How to dance to the music: Know the recording

Many dancers prefer tangos from a specific period, namely the Golden Age (approx. 1935-1955) of tango. Although there are plenty of gems in that musical treasure, some of the nicest songs get played more often than others in practicas and milongas, to the point where you will recognize them from the first few harmonies, and know much of them by heart. This is a good thing, in my mind, since knowing specific recordings really well also makes it easier to dance to them. My series on how to dance to the music continues.

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A trained ear can guess rather well what is about to happen in a previously unknown tango. Some expressions of musicality in dancing, though, rely on actually knowing the specific recording by heart.

The accents of Edgardo Donato’s milonga “Ella Es Así” are virtually impossible to predict unless you’ve heard the song before, and if you want to play with the exact rhythm of the many playful fills of Rodolfo Biagi’s piano, you need to know from memory what is about to happen in the music.

The better you know the specific song, the better are your chances of finding time to prepare. The body needs time to create a movement, so it is not sufficient to realize what is coming just a fraction of a second beforehand – often movements need to be prepared at least one beat in advance, sometimes even several beats for a good build-up.

Here’s a few examples of how knowing the details of a tango piece can be used in the dancing:

  1. Make embellishments that match fills in the music. Fills are short instrumental passages in the breaks between the phrases of the melody. Carlos Di Sarli often lets a few piano notes shine through to connect two phrases. Ángel D’Agostino as well, or he may leave it to the bandoneons. Some leaders make sure to leave space in the dance for the follower to do this, when they know a good moment is coming up.
  2. Hit accents in the music with something distinct in the dance, such as a heavier step or a boleo. Often, the necessary time of preparation for the movement corresponds roughly to its size. If you don’t have time to execute the big boleo, go for something smaller, like a shoulder movement or a foot tap.
  3. Play along with the ending of the song. As already mentioned among the basics, one way is to make sure that your last movements hits the last note of the song. Extravagant ending poses are fun, but not always suitable for the social dance floor. Simply coming to a stop in the dance right when the tango ends, is a great effect in itself. Sure, most of the time, it is easy to hear when a song is about to end, even if you do not know the specific recording, but there are plenty of exceptions, so make sure to remember if you can. Sometimes, the music is twisting it the other way around: it lets you expect an ending, when in fact it continues, like a Beethoven symphony that never wants to finally settle into silence. Dance on without any hesitation in those moments, and notice the effect.
  4. The moment when the singer enters the song is often a very special moment, so don’t let it pass unnoticed in the dancing! It can be the right time to slow down to almost complete stillness (try that e.g. to Temo by OTV). Or it may be the time to get into really a close and gentle embrace. If you don’t remember exactly where the singer starts, it is perfectly fine to make such alterations once you actually hear the voice, but the effect is greater if you can prepare beforehand, to really change the way you move from the very first note of the singer.

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