Friday, October 29, 2010

Tango Vals: "Perfect Time"

First, please watch this video clip (below) of the great masters, Gavito and Durán.  This entry today is all about the rhythm of tango vals (waltz), which plays with the time like no other waltz.  That is, one can play with the rhythm, and I would argue make the dance truly what tango is at its best:  Improvisation in movement for two.  You will need to watch this video clip more than once, so just this first time, look for the normal down beat (ONE two three).

In music history, 3/4 (the waltz) was called "perfect time."  4/4 time was called, and still is called, "common time."  At the start of a piece a "C" is written for "common time," and is still often used to denote 4/4 time by today's composers.  The word "Common" is used in this sense as "less than perfect" or "vulgar" (in the Latin meaning of that word).  The theology of the Trinity and the huge influence of three on Christianity out of Stoicism influenced this idea of "perfect time."  Is it really "perfect"?  Absolutely!

So let's indulge in the myth of "perfect time."  Vals is the perfect time in which to dance.  Musically speaking we have some interesting things that can be done with the tango vals (waltz), and this video clip is a great example.

Gavito clearly thinks in larger phrases, the smallest of which is 12 beats long (4 measures of 3/4).  The common dancer dances on ONE(2,3), FOUR(5,6), SEVEN (8,9) TEN (11,12), which is the downbeat of each 3/4 phrase.  Since Gavito knows where these are, it does not confuse him to dance on every second beat of the 12-beat phrase (2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12), or the second beat of the normal downbeat (2, 5, 8, and 11), for example, which he does at the outset of the video clip.  His partner and any woman with a few tango courses could follow him on this because he is exactly on these beats and they make sense.  His steps on the first half of this clip are mostly on 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 of the 12-beat phrase.  Then he comes home to the power of the downbeat and resolves with intense pauses.

Gavito is by no means the only great dancer who uses 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 or 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 in a vals.  When one is dancing on these beats, it is as if one is dancing a waltz within a waltz (instead of 1 against 3 -- the normal waltz -- one is dancing 3 steps (a waltz) per 6 beats.  Note:  You will need to clap out 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 (3 against 6 on the downbeat) or 2, 4, 6, 8 10, 12 (3 against 6 on the upbeat) while counting to 12 (over and over) to understand what he is doing.  Watch first, stop the clip, and work out the rhythm with hand clapping.  Then watch it again, and you will begin to understand his genius.  [If you are a musician, the feel is quarter note triplets here.]

Gavito may not have known what he was doing.  I discovered these things from feeling and then tried to figure out why they worked.

Have fun, and if you have questions leave a comment or email me at


Anonymous said...

There is no such thing as Tango Vals though indeed Gavito is dancing a Tango to Vals music here. But a Vals it is not.
If you think in terms of the music as you describe, improvisation of a Vals in real milonga conditions cannot happen. As an improvising dancer this is too complicated. Vals music of course is different to Tango, so why not dance in way that connects to it?
Sometimes live ensembles play at milongas and they might play tangos that more suit them than the dancers. They tend to respect dance Vals much more. Yet here you seem to be advocating that dancers mess with the rhythm instead!

Tango Therapist said...

@ Mr Anonymous (certainly not "Ms" because women like more than One two three ad nausium). The master dancer is being criticized as not dancing a vals! Interesting. Certainly you are highly influenced the Vienna school of thought! You are advocating to stay in the box. So be my guest! Your criticism of Gavito is tantamount to telling Tito Puente that he is playing off beat too much or Miles Davis that he should try to start his phrasing on one.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you introduce a spurious comparison to improvised jazz as a means of ridiculing my criticism of non-vals timing in the Vals by a master not of social dancing but of choreography and show dancing.
And you claim I'm influenced by the "Viennese" school! That's really strange as the Viennese influence is in the music and the tango influence is in the dance. Vals is not Viennese, it is Argentinian.
You might find a complicated link to the rhythm but I see little link to the overall ambience and timing of a Vals, indeed often the music seems utterly incidental.
Any idea that this was an improvised dance by two long time professional show partners is indeed ridiculous. You should be encouraging dancers to connect to each other and to the music not confuse them with over-complicated impossible and irrelevant ambitions.

