Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Hierarchy of Tango Needs

How does a tanguero or tanguera define basic survival and beyond?
                      Only if Abraham Maslow had known tangueras!
                      His Hierarchy  would be much different.

Maybe it is different from Abraham Maslow and many others who don't know what tangueras and tangueros know!  Below is the survival list I have learned from tangueras: it includes air, water, food, shelter, and sleep--and much more!  Modern psychology, even with the latest "truth" in empirical psychology, Attachment Theory and it corresponding typical negativity, "Attachment Disorder," really only poke at what it that we all need throughout life.  (See discussion following the poem below.)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Men: It's time for your "Coming Out"!

The closet of you inner child has to be
sound proof not to dance
By accident, I came across a man's sincere question on "Yahoo Answers":

"Why do so many women like to dance? What is so fun about it? ... Every answer I have found is, "It's fun." Well why is it fun? I am not trying to cut down dance in any way and am not being macho. I just want to understand why so many women like dancing .... In my experience few men like to dance.

"If someone can present me with statistics to the contrary, I will be happy to take back my remarks on the issue.... I am taking a dance class and embarrass myself there every time I attend. I know what it feels like to look like a fool..."


Please stop here and think about how would answer the man (Bucky) in a few sentences on a piece of paper.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: The Essential Elements of Music

Music's Essential Elements:  Melody, Harmony and Rhythm.  

If tango dancers really wish to dance musically, they must at least sense which of the three elements of music is the fundamental block.  I realize that there are many more elements (see link at the bottom), but let's keep this discussion on what is the essential of the essential.  Among these three blocks, even the focus is often questionable. which is the one essential one?  Are they all essential?  No. However, if you watch the camera man's focus on music performance, the limelight is often on the melody.  Also, much discussion on the Internet on the essential blocks starts with the melody.  It's true in tango that I often dance the melodic line, but the best musicians who play/sing the melodic line are exceptionally connected to where the rhythm is!  Are you?

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Pause of Time

A Century in the Pause of Time

I want to be early this time to the milonga.
Seems that I fight time in this world.
Silent time is my enemy, a struggle not to be late.
But when music-time starts, the clock stops for me.
And in the Pause of Time, a new dimension enters.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Black Belt in Tango?

The Innovator:
Starting, not "starting over."

I am trying to earn my white belt in tango.  Please join me and many others -- those of us who are on a wonderful path of tandem self-discovery in a dance called tango.  

How often have I heard someone lament after starting with a new teacher that they must "start all over"? That's nothing to lament about! Starting from the beginning each time is the task at hand in tango and in life!

Monday, July 15, 2013

Tangueras: Don't get into that cab!

A super man asks for a dance
non-verbally with a nod or wink.
It's called a "cabeceo."
Struggling with Spanish and English terms that are easily confused?

Well, here are two terms that tangueras and tangeros easy get confused:

Cabby CEO  from cabby [cab driver] and "chief executive officer."


Cabeceo  from the word "cabeza."

Cabeceo:  This is Spanish for a nod of the head -- a non-verbal way to get a nice ride around the dance floor to locations of musical bliss one desires to visit.

Cabby CEO:  This is English for a high risk driver running his own business at any cost.  A cabby CEO's business is to talk you into going to locations he (or she) is going.   It is easy to detect cabby CEO's:  They are very verbal taxi drivers (or tango dancers) who ask if you want to go where they happen to be going. (They won't be interested where you want to go; that is why they asked.)
Hey, wanna dance?
I drive you mad for good price.*

*Warning: Never take a ride from someone who suggests a ride by stopping you to ask.  The destination may be dangerous.  Don't lie.  Just say, "No thanks."  More on tango etiquette here.

Yes, you there.  Let's dance!
Ladies:  Don't leave it up to the man.

One can be non-verbal and get dances very assertively.  This photo is my favorite example of a female "mirada" (look) -- the ladys' version of a non-verbal request for a dance.  My guess is that she got that dance.

I suggest a little bit less assertiveness than this, but she's on the right track.

Photo credits:
Super cabeceo
Cabby CEO
Female cabeceo (thanks Christian Xell -- a poster for a milonga in Vienna, Austria.)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Why Real Men Don't Dance

When I was a boy

When I was a boy,
I was told not to cry.
So I stopped.

When I was a youth,
I was told not to sing.
So I stopped.

When I was a teen.
I was told not to dance.
So I stopped.

When I went off to war,
I was told not to talk.
So I stopped.

One day she asked me to dance,
And I have learned to cry,
I have learned to sing and talk.
I am now a real boy,
Working on being a real man.

This poem is dedicated to the hundreds of soldiers I have met as a therapist who have started talking again after being afraid to tell their story.  It is an honor to meet the real boys and girls in my office.  They do not know me as the "tango therapist," but, as you might imagine, I do tell them to also learn to dance along with learning to talk.

A friend asked me after my last post on the body as the primal musical instrument if each person has at least a latent ability to dance.  I answered her in the words below, and then was inspired to write the above poem.

"Not every person weeps, but doing so is uniquely human.  Not every human being can talk, but that is uniquely human.  Not everyone can sing, but that is uniquely human.  Not everyone dances to music, but that is uniquely human.  Sometimes we teach each other not to be human; otherwise, we would do these things naturally."

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The body as the first musical instrument

Picasso Ceramic:  Dancing to the flute
Through tango I have discovered that the most primal musical instrument on earth is the human body.  Each body contains its own rhythm, called a pulse, and internal music.  Of course, many will dispute this, but it was the acceptable theory during one of the most amazing periods of artistic human development:  The Renaissance.  The power of musica instumentalis is that an orchestra or musician can give two or more people a common pulse.

I love this ceramic piece from Picasso (shown to the left) because it shows the power of musical expression to make the animal within us dance.  Only the child human animal dances without instruction to music; so what looks like a goat is actually our unique brain delighted by music so much that we human beings are moved to dance.  The flutist and the dancer are one.

