The Tangosynthesis Blog

with Graham and Nathalie

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  

Tango Synthesis is Here!

22 Apr 2018 - by Graham

As most people probably know by now, when I started teaching tango at Jivebeat it was almost entirely by accident. A random decision to give the regulars at Sevenoaks a tango taster class one evening (you can read about that here) soon became a regular feature, and pretty soon more people were finding us because of the tango than were finding us for modern jive. This was not a problem for us as we love teaching both, but after a few months we started to realise that people were being confused by the name. Tango at Jivebeat...? Is it really tango? Is it "modern jive in a tango style"? How can modern jive and tango be even slightly compatible?

We hadn't thought of this, as since we knew what we were doing we just assumed everyone else would as well. Jive and tango are two separate classes that happen one after the other, and although the music we play varies from week to week we always try to get at least a few crossover tracks into the playlist so people can choose what they want to dance even in the same track. It made sense to us, but a couple of months ago when we were talking to people who had been actively looking for tango classes but who had skimmed over Jivebeat purely because of the name, we realised it was time to make a few changes.

And so Tango Synthesis was born.

If you already come to Jivebeat for our regular classes or X-Tango Milongas then other than a few logo changes you probably won't notice a lot of difference. Tango Synthesis is made up of all the same people as Jivebeat, with the same class format and no plans to split things up any differently to the way they are organised now. Membership, the loyalty scheme, prepayments, and everything else will continue to be run under the Jivebeat name, but advertising and branding of our tango classes and events will change.

Tango content will start to move onto the Tango Synthesis website, but for now it will continue to be on the Jivebeat site as well so Jivebeat remains the one-stop-shop for everything we do. This may change in a few months though as everyone gets used to the new branding, so if tango interests you then start finding the Tango Synthesis website, our pages on Facebook, and any other social media accounts that we may announce.

Welcome to Tango Synthesis! The new home for Jivebeat Tango.

Posted by: Graham   Permalink: link   Keywords: Tango  Nuevo  Neotango  

X-Tango - Alternative Milonga

12 Mar 2018 - by Graham

It has been a long while coming, but we have finally announced our first X-Tango Alternative Milonga, and it's going to be on the 23rd March 2018 in Sevenoaks, in place of our usual weekly class. But what do we mean by X-Tango? What is the difference between that and regular Argentine Tango? And why are we calling the milonga alternative?

The Argentine Tango we dance and teach at Jivebeat is the same Argentine Tango that you will find anywhere else. Yes, if you come to our class you may find that we put the emphasis in different places to where you might expect, and just like everyone else who teaches tango we have developed our own teaching style. But the dance itself is the same dance you will learn in Buenos Aires, Brighton, Bromley, or Bangalore, no matter how traditional or nuevo (modern) your class might be.

The way we teach and promote tango is definitely more 'nuevo' than traditional, and this is reflected in the music we use in our classes. There is a strong tradition in tango that you should primarily dance it to music especially written for that purpose, and preferably music written and released in the Golden Age (from around 1935-1952) by a very select group of orchestras. There is nothing wrong with this at all, and it creates an atmosphere that is highly evocative of the traditional tango clubs that formed in that time. But we believe tango is a dance that also deserves to be enjoyed and experienced with as wide a range of music as possible, so the music we play at our classes and our events leans in a rather different direction.

We play blues, jazz, popular, electronica, metal, and no doubt many other genres too... if the track works for tango then we play it. In fact about the only style we rarely play is traditional tango music from Argentina. This musical mixture means that we sometimes see people dancing other styles at the same time as most people are dancing tango, as some tracks are suitable for more than one flavour of dance. LeRoc, ballroom, traditional jive... we have seen them all in the same room as people dancing tango. And that's more than fine by us!

So welcome to our first X-Tango Alternative Milonga. We could have called it a Neotango or Nuevo Tango event, but as the jury is still out on whether they are general terms or are used to refer to something specific in tango history, we thought we would come up with something a bit different. We tried a few names, and 'X-Tango' seemed the most popular. So it stuck.

If you like tango and want to dance it to something a bit more recent or 'up to date' than usual, then come to Jivebeat on the 23rd!

Posted by: Graham   Permalink: link   Keywords: Tango  Nuevo  Neotango  X-Tango    

Tango - A Dance Without Steps.

24 Oct 2017 - by Graham

Whenever you think about dance, you think of footwork. There are basic steps that define the character of every type of dance, from the simple “step back, then in” of LeRoc, to the “forward, side, together” of waltz or the “one, two, three-and-four” of latin. The steps are the first stage in learning a new dance. You begin by learning the timing and how to position your feet in the correct places, then when you’ve got the hang of that you start to concentrate on where to put your body to improve balance, posture, and styling and make the dance begin to flow.

But Argentine Tango doesn’t have any of that. It is that strangest of things, a dance without steps.

When you first start to learn the tango the temptation is to follow the steps that the teacher is doing and try to copy the way his or her feet are moving around the floor. This is a natural way of looking at it especially if you have done any other dancing before, but it is not how tango works. With tango the most important element is the upper body connection, the invisible link between the leader’s and follower’s chests that - if done correctly - means the feet will move in the right direction as a consequence of the movement. It is this chest connection that most new tango dancers find the hardest to master, partly because the isolation or dissociation needed to be able to rotate your upper body independently of your hips is not something we naturally do and needs to be learned, but mostly because they spend all their time trying to work out where the feet should go and try to dance whilst looking down.

