natural-sounding end of phrase. 

If you listen carefully when you do this exercise, especially if you use a headset, you may discover two other very strong clues that can signal the end of a phrase.  I’m not going to spoil the surprise.  If you don’t discover them, they’ll be revealed to you in depth in modules 2 and 4 of our musicality program. These are things that actually occur in the orchestration, and you can pinpoint them accurately and even document them, like we do in the program.

There’s one more easy way that ANYBODY can intuitively recognize the end of a musical phrase in a tango.  Think of it a whole tango as a song that you have to sing, or to write lyrics for.  Where would you put the punctuation?  As an intuitive listening exercise, try listening to a tango and “punctuate” it with moves of your hand: you’ll want to put in commas and periods!  Those are likely phrase endings.  If some happen around the 4th count, they could be intervals in the middle of a phrase, that deserve a comma!

Anyone who wants to go deeper and really understand the structures of both “regular” and “irregular” tangos should enroll in “InformedTango Musicality, which in just two-months will make you quite expert - you’ll have an accurate understanding of how almost any tango works, and this will give you tremendous confidence in your interpreting tangos on the dance floor!

I have one more important tip for you, Maurice, regarding responding on the dance floor at the right time time to the end of a phrase or especially the end of a tango:

As long as with every step you “claim your Infinite Axis” (which locks into the center of the earth and the “top of the sky”), you are always ready to stop on a dime.  Because you don’t have to stop!  You are already stopped, as you observe a “micro-pause” on the upbeat between steps. 

So at the end of a phrase, or when a tango winds down, or even if it stops abruptly, you simply don’t start the next step!  You’re already where you need to be:  calm and grounded.

If a tanguero can’t help making an extra step when - too late! - he should have stopped, it means he is losing his balance with every step, because his movement is driven by the body attitude of “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going” rather than “I’m here.  And now I’m here.  And now I’m here.”  The “I’m here” is the micro-pause between steps that allows you to be grounded so you’re always in control, and have time to make decisions about every step.  Mastering this concept, which any beginner can (and should!) learn, will help enormously with your musicality, because you anchor yourself with every upbeat! (We’ll cover “How to ground yourself” in another article.)

I commend you for having enrolled in “Informed Tango Musicality” because in two months you will start to experience a sense of mastery on the dance floor, regardless of your short time in Tango.

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I encourage everyone to leave your comments in the space below the article!

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