The Essential Tango

On this page we'll look more closely at what separates tango from other types of music and dancing. As an experiment, put on some tango music, relax, maybe have a drink, and listen. Something like Di Sarli’s A la Gran Muñeca, or maybe Pugliese’s La Yumba would be good… but almost any of the rhythmic tangos from the Golden Age orchestras will work.

Ricardo Tanturi Tango OrchestraRudolfo Biaggi Tango Orchestra
Canaro Tango OrchestraAlfredo De Angelis Tango Orchestra

Tango music is dominated by bandoneons. Here are four of the great Golden Era Orchestras:
Top: Tanturi, Biaggi. Bottom: Canaro, De Angelis


We're looking for the thing that makes tango different—and we really don't have to look very far. A quick glance at photos of the great orchestras that have defined tango the last 80 years reveals the answer: they were dominated by bandoneons. 

The crowded conditions discussed earlier affected tango dancing in every way, from the embrace, and the ways of stepping and expressing cadence, to the very nature of tango movement. But tango is more than just moving in some disciplined way. It is moving in a disciplined way that expresses music… and the unique music of Golden Era tango, especially the music of the bandoneon, makes up the second part of the equation that defines the way tango is danced.


Anibal Troilo y Orquesta

Anibal Troilo


Tango orchestras were unusual because they had 4 or 5 loud, almost abrasive sounding instruments that made up about half of the orchestra. It's a musical force that needs to be dealt with. Click on the link below to listen to La Gran Muñeca. You should find that the bandoneons in Di Sarli’s orchestra are impossible to miss. Muñeca begins with a driving rhythm carried by the bandoneon—the best way I can describe it in words is a solid CHUNK - CHUNK - CHUNK sound. Di Sarli’s musicians hit every other beat hard with it, and it doesn’t take any musical training to tell you that this is your cue. If you want to express this music, you need to step along with this driving beat. Your foot should strike the floor with the hard CHUNK of Di Sarli’s bandoneons. 

Carlos Di Sarli

A LA GRAN MUNECA Carlos Di Sarli orchestra


This, of course, is the beginning of tango dancing. Now here is the interesting part: there are lots of different ways for your foot to strike the floor. (Milongueros often use the word “pisar” to discuss the way the foot hits the floor). You can stroll along, or walk on tiptoe, or sort of creep like a cat. You can bounce, or shuffle, or even jump. All might be ways of expressing music, and I suppose they may be used in different types of dancing. But this is special music from a special instrument. Try strolling casually to this music, or creep along smoothly like a cat, or float like Fred Astaire, and it doesn’t seem right. What does Di Sarli want? The CHUNK of the Bandoneon is the clue. It says step hard, and step into the floor.

This heavy step into the floor is the step of the milongueros that was described back in the first picture series. It’s not a soft catlike step onto a bent knee, and it’s not a casual stroll. The weight is forward instantly onto the foot, and the forward motion causes the foot to CHUNK into the floor with a slight sliding/grinding motion, like a milonguero grinding out a cigarette he has just dropped onto the sidewalk in Pompeya

Now if we keep listening to Di Sarli, we realize a couple of more things. Di Sarli’s specialty is switching around, so sometimes strings or piano take up the cadence of the bandoneon, and sometimes the CHUNK beat goes away completely. This has some interesting implications for dancing tango, and we'll discuss it more in Chapter 4, but for now, listen for a lighter hit between the heavy beat of the front row of bandoneons playing in unison.

The rhythm should sound something like this: CHUNK - chunk - CHUNK - chunk -CHUNK - chunk

You should hear the heavy ‘CHUNK’ of the bandoneon, with a lighter ‘chunk’ in between. (This strong-weak pattern is why people in the clubs sometimes use the term “dos por cuatro” instead of “tango”. They are referring to the “two-four” musical time of the music.) This pattern is in most of the classic dance tangos, and it can be used for an important exercise:

First try to get used to feeling the weak beat of the ‘strong-weak’ cadence. When listening to tango, try tapping or snapping the fingers on the weak beat, instead of the strong one. This may seem odd at first: CHUNK 'snap' CHUNK 'snap' CHUNK 'snap'. It takes awhile to get accustomed to it, but it’s easy to practice anytime you listen to tango, even in the car. It is important to become aware of this weak beat, because using it is one of the secrets to expressing the music—and also of staying centered. When you are used to marking the weak beat with a 'tap' or a 'snap', then you are ready for the next exercise:

