It's Only Music

21 May 2018 - by Graham

When preparing for a tango class or an event, the music the DJ chooses to play throughout the evening is probably the most important thing there is to decide. It doesn't matter if you provide a bar, free food, a fabulously ornate building with a perfect dance floor, or even a view across the Serengeti for the dancers to enjoy between tracks, if the music isn't danceable then you might as well not have bothered. But therein lies a big problem, as whilst for some people the music is just there to provide a background for the dancing, others consider tango (the dance) and tango (the music) to be inextricably linked and intertwined. If it isn't the right music, it isn't tango.

I grew up watching contemporary ballet and street dancers performing to everything from Rachmaninov to Run DMC, and so the concept of there being a 'right' sort of music to dance to was completely alien to me. I loved watching the ways they chose to express the different styles of music in their medium of dance, and how some of them would effortlessly switch from classical orchestral music to soaring metal power ballads in the same dance without missing a beat. The music was there as a framework that reflected their moods, their intent, and their own musical preferences; it was not something that was locked to a particular style, and there was no-one saying what could and could not be danced to a particular piece of music. For years I was just an observer, someone who sat on the sidelines and watched other people do something that I longed to be able to do myself (which is a whole different blog post), but I loved the near infinite variety of music and soundscapes that people used as a foundation for their dancing, and I loved the scope that gave them for expressing joy, anger, passion, confusion, revelation, mystery...

I became an active participant in dance a little later in life than most, and started - as many do - with Modern Jive. The first venue I went to was a little restricted in their music choice (even now, every time I hear "Titanium" by David Guetta I am back in that room in Dartford where it all began!), but when I started dancing in other places I soon found a huge variety of music that covered everything from slow ballads to bhangra and the scope that gave to our dancing was something quite special. The same was true for tango, as when I was first introduced to tango in a small studio just outside Southampton, the music the teacher played was diverse. So long as it had a beat or cadence that matched what he was trying to teach, he played it. This seemed logical, and when I started to encounter people dancing tango to the slower tracks at modern jive events it made perfect sense to me: if you know this amazing expressive dance form then why not dance it to some of the most amazing and expressive music that modern musicians can produce?

But then I changed location and had to switch tango classes, and that was where I first encountered this whole idea that there is a "right" music for tango. There seemed to be very few classes around that taught using anything other than traditional tango music from South America in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The teacher in my new class would go through a move or a sequence with a piece of Canaro playing in the background, and then put on the same piece played by Pizarro and get us to dance it again whilst he explained how this made it a completely different set of steps. I went to another tango class instead, but after six months of learning the basics he announced that from the following week we would be starting again from the beginning but this time with music from a different orchestra because obviously it would all be different and we needed to learn "the other way of doing things".

I had, however, watched people dancing tango to absolutely everything for as long as I could remember, so I still basically assumed that the teachers I had found simply preferred teaching it that way. The choice of music for tango must surely be down to a matter of personal taste.

After a series of somewhat surprising events, I ended up running my own tango classes and dances. From the first day I played blues, slow rock, jazz, and similar sorts of tracks in the classes and the practice time afterwards. I played what I enjoyed listening to and dancing to, and so for me that ruled out the majority of traditional tango music. The classes were well received, and although I knew I was basically making it up as I went along (my introduction to teaching tango was a complete accident, so I had little time to prepare), the people who came loved the choice of music. We even started to get people who came along purely because our choice of music was non-traditional.

But then I discovered a whole new aspect to tango that I was not expecting. I began to encounter people who described what I was doing as "risky" or "daring". They tried to tell me that it "wasn't allowed" to call it tango if it wasn't danced to the "proper music", although it was unclear who it was they thought would enforce the prohibition (the tango re-education police, perhaps?). Tango, they said, was only tango if danced to "proper" tango music that had been written specifically for tango. They disagreed amongst each other as to whether that included modern Nuevo Tango music or not (and even the definition of Nuevo was a bit variable), but they all agreed it was "daring", "risky", or just plain "wrong" to play anything not written with tango in mind. 

Now hang on a minute... what we do is neither "risky" nor "daring". "Risky" is changing a light switch without turning the power off first; "Daring" is skinny-dipping in your neighbours pool whilst they're having a barbecue. What we do is play music we like as a way to enjoy a dance we love, and there is nothing risky or daring about that.

Tango is a dance that has been evolving ever since it began. From its origins as a dance-off challenge between two men, it changed when women started dancing it too as a way of attracting customers into brothels, something which resulted in it being banned in many places because of its associations with the sex industry. But then it evolved again when European dancers brought it over from South America and turned it into the first version of the tango we know today. The competitive ballroom dancing scene attempted to codify it, first with ballroom tango, and then with ballroom Argentine tango, but even these styles have changed and updated over the years, and many of the things they added have filtered back to the place where it all began. Meanwhile in South America there were multiple traditions of tango popping up, with Villa Urquiza, Salon, Fantasia, Milonguero, Club, and Nuevo (to name but a few) all appearing in different regions and at different times. The music changed as the pace slowed down and enabled dancers to be more open and expressive as there was more time for the larger moves. Even the connection between the dancers has adapted and changed as people have tried open, closed, open-V, offset, and adaptive holds to suit their particular style. In other words, there is nothing that has not changed at some point during the evolution of tango.

So what about that is "traditional"? What about that suggests that tango cannot adapt and change as fashions shift and people want to try something else? What about that diverse and ever-changing history suggests that tango is anything other than an evolving dance style that can work however you want it to work and be danced to whatever music you prefer?

And the answer is... nothing.

We dance tango. We play music that we like, and dance tango in a way that makes us happy. We advertise our X-Tango events as "Nuevo / Neo / Alternative", and the strap-line for them is "No tandas - No traditions - Just dance", either of which should be enough to suggest that the traditional way is probably not our way. We are not trying to get rid of traditional tango music or saying it should never be played. We are simply taking a dance that we love and merging it with music that we want to hear, and creating... synthesising... a new step in tango's evolution that will hopefully bring tango to people who might otherwise have been put off by the music.

We are Tango Synthesis. Our music is diverse and our tango is nuevo; we dance because it is fun and we laugh whilst we're doing it. If you are looking for a traditional Buenos Aires style milonga then we are probably not the place for you, but if traditional tango music is not your thing or you want to try something a bit different and see how tango works in an alternative environment, just drop in to one of our classes or events. Beginners are always welcome and there is no need to bring a partner.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go answer the front door... I just hope it's not the Tango Re-Education Police................


Posted by: Graham   Permalink: link   Keywords: Tango  Music  Traditional  Nuevo  

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