Tango Topics | Exploring Your Dance

If you were logged in, you’d see the premium version of this tango topic! Just sayin’… 🙂

Please go look at Parts 1 and 2 of Tango Topics Musical Interpretation series. 

Musical Interpretation – Parts 3 & 4

One aspect of Musical Interpretation that almost never gets talked about is the how you actually Interpret the Music. How do you develop the skills necessary to allow you to interpret the music in such a way as to make it structured, clear, clean and most of all appear ‘fluid’ ? How do you do that ? That’s what workshops and classes are for, right ? Yes and no. The ‘Yes’ part should be self-explanatory by isn’t. And the ‘no’ part requires a bit of history (see Parts 1 & 2 for that).  The long story shortened is that as you’ll see below, most Tango ‘Musicality’ classes or workshops are all on ‘Aspects’ of tango music not what you do wiht the rest of the song. This series is on the what you do with the rest of the song! 

Today’s Tango Topic takes shows you the meat and potatoes (as it were) of one way on how to Interpret the Music, with the end goal to create a structured process that allows us to make free choices instead of haphazard choices that don’t necessarily fit what’s going on in the music. In one respect this is about training you, and in another, this is about conditioning you or in this case re-conditioning you to respond in a very structured manner. For most people when they begin this process of Musical Interpretation they are rightfully overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the problem. How do you interpret the music when the topic of Tango Music is so vast ? How do you even begin to tackle the problem because not only is Tango Music vast (over 90,000 pieces and counting, and only a fraction of that we actually dance to on a regular basis) but it’s also insanely multi-layered, and multifaceted? If you thought the vocabulary and the execution of technique was the unending onion, the music itself will drive you right over the wall of madness! How do you solve a problem this vast ?

There is no one way to interpret the music. There is no all-encompassing methodology to interpreting the music, no ‘one-size-fits-all’. There is no ‘right’ and there is no ‘wrong’. There is only desirable and less-than-desirable, so get that thought right out of your head! There are many ways to interpret the music. Some of them are desirable, and a good portion of the processes that you’ve likely come into contact with are less-than-desirable. And there’s a really good reason why they’re less-than-desirable. It’s because they only address a piece of a particular aspect of the music. For example: What do you do when you hear a Sincopa in the music ? (Hint, there are several things you can do)

Answer: One thing you can do and should do is once you hear it, once you are able to recognize the Sincopa (there are 4 types by the way), you can’t walk through it, and yet…that’s exactly what most people do. They walk right through it. Most are confused by the idea of Sincopa. However, Sincopa, is an aspect of the music. It’s not the entire song! What do you do with the rest of that piece of music ? Wander around for 2 minutes waiting for the Sincopa to happen ? No. That’s where Today’s Tango Topic comes in. It, or in this case, they deal with how to handle the rest of the song! Today’s Tango Topic is about two co-interdependent topics that create the necessary stepping stones towards Interpreting the music fluidly, Alternation & Symmetry.

Before We Go Down The Rabbit Hole. Let’s be clear about the end goal here, the thing that we’re really after: To be able to freely, and fluidly, interpret the music so that our dancing matches what we hear in the music, and then (here’s the hard part) are able to execute that idea musically. HA! Easier written/said than actually done. The methodology on how to do that was covered in Musical Interpretation Part 1 and Part 2. If you’re not familiar with it, please go read it thoroughly before you proceed here. It is a pre-requisite.

However, before we can get to the ‘freely and fluidly’ parts, we have to jump through some hoops for the ‘interpretation’ stuff to actually work on a social dance floor, otherwise, you’re quite literally going to waste your time. First and foremost you absolutely must be able to properly identify the 5 Pause Types, religiously, without fail! You can not and will not be able to interpret the music without them. Everything, everything that Tango Topics talks about musically is built off of this construct. Failure to be able to identify without fail every single Musical Pause in a particular piece of music (Tango, Vals, Milonga, Tango-Milonga, Tango-Vals, Milonga Criolla, Milonga Porteña, etc) and you’re just pissing into the wind, and what Follows will be a complete waste of your time in reading this stuff. Put another way, so that you get the gravity of the situation. Can you correctly identify the 7 pauses in the following piece ?

If so, then you can move on to the next stage of your tango development, interpreting the music. If you can’t, then you’re going to have a problem with today’s tango topics. Why ? Because the topics are based on the idea that the pause must be respected, it’s what breaks up the music into logical, bite-sized chunks that make it accessible to us. Instead of arbitrary 8 count that may or may not actually be present in the music which may or may not have an actual relationship to what you’re hearing in the music. The 5 Pause Types are really markers, and while the piece above only shows you 2 of the 5 (the 1st and the 4th), they’re common enough markers that you should be able to distinguish them. However, doing so religiously ? That’s an entirely different prospect.