Tango Therapist said...

@ Anonymous: Your statement, "There is no such thing as Tango Vals" is a remarkable idea. Consider emailing me at I am keenly interested in understanding this opinion. Also, Sir, please do not hide behind anonymity while speaking on my blog, at least with such force and assured opinion. You did not so much as leave initials. Re: Connection -- I am a social dancer and connection to me is everything. The perfect dance is the one in which the embrace is not lost. So we agree on this. I use these concepts as do all experienced dancers I have observed while on the tight social dance floor. Re: improvisation: Gavito could improvise, and I believe that he was at this small gathering. All these rhythms mentioned can be done in the size of a phone booth. My partners like what I do; so that is good enough for me. Send me a video clip of any dancer whom you adore, and I will transcribe the rhythms that they do, demonstrating my points -- especially traditional milongueros, who were particularly good at this.

Anonymous said...

Your blog system offered the option of anonimity and anon I shall remain. You object to my objecting but don't really address my objections.
Analysing rhythms doesn't help on the dance floor, listening and responding to the music does. Here Gavito manages to pause through the music and dance through the pauses. Even his ending is way ahead of the music.
There's nothing magical in dancing every other beat, the opposite in fact when it's a Vals. And by the way, milongueros were mainly straightforward people, not artistes. They danced rhythmically to the music and were influenced by the melody. That's the art - if only there was more of that, not less.

Tango Therapist said...

@ Anon: It is hard to follow your objections: "There is no such thing is as tango vals" was your first objection. Everything you have said after that is talking about something that does not exist. I was willing to try to engage you in a discussion via email, but you hide like a blog terrorist. Others screen their blog from hecklers. Now I must do the same. ¡Que vergüenza, Señor!

SaraM said...

The dance does not need to be mentally analyzed...... if enjoyed. Truly, the magic and the draw of tango is the enjoyment of the connection and the dance, no matter how interpreted. What keeps tango from being boring is the vast room for interpretation. I for one have had some wonderful musical connections with "tango therapist", Mark.
Since he is a musician, he interprets the music more intricately then most dancers and it makes for a lot of fun!

Tango Therapist said...

@Sara M: Hola Sara... fun factor, musicality, responsible floorcraft, respect of traditions all come together when I dance with you. Maybe a day later, I analyze why that was so much fun! I only do that to make sure it keeps happening. Miss you!

Mari Johnson said...

There is some controversy over the term "tango vals" which some traditionalists state is more appropriately called "vals cruzada" because "tango" refers to one type of music, and "vals" to another. For them, "tango vals" is a contradiction in terms. So for that point, I can see where "anon" is going. It seems to me a matter of semantics and since we will always have people on both sides of that fence, the usefulness of debating it seems limited.

Regarding Gavito's timing, at least from my observation of the video, is that he does not seem so concerned with his own steps - but rather with Marcela's. Marcela is the instrument and it appears to me that she is not ahead of the music.

Gavito's interpretation of this is quite beautiful imo, and fits the music very well. Of course it could be danced any number of ways and still be "in the music".

Gavito is such a polarizing figure in Tango, people seem to love him or hate him. I have only talked to/danced with his students, so my opinions are through them. He earned his living as a show dancer certainly, but from what his students have told me, and his friends have written of him, it was his milonga life that he valued most, and his presence in the milongas was valued by others. Somehow it seems that if a dancer earns his or her living in performance - that is some sort of black mark against them. I don't understand that attitude at all.

Anonymous said...

You posted this publicly, why should we have a private discussion? Seems you don't like dissent to your opinion, calling it heckling or me a blog terrorist is hardly constructive. I qualified my "No such thing as Tango vals" comment but you choose to ignore that.

The no Tango Vals argument is simple. Tango is both the dance and the music and Vals is the dance in waltz time. The argentines call it Vals Cruzado but we often simply call it Argentine Vals. It's laziness abroad that's confusingly named it Tango Vals compounded by peculiar dances like Gavito's where he does indeed seem to be treating it as "wallpaper" Tango music. You claim he is being clever, I say he is ignoring the music. Extraordinarily you claim that he thinks in 12 beat phrases or longer; if so that is choreography not improvisation in the moment and according to the floor conditions. Anyone who pauses like that on a milonga floor in contradiction to the flow of the music is just an irritating obstruction.

