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gancho | August 25, 2019

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Why musicality is hard to teach, but not impossible


One of the most difficult topics for teachers as well as for students is musicality. It is fairly easy to explain musical theory, the rhythmical structure of a tango song, how to identify the strong beat, follow the melody, recognise various instruments and understand when a phrase starts and when it finishes. However, all this information, albeit essential, will not make anyone dance musically. No matter how much time a teacher spends talking about musical theory, this in itself will not produce dancers who are more musical. Then what will? And how can someone who has never danced before become a musical dancer in tango?


First, we need to understand what it means to be musical.


Sensitivity to music is the ability to recognise musical patterns: feel the rhythm, identify the melodical line, distinguish harmonies, sounds and so on. This ability comes in various degrees. Some people only recognise musical patterns and feel them, but are not able to move their body rhythmically (clap the hands, tap the feet, walk in the beat). Other people not only hear the music well, but can also associate what they are hearing with a rhythmical movement of the body. The first musical instruments in the prehistoric times were drums (therefore the word “beat”). Music-making and dancing were often one and the same activity, for ritual and shamanic purposes. Primitive tribes still make music by adorning their bodies with sound-making objects and then dancing. We also sing to make music, human voice becoming a musical instrument.


Nowadays our musical instruments are technically so complex and the various dance forms so rich that we have a clear specialization in “musicians” and “dancers”. (For the sake of the argument I will keep the singers in the “musicians” group as singers use their body to reproduce music as if it were an instrument). We also know that it requires two different talents to become a musician or a dancer. If the body of a musician uses its movement to extracts sound waves from an object, the body of a dancer does something very different: it creates an association between a musical pattern and body movement in such a way that the the two fuse into one coherent expression. (Orchestra conductors are possibly the ones who still do both: they “dance” to extract music from the “instrument” that is an orchestra. They are the contemporary shamans.)


We can therefore identify three different abilities: hearing (sensitivity to music), hearing + playing (making music) and hearing + dancing (associating movement with music). Most people have at least some degree of musical hearing and this is why music is still the most widely enjoyed art of all, in any culture.


What does it mean to be a musical dancer? It is not enough to be simply musical, although this is the necessary starting point. A dancer needs to have this particular ability to associate music to movement, to become music that has become movement. Like musicians, people who dedicate themselves to dance have this gift from birth. Yet, as I said, this ability comes in VARIOUS DEGREES. One can be basically musical or exceptionally musical. Just like there are many naturally musical people who play instruments without becoming a musician, there are many “natural born dancers”. Most children dance naturally when very small. While growing up we often lose the naturalness of our musical movement, our brain and body giving priority to developing other skills. Yet some people keep it and are easy to spot: they have an unstoppable urge to move the moment they hear music that they like. You can see them in night clubs, at parties, even on the street swaying or tapping their feet to the sound coming out of their headphones. People who learn to dance at an adult age are often from this group, because dance is always looking to express itself through their bodies. However, in tango classes I also see a lot of people who either never were “natural born dancers” or have somehow lost this particular connection between hearing and moving.


When a person is a “natural dancer”, certain things in a tango class will be easier for him (her) than for others. Stepping in the beat, recognising accents, making pauses, slowing down or accelerating together with the music, all this will not have to be explained, just shown. This student’s ability will be further finetuned to the particularities of tango as a music and a dance, often less by watching a teacher than by simply finding his or her own ways of expression. The “naturals” often prefer not to hear too much of musical theory for it takes them out of their intuitive following of music, confuses them, requires a mental effort they never had to do. They would dance to a syncope naturally but have a hard time analysing why and how they do it.


When a person is not a “natural dancer”, things will be more difficult for him (her) and subsequently also for the dance teacher. Everything, from stepping into the beat to choosing when to pause or to accelerate, will require a lot of attention and practice. Because it needs so much work, many teachers (and students) tend to give up on the musicality altogether or keep it to basic theoretical knowledge. People tend to believe that it is not possible to make someone a truly musical dancer: you either have this gift or you don’t. I would rephrase it: I believe it is much easier to help someone become a musical dancer when s/he is already naturally gifted for it, but the other task is not impossible either.


As I said, most of us have a musical hearing built into our brain. Anything we already have as neural connections in our brain can be further developed and reinforced. Learning a particular dance is about learning to associate a given movement vocabulary to a given music in a meaningful way. Here the “meaningful” means following the musical parameters. By training your brain to better understand and recognise the parameters of a musical piece can help you to associate your movement to it in a more precise way.


