with Graham and Nathalie
I keep being surprised when people ask me this question, but it is something that crops up from time to time and so I should probably address it a bit more often. People know about 'milonga' as the faster form of tango which uses quick regular steps and lots of repetition, and they know that people travel a long way to go to 'milongas'. A connection between these two things is made, and the next thing I know is that I am being asked "Can you teach us the dance that people dance at milongas?" or "I see that there are a lot of milongas around, but where can I go to dance tango?"
So let me clear this up once and for all: you go to milongas to dance tango.
Okay? Is that settled? Tango is danced at milongas. But I can already start to hear the question forming... "In that case, where do you go to dance milonga...?" so there is probably some more work to do here, and so maybe I should start a bit nearer the beginning.
This dance we do is called 'tango', but the term 'tango' covers at least three different genres of music and their associated dance styles, and these are called 'milonga', 'vals', and... 'tango'. If you are used to ballroom dancing you will know that ballroom is split into two categories called 'ballroom' and 'latin', and that each of these categories includes dances such as the foxtrot, the jive, the rumba, the quickstep, along with many others, and so this idea that 'tango' and 'milonga' are both dances that come under the heading of 'tango' should not be too much of a surprise. But without that background it is easy to get confused, and it would probably help to get some idea of where the names all came from.
Unfortunately the exact origin of words like 'tango' and 'milonga' is lost in history as very few written records were ever kept, but what is universally accepted is that the dance we know today started off as something that looked a lot like more like modern 'milonga' than it did modern 'tango'. Whether the places it was danced were called 'milongas' after the dance, or if the dance was named after the gatherings themselves is unsure, but we do know that in the earliest days you went to a milonga to dance milonga.
Then popular music began to slow in pace, and the new dance of 'tango' began to appear. This was based on the same steps as were used in milonga, but slower and more spread out to fit with the slower tempo of the music, and so it was natural that people who liked the faster dance would also enjoy the slower version. This led to the new dance - which somewhere along the line had become known as 'tango' - also being danced at milongas, and so now you went to a milonga to dance milonga or tango.
Music from Europe began to make its way to South America, and the waltz which was taking Europe by storm at the time began to be popular over there as well. The original musical structure of waltz with three beats in a bar was adapted by the local orchestras to fit with the four beats in a bar that the slower 'tango' dancers expected, but the character of waltz was preserved by the music having three emphasised beats and one suspended beat in each bar. This became known as 'tango vals' ('vals' is the Spanish spelling of 'waltz'), and eventually just 'vals'.
'Tango' became the most popular of the rhythmic structures, possibly because its slower pace meant that it could be danced for longer and by people of - shall we say - more limited mobility than the faster milonga rhythm, and so the name 'tango' took over as the generic term for all three styles of dance. But the places where it was danced kept their old names and so were still referred to as 'milongas'. I like to think this was down to people wanting to save money on signwriting, but that's probably just me. There is no historical evidence of that whatsoever, but given how slowly some shops and clubs update their signs even in modern London, it does not seem implausible.
The dance has continued to evolve and yet the places where you go to dance tango, vals, and milonga are still called milongas; the music played at milongas will primarily be tango rhythm, but will also include vals and milonga. So if you want to dance tango, go to a milonga.
Note: The more observant of you will have noticed that despite running one every month, at no point in this post have I mentioned a 'neolonga'.
Well, 'neolonga' is a neologism that simply means 'new milonga', and is usually used to refer to a tango venue that predominantly plays modern or alternative tango music. This music will usually include rhythms that cover tango, vals, and milonga so whatever you want to dance you should find it there. Although it is worth pointing out that because the rhythmic structure of tango vals is not the same as proper waltz you are unlikely to find much modern or alternative music that really fits. If you know musical notation you will know that most modern popular music is written in 4/4 or 2/4, with some in 3/4. Tango is in 4/4 or 2/4 and milonga is generally in 2/4 so they fit well so long as the speed and emphasis are right, but tango vals is in a weird hybrid of 4/4 and 3/4 that you could almost write as (3+1)/4 and so not much modern music really fits that pattern.
If you find any good modern tango vals tracks, please let me know!
For those of you not familiar with the traditional tango way of doing things, tandas are groups of tracks played together that share a common rhythmic structure, orchestra, or style. It is usual for people to dance together for the duration of a tanda, then swap partners at the end of the tanda which is signified by a 'cortina' (curtain) of so-called "undanceable" music. This is the way that most traditional milongas are organised and the only way that a lot of tango dancers have ever experienced tango. At milongas that follow the rules of tango to the letter, you are supposed to only dance with someone for one tanda per event or else you may be considered to be a fixed couple, and breaking a tanda in the middle to dance with someone else is out of the question.
