Feeling: music as movement and expression

“Tango is a feeling”

Traditional tango dancers in Argentina are often heard saying that tango is a feeling and one has to express that feeling in dancing tango. There is the technique of dancing and there is the culture of the milongas, but in the end all of that is subsidiary to the ultimate goal of tango which is the feeling. Learning dancing technique and tango culture may distract us from this fact because we may suppose that learning these other things will ultimately guide us to attain that feeling, to experience it, and to express it in our dancing. Yet it seems that this outcome is not inevitable and that it is possible for a person to go through the whole process without succeeding in feeling what tango requires. It is not entirely clear whether feeling is something that one should automatically or naturally experience, or whether it is something that is also learned.

One may suppose that the feeling in question is just whatever one feels when one is doing tango. The problem seems to be somewhat like the problem of art: is art some specific type of work that we put in art galleries because it satisfies some artistic standards set by the critics, or as some postmodernist thinkers suggest, is it art simply by virtue of being located in the art gallery. downloadIn that case, could a fire hydrant be an artwork simply by virtue of being located in an art gallery?

If we want to claim that some people don’t feel the music we must provide some sort of a standard for telling the correct way of feeling the music. Here we must assume that feeling is not merely an individual and subjective experience, but is something that can be shared and agreed upon. Otherwise, how can two people dance if they have no way of telling whether they agree on the feeling. That means that the the feeling must be expressed in the way the dancer expresses, interprets and hence understands the music, which may be more or less correct or agreed upon.

The idea that the feeling of the music is a purely subjective matter might be in part due to the fact that a lot of music is listened to in silence without any overt expression. The paradigm of listening is people sitting and listening to a symphony. How are we to tell whether they feel the music correctly or not? However, there are fairly clear cases where music either does or fails to make sense to a person, and where different people can agree on whether the music makes sense to them. One such case is the case of tonal vs. atonal music. Most people who are used to tonal music find that they do not understand atonal music. 

The latter is music that most people do not understand. Wikipedia defines tonality as follows:

Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality. In this hierarchy, the single pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. The root of the tonic chord forms the name given to the key; so in the key of C major, the note C is both the tonic of the scale and the root of the tonic chord (which is C–E–G). Simple folk music songs often start and end with the tonic note. The most common use of the term “is to designate the arrangement of musical phenomena around a referential tonic in European music from about 1600 to about 1910”. … Harmony in jazz includes many but not all tonal characteristics of the European common practice period, known as classical music.

In other words, tonal music respects certain relationships between notes whereby a ‘key’ or ‘root’ note establishes the tonality and the functional status of the other notes of the scale. The interval or distance from the tonic note determines the character of the note and what can be done with it, eg., whether it is possible to begin and end a phrase on that tone. The relationships between the tones have a push-pull relationship such as that they create tension, gravity, etc.

Tonality is an organized system of tones (e.g., the tones of a major or minor scale) in which one tone (the tonic) becomes the central point for the remaining tones. The other tones in a tonal piece are all defined in terms of their relationship to the tonic. In tonality, the tonic (tonal center) is the tone of complete relaxation and stability, the target toward which other tones lead. The cadence (coming to rest point) in which the dominant chord or dominant seventh chord resolves to the tonic chord plays an important role in establishing the tonality of a piece.

Because of these features of tonal music, we understand or feel the music when we perceive the relations between the sounds in terms of movement. Movement in music and its various ‘spatial’ characteristics are generated by the relations between the different tones. Musical movement is not inherent in the physical sound. Rather, it is ‘intentional’: we hear movement in the line of notes as connected and moving even though there is nothing that is literally moving in the physical sound and each pitch is separate from another. There may be silence between the notes, but we still hear a continuous line of tones connected in a melody (Scruton 2009).

The intentional character of music is expressed in language through spatial metaphors such as distance and movement. Music moves and it moves faster or slower, moves up or down, etc. Music has rhythm and beat, both of which are to be distinguished from the musical metre. Scruton argues that music can have beat without much rhythm. Rhythm arises out of the music and its accents, and generates the forward motion. Music can have beat without much rhythm, and vice versa, music can have rhythm without a strong beat. In the Western classical tradition up to the 20th century rhythm has been generated by the musical line. With the emergence of the drum kit the beat is introduced from the outside to music that has relatively little of either rhythm or beat.

So what room is there for a person to fail to understand tango music and how would that be manifested in their dancing? If we consider for a moment how one learns to play a piece of music on an instrument, the quality of the playing depends on things like rhythm and expression. Rhythm refers to the grouping of notes, accent, emphasis or suspension. Suspension, playing a note on an offbeat and holding it till the first beat of the next phrase, is present music that is syncopated which includes tango. Expression has to do with the phrasing of notes, the correct gesture, dynamics (playing loud or soft), crescendo (gradually increasing loudness), and so on. A teacher will make gestures to communicate to the student how to play a given passage. Otherwise, the performance will be mechanical and without feeling, like what one might get from software that plays from a written score.

