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Tango Timing

by Richard Lamberty

A beat of music is in no way an instantaneous moment. It has duration. This fact is very much at the heart of what I do with tango timing.

Sometimes we talk about tango as Slows and Quicks. At other times, we count. Long ago I adopted a notation for writing Slows and Quicks that gave me a greater granularity and allowed me to express something closer to counts. Let's see how this works.

A measure of music in tango has 4 beats (4/4 timing.): 1 2 3 4

If we take a figure like the Closed Promenade, the given timing is Slow, Quick, Quick, Slow, which is usually given as SQQS.

If each Slow is TWO beats (out of the four) and each quick is ONE beat, then this figures sums as 2 + 1 + 1 + 2 = 6 beats, which is one and one half measures of music. That by itself is not so hard to grasp, but it does mean that, unlike waltz, figures are not limited to measure boundaries. Getting a feeling for that takes some practice. And that is also the main reason most tango is given as Slows and Quicks rather than as Numbers.

Two examples to demonstrate why:

  • Progressive Link to Closed Promenade (QQ SQQS): in numbers, 1 2 for the link, and 34 1 2 34 for the closed promenade.

  • Closed Promenade to Link (SQQS QQ) 12 3 4 12 for the closed promenade, and 3 4 for the link.

Hmmmm. Numbers are not so useful since they are clearly context dependent, whereas the Slows and Quicks remain clear regardless of measure boundaries.

Now for the next bit.

Since a Slow consists of TWO beats, and since we are thinking about duration as a factor in movement, I find that I have TWO ways that I can interpret my Slows. I can step on the first beat, and stand on the second OR stand on the first beat and STEP on the second. Technically, either way, I have executed the step labeled SLOW within the boundary of music allocated to it; within the duration of the given timing. But the effect is quite different.

And so, having a method of notation that distinguishes one version of the Slow from another might be useful (or not . . . . )

Let's call a Slow where we step on the first beat and stand on the second beat of music an EARLY SLOW. We step EARLY in the allocated block of music and spend the rest of the time standing. And let's call a Slow where we stand on the first beat and step on the second a LATE SLOW. We step LATE in the allocated block of music, having waited (standing) on the first beat. Further, let's designate the symbol "s" (lowercase s) to mean EARLY SLOW and let's designate the symbol "S" (uppercase S) to mean LATE SLOW.

The closed promenade then has FOUR possible interpretations:

  • sQQs (two early Slows)

  • SQQS (two late Slows)

  • sQQS (early Slow followed by late Slow)

  • SQQs (late Slow followed by early Slow)

It turns out I usually dance the last one :-)

Let's go back and look at NUMBERS for this, assuming we start with beat ONE of a measure: In this case a numeral (e.g., 1) is held or a beat that I STAND on; and a written number (e.g., ONE) is a beat that I STEP on.

So we have (think of a written out number as being . . . . LOUDER than a numerical one.) the same four options as above:

  • ONE 2 THREE FOUR ONE 2

  • 1 TWO THREE FOUR 1 TWO

  • ONE 2 THREE FOUR 1 TWO

  • 1 TWO THREE FOUR ONE 2

Again, I dance the last option: TWO THREE FOUR ONE -- most of the time :-)

If you try all four of the interpretations above, be sure you SAY your TIMING out loud. It will really help. Just be louder on the beats that you are stepping on.

Again, a beat of music is not just a moment. It has duration. Two beats (a Slow) gives us lots of time, and within that time, we have room to play.


This essay is based on a post to the Weavers discussion group, 1/21/2005; published in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, June 2011.



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