Dancing the Melody

Melodies are important in tango music, and very often they are what comes up when you try to remember a tango. Perhaps you can recall the melodies of “La Cumparsita” and “Vida mía”?

A notion I have often encountered in tango is that you can either dance the rhythm or the melody. I get the impression that dancing the melody is perceived as better, more sophisticated and a more advanced form of musicality in the dance: “Anybody will learn to dance the rhythm of a tango, but only certain advanced dancers are dancing the melody”.

Technically, a melody is a sequence of notes that we perceive as an entity in the music. The most important features of a melody are pitch (how high the notes are, not to be confused with how loud they are) and duration (how long they are). If you change the intervals or the duration of notes too much, you will no longer have the same melody. It’s easy to see that there is less tolerance for changing pitch than duration – just try it out with a well known melody. Pitch comes first, duration second.

A well-known melody

But how would you make a corporal expression of a sequence of pitches? Once suggestion I heard is to be higher above the ground for higher pitches, and lower closer to the ground for lower pitches. This might work on rare occasions, but if performed more than for a couple of notes in a row, the effect would be purely comical.

And this is clearly not what “dancing the melody” is. It’s rather a question of reflecting the melodic line in the dance, as opposed to the (often more rhythmical) accompaniment of the melody.

The duration of the notes in the melodic line does not seem to matter much either. In workshops where “dancing the melody” is introduced, the rhythms of the melody are not danced, but it is rather a matter of slowing down the dance, as opposed to following the steady pace of a repetitive, rhythmical accompaniment (“dancing the rhythms”).

So, interestingly, when “dancing the melody”, you will not take into account the two foremost characteristics of a melody: neither pitch nor duration! Instead you will need to focus on the quality (timbre, emotional expression, etc.) and on the phrasing of the melodic line.

Isn’t it confusing to say “dance the melody” when you do not move to the most typical features of a melody? To me it is.

Dancers will achieve greater variation if they at times emphasize the music in a manner similar to the singer or an instrument playing the melody. But to describe this way of dancing, don’t ask people to “dance the melody” – it is more accurate to talk about longer and shorter phrases, emphasis and direction in the music. Or to simply say “slow down”.

Slowing it down…