But there is another way of doing things, and many Neolongas (milongas based around neotango and alternative tango music) are eschewing the concept of tandas altogether and playing track after track without a break.
For dancers who have come to tango from other styles such as Salsa, Kizomba, or LeRoc, this is completely normal. No salsa DJ would consider clearing the floor every three or four tracks just so they can change the tone of the music or play something at a different speed. They seamlessly blend the music together, working with the mood of the dancers to choose tracks that will lift and inspire them throughout the evening, until everyone eventually goes home at the end, exhausted and happy. It makes sense; you come to a dance evening to dance, not to listen to music that exists purely to hurry you off the dance floor . So why not do this in tango too?
There really is no good reason, but for dancers that come from a traditional background this can be confusing. They are so used to basing their dance plans around tandas that they feel out of their depth when faced with a complete evening of music with no breaks and no structure. You hear dancers say that they have no idea how long they should continue to dance with someone, that they don't know when it's okay to ask someone new, and that they can feel 'stuck' on the dance floor as there is no cortina to tell them when to come off.
I do sort of get this, as if you have spent your entire tango life working in one way and then you walk into a venue that does things completely differently it might mess with your mind a bit. But a lot of tango dancers also dance other styles, and yet you rarely hear anyone say that what Salsa (for example) really needs is tandas. They instinctively know that other styles work best with a continuous flow of music throughout the evening. So why can't it be the same for tango?
I came to tango through a very non-traditional route, so tandas were something I discovered a long way into my tango journey and something that never really made sense to me. All I want from a dance evening is for the DJ or band to play a selection of music that I like or that challenges me, and to get as much or as little dancing in as I feel like at the time. I don't want the evening parcelled up into neat little packages, as the chance that the cortinas will happen at the exact time I want breaks is basically zero. I want to dance - or not dance - to my schedule, and to be able to enter and leave the floor whenever I like, and I know that a lot of people who come to tango without all the traditional background feel the same. So that's what I do.
So if you come to one of my events, don't expect to hear any cortinas. Just dance for as much or as little of the evening as you want, and choose the tracks you want to dance to based on whether you and your chosen partner like them individually, not just because they are part of a group of similar stuff that you may or may not like. It's liberating.
Tango can be bouncy and fun! Yes, there, I've said it. Tango, the dance style that so many people seem to think of as old fashioned or slow, can be just as full of energy and bounce as salsa or modern jive. And no, I've not gone crazy, I'm talking about milonga rhythm, the often-missed brother to tango that follows most of the same rules as its better known sibling, but with simpler faster steps, movement on every beat, and syncopation which adds to the musicality.
Okay, so full disclosure... until very recently I was no fan of milonga. I felt it was all a bit too frantic and lacked the opportunity for connection and expression that you get from a slower tango. But then I was unexpectedly thrust into a 3 1/2 hour milonga workshop with Sebastian and Roxana at the England International Tango Festival in Tonbridge ("Quick... we're short of leaders in the milonga workshop. You're on!") and something changed. Although I felt that at the end of the workshop I was no better at dancing milonga than I had been at the start, I understood more about how it worked, and had begun to see the opportunities it presented.
So I practised. And thought about it. And watched some videos. And practised again. And although I'm still not exactly good at it, I can now make it work if the music is right, and have really started to enjoy it.
For those of you reading this and thinking "Wait... I thought a milonga was a sort of tango freestyle event," you probably need a bit of background. What we group together as "tango" contains something like three distinct dance styles (there are more, but these are the main ones). There is tango, danced to the slower more flowing tracks, vals (or waltz) danced to music in 3/4 timing (or 3+1 / 4 ... but that's a whole different argument), and milonga. In this context, 'milonga' refers to a faster version of tango that uses a simplified set of steps and moves, has a change of weight on every beat, and makes strong use of repetition throughout a track. Yes, I know that the re-use of the word to mean two different things is confusing, but it's not my fault. Anyway, so I am talking about milonga rhythm (or just 'milonga') here, not the social gatherings.
Milonga has a very different feel to the slower tango rhythms. The change of weight on every beat and the utilisation of far simpler step sequences give the dance more energy, and you often hear people describe it as the more playful side of tango. It has bounce, enthusiasm, and you are far more likely to see even the most traditional of tango dancers laughing when they dance it than any other rhythm. It inspires you to experiment with new steps, as it is natural in milonga to do each step many times over before progressing to something else; you often see even experienced milonga dancers trying something that doesn't work perfectly the first time, but then it clicks for them on the second or third time through. And that's okay, because that's part of the fun of milonga.
