Tango begins very simply.
"Just hold on to your partner and walk to the music," I remember someone telling me. "It's very easy."
Unfortunately things rarely happen that way. Let us study the second part of the above statement, walking to the music. When you begin dancing, stepping to the beat already seems like quite an achievement. It used to make me so happy to be able to arrive on the right foot, in the right time, in a harmonious manner (or the left foot, in the left time - wait no). Now, when I dance with a dancer who arrives precisely on the beat, like clockwork, never varying, I often feel like pulling my hair out.
"Do you play an instrument?" a rather good leader I know asked me lately.
As he was not the first to ask me this question, I shook my head.
"No, but I really wish I did.
-You do another dance then," he declared, making me smile.
"No, not really."
He looked at me slightly askance.
"But you're so musical."
This is probably my favourite compliment. I love being told I'm musical, because as a child and a teenager - I wasn't. Seriously, it was pathetic the way I couldn't move to a simple beat; I think in retrospect that I was trying to dance ALL the beats, not just the main one. Understandably, it didn't work very well. This is exactly one of the things I love about tango music; it has no 'simple beat,' because it is polyphonic. You can dance to the cascading piano in d'Arienzo, to the violin twisting lazily through Calo, to the powerful bandoneons, to the singers voice - and even to the silences in the music, as I have witnessed a few precious, beautiful times. Since I started tango I began to fall increasingly in love with the complex art form of tango music - with d'Arienzo, who can always make me smile, with Pugliese's sometimes overbearing drama, with Calo and with Biagi's syncopations, with all the wondrous moments I feel, sometimes, inside my body, as if I am no longer listening with my brain, but with my entire being.
I have invested a lot of effort in musicality - I listen to tango music every day, I used to walk to it in the street, to try to separate the eight-beat phrases when at the gym, and so on. I'm still not exactly there yet, but now I can really hear the music - even if sometimes I'm just to clumsy or slow or inexperienced to be able to handle it on the dance floor. Which makes it all the more painful when the magic doesn't happen, when my body can't connect to the music, when I always seem to be too late - or too early. Sometimes both. I have noticed two reasons for this; the first is purely personal. If I am tense, or too focused on other details - legs straighter but flexible, upper body present but light, straighten your back, stretch your spine, be grounded but light; that's the general idea - I disregard the music (and later feel like apologising profusely to my leader, but that's another story).
The second reason is, unfortunately, my partner. There are excellent dancers who sometimes seem to be hearing an entirely different music from you. While this has not happened to me often, it is quite unpleasant - while it is sometimes possible to meet partway, it is disappointing. Then there are dancers who just don't seem to hear anything at all, and I'm finding them increasingly difficult to dance with. Often, suitcase dancers are the worst of these; they arrive whenever they want, and you are expected to arrive with them. Do you want to dance this piano? Sorry but no. What, are you trying to slow down for the violin? Well, not this time.
The other day, I was dancing with a slightly less experienced dancer. As he led me a front ocho, I happily executed a little syncopation. And then he paused. Puzzled I glanced at him. As he was still not moving, I tried to shift a little bit awkwardly from foot to foot, than took a slightly forced step forward, trying to arrive on the beat. Later as we were talking, I asked him if my decorations were bothering him - I'm still learning to do adornos, be they syncopations, little ganchos to my free leg, rulos, or anything else.
"Oh no," he told me seeming earnestly surprised. "I love it actually. It feels like you're really dancing, not just waiting for me to move you."
I bit my cheek, not sure exactly how to tell him he didn't need to break the flow of the dance every time I wanted to do something. What if I unwittingly made him into a clockwork dancer? What if he stopped listening to the follower altogether?
My experience with musicality leads me to the conclusion that it is exactly like everything else in tango; you don't dance with your head, or even your body; you dance with your core, and all the rest just follows. An amazing dancer incorporates the music; he lives it; he breathes it. How many times have I heard deep sighs of contentment as different tracks began to ring across the milonga? How many feet, hands, heads, have I seen tapping out the beat? There is nothing mystical about tango music - yet it becomes part of my body, when I am relaxed enough to let it - and this being tango, I mean relaxed but present, not relaxed and amorphous. 'Sin tension' the Argentinians would say. 'Pero no floja."
One thing is certain for me: to dance tango well, you have to love tango music; even as a mysterious entity floating around you, waiting to become part of you, or waiting for you to become part of it.