Technique or emotion?
There is often a discussion around the importance of technique in dancing tango and how it relates to expressing emotions. There is often an impression that technique is kind of the opposite of emotions, or that it hinders you from expressing emotions. Some weeks ago I saw a question about it on a Facebook group. Many people agree that technique is a tool to dance better, therefore communicate better and consequently express emotions. So the better your technique is, the better you express your emotions. So then… why do people believe that technique could be hindering the expression of emotions?
Before I go into details I would like to point out that I am writing all this from the perspective of a simple social dancer. I am no professional, I am not a teacher, I am not a performer or anything like it. Simply an average Joe (or an average Christos) who likes to dance, connect with people, and express my emotions in my dance. Although when I started I was looking at Tango purely as a form of physical exercise, a combination of events like COVID, reading, and learning about the music, musicality, and culture changed my perspective. So if you are like me… an average Joe type of person who just wants to express emotions with your dance… you may find my thoughts interesting and resonate with them. On the other hand, you might also be intrigued and think that I am bullshiting… which can also be true!
What is technique?
Before we dive deeper let me try to define what I mean by technique… or to be more precise what I understand as technique. To me, technique is the set of skills you need in order to be able to communicate clearly with your partner. That means to be able to both send and receive and act on a message. When you have proper technique what you “say” as a leader is understood and implemented by the follower and as a follower you are able to receive understand and execute correctly what your leader is “saying”. Good technique means that you can do all of this without hindering or creating problems for your partner. If you go deeper you are able to “send” messages as a follower and understand messages as a leader but… let’s keep it simple.
So, the tango technique has two main objectives as I see it. Effective communication and comfort. The better your technique is the more tools you have to adjust and find the proper tuning in order to communicate effectively and share the embrace without feeling uncomfortable. Now the more tools you have in your technique, the wider the range of possibilities in terms of partners you can share your dance with. On the opposite side, the less technique you have, the more difficult it becomes for your partners to communicate with you without getting uncomfortable. Therefore you become a kind of “limitation” for your partner.
One of the first things you learn when you start dancing is that there are specific techniques on how to walk in the embrace, how to project your legs, transfer your weight, etc. Next, you also learn how to turn effectively with pivots keeping your axis and balance so that you don’t push or pull your partner. This is more or less the core technique you need to master to be able to dance at an average milonga. No problem. You exercise, exercise, exercise, take classes… more classes, seminars, etc., you analyze and learn every little detail about how your body works and all this to improve your technique.
And then you take a musicality lesson. The first things you learn are to be able to distinguish rhythmical patterns and be able to dance to them. Then you learn about the distinction between melodies, counter melodies, and bridges and how you can pick a layer to dance and how you can dance to each of these layers… and at this point, you start having problems. Most of the technique you learn is practiced in specific well-defined rhythms. You walk either in slow or quick beats and even alternating between them. You do your ochos in slow or quick beats etc. But melody does not always follow these rules.
Take for example the phrase “Malena canta el tango” sung by Fiorentino in Troilo’s version of “Malena” and try to step on each syllable. Can you? The syllables (and also melody notes) of the word “Malena” are quite evenly spaced in time and then the syllables of “canta el” are so near to each other that you can barely change weight on each one followed by the word “tango” with an obvious accent on the first syllable of the word. If you have difficulty understanding the change of timing listen to the same melody played by the piano in the beginning and try to count the piano key strikes.
All the techniques you learned so far are becoming more or less useless when you are confronted with this problem. So what do you do? The first option is to stay with you know so far and simply dance to specific rhythmical patterns. The second is to try to find the techniques that will allow you to express that melody. Techniques that will allow you to change the speed of your movement from one moment to the other without a rhythmical pattern behind it to make your dance match the melody. The problem is that in some cases, some of those techniques may contradict what you already learned.
One of the most prominent examples that come to mind that I heard and practiced during musicality classes is the “falling”. Yes. In many typical technique classes, you normally learn how to keep your balance and transfer your weight from one foot to another gradually without falling into the next step. Well, this can go out the window when you want to play with music. Actually, you can allow yourself to go off balance and create momentum for the next steps. This way you actually fall in the next steps, somehow like walking when drunk. When you walk drunk… you can easily see yourself doing quick steps to catch yourself from falling and slow steps in the moments you are more in balance. These steps will not follow any rhythmical pattern. They will more or less seem randomly spread in time. If this randomness resembles the one in the melody… you got it! That is how you match the sensation of those changes you listen to in the music like those this “Malena”.
Having said that, think about any song you like. What is the part of the song that creates the emotion in you? The rhythm or the melody? In most cases, it will be the melody. In those cases when you dance, in order to trigger the emotion you need to match as much as possible the melody. You don’t need to do it for the whole song. It is enough if you can do it for the most emotional parts of it. But in order to match the melody… many times, the typical technique you learned needs to go out the window. Needs to be forgotten and left out so that you allow room for the emotion to come in and express itself.
Usually, such techniques for expressing emotions require much less thinking and control. If you try to overthink it and match exactly the timing of the melody it will come across as stressful. They require you to react to what the music makes you feel bypassing your thoughts at the moment. Maybe you need to tense your body more, maybe relax it, maybe let your weight fall, maybe extend or contract your body but in all cases, this needs to be a visceral reaction that has priority over rules and restrictions of basic technique that you have in mind. It needs to be able to ignore them so that it can take over and express the emotion to its fullest. It requires you to trust your instincts and let them take over. Don’t think about anything else. There is something magical and liberating when you surrender to that call of emotions. You get out of this moment like after a big dive and you feel even more alive than before. All you need to do is just surrender… let go of control.
The fear of messing up
And what about the communication and comfort that technique helps us maintain? True. When you let go of traditional technique you may end up in miscommunication and discomfort. However when both parties let go at the same time and follow their instincts most of the time miscommunication and discomfort just disappear. I mean maybe it will be there… but the overwhelming sensation from emotions taking over just makes it so minimal and trivial that you don’t really pay attention to it.
Last week I was writing about the literal and metaphorical dancing of melodies. The technique of falling I mentioned here is useful in dancing literally to melodies. Having written this text so far, I realize why it is so powerful when applied to melodies. Because melodies contain the emotion of the music and dancing to them literally is like expressing your emotions literally. Like saying directly “I am in love”… “I am sad”… “I am in pain”… “I feel lovely”… etc. When you fear letting go… surrendering to the emotion… trying to dance literally to the melody… it’s like being afraid to speak literally about your feelings.
Now it makes sense. That is why people believe that technique hinders expressing emotions. It’s not actually the techniques that are hindering us. It is us being afraid to speak literally about our emotions. It is us being afraid to stop acting with our minds and start acting with our hearts.
Tonight’s Goodnight Tango
Tonight’s Goodnight Tango is one of the many about a love that struggled with and defied reason. It is the story of José Maria Contursi and his love for Gicel, a young girl he met and fell in love with despite being already married. It is a story of a continuous struggle between reason and emotions. It is a story that finds a happy end years after their first meeting when finally emotions win.
So, how about you? What do think about techniques? Do they limit you in expressing emotions? Do they help you? Which ones help you and how? Have you ever tried breaking techniques to express emotions? Have you ever tried going beyond their limits? Do you allow yourself to bypass or switch them when you want to express emotions? 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.