Secondly, you must be well versed in the 6 Ways of Walking (from a Leading and Following perspective). This is about walking, not Turning, not Sacadas, not Volcadas, not Ganchos, not Paradas, none of that stuff, but Walking with your partner. Elegantly. Cleanly. Clearly. Tango is by its very nature a ‘walking’ dance at its core. While modern Tango has become a dance all about the turn due to the fact that the ronda doesn’t actually move anymore, and due to the fact that Gustavo Naviera made the Follower’s Molinete ‘sexy’, but instead it does not move so we have to find other things to do while we’re not actually going anywhere, the foundation of that movement is still ‘walking’. So it serves our ultimate purpose to understand, and more importantly, be able to execute the 6 Ways of Walking from either perspective of Leading or Following. Religiously! Failure to do so and you’re not only pissing into the wind but having said piss splatter back at you! Not a pleasant thought. You must, must, must be able to execute a clean, clean, stable walk without hanging, without pulling, without pushing, without compression in any way, shape, or form. Failure to do so, and again, more piss in places you don’t want anything to do with!

These two points cannot be stressed enough. 1.) The 5 Musical Pause Types. and 2.) The 6 Ways of Walking are PREREQUISITES to further going down the rabbit hole here. That said, proceed at your own risk of further confusion. Hence the reason why this part of the topic today is called BEFORE We Go Down The Rabbit Hole. You have been warned.

The Topics of Alternation & Symmetry: In their simplest forms, these ideas by themselves aren’t all that exciting, and if we’re being really honest, once you see them you’re going to say to yourself, “I don’t get it. Why is this stuff important ?”. Remember that Alternation & Symmetry are only a stepping stone to our ultimate goal of dancing ‘fluidly’, and seemingly freely, but with STRUCTURE! This stuff (Alternation & Symmetry) is that Structure that you’re looking for! It’s the very heart of Structuring Tango Music. Well, truth be told, far more Symmetry than Alternation. These concepts and practices are the answer to the question, “What do I do with the rest of the dance ?”! That said, let’s define these ideas:

Alternation: At its core, Alternation, is exactly what it sounds like – Alternating between two ideas or in this case, pieces of vocabulary. You pick two pieces of vocabulary and then ‘Alternate’ between them. That’s it. It couldn’t be any simpler than that.

Symmetry: Symmetry, on the other hand, is where we start to invoke a little bit of actual structure, and some rules! 5 of them in actuality. But before we get to that part, Symmetry is best defined as ‘executing’ Alternation in mated pairs.

That’s it, that’s all there is to it. You can stop reading now. Back to dancing. What a complete waste of your time, right ? Yup. Sure was. All that build up so that you could basically get to Alternating between two ideas, and then making it Symmetrical. Ok. Duh. So why on earth do you need a video on this stuff ?

Stop and think about it for a moment, do you actually know what it is that you’re Alternating ? or making Symmetrical ? or for that matter why you want to do it in the first place ? Well, of course, the 6 Ways of Walking right ? Not so fast. Yes, and no. Yes, because this is all about walking. And ‘no’ because there are some rules at work here. So you go right ahead and alternate this stuff until you’re blue in the face and see how far that gets you! You may come up with some interesting ideas but until you have mastered the 6 Ways of Walking (told you that you were going to get beat over the head with this stuff), and until you have mastered the 5 Musical Pause Types, Alternation and Symmetry are a complete waste of your time. Remember this is not about dancing to an ASPECT (remember ‘sincopa’ ?) in the music, but what you do with the REST of the DANCE! To be fair, Alternation and Symmetry does not deal with the end of the Musical Paragraph (see section 5), nor does it deal with the very important structural components of the song (see section 7), nor does it deal with how one goes about mapping a song (see section 8), nor does it deal with Accent notes (Section 7), nor Sincopa (Section 7), nor the specifics of a Turn (section 6), nor where (not how) you place an Argentine Cross! (see section 6). So you can alternate until you’re blue in the face, but knowing where this stuff exists and why creates the structure that we’re looking for.

