The Language of Tango

Story | Opinion | The Tango Lesson | 10 Feb 2022 | 0 comments

An exhibit at a Melbourne art exhibition of artificial intelligence & augmented reality, is a mirror that interprets the viewer’s feelings, by analysing facial responses, and feeds back a poem tailored to how it thinks you feel. The curator noted, “Artificial intelligence may give us another language, without words”.

It occurred to me,”but we already have that with Tango”.

It set me thinking.

Body language has been studied and written about for many years. Let’s look at some quotes:

“Communication is made up of so much more than words. Nonverbal cues such as tone of voice, gestures and posture all play their part”.

“Body language is the unspoken part of communication that we use to reveal our true feelings and to give our message more impact”.

“It’s not the words that you use but your nonverbal cues or “body language” that speak the loudest”.

You will have heard the statistic that only seven percent of a message (dealing with communications involving emotions and attitudes) is conveyed through words, and that the other 93 percent comes from nonverbal communication(Mehrabian).

And a final word from Alan & Barbara Pease, authors of the definitive books on body language, and other emotional responses. “This book is dedicated to all people who have good eyesight but who cannot see”.

So where does Tango fit into this paradigm? It may seem obvious, but it’s not quite so.

The body language of the texts is mainly concerned with involuntary signals of the face, arms, legs and body position, that reveal thoughts and feelings not expressed. They go on to explain how to “read” these signals, and to respond in appropriate ways, often by mirroring (or opposing) the other’s pose.

Tango, in contrast, is a structured body language, comprised of vocabulary, punctuation & grammar, just as any spoken language. It includes words, sentences and paragraphs, guided by complex music, to create a meaningful conversation between two people; or 200 people.

As with many discoveries, the conjunction of time and place created something special, and different from other dances.

Other dances (and some Tango) can be rote-learned, through choreography, to present and image of the dance. Expert dancers can make this look realistic, but the essential elements of interpreting what another person is doing, and communicating in real-time, is not present when you are not fluent in the language.

We know, from experience, that you can “get by” in a foreign language country with a few words, a smile and pointing; but you will never have a meaningful conversation with another person.

New entrants to the dance often ask how long it will take to learn to dance Tango. The answer is here.

How long will it take to learn a new language?

How long does it take a newborn to engage in a sophisticated conversation with its parents?

It is a journey that you must want to take; and enjoy. For those who continue, it can become a lifelong quest and passion. Others will be satisfied with “getting by”.

The Language of Tango

The first step is learning how to form the “words”. This is technique, learning how to step, walk, turn, in such a way as to communicate your movement to another, and interpret and respond to movement. It is like a baby taking its first tentative steps, and It can be the most intimidating stage to get through, especially for men, feeling out of control; but it is essential.

At the same time, you will begin to learn some basic vocabulary. How to signal and execute the important “words”, forward, back, side, ochos, giros, cross. Once the basic vocabulary is mastered, you will introduce more sophisticated vocabulary – sacadas, voleos, ganchos, sables (low to the floor for social dancing, or more flamboyant in a performance).

You will also begin to connect the basic technique with simple figures. Many teachers begin here, with the basic “eight”, in order to get students to feel they are dancing from the start. There is a danger in this, that people lock into this and other combinations. You are now conducting a conversation from a phrase book. Many dancers stop at this point, thinking that they are dancing Tango. At this stage, they are years away from the language of Tango. We have always avoided repeating combinations.

You will also, by now be learning how to communicate your movement to your dance partner. This is achieved first through the Tango embrace. The dance partners are joined at the chest. We learn to give clear signals, and interpret them instantly, as you would with a verbal conversation. You do not have time to think, “What did that mean”, or “What will I say next”. A conversation must get past being filtered through the physical equivalent of Google Translate. The embrace is another whole topic, but all agree it is important.

Some people talk of a “flexible” embrace, where the partners separate, usually to perform a “figure”. We do not subscribe to this embrace, because it instantly breaks the intimate, concentrated connection that is required for a good conversation. It was developed for, and is suited to performance. Hands and eyes, come into play; the brain moves to its conscious side (I’m doing one of these). The magic is broken.

The Tango conversation is a communication of feeling an emotion, a right brain activity; it is not an intellectual, or mathematical discussion, a left brain activity.

Early stage dancers tend to require, and make, obvious or gross signals. As time goes on, the sensitivity to interpreting these signals becomes heightened, and they can become much more subtle and gentle.

Now it’s time to walk together. Sentences and paragraphs are guided by the music. You must learn to step (or wait) on the beat of the music. It is impossible to signal, or receive a signal, if the dance partners are not stepping together at almost exactly the same time. This is the beginning of a conversation. He signals, she goes first, he follows; repeat.

Tango music is mostly complex, soulful & passionate, vals is light and free, milonga is fun and energetic. Some people think that you must learn the songs by heart. Whilst you do get to know the more popular songs, playing the dance “by heart” will hardly be of interest to your dance partner. A basic understanding of the structure of Tango music is more important. Listen for the phrases, notice how there are more upbeat, staccato sections and other more lyrical sections. You can begin to respond to these, because they are predictable. Each song is different, but the structure is always similar. To build an interesting dialogue, both partners must learn to interpret and feel the music; try to communicate what you are feeling, and interpret what your partner may be feeling.

As you begin to master concentrating on and communicating the feeling and emotion of the music, your conversation will become more interesting and more complex. You can add or subtract energy in a step (think a driving Di Sarli beat); you may pause for a breath or emphasis, with a pause in the music, but don’t stop. Gavito, the master of the long pause, said, “You can stop, but keep the engine running”. One lady we know noted that a particular man, “just stood there, waiting for me to do something”. That’s a sign that it was all in his head, not in his body and definitely not listening to her, or the music.

Of course, as in life, there will be people you just can’t seem to get on the same wavelength with, even if they are friends. The conversation may be stiff and formal; but that is life.

Once you are dancing in a room with other dancers, (especially a crowded room), your dance conversation will become even more complex, as you navigate the floor, mindful of the other dancers and protecting your partner, instantly and ever changing your dance as you respond to those around you. It makes every dance a unique challenge. And, from time to time, you will draw on the energy of “the room”, until you feel as if you are floating in space, even though you are concentrating intently on your partner, the music and the room. This phenomenon is often studied in neuropsychology.

So how long does this take.

As with most activities, improvement tends to be quick, between long plateaus. My wife and I have often discussed this. We feel that we were improving our dance, in noticeable ways, for around seventeen years, after we took a series of workshops with the wonderful Tete Rusconi, that we believe added a level of energy to our dance, especially valz, which he loved. Since then, improvement has been more subtle, always trying to better interpret each song, in the context of each partner and opportunities presented in the room. We continue to strive for that “special moment”.

Tango embodies many complex and different (as opposed to day-to-day) senses and emotions – communication at a non-verbal level, listening, rather than hearing, to music and to another body, silently collaborating to weave an ephemeral, unspoken moment in time, never to be repeated.

Enjoy the journey. It has been an enjoyable, worthwhile one for us.

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Published: 10 Feb 2022 @ 23:05


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