A difficult question, that turned out to have a very simple answer


I posted at length last month about the kind of dancer I want to be, the executive summary of which was:

  • A warm embrace
  • Dancing to the music
  • A clear and comfortable lead
  • A collaborative dance
  • Simple things, done well

That second bullet is key …

Let’s remove the holy grail from the equation – incredibly complex and sophisticated movement which perfectly expresses the music – and assume a genie could magically offer me the choice between the two other extremes I’ve seen in milongas …

One is amazingly skilled movement with little to no connection to the music. The other is simple dance which fits every aspect of the music. I would definitely be asking the genie for the second of these.

From watching dancers who fit this bill, the one thing they clearly have in common is an intimate familiarity with the music. It appears to me to be far more than just familiarity with the overall structure of tango songs, and the common patterns found within them. The degree of match I see between the music and the movement can, I think, be explained only by knowing the individual songs really well.

As any of my tango friends will know, I listen to tango music All. The. Time. But I only know a handful of songs well enough to know what is coming in terms of changes of pace, rhythmical versus lyrical, louder versus softer, and so on. And most of those are not often played in milongas.

The difficult question, and the three types of answer

So, my goal is to gradually develop that level of familiarity with songs that are commonly played in milongas. My question was how and where to find playlists that contain these songs? I asked in a Facebook tango group, and got a variety of responses, broadly falling into three categories:

  • It’s dangerous, as you may be tempted to choreograph your dance
  • It’s almost impossible, as it depends on the milonga
  • It’s difficult, but here are some suggested resources

The first is definitely not a concern for me! When it comes to the global ranking of tango dancers by their ability to memorise steps, I sit second-to-last, just ahead of a guy with advanced Alzheimers who can’t remember where he put his tango shoes.

And it turned out that, far from being almost impossible, or even difficult, there is a simple answer.

The simple answer

Angela Cassan pointed me to a website created by a tango DJ called Clive Harrison. He did extensive work to put together a playlist of 250 songs, organised into well-constructed tandas, later expanding it into 500 songs. There are links to individual tandas on his website, but he has also created each as a separate Spotify playlist, the entirety of which can be found here.

I spent the evening sampling it, and honestly might have been at a milonga. They were all songs I’d heard played numerous times at different milongas. Harrison put the collection together as a starting point for novice DJs, and I suspect that as many of them became more experienced and created their own tandas, they also retained some of these.

Certainly it was a perfect answer to my question. I’ve started putting together my own playlist of a subset of these – the ones I’ve heard most often – and aim to achieve as much familiarity as I can with each. Over time, I hope that will be enough to allow me to be able to do proper justice to at least a tanda or two at any given milonga.

My subset currently sits at 39 songs totalling 1h 56m. Given that I think I’d need to listen actively to each of them at least a hundred times to get anywhere close to the degree of familiarity I seek, that ought to keep me going for a while …

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