“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Describing Rhythm in Words: the “Quick and Slow” Language

Slow and quick is language to describe rhythm. It has serious limitations however. It is much more primitive than musical notation, and therefore often abused and misunderstood. For 80% of the tango dancing however, it will do just fine. Except for waltz and some more complicated milonga musical details, it will do the trick. Here's how it works.

Timing: Syllables on Real-time Moments

Firstly, we can use any single-syllable words to indicate a rhythm in real time simply by saying them out loud on the right moment.

Meaning: Words Describing Intervals

What if we don't say them in real time or when we write them down? How can we still make the rhythm unambiguously clear? We will simply choose the right words to describe the rhythm.

Instead of describing the time stamps of the moments on which the steps or notes occur, we will describe the durations of the time intervals between these moments. It defines these moments perfectly as well.

Combining Timing and Meaning: Moments versus Intervals

Often we'll combine the two: we'll see where we can get with only two one-syllable words: slow and quick.

Thus the quicks and the slows are not outspoken somewhere randomly during these intervals (in between the stepping moments), but rather exactly on these very moments.

What often happens when the rhythm gets more complicated: people start abusing these two words, and just use them to say syllables on the right moment. Simply because combining the timing and meaning consistently is hard. Typically they might be using slow also when they actually mean very slow, and when it gets very quick they just say anything, like quiquick or pa-pam. In some music schools, they use “re” for very quick, “tee” for quick, “taaaah” for slow, and “tooooooooh” for very slow.

The Everlasting Confusion

IMPORTANT question before we continue: do these words denote the time interval that came before the moment we say them or after that? Answer: It tells us about the duration of the interval AFTER the moment we say them/we start the musical note/we take the step, and thus they allow us to know exactly when the following word/step will have to happen. Simply put: quick or slow simply tells you how much time till the next step (not since the previous one!).

This might not be what you'd have expected. Many dancers and even dance teachers think quick means that the step should come quickly after the previous one. WRONG! It's the next one that will have to come quickly, even if it's labeled a slow! I repeat: when we say quick on the moment we step, it doesn't mean that step came quickly, it means the next one will have to come quickly!

An example: the slow in quick-quick-slow is meaningless, since nothing happens after it anymore. Then why use it? Firstly because we need to say some word to indicate there is a step. But also secondly because many patterns are supposed to repeat themselves, and in that case this last duration does matter.

The Quick-Quick-Slow Pattern: Dancer's “Syncopation”

So what does quick-quick-slow exactly mean?

As explained quick and slow denote the duration of time intervals between consecutive steps or notes. Firstly quick is half of the duration of slow, except for waltz, where it is one third of the duration of slow (which immediately renders the quick-slow language pretty useless in waltz since there is no word for the durations of two quicks).

So let's stick to normal tango and milonga music. There the quick-quick-sloooooooow pattern is extremely common and important. Why? Because the simplest pattern is sloooooooow-sloooooooow-sloooooooow-slooooooooow-....

An Extra Step in “Double Time”

Now quick-quick-sloooooooow is really nothing else than what you get if you only add one extra step (see traspié) precisely halfway in between two slows. Rhythmically speaking, this is one of the most natural things to do. Since the slows mostly start on the emphasized so-called heavy beats (you're supposed to step on the beat), these extra steps happen right in between them, and these moments are called the light beats. This light beat is exactly when you're head is up while headbanging.

Quick doesn't mean it's on a light beat however! Quick only means the next step or note will come one quick-duration later. Remark that when you add in such an extra quick step, you also need to transform the name of the previous one from a slow into a quick, to tell us where exactly we added in this quick extra step (and to keep everything after that in place). This however doesn't chance a thing about the moment this previous step happened (because that is to be known by looking at the duration of the step still before it)! Anyhow, there is a difference between the feel of the two quicks: the first quick is on the heavy beat where the old slow was, the second quick is the extra in-between one on the light beat.

Let's play

Now we can add in more extra steps:

  • you can do this twice in a row:
    heavy-light-heavy-light-heavy-light-heavy-light-... (the beats)
    quick-quick-quick-quick-sloooooooow-sloooooooow-... (the steps)
  • or you can skip it once:
    heavy-light-heavy-light-heavy-light-heavy-light-... (the beats)
    quick-quick-sloooooooow-quick-quick-sloooooooow-... (the steps)
  • one could step precisely twice as fast to the same music, by doing it all the time:
    heavy-light-heavy-light-heavy-light-heavy-light-... (the beats)
    quick-quick-quick-quick-quick-quick-quick-quick-... (the steps)
  • or you can simply do it on any light beat you like.

Remark: In this string notation every character has the same duration, and by convention the notes or steps coincide with the first letter of the word. And in this case I put the the extra steps (on the light beats) in italics.

Still twice as quick as the quicks is also perfectly possible. Or one could always elegantly walk half as fast as the slows to this music, or even again half as fast as that. Our simplistic rhythm notation with quick and slow already fails here.

Something Interesting: Musician's Syncopation

The weirdest thing we can still do with this quick-slow language is something like this:


The slows in the middle are enclosed by an uneven number of quicks and thus interestingly fall on the light beats! At the same time nothing happens on the heavy beats there. This reversal of rhythm is a form of syncope and could be best described by the word upbeat. For more advanced forms of syncopation, the quick-slow language sadly fails.


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