We can see here that learning musical interpretation in dancing is going to be very much similar to learning musical interpretation in playing. Scruton suggests that it is possible to divide music that is influenced by speech and song, and music that is influenced by dancing. If tango emerged as dancing music then its beat and feeling will be strongly connected to the movement of dancing, eg., one should be able to tap one’s foot to it. The music will have a pronounced beat or pulse that’s danceable. There will be a perceptible ‘on’ and ‘off’ beat, and if the rhythm is syncopated, the ‘off’ beat will be emphasised and suspended, driving or dropping into the ‘on’ beat of the next phrase.

Now, different tango orchestras will interpret tango music with different emphasis, with more or less beat, rhythm or expression. This makes the task of interpreting the different recordings in dancing somewhat complicated. However, dance education devotes the majority of the time to movement and little or not time to learning how to listen to tango music. This is largely due to the prevailing false idea that listening is not a skill. One should already know what one likes and that’s the end of the discussion.

But the idea that listening and experiencing music is spontaneous and effortless is a new one, and it has really only arrived at a time of pop. Pop music (including Rock, RnB, Rap, etc.) is really a new kind of thing that departs from prior musical traditions, and moves away from the Western classical tradition. Western classical music has evolved to a high level and requires effort and cultivation in order to understand and appreciate it. Pop is based on a very narrow set of structures, in particular, an ostinato backing which is external to the music and which appears to require no effort to enjoy but is actually addictive. Pop music requires the harmony and melody to be fitted to the ostinato rhythm which absolves the music itself from generating a rhythm through melody and harmony.

Because there is no ostinato backing in classical music or tango the forward motion and rhythm is created through melody and harmony: grouping, accent, and emphasis. Rhythm is here to be distinguished from the musical metre. It is commonplace to hear that while milonga music is 2/4, tango is 4/4, and vals is 3/4. These, however, designate the meter in which the music is written, that is, the way that the musical bar is divided into sections. Rhythm, however, is not created through these and it is possible to have music in these meters that have little or no rhythm. For example, not all music written in 3/4 can be danced to as a waltz. Rhythm is also different from the pulse or beat. The pulse or beat is the point where you would clap or tap with your foot. But rhythm consists of all the up and down beats and stresses that happen in between, so that you have different rhythms with the same sort of beat.

So the first step to learning to dance with feeling, with the correct expression and interpretation, is to learn to listen. Dancing tango is difficult because one has to move with the partner to music. If we dance complicated patterns we will have little attention left to give to the music. Then we will be dancing mechanically, robotically, without expression. At first it is better to develop the practice of listening to a given orchestra without dancing. If you feel like moving you can stand and make gestures with your hands like an orchestra conductor. This gesture will flow into your body and ultimately into your dancing. Start by listening to music you can easily tap your foot to. When you’re finally on the dancefloor, dance to music that you are already somewhat familiar with. Before venturing out, give the music a few moments of attention and have caught onto the gesture that it elicits. This is the gesture that you communicate to your partner as you move into the first step.


Roger Scruton (2009) Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation. Bloomsbury Academic.



Here is a series of videos that are helpful in understanding music:

[1] Examples of atonal music, which Roger Scruton thinks we don’t really understand because we naturally seek tonality.


[2] A lecture explaining tonality and atonality with examples:


[3] Listening to tango music is more like listening to classical than to pop, so the following videos apply to tango as well:



[4] Interpretation classes with Benjamin Zander are very instructive on how to think about emotion and interpretation in music:


[5] A lot of useful insights into the history of music (classical music was originally for dancing), structure and layers in music.


Tango as culture: anthropology vs. criticism

Ethnomusicology is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. … It is often defined as the anthropology or ethnography of music, or as musical anthropology. (Wikipedia)


When a student starts taking tango classes the discourse of tango is established by the way the teacher and others talk about the genre. Lets for a moment ignore the commercial aspects of this discourse and assume that the student manages to ignore all the talk about workshops, privates, and trips to Buenos Aires, and tries to break through all of that to try to get a deeper understanding of tango, the dance, the music and the culture. What they will inevitably arrive at is information that can be loosely called ‘anthropological’. He will find that tango is a culture confined to a specific area (Río de la Plata), practiced by its inhabitants, with music that is specific to that area and these people. To get an in-depth knowledge of tango one needs to be a sort of anthropologist, namely, to learn about the music and culture of these people who inhabit this place.

In characterising this framing as anthropological I am being generous and somewhat disingenuous because it is really touristic, or an impoverished sort of anthropology. A real scientific anthropology would utilise sophisticated comparative methods, eg., it would demand knowledge of music theory, and would compare this culture to other cultures to draw objective conclusions. What the tango student is faced with instead is a picture of a culture that is sui generis, that on the standard narrative, emerged out of a meeting of European and African cultures around the middle of the 19th century, that it is a popular culture, meaning not a culture of the elites but rather of the common people, and that produced a unified cultural idiom that we recognise as uniquely Argentinian.

We notice that this narrative creates a mystique about the form implied in the image of the Argentine people as having a natural talent to elicit emotional responses that the touristic consumers seek to acquire. It renders tango foreign, other, and exotic. It also gives those who are native to the form a special insider knowledge that requires no justification, proof, evidence or reasoning, on the assumption that cultural practices require no external justification: it’s just what people do. It is, as Wittgenstein put it, a ‘form of life’.

