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.


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.


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!


How to dance to the music: The basics

Musicality is a wide topic that touches on many different aspects of tango dancing. Here we will look at the practical problem: what you actually need to do in your dance to make sure you are moving with the music.


Six important first steps towards getting your dance closer to the music:

  1. Learn to step on the basic beat of the song by just walking in the dance direction by yourself (tango first, then vals and milonga).
  2. With a partner, learn to walk a few steps on the beat, then stop, then find the beat again.
  3. At the beginning of a song, listen to the music to find a good moment to start, and stop dancing when the music stops.
  4. Learn some rhythms, such as quick-quick-slow or quick-slow-quick-slow, perhaps by clapping your hands first and then using the tempo of your steps. Try rhythms to different songs to see where they fit in.
  5. Listen for phrases in the music (using a tango with lyrics can be helpful, since the singer will often take a breath between two phrases). Learn to take a break at the end of a phrase, and to start walking at the beginning of a phrase.
  6. Learn how to adjust your dance to the general feel of a song, so that e.g. a romantic tango is danced with loving gentleness, while a hectic tango is danced with energy.

The items of this list are all essential as a base to develop musicality in dancing. Note that all of them require some listening and some doing. Enjoy!