A PRAGMATIC GUIDE
Tango DJing and music
The basic building block of an evening of Tango is the tanda, which consists of 3 or 4 songs of Tango, vals or milonga — around 10–12 minutes. A couple typically commits to dancing one full tanda when they agree to dance with each other. If any dancer ends up dancing a couple of tandas they don’t enjoy, then it can be nearly 30 minutes of torture. I think it is important that Tango DJs keep this in mind and take it very seriously.
To be fair, not all bad tandas are because of the music; However, it is hard to enjoy a tanda which is built on bad music — “bad music” here meaning hard to dance to. As usual, if the aim is to keep the most number of dancers on the floor for the longest amount of time, then particular care must be taken to compose the tanda.
The 12 second hook
While a dancer can certainly invite another dancer from the second or third song, usually the invitations are made in the beginning of the first song. If you think of the invitation from the viewpoint of the dancer, it consists of the following steps:
- Listen to the music; see if you like it.
- Decide whom you want to dance such music with.
- Look towards that person; hopefully they are looking at you too!
- Invite the person.
- Go dance!
Usually, this whole procedure has to be accomplished within 10–15 seconds. Thus, it is important for the DJ to start a tanda with a song that is
- Immediately appealing and makes the dancer want to dance.
- Give an accurate picture of the mood created for the next 12 minutes.
So, what makes a song immediately appealing to a dancer does not have much of a background in Tango music? It is worth listening to the first few seconds of the most “attractive” Tangos — it can be quite a revelation. Without exception,
all of them complete one or two phrases¹ of music within 10–12 seconds.
This gives the dancer the exact amount of information required to decide whether to dance or not. It is easy to forget this fact, but the structure of most danceable Tango music was an attempt to solve the problem of getting people to dance. Let me take a few examples.
One of my favourite Tangos is Viejos Tiempos by Canaro
Within the first 10 seconds, Canaro has played the theme of the song and even provided a nice “boom” of energy around second 11 to push the dancer onto the floor. A smoother Calo, Al compas del corazon:
The basic phrase lasts 4 seconds, and by second 12 you have heard it thrice. Even some of Pugliese’s earlier music, which is undeniably easier to dance to:
Here, Pugliese has explored multiple musical ideas in the first 12 seconds, giving the dancer much to look forward to in the remaining 2.5 minutes. In contrast, another Pugliese Tango
It takes almost 25 seconds to go through the various musical ideas, and the strong sense of completion between different phrases is no longer present. This is not to suggest that this is a “bad” Tango, but simply that I would never use it as the first song of a tanda where the dancer has many decisions to make. Similarly, Calo’s Marion
takes nearly 14 whole seconds to introduce a single musical idea. Of course, the song is beautiful and very famous; but thinking in terms of someone who has never heard the song before, it does not provide the necessary “kick” to get you off your seat and onto the floor. Contrast this with another version by Juan Carlos Cobian
The first 12 seconds tells you all you need to know about the song. I face a similar problem when I try to select songs by D’Arienzo featuring Hector Maure — most songs don’t have a theme that ends within 12 seconds (quite out of character for D’Arienzo’s orchestra), one exception being the splendid Amarras
To me, this “12 second hook” test allows me to quickly choose songs during a milonga or when I’m skimming through new music. It has rarely failed me. In my experience, the best tandas are those which only contain songs that pass this test. This is not to say this is the only criterion for successful DJing — as always, keeping an eye on the composition of the floor, being mindful of the time of the evening, the weather all have their roles to play in creating a beautiful evening for the dancers.
Composition of the Tanda
There is a lot of information available on the way a Tanda should be formed, so I will not spend much time repeating what has already been said hundreds of times. But for the sake of completion,
- Choose songs by a single orchestra.
- Choose songs composed around the same time. Orchestra styles (and recording quality) changes quite a bit with time.
- Choose songs by the same vocalist, at least in the post 1940s. Vocalists became important parts of orchestras and usually brought their own personality to the arrangement of Tangos.
- Choose songs with a similar mood. If you start with something romantic and end with something playful, people may come away feeling unsatisfied. This is because they want to dance with certain kinds of partners for certain moods of songs.
- Choose songs with a similar tempo. You can’t promise a slow tanda and deliver a series of breathless songs.
- Stay away from very slow songs. However beautiful they sound, they will kill the energy of the floor. This is because it is physically difficult to dance to slow songs.
These rules of thumb have generally worked for me, and for good reason — they minimize bad surprises for dancers, and let me, the DJ, keep a consistent hold on the energy of the floor.
 By phrase I mean a distinct musical sequence which gives a sense of completion by it’s end.