I Hate Musicality

I love the music.  I love the dance.  I love the way dancers experience and respond to both, and to each other, in an integrated, all encompassing way

How much of a pause is just enough to reflect perfectly the slowing of the tempo in your favourite Vals.  Or how to invite your partner to step cheekily in the shared joke of a Biagi or D’Arienzo.  These moments, and all those others like them, are truly magical.

And, in our attempts to learn – and especially teach – these magical skills, what do we do?  We create a separate subject out of it.  We lump everything to do with the music into a separate category and give it a name highly suitable for lumps – Musicality.  As if it were a bolt on component, like a roof  box on a car, or an external hard drive on your computer.

And yet, the subject of Musicality (the capital ‘M’ is deliberate, by the way) is everywhere you look on the Tango scene – in classes and workshops, all over the place, as if it were a separate entity with a life of its own.  And what do these workshops claim to do?  They aim to make it seamless – to remove the gap between the music and the dance, a gap which, ironically, they are in danger of fostering.

There’s an interesting thing in linguistics (and NLP if you’re into that) about how the shape and structure of language influences how we think and feel about things.   When there are lots of verbs, there is movement, where there’s a predominance of nouns, it’s static.  We get this in management-speak – have you ever noticed how it turns everything into nouns to reduce the activity and make it more solid (a cheap substitute for being more credible)?  So rather than doing something to improve, companies proudly announce  the implementation of their latest performance optimisation strategy.  Yes – that sounds more impressive!  Companies don’t say they’re cutting costs by making people redundant , they are more likely to go for a workforce rationalisation policy. Unless you’re in America, of course,  where they, more humanely, “let them go.”

Interestingly, the opposite is also true, when the aim is to make something more dynamic – people turn perfectly respectable nouns into rather dubious verbs – nowadays we hear phrases like ‘leveraging our assets’ or that somebody ‘medalled at the last Olympics’.

I’ve always been interested in the use of language.  I also get concerned when it hides or distorts  the truth.  Sometimes it’s useful to use labels to separate subjects like Geography or French, where it is convenient to have boundaries to define the area of study.  Although I did get into trouble for being cheeky when, at the age of twelve, I was told I would have to choose between Music and Woodwork.  ‘What if I want to be a violin maker’ I asked.  Sigh – I’ve always been a troublemaker.  However, I digress.

This separation doesn’t work for Musicality unless you want to study it as a stand-alone academic subject. If we want to use our musical awareness in our dance, the relationship between music and dance is fundamental and has to be inseparable. Using the  ‘Musicality’ noun makes it into a thing which now occupies a space between music and dance, creating a gap that shouldn’t be there.


Why does this matter?

Well, first of all let’s think about how we learn Tango.  There’s a lot to pay attention to – being aware of your body, maintaining your  posture, connecting with your partner, communicating with your partner, starting and stopping, internalising the vocabulary and grammar of the Tango Language, getting round the floor without colliding with others, and so on.  Oh – and then there’s the music – what do we do with that?  Let’s just have it going on in the background for the time being.

(Notice, by the way, that I have avoided the usual noun based language to describe these activities.  So often we resort to the standard vocabulary: Balance, Axis, Connection, Embrace, Leading, Following,  Floorcraft and Steps (or even my pet hate term – ‘Moves’ ).  The standard terminology is a convenient shorthand – but it only works if everyone has a shared understanding of the meanings.  Developing that shared meaning – not just in our heads but also in our bodies – takes time.

I’ve spoken with many newcomers to Tango who say that there’s so much to think about they can only focus on one or two things at a time (especially so for the Leaders).  So it’s understandable (but  not necessarily desirable) that many teachers concentrate on just getting people moving and leave little luxuries like the music for later.  That ‘later’ may end up being a very long time.

And that’s where the Musicality Workshop comes in – it ends up being a remedial class for people who have been (so called) ‘dancing’ for months, if not years, without ever paying real attention to the music.  A bit like going on a crash diet rather than eating healthily in the first place. This is so ironic, and sad, since a lot of people I speak to tell me that the music was one of the main things that attracted them to Tango in the first place.


So what’s so special about Tango music anyway?