As a musician you listen on a different level to dancers and musicianship is different to musicality. Dancers absorb it, you analyse it. I'll stick with the Vals time, and interpretations of it, happy that dancers seek me out to dance it.

PS. When I wrote that I hadn't realised that you are a life long percussionist. Perhaps some partners hearing the same music as you and actually listening may wonder just what it is you are dancing to.

Mari Johnson said...

The truth is simple - "if he were on the milonga floor" arguments over performance videos border on the absurd. They're not on the milonga floor - it's a performance. That's the point. A performance is *the* time and place to push boundaries, to experiment, and do things that set you apart as dancers, else why would anyone watch your performance?

Of Mark in particular, and other musicians I've danced with generally, I have noticed that musician-dancers do offer a different dance experience. They tend to be highly connected to the music - they care about the music, have opinions about it, and strong ideas about expressing it. Even when I don't hear the music precisely the same way, it is exhilarating to dance with musicians who feel the music so intensely. It broadens my perception of the piece and frequently of the orquestra as well. They also tend to treat the dance as a conversation and welcome my contribution to our musicality as a unit. In fact they almost demand my contribution - as I think they should. (An idea emphasized just this weekend by Murat and Michelle, and previously by Grisha Nisnevich during his visits to Austin.)

Right before my first dance with Mark, the follower sitting next to me said, "just wait until you dance with him, it will change everything." She was right - his experience of the music greatly broadened *my* experience of it. Judging by the amount of time Mark spends sitting at the milongas (which is always just about zero), and the line of women trying to make eye contact, followers seem to approve.

In contrast (at the other extreme), there are too many leaders (I'm biased, I think even one is too many) who treat the rhythm of the music as some sort of dictatorial metronome from which they dare not deviate, and so they march along, dancing as they were taught, feeling no unique, or personal connection to the music. But by God they are "on the music" beat after beat after beat. Which do you think followers prefer? Leaving off both extremes, I can tell you that for me and for the followers I've talked to, we would rather dance with someone with a unique perception of the music (even if we don't feel the music the same way), rather than someone who dances simply as he is expected to dance.

I also don't see why analyzing the music rules out feeling or absorbing the music, like some sort of toggle switch - you're either doing one or the other. I have not found that to be the case - at least on the receiving end of the lead. The whole judging vs. perceiving/ thinking vs. feeling model has been shown to be flawed in any case. (

So Anon, why turn a highly nuanced and interesting idea or perspective into something black and white - except to be inflammatory?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mark for allowing this debate to continue publicly or at least Mari is. In practice it doesn't matter that I'm anon as I've no idea who Mari is either!

To take her points in turn. Of course Gavito was in a performance but Mark used that performance as an example of what dancers could do with the Vals with his exhortation to watch more than once and clap the beat. Gavito certainly is set apart in his complete destruction of "perfect time" music as Mark put it. I cannot comment about Mark's dancing and never have done though I posed a question.

Murat and Michelle seem to be pushing boundaries with a flamboyant eye-catching modern Villa Urquiza style (not the original one) invented by argentinians of the show school tendency to sell lessons mainly to foreigners. They have been known to call it tango for export. Like the exaggerated moves M & M have also misinterpreted the silent conversation that takes place between two people while in the (closer) embrace and exaggerated that into lead and follow play which was not part of Tango.

Your style isn't mine and I avoid such teachers. As for a unique perception of the music, Gavito's isn't unique. You can see at milongas couple after couple dancing in so-called VU style, with poor posture, poor connection, weird embraces with stressed arms and hands all "dancing" ignoring the music and usually the other dancers around them. I made the point that Vals should be danced rhythmically to the music influenced by the melody. That's the art I said - if only there was more of that, not less.