But there is something else that starting to like milonga has shown me, and that is that with a bit of adaptation in the form of adding pauses and suspensions and mixing it in with some 'tango' style techniques, milonga can be the basis for a dance that works with a very wide range of musical genres.
Yes, that's other musical genres. Not tango. Popular stuff, like swing and jive and latin and more, which should be no surprise to anyone who has ever looked at this website or read any of my previous blog posts. I'm all about finding new things to do with tango, new music to dance it to, and new ways to get people to see what it is about this dance that I love so much. Dance is not just a goal in itself. It is something you do when you hear music you like that inspires you to get moving. People go to salsa clubs because they know the music inspires a party atmosphere and they love to party, so why not the same for tango? Because everyone 'knows' that tango music is old fashioned, and they would prefer to go somewhere that plays club music, hits, and things they know.
So watch this space. Bouncy fun tango, coming soon to a Tangosynthesis class near you!
With all the #neotango and #tangounderground branding that we are posting these days, a question I keep getting asked is "What is Neotango, and how different is it to traditional tango?" It's a fair question, given that we are trying to encourage people to make the move from traditional events and join us at a neolonga as for all they know it might be as different as salsa or LeRoc to what they know as 'tango'. Have we changed it in any way? Is it a modern version of the dance that had been 'fused' with another style to create something different? Will they even know how to do it?
The first and most important thing to get across to people new to Neotango is that it is exactly the same dance as they would learn at even the most traditional of classes. It follows all the same rules, has the same concepts and ideas as traditional, and is 100% compatible between dancers from all styles. In short, Neotango is just the same as traditional tango.
"So why call it something else? What is 'Neo' about Neotango?"
If what you like about traditional tango and its associated events are the rules and traditions then Neotango is probably not for you. A Neotango event may not have the music in tandas; there will be no cabeceos or miradas; traditional music will be rare or non-existent; anyone will ask anyone to dance. Neotango is as much about breaking down the rules and traditions around tango as it is about dancing in a different way. It's about taking the dance we know and love, and moving it into a world of modern music and modern attitudes to see where it can go next. It is a natural stage in the evolution of a dance style that has followed the changes and twists in popular dance music, from its earliest origins to the point where someone decided that "this is as far as it can go".
"In other words, Neotango is exactly the same as traditional, but with different music?"
Well... yes. And no.
The style of a dance comes as much from the music you are dancing to as it does from the steps and techniques used. Traditional tango music follows a fairly strict set of rhythms and structures, and often features the same group of instruments. The tracks used are all well known and fit under the headings of vals, milonga, or tango, and individual orchestras have known characteristics in the way they play or adapt certain pieces of music.
At a neotango event, however, you could find yourself dancing to anything. From classical to hip-hop, metal to electronica, nothing is off the table. A good neotango DJ will find music from all different genres and create a playlist or mix that will take you on a dance exploration. Tracks will work well for tango without being constrained by the traditional styles and instruments, so rather than taking your cues from the violin and the bandoneon, you may find yourself following the electric guitar and the synthesiser.
This may not sound as though it would make much of a difference to the way you dance, but small changes can have significant effects. Glenn Miller created a unique sound for his band in the 1940s by moving the clarinets to the frontline and backing them up with harmonised saxophones. It was the same instruments that everyone else had been using, but by putting them in a different order he redefined the sound of the big band and paved the way for a new generation of music.
In a similar way, tango danced to modern non-tango music is the same dance as it has always been with the same techniques and the same connection between partners. But the new music gives it something extra, a dynamic approach and flexibility that can often be missing with traditional music. Rhythms are more varied, there are as many different combinations of instruments as you can imagine, and the melody is constrained only by the composer's imagination. Your dancing can become more improvised, more 'of the moment' and less based on familiar patterns, as the musical landscape where you dance is no longer just a small subset of what is available.
So open your mind to new music and see where it takes you.
You may be very pleasantly surprised.
The first time I ever saw Argentine Tango being danced socially was at a Modern Jive and Blues event in Winchester Guild Hall. Most people were sticking to the standard dance styles for those sorts of music, but there were a few people on the floor who were dancing the tango. And it looked amazing. Their ability to connect with each other and interpret the music was incredible, and I immediately knew I wanted to learn how to do that. So when a couple of months later a friend (who up to then I’d only known as a modern jiver) offered to take me along to her tango class, I jumped at the chance. My tango journey was under way.
