“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Rhythm Basics

Types of Tango Music

As an oversimplification, we'll study three types of tango music:

  • 'straight' tango music, in a rhythm of 4 (or sometimes 2) beats per bar;
  • waltz (in Spanish: vals), in a rhythm of 3 beats per bar;
  • milonga, also in a rhythm of 2 beats per bar.

Beats in a Bar

We first start with the most natural and comfortable stepping speed to normal tango music or milonga (not waltz). That would be somewhere about one step per second for the first, but the exact speed depends on the music. And in milonga music it typically is a lot faster.

First of all, the odd steps most probably will feel more heavily accented than the even ones. That's why musicians prefer to group them per two in what they call a bar.

A bar is a period of time, after which an often similar rhythmic structure repeats itself. As long as the music doesn't speed up or slows down, bars have the same duration, in normal tango typically about two seconds (but this can greatly vary however).

So up till now we have that a bar contains one heavily accentuated step, and a lighter step (you shouldn't be dancing asymmetrically however: it's just the music that will feel this way). By convention, a bar always begins precisely at this heaviest step.

The second (less heavy) step comes precisely halfway between the heaviest ones (and thus halfway the bars), which rhythmically speaking is one of the most natural things to do (when we step, it is only natural that the lefts come precisely halfway in between the rights).

Doubling the Rhythm

Now we can repeat this natural process of doubling up the rhythm: right in between these two beats per bar, we can add in two extra beats, and we'll call the former the heavy or strong beats, and the latter the light beats.

Now we already have four beats per bar.

We could repeat that process again, which would yield four extra steps halfway with still less emphasis. Musicians certainly do play notes there, and we could step there, but almost never do, because it starts getting very hard to lead and follow that. Musicians for one reason or another don't call these “very lights” a beat anymore however. See also Milonga rhythm.

Tripling the Rhythm

In waltz music, this natural process of ever splitting up the time in two again and again (and thus doubling the rhythm) also takes place, but somewhere (mostly around the duration of about a second) there will be a split in three instead of two.

Conclusion: Heavy - Light - Less Heavy - Light

Bars keep following one after the other, all the same length, and having a similar structure. For non-waltz tango music, every bar contains four beats, which are counted 1, 2, 3 and 4. The bar starts exactly on the 1 and ends after the 4, exactly where 5 would come, so that the 1 of the next bar fits exactly there. Often notes are played on these beats (but not always). Here 1 is the most heavy beat. 3 is the lighter compared to 1, but we will still call it heavy though. It is 2 and 4 that we will call light.

2x4 (Dos por quatro, Two per Four)

Now back to dancing. Why “two per four”? Because the most natural way of stepping to this music would be on 1 and 3, which is on 2 beats out of 4. So that is the meaning of 2x4 or dos por cuatro. In Spanish “por” means “per”, but also “times”. It should rather be written 2/4, meaning that we typically do two steps out of the four beats per bar. It's what musicians with their crazy beats and bars see us dancers do.

 

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