In my view, this sort of anthropological/touristic framing is severely detrimental to the teaching and learning of tango. To come to participate in the practice one needs to ‘go native’, ideally by way of lengthy stays in Buenos Aires. Tango teaching and learning consists in finding out ‘what people in Buenos Aires do’. In terms of music, it consists in learning the names of the orchestras, their recordings, and something about the history of the Golden Era.

The anthropological approach to tango education asks the student to emulate a cultural group without asking for reasons. However, since there is no real justification given or necessary this framing leads naturally to the idea that tango ‘evolves’. Since there is no particular reason to want to emulate this group beyond one’s touristic consumer preference it leads naturally to the idea that just as Argentinians created their local tango culture foreigners can take those aspects of tango that suit them and create their own ‘nuevo’ or ‘transgressive’, or ‘alternative’ or ‘whatever you wish to call it’ tango. On the other hand, the anthropological framing gives traditionalists no basis for criticism of the new developments if they already promoted the idea that their own practice is sui generis, specific to a place and people, and therefore an unjustified set of preferences.

The problem is that an anthropological framing is descriptive without being in any way prescriptive. Without some sort of a norm or standard of judgement that is exernal to the culture it is not clear how we are supposed to get from an is to an ought. As a result tango traditionalists, while they reject non-traditional forms of tango, have really no way to argue against them. One wants to say that the traditional tango practice is more authentic, but why should one prefer authenticity in a postmodern world which rejects such notions. Moreover, there are economic barriers to acquiring the authentic thing in terms of cost, finding teachers, getting information, etc. If these things have excessive economic cost why not settle for what is available and affordable?

Of course the natives do not see the matter in that way. They feel that there are values in tango that are not merely utilitarian and so would reject that one could replace them with a cheaper substitute. But so long as they are stuck in the anthropological frame those values are no different from the values of any other cultural group: they represent the sentimental attachments of one group of people. Unless one has some other reasons for wanting to assimilate to that group this approach cannot really have any wider appeal.

To have an appeal that is wider and more universal what is necessary is not anthropology but art criticism. When we say that something is a work of art we do not mean that it is art of a particular cultural group. Art is assumed to have more universal appeal and, given that, the art critic’s job is to find a language of expressing these universal values thereby providing reasons for preferring some works over others. The art critic must find a language that identifies features that characterise good art and provide for standards of good taste.

The idea that tango is a popular form seems to invite an anthropological rather than a critical frame but that does not necessarily follow. Jazz is a popular form and yet it is subject to criticism no less than classical music. Thelonious Monk is considered art whereas Kenny G is generally viewed as kitsch. Cultural critics even address pop and try to provide reasons why Elvis Presley might be better than Genesis.

Like ethnomusicologists (who are a type of anthropologist) critics use comparative methods, and must know something about music theory and the history of music. Both, ethnomusicologists and critics differ from the natives in that they try to draw more general conclusions about the cultural practices, but they differ from each other in that the goals of ethnomusicology are primarily descriptive, whereas the goals of criticism are primarily prescriptive. Criticism does require an adequate description, so that disagreement about description, ie., about the facts, will make a difference to the critique, but in the case of criticism there is a normative component, that is, there is the assumption that things are to be preferred on other than merely personal, subjective or consumption preferences.

To the contrary, art criticism has assumed that art ought to stand outside of the sphere of mere utilitarian or consumer values and that it has a higher moral dimension. That is why the distinction between art and kitsch is so central to criticism. This distinction does not touch objects that are cultural artefacts of some group because the members of the group attach an authentic significance to these objects. However, some writers (Adorno?) have suggested that these artefacts become kitsch as soon as they are purchased by a tourist who does not attach that significance to these objects and for whom they are mere decorative trinkets. The question is whether this is not precisely what happens to tango when it becomes a mere object of touristic experience.

A major reason for the anthropological approach to the dissemination of tango has to do with the consumers themselves. Earlier generations have grown up with an intuitive understanding of the difference between real and fake, art and kitsch. With modernism in art and academic postmodernism we have an attack on the idea of authentic art. Modernism in art, music and architecture relentlessly debunks all traditional notions of good taste and renders everything equal and relative, a matter of personal preference and only worthy of attention if it is interesting or better, transgressive. proxy.duckduckgoModernist artists such as Andy Warhol elevated consumer products to the status of high art, and the ordinary person can no longer rely on art criticism for guidance on good or bad taste, being thrown onto the wasteland of loud consumerist promotion.

Given the loss of any basis for judgement of good or bad taste, the learner is thrown rudderless on the ethnodance market to figure things out for themselves. They are now supposed to know what they prefer without being told what they ought to prefer. Since the ordinary person, with the now standard schooling in non-judgementalness, cannot be expected to bear such a heavy burden they simply follow the guidance of the loudest marketers and the crowd. Contrary to what one might otherwise expect the contemporary tango is a case study in unscrupulous, vapid consumerism and crowd behaviour. It is hard to believe that people capable of discriminating judgement could respond positively to the dressed up kitsch promoted on tango websites and Facebook pages.

