Musicality workshop #2 of 4: Melody and counter-melody


Although I’ve vowed to rein-in my tango schedule, there is a slight lag as I complete my booked workshops – including the remaining three musicality workshops. Last week was about switching between dancing the beat and the melody, and this week took things to the next level: switching between the melody and the counter-melody …

I forgot to note the first song we used, but the opening to Pugliese’s Desde El Alma is a very clear example, where the piano plays the melody while the violins play the counter melody.

That opening is also a good example of a dialogue between the two, sometimes known as a call-and-response. The piano plays something, the violins respond.

However, 18 seconds in, they switch. Now the violins are playing the melody, and the piano the counter-melody. So dancing to the melody is different to dancing to an instrument.

Olga said that if you watch dancers in a milonga, most of them are dancing to whatever is more prominent at the time. That might be the beat for a time, then the melody, then the counter-melody when the melody pauses or the counter-melody is more to the fore. So there is constant movement. Her view is that you have a more interesting dance if you choose one element, and dance to that – or, at least, one element at a time.

Dancing everything

So our first task was to, in her view, get it wrong: dance to everything. If the beat is most prominent, dance to that; if the melody is being sung, dance to the singer; if the singer pauses for half a phrase and the violins are playing the counter-melody, dance to that. All dance, all the time.

To me, and to M, that actually felt fine, but I can see how it might feel a bit frenetic if done non-stop for a whole tanda.

Dancing only to the melody

After doing that a couple of times, our next task was to dance only to the melody, not the counter-melody. In the example song, the melody was played by the bandoneon, the counter-melody the violins. So we danced to the bandoneon and had to pause when only the violins were playing.

Of course, actively pausing, so remaining alive in the embrace, and small weight changes to the beat were ok to mark time until the melody resumed.

As with last week, it’s quite hard to do. I instinctively want to dance to whatever is going on. But I was looking for more opportunities to introduce suspensions, and this would be a good way. Of course, it poses the same challenge as last time: a follower at my sort of level might not realise what’s going on, but I can certainly see that it’s something an experienced dancer would enjoy.

The other big problem is that you really need to know the individual songs very well to do this: to know when the melody pauses, and for how long. Olga breezily said that when you’ve been dancing regularly for say six years, there are probably lots of songs you’ve danced to 100 times, so you will know them well enough. I believe her, but things are rather different eight months in! There are songs I recognise (but mostly can’t name), and even with songs I love, I’m sure I couldn’t tell you exactly when the melody is going to pause and for how long.

Dancing only to the counter-melody

And then came the hardest challenge of all: dancing to the counter-melody! Especially when the melody is very prominent, and the counter-melody much less so. And when the melody is being sung, well, I’m a lost cause! I’m going to be listening to the singer. Which was the case with di Sarli’s Necesito Olvidar.

Besides which, I don’t think there’s a follower in any of my classes who would have the faintest clue what I was doing – I certainly wouldn’t had I not done tonight’s workshop. If I tried to ignore not just the beat but also the melody, and dance only to the counter-melody, my followers are just going to think I’ve forgotten how to dance …

But while that isn’t something I’m going to be trying anytime soon (even with an experienced follower, as it’s so hard to ignore the melody), this is all really useful for better understanding the structure of tango songs. It’s helping make up for those tango music books I’ve bought but mostly not read.

Leader and follower dancing different elements

Finally, Olga introduced the idea of leader and follower dancing to different elements. For example, the leader dancing to the melody while the follower dances to the counter-melody. She said the follower’s part can either be lead or unlead, that is, the follower taking the initiative to do that, and the leader accommodating it.

I love the idea of that, but had no idea how that would work, and Olga’s demonstration didn’t help too much, as there was no real visible difference between a normal lead and leading something that only the follower was intended to do. But I at least understand the concept, even if the execution remains a complete mystery to me. And I do love the idea!

My take-outs

What can I take from it at this stage? I think in something like my favourite Pugliese songs, I can consciously work on dancing only to the melody, and using suspensions during the counter-melody. Practicing on my own, then, if that seems to work, desperately hoping they play one of them at an upcoming milonga!

And I can use this new understanding to re-listen to some of my favourite songs to better understand their structure. Olga says that perhaps 90% of tango songs have melody and counter-melody.

From here, I have one last crazy weekend of five group classes (and maybe a milonga, if I still have any energy left after three classes on Saturday), another busy week after that, and then sanity returns …

Image: Shutterstock

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