Monday 20 May 2013

Teaching Musicality - A Primary Mission

Let me start my post with a very typical situation, that Detlef and I experience almost every teaching weekend:

It is early afternoon. We have been doing one of our musicality classes. ...

(During most gigs will do at least two classes focussing on different aspects of music depending on the level of the participants or depending on how often we been teaching in that place. On a first visit, we usually offer two basic classes, like „Caminar el compás y la pausa“ or „Cadencia - dance the musical phrase“. If we go to a place repeatedly, we will chose more advanced classes on Rhythm & Syncopation, Melody, Expression & Dynamics or classes on special orchestras. And then of course there are special workshops on Vals or Milonga musicality.... 
In our musicality workshops, we listen to music, analyse it and move to it alone and with a partner. You will never learn a step, as the musical principles will always be applied in the most simple form of movement, the Caminar, to not distract from the primary goal or set additional obstacles for the dancers.
Out of the 57 pre-defined classes in our catalogue, 14 belong into the category of pure musicality classes. Almost one fourth.
Ok... you get it. We give a rather high importance to musicality. Excuse my excursion and self-praise.)


Back to that frequently occurring situation.
We have given one of our musicality classes, most likely a rather basic one, and a class participant will approach us. Very often that will be someone who took the class rather reluctantly, considering himself as an „advanced“ dancer, who does not need this kind of „beginners“ instruction. This is what he or she will say, often accompanied by a disturbed expression, sometimes with tears in the eyes: 

„Oh my god, I have been dancing Tango for 5 (insert every imaginable number up to 20) years with so many teachers and no-one has ever explained this to me! I have never had a class on different walking speeds (rhythms, syncopation, dynamics, phrasing... insert any musical topic of our canon) in my entire Tango life!“

„What? Yo have been dancing Tango for more than X years and you have never heard about these musical principles. What have you been doing in your classes?“, says I.

„Well... steps mostly...“

„Oh.“ (Me, exhibiting a sad or shocked face.)


Now we already know, that basic technique is still very much neglected in Tango classes, but musicality obviously is completely forgotten by a multitude of teachers. Or it is taught by giving instructions like: „Use these steps for D‘Arienzo, use those for Di Sarli“. Or: „Walk during the first part, start turning in part two“. Or, even worse: „This step has a quick-quick-slow in positions 6,7 and 8“. All these assignments do not explain some underlying musical principle, but just tell you to apply a rhythmical pattern or musical means of expression in a very schematic way. They will not enable a dancer to improvise in harmony with the music.

This lack of musical instruction explains what we see in Milongas everywhere: Quite virtuous dancers, who may even have a good technique or nice embrace, but often being either totally disconnected to the music or using their patterns in such a automatic way, that (having videotaped them) you could remove the audio track from the file and underlay it with another Tango of the same length and speed. It would look exactly the same.

Is this not sad and should it not motivate all Tango-instructors to focus more on musicality?

In my opinion, dancers of different levels could be taught at least the following musical basics:
  • Beginners: different walking speeds, pauses, connecting to the musical phrase in a regular Tango
  • Intermediate dancers: using different rhythmical patters (In Tango, Vals and Milonga) freely in their movements
  • Advanced dancers: different walking dynamics, connecting to the melody on a higher level, distinguishing different orchestras and general styles, irregular phrasing... 
... and there is no end to what you can do with talented and interested dancers!

My partner Detlef and I are on a constant and ongoing journey of discovery when it comes to musicality. I guess, very few dancers (who are not also full-blown Tango-musicians) will ever grasp the entire scope of musical expression in Tango. But dancing social Tango means „moving with a partner to Tango-music“. This defines the four different fields of skills that should be taught in Tango classes. It is basically about connection: How to connect to your own body, your partner, the music and the other dancers in the Ronda.  So, musicality could make at least one fourth of the teaching content. 

If you don‘t have the necessary knowledge to teach your students how to listen to the music or express it in their dance with simple means - please take seminars with musicians, good DJs or other teachers. Do not think, that you are above advanced training, just because you know how to do a Giro with Enrosque or a perfect Colgada. All those fancy steps are worth zero, if danced in a musical void.

One last word when it comes to musicality: Many ladies seem to think, that it is exclusively the leader‘s job and all they have to do is to fill the gaps with Adornos. No, no, no! Even decorations have to be connected to the music, but if you really want to dance - and not just follow - you will have to know the music as well as your partner. In my ideal world, it is not one person leading the other into steps to the music, but the music guiding two dancers who move as one body!

Then we are in Tango heaven.


Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more Melina, particularly with the last paragraph. Without connection to the music and each other there is no dance!

Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more Melina, particularly with the last paragraph. Without a connection to the music and each other there is no dance!

Tango Secrets Book said...

This is a very useful post. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Dance exists because of the music, so their between connection is crucial. How often do you experience Tango "Heaven"?

Pablito Greco

Melina Sedo said...

Thanks Pablito.

tango heaven is not a thing I experience every day, but more and more often. At all the Encuentros/Festivalitos there will be some heavenly Tandas for sure!

And... I am proud AND sad at the same time to say that: circa 80% of the men with whom I experience Tango heaven are students of ours.

Good night.

Damian Thompson said...

So true.
Superb observations and ideas.

Tango Therapist said...

Your anecdote makes sense. Even staying on the beat seems hard for many as they over-think the steps. By the way, musicality is a topic that dancers often believe is what dancers do to/with the music. Actually it is a term used by and for musicians. Many musicians are playing the notes, pressing the right buttons, keys, using their bows, strumming what the music on paper says. But their musicality sucks. Even knowing the rhythms and forms will not help. I know, because I have danced with many musicians. The steps get in the way. The solution for dancers: Join the orchestra as one of its members.