“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

The “Traspié”: Dancer's “Syncopation”

Stepping on the Light Beats

If we walk naturally to tango music, we'd be stepping on the heavy beats, two out of four per bar, which is called dos por cuatro. Now it is natural to feel lighter beats halfway in between (except for waltz, where it'll be two instead of one evenly spaced in between).

We can perfectly step on these light beats too. As a result (if we don't jump) the next heavy beat will be stepped on with the same foot as the previous one! This is basic technique, and this extra step is called a traspié. We can do such an extra step on any light beat we want!

If we do just one, the rhythm would be famously spelled out as “quick-quick-slow”. Argentine Tango dancers would call this a síncopa (see further on), but it really isn't to musicians. It's just a momentary doubling up of the stepping speed.

The Chassé Step: Not Really Double Speed

So the rhythm doubles alright. But most of the time you want to remain traveling at a smooth constant body speed during this quick-quick-slow process. The way to accomplish this is simply to halve the length of your steps on the quicks compared to the ones on the slows. This way, people not watching the feet wouldn't even see it happen. That is if we separate steps at the landing points (rhythmical separation). If we separate them at the collecting points (structural separation) however, the traspié is nothing more than a very small step in between normal steps. This changing your weight (definition of stepping) halfway in what was a normal slow step results in a so-called chassé step. You'll put your weight down next to your other foot (crossed or not).

I've seen many a teacher explain how to speed up your body to lead this double-speed rhythm. This is nonsense. One (the rhythm of the feet) has nothing to do with the other (the body speed), except for if one would insist on taking all steps of the same length. On the contrary, as mentioned, the smooth technique is to halve the step length.

As a result, this chassé step is the perfect candidate for the double rhythm, but it can be done on any other rhythm too.

Too Early

Another mistake I see many non-musically trained dancers make is to panic when hearing the word “quick” and to do the traspié too early. Something like quiquiiiiiiiiiiick-sloooooooooow. This would however be one of the possible correct things to do in waltz. But in normal four-bar tango rhythm or milonga rhythm, the traspié is to happen right halfway in between the normal steps, meaning on light beats 2 or 4, and not before, which really is a very relaxed feel. It is no disaster as long as the next step is on the beat, but to any musician, it looks a bit clumsy.

Too Late

As an extra it is nice to know that one of the most defining characteristics of jazz is that the musicians always play the light beats (the 2's and the 4's) too late, meaning not precisely halfway the heavy beats (the 1's and the 3's). This process is called “swing” and gives a hopping feel to the music. This swing is present in house music too. But there is never any presence of this kind of swing in tango music! Except for a very drastic delay from 50% to 75%, or the reverse shift towards 25%, which would be a typical syncope, which would still fall whithin the world of strictly “straight”, meaning no swing (because it is not about moving the light beats anymore, but about playing on the extra-light beats in between the light beats).

So doing your traspiés too late would be a jazzy thing to do. Swing has a hopping feel to it, while tango is walking.

If you want to experience the difference between swing (all light beats coming a bit too late, meaning not on 50% in between the heavy beats, but delayed, even up to 67%) and straight (lights on 50%, with allowed 'extra lights' or syncopes on 75% and 25%), try this: take any straight music in 4 or 2 beats per bar rhythm and transform it yourself into a 67% swing version here. This 67% swing is called shuffle. If you'd do this with a tango (please don't!), the results would be horrible, since this is the opposite from what we want. Shuffle in a sense is something like a too fast waltz.

 

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