Tango Argentino > Improvising the Dance

Discussion in 'Tango Argentino' started by UKDancer, Jun 12, 2011.

  1. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    Another recent discussion (about a particular figure-based syllabus) set me thinking (and not for the first time) about the relationship between recognisable elements or actions in tango and 'figures'.

    They seem to me to be closer than many would wish to acknowledge. I have no interest at all in stringing together a series of figures in my dancing, but find that I am using a core of fundamental actions again and again, and from more-or-less the same starting points - and what's more, so is nearly everyone else.

    If I lead a back ocho, then my partner and I know what's going to happen for at least four consecutive actions. She will be led to a backward step, to pivot as she collects, another backward step and another pivot (that combination is what makes it an ocho). We might do that again, or we might walk out (probably into a cross, but not always). It's just as likely that the ocho will precede or follow a giro pattern, but these are, well, patterns. There are lots of things I wouldn't lead in tango, because they wouldn't be tango, but as soon as I follow that line of thought, I am forced to conclude that what I am improvising is the order in which I use the elements of my tango vocabulary, and the way that I time and shape them (hopefully in response to the music and my partner), but I'm not improvising the elements or actions themselves - they are what they are.

    If I were writing a syllabus, and it contained a chart or table setting out how a giro can be danced, turning clockwise, perhaps from a cross, and exiting the pattern with a forward ocho and coming back to a cross, then I will be able to come up with a simple version, with suggested timings and amounts of turn, but equally, I could suggest many variations that would still start and finish in the same place.

    In my useage of the term, these would all be patterns (I'm not sure I would want to use the term 'figure' at all -it has all the wrong connotations); but others would say that all these variations are living proof of the improvisatory basis of the dance, and that the same clockwise giro could have started and ended in so many other ways, so to say that it is a pattern, at all, is redundant.

    It's the same with ochos, the pasada, barridas and a hundred other actions (well, OK, I don't know a hundred, but some will). Watching a room full of tango dancers I observe the same things being danced, across my whole field of vision. I see tango (rather than the completely random movements that would be the product of free improvistion) and it is probably a reasonable application of the Pareto principle to see 80% of tango being represented in 20% of all the actions you might observe danced in, say, one song.

    So when we dismiss figures and a figure-based approach, and talk about improvistion, I'm not sure whether if we could show each other what we meant, we would find much more agreement than would be expected from the polarisation of the two camps to be found in print here.

    One monkey, out of an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, will produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare, word perfect. But I never see a tango dancer improvising something that I would recognise as an advanced ballroom tango amalgamation, suitable for a higher-level medal test. So the improvision that I do see is informed by lots of unwritten rules and conventions, and the vocabulary is suprisingly small.

    What do those who talk of improvising (while dismissing figures) really mean by their usage of the term (ie improvising what?) and could a syllabus ever be formulated that would set out how to use the vocabulary of tango in that way?
  2. opendoor

    opendoor Well-Known Member

    hi UKDancer, in my opinion, improvising is totally indipendent from one´s steps and the figure vocabulary. Very often I use to dance alone in my corridor hall. And the only variables in interpreting are long deep steps vs. short ones, double or half time accents as rebotes, giros vs. walking, and very really very important just standing, gently turning the shoulders, stretching the fingers of the left hand, finding a new place for the right hand, pet and hugging the woman, a.s.o. everything that reflects the mood and spirit of that specific piece.

    Secondly my vocabulary changes, sometimes I remember some figures and I dance them for some weeks and then forget about them again, then other will appear and so on.

    And of course volcadas, there are passages in some pieces that simply require a volcada, so as there are passages for jumps or aerials.
  3. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    I'm struggling to see how it can be. Surely you are using your vocabulary as you improvise the dance? I'm not suggesting that you are thinking "I'm going to lead the first half of this, and then change to the second half of that, and then I'm going to lead the other", but a bit like driving a car, once we can drive, we don't have to think consciously about moving off - for us the car moves forward because the traffic light turned green. Doesn't experience in the dance lead to being able to just dance, without organising it consciously?

