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Space and Time in Tango
by Alberto Toledano

In two previous articles ("Tango and the Laws of Mechanics, Parts I & II," La Voz del Tango, July/August and September/October 1996 issues), I discussed the basic concepts of mass and force as they apply to Tango. Here, I shall consider the other two fundamental notions of the Science of Mechanics, namely space and time.

Tango, as dance form, expresses movement of two bodies. Now, movement implies both a spatial and a temporal representation. It is impossible to imagine, let alone experience, movement in space, but not in time, or in time, but not in space. This interdependence of space and time is unique to the art of dance. Sculpture and painting, for example, are solely spatial compositions, frozen in time. Music, on the other hand, has one single temporal dimension, but is devoid of any spatial characterization. Tango is a pattern in space which employs time rhythm.

In the present discussion of space as it relates to Tango, I shall distinguish between intimate space and container space. Although these spaces operate in conjunction, perception in the former is sensorial, in the latter dynamic.

The intimate space is that space shared by the dancers as they come together. This action forces the dancer to expose himself, and let the other penetrate the invisible, yet protective sphere or bubble, that surrounds him. When the respective bubbles overlap, complete intimate involvement occurs. Each partner must be willing to become vulnerable in order to exchange energies: a physical and emotional transaction takes place.

Intimate space results in physical contact, the amount of which depends on the distance the dancers keep between them, i.e it depends on the tightness of the embrace. This distance is obviously variable. The intricate nature of certain figures requires the bodies to separate in order for the execution to be comfortable and precise. Walking, on the other hand, may be done in close contact, chests pressing against each other. Also, the music, the mood, the way the dancers feel about each other can bring them closer together.

In intimate space, the presence of the other is unmistakable, undeniable, because of the increased intensity of sensory inputs. In particular, touch, smell, heat from the other's body, and feel of the breath, all contribute to signal the strong, powerful involvement between the dancers. During maximum physical contact, muscles and skin communicate. Heads, chests, thighs are brought into play; arms encircle. Vision is limited, but when it is possible within the intimate range, the image of the other is enhanced, the impression and effect are stronger.

The man's lead originates within the intimate space. His upper body indicates the nature and direction of movement. For example, for a forward step, the man thrusts his chest forward, while in a sacada, his leg comes into contact with the woman's. In either case, the man invades the woman's space. This act of invasion is assertive, forceful, sometimes explosive, but never destructive.

The classical concept of space provides a means to specify the position where material objects are located and to describe a medium through which they move. This interpretation suggests the idea of a container space, i.e a space in which things may be put. Where a couple was previously located, another couple, or the same one, may come to be situated. The place remains. Space then is the receptacle or container in which the dancers are placed and through which they move. Space has the quality of emptiness, and like the sculptor, the dancer fills it. The dance becomes a sequence or arrangement of patterns associated with the phenomenon of displacement. Perception of space is then dynamic, because it is related to action.

In a social context, the man, as leader, is not only the initiator of the movement, but also its director. In other words, the man has the responsibility to look for the space, i.e to look for an available opening or vacancy on the dance floor. The selection of figures is obviously a function of this available space. It depends on the distribution and density of the couples sharing the floor. As a result, there appears a network of relations among couples. This relational interpretation of space in a milonga is a direct consequence of the container conception of space.

I have already mentioned that Tango is an arrangement of patterns in space. Therefore, the dance possesses a spatial rhythm, i.e it is an oscillation between tensions and contractions, linear and circular movements, short and long steps, stillness and motion. This spatial rhythm confers a dynamic to the dance. The dance thus acquires life for it breathes. In stillness, the sense of the intimate space reaches its maximum, while in motion the sense of the container space predominates.

I now come to the concept of time. Music exists in time. There is a before and an after, a progression from an earlier to a later point. This also characterizes our daily experience of time: it flows, it proceeds unidirectionally from one event to the next. Because dancing is an independent art, it can exist without audible accompaniment. As far as Tango is concerned, however, the dance acquires meaning and comes alive when it is performed to musical time. As music is an organization of time, so is the dance an arrangement in time, which employs temporal rhythm. The dancer is guided by the pulsations in the music, i.e by the alternation of contrasting elements such as rise and fall, tension and release, anticipation and surprise. The dancer interprets the distance between notes, he deciphers their relations and translates them into spatial movement. He creates a mapping between time and space, he transforms a musical geometry into a spatial geometry.