Tango is a dance of connection, not of steps. It is a bit of an over-simplification, but you could start by picturing all of the dance happening from the waist-upwards, and the feet just moving around to keep you from falling over. The lead in tango comes not from the feet but from the chest, with the leader moving his or her chest in the direction they want the follower to go, and the follower responding by moving their chest in the same direction whilst maintaining as close a connection to their leader as is physically possible.

This is easy to say, but it can be confusing. When you watch tango danced by experienced dancers, whether on the stage or just at a local social dance event, you will see a lot of footwork. Small detailed rock-steps, sweeps and pushes of all sizes, the famous tango hook or ‘gancho’, and many other classic elements all make an appearance somewhere in the dance, and beginners point and say “See… footwork! I told you there were steps…”

But all of those things happen as a consequence of the chest connection. The leader is not thinking about where his or her partner’s feet are going to be, but where their weight, balance, and chest must be to maintain the connection. Yes, there are rules and styling techniques involved for both leader and follower to make the dance look like a dance rather than just two people wandering around the floor, but the position of the feet and the centre of balance is all controlled by the upper body connection.

So how does this affect you in your class? Tango is usually taught using short sequences of movements that include elements with steps in them, and beginners (and some more experienced dancers) often make the mistake of thinking of them as steps that need to be learned. But these are just ways of teaching you about the chest connection, they are tools for you to learn how weight, connection, and balance all affect you and your partner’s position.

Learn the sequences and practise the routines, but remember that their real purpose is to show you how the chest connection makes the dance, and how the feet are just a consequence of where your bodies are and where your weight is at any moment.

When you’ve got the hang of that, then you can add the styling!

Posted by: Graham   Permalink: link   Keywords: Argentine Tango  Nuevo  Neotango  

Argentine Tango... Traditional or Modern?

23 Aug 2017 - by Graham

Argentine Tango is a dance that is steeped in tradition. From the music played by the great tango orchestras of the 1930s-1950s to the style and conventions of the social dance evenings (or 'milongas'), the argentine tango dance scene remains deeply connected to its roots in south America, and for some dancers this environment is as much a part of the dance as are the embrace and the steps. For these dancers, tango and its music cannot be separated; to dance one is to love the other and tango without the tradition is not really tango at all.

This environment is often the first introduction that people get to the unique and evocative dance of Argentine Tango, and the 'other worldly' atmosphere created by the music and traditional tango culture is what encourages them to stick around. "Golden Age" music is used in the classes, and teachers can trace their roots back to the great tango masters of Buenos Aires, each of whom has a subtly different style though they all follow the same basic principles. Every class feels special.

But musical tastes vary a lot, and for some the traditional tango music and strict tango culture can be a barrier to learning or enjoying this dance. People who love the dance but not the music were turning away from tango in favour of more modern dance environments, and so in recent years there has been an increase in popularity of teaching and dancing tango to non-traditional tango music. Electrotango and pop-tango bands formed to create music that was more up-to-date despite keeping to the basic tango music structure, and then dancers even started turning to music that was not written for tango at all. Blues, jazz, and even rock music are now regularly being played at 'alternative' milongas and this has re-opened tango to a much wider audience.

Traditions in tango however, remain strong, and many of the traditional tango dancers do not acknowledge this new approach to the dance as being 'Argentine Tango' at all. It is a different thing, as different as Modern Jive is to Ballroom, and so it can be difficult for an 'alternative' event to fit into the tango world. Terms like 'nuevo' and 'neotango' are used to distinguish them, but these also mean something specific to traditional dancers so it can be confusing. 'Nuevo Tango', for example, can mean a specific type of orchestral music largely from the 1980s that incorporates new elements, a teaching style whereby more emphasis is placed on the kinesiology of the dance and less to the connection to the traditional music, a style of dance that moves around the floor outside of the traditional line of dance (anti-clockwise around the edge of the room), any tango danced to non-tango music... you see the problem.

Dancers are by nature creative, and are always finding new ways to describe their events and classes to indicate how traditional or avant-garde they are. You see events announced as having "80% traditional, 20% nuevo music" in their advertising, or "No tango music, no tandas, no cortinas, just dancing from beginning to end..." (tandas and cortinas are traditional ways of grouping the music played at a milonga), so you can usually work out what an event will be like before you go. But if not, then just contact the organiser and ask. They will always be happy to talk about the sort of music they play there and what the atmosphere will be like, as that ensures that everyone who comes has a great time.

As with everything else in life, tango dancers are rarely just one thing or the other. Most dancers who prefer nuevo / alternative music also like some of the traditional from time to time, and most traditionalists are happy with the occasional modern track thrown into the mix. My personal preference is to dance tango to everything from jazz and 1940s ballads to modern pop and rock, but that does not stop me sometimes wanting to put on my suit and head down to a traditional milonga, and I continue to learn at traditional-style classes every week. For me the evolution of tango is important, but that only means anything if I stay in touch with its roots.

The tango we dance at Jivebeat is definitely in the nuevo or alternative zone, and no traditionalist would ever refer to the music we play as any sort of 'tango music'! We dance to blues, country, rock, and all sorts of musical styles from all over the world, and every now and again we will include a traditional piece or two just to keep you on your toes! We believe that tango can be danced and enjoyed alongside almost any musical style.

So if nuevo / alternative / neotango is your thing then maybe Jivebeat is your new tango home.

Posted by: Graham   Permalink: link   Keywords: Argentine Tango  Nuevo  Neotango  

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