The Musical Pause Component. The Musical Pause exists for a variety of reasons and rightfully deserves it’s own topic however, in this instance we talk about because it’s importance here is the backbone of everything we would like to do. Without it, musical structure can not be danced using this method. The pause is important just for this reason alone. However, there are 3 reasons why we as Dancers (from a Leading Perspective and a Following Perspective) want to respect the Musical Pause:

1.) The ‘Reset’ Button. Frequently, unless properly trained to do so, we fall out of alignment with our partners while dancing with them either through design (see ‘The Armpit Dancer’), or by happenstance (Turns, and Traveling Ochos).  In either case, we ideally want to be buttons-to-buttons with our partners. Unfortunately this does not happen all that often, and as a result we have to ‘Reset’ the partnership. At the same time while a misalignment is going on, usually we’re using our arms to force our partner to stay close to us. There’s tension in the embrace, pressure, compression, and the longer it goes on, the more painful it becomes. It’s work basically unless several things occur. One of them is a ‘Reset’. Using the musical pause is a logical place to not only reset the couple’s physiological alignment, but also reset the embrace!

2.) The Vocabulary Change. The Musical Pause is also a logical place to engage our vocabulary changes from one idea to the next. For a Lead that means changing to our next possible step/pattern/figure. From a Following perspective this means engaging an Adornment (not an embellishment, they’re not the same things).

3.) Structure. Employing the Musical Pause sets us on the path of creating Musical Structure with our dance, and what we’re hearing. And that’s what Tango Topic is doing, hopefully. It’s A tool for doing this. It’s not the only tool but it’s one of them to help in this process. Structure in this case means to create some kind of visual representation of order that shows us what’s actually happening in the music visually. There are several ways to dance to emphasize the music, one of them is pattern matching. Still another is counter matching, where you’re literally going against the music to show it’s poignancy. Still another is ‘impressionistic’, where you show a hint of the idea and let the viewer’s mind fill in the rest. However, this isn’t about performing for the 15th row or a room full of people. It’s showing your partner, you remember them, right ? It’s showing your partner how YOU are hearing the music and what’s possible! Contrary to what you have been shown or taught, Tango is first and foremost (today at least) a social dance, not a performance form. Although given the state of things, in 5 years this may or may not be true any longer for a variety of reasons.

Ideally once we go through this process of learning the pauses, and learning Alternation and Symmetry we will promptly forget them and start to freely associate ideas and concepts in the dance, but there are a few steps before that fluid choice can happen…freely. But understanding the importance of the pause and it’s place here should not be undersold or misunderstood.

Please go look at Parts 1 and 2 of Tango Topics Musical Interpretation series. 

The Details of Alternation: There are some details to this stuff. The devil is in the details. And brother this is some detail! The fact is that while the concepts are simple enough executing them is a whole different kettle of fish. You’re going to ask yourself why on earth do this ? And it’s a really valid question. The simplest answer is that it is one way to create structure in what we’re doing. It’s not the only way, but it is a starting point. And sometimes that’s all you really need, a starting point. This (Alternation & Symmetry) is that starting point! Mind you this is not the only way to create structure but it is a starting point, a beginning.

Before going any deeper, Alternation should not be confused with another Topic that we talk about around here ‘Alternates’, which is the 6th way of Walking. Alternation starts out with one choice, for example, a walk in parallel system, however at the musical pause, we instigate another of the 6 Ways of Walking that goes with the music. The kicker here is that there is no counting, no beat counting of any kind. You execute and respond until the next pause. Every time there is a musical pause, we change back to the 1st choice. This is Alternation in it’s simplest form.

There is no hard and fast rule about this idea. You could do this for the entire song, and to be fair…it’s been done, as an exercise. However, you do NOT want to do this for an entire song, except in practice. This is only a stepping stone. Only a means to an end. The goal here is not necessarily to be Mr. or Ms. proficient with the vocabulary changes, but more importantly to be facile with them! To be able to identify at the pause and execute at the pause said change, and then (here’s the hard part) remember to go back to what you were doing in the first place! Sounds simple, right ? Ok. Do it. Here’s an example:

Do that for an entire song. Every time. Without exception. No errors. No hiccups. No, if’s, and’s, or but’s. Do it. If you can do that, then you can move on to the next stage….Symmetry. And that’s where things go right off the rails!

The Details of Symmetry: In a Musical Paragraph there are anywhere between 4 to 6, sometimes 8 Musical Pauses. And as that is the case, there are usually ‘pairs’ of pauses, we can use that pairing of pauses (which is where this process gets its name from) to create ‘Symmetrical’ Patterns of ideas that represent those pauses in our dance! To be fair, while you could do this with almost any piece of step/pattern/figure, we ideally want to keep this ‘simple’ – hahaha, as if! The problem with a step, pattern, or figure is that isn’t malleable. It doesn’t allow for modification. Usually, one step is built upon the one that came before it. So modification doesn’t necessarily work in this instance. This is the primary reason why steps, patterns, and figures don’t work. And then there’s the tiny little problem that they don’t generally work on a social dance floor due to space requirements. This stuff ? DOES WORK ON A SOCIAL DANCE FLOOR BECAUSE IT FITS EVERYWHERE!!!!

