Learning tango in the group dance class environment

On our Frequently Asked Questions page, often we get asked ‘Does it take long to learn Argentine Tango?’ or ‘How long does it take to learn Argentine Tango?’. As stated there, this is a bit like asking how long is a piece of string.

It depends on so many different things such as how often you go to class, how you apply yourself, how good your teacher is, how good the other people you practice with are, what you’re overall goal is and so on. It is a question which is therefore difficult to answer simply.

Many tango schools label people as beginners, improvers, intermediates etc. based on calendar duration of dancing tango rather than capability. In my humble opinion all tango dancers (including myself) who are not raw beginners are improvers, because…

The act of improving your dance technique never stops.

I still attend advanced Argentine tango classes and practice a few hours every week. Even World Champions still take lessons… We all become simultaneously, beginners, improvers and experts in some aspect of the dance, as shown in the graphic.

We are all moving from the ‘no experience’ box via ‘some skills’ and ‘much skills’ to ‘advanced skills’ boxes with at least one aspect of our dance, pretty much all the time. You don’t become expert in all things instantaneously overnight, but you evolve to become a better tango dancer each day you practice…

In recognition of this continual learning cycle, at Tango Elegante we run our tango dance classes and courses to start off fairly easy for those of us in the ‘no experience’ box, and help people to move up the competence chain, and with a little bit of practice to eventually nudge attendees into the ‘much skills’ box.

It is important to remember that most people don’t ‘get it’ on the first run through of new material, new technique, or trying to improve musicality. Or some people ‘get it’ in an intellectual way (i.e. they understand what’s required) but they still can’t perform it well without a lot of practice.

So when you go to any class and learn new material, don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t get it quickly, and certainly ignore anyone around you who is showing impatience because you don’t get it quick enough to suit them.

Just think about what you need to practice to improve that element of your dance, find a patient enough person to practice with, and keep practicing.


Milongas (social dances)

OK, yes it is confusing using the word ‘milonga’ 🙂 Are we talking about a tune, or a dance style? Well, no we’re talking about a type of social dance for Argentine tango dancers. In fact you can dance a milonga (style) to a milonga (tune) at a milonga (social dance). How did this all come about?

Well the milonga style predates tango salon, so when people in Argentina went social dancing they mostly danced whatever the style of the day was – milonga (and possibly candombe which is another compact style predating milonga), to whatever the music of the times was – brisk tango and quick step.

Most likely people just said they were ‘going to milonga’ meaning going to a dance. In later years we have tango salon evolving out of the milonga style and tango vals evolving out of tango salon so we now have three styles that can be danced at a milonga (social dance), with each having their own style of music.

Rules of the Dance Hall (or codigos)

An event organiser is entitled to organise his/her event in any way they like and so some milongas tend to be laid back, not many rules on the dance floor or in how people should ask each other to dance. Some events only play traditional music, some only play modern music, some play a mix.

So each event has it’s own set of rules from the strict

  • no jeans allowed, couples are seated together at the ends of the hall, single men on the left of the hall, single women on the right of the hall, and only cabeco/mirada can be used to invite or refuse a dance, strict line of dance clockwise around the dance floor, no overtaking etc.

to the relaxed

  • dress how you like, sit where you like, ask people to dance how you like, no line of dance just a ‘Brownian Motion’ like, vaguely clockwise movement around the hall using whatever space is available etc.

or anywhere in between. If there are any ‘red line’ rules that must not be breached, these are usually displayed at the entrance to the milonga (but sometimes not – you maybe expected to find out for yourselves). If you break them you may be asked to leave!

You find that event organisers use these types of rules to differentiate themselves from other social dances. For example in Buenos Aires there are many social dances going on pretty much every night of the week in different districts and so the tango going public has plenty of choice.

