A little drop of poison

22nd July 2010

(More Fusion articles.)

"One man's meat is another man's poison" ~ folk saying


Disclaimer: If you already love traditional tango music please don't read this. It'll just annoy you.

One of the fundamental problems with tango for a lot of people coming from Modern Jive is the music. I mean seriously, accordions?! And monotonous accordions at that.

Yet because of the way tango works, not knowing the music is a significant handicap. An even bigger problem is not being moved by the music. If you don't think that's a problem and you can get by on moves and technique, watch this, particularly Data's face at the very end...

How I Learned To Love The Music

So how can you fall in love with tango music?

"The problem with some teachers is they've forgotten what it was like to not know this. So they explain things to you the way they would to someone who also had their experience. Well if you had that experience you probably wouldn't need them to teach you in the first place" ~ me

Firstly there's a couple of traps that are easy to fall into. How do you listen to tango music? If you listen to pop music, yes the instrumental melody is probably not doing all that much. But the vocals are. Which is why although you can often download the instrumental versions to pop songs, you're unlikely to put them on your iPod or dance to them at Modern Jive venues. Let's face it they sound like, well, tango music.

OK, so what kind of instrumental music are you likely to listen to? Classical probably. But again it's hard to imagine Fantasia

or Buggs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd running amuck being done with accordions.

"But the music is awful!"

"Ninety percent of everything is crud" ~ Sturgeon's Law

And here lies the first problem. Tango music works differently to pop and classical music, but unless someone explains to you how, then when you listen to it using either of these frames of reference it usually does sound pretty dire.

(I'd like to point out here that some tango music is dire. But then so is some pop music. See Sturgeon's Law)

Jive musicality

If you consider Modern Jive as opposed to Blues, you probably don't change speeds that much during a song. Pause for the breaks, maybe a phrase will be faster or slower. A few songs gradually build up speed. That's pretty much it for most dancers.

Consider "This Ain't A Lovesong". At 33 seconds there's a series of 2 note syncopations. How would you dance them in Modern Jive?

Now consider "Need You Now". At the beginning there's a series of 4 notes. Again how would you dance this in Modern Jive? Likewise the guitar at 106 - 1.11 ?

Now it is doable. Particularly if you switch to a more Blues style of dancing. But you'd probably use your arms and body - eg rolls or dips. It's unlikely you'd do it with footwork. Certainly not led footwork.

The Beginning of the Solution

Donkey: Are we there yet?
Shrek: No.
Donkey: Are we there yet?
Fiona: Not yet.
Donkey: Okay. Are we there yet?
Fiona: No.

~ Shrek 2

The first thing you need to do is get someone to explain to you what the heck is actually going on in tango music. Thankfully it's not that different to pop music. There's still beats, phrases, verses and so on.

What is different is what I think of as Attention Deficit Disorder Tango. It's like tango dancers can't cope with one rhythm for any length of time, they have to keep changing. If you listen to the instruments they usually won't play a continuous rhythm. It'll gradually keep changing. And the other instruments will often be doing the same but going off on rhythms of their choosing and switching when they feel like it. Imagine a group of tango musicians who're really bored and are mucking around and you'll get the idea.

Donkey: Are we there yet?
Shrek: No!
Donkey: Are we there... yet?
Shrek: Yes.
Donkey: Really?
Shrek: NO!

However once you accept this, you can start to get somewhere interesting. Tango isn't about having a Big Book of Moves. If you try it, you'll probably find you've run out of steam within about a minute. But likewise walking in single time for 10 minutes isn't exactly a picnic either. Fortunately tango music keeps feeding you musical options. "Go slow for a bit. Now do a traspie. A bit of double-time, a bit more. Dramatic pause!" And because the different instruments are doing different things you can choose whatever's easiest / most natural at that time. You've also got a back-up. Say you've been following the violin into a dramatic pause and now you're looking for inspiration for what you can do with her free leg - do whatever the piano's doing instead.

At this point tango music starts to get interesting because instead of just hearing a monotonous wall of noise, you can hear all these subtle intricate possibilities going on. Warning, going to Modern Jive can be a bit of a shock as you'll also start to hear all the subtleties that go on in pop music such as the two examples above.

Donkey: But this is takin' forever, Shrek. And there ain't no in-flight movie or nothin'!
Shrek: The kingdom of Far Far Away, Donkey. That's where we're going. Far...far... (silently) away.
Donkey: All right, all right. I get it! I'm just so darn bored!
Shrek: Well, find a way to entertain yourself.

Ok consider an intermediate Modern Jive class where part of the move being taught is to turn the woman twice as fast as normal eg a lasso. What will invariably happen is that a certain number of women physically won't be able to do it. So they'll take the extra time they need to go around which then puts you out of sync with the rest of the class. There's not much you can do about it.

Tango contains transitions which let you shift easily between the speeds. (If you think about it, it would be rather masochistic to create all these changing rhythms and then have steps / rules which keep you stuck in single time forever). The problem is finding them.

Hopefully these Musicality articles will help.


When you put all of this together, then finally tango music becomes something that you may not be in love with, but you can certainly appreciate and be moved by. And mercifully it no longer sounds like monotonous accordions (well most of the time anyway!)

Fiona: Yes!
Donkey: Oh, finally!

 - Christopher O' Shea, 22nd July 2010

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