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Milonga... the Orphan Dance


By Jean-Pierre Sighé



To express the Milonga as intended, one must first understand the roots of this orphan dance. To learn or teach Milonga as if it magically appeared from nowhere - with no connection to any other dance forms - is to dilute its irresistible beat. Indeed, one cannot ignore Milonga’s true “mother”, Candombe. She contains the necessary information that nurtures the dancer’s rhythmic adventure.


Candombe’s complex rhythm canmostly be understood when explained by someone who knows African rhythms. Do not dismiss the importance of understanding the journey from where the Milonga earns its nutrients. Dancers must tune into these emotional and rhythmic connections.

Interestingly, the word Candombe has been almost removed from the regular lexicon of Tango. Regrettably, it has been reduced to an esoteric term for the few. In fact, many experienced Tango dancers claim they have never heard of the word. I believe that one cannot mention Candombe without going into the necessary explanations of its place in the chain of events that created Tango. Perhaps this explains its limited understanding in the world of Tango. The thirst for historical accuracy might inspire the instructor to candidly share the exciting relationship between the Candombe and the Habanera rhythm (prevalent in Milonga). Not only is such information crucial to the comprehension of the famous “traspie” (so simple and yet so mysterious to many), it is equally key to the overall emotional interaction with the Milonga music (meaning rhythm and song). It employs the “traspie” on purpose, as it is this big thing that everybody wants to teach. In fact, the “traspie” exists because of this crucial relationship between the Candombe and the Habanera. Candombe’s abundance of “call-response” explains the “traspie’s” purpose. In other words, to teach or learn the “traspie” as a singular element of the Milonga is a poor and incomplete approach, as the essential is left behind - or worse, ignored.

I am fully aware of the difficulty in explaining a rhythmic topic in a written document. Keeping that in mind, it is still possible to write about rhythm without being overwhelming.

In my view, a good Milonga class should include some rhythmic exercises where the participants actually sing the rhythm (the way African folks, for instance, do), thus understanding one-step ON the down-beat and one-step ON the up-beat. It doesn’t take long before one begins to feel how it is possible to step in-between the Down and the Up beats. Thus, one can acquire that emotional connection to rhythm. Pretty soon, the beginner moves into the position to hear and play with the subtle ½ or ¼ beat, as he responds to a call from the spot in the music. The mystery of the “traspie” vanishes, the body relaxes, and the stiffness melts down. The groove of the rhythm becomes “intoxicating”. No wonder people go into a trance-like state, in African dancing!
I am grateful to the Uruguayans who have managed to keep Candombe rhythm embedded in their culture. It ought to have been the same in the case of their neighbor, Argentina, given their geographical and historical proximities. Brazil has definitely kept the Candombe* rhythm alive and even allowed it to generate another dance art form: the Samba. It is strange that in that whole region only Argentina, over time, has put the Candombe spirit on the back burner. Today, the Milonga is taught as some spontaneous generation. This makes it hard for newcomers to Tango (thus, Milonga), to feel comfortable with rhythm, let alone, to feel the spiritual connection attached to it.
The umbilical cord cannot be severed without generating distortion and misunderstanding. The nurturing influence of Candombe must be revisited, re-actualized, to keep Tango


evolving and generating into something unimaginable at the moment. Perhaps, we would then see the so-called Nuevo Tango (in its musical designation) FINALLY enriched, so it can emerge out of the rhythmic cul-de-sac in which it momentarily finds itself. I refer to the very monotonous rhythm that almost ALL of the Nuevo Tango pieces repeat; that is the obvious display of the bankrupt conception, coming from a place of a poor rhythmic ability.
The whole Tango environment has been cut off from its roots for too long. It is time to reinstate the original African drumming and rhythmic playfulness, and allow a greater individual connection with oneself. Let’s keep in mind that Tango means: “the place of gathering”. The “Tango Liso” era has generated too much stiffness in the dancer’s body. It must be declared obsolete, as this 21st century settles in and we experience the freedom in dancing.
Milonga should be embraced as Candombe’s proud offspring. Curiosity should take the learner to this place of pure rhythmic interaction. From that “pilgrimage” (even a brief one), the dancer will suddenly understand why the “traspie” is danced in the Milonga. The dancers will actually realize that the “traspie” is nothing but a rhythmic response to a rhythmic call. “Traspie” is NOT a step. May the parenthood of the Milonga be restored for the good of Tango.


Notes: (*) It is very easy to hear the Candombe online, associated to the music from Uruguay.

(*) Not to be confused with the Brazilian religious practice called "Candomblé".



© September 2008


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