So one milonga will run a strict dress code to attract people who want to dress up. Another milonga might be family friendly, starting early so families can bring their kids, eat, dance a little, and when families start leaving the late night crowd starts arriving. Another milonga might be a ‘nuevo’ milonga playing only modern tango tunes, with a relaxed dress code. Of course the music being played is a big component of choosing a venue, with plenty of orchestras and periods to chose from. It means there is usually something for everyone.

In London and the UK it’s pretty much the same with traditional vs nuevo music, strict line of dance vs no line of dance, and with some venues requiring cabaceo to be used (but many or most not). The trick for the new milonga goer is to visit a few places and see what they’re like, find the ones you feel comfortable in, and you can then stick to those if that’s what you want to do.

Our milongas are fairly irregular but we do try put on a social dance every now and then. Our only ‘codigos’ are to be respectful of your partner and the dancers around you, and stay on the line of dance. We don’t do dress codes (unless we advertise a party theme) and we don’t worry too much how people get themselves a dance as long as people join the dance floor in a respectful way 🙂

Check out our event page to see if we have a social milonga coming up.


Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Five

In the fourth part of this series I looked at a popular tune ‘Mimosa’ recorded by the Francisco Canaro Orchestra in 1929, and proceeded to break down the structure of the tango tune in some detail.

I showed how the structure broke down into musical phrases, sections, and other components, and how these components repeated with variation, and described how a dancer could predict phrases of music and better interpret a tune even if not familiar with the tune.

So for in this and future parts of the Musicality series I will start looking at other Orchestras and their musical differences. I will look at a typical tango tune, and a vals and milonga by the same orchestra (where available – not all orchestras recorded vals and milonga tunes).

So in this Part 5 I am going to look at the ever popular Carlos Di Sarli Orchestra. Carlos Di Sarli’s music is often described as romantic, lyrical, smooth, and so on, but Di Sarli didn’t always sound like this. His early arrangements for quartets, sextets and so on, were far more traditional, compared to his hey day when he had finally found his own style.

However by 1944 when he and his Orchestra recorded the tune I am going to analyse now, he had established the well known Di Sarli style. The tune is ‘Motivo Sentimental‘ written by Emilio Brameri, with the marvellous voice of Alberto Podestá singing the lyrics of Carlos Bahr.

In this post I’m not going to break down the tune using pictorial representations like last time so we can dive straight into the music.

Tango – Motivo Sentimental

Here is the entire tune to listen to first. See if you can pick out the repetition of the different sections and phrases within each section, then I’ll break it down.

The first thing to notice is that this tune has 5 sections of approx 34 seconds each, resulting in an overall tune length of 2:50 minutes. This is very similar timing to Canaros recording of ‘Mimosa’ that we looked at last time, so even though there are 15 years between these two recordings, the same basic tune structure creates the same basic tune timing.

Now what follows are the different sections to listen to.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section A

You’ll notice Section A has one phrase repeated twice with a slight variation in the repeat which sounds a little more staccato. Also listen out for the ‘pom pom’ at the end of the section. It is a lot softer and less obvious than in ‘Mimosa’ but it is there. Remember that the ‘pom pom’s signal a dancer that the section has finished and a different melody is about to start.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section B

In Section B we have a different phrase repeated with slight variation again. The repeat sounds a little more staccato as did the second phrase of Section A. This time at the end of Section B there is no obvious ‘pom pom’ but there is a little 5 note trill played on the piano that helps to signal the end of the section. At the end of Section B we are just over a minute in and no sign of singer Alberto Podestá yet, so all musicality has had to developed using the tune only so far.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section A variation 1

Now Alberto Podestá starts to earn his crust with his fine voice, and Section A is repeated. This time it is the singer who is carrying the melody. The Orchestra is now just accompanying Alberto. So again, although it is the singer carrying the melody, you have already heard the melody before in this tune, so for this 34 sec section, you know what’s coming even if you’d never heard the tune before. Again we have a ‘pom pom’ at the end, but very quiet and gentle.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section B variation 1

This is a repeat of Section B but with Alberto Podestá carrying the previous refrain. The second phrase in this section does not sound as staccato as the instrumental version in Section A, but sounds a more regular ‘tic toc’ timing. This maybe simply that the previous sharp attack on the staccato notes would not have complimented the singers voice, because Alberto holds his notes as he sings. Finally there is a 4 note trill on the piano to signify the end of the section.

