How to dance to the music: Know the structure of tango music

After the basics, my series on how to dance to the music continues, diving deeper into more specific topics. This article explains how knowing the structure of tango music can help dancers make their dancing more interesting.


Listening to lots of different tangos, we can find recurring patterns. An important part of dancing with musicality relies on our ability to predict the music, and just like other genres of dancing music, tango is constructed in a predictable way.

It is not difficult to find descriptions of how tangos are built from alternating sections, how some tangos follow the pattern A-B-A-C-A, etc. In my mind, we don’t always need to make that kind of analysis formal or explicit. It might be sufficient to notice that “oh, this part of the song sounds very similar to the beginning”, or “ah, here comes the second verse of the singer, similar to the first one but with different words and an added violin in the background”.

Once you are familiar with the general architecture of the whole tango, it will be easier to know how much of the song is left, and whether or not the song has yet reached its intensity climax.


Phrasing in tango also follows certain patterns, although not as predictably as we might hope for. Sometimes a phrase evolves over 8 heavy beats, but other times over a different number of beats. So it is often better to listen than to count. Some phrases follow a wave-like pattern, where they start quietly, then grow in intensity, and eventually calm down again. Other phrases are more square: they start on beat number one and march steadily and evenly until they end promptly, perhaps leaving a beat or two empty before the next phrase takes over.

Here’s a couple of examples of how the structure of tango music can be used for a more interesting interpretation:

  1. Adjust the intensity of your dance to whatever suits the different parts of the song. Many tangos start off slowly, which is naturally matched with simple and comfortable movements. Later in the song there might be more energy in the music, which can be matched with more energetic steps.
  2. Entertain the idea that the song introduces itself to the dancers during its first few phrases. The beginning of a song is the reference that the rest of the song will refer back to, and develop itself out of. The first few shivering moments of a song leave some room for the dancers to get connected to each other’s interpretation of that specific piece of music. These can be moments of attentive listening. Explore them and find their usefulness for dancing the rest of the song.
  3. Given the typical structure of a tango, and given your repertoire of dancing moves, you can make a rough estimation of how to distribute your resources. Save bigger and unusual moves for special moments in the music. They will have a greater musical effect when used sparingly. Practice this by allowing yourself to do one – and only one – high boleo (or another move) per song, and make sure it happens at the right moment. Or start in close embrace, find one moment in the song where the music calls for an open embrace, and then a second moment where getting back into a close embrace seems like the right way to respond to the music.
  4. Pick a tango with a singer, and listen carefully to the way he or she is phrasing the music. Are there moments where the singer is taking a breath? How long is each phrase? Does the singer vary the intensity of his or her voice within a phrase? Dance to the same song, and make similar expressions in the dance. Then dance to another song by the same orchestra, and adjust the expressions you just practiced to fit the new song.
  5. Play with repetition and variation. If a song enters into a repeated section, you may relate your dancing to what happened the first time the section was played, such as using the same steps, or the same attitude. Or, alternatively, you can figure out a way of doing the opposite of what you did before, which is also a way of relating to what happens last time. If there is a slight variation in the music, such as the added violin mentioned above, it could help you find a different expression the second time.

Some work is required for these exercises, but note that most of it includes actual dancing. You don’t need to just sit down and listen to tango music to learn about its structure – you can train your ear while you are actually moving to the music. Enjoy the practice!


2 Replies to “How to dance to the music: Know the structure of tango music”

  1. I love your all the tips and specially the 5th i.e. Play with repetition and variation. I agree with you, it is must for every dancers to know the structure of tango music for making thier dance more interesting. Thanks!

  2. I really like your approach. It is so important to tango to dance to the music. I teach similar concepts myself in the second and third series of foundational Argentine Tango at Tangomasters. Yeah for you.

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