However, as you’ll see, this is anything but ‘simple’. Symmetry as a whole can become quite complex and quite lurid as a way to dance with nearly infinite possibilities to play within a 3-minute song! The options are seemingly endless. Seemingly. There is an upper limit that for each possibility represented there are 17 available options with the 6 Ways of Walking. Honestly, though, a pattern or figure would be infinitely easier to do in many ways, because it removes all doubt as to what to do next. However, there is another skill that we’re actually building here, and that’s Facility. The ‘Facility’ to do all of this stuff off the top of our heads! Symmetry reinforces this skill and then doubles down on it, meaning that we build into our skillset not just facility but also it starts to build structure in what we’re doing.

Also, engaging Symmetry adds layer upon layer upon layer of options and opportunities for lots of accents and ‘playfulness’ in the music with lots and lots of places where BOTH partners can play not just the lead! If Alternation is the meat of the meal, Symmetry once you see it, is quite literally everything else about that meal that is appealing!

It should be noted that the ideas being presented here are more than enough without adding steps, patterns, and figures to keep you busy for months going through all the possible permutation and years to come. You could dance this way all night long without adding any pattern, or ‘spice’ or accent vocabulary (volcadas, sacadas, colgadas, ganchos, etc), and it’s not only a fun dance, it’s also visually appealing to watch and play with.

There are 6 types of Paired Symmetry where we use the words “Same” and “Opposite” each to represent 1 of the 6 ways of Walking, and where the ‘|’ represents a Musical Pause, and the “.” represents the END of the Musical Paragraph.

Type ‘A’: Same|Same | Opposite|Opposite | Same|Opposite.
Type ‘B’: Same|Opposite | Opposite|Same | Opposite|Same.
Type ‘C’: Opposite|Same | Same|Opposite | Opposite|Same.
Type ‘D’: Opposite|Opposite | Same|Same | Opposite|Same.
Type ‘E’: Same|Opposite | Same|Opposite | Same|Opposite.
Type ‘F’: Opposite|Same | Opposite|Same | Same|Opposite.

This is all gobbly-gook until you put some real values in there that make sense. So let’s do that using 2 of the 6 Ways of Walking.

For the ‘Same’ value we would use a Type 1a Walk (Parallel System on 2 Tracks) for ‘Opposite’ we would use a Type 3a Walk (Follower ‘Lazy’ Ochos).

Example Ideas:

Type ‘A’: 1a (Pause) 1a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 3a  (Pause) 1a (Pause) 3a (End Musical Paragraph).
Type ‘B’: 1a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 1a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 1a (End Musical Paragraph).
Type ‘C’: 3a (Pause) 1a (Pause) 1a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 1a (End Musical Paragraph).

You can fill in the rest for yourself. You can easily see how this plays out, and this is without turns, without crosses, without any spice vocabulary. It creates an ordered structure which provides near-infinite possibilities and variations. This is why Symmetry and the video series is an insanely powerful tool, and this is just 3 possibilities of the 6!

It should be noted that this is only what happens when there are only 4 pauses in a section of a Musical Paragraph, we remove the last set of pairs! What happens when there are 8 ? We double the pair sets! Again, structure and order!   

The ‘Odd Pause’ Rule. Occasionally, not always but there are times when there are an odd number of Pauses or the ending of a Musical Paragraph where you want to do something a little different. While we will talk about that ending in Section 6 of the series in depth, we want to invoke The Odd Pause Rule. Which states that when you have an odd number of pauses or it’s the last pause before the end of the Musical Paragraph, we want to compress and reprise what we’ve done within the space of one pause! So, for example, we have a Type ‘A’ Structure of a Type 1a Walk (Pause) Type 1a (Pause) Type 3a Walk (Pause) Type 3a Walk ? Take out the pauses and compress everything so that it fits within the space of ONE pause!

So the effect would be this Example Ending or Odd Pause > 1a-1a-3a-3a
As a whole the entire paragraph would look like this, musically speaking >
1a (Pause) 1a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 3a (Pause) 1a-1a-3a-3a (End Musical Paragraph).

The Follower’s Role. In all of the above the Follower would be very tempted to completely disregard all of this stuff, and rightfully so, because seemingly so there’s almost nothing there for the Follower.