‘Motivo Sentimental’ Section A variation 2

In the final section, variant 2 of Section A, Alberto stops singing in the first phrase and we go back to a more staccato arrangement. Finally we have a much more obvious ‘pom pom’ at the end of the tune to signify the finish.

Listen again to the full tune with all the sections in the correct order and imagine how you might interpret this tune in your dance expression.

Carlos Di Sarli’s recorded output was mainly tango tunes, but he did record a few Milonga and Vals tunes so we will have a listen to one of each to see if the pattern of sections (ABABA) still holds for tunes with a different tempo.

Vals – Un Momento

Lets listen to the lovely romantic Vals called ‘Un Momento‘ written by Héctor Stamponi and recorded in 1952 with the singer Oscar Serpo. Here’s the whole tune before I break it down.

As you can hear, this is typical romantic Di Sarli at his best, and if you imagine your dance interpretation to this Vals, I doubt if you would use decoration or tango movement which was too staccato. You would want to keep this dance flowing elegantly to the music.

So does the ABABA pattern still hold true for a Vals? Well first thing to note is that this Vals is nearly 2 mins 57 seconds long so only a few seconds longer than the previous Di Sarli recording. So allowing for technical factors such as turntable speed variation etc. this is about the typical length of previous tango tunes we’ve looked at.

Now what follows are the different sections to listen to.

‘Un Momento’ Section A

The first section A contains two phrases which are slightly different. Not much change there. Again no ‘pom poms’ with this Di Sarli Vals to signify the end of the section, but a three note slow trill from high to low. This makes it pretty easy to detect the end of the section.

‘Un Momento’ Section B

Section B is a new melody but the Di Sarli arrangement keeps it flowing nicely from the previous section.

‘Un Momento’ Section A variation 1

In this repeat of section A with variation we have the singer Oscar Serpo taking over the melody and the Orchestra goes into accompaniment mode providing some extra emotion with trills and runs of the open chords they play.

‘Un Momento’ Section B variation 1

In this repeat section B with variation the singer is still carrying the tune and the Orchestras accompaniment goes into some fairly playful ‘punctuation’ elements. A dancer would be able to anticipate how this section is going to sound overall, because the singer Oscar is repeating the refrain from the earlier sections of the tune. However, this is the first time we hear this playful ‘punctuation’ element, so if a dancer hadn’t heard this tune before (or this arrangement) they may not be able to use this element first time out. On next hearing though, it is interesting enough that you would probably recognise the tune early enough to remember the playful elements before they start.

‘Un Momento’ Section A variation 2

In the final section we revert back to a repeat of section A but with a nice mix of the first phrase being instrumental and the second phrase reintroducing the singer Oscar Serpo to finish off the tune. Again we have no ‘pom pom’ to fish off, but we have a lovely change of tempo as the music and the singer’s voice slows down for the last long elongated note. This easily signals the end of the whole tune.

So from that we can say that (at least for these Di Sarli arrangements) this ABABA pattern broadly holds true whether for tango or vals. This is very helpful to the dancer.

Milonga – Zorzal

Finally lets listen to a milonga tune. Di Sarli didn’t seem to record too many milongas and this may have been because he seemed to like the romantic arrangement of tunes. Milongas are happy tunes but don’t lend themselves well to the ‘romantic’ type arrangement. However in 1941 Di Sarli recorded a milonga called ‘Zorzal‘ with the help of singer Roberto Rufino. It was written by Dorita Zárate.

