Musicality: the Pulse vs. the Music itself

Preface:  I originally wanted to write about musicality when I started Tango-Beat in 2009.  However, I was distracted by the richness of the psychological aspects of tango, then poetry took over too.  My first thoughts for a tango blog was to do what I had done in Germany and in Austin, TX with Salsa:  I taught percussion to dancers as a way to understand how to dance salsa. Tango has rich rhythms, and has far more diversity of what dancers can do with their bodies than salsa ever will -- as much as I love salsa.  So here it goes...

Just like in medicine:  Let's start with the pulse.  Is there one?

The Pulse is not the Music
Here is something that you may have never considered.  Dancers often dance on a pulse that the musicians are not playing.  Perhaps you have heard Spanish speaking dancers use the word "el compás" for this concept of a steady beat or tempo?

It is common to see people dancing to the music of a canyenge or tango rhythm with 6 notes per measure and the the dancers are taking four steps, only two of which are coinciding with what the musicians are playing.  The musicians are creating this pulse, but are not playing the pulse.  In fact, this is the main difference between dancers and musicians.  Dancers dance on the pulse (like tapping one's foot), but the musicians are only creating the pulse by playing with and around the pulse.

I found the perfect piece of music to convey this concept.  In the following video the bassist creates the sound of a heart beat -- perfect for "the pulse," ¿no?  The musicians come in and play around this pulse, using yet another rhythm that is the essence of tango/canyenge (1**4**7*| 1**4**7*).  We will return to this important rhythm as the essence of tango in a later post.  For now, get the sense of the pulse being mostly what all the musicians are NOT playing, but rather are playing around.  Also when you dance by yourself or with someone start to notice when you are dancing to the pulse versus doing some step that leaves the pulse and does what the musicians do.  I see advanced dancers who rarely leave the pulse.  More about this later, but please believe me that quick-quick-slow is just an extension of the pulse, unless the musicians actually played it.

Enjoy the pulse and notice the musicians playing around the pulse with this first video:

That was easy, right? You felt the pulse and the way the musicians played with and around it, right?

Some homework:  If you watch videos of performances of great tangueros/tangueras, watch when they often receive applause, or even better -- when they do something that moves you emotionally.  This moment is often when the couple has left the pulse and joined the musicians, even if it is briefly.  People talk about the couple's "musicality" mostly when they leave the pulse.

I am going to make this easy by giving you your first video to consider.  Please watch this next video and tap your foot or clap to the pulse of the music. Notice how wonderfully Daniela and Luis sometimes do things that "play around the pulse" and how this brings an artistic value to the beauty of their flowing movements using the pulse.  Also, notice how some sweeping movements follow the violins.  Luis gives Daniela time to play along with the musicians, using so-called ornamentos.  Often these are done on the pulse but she leaves the pulse and also often joins the musicians with her ornamentos.

I hope you could see with new eyes concepts of musicality.  Watching several times is even better.  You will see new things each time.

In the my next post on musicality, I plan to write more about the pulse that the music makes versus the music itself, but the above video should get you thinking inductively about this first.  The goal is to help take you a more expansive level of musicality in your dance improvisation.

Please give me feedback at or leave a comment!


Anonymous said…
HI Mark - I enjoyed this post very much and am looking forward to the next one. I would love to see a video of a couple dancing to the triplets at the end of D'Arienzo's "9 de Julio". Better yet, I'd love to find a leader who could dance to them. Eileen
Tango Therapist said…
Eileen: It appears that you have had music education. I will have to explain what triplets are in a future post to bring it to dancers without a music background. Triplets are a good example of getting away from the pulse and doing what the musicians are explicitly doing. Murat and Michelle do this very well. I think it will be a good musicality theme in the future. Thanks for the encouragement. Ciáo!
tangocherie said…
Hola Mark!

Just want to say that there is a difference in dancing to the "beat"--bandoneon, piano--and the melody. Many beginning students in tango who have danced salsa and other social rhythms are confused because there is no percussion. The "beat" must be listened for.

When one is hit over the head with electronic music, it is the beat that predominates. But in the music of the great orchestras like D'Arienzo, one can choose between the rhythm, the melody, the different instruments. And Daniela and Luis went back and forth--that's what made their dancing interesting.
Tango Therapist said…
Hola Cherie! I am glad you point out this difference of the beat and melody. But I haven't even gotten to the melody. So far I have only addressed that there is a difference between the pulse and what the musicians are playing. I avoided the word "beat," which can mean several things to dancers. The "pulse" is not the beat (except in disco music perhaps). I perhaps should have clarified even more: In a large orchestra the one person who tends the beat is the only person not making a sound -- the conductor. But even the conductor does not "just" tend the pulse, but helps shape the melodic phrasing. Dance instructors often simplify by saying the "beat" but this is NOT what most people dance. Beginners tend to dance to the "pulse" (often poorly) which in some pieces is very much NOT played by the musicians. The musicians are NOT necessary playing the "beat" (pulse) that people could be clapping or the "beat" (pulse)folks at the tables might be tapping with their feet to the music. What confuses this is that sometimes by coincidence or for a portion of a song the pulse is played by the musicians. So, Cherie...I appreciate the input. Musicality as expressed by dancers clouds what musicality really is, but then I have heard musicians explain it and this concept is just as cloudy as ever! Expressive musicality is an art and very magic. Explaining the nature of musicality is not an easy task. And now I know why have put it off!
tanjive said…
Are you trying to describe dancing to melodic rhythm or the basic beat?
Tango Therapist said…
@Tanjive: Please see my comments above to Cherie for the answer to your question, and I promise expand upon this in part 2. The link you send is quite perplexing -- actually shocking to believe that a book would be written on the naive premise that tango has no essential rhythmic pattern. (I would have to deny what I hear in every tango in order to believe that notion.) I gave pattern above but will expand on what this means in the next musicality post. This essential pattern makes tango what it is, even in Tango Nuevo. I am interested in reading the book mentioned. Perhaps the description misunderstands the intention of the author.
Tango Therapist said…
Again to Tanjive: From another blog on musicality (, I found to the link to Joaquín Amenábar's book. The link that I got from you to the "book report" on his book had me aghast at what was reported -- that tango has no essential beat. I must get this book because it is truly user friendly and insightful. Even if in the unlikely event that Joaquín Amenábar believes that there is no essential tango rhythm, his book is brilliant (as much as I have seen). I will recommend it in my next post on musicality, and perhaps even use his demo video link to demonstrate the underlying tango rhythm which is in half-time for the tango piece he uses. The link to his demo and/or buy his book is:

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