What is good tango for dancing, and what isn’t? The general consensus when it comes to traditional tango songs for dancing is, generally speaking, pretty clear: We tend to prefer orchestras from a certain period -between the 1920s and the 1960s- with marked characteristics that basically lay out the definition of good tango for dancing: D’Arienzo, Biagi, Di Sarli, Pugliese, Tanturi, Rodriguez, Troilo, Caló, and a few others. Orchestras that play in that general style -2 to 3 minute songs, periodic harmonic structures, no drums, etc.- are generally considered good for dancing.
However, when it comes to deciding what is good alternative music for dancing tango to, the lines are not clear at all. A friend of mine once said something like “I do like alternative music for tango, the problem is that I only like the alternative songs that I play”. Deciding what non-tango music is good for dancing to with tango steps is often a pretty difficult -and ultimately very personal- task. What I would consider to be great alternative music for tangoing might be too loud and percussive for some other people, and what some people might enjoy for alternative tangoing could be, to my ears, overly soft, lacking strength, so to speak. Then there is also the problem of music that was not intended for dancing tango: as a consequence, many songs are too long, too repetitive, don’t have enough harmonic variety, etc. And different people will have different opinions on these factors, often influenced by the level and quality of their dancing.
In the past I have attended milongas where the DJs played lots of alternative music for dancing; pretty much the second half of the milonga was all alternative. What’s more, most of the time when so much alternative was featured, the first half featured traditional music chosen half-heartedly, and many of the songs played as “traditional” were what I would consider to be simply not danceable, at least not in a social environment with people of many different skill levels. Whenever that was the case, I just stopped attending those milongas; if other people are happy dancing that way, good for them! But for me, I want something different. I want something better. As far as I can tell, when the music is bad, the dancing generally follows in that whole line of mediocrity. On the other hand, a milonga Djed by someone knowledgeable who cares about good tango for dancing will attract good dancers and the dancing will be overall better.
So, what about alternative music? Can we have good alternative as part of the package? I certainly think so! As long as it is chosen carefully and we rotate it in a way that leaves everyone happy – a pretty difficult task if there is one. In the past, when I have Djed milongas, if the milonga was around 3 or 4 hours long, I tried to play only one set of 3 alternative songs when the time seemed right. But sometimes that might end up being too little, especially since some people are really looking forward to their “alt” set. On the other hand, some people really hate alternative music, and if it were up to them there would be none at all (I remember some email discussions in the old times, before facebook, in which members of my favorite tango club took part; the tone got very nasty immediately!) So after some experimenting in practicas and less formal milongas that I have had the pleasure to DJ, I have finally come up with what I consider a good solution.
As most of you reading this probably know, the traditional way to DJ a milonga is to form groups of songs by the same orchestra, separated by cortinas (brief segments of music not intended for dancing, so people change partners often). There are 3 musical forms in the tango genre that we use for dancing: Tango, Milonga, and Vals. In social tango we dance “tandas” or “sets” of 4 tangos, 3 Milongas and 3 Valses, that different people group in different ways. The most used grouping goes like this: 4 Tangos by an orchestra, a cortina, 4 Tangos by another orchestra, another cortina, 3 Milongas, then again 4 Tangos, 4 Tangos, 3 Valses. The scheme looks like this:
and it repeats throughout the night; this is not set in stone, and if the DJ considers it’s not a good time for milonga (for example), she might add another set of four tangos, and so forth. So, where do we put the alternative? My best solution -so far- is to add a set of three songs as if they were Milongas or Valses -they tend to be long and a little tiring, like milongas or valses- and add them with 2 more tango sets. So the rotation ends up looking like this:
TTM TTV TTA
and repeat. So far, it seems to be working pretty well. Do you love alternative? Then you’ll get some lovely sets, chosen very carefully and filtered from hundreds of songs. Do you hate alternative? Then just wait for those 3 songs to end, and you’ll get plenty more of that traditional tango that you love. Surely, there is no way to make absolutely everybody happy. But this type of rotation should be good enough to keep all the good dancers satisfied, and coming back for more.
Do you have any ideas, or anything you would like to add? Then please leave me a comment!