This is a huge subject that deserves several separate articles in its own right.  However, here are a few main points for starters.  There are significant differences between  classic Tango music and what most people will have previously listened to, let alone danced to.  Have a look at our article here for a brief introduction to typical, traditional Argentine Tango music.  And for the purposes of learning about dancing to Tango music, I am focusing on the music you will hear at most typical Milongas – Argentine Tango music from the 1930s to 1950s.  I’m therefore deliberately excluding music like Gotan Project, Otros Aires or other neo / nuevo styles.  We can catch up with them some other time.


The main things to bear in mind about typical Tango music are:

1.  The typical Tango orchestra

does not have a separate percussion or drum section.  This makes it very different from most popular music you will be familiar with. Tango music is highly rhythmical, but the rhythm is embedded within the orchestra and carried by all the other instruments – sometimes the piano and bass, sometimes the strings, sometimes the bandoneons –  the ‘ responsibility’ for the rhythm  even moves between sections within the same piece.  You need to get used to listening to this.  Better to do this when you’re not trying to do all the other stuff (like dancing) as well.

2.  The Beat – a good servant but a bad master

If you’re used to Ballroom, Jive and its derivatives, or even disco ‘bopping’ you are probably used to dancing to the beat, which will usually be very pronounced because of the drums etc.  In Tango, not only is the beat less obvious, you don’t move on every single one.  Sometimes you will be fitting your movement to the melody or the phrasing.  Sometimes you will pause and stop moving – but not stop dancing!  Dancing to the beat may mean that you are relating to the music vertically – literally to the  down beats.  Try thinking horizontally to focus on the melody and phrasing.


Putting these things into your dance

This requires high level skills and you really cannot afford to delay in starting to learn them.  If you are relatively new to Tango, you’re reading this at the right time.  If you are more experienced, and especially if you feel (or worse, your partners tell you) that something is missing in your interpretation of the music, you might like to think of  this as a wake up call.  So what can we do?  Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

1.  Get familiar with Tango Music

This has never been easier, with mp3 download sites like Amazon.  I avoid iTunes for several reasons but that’s another story.  There are Tango radio stations you can stream over the internet.  Try Spotify and YouTube for easy access to a huge range of music and dance demonstrations. You need to know what to look for – so here are the names of key orchestras of the Golden Age from 1930 to 1950:

Biagi,  Rodolfo

Caló,  Miguel

Canaro,  Francisco

D’Agostino,   Ángel

D’Arienzo,  Juan

De Angelis,  Alfredo

Di Sarli,  Carlos

Donato  Edgardo

Fresedo,  Osvaldo

Laurenz,  Pedro

Pugliese,  Osvaldo

Rodriguez,  Enrigue

Tanturi,  Ricardo

Troilo,  Anibal

If this list seems too long and daunting,  just start with the Di Sarli, D’Arienzo and Canaro.  Be aware that different orchestras had very contrasting styles, and that Tango music evolved enormously over time.  You can have a lot of fun discovering  these things through your listening.

Enjoy your explorations, but beware – it could develop into a lifetime obsession.

2.  Choose your teachers wisely

There are lots of ‘Tango variants’ out there.  And for some variants, read deviants!  This, again is a huge subject and we have written other articles on learning and teaching in greater detail.  So here, let’s just look at the teachers’ approach to the music.

What music do they play for classes?  Some play modern music in an attempt to be more appealing to a wider audience and to make it easier to follow the beat.  This can be OK if used very sparingly, but it’s mostly a false economy.  The further down the road you get before starting to dance to good Tango music, the harder it will be.

How do they introduce  their students to the music?  And how soon?  Is part of every class dedicated to dancing expressively with the music, rather than just churning out a repertoire of steps?

And watch them dance.  Not for how impressive they are with flashy moves, but how together are they – both with each other and the music.

3. Practise with the music 

Feel it, move with it.  By yourself to start with, as adding a partner is another challenge that will distract your focus away from the music.  Your ultimate goal is to be able to dance as freely and expressively to the music with your partner as you can alone.  That will take time.  Be patient with yourself and enjoy the journey.


And finally . . .

If you are drawn to a Musicality workshop, go to , enjoy it and use it.  Think of it as an opportunity to add greater depth to your knowledge and appreciation of Tango music.  Ask yourself, how are you going to integrate it into your  existing music / dance awareness.  It’s an extra – not a substitute – for working with the music all the time.


© Peter Okell-Walker, Tango Nomads, 2017