Musicality workshop #1 of 4: Rhythm, melody & bridge


It’s amazing how far being able to walk to the beat and the phrase will get you in your very early days in tango. I struggled with pretty much everything else, but I could land on the beat, and I could do a weight-change to mark the end of a phrase.

It was this, not any aspect of my technique, which led to experienced dancers giving me that famous ‘you’re going to be a really nice dancer‘ backhanded compliment …

These days, I do, in principle, have a reasonable beginner vocabulary (more on that in the next blog post). And, in all honesty, I don’t think it’s going to increase dramatically, because I’m not good at learning or remembering sequences, and that’s not what motivates me. My aim now is:

  • Improve my technique
  • Get to know the music better
  • Learn how to make my dance more collaborative

For the first bullet-point, I’m taking fortnightly private lessons; making it my primary focus in group classes; and doing additional technique-focused workshops.

For the second, I’m theoretically doing two things. First, listening to tango music all the time. All. The. Time. I’m doing that one. Second, reading a number of books on the music, its orchestras and its structures. I’m not actually doing that one. The problem is that they really demand time, to sit down with them and the accompanying music to really study, and in my very limited downtime at present, I actually want to relax!

So a series of four weekly musicality workshops seemed like a good plan. I’ve swapped my schedule around so they don’t eat into my limited free time, and they include dancing, so are fun as well as work. Titled Four Levels of Musicality, they are run by Olga Metzner in her beautiful flat just off The Strand.

Class 1 was on ‘Music dictates and invites. Timing, speed, pausing, dynamics.’ What does the music call on us to do? What could it invite us to do? Olga said that all tango songs could be considered as having three elements:

  • Rhythm (beat)
  • Melody
  • Bridges

The first seemed straightforward, but in practice, not always so much! She played Calo’s Al Compás del Corazón and had us individually change weight to the beat. There were six of us in the class, and all six of us were absolutely consistent. And all six of us were wrong. We marked the single time beat, but what the bandoneons are playing is double-time.

Olga invited us to dance the actual beat, just walking. It was only possible to do small steps to the double-time beat. She had us dance only the beat the first time around.

Dancing to the melody

Then we listened to the melody, and had to dance only to this. And I immediately got to see the difference between what I currently do in milongas, and actually dancing to the melody.

What I currently do is continue dancing to the beat, and then try to reflect the feel of the melody. So, for example, I might switch from the walk into ochos, and from single-time to half-time, to reflect the feeling, and maybe I’ll do some suspensions to long drawn-out parts of the melody – but beneath all that I’m still dancing to the beat.

What Olga had us do is drop the beat altogether. Dance only to the melody. Which sometimes means doing nothing (for dance values of nothing, which is to say remaining active in the embrace and perhaps a really slow suspension of some kind) when the melody isn’t present.

That proved tricky for three reasons. First, you have to know the song. With the rhythm, the beat may change somewhat (switching between single-time and double-time, for example), but it’s not that hard to stay with it – at least, until it gets into syncopations! But the melody … if you don’t know the song, it isn’t easy to predict where it’s heading. For example, in one song, I’d just led a forward ocho to a nice slow part, then suddenly the melody sped up dramatically, and there was not a chance I was going to lead ochos at that speed!

Second, my available vocabulary is limited, so often I’ll know the kind of movement I want, but either don’t know how to lead it, or by the time I’ve figured out what I can do, the moment is gone.

Third, as I’ve mentioned before, I find it really hard not to dance to the beat! It’s really easy to slip back into doing so.

Bridges, and how to use them

I was familiar with the term ‘bridge’ in music, but I knew it in the sense of a fairly significant linking section between two contrasting sections of the music – often a vocal solo. In tango, the bridge is typically just a few notes, and may even be a single note. It’s frequently played on the piano, as a little playful (and usually fast) ‘tinkle.’

In some songs, the bridges are very obvious. In others, not so much. Olga had us listen out for them, and try to dance them on our own. In the song she chose, they were ridiculously fast, and there was zero chance I would ever be able to lead anything at that speed. But a more practical way to mark them is to pause during them. Which led into the next step in the class: switching between dancing the rhythm and the melody.

Olga suggested that bridges are a great opportunity to switch between dancing to the rhythm and the melody. So, we might start out dancing to the beat, then pause for the bridge and switch to dancing to the melody.

Our next mission was to try that. And, for anyone brave enough, to dance the bridge too; I advised M that we would most assuredly not be doing that.

I’m used to switching partner after every song in group classes, but we didn’t do that tonight. Perhaps because there were only six of us, but it was just as well that M was doing it too! We’ve danced together quite a lot, and are very relaxed together, laughing at stuff that doesn’t work.

One thing Olga had mentioned is that leader and follower needn’t necessarily be dancing to the same element in the song – or at least, not fully. The lead could be to the melody, while the follower might be doing decorations to the beat.

I got just a tiny taste of that possibility. I led some ochos to the melody while M did some decorations to the beat. Achaval and Suarez we were not, but I was impressed!

Olga said this week’s class was on the what: the different options available to us. Next week will look at the ‘how’: how do we choose what to do at any given point?

As for bullet three, making my dance more collaborative, week 3 is on ‘Response to our partner: to agree, to change, to add?’ – which I’m really looking forward to! I’ve bored you all to tears with how much I loved the Follower’s Liberation workshop, and I’m doing another on Saturday which I think also has quite a strong element of collaborative dance. And finally, week 4 of the musicality series is on ‘The emotional and the human side of musicality in tango,’ which sounds intriguing!

I’m very much looking forward to the rest of it.

Image: Shutterstock

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