Mastering the Music

I think El Chino's dancing is about as good as it gets, but sometimes understanding the tango of the great milongueros requires a "Clik!", as the porteños say—a shift of perception. The best milongueros think of dancing in terms of why you move, rather than how you move. That means you shouldn't step or turn just because you can—you step, or turn, for a reason.

El Chino's tango is made up of three basic movements, and he only uses them when he hears something he wants to follow. You could think of a tango dancer as musical instrument that has three ways of playing along with the rest of the orchestra: moving around the floor in different directions, turning around an axis, and moving up and down. On this page, well look at how El Chino and Noemí use the first two: stepping around the plain of the floor, and turning around their axis.

In our first example, El Chino uses forward movement to express the music:


Maestros at work:  El Chino and Noemí wait... and then move.


If you listen carefully, you'll hear the piano begin to mark the compás with several bass chords. El Chino waits, and then he follows them, Boom... bom-Boom; first with a medium length forward step, and then with a longer, more emphatic one. By waiting for the right moment, and then carefully using the simplest tool in tango, he's able to masterfully express a small bit of music.

On the next page, we'll examine stepping technique more closely, but now let's look at how he uses the second of the three available ways to express the music, by turning on his axis:


El Chino and Noemí matching rotational movement to sound.


Once again, El Chino uses a simple tool perfectly. His forward step hits right on a "chung" from the piano, and then he rotates his waist to the left. As he twists left, the tension in his waist increases along with the strings of the orchestra. As the strings go higher, the tension in his left rotation increases. Then he pauses, the piano goes, "ting"... and he releases the tension. And just as he releases and starts back, Noemí raises her leg slightly, and exactly on the hit of the piano, she flicks her foot over his!

Notice also how El Chino repeats the rotation on his axis to follow the strings of the orchestra when they repeat notes. The strings run up; he twists left. They play a few more notes; he follows back to the right. Then, when they play exactly the same notes again, he follows with exactly the same move back to the left. It's like an orchestra conductor repeating the same motion with his hand from side to side, while the orchestra repeats the notes. Did you see it? Or rather, did you hear it? You need to hear the music, or you can't dance it. Tango is movement for a reason.


Now that we're warmed up, let's look at a short series where he combines the two movements. He moves around the floor in different directions, stepping front, back, and side, while turning on his axis. Try to listen first, and watch second, as he and Noemí convert music into physical movement:


Putting it all together.


Finally, here's an example of El Chino and Alej that shows how he moves to faster music, with a more marked beat:


Moving a little faster:  El Chino and Alejandra at Sunderland,
and at "La Noche de las Milongueras" in Sin Rumbo (2003)


In the above video, El Chino is dancing to faster music with the same two tools: movements to the front, back, and side, combined with a little rotation on his axis. But he adds smaller quick steps to mark the sharper, faster compás of the tango picado and the milonga music. The short, quick steps hit the weak beats, which tends to add small hesitations or bumps to the movement of his and Alej's upper bodies. These sharp, rhythmic movements wouldn't be appropriate for the softer, smoother music in the first clips—just as the long pauses from the first clips wouldn't work well with this music.

Note that in the first dance, Alej is using the more traditional tango embrace, with her left hand resting on El Chino's right shoulder. She uses it because it's appropriate for the formal setting at Sunderland, but in the second one at Sin Rumbo, she wraps her arm around, with her hand resting on his left shoulder. In Sin Rumbo, the setting and the music are less formal, so she instinctively responds with a less formal embrace. The very best dancers like Noemí and Alej adjust without thinking to different partners and different conditions because they have a natural feel for the culture of tango.


For every dancer on these pages, whether it's Ismael floating and surging to Laurenz, Pocho hitting tiny traspie steps on a single baldosa, Ricardo linking 17 step corridas to D'Agostino, or Carlos and Nelida's brilliant vals giros, the concept is exactly the same—they don't just step. They are masters of the music who listen, and then move for a reason. This is the big lesson picked up from seven years of dancing next to them, and watching them through the lens of a camera.


Next we'll begin to look at the third mode of musical expression available to couples on the floor of the milonga: Up and down movement.