Book Review: The meaning of TANGO

The Meaning of TANGO: The Story of the Argentinian Dance by Christine Dennison

This is a fun book for Tango dancers of all types.  The book is very centered around traditional Argentine Tango and does an excellent job of conveying that perspective.  It’s also somewhat unusual in that it is predominantly about the history and philosophy of the dance but contains a section that is straight up technique with diagrams.

The book is a quick read and full of wonderful tidbits about the dance and its history.  Rather than a full-fledged review, I would like to highlight a few points that I feel gave me some useful insight into Argentine Tango.   I am someone with a ballroom background and  I believe this book helped me understand the dance in a way that I didn’t have even after taking a number of beginning Argentine Tango lessons.

Dance to the Melody

There is a section called “One Name, Many Dances” where the author talks about the relationship between Argentine Tango and ballroom dances.  In particular this quote from Freddie Camp, an early German Ballroom dancer:

In Argentina dancers prided themselves on their ability to dance the melody rather than the rhythm. Indeed, Tango orchestras almost never have a drum section. While most other dance music around the world is based on a strong, clear rhythm, generally emphasised by drums, newcomers to Tango music often complain that they find the rhythm of the music difficult to hear. This is one of the qualities that makes Argentinian Tango unique.

The idea of dancing to the melody rather than the rhythm goes a long way to explaining the thing that puzzled me about the practice music that was used in the beginning Argentine Tango lessons that I’ve taken.  I felt that the teachers were choosing music where the beat was hard to find, which I would not expect of a beginning class.  So I’m going to spend some time listening to the melody of Argentine Tango music and see if I can find myself moving to the melody.

Learning to Lead by Following

I found the description of how Argentine Tango was taught traditionally particularly enlightening.  The men would learn in prácticas which were all male and composed predominantly of expert dancers.  When learning to follow a young man would spend his formative years being led by experienced dancers.  Then he would spend additional years within the práctica leading other men before he ever went to a mix sexed milonga and lead a woman.   The fallout of this is that in the context of learning the dance, one was surrounded by experts.  Contrast this with the current practice of dance classes where there are one or two teachers and a crowd of inexperienced dancers.

In addition, from a lead’s perspective, learning to follow is invaluable.  I didn’t do this until I had years of lead experience and when I finally did spend some time learning to follow it fundamentally changed the way I lead.

The Tango Trinity

Finally, the author talks about the “Tango Trinity”: Tango, Milonga, and Vals.  From some other research and some discussion with Argentine Tango dancers, this appears to be the purist’s set of Tango dances.  I had originally categorized Neo Tango into the set of Argentine Tango dances, but that appears not to be the case.  Based on this, I almost went down the path of pulling Neo Tango from the catalog as a distinct dance and reworked it so that Neo Tango (or Tango Nuevo) would just be a style tag on top of the Tango Trinity dances.  But I’m glad I did some further research.  It looks like Neo Tango is a distinct style of dance and related to traditional Argentine tango about as closely as Ballroom Tango is.

The main thing that I got from that set of discussions is that Argentine Tango dancers are even more concerned with the tradition of the music that other styles that I’ve studied.  I got the impression that some would only consider “true tango music” to be that recorded by a specific set of artists from the golden age.  Someday, I’d like to see if I can get things sorted out so that it’s easy to distinguish these from others.

If you have thoughts on the Argentine Tango, the music4dance website or corrections to anything I’ve said about Tango and Tango music, please feel free to comment here or send me feedback.

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