Nothing could be further from the truth there. You quite possibly have the biggest role of all here! While the Lead is mapping this stuff out, you have to execute this stuff! Furthermore you have the possibility to decorate nearly everything that’s being asked of you here! Look at those structures above, again, and then think about Los Golpecitos (a touch/tap with the free foot before the step happens) just as an example! Now add in an adornment at the pauses, now add in Doble Golpecitos at the pauses or a patter, or a Caricia ….and you’ve got near infinite possibilities here. You’ve got places to add decorations nearly EVERYWHERE!

While the Adornment is the musical addition, the embellishment tends to happen at double time to the note or happens outside of the note or beat structure. Tends to. Not always but ‘tends to happen’. Tango Topics sees the Embellishment as exterior to the beat, whereas the Adornment would like to happen directly on the beat and at the pause. However, in either case, the Adornment or Embellishment is within the musical structure never outside of it. In other words, we, as Followers, never go outside of the music. If it’s not in the music, it’s not on the floor. This rule should also apply to the Lead as well. 😉

One More Thing. Remember that Alternation & Symmetry are only a stepping stone, they’re only a passageway towards created structure, or a latticework with our dance. Also, remember that this stuff does not replace what you’ve learned in other classes about ‘musicality’ or rightfully “Interpreting The Music”, it can and does work hand in hand with it. Remember that stuff that you’ve experienced in other classes on this topic is about the accent idea, mostly. This is what you do with the rest of the song!

Where can you study the Musical Stuff ? Tango Topics has a number of musical courses that you can take:

1.) (Beat Course) Clarify what the beat is, and is not, and then develop a regime to teach how to hear a beat within its proper tempo (speed) consistently. What are the markers for a beat, and what to listen for. 
2.) (Beat Course with Exercises) Recalibrate someone’s innate (and quite natural) ordering and sorting skills, as it relates to hearing the ‘pattern’ of the music out of the chaos of the music, with the goal to hearing and retraining someone to hear ‘Musical Time’.
3.) (Pauses Course) Introduce the Dancer to the 5 Common Types of Musical Pauses that occur everywhere in Tango Music, and then practice hearing those pauses every day for 44 days with examples of Tango, Vals, and finally Milonga music of where a pause is, and then type those pauses, consistently through daily Tango del Dia quizzes. 😉 Starting with the 14 Days of Tango Music.
4.) (Accents Course) Introduce the dancer to Musical Accents, Off Notes, La Variacion, and The Singer, and employ Tango Del Dia Level 2.
5.) (Structure Course) Introduce the dancer to the overall structure of the music and the 6 (sometimes 8) parts of a song.

And of course, as a subscriber, you can see the entire 54m:22s video that you currently can’t see unless you’re a subscriber. 🙂 

This video is NOT for sale. You can only view it with a Tango Topics Subscription.

About The Video. This video package comes in at 54m:22s in length in 5 Sections.

Section 3a – Alternation – The Basic Idea – 00:14:35
Section 3b – Alternation – Walking Ideas – 00:06:10
Section 3c – Alternation – With the Music – 00:08:21
Section 4a – Symmetry – The Whole Ball of Wax – 00:17:17
Section 4b – Symmetry – With the Music – 00:07:59

This video can not be purchased, only viewed online via Tango Topics Subscription. 

Watch It On Youtube? Why should you subscribe to this website when stuff like this is available on Youtube ? Because this stuff doesn’t exist anywhere on Youtube. That’s why! This content has been sitting in the back of my mind for the better portion of 8+ years. I have spent most of that time refining it through teaching intensives, clarifying the ideas, cleaning up the inconsistencies that existed with the theories, and practices, and ended up developing this course as a result. It has been tested, and tried through hundreds of dancers that have gone through the intensive process.

The Last Word. Tango Topics is little reminders and snippets of information that your teachers would have told you about but didn’t have time to or didn’t care to remind you for the umpteenth millionth time. Do you need videos like these ? Yes. Why ? Simple…you need as many reminders as possible in as many forms as you can get. In today’s Tango world it does take a village to raise a dancer. And that means having as many voices, reminders, ideas, concepts, perspectives as possible. This video and the rest of the ones that are sitting behind the Tango Topics paywall are that. While what you’re seeing above is only the smallest hint of what’s contained in the actual video. It should be enough for you to make a reasoned and intelligent choice that perhaps there’s something of value in this site and the videos that are here. Considering becoming a Gold, Gold Plus, or Diamond level subscriber today.

Please go look at Parts 1 and 2 of Tango Topics Musical Interpretation series. 


Get More Great Content from Tango Topics

Scroll to top