What is the alternative to the anthropological and consumerist paradigms currently in power? The conservative view of art, music and culture, at least the one that we have inherited from romanticism, is that culture is the realm of authentic values that transcend ordinary utilitarian and merely hedonistic values. Writers on culture have recognised for a long time that all traditional societies distinguish between sacred and profane values. In European culture art has come to occupy the place of the sacred, and the aesthetic experience of the art object is not regarded as having a merely utilitarian significance. Art, including painting, music, dance and ritual, is the domain of sacred values or ends, and as such has a moral significance. Bad art is not merely unpleasant, but rather, pleasant or not, it is morally bad. Listening to bad music and surrounding yourself with kitsch art makes you poorer as a person. It debases rather than elevates because it is a source of easy satisfactions and fake emotions that do not demand any effort or sacrifice.

Art criticism is difficult because it is not easy to identify why certain art is better than other or what makes it morally elevating or debasing. People were once able to follow their gut instinct and normal people still are highly suspicious of art that occupies contemporary art galleries, atonal music or modernist architecture. They still prefer to see classical architecture even if some are still drawn to the modernist curiosities, although it is questionable that they would choose to spend much time in them or live near them once they have taken the obligatory snapshots. In the same sense the consumer tango that we are served nowadays is largely a disposable product, a way to spend an evening in a foreign city.

An alternative to the anthropological framing is a view of how dancing makes us better and brings us closer to others. Traditionally dances have had a moral and truly social dimension in bringing people together. This more authentically moral, social and elevating aspect has been supplanted with ideas about exoticism, authentic cultures, tourism, fashion and hedonism that are typical of kitsch ethnodances like LA Style Salsa, Bachata or Zouk. Anthropology and tourism have inadvertently directed tango into a seedy, degraded neighbourhood on the false assumption that it has only the barest connection to European culture and is the product of the latin brothel. Sadly that is a framing and a narrative that appeals to people already predisposed to be drawn to easy ‘transgressive’ touristic experiences.


Sex roles: is tango compatible with women’s empowerment

When tango emerged out of the primordial swamp the world was still in the grip of an oppressive patriarchy. It was an era of primitive practices such as religion, lifelong marriage, female modesty, enforced monogamy, and complementary sex roles: homemaker housewives and breadwinner husbands. After many millenia we are finally emerging out of the darkness into a brave new world of feminization which liberates us with atheism, equal partnerships, no-fault divorce, serial polygamy, career women, single mothers, government schooling, alimony, welfare and affirmative action. A fundamental social transformation which liberates women from their traditional roles at the cost of men (whose jobs and income must be sacrificed to the benefit of women who are not their wives) and the family (which must not impinge on state’s power to indoctrinate the new generation) is bound to have affected tango which is not a world unto itself and whose participants are bound to reflect in their behavior the norms of the new utopia.

The respective roles of the two partners in tango are not marginal to the practice. They reflect the place of sex roles in traditional society, the putative patriarchy. In traditional society men and women have always and everywhere occupied distinct and complementary roles. Men have been out in the world either hunting or, more recently, earning a living so as to provide for their family. To do so they had to exhibit skills and characteristics such as planning, goal-orientation, and rational decision-making as well as a natural sense of responsibility for their dependants. Women looked after the home and the children, for which the husband provides. In this world women have evolved to seek the protective male energy and the men to seek the nurturing female energy. These complementary roles are reflected in tango in which the woman lets the man lead and the man needs the woman to follow, and this complementarity of the roles and the provision of the respective type of energy offers much of the satisfaction of the dance.

In the new feminized society the two partners are equalized: men become more like women and women become more like men, that is, they both become more androgynous. Both sexes are expected to be able to fulfill both gender roles and this is supposed to be natural. True, men and women still dress differently, but this has become a merely external matter of fashion. gearjunkie_legacy_imagesThe urban lumberjack look with bushy beards, Timberland boots and flannel shirts no longer signal any corresponding masculine skill at physical labour such as chopping down trees or anything else for that matter. Hyper-feminine fashion with high heels, immaculate hair and copious amounts of makeup rarely signal actual feminine nurturing energy, which is instead expressed in a vacuous, narcissistic sassy attitude that men find superficially attractive but ultimately draining.

Although based in our basic nature the competent performance of sex roles does require preparation and training which the government schooling characteristically neglects or worse, actively discourages. The free expression of masculinity in boys is increasingly viewed as ‘toxic’, whereas girls are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and be more assertive.

Both sexes are to a certain extent capable of fulfilling both of the traditional roles: men can become more like women and fulfil the female role, and women can in times of need perform in male role. Men can learn to cook, clean and look after children, and in some cases they even dress and behave like women. Women can also work and provide for the family, have careers, and some girls who are tomboys even dress and act like boys.

Instead of viewing such behavioural plasticity as eccentric and marginal, radical feminists, SJWs and transgender activists draw a different conclusion: the sex differences between men and women are a mere social construct, a vestige of an oppressive patriarchal system of men’s power over women, gays, transsexuals, minorities, etc. Further, they insist that gender and sexuality are fluid and people can pick and choose their identity like fashion, as the mood suits them. Sexual identity is subjective and we see a proliferation of gender pronouns and other similar outrages.

Radical feminists view statistical differences in occupations or income levels not as caused by the differences in the choices that men and women make but the oppressive patriarchy whereby women and other oppressed groups (but mainly women) are prevented from career advancement by a ‘glass ceiling’, and are discouraged from going into certain professions by being saddled with artificial sex roles. Women who choose the traditional role of the housewife or caretaker are browbeaten for their complicity in the patriarchal oppression of their sisters.

