Milonga, the habanera rhythm, and dancing quick-quick-slow

The habanera rhythm is what makes milonga music so groovy. While the rhythmical quality of tango is often a bit square, milonga gets into a more swaying and rocking flow, which also creates a very different feeling when you dance to it.

Getting to know the habanera rhythm

The habanera rhythm is well known also outside of tango, as in this famous aria from the opera Carmen by Bizet:

Compare the background rhythm of the aria with the background rhythm of a milonga, such as Cacareando by OTV:

This is what the habanera rhythm sounds like. Now, listen more carefully to Cacareando, and you’ll hear that there is a special emphasis on the very first note of the song, and that whenever the habanera rhythm comes back to that same note, it is is the heaviest one in the cycle.

It’s as if there’s a direction to the rhythm. In each habanera cycle, the music goes towards this heavy beat and lands on it. For those of us who like to count, this is the first beat of the 2-beat bars in the milonga music. But counting is secondary; the important thing is to feel the direction of the music.

Finding two different options for quick-quick-slow

When we dance milonga, we often use the good old quick-quick-slow pattern, especially for milonga traspié, where we rock back and forth in a step in quick-quick-slow.

This rocking can be matched to the music in two ways:

  1. You place the first “quick” on the heavy note of the habanera
  2. You place the “slow” on the heavy note of the habanera

You might want to try this out in order to feel the difference.

If you are used to hit the first beat of the bar when you start walking, this will naturally make you fall into the option 1, where the first “quick” lands on the first beat.

The easiest way to find option 2 may be to take the first step on the spot as a “slow” (on the first beat of the bar) and then start walking in traspié where the “quick-quick” will math the second beat and the mid-beat before the first beat of the next bar. It can be helpful to think of this as “slow-quick-quick”, as opposed to the “quick-quick-slow” of the first option.

Aligning steps with the habanera

Option 2 above aligns more directly with the habanera, because all of the steps of “quick-quick-slow” will end up on a note in the habanera rhythm. This means that the weight changes of the body are supported by those musical notes in a satisfying way.

Option 1, to the contrary, places a step in the pause of the habanera rhythm, which does not give the same grounded feeling of that step. Stepping this way also interferes with the syncopation of the next note (the shortest one, that seems to arrive late): it takes away the anticipation that is built up when a note is missing from a beat, which means that we are missing out on the release of that tension when the faster note finally arrives.

Visualising the relationship between habanera, beats and steps

Here’s a schematic illustration, for those of us who likes a visual explanation:

The habanera rhythm, shown as notes in the top row of the figure, is aligned with the counting of the beats in the second row, and in the bottom rows we see the two possible ways of fitting steps to the music. The first option from the description in the previous section is marked as “quick-quick-slow”, while the second option is marked “slow-quick-quick”.

The thin vertical lines are equally spaced and represent how the two beats (“1” and “2”) and the two lighter mid-beats (“&”) of each bar arrive at a steady pace. All the notes of the habanera rhythm fall onto a line, except for the faster, syncopated note. Although the first note (on count 1) is marked (with a dot) as a longer note here, the fact that no note falls on the first “&” creates a sort of pause in the music, a suspension, an anticipation … before the faster note, which falls in between the beats, kicks in.

Note how the “slow-quick-quick” pattern ensures that a step will always fall on a note in the habanera rhythm, while the “quick-quick-slow” rhytm is not as well aligned.

Taking a balanced view

Does this mean that we always must do the “slow-quick-quick” pattern to milonga, and that the “quick-quick-slow” pattern is plain wrong? No it doesn’t. Knowing both pattterns well gives us more possibilities for variation, and there might very well be certain places in the music where “quick-quick-slow” is the better fit, or places where it doesn’t matter much.

That said, musicality begins with aligning with the music, rather than challenging it. In this case, it begins with exploring the “slow-quick-quick” until it’s well established in your body, and possibly by then the more natural way for you to fit your steps to the milonga music.