I found this ceramic Picasso work of art because recently I remembered something important about my first instrument (other than my body).  I was looking for a picture of a plastic flute I had in fourth grade.  As a fourth grader, I had to learn to play the flutophone.  Before a big concert, all three classes at my school came together and we were playing together.  It sounded pretty darn good, I thought.  But then the music teacher asked everyone who took the music test and got a 80% or above to play.  Most of us put our instruments to our side and just listened.

It was amazing!  What a difference between muddled music and a clean rhythm and clear melody!  This was a huge realization of what musicality is -- it is clean rhythms and clear (even if dark or raspy) tones.

I was not good as a flutist, so I was one of the many who only listened.  But the music became a part of me.  This experience resounded in me.  I wanted to be a part of it.  That is what music does:  It has the power to move us psychologically and bodily.

I eventually dedicated myself to being a musician in fifth grade after hearing a cellist play for the first time. I was so moved that I had to learn to be a musician.  I played later in string orchestras as a bassist.  A year later in fifth-grade summer school, I started as a percussionist, which became my main instrument as a musician in symphonic orchestras, jazz bands and combos.  The electric bass brought me to dancing salsa, learning latin percussion, and then I discovered the most amazing instrument through tango:  The body.

Now I am more musically aware than ever since I learned, through tango, to embody music, that is, use my body as my primary instrument.  My music is movement as a body-musician.  Body-musicians (like singers*) use their body to create musical expression with instrumentalists or as soloists.  Tango body-musicians join with tango orchestras, usually in duets on a floor of many duets of body-musicians, which is called in tango a "milonga."

If anyone asks you if you play an instrument, the answer for tango dancers is:  "Yes.  My body."

*Theories of musica humana did not consider the voice as part of the body but instead musica instrumentalis.  I like this idea that the voice is a separate instrument from the body, but music departments and even my musicians' union when I was a professional did not allow singers in to the union because of the belief that the voice was not an instrument.  During the Renaissance the belief was that the voice box was a separate instrument and was not musica humana: "Musica quae in quibusdam constituta est instrumentis (sounds made by singers and instrumentalists)." An easy way to settle this philosophical hair-splitting is simply to allow the body to be an instrument!  The body includes the voice box, a pounding heart, vibrations of multiple organs, the buzzing and frequencies of molecules and atoms.  When we move our mind begins making its own music.  Therefore, I believe that dancing and singing are examples of how we, especially when aware, become body-musicians.

Photo credit of Picasso's work:

Friday, June 21, 2013

Embracing your Imperfection

Tango is a great laboratory for self-discovery.  
Dancing brings out my feelings and insights into myself like no other activity I have known.

Below I have a video clip for you that put some great insights together, a lecture called the "Space between self-esteem and self-compassion" by Dr. Kristin Neff.

From her insights, I realized that the best efforts of educators and therapists have created a world that has less compassion for self and others.  Each year measures of  "self-esteem" rise, but this has become another word for "over-rating oneself."  Perhaps in the misguided world of trying to being special, according to Dr. Neff, we have even created bullies--the need of some people to be better and "extra-special"-- when not merited.

In talking with others about this concept, a visual idea came to mind that you can apply to your dancing or any aspect of your life.  Dr. Neff talks about three elements being in balance:  self-kindness, our acknowledgement of our part in humanity's universal imperfection, and finally, self-esteem.  Please watch the video, but I think this graphic (below) will help you understand the profundity of her ideas:

First look at the bottom of the graph, which describes the bell curve of our shared humanity (that we are all imperfect to some degree).  Using dance as an example, being "too compassionate" with yourself will keep you from getting better, and feeling too much self-esteem keeps you from being present with your partner as you think too much about yourself and being great--especially in tango, a social and partner-centered dance.  The bell curve is a centered "fulcrum":  A mix of knowing your talents and being at ease with your limitations.  Each person is different, but that balance is essential for each of us.*

The top line, balancing on the top of humanity's shared imperfection, is the balancing rod of self-compassion and self-esteem.  If "the space between" is equidistant between self-compassion and self-esteem, the person will be balanced and happier about their expression of tango (or any other subject).

I work at being kind to myself.  I think these ideas (expanded below in the talk by Dr. Neff) have deep meaning for anyone who thinks they have pretty good self-esteem, but are also not very kind to themselves.  That's me.  Being kind to others seems much easier.  But, I realize now something is out of balance, and it is not just me.  I think many around me struggle with this same imbalance.  Perhaps, humanity's imbalance is even the center of our imperfection?

Maybe you didn't need to hear this message, but I did:

How is your dancing?   How is your "space between" self-compassion and self-esteem?  Starting with my first class in tango, I wished now that I just worked on being advanced in "being kind to oneself."  Then self-esteem can truly be because of merit.  Also, I must admit that my self-esteem may have been unmerited, especially as a young musician, as I secretly dealt with my self-doubts.  On a deeper philosophical and spiritual level, self-esteem is very much like the cheap-grace spiritual movement, such as the bully who believes he is going to heaven but is cruel to others.  Or on a more personal level, my own self-kindness in certain areas of my life, I now realize, has had to work overtime to cover over the sins of unmerited self-esteem.

What class are you in for being kind to yourself and others?  Advanced?  Intermediate?  I am glad to be a beginner.  That's better than not even knowing that I needed to start!

*The bizarre bell curve:  The unusual thing about the bell curve that I am proposing out of Dr Neff’s inspiration is that we usually do not think of being at the top of the bell curve as being desirable.  However, in the illustrated graph above, it is extremely important to aspire to the “summit” of the bell curve.  To demonstrate this concept, take the story of Buddha or Jesus or whomever you see as being an "enlightened one."  The story of Buddha is that he was protected as a prince from knowing the depravity of human existence.  Once he became aware, his shock and empathy took him to the bottom his psychological life.  Is not the "space between" a middle point where great people go to help others?  In Buddhism another term for this is “the Middle Way.”  The middle point is the place that suffering people go to receive help, and where privileged people go to help from their strengths.  Jesus’ story is one of a perfect man preaching among sinners and healing the sick.  He also touched the very bottom of human existence by being tortured for being seditious.  His teachings such as “love your enemies” still are seditious—even in the very Church he founded.  The Word becoming flesh is also a middle point.  It must be a great disappointment to inspired teachers that their followers seem to try to find the far right end of the bell curve and look back at humanity with their own hard-earned self-esteem.

Therapist: Thanks for sharing this with us. Your "beginners mind" helps me and I think it will help many.

Comment or "like" Tango Therapist's Facebook page at this link

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Grace of Embrace

Image and Likeness of Grace

I once tried to understand religious grace.
I watched the cruel ones claim salvation's grace.
The cruel bully at work, proclaims his salvation:
"Not by works, but by grace we are saved,"
He announces--in all of his proud gracefullness.

I find heavenly moments at the milonga.
A refuge from the the cruelties of the world.
I ponder how a dancer embodies grace --
Its essence, not given but striven for.
Do not angels work on their grace of flight?

The Grace of Embrace is my heaven on earth.
Its warmth is the likeness of celestial grace,
Movement in tandem with the divine.
It is not Soul alone who embraces me
But dual grace, a duet, a harmony of two.

Spirit's grace stays on axis when I wobble.
She doesn't leave me when I stumble.
She directs the heavenly choir of dead musicians,
Beating out canyenge rhythms on my soul.
This is truly Amazing Grace.

Photo Credit: 
Artistic notes:
Martha Grahm would not have been caught in a tutu, but I liked the photo. 

Post Script:
Before I was the "tango therapist," at work I would send out a few friends messages of "tango theology."  So this is another part of me -- the Tango Thelogian: 

Notes on Tango Theology:
Christian theology, the idea of God's grace is that it is
an unmerited gift of God, from a letter written by St. Paul.  Ephesians 2:8:   "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. .  I do not think Paul is saying this in the way that it has been misused over the centuries.  The context is talking about "works" and the discussion is that the new believers had to be circumsized  -- good that he cleared up the issue of "works."  That would have been a bloody problem.  James 2:18 addressed the misuses written after St Paul:  "But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."  Grace is not given even though not unmerited!

So my definition, as I have learned from tango's help is this --
Grace:  An awakening to our merited divine beauty.  Divine grace and the grace of a dancer are expression of the same thing:  Elegance and refinement and movement before and with God and her creation."  Don't look for this definition in any dictionary.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: "Musicality"

Musicality is, simply stated, a sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent for music.

Musicality is not originally a dancer's term, although dancers sometimes use it as if it were.  Musicality, as I learned it formally, is the ability to express music in a way that goes beyond the correct notes or literally what is written in the musical notation.  The expression of musicality creates a response that accentuates a mood or feeling.  If you have seen musicians or dancers who perform and you are deeply moved, it was more than the music or graceful movement to the music:  Musicality was on center stage.

Musicality is a subset of every course on music a musician takes and is the goal of every musical performance.  In academic settings, musicality is addressed especially under musicianship courses.

The best musicality course for a musician, however, is dance.  That is my experience, at least.  I am not alone.  Many musicians who become dancers have a common experience:  We learn more about musicality as musicians through dance than in any course!  We can feel the dynamics of the music, how the notes can fill the body with a dance response.  We musician/dancers then return to our instruments as better musicians, better at musical expression--without out any changes to our technical abilities.   Can dancers, then, do the reverse?  Yes.

Dancing exactly on the pulse, is the first level of musicality.  This level of musicality is like snapping one's fingers to the music in time.  Done correctly and simply can be a very wonderful musical expression.  The next level is "hitting the notes," which includes hearing and responding to the actually rhythms.  A much higher level is to hear and react to the the dynamics -- the myriad changes in the music, such as expressing the sweeping or staccato parts of the music, and then poetically knitting these dynamic changes all together.   However, I am reluctant to suggest a hierarchy to musicality.  Simplicity may win out for musicality in the end.

Musicians do not always dance musically.  Have you noticed?  I have.  Musicians must become dancers and embody music.  This is not easy, but once it happens, you may see a huge change in that beginner dancer who happens to be a musician.  One the other hand, dancers have to grow on the side of musical growth.  I believe a dancer must become what I would call an "aural musician," fully aware of the music.  I want my non-musician dance partner to have sat down next to Pugliese on his piano bench even though she cannot play piano.

Regarding "hitting all the notes"Imagine a piano competition in which all musicians must play the same piece.  Then imagine that they all play every note perfectly.  The judges do not have a hard task.  They look for one thing to acknowledge the truly impressive musician:  Musicality.
The "Player Piano" plays all the notes
 perfectly,but wins no musicality contests!

The winner of such a competition did something SO MUCH MORE than pounding out the notes.  It is all about the dynamics (changes) within the music.  The transitions within the music were poetically expressed.  The player piano which plays all on its own from a scroll of programmed paper has no mother that will be outraged that her child did not win even though "he hit every note perfectly."

The Musicality Moment
Nearly everyone experiences a "musicality moment." Isn't it wonderful when you and your partner listen and dance some special nuance in the music?  Isn't it magical when when you intuit what is going to happen next--when the music takes over even though you have never heard a particular piece.  Musicians experience this all the time, and it is truly wonderful.  Sometimes, it is even mystical.  My improvisational jazz experience may be wonderful, even mystical.  Yet, nothing is as powerful as my tango experience with this intuition.

Okay, if you know my blog, you know it is now time for a video clip.  Maybe you are waiting for an example of some great musicality by an awesome tanguero couple, right?   No, sorry.

I have something better--removed from tango--so that you will pay attention to the subject at hand. The dancer below demonstrates musicality very well, in spite of the fact that the dancer has very stiff legs.  This artist is not known for dance.  But you will be amazed at his musicality.  Watch how his body moves, and you see why it was more than just the steps that makes even a dancer with stiff legs so much fun to watch.

More Reading:

This list of ideas were shared in July 2013 by Terpsicoral Tangoaddict Facebook, which really point out eight well-written aspects of what it means to "dance musically":

1. Choosing vocabulary to suit the musical colour (I often like to think in Murat's terms of kiki and bouba vocabulary, i.e. more rounded steps for more legato musical moments and more abrupt, lineal or spiky movements for more staccato moments -- but this is only one possibility).

2. Choosing to dance to unusual rhythms within the tango instead of just stepping on the main pulse: offbeats, syncopations, 3-3-2 patterns, etc.

3. Making minute differences in what dancers call "cadence" (I'm not using this term as a musician would) that is slowing down or speeding up within the step -- i.e. choosing to glide or flow through the movement evenly; to suspend or delay it slightly and *almost* arrive late for the beat you want to land on; or to hurry and change weight *almost* early. This is subtle, but it can feel really great.

4. Changing the quality of your movement to suit the music, i.e. dancing the same step in very different ways to reflect what you are hearing (smoother, more abrupt, cleaner, more unrestrained, stompier, bigger or smaller in size to reflect dynamics, etc.).

5. Dancing to submelodies played by non-dominant instruments or secondary voices within the music (which might be shared between several instruments).

6. [Editor's note:  Good concept but poor word--"polyphonic" means "multiple tones."] Dancing polyphonically with leader and follower emphasizing different levels/voices/instruments/rhythms, etc. (The fact that leaders and followers often have different steps and timings in tango, rather than dancing as mirror images of each other, makes this very possible at some points in the dance. And decorations can also help to achieve this).

7. Choosing to not dance to everything but use pauses judiciously, omitting to dance to some notes in order to emphasize others. (Although trying to catch every last note like an insane dervish can be fun too).

8. Marking the changes in the music with changes in your dance. Music has a tendency to divide into sections, which are parts that sound different from each other (apologies for stating the obvious). One of the easiest ways to dance musically is to reflect that in your dance: when the music changes within a tango, you can change the way you dance by altering such things as your choice of vocabulary, quality of movement, amplitude of movement, amount of decoration, etc.

In all of this, the follower's musicality is at least as important as the leader's and the musical interpretation is created together, as a couple, by listening not only to the music itself but to how you each hear it (which requires excellent somatic listening and communication skills from both parties). And led-and-followed moves and decorations and other solo movements are complementary ways of expressing the music.

Musicality Glossary Definition
for tango teachers only 
(Really! Everyone else, this is boring -- so do not read it): 

Teaching "musicality" through the "you-know-what-I-mean" method, as it often is taught, is misguided.  The assumption behind "you know what I mean" is often that musicality is knowing the music.  But it is not.  The player piano "knows the music" (plays it perfectly), but is not "musical."  Another assumption is that musicality is led/followed or just done on one's own with adornos.  But it is not.  If I dance with a woman who is not listening to the music, then my musical expression is limited.  In reality, the musicality starts when the leader is the music and ballroom concept of leader/follower disappear.  It is true that men and women have specific roles to embody and interpret the music's lead, but leader/follower terms indicate a responsibility on the "conductor" that is not true in my experience.   Who would say that musicality has it genesis in the conductor's baton?  Musicality is not expressed by simply following the conductor or directing another person to have it!  What is true about musicality for musicians is just as true for dancers.

I am not suggesting a curriculum for your musicality classes; however, the three M's are a good place to start: Music, Movement, eMbrace.  If there is a huge gap in the embrace, the potential for dancing musical nuances between strangers is less likely.  If you students are focused on steps, then Music is only a backdrop, and the true leader is not leading.  Movement includes axis and grace.  All three M's are needed.  If music, the true leader, is conducting the couple, something marvelous appears.

If you are a musician, go back to you instrument and pay attention how tango may have transformed your growth in musicality.  If you are a dancer, I suggest you return to dancing after you have joined a tango orchestra as a "aural musician."  Become the auditory-musician, and when you return to being a dancer, you are all the better dancer for it.  Please then, help your students learn to embody and interpret the phrasing, rhythms, timbre, melody and ensemblic expression of the music.

Photo Credit for the harp (and a very good resource for hearing/listening):

Photo Credit for the player piano:

A great resource:  Here's a blog on aural skills, which is very enlightening. (

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Music Embodied

Her life is being a dancer.
As a little girl, that is all she wants to do --
Ballet and jazz and Latin dance.
But then she finds the dance from the Río de Plata.
She enters into the music, an honorary musician,
Sitting next to Pugliese on his bench, as he plays.
She watches his fingers, the violins pull at her heart.
The bass throbs, the bandoneón makes her weep.
She returns to her ballet -- for fun she says.
But she is changed.  Music possesses her body.
Oh, had she only met the grace of embrace earlier.
She knows now that to dance is to be a musician,
And a musician, a dancer.

My life is being a musician.
As a little boy, that is all I want to do --
Orchestras, big band jazz, Latin percussion.
But then I find the dance from the Río de Plata.
I enter into the music, dancing out the notes.
I dance the vibraphone and harp in Fresedo.
I dance the clave rhythms of Africa in Di Sarli.
The lyrical percussion pounds at my soul.
I live in the Kingdom of the Rey del Compas.
I return to my instruments -- for fun I tell myself.
But I am changed.  Music possesses my body.
I wish that I had met this dance earlier.
I know now that to dance is to be a musician,
And a musician, a dancer.

Her path and my path converge one evening --
The dancer who is a musician,
And the musician who is a dancer.
We dance our first tanda.
A feeling of forever overtakes us.
We are the music, the music is us.

Photo Credit for ballet dancer drawing:

This poem is a prelude to a post on a the term "musicality," to follow in a few days.

Also of note:  If you went to the link on clave, perhaps I should say a word or two.  The concept of a "clave" in tango (3/3/2) is disputed by those who do not hear its mystical voice, saying "dance!"  So if you do not hear it, it is not because of a lack of musical training.  It may be that you do not have the same auditory hallucinations as I do.  :-) 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: "Dynamics"

Today's musical term for dancers is "dynamics," and how they may be applied to musical dancing.
A visual expression of decrescendo and crescendo in nature.

The musical terms glossary for tangueros/tangueras slowly is growing.  So far we have
  • Chicharra:  A cricket-like percussive sound, made by violinists in tango.
  • Pizzicato:  The use of plucking strings, often used in tango orchestras... and now...
Dynamics in music are generally considered the decrease or increase in volume, but they can be changes in tempo or switches between lyrical portions and rhythmical portions of the music.  The the singular of the word -- "dynamic" -- gives a good sense of what dancers can do with each other because of the music.   Dynamic, as an adjective, means "that which is characterized by constant change, activity, or progress."  As long as it is good dancing, the dynamics of the music is helping the dynamic of the couple.   "Dynamic" is often referred to as "chemistry" between two dancers.  Although dancers think of dynamics as being just volume, one would never think of the dynamics between two people as merely the volume at which they speak to one another.  So it is with music.

The Dynamics of Dance
Can we dance the dynamics?  ¡Claro, que sí!  Tango's Golden Era (Epoca de Oro) featured tango orchestras as dance bands (as it was with jazz's golden era), but these bands both in tango and jazz used dynamics far more than is often recognized.  Perhaps this is because of poor quality of sound systems and/or DJs using MP3 recordings rather than well-restored, "uncompromised" recordings.  Dynamics require operating and optimizing a sound system, but this is truly a rare talent.  Without good recordings and presentation, the changes in volume, texture, tempos, and instrumentation can be very hard to hear.

Listen for sudden (subito) or gradual volume changes, and this will add to your appreciation and application to how dynamics can be danced.  The gradual way of making changes in volume are called decrescendo or diminuendo, the sound trailing down, and the crescendo, the sound growing louder (fortissimo).  Dancers should consider how they are joining the orchestra with the "dynamics of movement" that reflect auditory dynamics in the music.  Progressively smaller steps, for example, might represent a diminuendo and progressively larger steps might represent a crescendo.  Dance bands often play at an even volume, so paying attention to the dynamics in a piece allows the dancers to be honorary members of the orchestra.  (And for this reason, may I ask those not dancing to speak quietly?  Teaching on the dance floor or talking-while-dancing is the greatest enemy of Señorita Dinámica.)

The earlier post on "pizzicato" is another kind of dynamics.  Pizzicato is usually done in a section of the music that is low volume, such as behind the soloist, and give balance to the long, lyrical lines of a violin or bandoneón soloist.  It is hard to see, but just as the first violin begins a solo at the 1:38 mark, the back-row violinists are in pizzicato in the below video clip.  This video will raise the hair on the back of your neck because of the amazing dynamics just begging to be danced.

Here are some example of of how composers indicate changes in the dynamics:

Notice between the connect lines the dynamics: "p" is for very soft and
"cres - cen -do" is the cresendo slowly growing to "ff" (very loud).

Photo:  Mark Word, Blechammersee (Tin Hammer Pond), Kaiserslautern, Germany.
Other resources:

Thursday, May 9, 2013

You dance in my heart

Joined hearts create their own infinity ... 

A premonition of my imminent death awakens me.
My dream plays out on Autobahn 6. I swerve ...
Thrown from the car ... others around me ...
A woman holds my head. "Help's on the way."
Light fills me and I am gone.  Yet, I never died.

A premonition worries me that she will die.
Though she's younger, I see myself mourning her.
I dance with her, worried it might be our last tanda.
Till one day, I opened the door to my heart;
She dances there throughout time, two united.

Who will leave first? I will never know, but one will.
So everyone I hold at this milonga is for the last time.
I will not tell them goodbye out loud, but it is our last.
I hold her tight, and tell her from the depths of my heart:
"I am glad you're here in my arms and dance in my heart."

I say to those I love, "I am glad you live in my heart";
With whom I dance, "I am glad you dance in my heart."
My premonition now is a life lived in a present place.
This and every dance is our last -- forever lasting.
Joined hearts create their own infinity.

Photos and concept by Mark Word

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: "Chicharra"

The Chicharra is a sound effect that violinists, cellists, violists in tango orchestras create by using their bow on the "wrong side" of the bridge right below where they usually bow the strings of their instrument.   (Below, you will see and hear how the sound is made.)

Tango composers use this unusual sound very much like the popular percussion instrument used all over Latin America, the güiro, a little gourd washboard instrument.  

May I put a bug in your ear?  But please listen to what the cicada has to say.  She sings out a variation of an often implicit rhythm in tango, and she predicts how the whole tango piece is going to be played out.  

If you love tango, you will immediately notice this sound, but now let's see an example in a live orchestra and then in a following video clip, we will see exactly how it is properly made by the violin, viola or cello:

This second video is rather technical but the clearest example you probably will ever see!


Some believe that the chicharra is a more modern invention, but of course it was used in the Epoca de Oro (Golden Era) of tango as well.   Here's an example of Alfredo D' Angelis, using the chicharra very much like a typical güiro rhythm.  (Start listening at about the 70th second mark.)  And at the very end of this post, I have a picture of how arranger notated the chicharra and it's typical rhythm.

The bug in your ear: 
Dancers can learn a few things from the wise cicada. The chicharra seems to know the 3+3+2 rhythms of Africa and Middle East.  This morning I played the first video clip above for my 14-year-old son and asked him to tap out the rhythm that pervades the song.  The chicharra gave him the best clue, and he continued with that (until he got bored and left).  He and his brother are musicians, too, and sometimes we play together.  In tango, at least, the chicharra always sings out or plays around with the same ancient rhythms (sometimes called syncopations) that have their center around 3+3+2 rhythms.  I am not sure who taught the bug her wisdom, but please noticed that the first video plays on the upbeat of this rhythm and then the melody follows the same pattern throughout the tango.  The second video demonstrates this essential rhythm of tango but on the downbeat.  (If you actually count 123-123-12, the "upbeat" is just to clap on all the 2's and the downbeat is to dance on all the 1's.)

This rhythm does not belong to tango alone.  Middle Eastern music often features this rhythm as well.  One could argue that the European Jewish immigrants brought this rhythm to Argentina (along with the German made bandoneón), but that is not entirely true.  Even the melodies to some tangos came directly from Jewish songs.  Isn't it interesting that the Jews were slaves in Africa and their heritage and stories are centered in Africa?   Please enjoy this video below, an example of sacred music using this essential rhythm:

Here's the a photo I took a live concert of the violinist's score of "Canaro en Paris," with the notation of chicharra, playing off the 3/3/2 rhythms mentioned above.  The chicharra is at the very bottom of the photo.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Dancing without Legs

I can dance without legs, dancing as my soul imparts.
I can dance without ears, but not without my heart.
I can dance without eyes, yet I still see your face.
I can dance without you, but still feel your embrace.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Tango's Musical Terms: Pizzicato

While building a glossary of musical terms for tango dancers, I will feature a few important terms in separate posts.  For the very first musical term for tango dancers, a musical effect that tango violinists and bassists often use is:

Pizzicato is the plucking of any stringed instrument (especially any stringed instrument that is usually played with a bow, such as the violin). This is probably the most important sound that tango aficionados start recognizing and understanding.  Sometimes the pizzicato part can be danced (see the example below), but it is often a sprinkling of glitter in the air.  So please watch carefully as Troilo's orchestra plays "Quejas de Bandoneón." You may click here to go directly to Troilo's solo and the start of the pizzicati (passage of pizzicato) in the background, but I highly suggest that you watch the whole video clip, especially before and during Troilo's moving solo.  Notice the violinists playing the pizzicati standing behind him.  Tangueras/Tangueos, please note:  One can dance the pizzicati!  I think I would dance the melody in this example.  Often dancers, even professionals, trudge along on the pulse in spite of the melody and the pizzicati.  However, if you have a playful partner with good reflexes and a good ear, try listening to the "queja" (complaint) rather than being the complainer.  The "listeners" are the violinists, playing the pizzicati saying, "¡No me digas!" as Troilo complains of lost love.  Then you and all of Troilo's friends can gather around him later in sympathy with the sweeping bowed passages after the solo.  An example of dancing the pizzicati follows, but watch this first!

I also highly suggest you view a wonderful demonstration of pizzicato at this link,which will allow you to better understand why pizzicati can almost sound as if a banjo is in the orchestra.

Now here is the best part for dancers:  How do you really dance the pizzicati (plucked passages)?  Listen carefully to the video clip for the pizzicati, but please notice that these dancers to not always dance every fast passage or pizzicati!  A beautiful melody often has the pizzicati sprinkling glitter in the background; so dance the melody or pulse!  Pay attention to the many pizzicati and one of the clearest passages at about the 70-second mark, which Horacio Godoy and Magdalena Gutierrez playfully dance with little-bitty steps.

The king of pizzicato in tango
Who in the orchestra is most often in pizzicato?  In tango the violinists are often playing pizzicato, but the bass is king of pizzicato, although the bassist uses the bow often.  But the bassist tends to be a mischievous band member (since the drummer usually has this role); so the bassist in tango is known for even using the wooden back of the bow for percussive effects.  Naughty!  Let's not leave out the one instrument in a tango orchestra that has more strings than anyone else (230 strings on the average piano).   Rarely does one see the pianists plucking their instruments, and they tend not to be mischievous like bassists!   However, some pianists (especially when drunk) are known to get up and pluck their instrument.  See the pizzicati (pizzicato passage) by the Piano Guys below for a good example of how even the piano can be played pizzicato.

Note that the above piano is being played in three major musical categories:  A keyboard instrument, a percussion instrument (struck with hands and hammers) and a bowed string instrument.

No, don't order a pizza... pluck your strings!
Here is an example of 4 musicians playing tango with bows (arco) and pizzacatto (pizz).  The cello is the bottom line and is already playing pizzicato, others are starting or stopping the pizzicati.  The top two lines are violins and the second line from the bottom is the viola.

Obscure but interesting information you'll need before going to a Baroque cocktail party: Plucking can be done artificially. Technically speaking, the harpsichord is a "plucked" instrument because the strings are plucked by a quill after the harpsichordist strikes the key. The piano is considered a percussion instrument because the hammers hit the string. Of course, both are played exactly the same through a keyboard. While doing the same thing (playing the keyboard), the keyboardist can be a "plucker" or a "percussionist." But I wouldn't make these accusations to a harpsichordist in public. :-)

Photo credit of woman plucking her A string:

After I posted the above blog, I found a better quality video clip of Troilo that I will add if time allows: 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

"This is NOT tango!"

I discovered tango while working at a medical center in the United States. One day at work I met a colleague, a psychiatrist from Argentina.  I enthusiastically wanted to show her a tango video, which I thought was pretty darn cool at that time.

Please don't attempt this at home (or anywhere else)!
But after I showed her the
video clip, she said in Spanish:

"This is NOT tango!"

I looked at her in disbelief.  She looked at the computer screen in horror.

I did not understand her statement for about a year.  You see, I only knew about tango from the perspective of it being an awesome way of dancing and doing cool moves. I can never know what she saw in that video, but I think she was culturally nauseated, like a French connoisseur of art observing a group of American art students making poor renditions of Vincent van Gogh's art, while speaking English in a French accent and drinking blueberry wine with a straw -- all the while proclaiming to be protagonists of post-impressionist painting.  That's what I mean by "culturally nauseated."

Eventually, I knew the essence of tango was that is an artful expression, framed in a social context. Great art requires a great frame.  The art itself is the expression of what I call the essential Three M's of tango:

 Music, Movement, eMbrace

(1) A common unity of inspiration by listening to the genre of music that has inspired this art form and way of moving.

(2) Tandem movement of two souls.

(3)  A warm eMbrace of two people.

I am at times inspired by performances, but often I cringe at the applause for the move most removed from tango (acrobatics and ballet, for example).  Perhaps my Argentine work colleague also saw the grace of the video I showed her long ago, but I think the horrific effect that the video above has on me is what she saw.  More and more, even the most graceful pseudo-tango acrobatics create this feeling of nausea as the above video clip does because the graceful dancers are inspiring anti-social tango on the social dance floor.  The graceful ones are gracefully bad examples for dancers who dance socially.  I believe they unwittingly motivate people to see tango as a competition or sport.  Tango is not a race, a time trial, a performance.  It is the three Ms, framed in a social context.

Important revision note:

An earlier version of this post had a video clip that was pointed out by a friend as being a couple that were not professional and in a contest for people at their level.  A tango teacher narrated in the background, which I did not understand was rather cruel.  I was under the impression, falsely, that the man himself was narrating.  

Also it is fair to say that many performers are doing great things for tango to keep it alive with fresh ideas.  Tango, like a language, will change with vocabulary and syntax and rhetoric.  Perhaps the most valuable contribution of performers, is that it makes it possible for talented teachers to make a living at helping people to be more graceful in their tango expression, and they link tango with gracefulness and aesthetic expression.   

Monday, March 4, 2013

Tango and Quantum Physics

Have you ever experienced a time warp while dancing?

Start Here:  With your own Spark
Bending time lately?  Acceleration of time is easy.  That happens to everyone dancing tango.  How about experiencing a century of bliss -- or so it seems -- in a minute or an hour?  What scientific experiment could we possibly do that would be more profound or more fun than slowing, stopping or reversing time?

Our human expressions of time often minimize the magic of each moment.  People often like to use clichés about time: "It seems like just yesterday," or "Life is short." How about saying, "It seems like a century ago when we first met"?  Why not be amazed at how many things have happened even just a moment ago?

Time Warp Experiment Directions:

Agree with someone who is present -- really present -- to try an experience in Time Warp.  Since expectancy (through human language) is clearly skewed towards acceleration of time, you will need someone who is is has the expectancy (open mind) for time to go slowly and maybe even stop or reverse.

Choose a person who is musical and present -- but more than with the music.  Choose someone who is with you as you are not as they would like you to be. Then, agree to slow down, stop or even reverse time.  Experience Quantum Physics or the Divine (however you would like to express your world view).

Since doing this time-warp experiment with a yoga-teacher tanguera and a tanguera who came up with the phrase, "Minutes in Eternity," I swear I have made a Quantum (Physics) Leap in my tango experience.  (Will my tango-epiphanies ever stop exponentially growing brighter?)

For those who feel as if they have experienced a time warp--cool.  Go find someone to measure the Time Warp's depth, intensity and duration, just so that you know for sure that you were not deluded by feelings.

For those who feel as if they have experienced the divine, I have a passage from the Holy Canyenge Scriptures (also known as the "The Tanguero's Bible"):

"One moment is as a thousand years in thy arms, and a thousand years, as one moment.  So shall it be for all those who touch the hem of the Divine, for those who dance with the soul they embrace."

-- Saint Mark* 


"Blessed are those who connect with their own divine nature and who dance with the Divine Spark within others for they will experience minutes of eternity on earth."
-- The Sermon on Mount Muse 

And from the non-dancers Bible:
II Peter: 3:8 (I did not make this up):
 "....With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day."

Experience with me Namastangó:  Divine sparks, dancing in tandem.

*The Saint Mark who dances with Angels

Photo Credit

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Lady Weeps Too

A woman reads snippets out of the life of Ástor Piazzolla.
Then Violin sings the songs that only a tanguero gypsy can.
Piano has the voices of ten fingers, dancing as African immigrants.
Cello pours out the words, my soul had sought but could not find.
My eyes fill with tears for no damn reason (like the lady next to me).
And life seems right in that moment, when beauty brings me to tears.
I know I am alive and I am not alone.  The lady weeps too.

Photo credit: Cello Chick

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Warning Label on Wearing the Pants

Since this post seems mostly misunderstood please read a definition of Lady Lead first. Also, be aware that the term "leader" as used in ballroom and by many tango teachers who speak English is often challenged.  Understanding these two things is important to understand the context of the following  post.
A favorite partner just asked me what my take was on Leading Lady Classes.  Ms J reported than men in the class hurt her back and tend to want to dance with smaller women.  If I were a woman, I probably learn both roles, but I would hope before my first class on "leading," I would hope that someone would present me with a warning label on the product about to be purchased:

"Warning:  By taking this class, you may never be able to really be present with your partner ever again.  You may force steps, especially with beginner men instead of allowing them to learn to be true tangueros; you may force their submission, harming them and your own dance.  Please sign here that you assume all responsibility and liability for what this class may do to your present love of dancing tango."  

A warning label does not mean that something will happen, but once a person knows the risk of a product, they can take special steps to protect themselves for the effects that are possible or even likely.  Let me introduce to Ms J.  She has collaborated in a huge number of movements which have become the basis of how I dance.  She was dancing for three months when I first danced with her.  From the start I did new things in her presence.  Another musician friend says the same about her.  Because of her I learned that the music is the true and only leader and that the woman can create opportunities for me to dance in new ways, just as I can do the same for her, although we stay in our own roles.  In Spanish the phrase that describes this is: "El hombre propone; la mujer dispone" -- the man proposes and the woman makes it happen.  Ms J has systematically denied her powerful role of making things happen.  She tells me that I am the one who created the dance.  (Thanks, but I know this is not true; we collaborated.)  Because of her, I started naming new movements after the woman who inspired that new movement.  Now, Ms J wants to learn how to "lead" (meaning, learn the rol masculino).  Okay, but she should read the warning label on role cross-over classes. 

The most important thing to me personally is that if a woman is on the dance floor in my role, that is absolutely okay as long as does not cause risk to me or my tanguera.  May I be just truthful here? I hope not to upset the lady leaders who dance responsibly and mostly dance in the man's role.

My answer to Ms J's letter:

Dear Ms J:

My take on leading ladies is that they tend to be a danger on the dance floor.  The female with her left hand out can even appear talented in this role, but too often she fails at taking care of the woman with whom she is dancing.  The "better" lady-leads race around the dance floor, weaving in and out.  They fail at the first rule of being a man:  Protect your dance partner from harm and cause no harm to her or others because of the woman often going backwards.  That is the first thing to start with in his role.  If you can do that, then you are already ahead of many men, who have not learned this "first step" in the classes they have taken. 

Secondly, do not dance with anyone bigger than you.  Men should dance with men not women if they want to learn to follow.  The main reason for this it to avoid hurting yourself.  I learned a lot from Stephen [in Austin, Texas] as a follower.  Why would I have a woman lead me, especially if she is a beginner and/or smaller?  No comprendo.
The third issue:  From my experience with women and men who learn their partner's part are often not present because they are taking mental notes.  I feel as if lady leads are paying attention on being able to do what I do, rather than dancing with me.  Even a very advanced follower and great leader fought me in vals as I danced the "cruzado."* I had to silently insist that she allow me to wear the pants -- on being a man.  The music indicated a wonderful cruzado explicitly, so I was silently telling her " Just come with me, please!"  At first she was insisting on the typical val pulse step.   I danced with her several times that night and eventually she returned to being present, but some ladies never return to being present.  This is the the great sacrifice of being a teacher:   The "teacher problem" is to risk being in your head too much, never truly dancing again but thinking about what your partner is doing.  When this happens, dancing has ended, and movement analysis has taken over.  Dancing, in my opinion, may never return for that person.  So there should be a "warning label" on learning the partner's part.  It should read:

Ms J, what will you gain?  Surely there is value to learning something (like becoming a teacher?), but what are the losses?  Did you actually create an even larger gender imbalance in your community when new men come and see that women don't need them?  Did you just increase the risk that beginner men will give up? 

Added note for men:
The warning label is also for men learning the rol feminino.  Speaking for myself, I know that I have lost a bit of patience with women since learning their part.  I at times feel as if am not being present with her, asking myself why is she taking huge steps as the one default for every step.  I start wondering why she is not listening to the music and too much too me.  I wonder why she stands so straight, even though she loves close embrace and has been dancing for 12 years.  I have to fight knowing her part and how these little things are so easy if she would only be present with me, and stop listening to teachers who tell women to follow the man, rather than the true leader, the music.  Why isn't she listening? I have to hear and empathize with her movement and mood, her little steps when the music leads her to take them, or give her the time to make her "little drawings" (dibujcitos) on the floor.  Now, I have to fight being present with her because perhaps now I know too much about her role.

Regrading the cruzado:
*Cruzado:   The cruzado rhythm is from Peru and most likely Africa before that.  Please read my earlier blog/workshop called, "Thinking in six." Vals cuzado or Vals Criollo is not a Vienese Waltz or a Boston Walz, althought these have influenced the "tango waltz" too.   Note for musicians only on the crurzado:  Think in six (not three): The cruzado is on *2*4*6 (an upbeat hemiola) and mirrors the very dance-friendly clave of both the Epoca de Oro and Regge).  The cruzado can also be danced on 1*3*6 as it by advanced dancers almost always at certain parts of the vals.  It seems that most advanced dancers seem to be unaware how often they dance the cruzado.  Watch carefully any YouTube video of any vals, and you will see this phenomenon. Tango/milonga/vals cruzado all have the basic roots of the African clave rhthm.  All clave rhythms were once in six according to expert musicologists in the area of music in the Americas.  Here is a playful vals cruzado that plays around with the cruzado that is so strong in the music.  Watch the danced hemiolas on the downbeat (1*3*5*) and upbeat hemioloa (*2*4*6), which is the true cruzado rhythm, and the essential tango clave rhythm for most Golden Era tangos and classic reggae songs.

Other indications (not proof) of the power of staying in one's role:
In one of my first therapy sessions with a man with post traumatic stress disorder, I theoretically felt that his wife should be in the rol masculino, but at the last minute I changed to have him close his eyes and be in his own role.  I guided the couple when needed.  The resolution of early childhood trauma dissolved faster in that session tan anything I have experienced as a therapist.  Later, combat trauma also resolved itself.  The couple went on to join a tango community.  I am convinced, now, that we don't have to experience Yang if we are Yin, or Yin if we are Yang.

Photo credit and blog remarks on women in rol masculino

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Lady Lead

Lady Lead  

She gives herself fully to best tangueros.
I watch in awe of her animated femininity.
Her grace deserves a partner better than I.
But tonight she catches my adoring eyes.
With an upward whip of her gaze, an inviting nod,
I know that I must escort her to the dance floor.
I have no choice but to obey her lead.
Feigning my confidence, I approach with open hand.
My body and hands vibrate the frequency
  of not being sure of myself.

She embraces me and says in a whisper:
"Listen only to the music. I have watched you do this.
Hold me. Wait until you can feel my heart beat with that rhythm.
Then we will walk as one -- the music leads us both to move."
Her words will haunt me, I know, for all my dancing life.

She melts into me, and I can feel my heart slowing to hers.
And the music takes away the need to impress her
Because we both now stand in awe of the music together.
Our breathing becomes one,
Our walk follows as if from one heart.

Between songs, we shift deeper into the embrace
Tonight she has become my Lady Lead.
She brought me to the floor.
She calmed me with her embrace.
She showed me how to let the music lead us.

She led me to the life-long path --
The way to make tango with a woman.

The above poem, now significantly edited here, first appeared as one of my first tango poems in May of 2010.  The original was called, "The Older Woman."

Photo Credit: