The Terms We Use: Variation and Syncopation

In a previous blog I wrote about the challenges of learning a kinesthetic tradition like tango. That challenge is made no less complicated when teachers don't even agree on the terms in English that are used to describe movement. I took a musicality workshop from Samantha Buckwalter, a swing dancer, and she defined two important terms in the following way, which I prefer:

Variation: A change in footwork in a combination of steps
Syncopation: A change in the timing of footwork in a combination of steps

This works pretty well in swing, where figures tend to have accepted fundamental footwork and timing, but is much harder to translate into tango where very few accepted figures exist and timing is equally variable (example: some people teach the "Basic 8" beginning with a side step rather than a backstep and the timing of the cruzada varies). I prefer not to assign specific rhythms to a figure when teaching, unless the purpose of the class is primarily accomplishing the rhythm more than the footwork.

So how do we describe timing changes in tango? Most teachers utilize the same "slow" and "quick quick" rhythms to describe timing in the same manner as other ballroom dances, with each "slow" being assigned to one of the strong beats in tango (what would typically be considered a single step).

If a figure is presented in a particular rhythm (typically one step per strong beat), then any deviation from that can be considered a "syncopation" under Samantha's definition. That includes stretching a step to last longer than a single beat or taking multiple steps or actions per strong beat.

But many tango teachers use the following terms:

Double time (doble tiempo)- performing steps twice as fast as the strong beat (quick quick)
Syncopation- dancing the sixteenth note rhythms within a single beat, dividing each strong beat into four, usually denoted by counting 1 e and a 2 e and a.

The trouble then becomes how we refer to any sort of rhythm other than standard steps, double time, or sixteenth notes. Does the freedom of timing in tango defy such short definitions?

For now, I'll probably stick to avoiding strict rhythms- it's more fun that way.