To tango students who struggle with musicality, I would give the following advice. You will need to reinforce two areas of your skills: first, your hearing of music and second, your music-to-movement association. Your hearing of music can be improved by listening to it a lot and learning to consciously recognise and identify its parameters: beats, structure, phrasing, melody, instruments and so forth. Here I am talking not only of the theoretical (rational) recognition but also of the “sensations” that hearing creates inside your being. Hearing the violin struck a phrase also means feeling something inside yourself respond to it as if you were a violin yourself (NB: a violin, not a violinist). It might sound strange to you, but this is what happens when you listen to a piece of music you truly love: inside your being something BECOMES it, as if somehow your soul took on that musical shape.


The second skill can be improved in two ways (and I suggest you use both). The first method is to associate the music to some kind of simple movement: walking, tapping of feet, nodding of the head, even singing, until it becomes intuitively right. This will reinforce your sense of RHYTHM. The second method is to allow yourself to dance in a completely free way to tango music, letting go of the tango vocabulary. Thinking of doing the correct moves often requires so much effort on our part that we become incapable of doing it musically. So, take time alone to dance to tango music whichever way you please. Groove to it. Hiphop to it. Sway, rock, swing, whirl, shake your bonbon to it. You will do your brain and your body an immense favor: your nervous system will start building neural connections between what you hear and how you would like to move to it. It will start liberating your DANCE EXPRESSION. In the tango class associating the “proper” vocabulary to music will then become easier because your body will feel more free moving to music at all. These methods are used with children when teaching them to dance or to play instruments. In your learning process you should take advantage of both becoming like a child again AND using the power of your conscious mind.


For those who find themselves thinking “yes, this is all very nice, but I truly have no sense of rhythm, I am so stiff in my body, I feel helpless and awkward when asked to move to any kind of music” I can say the following: think of people diagnosed with autism. They find themselves incapable of recognising emotions of others and adequately reacting to them. Yet, with proper technique and practice, they learn to do it by working with the visible PARAMETERS they CAN recognise. They learn to associate a certain facial expression with “fear” and rationally choose an appropriate response. They do not become truly empathic but can live a much more connected life socially. If you feel you are “musically autistic”, remember that your brain has a plasticity you are not aware of and that there are methods of developing your musicality, just as there are methods for autistics to lead a social life. It will require dedication, patience and work, but it will pay off in ways you never imagined.


For teachers I would suggest not to give up on the “unmusical students”. Giving up on them says more about your own inability to teach them than about their inability to learn. Most dance teachers are naturally musical, intuitive dancers. If you are one of those, then your responsibility as a teacher is to ANALYSE rationally what you do and to explain it to students who are not able to just copy it. You will have to know a lot more about rhythmical structures, how to count the beat, where to find the syncopes, what makes a phrase a phrase. Just like to an autistic person you would say “I am fearful therefore my body become rigid and my face serious” you would have to explain to some students “I pause and hold the pause here because I hear this instrument stop playing and the other instruments hold the same note”. It sounds like a laborious and counter-intuitive way, but believe me, it helps with the cases everyone (including themselves) consider helpless. Of course, you can also just give up on them. You can always say that without a natural gift one cannot be a dancer. You will always be right, at least partially, and you will create an air of superiority around your own talent and that of the “chosen ones”. Yet, I personally believe that tango, of all dances, is one that people can enjoy at any age, with any body type and any innate abilities. I also believe that talent is only the beginning of things, never the end, and that with the right kind of practice we can arrive in places we never dreamt of before.


photo credit(jackson fine art): Helen Levitt – New York, ca. 1940 (Two Kids Dancing)



  1. Stefano

    I discovered this blog just now and it’s interesting as it treats an intriguing subject: musicality! In my city I have been noticing a lot of courses about “Tango musicality”, held by professional musicians who are not so good dancers (this is my opinion, of course) or good dancers/teachers who have not so great passion for music (I suppose they like more the body movement…).
    The real trouble about musicality in tango, I think, is how to “interpretate the music”: it’s not only to be on the beat (“compas”), the first step on musicality, but how to show/express by the body that particular piece of music (just “few notes”) of that particular instrument (violin, bass, bandoneon or piano). This is the actual problem ! (there could be an other further interpretative step about how to move/pose feet and legs…el “piso”…).

    In my mind there could be two ways to learn or understand how “interpretate”: one it could be (I am a man and I think that the main responsibility of musicality is for men) to dance with a male dancer who has musicality. I read that in old time newcomers had to dance as women for 1-2 years (!): even if the “tango legenda” tell us that this was for ethical problem, I think there were some didactic reasons as well.
    The other one is to “observe” attentively how good dancers (youtube is an infinite resource!) dance, even the same song, and catch/steal what you consider the “best” move/interpretation of those “few notes”.

    This approach is alike at the way the best jazz or classic musicians or singer are studied.



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