“Understanding the Structure
of Argentine Tango Dance”

Waltz Rhythm

Splitting in two

Rhythmically speaking, the most natural thing to do is to split durations in 2 equal parts. Often songs alternate between verse and chorus (2 things), each containing 4 (2x2) phrases, each spanning 4 bars, each containing 4 beats, that many instruments still divide in 2 or 4 to play notes on.

Always 2. A lot of music is based on this principle. A lot of contemporary dance music has 32 bars of this, 64 bars of that. But also a lot of our tango and milonga music has only multiples of 2 in its rhythm.

Splitting in three

Now the next simple thing to do after 2 is 3. On a slow level, we can introduce some asymmetries and variations in the song structure level (3 verses for instance). On a fast level, we can have all kinds of embellishments in the music that play three notes where there would have been two. Not quick-quick-slow, but the three notes each taking the same amount of time.


X...........X (Interval between two heavies that we'll divide in three )
q..q..s.....X (quick-quick-slow)
X...x...x...X (perfectly divided in three equal parts)

Tango and milonga doesn't need anything else. Then what is different in Waltz?


First of all, the division in 3 exists completely in its own right and is not played against a backdrop of 2 on other instruments (which makes life actually easier), and so there will never be a switch back to a division in 2 or 4 during the song.

What this really means now, is that we have one heavy, and two lights in between the heavies. These are called the beats and are counted 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3, with 1 for the heavy beats as always. This is a completely different feel than non-waltz music.

On a faster and slower level however, still everything is divided in 2.

Secondly, the division in three happens on a level of about normal stepping speed: it is a duration of more or less a second that gets divided in three.

Now this makes stepping to it interesting! What can we do?

S..S..S..S.. Stepping only on the heavy beats (only slows)
Ss.Ss.Ss.Ss. “Echoing” traspié all the time
S..Ss.Ss.S.. Only sparsely an “echoing” traspié
S.sS.sS.sS.s “Preparing” traspié all the time (something like a very slow “shuffle”)
S.sS..S.sS.. Only sparsely a “preparing traspié
S.sS..Ss.S.s Alternate between both types of “traspié
SssSssSssSss Stepping on every beat, some sort of double traspié”. The normal thing to do in non-tango waltz.
S.sSs.SssS.s Alternate between everything.

And if we start leaving out heavies, it'll become some sort of syncopation in waltz!

The important thing to remember here, is that a traspié in waltz can be done in two very different ways, each with a completely different feel to it. It is a bit of a challenge to lead the difference, although very well possible, and important in tango waltz. We can do traspiés wherever we want, as in normal tango. And as an extra, we can alternate between the two types.

Stepping on every beat is a hallmark of normal waltz, but in tango waltz it is too much of a good thing.


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