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11 November 2015

Musicality: description or empathy?

“It’s Mickey Mousing.”

I’ve always been provoked by this tango slang term. “Mickey Mousing” was coined to mean mimicking the music while dancing, but in a superficial and automatised way. But I never understood how dancing to the music could be a problem. For me, this has more or less from the beginning been the only way to truly be together in the dance: it gives meaning to what the leader does, and it’s a great tool to use for the follower to influence and colour the dance. I always believed that a good dancer is one that knows the music.

But then I had this weirdly eye-opening tanda. It was with a leader who obviously knew the music really well - the phrasing was right, every “important” pause was there. Everything was by the book. The tanda had all the stuff one would expect to learn in musicality classes. Yet the dance seemed strangely empty. It matched the music, but it was like everything was pre-programmed. I could have been dancing with a robot.

So I’ve started questioning my own dance. Which feelings do I transmit? Am I just describing the music through my dance? Do I want to show that I know the song, or do I want to show how the song makes me feel?
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Let’s look at an example: a tango with some nice staccato parts. We want to express this staccato. This is a technical thing. In addition, we might hear that in this particular tango, the staccato has a light quality, which can be interpreted as “happy”. So we try to put this into the dance. This is also a technical thing. You can go to a musicality class and learn how to dance a staccato and happy quality and repeat it in other songs.

But I believe that it’s perfectly possible to dance a happy feeling without actually feeling happy. Oppositely, music can make you feel happy even if you haven’t taken a musicality class in your life, because this is a different thing: the ability to get emotionally involved in something outside yourself. It’s a kind of “musical empathy”. And I think that the musical empathy is the core. It’s what makes us truly musical dancers: the ability to interpret musical emotions as human emotions.

Dont’ worry, though! All the musicality classes you’ve taken, all the hours you’ve spent watching Noelia and Carlitos videos for musical inspiration aren’t wasted. In addition to our musical empathy, we need technical skills and musical knowledge. They are the tools we use to integrate our emotions in the dance.

So how to do this? For me, it was enough to acknowledge that I was missing something. I wanted to be more emotional in my dance, so I decided I would allow myself to be something other than a “musical describer”. It’s possible that the change isn’t noticeable. As with all communication: I may feel something myself, but this in itself doesn’t mean that I’m communicating it to my partner. And the communication also depends on which leader is on the receiving end. I feel different myself, though. Maybe that's enough?