Now we start to hear something a little interesting because the pattern has changed slightly. Before breaking this pattern down, please have a listen to the whole tune

If you listen carefully there seems to be three different basic repeating patterns not just two. The AB sections are there but this time repeated 3 times for the pair of sections in an ABABAB type pattern, but there is also something else in between the AB sections. There is a shorter intro, two interludes and an outro sections which are all basically the same melody, so the composer is playing with the ‘standard’ ABABA format to form something a little more musically complex.

Also those of you already familiar with the milonga style of music and dance will hear that we still have typical Di Sarli lyrical strings and a fairly smooth feel to this milonga tune. This might lend itself to perhaps less of a ‘traspie’ (stumble) interpretation and more of a ‘liso’ (smooth) interpretation.

‘Zorzal’ Intro

This Introductory phrase is just 11 seconds long but it introduces the dancer to the faster milonga rhythm immediately. Milongas tend to be quicker rhythms to dance to and are often a bit shorter duration than a tango tune, so you don’t want to waste the first 15 – 20 seconds trying to work out what the rhythm is! This intro gives you that information pretty much immediately. It is also repeated 3 more times in the tune.

‘Zorzal’ Part A

Then we hear the Part A section with two repeating phrases. Again a slightly faster pace and a shorter overall section, and it’s instrumental.

‘Zorzal’ Part B

With Part B we hear two different phrases just for added interest, and the overall Part B is a different melody to Part A. Still brisk, still instrumental but the first section is classic Di Sarli smooth strings.

‘Zorzal’ Interlude 1

Now the composer inserts an interlude which is basically a repeat of the intro. This acts as an anchor point for the dancer because they’ve heard it once already, plus the two sections immediately after. Now the dancer broadly knows what’s coming next (even with variations) and can better interpret the music.

‘Zorzal’ Part A variation 1

Now we have the voice of Roberto Rufino supplying the melody while the Orchestra plays accompaniment, but it’s basically the same as the previous Part A, so no great surprises here and the dancers should be able to start playing with their interpretaion of the tune.

‘Zorzal’ Part B variation 1

This Part B variation is pretty much the same as the first Part B but again Roberto Rufino carries the melody. Dancers can carry on playing with a now familiar refrain.

‘Zorzal’ Interlude 2

As the second variations come to an end, another anchor point is introduced with another familiar interlude. We’ve already heard it twice, so it tells the dancer that the second AB pair is over and another is about to begin.

‘Zorzal’ Part A variation 2

‘Zorzal’ Part B variation 2

With the final repetitions of Parts A and B, the singer continues singing, but the rhythm and melody stays the same as before. Again, no big surprises for the dancers, because if the composer threw in a dramatic change of pace, section duration, or mood of melody, the milonga is so fast that the dancers wouldn’t be able to cope with big changes quickly enough. The tune enhances the dance, by not ‘getting in the way’.

‘Zorzal’ Outro

The final outro is simply the melody of the intro and interludes repeated for a final time, but with our old friend the ‘pom pom’ stuck on the end to signify the end of the tune. Happy dancers! 🙂

So in this part of the series, we have seen that for some new tunes with a different orchestral arrangement, the ABABA pattern can still be present, but that some composers and arrangers can also play with that basic pattern by inserting interludes, intros and outros. Providing they don’t mess up the dancers rhythm too much and give the dancers chance to ‘learn’ the tune by the end of the first AB pair, then the dancers will remain happy 🙂

In Part 6 I will look at Juan D’Arienzo’s Orchestral arrangements, which are quite a different feel to Di Sarli. We will still be on the look out for the ABABA pattern but may (or may not 🙂 ) come across something different.