The successive stepping on the right and left foot, as well as the beats that define the rhythm, both form a discrete sequence of numbers, i.e they can be counted 1, 2, 3, ... Movement and music, however, are continuous manifestations. Bodies don't just disappear from one place to suddenly pop up elsewhere. Space has no gaps. Similarly, music is not a series of isolated, instantaneous sounds. It is a spectrum. Our palpable sense of continuity emanates from the relations between places and events. As the dancer hears between notes, he dances between steps to model continuity from discontinuity. The dancer is a designer, a sculptor of action. Space and time are the materials at his disposal to create movement.

Alberto Toledano, 11.29.1997

Tango, A Dialogue Between Two Bodies
by Alberto Toledano

I like to think of Tango as a language, spoken not with the tongue but with the entire body. A silent language indeed, but endowed nonetheless with its own syntax and semantics.

Following the musical phrases, the dancers construct sentences with their feet. These sentences are not fixed, immutable figures carved in stone. They rather consist of dynamic patterns or elements, which may be combined in any desired manner. Complete arbitrariness is however impossible, for movements would otherwise lack fluidity and feel unnatural. This syntactic constraint is akin to the way words are put together to form intelligible clauses in daily speech. Furthermore, the same basic, choreographic elements yield totally different combinations, according to the music, the space, the mood, as well as the specific partner. These variables thus dictate the meaning of any improvised dance.

In much the same way as two interlocutors need pay attention to what each one is saying in order to carry on a stimulating conversation, so must the dancers' bodies closely listen to each other. The man must be sensitive to the woman, and the woman in turn must be sensitive to the man. This mutual sensitiveness makes the dialogue possible. A clear understanding of and a profound respect for each partner's role are tantamount to creating a Tango.

In any couple dance, someone has to lead, someone has to make the first move. This responsibility traditionally rests upon the man. The lead is a coded message, which the woman needs to decipher in order to take action. This response on the woman's part in turn gives rise to an answer from the man, i.e the man follows the woman's reaction with another proposition. This succession of actions and reactions constitutes the dance, a spontaneous dialogue between two bodies. The woman obviously must wait for the man's lead before attempting any movement. He then waits for her to complete her action, before sending the next message. Waiting is a fundamental aspect of Tango. It is being aware of what the other is trying to express, it is being sensitive to what the other is feeling. Anticipation, much like a rude interruption which hampers the natural delivery of speech, disrupts the continuous flow of movement and exchange of energies. Waiting creates a polarity essential to communication, to sharing each other.

The music interpretation is enhanced when the man deliberately pauses and lets the woman take the initiative. She can then do different adornos (adornments) with her feet. These pauses are bifurcation points from which new paths spread out. I love when the woman takes full advantage of such moments, because it allows me to experience her creativity, and savor her sensuality, her feminity. On the other hand, I also have the freedom to adorn while she is in a parada (stop) position, for example. This possible alternation of embellishments or monologues highly enrich the dance. It then becomes a creative repartee during which we more fully surrender to each other. The man can also pause and let bars of music go by before resuming the dance at the next phrase. These quiet, still moments bring the dancers into a closer intimacy, forcing their bodies to connect at a deeper, more visceral level.

In a milonga somewhere, a man and a woman sit. Once in a while, they take a sip at their drink. They listlessly observe the dancers glide on the floor. Then, a sudden eye contact, a subtle nod, and this man and this woman come together. During a short time span, these two strangers get to know each other. Their bodies express feelings and exchange emotions. They live an intense and intimate experience without uttering a single word. It's a Tango... Back at their tables, they resume their routine, their eyes languidly follow the dancers.

Alberto Toledano, 5.31.96

ALBERTO HATALBERTO TOLEDANO is a contributing writer for the bi-monthly newsletter, LA VOZ DEL TANGO. His articles have also appeared in European publications.