Counting Tango Music

There is a great stigma about counting in Tango. Many objections involve the basic philosophy that counting will impede feeling or emotional expression. Another claim is that Tango music isn’t countable like Salsa or a Ballet minuet. The music is too complex or erratic. The most common objection is that “I, personally, don’t count.”

I made these claims for the first ten years of my Tango life. Sometimes I would get hired as a choreographer by non-tango performers and I would spend hours trying to find the “one” in a Pugliese recording I thought I knew by heart. Some nights at the local Milonga, I would dance “El Flete” and land every break, while other nights I would always leave my partner straddling an inconvenient position.

I was superstitious, as we tend to be when we don’t understand something. If I ate these kinds of foods, and spent the day doing these kinds of activities, and wore this special outfit for Monday night, maybe I would land the breaks. If I danced with the right partner at the right time. Nothing really made sense in the end, but D’Arienzo’s 1936 recording of “El Flete” remained the same week after week. Same arrangement. Same simple structure. Same idiosyncrasies. Same recording. Different results every time.

After a decade of professional Tango I started counting Tanturi/Castillo tracks in my living room. In various Tango classes I had heard a half-note count, on the downbeats, or the heaviest, “basiest” beats. To account for the syncopations, a separate fast four-count of eighth notes sometimes would be used. With most teachers, they either counted nonsensically or not at all. Some teachers though, especially those with a professional dance background, seemed to occasionally and very easily make sense of the music by just counting waves of eight quarter notes. This was familiar to me from other dance forms, like Ballet, Hip-Hop, Salsa, Swing and many others. I started counting Tanturi in waves of eight quarter notes and over the next couple of years the Matrix slowly started to reveal itself.

I began to understand why it was a little confusing finding the “one”. The occurrence of melody lines starting either before or after the “one” of the phrase was clearly far more common than actually starting on the “one”. The most common starting point for a melody line, as it turns out, is the eighth note between the six and the seven preceding the “one” of the phrase. How random (seemingly). A Tango phrase, or unit of melody line, is also twice as long as most dance music phrases at sixteen quarter notes. And, far more consistent than the starting point of a melody line in Tango is the ending point. In seemingly almost every Tango, either a strong break or a softer pause will occur on every other “five’.

Strong syncopations in Tango consist of combinations of emphasized eighth notes occurring on the “one” and the “and” between the “one” and “the “two”, which we call out with much gusto as “one-and”, or “five-and”. The counter syncopation, sometimes referred to as the “cuatrun” (a contraction of “cuatro-uno”), can be counted on the “and-three” or “and-seven”. Cuatruns can be eighth note syncopations leading into the “ones” and “fives” also. If this sounds super abstract, confusing, and even off-putting, join the club! Nobody gets into Tango to analyze data! Data analysis, as unsexy as that may sound, is really at the heart and soul of great musicality for Tango dancers. And there are few people out there who are sexier than a Tango dancer with great musicality, lead or follow.

Understanding and being able to freely recognize and dance these and many other elements in Tango music requires study. Requires analysis. But this so greatly enriches the ability and experience of the dancer, leader or follower, that I can no longer withhold this from my students. Not for many years now. And this is received with all-manner of kicking and screaming. Every excuse people give me I had already made for myself in those first ten years. I estimate about three-quarters of my students at some point express to me that they feel unique in being unable to count Tango music. Seventy-five percent feel unique for the same reason. Basically, most of us feel scared, overwhelmed, and averse to counting. It makes sense, too. Counting makes you accountable. Much of the world of Tango is about feeling good, about hugs, moving in sync together, flowing with the other dancers on the floor; connecting. But an eighth-note in a normal Tango is about a quarter of a second in duration. That’s very precise. If you dance on it, it’s clear. If you miss it, it’s clear. That’s a little scary. In many areas of Tango you can’t really be wrong; you can just be yourself. But the music is what it is. It’s beautiful and emotional, but also structural and even formulaic. Great dancers recognize the formula and riff on it.

The very best way to learn to count Tango music clearly, accurately and consistently is in a group with as little scrutiny as possible. For real. This is why ballerinas always know where the “one” is. While every other aspect of their dancing is being scrutinized for years and years, the waves of eight quarter notes are always there, often being counted out loud. The phrases are committed to something even deeper than muscle memory, like “bone memory”. Really just very entrenched neural pathways that are exceedingly useful to people learning how to organize their movements to music. And this deep commitment to engraining the structure, rhythm, and ebb and flow of the melody into one’s person is one of the skillsets that ultimately liberates us to express our emotions and ideas, rather than just our habits. Ironic, no? The path to being a less analytical dancer is being a more analytical dancer, but unconsciously so, developing said analytical skills in a group over time.

Without prior experience no one can count in Tango for at least a couple of years. Not with much confidence, anyway. Students tell me “I can’t count.” I think to myself things like “I can’t hang-glide. Or bake muffins.” You don’t really have to count. If the teacher knows the count and counts it out sometimes, but with consistency and accuracy, that’s really all that it takes. A couple of years later you just kind of know where the “one” is. You may not even know how you know. But you can move on it, even feel it coming in a song you’ve never heard before, and that’s what matters. That’s what’s fun.

As usual, the hard part is shutting up inside. It’s really hard to count to eight over and over when you’re talking to yourself about how you can’t do it. Our auditory processing can only handle so much. Shut up and count to eight over and over. Even if you’re wrong and way off, it doesn’t really matter. Your brain will eventually line it all up. You have to train the auditory part to focus on the music and only the music. No room for self chit-chat. One of the absolutely easiest and fastest ways to do that is counting it out.

It’s only scary until you start doing it. Then it’s kind of silly, fun, nerdy, and super-useful. You realize pretty quickly that counting in no way diminishes your ability to feel Tango. In all these years I’ve never come across a Tango dancer who learned to count the music and regretted it. It’s a simple and fantastic tool for expanding your understanding of Tango music, and ultimately your ability to dance and connect with others.

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