So rather than allowing women to follow their natural preferences radical feminists reject that such preferences exist and instead attack traditionalist women who refuse to be competitive and career-seeking. time_newellemmettRadical feminism wants women to become more like men. The result is that we have a generation of women who are competitive but also unhappy, angry and aggressive. They often cannot easily compete against men who are naturally gifted—or perhaps encumbered—with high levels of testosterone, upper body strength, and an autistic persistence. But they are told that they ought to be as good as men at careers and various competitive pursuits. Denial of such differences leads to situations like transgender ‘women’ easily dominating female sports. Only people in deep denial, having been immersed in the ideology of radical feminism, could fail to see the obvious absurdity of what is being attempted.

Likewise the idea that same-sex tango dancing can be the same thing as traditional tango dancing can be entertained only by people who have been subjected to lifelong indoctrination into radical feminist ideology. The problem, however, is much deeper than that because the current generation of career women and compliant men have been subjected to decades of government schooling that seeks to erase sex differences and leaves them completely unprepared to perform these traditional roles. If tango depends on the ability to perform these roles within the dance then the new androgynous tango is a completely new type of practice. But as such it is unsatisfying if one comes to tango precisely because it offers the possibility of expressing one’s sex role.

Because the competitive career women do sometimes long to feel like women and likewise the compliant urban lumberjacks do sometimes want to be allowed to feel and act like men beyond mere external appearance. Unfortunately tango in itself cannot reverse feminist indoctrination and gender fluidity ideology. What you end up with is the shadow of tango: an egalitarian, androgynous dance in which the roles are performed as a mere formality. The assumption is that the partners are equal and the compliant men expect women to express themselves and compete.

In fact men express their protectiveness precisely by avoiding acting in an overtly protective way so as to not cramp the woman’s style and to ‘give her space’. Unencumbered by potential accusations of toxic masculinity female leaders lead in a way that women actually want men to do so, that is assertive and yet protective. Women are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and take the male role as men step aside. Given the background female empowerment ideology it is but a small step for these women to draw the conclusion that they must be naturally better leaders than men. Since men have learned over time that assertiveness and protectiveness on their part is essentially oppressive they can hardly be blamed for doing everything to avoid satisfying this need. The result is that on the contemporary feminized tango scene we see the shadow of the dance, failing to satisfy the very needs it would naturally meet.

Post Scriptum

Pointed commentary on vapid consumerism and fake musculinity of urban lumberjacks (and their causes) from Blue Collar Logic:

Musicality: the connection of music and movement

The tango is the result of a combination of the German Waltz, Czech Polka, Polish Mazurka, and Bohemian Schottische with the Spanish-Cuban Habanera, African Candombe, and Argentinian Milonga. … The music derived from the fusion of various forms of music from Europe.

Wikipedia entry on Tango

This month, our popular Musicality Workshop is back “Dance to D’Arienzo”.

Workshop announcement

Tango is a feeling.

Tango Teacher

Apart from the Female Technique Workshop another popular type of class one sees commonly advertised is the Tango Musicality Workshop. I don’t recall taking one of these but in those classes where the topic is the music one would expect to find the exhortation to listen to and to feel the music. I have serious doubts whether exhortations of this sort have much effect since there is no system for teaching how to feel the music if one doesn’t already. When there is an actual attempt at systematic teaching the focus is often on the different interpretation of different orchestras. These workshops are typically taught by dancers who have little or no knowledge of music beyond dancing to it: they neither play music, know any music theory nor have any knowledge of ethnomusicology. The standard ethnomusicological story is like that we see on the Wikipedia entry: tango spontaneously emerged out of a fusion of various European and African genres in the back streets of Buenos Aires due to the intermingling of European migrants and African slaves.

Occasionally one does see announcements of musicality workshops conducted by musicians who play tango. From what I see these go into technical detail that is more relevant to the craft of the musicians themselves rather than helping dancers interpret the music in their dancing. Instead of looking at the historical antecedents of the music and providing an understanding that helps dancers listen to it, interpret and be moved by it in their dancing, musicians are mainly concerned with the form of the musical score that is written down.

There is an apparently unbridgable divide between musically illiterate dancers and teachers on the one hand, and musicians on the other. The latter seem unable to communicate to dancers about music as it is related to dancing, that is, to movement and gesture. Workshops run by musicians seems to focus on music theory and the various aspects of the way tango compositions are organised, but do not put the music in any historical context to provide us with some understanding of its origins. Nor do they break down the music to those of its components that are relevant to movement and gesture. In fact, judging from the fact that most contemporary tango orchestras are play in a way that is either completely undanceable or at best barely danceable, it seems that contemporary tango musicians themselves have little to no understanding of the aspects of tango music relevant to dancing.

The apparent lack of serious inquiry in to the historical origins of tango seems to be due to the prevailing assumption that tango is sui generis so that it is neither necessary nor fruitful to inquire into the supposedly “dark” origins. This is surprising given its apparent sophistication and effectiveness in inviting movement. The reasoning seems to be that unlike the European tradition in which there are obvious and studied continuities from the Renaissance to Baroque, Classical and Modern periods, tango is more akin to the popular or Ethnic musical genres that spontanously emerge from the natural creativity of the common folk. This is largely a myth which has the unfortunate consequence of creating the sort of confusion and misunderstanding that propels the contemporary dancer into fallacies such as that tango is a ‘living’ culture that is constantly and randomly ‘evolving’ by adapting to the current circumstances.

The task of gaining a proper understanding of tango music is especially urgent for those who want to preserve traditional tango practice. It can be safely said that there is a general lack of understanding of music in general, and tango music in particular, among tango dancers as with the wider public. This lack of understanding means that people do lack the ability to listen to tango music and make informed judgements. It may be what is behind the many tango fads and kitsch ‘nuevo’ forms (see Beauty). If we could find a way of teaching people to understand the underlying structure of tango music and to appreciate it this would go a long way towards reinstituting the primacy of danceable traditional tango and thus reversing its degeneration into vacuous cliches that we see on the dancefloors of most milongas outside of Buenos Aires today.

One of the problems that we encounter here is a communication gap between those who understand music and those that they are trying to teach. Musicians are comfortable communicating to other musicians or to music students who are willing to invest time and effort into understanding the intricacies of music. However, the rule of pedagogy is that things need to be simplified to the level of the student so as to then bring the student up to a level where the knowledge gained is useful, as to do otherwise is to lose the student. Musicians tend not to understand this necessity to simplify in order to bring people along, the result being that musicality is taught by people whose background is studio dancing but who have inadequate understanding of music as a form that cannot be picked up in the dancing studio but that is written and has its own sort of structure.

Myths of diversity and popular culture

The cliches that we hear in Tango workshops and read online is that tango emerged in Buenos Aires in the latter part of the 19th century out of a mishmash of European and African genres, out of the intermingling of immigrant workers from Europe with African slaves practicing Condombe rituals, in the back streets and the brothels of Buenos Aires. It gives the impression of a cultural form emerging sponteously out of the creative spirit of the lowest strate of society generating something truly spectacular and transformative.

This idea of emergence may sound plausible to those who are exposed to the fads of Western pop and rock music that apparently create something novel every decade. In fact, pop is based on an extremely limited musical vocabulary and what makes up for this poverty is the addition of an ostinato rhythm added by the drum kit or electronic drum machine. This phenomenon, which causes the addiction of the mass of consumers of pop and rock is quite new in music. Prior to pop, rhythm emerges out of the music itself rather than being added externally by the drum kit. As Roger Scruton points out in Understanding Music, without this external addition, much of pop would lack its impact. Scruton writes:

There is an extreme case of ostinato phenomenon, in which rhythm seems to become detached from harmonic and melodic organization, so as to be fired at them from outside, as it were. I refer to rhythmic ‘backing’, as exemplified by a certain style of pop.

To see how the ostinato rhythm is external to much pop music compare Genesis “No Son Of Mine” (1991) with an ‘acoustic’ version (here and here) struggles to maintain the momentum generated by the drumkit in the original. When played on acoustic guitar with no drums at all much of the impact of the original version is lost and the result is a rather low energy song.

The apparent novelty in pop music generally is spurious, as the songs are built around rather short chord progressions repeated cyclically with little internal rhythm generated melodically or harmonically but imposed by an artificial beat. The reality is that music of any sophistication or complexity is a fairly technical skill that is hardly the domain of the poor and the illiterate. Most complex musical genres emerged over extended periods of time passed on from one generation to the next. Music that requires any sort of orchestration, ie., that has several musicians playing different instruments playing in concert has to be written down. It is more likely that, as with the various forms of rock music, novely involves several variations within a genre are created, much as funk and RnB are variation on jazz.

While it is common to find today many musicians who play in rock or pop bands who do not know how to read music or know music theory, this is possibly only because much contemporary music is a variation on the blues, that is, they use a standardised cycle of basic chords (either triads, power chords or 7th’s). Tango music, especially the danceable variety, is more complex. While Carlos Gardel might have run through a chord progression on his guitar while he sang, a tango formation of four or more instruments playing for dancing is already a complex affair that is unlikely to have spontanously and organically emerged out of the back streets of a port city. It is much more likely that, as rock is but a variation on the 12 bar blues, tango is a local variation on a more permanent tradition that has a longer and wider span.

The view currently in fashion is influenced by a sort of relativist anthropology, emphasising diversity rather than commonality, seeking to find the ‘roots’ in the oppressed underclasses rather than privileged culture. My view, by contrast, is that music of any complexity involves cumulative development and technical training of some sort and is unlikely to emerge spontanously out of an illiterate oppressed underclass. We are not talking here about banging out a rhythm with a couple of sticks. The building and playing of instruments such as guitars, flutes, violins and bandoneons demand sophisticated technical skills and materials that do not come easily and cheaply. I suspect that the idea that illiterates can play tango music is significantly due to the fact that a lot of modern music such as rock seems to be played by semi-literates. But as I said, much of modern ‘guitar’ music is based on the 12-bar blues and most 12 year olds can learn to play a blues tune in a handful of lessons, after that it’s all pretty much the same.

