Dreams and Reality
Once we've begun to figure out how to stand and step, the next stage is to "dance". Most of us start down the tango road with some sort of vision. It could be anything from dreams of glory picked up from watching tango in movies and stage shows, to simply wanting to keep from embarrassing ourselves in a milonga. Surprisingly, dreams of the first kind are much easier to follow. Only a small handful of people actually make a living by performing, but their shows have spawned a worldwide system of classes and workshops for learning stage tango.
Ironically, however, the techniques needed to become a competent social dancer are more difficult to acquire. The problem is that the tango of the milongas isn't made up of figures and embellishments. Social tango involves moving around the floor and using the music—and that has very little to do with the patterns that fit so well into the "demonstrate, copy, and memorize" approach of the classroom. The closer you look at the infinite varieties of good social dancing, the more difficult the task seems. It's hard to even know where to begin—but let's see if we can find a place.
Counting the Compás
The goal of social tango is to express the music with the movements of the upper bodies of the partners. Good social dancers keep their upper bodies still and connected, while navigating around the floor to the cadence and melody of the music. When it's done well, it's similar to the apparently effortless movements of an orchestra conductor's baton. Words, notes, and rhythms are distilled down to the movement of the dancers torsos traveling through three-dimensional space. How is it done? If you examine the best dancers, you'll find that one of the basic building blocks of this movement is a series of quick steps that hit the consecutive beats of the music. Most changes in speed, direction, and rotation are initiated by these runs of quick steps, so you need to understand them if you want to learn how to move well in a milonga.
Normally when we talk about the compás, we prefer using the terms "strong beat" and "weak beat". So we describe the dos por cuatro cadence of tango as a strong beat, with a weak beat in between. In simple walking, we just step on the strong beats. But if we want to also step on the weak beats in between, the best way to understand what's happening is to count each step numerically. So as soon as we begin to step on consecutive beats, we'll count the first strong step as "1", and then we'll count every consecutive beat thereafter—until we return to only stepping on the strong beats. So in the video below, instead of counting the quick steps with the "tick - tock - tick" on the soundtrack, we'll count them as "1-2-3":
It's best to count the 3 quick steps in this clip as "1-2-3".
In the video above, let's count our steps on the consecutive "STRONG - weak - STRONG" beats as "1-2-3". Most tango dancing is based on these short 3-run segments that hit one weak beat. They're used for changes of direction and rotational movements, and women do them all the time when they cross, or follow a giro. But there's no reason to restrict ourselves to only three quick steps. We can do as many as we want—as long as we end up back on the STRONG beat. That mean's, our runs of quick steps must always end on an odd number: 3, 5, 7, 9, 11... and on up. You can go as high as you want. Let's look at some milongueros, and see how this fit's into dancing:
Roberto Noli, Blas, and Ricardo stepping on consecutive beats. If you count the "tick-tocks" you'll find
runs of 3,5,7,9,11... and 17! (In tango, runs of consecutive steps must always consist of an odd number.)
If you count the runs in the video, you'll see that Roberto "El Rey del Compás" Noli uses some 3's, mixed in with runs of 9, 7, and 11 (dancing with Adriana). Blas uses 5's and 3's (with Graciela), and in the last part of the video, Ricardo uses a 7-run for his first corrida, and then finishes with a long 17-step run, that curves through a giro (with Alej). Long runs of consecutive steps weren't unusual for Ricardo when he danced to tango picado. Like Roberto, he used 7's and 11's all time, and I even have video of him hitting 19 consecutive beats in a row.
For practice, you can go back two pages and count the consecutive step runs Alejandra and Ricardo use in the Adios Arrabal video. Then, put on some music and go after it. Don't worry about technique at first, or doing it with a partner. Just practice doing 5's, 7's, 9's, and 11's in a straight line. See how high you can go, and get used to what it feels like with different kinds of music. Then, begin concentrating on good posture and stepping sharply onto a straight leg. Finally, try some short runs with a partner.
The tango in the video above is a sample of good social tango—but it’s only a small sample—and it's weighted toward tango picado. That is, it represents a way of dancing to the more rhythmic tangos of the D'Arienzo tradition. But tango can be danced in many different ways, and music that doesn’t have such a pronounced beat may call for a different way of dancing. Let's look at an example of excellent tango that isn’t built around such obvious runs of consecutive quick steps:
Here is a very relaxed and sophisticated way of dancing tango that uses 3 and 5 runs in the form of pivots
and weight changes to dance in restricted space. The best milongueras love this kind of dancing.
This is very good dancing by Milonguero X. Tango for adults. It's so relaxed and natural that it seems almost casual, but it's actually very sophisticated. The reason it appears unhurried is because X is prepared, and on top of the music. Notice how his feet, and also his partner's feet, float and pivot with the cadence and the melody. Our natural tendency is to look first and listen second—but the key to understanding the great milongueros is to listen carefully first, and then look. Watch the video, but try to let your visual input take a back seat. To help focus more on the music, you might try seeing them the way I do when I dance next to them. Try focusing your eyes a few inches to the side, and watch them with your peripheral vision. Your goal is to absorb everything in the music, and separate the parts, so that you can begin to hear what X is hearing. Then, let their movement sneak back in.
At the beginning, he takes more aggressive steps to express the melody of the full orchestra. Then toward the middle, if you watch his right elbow, you can see him begin to pick up the softer melodies. First he follows the violin with his upper body, and then the bandoneon. (My God! Listen to that bandoneon! Who's playing that thing?) Each time he reaches back with his right foot, he varies the length and the timing of his step in order to bring his partner around and follow the orchestra as they draw out the notes. Then, when the sharper cadences of the bandoneon and piano come in, he marks it on the floor with small pivots and weight changes. All of this is done in very limited space. He and the people around him come extremely close to each other, but they don't even seem to be aware of it. They all know exactly what's going around them.
Now, look at his partner. Imagine you have some sort of advanced computer program that erases every other dancer in the video except her—a program that leaves her dancing alone on an empty floor. Then, run the program, and watch her feet. You'll see that she's not trying to impress anyone by adding decorations. She's dancing only for herself. But if you look closely, you can see that she's completely involved in the music. This is a great example of the subtle things we talked about in the section on women's dancing back in Chapter 3. She senses every move her partner will make, and then plays along with him. For me, if I'm able to really isolate her dancing, with her feet gliding intricately just inches from the floor, it almost looks like the bow of a violin playing along with the music.
Milonguero X prefers to remain anonymous. He doesn't dance with a lot of women, but the best milongueras love to dance with him, because he hears all the things in the music that they hear. In this video, he does runs of 3, 5, and 7, (and maybe 9) consecutive beats... but they're very difficult to see, because they're hidden among the pivots and weight changes. (I was going to put tick-tocks on the sound track to identify them, but it's a lot of work—and with a little practice, you should be able to find them on your own.) X doesn't use them as much for moving forward, as for rotating, and moving around in place. Part of this is style, part is his response to this kind of music, and part is simply because the available space in the ronda is so limited.
X has been dancing tango all his life, but this is the only time he's ever been filmed. No one will ever know who he is, or anything about him—but at least what he does has been saved. We've filmed a hundred milongueros and a thousand plus tangos, but these are the moments I wait for. They make it all worth it. As far as I'm concerned, you can take all the stage shows and all the Campeonatos del Mundo the city wants to sponsor and throw them in the Riachuelo. One tango like this is worth more than all of them.