Pretend your ankles make a sound like a counter ticking exactly when they brush by each other as you walk: STEP 'tik' STEP 'tik' STEP 'tik'. Each ‘tik’ is exactly when your ankles pass, and each ‘STEP’ is when your foot hits the floor. Don’t worry too much about technique, but try to walk so your foot strikes the floor exactly on the heavy ‘CHUNK’ of the bandoneons. This should be intuitive, but also try to have your ankles pass each other exactly on the weaker ‘chunk’ halfway in between. You should practice this until it becomes a natural part of dancing tango. (If you have been practicing snapping your fingers on the weak beat, now try snapping them or clapping each time you’re ankle pass, exactly on the weak beat as you walk: STEP snap STEP snap STEP snap). 

Doing this exactly with the music, and using good technique is called being "en el compás". Good technique means having good, relaxed posture, being centered right over your ankles as they pass close to each other exactly on the weak beat, and then moving with weight forward onto a straight leg without bouncing or lurching. Sometimes this cadence fades away, or gets lost in the complexities of the melody, but it always returns—and every dancer must always stay connected to this basic rhythm. A tango dancer who stands well (bien parado), steps well (pisa bien), and stays en el compás, will be better than almost every other dancer on the floor—even in Buenos Aires. 


Osvaldo Pugliese Tango OrchestraJuan D'Arienzo Tango Orchestra

Two more giants of tango: Osvaldo Pugliese, and Juan D’Arienzo (my hero)


The above compás exercise also works great with D’Arienzo. Try it with “Nueve de Julio” or “El Cencerro” (the “Cowbell”). I used to think the hypnotic, relentless compás of the bandoneon in Cencerro was a train, but after I learned the title, I realized it expresses the cadence of cows walking. A lot of tango is about horses, and gambling. “Por Una Cabeza” (a song that Gardel made famous around the world) means “By a Head”. It’s a song where the guy keeps losing in love, like a racehorse losing by a head (the English expression is “by a nose”). I also used to think D’Arienzo’s “El Flete” had something to do with delivering cargo, but then I learned that it’s slang for a fast racehorse. We run near the hipodromo in Palermo, and I think of it when I see the racehorses exercising. You can hear the cadences of a horse’s different gaits in the music. In fact, there is a great tango describing a horse race at the Palermo Hipodromo called “El Yacaré”. This D’Agostino tango is very popular. It’s played in the milongas all the time, and it begins like this:

Es Domingo, Palermo resplandece de sol,
cada pingo en la arena, llevara una ilusion
en las cintas, los puros alineados estan.

It’s Sunday in Palermo, resplendent with sun,
each horse on the track will carry an illusion [hope of victory]
Behind the tape, the puros are in a line [in a line they are].

What a great picture! (The Argentines to have a lot of different words for “horse” besides “caballo”. Here they use “pingo” and “puro”.) Vargas goes on to describe the race, and how the people cheer on a famous jockey called “Yacaré” (a yacaré is like a small alligator, and it’s a nickname that’s sometimes given to people from tropical northern provinces like Missiones). This is great tango… slang, poetry, horses. Here's a humble suggestion: Familiarize yourself with these first three lines and their poetic rhythms. You’ll learn a little castellano Spanish, and if you go to good milongas a lot, you'll hear this song all the time. Sing the beginning to yourself as you dance, and think about a sunny day and fast Argentine horses in Palermo. And also, listen for (and dance to) D’Agostino’s strong/weak bandoneon cadences.


When you look closely at our instinctive connection to rhythmic sounds, it’s sort of mysterious. What does physical movement have to do with sound vibrations in the air? In its most basic form, a burst of sound vibration separated by equal intervals of time can be expressed by clapping the hands together, or by stamping the feet. For some reason, it’s part of our nature. Even babies who can’t communicate verbally can keep time to music. Is it somehow connected to our mother’s rhythmic heartbeat in the womb? (Calo’s “Al Compás del Corazon” means “The Beat of the Heart”, and its cadence does seem like a human heartbeat.) Human infants can sense rhythm, but do other animals have it? It’s an interesting question. Maybe it’s part of what makes us human.


Well, that’s the end of Chapter Two. The reports from 2005 are in Chapter Three.