By the way: For those of you beginning to think

‘Well of course all these tunes are exhibiting a common pattern, Steve, because you’re selecting the tunes that fit the pattern to prove your point. What about the thousands of other tunes out there?’,

it is true that I am currently illustrating a point, but there are plenty of Argentine Tango tunes, by plenty of different orchestras, out there on music and video websites, so get listening and see if I’m basically right or not 🙂

Previous – Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part 4

Next – Musicality in Tango Dancing Part 6

Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Four

Mimosa FlowersIn the third part of this series we looked at the Orchesta Tipica, the instruments and how they express different elements of the music. Now we can look at the structure of a tango tune in more detail.

I will look at one popular tune ‘Mimosa’ recorded by the Francisco Canaro Orchestra in 1929, hence the lovely picture above… but maybe the tune was named after the orange and champagne drink? 🙂 I will show how the structure breaks down into musical phrases, sections, and other components, and how these components often repeat (with variation). This means that even if a dancer is not familiar with a tune, they can predict (guess?) what the music is likely to sound like once they’ve heard the first couple of sections, and so better interpret the second half of a tune with their dancing.

OK so we are going to listen to ‘Mimosa’, and the different sections of that tune, so we can compare the different parts, but first I’d like to show you a pictorial representation of the tune so you can more easily visualise the elements of a tune.Mimosa by Francisco Canaro, showing the different repeating sections to the musicThe first thing to notice is that this tune has 5 sections of approx 34 seconds each, resulting in an overall tune length of 2:50 minutes.

I’ve labelled each section and you’ll notice that there are only really 2 sections of differing melody, A and B, but in the sections labelled A+ and B+ there are some variations. The middle section A+looks different from the other Section A’s but that’s really only because the overall volume of that section is reduced. The waveform shapes are still similar.

The overall melody within two similar sections stays the same, but often different instruments play the melody in different sections. Sometimes (but not in Mimosa) there is a key change when a section is repeated. These variation to make it less boring to listen to.

Here is the entire tune to listen to first. See if you can pick out the repetition.

Now what follows are the different sections to listen to.

‘Mimosa’ Section A

You’ll notice in the diagram, Section A has one phrase repeated. Each phrase also contains a repeated refrain. Also listen out for the ‘pom pom’ at the end of the section. It tells a dancer that the section has finished and a different melody is about to start.

‘Mimosa’ Section B

In Section B we have two different phrases with each phrase containing a different repeated refrain and the whole Section B being a different melody to Section A. Also we have the ‘pom pom’ at the end of the section.

‘Mimosa’ Section A variation 1

In Section A var 1, it sounds like you have a new melody (the guitar) and this is true, but if you listen to the background the guitar is over-layed onto the melody from Section A, so you still have that ‘anchor’ to something you’ve already heard. Again we have the ‘pom pom’ at the end.

‘Mimosa’ Section B variation 1

In Section B variant 1 the ‘Phrase 1’ of the variation has the Bandoneon playing a slightly different refrain from the original Section B, but ‘Phrase 2’ is pretty much identical as played in the first Section B. Again we have the ‘pom pom’ at the end.

‘Mimosa’ Section A variation 2

In the final section variant 2 of Section A, we now have a new melody played by violins, but again listening to the background, the refrain is Section A again. Finally we have a more dramatic ‘pom pom’ at the end of the tune.

Listen again to the full tune with all the sections in the correct order and imagine how you might interpret this tune in your dance expression.

Is this the standard for writing tango tunes?

If you’ve ever wondered why so many tango tunes seem to be between 2:30 to 3:00 minutes long, the reason is that composers would create a walking beat of approximately 64 per minute (or 32 bars of music per min in 4/4 time). This would be 2 of the sections shown.

If a composer sticks to the ‘5 section’ tango format then the length of a tango will be about 2:30 min. This would be 80 bars of music and a total of 320 music beats.

For a fast tango at a tempo of 160 musical beats per minute, the 80 bars of music are finished in 2 mins. For a slow tango at a tempo of 110 musical beats per minute the 80 bars of music lasts 2:54 mins. It’s basically just maths 🙂

So, it look like we have a standard tango tune format?