Neither Mark nor Mari (name similarity just coincidence?) have directly answered my opposing view and like Mark, Mari ends with a pointless accusation of me being inflammatory. Let's just agree there are many different ideas of what Tango is, you follow the anything goes experimental theme and by your own words are not bothered at all at the idea of your partner hearing the music differently to you. Tango is a dance of connection, partner to partner and both connected to the music. Simple, or at least it should be.

Mari Johnson said...

First of all, I absolutely do not follow the "anything goes" theme (see above, inflammatory much? and making things black and white? Thanks for making my point.)

I do believe however, that there is room for compromise and that *is* the point. The connection comes from meeting each other where you are at the moment you dance. Sometimes the differences are too great and we can't find the connection. Sometimes it opens a whole new world for the both of us. Why should my interpretation be the only way to dance? Why should yours? Or Mark's? Or anyone's?

Tango encompasses a large enough structure to find much diversity without people kicking the backs of their heads and doing arials at the milonga. There have always been several styles that people have enjoyed in Argentine tango - and I'm talking within the Argentine community itself, since the turn of the century.

I think agreeing to disagree is pretty much the default option since there really isn't a point to trying to force one another to agree. Which was my point more generally.

Outside of another couple's embrace (unless they are kicking you or creating some sort of mayhem on the pista) it is simply not your business how another couple connects. You simply can't know.

You may not like Gavito's style, but you do well with his advice. "Talk about the ones who dance well. Don't talk about the ones you don't like. Ignore them." Be positive - promote the things you like instead of reviling the things you don't. Why would you want to spend so much time being negative? It can't be fun, can it? Or, maybe it is.

And regarding: "name similarity just coincidence?" Seriously???? For the love of Pete, if you just click on my name it would take you to my own blog where you can see I am in fact a real, and separate, person. I suppose the coincidence could continue with the fact that one of my teachers' names is Mardi, and my most frequent partner (now that Mark has moved to the east coast *sniff*) is Marcus. "Mar"'s are everywhere around here.

Tango Therapist said...

Señor Anonimo: I have censored your last attempt to write a comment because no gentleman would speak to a lady at a milonga as you have in your last (now censored) comment to Mari. Yes, I am a life-long percussionist. This is not a disadvantage. Sir, I am also a linguist and work in forensic psychology – both of which helped me to identify you through some syntactic anomalies, rhetorical style and personality traits (la mascara de Zoro, por ejemplo). I hope you know that I have the highest regard for your dancing and vast knowledge of tango. I know you to be a very sensitive, caring person. Yet, I also know that you write with a very sharp tongue at times, as you have done here. I would never reveal your name out of respect of a master dancer, but please be aware that your cutting comments do nothing for an honest and friendly dialogue about this dance we both love. My challenge remains: Send me a video clip of the milonguero you most admire, and I will demonstrate my points.

Anonymous said...

My original post seems no more contentious, actually less so, than yours and Mari's claims of me being a Blog Terrorist(!) or of inflammatory writing. However in recognition that this is your blog, and having no intention to cause offence, I have edited myself while retaining the main points.

Your "identification" of me, judging from what you say, is very unlikely. In case others can make the leap to whoever you think it is, in fairness to him whoever he may be, you should dismiss that thought.

Returning to the previous points made by Mari:
I haven't said one way or another whether I like Gavito's style, this debate was sparked by Mark's article extolling Gavito's musical interpretation. It isn't a question of black or white as you repeatedly accuse me of painting it. There's lots of room for musical interpretation within the Vals but there are always limits and in tango they are the common connection of everyone on the pista to the music. That is how we should all co-exist in relative harmony.

The only negative is my observation that Gavito does not appear to be doing what Mark suggests he is. And, by the way, anyone who puts on any kind of show is well aware they should expect criticism, good or bad, then or now.

My message is positive in that to dance Tango or Vals there are much more direct ways to connect and interpret the music than looking for something esoteric. If you have to listen repeatedly and clap a beat to find it, most people can't dance it even alone but there are two in Tango. So dance in the moment and have fun; yes it is ok to smile.

Now back to your last comment, in once again inviting me to suggest any favourite milonguero for dissection you are ignoring the whole point. Unlike the Gavito performance, you can watch almost any milonguero captured on video and hear and see the musical connection.