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