In the social tango, dancers improvise within a basic vocabulary of steps and figures in an intuitive, spontaneous translation of sound to motion. This form of tango beautifully illustrates how dance translates music into physical motion.
Basic Metric and Rhythmic Patterns in the Argentine Tango
Teaching meter and rhythm of tango music through body movements is quite straightforward. The Argentine tango is a walking dance with a standard meter of 2/4. For the basic step, dancers walk to the driving marcato quarter-note pulse. A subdivided beat creates “quick-quick” steps called the corrida, or running steps. Students can feel not only the metric groupings of strong-weak by walking to the beat but also the simple eighth-note subdivisions throughout the corrida. An excellent example to demonstrate these two basic steps is the most famous of all tangos, “La Cumparsita” (The Little Carnival Procession), written by the young Uruguayan Hern´an Matos Rodriguez.
Different instrumental layers of the musical texture define the tango’s rhythmic patterns. The bass line often carries the driving dance pulse, while the accompanying middle parts (the bandoneon or the strings) subdivide the quarter-note pulse into rhythmic syncopations on the level of the sixteenth-note, often a sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth-note figure. These rhythmic figures are translated into a syncopated walk by the leader or into playful embellishments by the follower. When students try the syncopated walk, they cannot help but feel the syncopated rhythm.
While the dotted-eighth-and-sixteenth-note pattern followed by a pair of eighth notes is commonly associated with tango, in fact, it comes from the Cuban habanera and is most characteristic of the Argentine milonga, a faster folk dance from which the tango developed. In this dance, the rhythmic figure is translated into a side-step called the traspie. Again, by teaching this characteristic step, students are able to take the rhythm of the music and place it into their bodies.
Dancing the Phrases
The relationship between tango music and dance goes beyond meter and rhythm into the higher level of phrase structure. I have heard tango dancers talk about “dancing the melody” when in fact they mean dancing the phrases. Sensitive dancers intuitively combine the basic steps and figures into gestures that initiate, fill out, and conclude the phrase, thus translating its musical departure, middle, and conclusion into motion. In between these points of initiation and conclusion, the phrase is marked by improvised gestures, including forward steps, side steps, occasionally back steps, ochos (swivel steps forward or backwards that trace a figure eight), and turns.
Tango dance teachers often present an academic “8-count basic” pattern to their beginning students, because it includes most of the simple steps in the dance. The 8-count pattern is divided into four parts: (1) the salida (the exit) on beat 1 is the point of departure; (2) the parte caminada, on beats 2, 3 and 4 (the walking part), entails the act of walking progressively through space in the rhythm of quarter notes or eighth notes (slows and quick-quicks); (3) the trabada, on beat 5, suggests joining together, where the leader usually marks for the follower the cruzada, or cross-step and (4) the natural resolución, on beats 6, 7, and 8, brings physical closure to the entire set of steps.
Since tango music normally falls into 4-bar groups and 8-bar phrases, marking the “8-count basic” help students hear and feel phrases. They feel the initiation, rise, and closure of the phrases in the music as they walk through repetitions of this pattern. By following this scheme with all slow steps, a dancer can express a four-bar group, probably to a half cadence. Upon repetition of the pattern, the dancer can arrive at the conclusion of an 8-bar phrase with an authentic cadence.