    I don't invent new ways to drive my car, and I'm not sure that I invent new ways to dance. Occasionally I discover a new way (new for me) to combine elements in a pleasing way, but it very probably won't be original, and I may or may not remember what I did, or find the opportunity to repeat it; but if I did, it wouldn't come out quite the same, again (or at least, I hope not).
  4. opendoor

    opendoor Well-Known Member

    concerning the car driving picture: the vocabulary are the right and left foot action, left and right hand at gear or wheel, the head that turnes, and so on. But the more experienced you are the more free you feel to drive serpentines in the alps, or simply through the sand to Dakar. Intuitively you will know what to do to get along with different situations.

    And honestly, you are worrying about ideas and concepts the majority of dancers does even not know of their existence!
  5. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    No, I'm not worrying about it: I'm just thinking about it. ;)

    I have to assume that the I don't dance figures advocates do dance ochos, giros, sacadas, barridas, ganchos and all the rest - but perhaps they don't? If they do, I'm just puzzled about the basis of their belief that they don't dance patterns/figures - or alternatively, how they reconcile the pattern basis of all those elements with their particularly philosophy of dance.

    I'm not even arguing that one is better than the other - just trying to work out whether there is an ocean of dance out there (out of my depth, perhaps), while I'm just splashing in the shallows?
  6. chanchan

    chanchan Member

    I agree that an ocho is the sequence of four consecutive actions that you described. Now the question is: according to you, when should she understand that you are leading an "ocho" and know what's going to happen?

    Actually, if I lead a backward step followed by a pivot and another backward step the follower still cannot in any case assume that I will lead her another pivot, she can't tell if this will be an "ocho" or something else. There could be a pause, or maybe a forward step, or a sacada, or a sandwitch.
    Even if the sequence of the "ocho" is almost completed, the only thing that she knows for sure is that if she is with her weight on the right leg I will not lead a step with that leg. That's all.

    This is improvisation.
    There are few elements: forward step, back step, side step, pivot. All the "figures" are things that may happen or not, depending on how you combine your steps and your partner's step.
    I would say the opposite: 80% of what you usually see in a dance is 20% of the possibilities of tango. Just because, for many reasons, some combinations happens more frequently than others.
  7. opendoor

    opendoor Well-Known Member

    But it is not only an ocean of improvising. At least musicality, posture, quality of the movement, and variation make up a good dancer. I´m a bit curious all about this, too and often ask women: what does he (I mean X or Y) have compared with me, what is different. And women frequently will answer
    -his posture feels stronger and more energetic :evil:
    -he is dancing more dramatically (only few actually really can :cool: )
    -he has got a good perfume .. :rolleyes:
    -he makes unusual moves, and so on.

    From my first TA day on I was told by experienced dancers that I´ve got musicality and that dancing was fun with me (I learned by doing, went to a Milonga as an absolute beginner, and danced right on without thinking). But from the very beginning on posture was my eternal construction zone. On the other hand you have perfect dancers but their ability of improvising is poor. So every dancer is a mixture of all these said properties, skills and abilities.

    By the way what is the difference between improvising and interpreting. You said improvising but I would prefer interpreting. Improvising could also mean to fill in differently, alter, substitute, string together randomly. Whereas interpreting always is in relation to the music, isn´t it?
  8. AndaBien

    AndaBien Well-Known Member

    Not for me. And what exactly do you mean by "just dance"? When I dance I still have to decide what steps to do. They don't just happen by themselves. I certainly have to think about guiding my partner to do what I am thinking about. I have to think about putting my partner to the music, and myself also. In my choreography I have to begin and end with musical phrases, and all that requires conscious thought.

    When musicians improvise they still have to use same 12 notes of the western scale, and they have to play in the particular scale of the tune. If a rapper improvises he still has to use the vocabulary of his particular language.

    For me the distinction is in how one does the pattern. You're quite correct that everyone is using the same patterns. Some dancers do a pattern as a figure, in that they always do it the same way. Another dancer may do the same pattern but it's always different, or let's say, appropriate to the moment. If the timing, the emotion, the size, the feel of the pattern is consciously suited to the partner, the music and the floor, then it is created right then.

    Sometimes I am not improvising. I may be tired, or distracted by a nearby dancer, or have a partner who is not paying enough attention. In those situations I may resort to merely cranking routine movements. When I'm doing that, I know I'm not creating a dance for my partner, and I'm also not enjoying my own dance. For me, that would be a dead dance, no vitality, and I might as well just get off the floor.
  9. Shandy

    Shandy Member

    Uk Dancer
    Not sure this helps, but I read your post and it was like a deep exhale of breathe.

    After gaining competence in the figures/sequences of competitive ballroom dancing, my teacher (based on my own agenda) spent a lot of time dancing 'freestyle' in foxtrot, waltz and tango. Let me just say that the skills learnt hugely informed my journey in the "improvised" Argentine Tango that I encountered when dancing this style socially.

    I would comment that when I take private lessons with two (imo) exceptional AT teachers, we do work on improvisation but I'm guessing that most of this would be classified as outside of 'traditional tango' and frowned upon by many!! (None of these 'steps/sequences' are expected to be used at a milonga but are explored as part of my own development and our understanding of improvising tango').

    I absolutely love AT but am often bored with the simplistic comparison with ballroom. Also drives me mad with the (imo) confused debate about AT being totally improvised and the restrictions demanded when a dance is expected to adhere to strict traditions. (Often reminds me of the film 'Strictly Ballroom' - lol)
  10. twnkltoz

    twnkltoz Well-Known Member

    One of my favorite leaders know very few "official" tango figures. His dance is almost all improvisational, but it's all in the tango style. Lots of walks, little weight changes, rocks, a point of the foot here, a cross there, a turn, shift out to a very open hold so we can play around with footwork, then back to a close embrace for simpler walks and turns. It's delightful...because he and I are so comfortable dancing together, he gives me a lot of freedom to interpret the music and his lead in my own way, and we'll get sort of a conversation going between his footwork and mine. Yet, he remains in charge of the dance, and I stay in the parameters he sets. It's very cool and a lot of fun.
  11. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    Good! I've thought about, too.

    But, that is sort of why the word "improvisation" is used. "Amalgamations" are, to my knowledge, never taught in AT. (well, maybe in lessons, but they aren't called that, and then they usually fall apart on the social dance floor and then you improvise the next steps)

    I'd like to suggest that you think about leading a back ocho from a stand still with the man not moving his feet.

    It's one of the endearing myths of Argentine Tango, as is the use of the term "embrace" with the belief that you don't have a "frame", as is the belief that the cabezeo is something more than different by degree only than what happens in all social dance situations.
  12. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    This is what I strive for. Even when I dance with newbies, I tell them that this is where they can go as they learn more and get more experience. I also warn them, though, that this approach isn't shared by all men who dance AT.

    I danced milonga with someone who is relatively new, and she sort of complained about traspie. Next time I dance with her, I'm going to see if she would like to do repeated, unled crosses while I simply walk. I hope this will allow her to feel "traspie" timing, and learn that she can do things with her feet without distrubing the lead.
  13. Steve Pastor

    Steve Pastor Moderator Staff Member

    So, farily typical AT lesson her in Portland (in my experience) goes like this.

    Ok, let's work on the sequence of steps and techinique for a giro. Everyone pretty much got it? OK, now here are ways we can change it, different ways to get into it, get out of it, etc.

    I can't recall a class (other than at a "festival") where someone went on to add something else to a giro to form an amalgamtion that would be recognized outside of that class.

    And, this is very important, no one has ever offered to certify me at one level or another, requiring me to perform a set sequence of steps or amalgamations.

    In short the emphasis is on small, interchangeable parts, and the goal is to give you a vocabulary to work with, rather than sequences to master or memorize.
  14. salthepal

    salthepal New Member

    what this guy said!!!!!
  15. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    I don't want her to assume anything at all. I certainly won't feel obliged to dance every part of a pattern (and an ocho is a perfect example) just because the pattern in that form bears a name (and has assumed familiarity). Sometimes it will fit and sometimes I will vary what I'm doing - but the pattern is the foundation of the idea that I am dancing just now, I'm not creating anything out of nothing - I'm using the vocabulary of the dance, which originally was learned (by me) from patterns. Now, I've learned to break down the components of the patterns, and hope to be able to use them independently.

    I don't really think of this as improvisation, and perhaps that explains my puzzlement.

    Actually we agree, but perhaps I wasn't clear. What I meant was that 80% of the time you see the same 20% of all of the available possibilities being used, so that that limited set of actions really are the self-selecting ones that represent the fundamentals of the dance for most dancers most of the time. Some may never extend their repertoire, but be perfectly good dancers, and others will reject available possibilities because they dance a particular style of tango, where only a sub-set is ever used.
  16. AndaBien

    AndaBien Well-Known Member

    What do you think improvisation is? What defines it?
  17. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    If tango is an improvisatory dance, then can you be the perfect dancer if your ability to improvise is poor? Perfect at what?

    But improvising isn't really my term - I don't think I feel comfortable with it at all. And I don't think if you were moving randomly I could recognise that you were still dancing, at all. So interpreting? Yes, and I think that it would be perfectly possible to dance nothing at all except a series of 8CBs, but still do it in a way that fitted the music (depending on the music, of course).

    Almost every VU dancer I have ever seen starts with the first five steps of an 8CB. As BTM said the other day, they take that big side step, having first waved their legs around, and then, after a big dramatic pause, they move on into a cross and work from there. Sure, they do it with skill and musicality, but they nearly all do the same thing. They're not improvising either - they're dancing an 8CB. I'm not daft!
  18. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    I'm still at the stage when I have to think about almost everything I do in tango. Sometimes I do lead figures, just so that I don't have to think for a second or two. But I don't want a boring dance, and I don't want to bore my partner.

    But in my BR dancing, I have decades of experience. I just dance - and I'm not thinking, consciously, about what I'm doing now, or what I might do next. I haven't needed to do that for twenty years! I expect my tango to become more and more like that. And that certainly doesn't mean that I will just churn out figures, any more than I just churn out figures on the ballroom floor.
  19. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    Oh yes, I know what you mean. You can improvise anything you like, but not that, or that, or that - they are not tango. Tango is what we say it is, and you must dance like this.

  20. UKDancer

    UKDancer Well-Known Member

    No, you misunderstand what I meant. I was suggesting that if you were really free to improvise, then just like monkey # 7,854,459 (who has just typed the first Act of Hamlet with only two typos), I might 'improvise' what, coincidentally, is identical to an extended advanced BR tango amalgamation. If you were to observe at the milonga long enough, it should be a mathematical certainty that someone will - except that very probably it would never happen. We are not free to 'improvise', except with the tango vocabulary, of necessity, that vocabulary is made up of short and mostly simple patterns. The building blocks have to be bigger than just single steps in any available direction, because they could produce BR tango, and that would never do.

    It prompted me to look up 'improvise' in my Concise OED. I found:
    1. Create and perform spontaneously or without preparation.
    2. Produce or make (something) from whatever is available.
    Is my tango spontaneous? Increasingly, I hope so. Is it made from whatever is available - no, not really. I only use the elements permitted. For elements, you could perfectly easily substitute patterns, and it is a short step from there to figures, and once you have put two figures together, you have satisfied the definition of an amalgamation.


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