Walking (Part III)
The term "dos por cuatro" is so important that they sometimes use it in the clubs instead of saying "tango". But while Dos por cuatro is part of the great mythology of tango, it's really nothing more than a strong beat followed by a weaker one. The beat in tango is called the compás, and the most important job of all in tango dancing is finding a way to physically express the compás. So let’s think about this for a moment:
To express the compás we need to step exactly on the strong beat. And equidistant between each strong beat is a weak beat. So where are we if we’re walking on the strong beat of compás? Our foot strike should be exactly on the strong beat, and when we are equidistant between the places where our foot strikes the floor, we will be tall, straight, and balanced over our Zero Point—which is the exact place where the weak beat of the dos por cuatro occurs! The result is that if we walk correctly, our heels will pass exactly on the weak beat, and a natural physical expression of the dos por cuatro will become part of our tango! The natural harmonic motion created by the mechanics of our walk will be in perfect harmony with the compás! It works like this: With good technique, we will naturally will slow and hesitate on the weak beat, and then accelerate smoothly through the strong beat. But it's not only our forward velocity that follows the dos por cuatro. We will also accelerate upward slightly to hit the weak beat, and accelerate down as we drop slightly into the floor to mark the strong beat. Harmonic motion in two different directions to mark the compás! The dos por cuatro expressed on two different axes. Done well, it can be a beautiful thing to see—but it's even more beautiful to feel on the dance floor with your partner.
You're probably tired of watching me walk, but we need to look at these three short clips, because this is the most crucial point in our progress. This is the spot where we begin to match our movement to the music of tango. The first video is something you should already know: Always step exactly on the strong beat of tango. I added ticks to the sound track to mark it:
Walking with a tick on the soundtrack to mark the strong beat of the compás.
The next video shows an important exercise. Here the tick only marks the weak beat of the dos por cuatro, and you can see that I'm careful that my feet pass, right on the weak beat:
Now we mark the weak beat with a Tick. It happens exactly when our ankles pass.
We are also at the tallest and slowest part of the step, balanced over our Zero Point.
Finally, tick-tocks to mark both the strong and the weak beats. Down and fast on the strong beat, tall slow and balanced on the weaker one in between:
Finally, we put it all together: Natural harmonic walking in dos por cuatro.
The walk in these videos isn't exactly the smooth dancing Alej and I use in the milongas, but it should be good enough to demonstrate the connection between walking and the dos por cuatro. There’s a lot more to cover, and we'll continue in a moment, but first I ’d like to talk about something that I suspect is going to happen. A new dancer somewhere will show something from this chapter to one of their teachers, and ask for an opinion—and the response will be something like this: "It’s okay, I guess. This fellow has his style, but there are many different styles.” If you hear this, it's code. What it means is, “I'm going to ignore technique and teach whatever I want.” Let me take a moment to talk about tango instruction.
An Editorial Comment
"There are not different 'styles' of social tango—
there is only good technique and bad technique."
There are really only two styles of tango: "stage tango", and "social tango" (see The Style Myth, Chapter 4). What we are discussing here is social tango, and it's very important to know the difference between the two styles. While stage tango has no limits, there is a right way and a wrong way to dance socially in a milonga. In stage tango, you can dance any way you want to any kind of music, and mix in things from anywhere—swing, modern dance, ballet, whatever. And you can teach whatever you feel like teaching. If it’s fun, or if the audience likes it, or your students like it, you’re doing it correctly. But the tango of the milongas is like golf. It has specific objectives and limits. Golfers don’t all swing a club exactly the same way, but there is still a right way and a wrong way to do it. Using good technique gets you a good score, and using bad technique doesn’t.
Social tango technique must help you attain specific objectives: It must help you communicate with your partner, stay in the compás, express the sentiment of Golden Age music, and move around the floor efficiently without bothering your neighbors. We take care to explain the logic behind everything we describe here. You can agree or not, but if someone advocates something different, you should ask them to do the same. And if their explanation is, well, "It’s different because we’re teaching tango for performing or for having fun in classes and practicas, but not for dancing in a milonga."—then good for them. They’ve given you a valid answer.
But if they’re teaching something different from what we’re saying, and simply calling it one of the styles of tango, then get an explanation of what “style” it is. Ask how it can specifically help you in a real milonga (not a practica-dance studio milonga organized by the teacher). If the explanation is logical and you like it, go with it. But don’t let them teach choreographies, or moves that aren’t connected closely to the compás, or demonstrate poses and pauses with embellishments and leg throwing, and then justify it by saying it's a style. The truth is that the world is full of people who have no business teaching tango—and that includes BsAs. Most people who shouldn't be teaching use the "style" argument. They justify not knowing good technique by saying it's just another style that doesn't interest them.
I know, I'm being hard on teachers. I'm sure there are good ones out there, and some of them may even be reading this. But let me ask a question: If you take classes, think about what you were shown in your last lesson. It's very likely that it was something more advanced than just walking and pausing. Maybe a pattern with some difficult movements, or even a stage stunt like a reverse sacada. But whatever it was, they should never have even thought about presenting it before walking and pausing were covered thoroughly. They're the two most important tools of musical expression. Alej and I can (and will) dance the rest of our lives without sacadas, volcadas, and boleos, but we use pausing and walking in every tango. So I'm sure people who have had more than two or three classes have had this covered thoroughly—but for those few who may have missed it, we'll cover it next.