The Point is the Point
The key to dancing well in a crowded milonga is to adjust the way you think. If you try to dance tango by doing steps and following a pattern on the floor, or if you approach tango as a series of moves that require pausing to do figures, you'll be constantly frustrated. Rather than thinking about tango in terms of moves and patterns, I think it's better to try focusing on a single point in the middle of the chest. This is the spot where the man sends information to his partner—and also the spot where she receives it. Good milongueros and milongueras keep their arms and torsos still, and focus everything on this single point at the center of the embrace. But what, exactly, do they do with it?
The goal is to make this small point follow the music smoothly through time and space. The head, shoulders, arms, and torso remain still; and in a sense, the arms, and even the legs, nerves, muscles, and the $200 shoes, become nothing more than a support system. When it's done well, the result is a smooth, natural, three-dimensional expression of the music. Like an orchestra conductor's baton moving through space, the goal is to create a physical expression of sound and cadence.
When you begin a tango on a very crowded floor, you might start with very little. Stretch up to find your posture and balance, tip forward slightly into the embrace, and then relax for a second. Let the music flow by you, think about the center of your chest, and then begin to pick up some of the cadence or melody. If you can't take big steps, just let your imaginary conductor's baton follow the music in small ways, and let your partner feel it. If you know the music, you can do surprisingly expressive things with a little pivoting, rocking, and weight shifting. (We've already looked at an exercise on page 9 that involves moving the chest while balancing in one spot. You can even go back and use it to practice ultra-small-space dancing. Put on some of your favorite music, and see how creatively you can follow the music with only weight shifts and some twisting of the torso.)
Earlier in the chapter we demonstrated how walking can result in a simple, harmonic expression of the strong-weak of the dos por cuatro. The chest and upper body accelerate down through the strong beat, and then rises and slows through the weak one, like a roller coaster going over rises and dips:
The idea is to get used to feeling tango through the movement of the chest—but let's look at it using hand movement. I'll never get a job conducting and orchestra, but maybe this will help to demonstrate the idea. Here's how the imaginary point at the connection of the man and the woman's chests might move through space during normal tango walking:
With good walking technique, the upper bodies of the partners rise and fall along with
the weak and strong beats of the compás. This is the core of musical expression in tango.
The up and down movement is exaggerated, but I hope it helps get the idea across. The hand accelerates down through the valleys of the strong beat, and then slows and rises through the weak ones, as it follows the strong and weak beats of the compás. This is a representation of the way the chest and upper bodies move to the music in normal walking, when the weight bearing leg remains straight throughout the step. It looks something like a roller coaster ride.
But riding over the same sized hills and dips all the time can get boring—so let's look at some ways to change the path of the roller coaster. One way is to take a longer step. Since a long step must cover more ground in exactly the same time period as a short step (one beat), a tango couple has to move faster as they sink through the strong beat. Also, because they stride out farther, they sink lower. As a result, they accelerate through a deeper valley—with more speed, and also more rise and fall. (This probably doesn't need to be repeated, but... never do this randomly. Only use it to emphasize something in the music.) I'll try to show it by hand:
One of the most powerful and beautiful tools in tango: A large step taken at the right time.
It's a little rough, but it should give some idea. There's a world of the possibilities in the most basic of tango movements. Putting one or two larger steps into a run of normal length steps, or using one after a pause, is a powerful way to emphasize something in the music. (If you want to go back and see how this works in the real world, Pocho and Alej do it beautifully in the video on page 12, Chapter 5.)
Another way to change the path of the roller coaster is to step on some of the weak beats. Let's try to trace what happens when we hit just one weak beat:
The path of a quick step.
The clip above shows the path the upper bodies might follow when we add a weak beat during a walk. The quick step taken on the weak beat inserts a small dip between the deeper valleys of the steps taken on the strong beats. It feels sort of like a musical speed bump in the road.
So far in this chapter, we’ve been looking at ways to dance tango with some very simple tools. About all we’ve been doing is walking to different combinations of the beats, and varying the length of the steps a little. Most of the academic world of tango quickly moves past this, and devotes a lot of class time to figures that include the arms, legs, torso, and the entire body. Which raises a question: Why would anyone want to focus all of their musical expression on one point, when so many other parts of the body are available? Doesn't learning a greater variety of movements create a better opportunity for expressing the music?
Obviously, I don’t think so. To say that the figures and moves taught in many workshops are more expressive than the tango of the milongas is like saying an organ is more expressive than a violin. An organ may have a hundred keys and knobs—but a good musician can do just as much with the four strings of a violin. In a few pages we’ll add a couple of new things to our basic tango tools, but first, we’ll examine how simply curving our harmonic walk in the restricted space of a milonga can be used to express tango vals in full, three-dimensional Technicolor: