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.