As you might know, besides dancing and teaching how to dance tango I’m also a pianist and composer (I eventually teach piano and harmony). In fact, I started in tango dancing and in music more or less at the same time, and I see them as two aspects of the same thing… But I’m getting ahead of myself. The thing is I’ve been helping dancers to integrate music to their dancing a little better for many years now, and I’d like to talk with you about this today.
When I gave my first music course some 15 years ago, I organized how to teach based on some basic ideas that we musicians use to explain what we do, like rhythm and melody. Back on those times there were not that many people dedicated to this specific subject. But because nowadays it’s more common to see lessons and seminars on this, we can try to talk about how to approach music and the problems related to those approaches.
Different types of lessons
The lessons on music for dancers that I usually see fall into one of two big groups, that we could describe as music language lessons on one hand (I used to include some of this back in the day), and lessons on the characteristics and differences of tango orchestras on the the other.
The first group tries to teach the technical language of music. This seems sensible at first sight, and also in this field is where most of the questions from dancers originate. Some want to know about phrases and how many bars they last, some others want to understand the differences between 2/4 and 4/4 time, or between quarter notes and eight notes, with the most adventurous ones asking about chords and scales and stuff like that.
The problem with this type of curriculum is that we’re not discussing music itself, but trying to decipher the language that musicians use to talk to other musicians instead. Why is this a problem? Because it’s not relevant: understanding the difference between half notes and quarter notes will not help you dance better. Musicians don’t think about quarter notes when they dance, or even when we play most of the time (although we do recognize them). These discussions might even be somewhat harmful, because they limit our perspectives and close off some dancing options.
The other way of spotting this group is by looking at some exercises, they indulge frequently in clapping and walking on the beat, and a number of variations on that. I want to be clear about this, I like when people step properly to the beat. But I also want to be clear when I say that I don’t think stepping to the beat means you are musical, and I don’t think these exercises are the best path towards stepping to the beat either.
The second group focuses on discussing different classic tango orchestras, what characteristics they have, and how to dance to each of them based on those ideas.
The notable part of this approach is that it fills a void usually left by the other group. What they do is center the work around dancing, and they try to link music to the dancer’s actions and ways of thinking. The problems, however, are too serious to dismiss.
The first one is that they offer “recipes” on how to dance according to the orchestra, contributing to stereotyped dance behaviors and to an overall shallow understanding. It reminds me of Gombrich, who talks in The Story of Art about those people that read about chiaroscuro being important in Rembrandt, and then they go to the museum, spot a Rembrandt, say “Ah, Wonderful chiaroscuro!” and keep walking, almost without watching the painting at all.
The second problem is that these courses and seminars discuss just a few orchestras from the golden age of tango. They are probably gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but talking exclusively about them guarantees that dancer will not be prepared for newer orchestras unless they are modern copies of those glories from the past. It’s basically a short-term gain, long-term pain.
But how to solve any of this?
On how to Dance to the Music
The first thought towards revising how to study music comes from trying to understand what music is, and what does being musical means. What I often hear from dancers discussing music is related to stepping on the beat. That’s funny, because it would be hard to find musicians that think the same way (though keeping time is important for almost every musician). If you try to understand what being “musical” means to a musician, most of the times you can just replace the word with “expressive” and maintain the general meaning. Being musical is not being a Swiss watch. In fact we program computers to be a little imprecise when making music, because otherwise they sound… mechanical! To be musical is to be expressive.
If we accept this definition of “musical” that musicians have, the way of thinking about a music seminar changes completely, as does the focal point for students. Because if you’re trying to detect the expressive content of a musical idea, asking about quarter notes looses all meaning. This sort of information takes back to its rightful place as a bit of trivia, an anecdote.
The other huge advantage of thinking through things like this is that it brings agency back to the dancers. I mean, if you need discuss music in musicians’ terms dancers will be left behind, not only of the discussion itself but of any chance of integrating the ideas to their dancing. Now, if being musical is being expressive… Dancers can try to be expressive too! The key is to remember that your dance is not made out of movements but sensations. And that’s why we should work on dancing at our music seminars, so that we can really understand how to dance to the music. Over the years I’ve had the chance of working with a few extraordinary musicians that couldn’t pour on their dancing all the things they felt and knew, just because making the connection between these two worlds in not always trivial. This is something that needs work and attention.
So to recap, in order to be musical you first need to understand how music expresses its sensations and ideas, and then start to connect these music sensations to the sensations we feel through dancing. That’s why I said earlier that music and dance are two aspects of the same thing, because what I feel at the piano and on the dance floor is almost the same! By following these steps, the music starts to show us paths that help us move forward technically, find new movements, and improve the dialogue inside of the couple. Sounds nice? You have no idea how happy finding some of this can make you…
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Esta entrada también está disponible en: Spanish