Well yes and no. Many composers and orchestra arrangers did indeed stick to the ‘5 section’ tango format over many years, but we are discussing music, an art form, so there are other variations to this ‘standard’. Indeed Francisco Canaro later in his career introduced the prelude, interlude, and longer endings into his music. However hidden inside all the ‘extras’ you will find enough repetition of sections and phrases to make it easier for you to interpret tunes for your dancing.

In the next section of this series I will begin to examine different popular orchestras so we can understand that different tunes perhaps need different dance interpretation.

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Musicality in Tango Dancing – Part Three

An early 1900's picture of the band members of Orquest Tipica Julio De CaroIn the second part of this series we looked at which elements of a tango tune could be expressed in your dance, and in order to look at those elements in more detail we need to first have a quick look at the orchestra, the instruments and how they express different elements of the music before looking at tango tunes in detail.

The Structure of a Tango Orchestra

A tango orchestra rarely uses drums to identify the beat. The typical instruments used for tango are: violins, contrabass, bandoneon, and piano. A quartet will have one of each instrument. An ‘Orqesta Tipica’ is a usually a sextet or octet where the numbers of violins and bandoneons are increased. A large tango orchestra may have four or more violins and bandoneons to really boost that typical tango sound.

Some Golden Age orchestras also included clarinets, horns, guitars and other more orchestral instruments to fill out the sound and also to create their own unique identity, for example Jose Garcia introduced brass into some of his arrangements, Osvaldo Fresedo often used reverberating bell sounds, Enrique Rodriguez, Francisco Canaro and Francisco Lomuto used woodwind. With some orchestras the characteristic sound came from the singer, such as the partnership of the Lucio Demare orchestra with the singer Raul Beron. For others such as Juan D’Arienzo, the characteristic sound came just from having more! More bandoneons, more violins, and a distinctive way the musicians played them.

Which instrument carries the beat?

Well, all instruments may take part in expressing the beat, but not necessarily at the same time. The beat is often transferred from one instrument to another as a tune progresses, but even if it seems difficult to hear it, the beat is always there (even if only in the minds of the musicians, such as in Astor Piazollas ‘Oblivion’!).

If you listen to tunes arranged by Juan D’Arienzo (known as the King of the Beat) or Enrique Rodriguez, you will hear them use the violins and bandoneons to define the beat. It sounds choppy or zingy as they emphasise beat 1 of each bar.

Other orchestra leaders arranged for the bass register of the piano or bandoneon to carry the beat. In some orchestras such as Di Sarli where the arrangements are more lyrical and romantic, some sections of the music seem hardly to have any definite beat, but the music always comes back to a section in which the beat is obvious, helping dancers to ‘anchor’ themselves to the music.

So to give you a hints about listening and practices regimes, I repeat that beginners should concentrate on making sure they can hear and dance to the walking beat, and identify the repeating sections of a tune (more on that later in the series).

An improver/intermediate would do well not only to master the walking beat but to listen out for the intermediate beats and half beats, and to practise syncopation steps and decorations such as toe taps, piquets as well as rebote/traspie steps.

The more advanced dancers will want to listen not only to the melodic twiddly bits of a tune, but also to the emotional elements in the strings, the singers voice, the bandoneon and so on. Then try to interpret them with a change in the mood and speed of the dance to match the melody and emotion.

Each leader and follower will have to practice being receptive to what their partner is trying to interpret at any point in a tune. There is nothing more annoying for either dancer than to hear a way of expressing a tune which for example might require a slowing down of the dance, which the other party just wants to hustle through as quick as possible. For this higher level of musical interpretation, patience, sensitivity and the willingness to slow down are all important.

Tango is very rewarding when you can finally master (do we ever? 🙂 ) the intricacies of musicality.

In the next part of this series I will begin dissecting the structure of a typical tango tune so we can not only dance well to very familiar tunes but also dance reasonably well to tunes we’ve never heard before. It’s all about repetition and prediction…

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