The standard sort of anthropological readings of the history of tango are politically correct in that the current academic fashion is to stress the lowly origins for popular culture, diversity, difference from the formal European tradition, and the transgressive aspect whereby these forms challenge the mainstream or acceptable culture, where white Europeans intermingle with dark women in seedy locales. Thus, a reviewer of Chasteen’s 2004 book “National Rhythms, African Roots: The Deep History of Latin American Popular Dance” writes that:

Dance could unite people across boundaries of class, race, and – since the dances under study are couples dances – obviously gender. Yet precisely because popular dance ruptured those boundaries, elites, the state, and the Church all considered dances with African cultural influence transgressive to the social, political and sexual order of things. … Chasteen argues that the story of transgressive popular dance is one of race mixing, a reason official culture so long opposed it. Indeed Chasteen posits that Church and state never succeeded in repressing transgressive dances since powerful men enjoyed the “privileged sexual access to poorer, darker women” (p. 204). The full extent of the sexual politics …

We can see how these sorts of narratives are spun by academics following the current fashion in political correctness and ‘radical discourses’, with plenty of ‘transgression’ and ‘oppression’ to get the book accepted by academic publishers and ultimately to be ordered by dance departments and paid for by university libraries. In other words, in the present climate of academic ‘culture studies’ this is the kind of thing you need to say for the book to be accepted by predominantly female, leftist, probably lesbian and certainly radical feminist dance department and sociology academics: a narrative of the ‘appropriation’ of exotic African cultures and ‘oppression’ of poor dark women by powerful white men.

It’s all very exotic, radical and titilating, but whether there is any truth to it or not (which is questionable) pretty much useless from the point of view of a person wishing to learn how to dance tango as a form of self-improvement and personal development. On the contrary, I suggest that the understanding of tango in terms of the evolution of the structure of tango music, rather than giving us spontaneous diversity of local musical forms, provides us with an understanding of what they have in common and the connection between them. While perhaps less radical and titilating, and more boring and bland, showing connections and continuities with established mainstream culture provides, in my view, a more useful way into the form for the student.

The basis of danceable tango: the habanera rhythm

I suggest that tango is actually a part of the evolution of partner dances that can be traced all the way back to British country dance in the Renaissance. My suggestion is, instead of reading the standard ‘radical’ accounts of the origins of tango in the back streets of Buenos Aires, a better way to gain insight into the origins and structure of tango music is to read the Wikipedia article on the Cuban Contradanza, subsequently known as Habanera. Cuban Habanera is the key point of connection between the English country dance and European contradanse on the one hand, and Tango and the other latin folk dances on the other. The key contribution that Habanera makes to European contradanse is the addition of an African rhythm.

I propose that in order to understand the basic rhythmic structure of tango we need to trace it back to its roots in the habaneira rhythm and to understand (i) what the habaneira rhythm is, (ii) what are its varieties, (iii) where it originates, and (iv) how it influences dances such as tango. In addressing these questions in the simplest way possible my primary source for the time being is going to be Wikipedia. So I will cite the Wikipedia entry on Contradanza and insert my comments. The roots of tango trace back to English country dance, subsequently known as Contradanza. Wikipedia informs us as follows:

Contradanza (also called contradanza criolla, danza, danza criolla, or habanera) is the Spanish and Spanish-American version of the contradanse, which was an internationally popular style of music and dance in the 18th century, derived from the English country dance and adopted at the court of France. Contradanza was brought to America and there took on folkloric forms that still exist in Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Panama and Ecuador. In Cuba during the 19th century it became an important genre, the first written music to be rhythmically based on an African rhythm pattern and the first Cuban dance to gain international popularity, the progenitor of danzón, mambo and cha-cha-cha, with a characteristic “habanera rhythm” and sung lyrics.Outside Cuba the Cuban contradanza became known as the habanera – the dance of Havana – and that name was adopted in Cuba itself subsequent to its international popularity in the later 19th century, though it was never so called by the people who created it.

So here we can see that what became known as the Habanera in the 19th century was derived from the English country dance that traces back to the Reneissance and contradanse of the Baroque period. This form subsequently became rhythmically based on an African rhythm in Cuba and came to be known as Habanera which forms the basis for many folk dances in South America. Let us continue:

The contradanza was popular in Spain and spread throughout Spanish America during the 18th century. According to musicologist Peter Manuel, it may be impossible to resolve the question of the contradanza’s origin, as it has been pointed out by Cuban musicologist Natalio Galán in humoristically labeling the genre as “anglofrancohispanoafrocubano” (English-French-Spanish-African-Cuban).

The most conventional consensus in regard to the origin of this popular Cuban genre was established by novelist Alejo Carpentier, in his book from 1946 “La Música en Cuba.” In that book he proposes a theory that signals the French contredance, supposedly introduced in Cuba by French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution (1791–1803), as the prototype for the creation of the creolized Cuban Contradanza. However, according to other important Cuban musicologists, such as Zoila Lapique and Natalio Galan, it is quite likely that the Contradanza had been introduced to Havana directly from Spain, France or England several decades earlier.

The earliest Cuban contradanza of which a record remains is “San Pascual Bailón”, which was written in 1803. Certain characteristics would set the Cuban contradanza apart from the contredanse by the mid-19th century, notably the incorporation of the African cross-rhythm called the tresillo. The habanera rhythm can be thought of as a combination of tresillo and the backbeat.

