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Selected Tango Immigrant posts will continue to be up for the foreseeable future.

24 September 2013

Of Mice and Musical Men

"Some people just want to show off - you know, like 'look how musical I am!' Why can't we just be in the music?"


In cartoons, typically old Disney movies, sound effects are often used to enhance movement; for instance a downwards glissando sound if someone falls of a cliff. In tango, this has morphed into the expression "Mickey Mousing", which means to design one's dance to match different qualities in the music. The way it's being used implies that visually accurate interpretations of the music are both superficial and artificial. This view makes me a bit sad.

There are many reasons why I dance tango, but the most important one is the music. I find every feeling in it. Sadness, despair, longing, but also happiness, humour, playfulness. I'm also intrigued by the orchestra leaders' musical choices and preferences and how they create their individual trademark sound, and by the musicians and the vocalists. Sometimes I can't tell exactly what I'm responding to: the emotional message itself or the aesthetics and the craftmanship that create the message.

Taste is of course a complicated matter, and I don't like all tango music. But today, I'm talking about the music I love, the music that makes me want to dance.

And this is the key point: this music makes me want to dance. I don't just want to hear it; I want to dance it, to physically express the feelings the music evokes in me. It demands a deep focus: to really listen and to extend the feeling of the music into movement. The joy of experiencing the musical qualities in my body is substantially different from the joy of just listening.

Above all, I want to experience the music together with someone. If a partner actively expresses musical qualities, I can physically feel what he hears - and hopefully, he'll feel that I hear them, too, all the things that create the emotion of each tango: The difference between staccato and legato parts. The difference between soft and loud, light and heavy. The transitions that join the phrases together or separate them. The way the different vocalists swirl their melody lines freely around the main beat. Biagi's aggressive attempts to get even more out of a piano that sounds like it's already about to break down. A sudden appearance of a solo violinist, leaving a lazy trail of honey over D'Arienzo's spiky compás. Di Sarli's piano punctuations in Indio manso - just one shiny star to mark the ending of a section. The way Donato throws us down into darkness towards the end of Me voy a baraja, only to let his bandoneóns lift us up again.

I notice that the Mickey Mousing expression is being used to criticise dancers who use a lot of dynamic variation and precise details, when the onlooker thinks it's "too much". But if the dance is rich in detail, is it automatically less genuine and less heart-felt? How can one, just by looking, tell the difference between a person who just plasters the moves onto the music and a person who wants to express something the music makes her feel? When is it displaying how musical you are, when is it displaying your love for the music?

When is it showing off, when is it showing yourself?

I've seen countless performances where the dancers have made me discover new things in the music. I've danced with guys that have shown me musical elements I hadn't noticed before, even when I thought I knew the music well.

If that is Mickey Mousing, well, then I want more of it.