25 March 2009

My meanderings through tango music

My appreciation for tango music went through a long evolutionary process. My first preference was nuevo style music. Fast forward few years to where I am now, I listen to none but traditional tango music. Here's how that metamorphosis went...



In the beginning...
My wife and I were at one time, avid ballroom dancers and were poised to enter the competitive ballroom scene. As fate would have it, we did not bow to that madness (that's another story). We discovered tango and it became our specialty. We didn't know (at the time) that there were different types of tango! In any case, we (finally) discovered Argentine Tango and never looked back.


My view of tango music was shaped by American Ballroom Tango. The premise—In order for one to dance well, one needs to follow the beat. In ballroom tango, the musical arrangements are written to pound this into a distinctive 4/4 time march-like cadence.


Ballroom tango music



First exposure to "real" Argentine tango music...
Crossing over from ballroom, my only "real" knowledge of tango music came from the (2004) movie "Shall we dance," a remake of the original 1996 Japanese movie of the same title.
My first idea of "real" tango music (Gotan Project)

My brain was filled with a load of assumptions and presumptions on how this dance should be. I was under the misguided belief of transposing my previous dance experience and apply it to tango. I thought that this was the fastest way to be good at tango. It was (in hind sight) quite arrogant of me.

I was looking for music that had a constant, discernible, and structured beat. I was looking for music like salsa, or cha-cha. I assumed that, since Argentina was in latin America, ergo, it should be like any other latin rhythm—right? I wanted music that when you just listened to the beat, you knew what it was, and you knew what step to pick and use. Music that didn't change rhythm... just like ballroom, salsa, and cha-cha.


First frenzy...
I discovered Gotan project. Hey, it's tango music. Good enough to be in a movie I liked, its good enough for me. I get this kind of music. Good beat, modern, sleek, cool. I spent time collecting music from Otros Aires, Narcotango, Gotan Project, Bajofondo Tango Club... All the "cool" stuff. I started collecting CITA DVD's. Gotta watch the nuevo masters. I liked the moves. I was impressed and wanted to do them... Just like ballroom. It was all about the flashy-cool moves.

At this point in time, I DID NOT KNOW HOW TO DANCE Argentine tango, yet. I just thought I could do anything. I was still in "research" mode, and basing my assumptions on what I knew.


Beginning tango lessons, a rude awakening...
I enrolled with my first real Argentine tango teacher. He was very good (as a first teacher). He was very strict. He showed my technical inadequacies in no uncertain terms. The music he used used to teach his class... Old scratchy pre-World War II sounding stuff. I couldn't stand it! Why, oh why did this old man insist on his old music? Nostalgia? Ugh!

It was bad enough that my brain ached after the class trying to learn this tango thing. It didn't help that my ego got trampled every single time. All of this while the horrible old scratchy music grated at me constantly. I didn't get this music. Why didn't they use a drum? Why did it change rhythm and tempo several times in one song. It was confusing to me. I couldn't read it. Oh, did I mention it was scratchy?



A funny thing happened. I learned how to dance tango...
I had to unlearn everything I knew. I started re-learning with an open mind. Working through my frustrations, I patiently persisted. After about a year or so, my teacher told me that in the end, despite all the steps that he taught, I had to make the dance, my own. Take what he taught, string them together and make it into something distinctly mine. He said, "When you can make it flow WITH A PARTNER, regardless of how good or bad she is and make it an experience, then you know you can tango."


This resounded in my brain like a cathedral bell. The connection, the syncopated motion combined in a magical way. Suddenly, the intricacy of the old, traditional music became meaningful. I got it—I GOT IT!


The nuevo style stuff was now BORING! It did not have the character of the traditional music. It might as well be salsa or cha-cha. If you sat there and just listened, a whole evening would go by and there would be one steady cadence... It limited my musicality to the song, because I found that you were tied to a consistent rhythm.


With the traditional music, you danced to the down beat of the melody. I slowed when it slowed, I sped up when it sped up. Hesitations and pauses became intrinsic parts of my dance. I danced with the music and not to the music. It has become a zen-like experience with a partner. It's always a new experience—every time.


And so, for the last few years, my iPod and my music listening has since been dominated by traditional tango music. Of course, I still listen to nuevo stuff... But I don't dance to it anymore.



Juan D' Arienzo


8 comments:

Mari said...

I love your post! I too started with Nuevo style music and then Gotan Project etc., and while I love to *listen* to those, I feel the real connection *dancing* with the traditional music. When I need to practice something (by myself) I'll use Gotan Projecct to slow myself down and work a particular sequence. But with a partner, I want Pugliese, or Di Sarli, or to get wrapped up in Gardel's voice. (I sound like a Calgon commercial, don't I?)

Johanna said...

Thank you SO much for this wonderful post. You very eloquently answer the question I always pose to those who prefer nuevo music: why?

Your journey is illuminating, and ultimate rewarding - for all of us :-)

Anna said...

I'd say you can most definitely tango :)

Johanna said...

FYI, just gave this post a shout-out over at Tangri-lá.

AmpsterTango said...

Mari, Johanna, & Anna,

Thank you. I'm flattered, and honored.

Alex said...

Great post...I'm visiting through Johanna's mention on her blog...

I've also heard it referred to as dancing 'inside' the music, versus 'on top of' the music...

Daniel E said...

Very interesting thoughts...I am a salsa dancer, and I have had trouble getting into tango, mostly because of the music.

In salsa, I went through a similar evolution. At first, I liked the modern music that's very catchy on the surface, but not very deep musically. Now I appreciate a lot more of the old music...its audio quality is often not as good, but the music is much more complex and interesting.

The key difference with salsa is that almost all instructors use songs in their lessons that have mass appeal, even if that's not the music they prefer to dance to.


Isn't it more important to attract and retain people first then to force feed the best music, technique, etc on them from the start? Most people won't be patient for a year like you were. The tango instructors in my area are all very traditionalist as well, and while I know there is good reason behind it, I think it also hurts them in attracting new people to the dance.

Mladen said...

But in tango proper technique is very important.

Tango nuevo first dancer cannot lead nor follow.

You cannot learn tango in a weekend