The basic habanera rhythm is most familiar from Bizet’s Carmen. It is made up of a Tresillo as demonstrated in the following visualisation:

This basic rhythm gives tango music the swing that invites people to dance. Play the same tango more legato and it becomes listening music. This is the reason the post-1950 tango recordings that are predominantly arranged for the listening audience are not danceable. In the same vein, you can not dance to traditional tango unless you are able to hear and respond to the underlying swing of the habanera rhythm, or more specifically, the Tresillo beat, that is implicit in all danceable tangos. Conversely, once you are able to discern this rhythm dancing to traditional tango becomes fairly straightforward.

Below are some more videos with examples of the Habanera rhythm as well as some discussion of the rhythm in relation to tango. Unfortunately the latter are all in Spanish with no available subtitles.

The Wikipedia article on Contradanza tells us that the habanera rhythm’s time signature is 2/4. An accented upbeat in the middle of the bar lends power to the habanera rhythm. This can be written as follows:

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This rhythm can be heard in the bass line of these examples of habanera. In the first set of examples we can hear how the habenra rhythm is incorporated into what is otherwise Eurpean music by the Cuban composer Manuel Saumell (1818-70) who was trained and workded in Havana and was one of the first to introduce Cuban folkloric musical styles to a classically-grounded genre. In the first interpretation we can hear a transition from what sounds like European dancing music to distinctly Cuban habanera when the double bass and shaker comes in with the habenera rhythm:

In the following sample the piano plays the habenera rhythm with the left hand which gives the pieces a swing:

The  bassline in the following samples sounds very close to Bizet’s Carmen:


Syncopated cross-rhythms called the tresillo and the cinquillo, basic rhythmic cells in Afro-Latin and African music, began the Cuban dance’s differentiation from its European form. … This pattern is heard throughout Africa, and in many Diaspora musics, known as the congo, tango-congo, and tango. … The syncopated rhythm may be vocalised as “boom…ba-bop-bop”, and “da, ka ka kan.” It may be sounded with the Ghanaian beaded gourd instrument axatse, vocalized as: “pa ti pa pa”, beginning on the second beat so that the last “pa” coincides with beat one, ending on the beginning of the cycle so that the part contributes to the cyclic nature of the rhythm . . . Carpentier (2001:149) states that the cinquillo was brought to Cuba in the songs of the black slaves and freedmen who emigrated to Santiago de Cuba from Haiti in the 1790s . . .

Contradanza subsequently formed the basis for variations in Cuba and elsewhere, such as danza habanera, danzon and danza:

although the contradanza and danza were musically identical, the dances were different . . . A danza entitled “El Sungambelo”, dated 1813, has the same structure as the contradanza – the four-section scheme is repeated twice, ABAB (Santos 1982) and the cinquillo rhythm can already be heard.

Habera rhythm in tango

The habanera rhythm forms the basis of the early tango and continues in some form throughout:

The Argentine milonga and tango makes use of the habanera rhythm of a dotted quarter-note followed by three eighth-notes, with an accent on the first and third notes. To some extent the habanera rhythm is retained in early tangos, notably El Choclo and “La Morocha” (1904). . . .

In 1883 Ventura Lynch, a student of the dances and folklore of Buenos Aires, noted the milonga was “so universal in the environs of the city that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (bailecitos de medio pelo), and … has also been taken up by the organ-grinders, who have arranged it so as to sound like the habanera dance. It is danced in the low life clubs . . .

Here is an example of a habanera El pañuelo de Pepa by Manuel Saumell we can almost hear a danceable milonga in the bassline, played either by the Viola in the first video, the left hand on the piano, or the guitar playing the rhythm in the trio in the second video below:


What is interesting is that the 1-2 pulse of the milonga emerges out of the more complex habanera rhythm which can be counted 1 and-2-and 1 and etc.


To summarise, musicality workshops that focus on different tango orchestras, taught by studio teachers who merely point out how they interpret a given piece of music or orchestra, cannot teach students how to listen to music. On the other hand, while musicians understand technical aspects of music, are often unable to explain how this relates to music. An additional barrier to understanding tango music is the fact that most people nowadays are exposed to pop music which does not demans active listening and which generates energy and drive through the addition of a loud drum beat that is external to the music itself, such that without this external beat the music itself has little drive or energy. When there is no drumming learners are lost as to how to hear the underlying beat or pulse of the music. Finally, adding to the confusion is a faux anthropology that insists that tango music was created by the lower classes in Buenos Aires.

The proper approach that I propose is one that is historical and musicological. That is, it exhibits tango in its proper historical context as historically derived from Habaneira, which forms the pivotal connection between European Contradanza on the one hand, and Argentine milonga and tango on the other. When we recognise this important historical contuity we can start learning to learn to listen to tango music in an intelligent, informed manner, and thus to start to understand it. We can understand how the different tango compositions are elaborations and layerings on a basic theme of the Habaneira, and how it is this basic theme that provides the driving energy that invites and sustains our movement. Thus, a proper historical and musicological understanding is the necessary basis of education in musicality for tango and a foundation for further study of individual tango orchestras.


Here you will find my replies to the discussion on TangoVoice which are being censored by the owner without his or her notification as of mid-2018. TangoVoice apparently did not censor any discussion until the issue became hypergamy and misandry in women. Below are my responses that are being censored.