The tango vocabulary illusion

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Tango as a language

I have many times written about how Tango is like a language. How dancing is like speaking a foreign language. What are my vocabulary limitations and how I kind of worked around them. Even the learning methodology is similar to language learning. You first focus on learning small words. Then you focus on the right pronunciation (technique) and then as you progress you learn how to write your own stories and how to collaborate with others to tell them together.

On all this analysis I was struggling to figure out, how on earth can you get away with a limited vocabulary and still manage to have interesting if not mind and soul-blowing conversations. I mean… I manage to have dances that blow my mind and my soul without the knowledge of the whole vocabulary. Is it that my conversations are like chitchat? Am I that shallow? Or is it something else I miss? A few weeks ago it dawned on me on my way to a milonga.

Meaningless words

In most languages, the vocabulary you learn has a specific meaning. Every single word represents an object, an idea, an action, etc. Sometimes you get metaphorical meanings of the same word so they might represent more than one thing but the amount of meanings for a word is finite. In order to be able to communicate, you need, as I already wrote, about 800 words, because these are enough to represent the most common things, ideas, and actions you will need in an everyday conversation.

Now, what is the meaning of the words in the Tango vocabulary? When you learn to walk forward or to do an ocho cortado does anybody tell you this means “love” or “pain” etc., so you can use it when the song is sad or romantic or whatever else? Obviously not! This is the crucial difference between a normal language vocabulary and the tango vocabulary. The different words of the tango vocabulary have multiple and actually infinite potential interpretations and therefore meanings. You can use the same word (e.g. an ocho) to show that you feel romantic or energetic or passionate etc.

The precision argument

In a discussion some months ago a friend told me that the more vocabulary you know in tango the more precise you can be in your dance. If you take the analogy of telling a story when you dance it means that you will be able to describe better what you want to say. So the more vocabulary you learn the more precise in your stories you can be when you dance.

This is where the whole advanced vocabulary argument starts falling apart. If as we said the vocabulary in Tango is meaningless and any word can have any meaning, then how is it possible that the more words you learn the more precise your description can be? If the words are meaningless where do they get their meaning from when we dance them? Who or what assigned meaning to them? Who or what defines that this ocho expresses happiness and this other ocho sadness?

The answer is simple. The meaning is derived from the music they try to express and most importantly from how they are “pronounced”. A short quick forward step in a milonga does not have the same meaning as a long slow forward step in a DiSarli Tango. They are both the same simple word (forward step)… but the context and our way of expressing and pronouncing them is what actually assigns meaning to them.

So what is the “Tango vocabulary”?

After all this thought I revisited my vocabulary limitations post where I explain how I came to use a limited vocabulary and how I compensated by working on musicality and expressiveness. Having written all this about the difference of languages with Tango in terms of the vocabulary I would say that instead of limiting my vocabulary I actually extended it. Even better, I actually invented it. Given that the words in the so-called tango vocabulary take meaning from our pronunciation and the music they step on… working on my musicality and expressiveness actually gave meaning to the words in my vocabulary.

Actually, I believe that we should stop using the term vocabulary for the different moves and steps we are taught. The contents of a vocabulary have meaning on their own… but in our case, the vocabulary alone is totally meaningless, and calling it so gives a false sense of importance to it. We should find another term that represents better what they actually are. I would tend to use the word toolset or stationary (to be more precise and in line with the language paradigm). Because actually, the moves you learn in Tango are not actually the words themselves to write your stories. They are the pens, the pencils, and the different papers that you will use to write your stories. That is I think the biggest problem. We think we learn words when we are actually only given pens and papers and then instead of writing stories we just draw incoherent smudges thinking this is a story.

And this now explains how I got away with dancing only with a limited tango vocabulary. How I managed to have such interesting and unforgettable experiences on the dancefloor. It is because I am using the so-called vocabulary as stationary. A simple collection of papers and pens that I use to write our stories giving them meaning through musicality and expressiveness.

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango

Tonight’s Goodnight Tango is a Tango without words and without a title too. There are no lyrics… and there is not even a title to give you an impression of what it could be about. You can interpret it as you like. It’s more or less like the words in our so-called Tango vocabulary. Void of meaning waiting for us to assign it to them.

So what do you think? Do the words you learn for your Tango vocabulary have any meaning? Do you use them only for specific emotions? Do you feel that you express better yourself the more words you gather in your vocabulary? How do you give meaning to your every step in the dance? Let me know with a comment below, an email, or a PM on Facebook… oh… and if you liked it… don’t forget to share it with your friends.

N.N – Osvaldo Pugliese

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2 responses to “The tango vocabulary illusion”

  1. Victor Gamolsky Avatar
    Victor Gamolsky

    Couple of points here.
    1. “Tango is a language” is a metaphor, and as such it will not fit 100%. The purpose of the metaphor is to point to a similarity to help us understand some aspect of the subject explained. Focusing on where it does not fit and discarding because of the misfit it misses the point.
    2. Words do not carry emotional meaning by themselves. But phrasing, especially poetic phrasing, does. And so in tango, our movements can be made poetic, but we need to know the words, the grammar and have something to say.

    1. chris.kourou Avatar

      Hi Victor… First of all thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it!
      1. Exactly… It is a metaphor and it won’t fit 100%. This post is just pointing out that within this metaphor, if we take some terms at face value we are in danger of assign them a much bigger value than they actually have. That is the problem with the term vocabulary. In any other language it is something fundamental… important. The more you know the better that you can express yourself. In Tango, since it is used metaphorically, it doesn’t have the same effect and value and that creates an illusion.
      2. Yes… Words don’t have an emotional meaning. I only know of literal and metaphorical meaning. Emotions are meaning expressed with words. You can write the word “love” and it points to a specific emotion. When you use it in lyrics or even hint at it with poetic syntax, structures etc yes… It can even trigger the emotion.
      Similarly in Tango… a movement alone might not evoke an emotion but rather a set of movements bound together. But the fact still remains… The emotion evoked is not because of the actual movements selected… a series of front steps will not make you feel sad or happy by themselves… this is done mostly by the way these movements are done… by all these other qualities that we tend to forget.
      Check this post out… I think it is related
      https://goodnighttango.com/2023/02/06/dancers-or-story-tellers/

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