Or perhaps I should say my “neotango” journey, although at the time I had no idea that there was even such a thing. For me, tango was a dance that you could do wherever and whenever you liked, and to whatever music you wanted. It was defined by its mechanics, the connection between the two dancers, the shape, the way you move. It certainly wasn’t defined by a particular genre of music, or the environment where it was to be danced. And as luck would have it, the first few classes I found had the same opinion.
My work relocated and I had to find a new class closer to home, and suddenly I was introduced to the concept of “traditional tango”. At first I assumed that the teacher just preferred the sound of traditional music, and whilst it was certainly not my favourite way to dance tango, there was nothing wrong with it at all. For the first twelve weeks of that class we learned a variety of steps and techniques, and it was all making perfect sense to me. Yes, the hold they taught was a little more open than I’d encountered before, and there seemed to be slightly less ‘fun’ in the classes than I’d like, but it was still the same tango that I’d known from everywhere else, so all was good.
On the thirteenth week, I arrived at the class expecting to carry on from where we had left off at the end of the previous week, but the teacher had us all stand around the small speaker whilst he played us a new piece of music and asked us to say what was different about it. After a slightly awkward silence, he told us that until then we had only been dancing to music by Francisco Canaro, and that this new piece was by Juan d’Arienzo. There was another awkward silence as he let this sink in, and then he said that since the music was completely different, we would now be going back to the beginning to learn all the same stuff that we had done so far, but with d’Arienzo in the background as “obviously it would all be completely different.”
The reception from the class to this news was mixed. Some people just went with it, but some people left at the end of that evening never to return. I stayed there for another few weeks to try to understand what he was on about, but after having been taken back to absolute basics and being told that everything was different because it was a new orchestral style - hold, connection, frame, timing, projection… everything - and finding out that at the end of the next twelve week block we would be doing it all again with a third orchestra, I left.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was my first encounter with tango traditionalism. Over the next few weeks of looking for classes in my area I saw references to d’Arienzo, Pugliese, and many more of the traditional orchestras, but no-one was talking about anything modern. I started asking around, and it soon became clear that many people linked the dance of tango with a particular era and style of traditional tango music. What I liked to dance was apparently known as “neotango” - tango steps and techniques with modern non-tango music, but they made it clear that this was often thought of as not “real tango”, or in some cases not even tango at all.
This confused me, but being relatively new to the dance I wasn’t really sure what to make of this information. Since then though I have got a better understanding of the history of tango, and now I can say for sure that to me this restriction on what is and what is not considered “tango” makes no sense. Tango is a dance that has been evolving continuously since it first appeared in South America in the mid-1800s. The exact timeline of how it began and when it evolved is unclear and there are many different versions of what happened when, but what is well known is that the tango of the 1960s was very different to what people would have been dancing in the late 1800s, and that every local region around Buenos Aires and Montevideo developed its own variation. Evolution was - and has remained - continuous, with “Nuevo Tango” (the “new” tango) popping up every few years as musical styles developed, new teaching and descriptive techniques arriving with Gustavo Naveira, and countless approaches to the dance appearing as a result.
With all the changes that tango has been through, with it evolving over multiple parallel timelines and taking influence from at least three continents, how does it make sense to point at one tiny snapshot of a handful of clubs in Buenos Aires in the 1940s and 50s and say “This is true tango”? What makes that version of tango any more “correct” than any other? With the geographic variations in the dance that developed even in the regions close around Buenos Aires itself, it is highly likely that even many dancers contemporary with that chosen age would never have seen tango danced in the particular way we now call “traditional”, as their region did it differently.
To pick out one singular snapshot of such a rich and varied dance style and label that as “Traditional” with everything else categorised simply as “non-Traditional” does tango a massive disservice. It is akin to describing the science of zoology as “the study of elephants and other things” and is the same fixation on a picture-postcard version of history that brought us Brexit. It misses all the good stuff - the range of expression that makes tango unique, and distills it down to “them and us”.
Dance is supposed to be fun. Unless you are entering competitions there is no need for rules and restrictions. Just go out there and enjoy it. If you like the music being played or the style being danced then stick with it, but if you fancy a change there will always be someone out there doing something a little different.
What drew me to tango in the first place was its inclusiveness. It is an immigrant dance that throughout its history has linked castles, brothels, campsites and nightclubs. It has touched the lives of millions, and joined them together with a common understanding of connection and closeness. It is not just one of its parts, but a sum of its parts, a tapestry of dance with every thread vital to the whole and contributing to its strength.
So make this year a time to celebrate the diversity of tango, the rich and varied weave of neo, salon, traditional, modern, nuevo, and anything else you might find in your local club that makes it so amazing. Tango is still evolving, and I am really looking forward to seeing where it goes next.
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