Musicality is one of the most important skill of a Tango dancer. Tango is such a unique music and, even at professional level, what makes the difference between good dancers and great ones, is the way they interpret the music.
Having a good musicality does not mean having a perfect sense of time, as this is only the first necessary requirement to be able to interpret the music. Musicality means highlighting the nuances of the different instruments, dancing in infinite different ways the same step, changing pace and steps according to the musical phrase. Everyone can learn all the above and practise, although the highest level of musicality falls outside any attempts of decoding how dancers should interpret the music. No one can really teaches someone how to express to the partner what they feel in the music. In order to achieve that, one has to love Tango and turns his/her mindset from “I want to express myself through Tango”, to “I want to express Tango through myself”.
The basic of Tango musicality
As in every dance, being on time is the first requirement in order to be able to dance, although in Tango the definition of being on time can be misleading. In Salsa, for example, being on time means dancing every beat of the musical measure, while in Tango being on time means to step only on the strong beats, the compás of a Tango.
The compás, according to many, is the most important element of a Tango. Juan D’Arienzo once even said that there is no Tango without compás. Although some might not agree with it, it is true that in all the Tangos composed for dancing, the ones people danced in the golden age in the milongas of Buenos Aires, what drives the music is its compás. We can translate the Tango compás as “the beat”, although technically this definition is incorrect. In common language rather than a technically musical one, the beat is each single pulse of a metronome, while the compás represents only the beats with a strong accent. In every Tango time signature (mainly 2/4, 4/4 and 4/8), dancing on the compás means stepping on the first beat, or on the first and the third, while the second and the fourth are the weak beats.
Double time and half time
To add some diversity to an interpretation, Tango tunes offer many nuances that can be translated into steps on the dance floor. In most Tangos, especially the more rhythmic ones, we can hear sometimes the orchestra playing the weak beats with a stronger accent, more emphasis, or using more instruments. In these cases it is possible to perform steps in what most teachers refers to as double time (some call it counter-time or off beat), which means stepping also on the weak beats, that could be the second or the fourth of the measure. (Double time steps are more used during staccato music, we will speak about this in different articles). Opposite to this, when the music seems to slow down and the silence between two beats is barely perceptible (legato music, we will speak about this in different articles), it is possible to change the speed of the steps, dancing only on the first beat of the measure and prolonging the steps for four beats (this is often referred to as dancing in half time).
Although Tango does not have a fixed structure, it is often quite evident the intention of the composer of giving a pause to the pace of the music or to highlight the change of the musical phrase. This is often highlighted either by a prolonged sound of the violins or the bandoneon, or by a sudden silence in the music (for example only one instrument playing as opposed to the whole orchestra), or by a complete change in the rhythm (for example the piano highlighting every note as opposed to a previous legato pace of the music).
Many Tango dancers would agree that dancing the pauses is one of the main skill of a great milonguero: by dancing the pause we could either literally stop dancing, giving the pause a sort of dramatic momentum, or (especially in the type of pause with a complete change of rhythm) dance something on the spot completely different to what we were dancing until the previous measure, or execute some embellishment, both/either the leader and/or the follower.
Tango musicality: following the structure of the music
As previously said, Tango music does not have a fixed structure, but the reason why so many fall in love with this music of the last century, is because it is so reach in nuances and, although there are some rhythmical pattern in each Tango, is never repetitive. Highlighting in a Tango the different musical sections in order to follow its pace, is one of the keys for a good musicality.
The most evident example of this is the so called variación (variation): at the end of many Tangos (especially in the first period of the golden age, although the variations can happen also in the middle of a Tango) it is quite evident the intention of the composer to change the pace of the music, as in an exciting grand finale. During the variation the dancers should change the way they are dancing, either adding double times or in any case changing the dynamic of the steps, in order to highlight what the music is saying. often during the variation, we can hear the orchestra playing at its full, with each instrument “making a lot of noise”.
Solo instruments playing
The change of dynamic in steps should not happen only during the variation, as there are other patterns that change during a Tango. Another typical change in the pace of the music is when there is a solo of some specific instrument. In very general terms we could highlight the examples of the violins playing a solo in a legato mode (which is often the perfect moment to perform a giro, or some steps where one of the two is dancing smoothly), or when the piano is taking the scene, highlighting each single note (perfect to let the follower shine, performing small steps, mirroring the piano sound).
Dialogue between instruments
Another example of change of pattern is when we can hear a sort of dialogue between two or more instrument: this can happen either in two different measures, when in the first for example the violin in speaking, and in the next the piano is replying, or in the same phrase, when two instruments are playing two different melodies and all the others are merely accompanying. The above patterns are very adapt to play with the partner: in the first example we could let the partner step in the first measure and step ourselves in the next, while in the second example leader and follower can perform not mirrored steps, in order to follow each of them the 2 different patterns highlighted by the music.
Tango musicality: draw the music
The highest level of musicality is when a couple of dancers manage to melt themselves with the music. Single time, double time, pause and playing with each other are very important, but the real key to be musical is to try and match the intensity of each sound, in order to represent in the embrace what we can only hear in the music.
All the above examples of musicality can be achieved without changing any steps during a Tango, but making the same step always different in intensity, length and density. This is what many people mean when they say that Tango is a feeling, as this high level musicality can often only be felt by the other partner, while watching it might not be so apparent.