Tertulia #3 (conversations) with Makela: Technique and Improvisation

Jan. 15, 2019

Topic: Connection Between Technique and Improvisation


Steven: Hi Makela, I’m hoping you can talk a bit about how learning technique of Tango relates to improvisation. And what is improvisation in tango?

Makela: For me, improvisation is being able to use what you know and put it in a different way each time depending on the music and your partner. It’s a difficult thing to teach because it is not “Okay go ahead and dance.” You need to have some kind of structure with parameters and from that you can find the freedom.   Part of improvisation is hearing the music each time and changing how you interpret it on that particular time. Improvisation is not only step combinations and I always wonder why people want to learn the steps instead of the skill

Steven: What do you mean “skill?”

M: The musicality and foundation of the dance itself. We teachers like to complain about this. I guess a step is more attainable than learning to walk in a subtle and musical way. You and me worked so long on the embrace and the walk. And ideally, we should work on this at least a year before I teach you any steps.


S: The embrace and walk.


M: Yes. Both the embrace and the walk is the foundation and basis of Tango and whatever you do with those two things right is going to be enjoyable.  


S: About improvisation, what you said about form a structure makes a lot of sense. I might have a song with a melody I know, but the goal is to be in tune with the other musicians and the present moment so something new can happen. So do you think beginners can improvise?


M: This is the way I teach improvisation at the beginning. Let’s say I teach four patterns, and I make each sure each pattern is in an eight count. I tell students you can do these patterns in any order you want. That would be the first step. Then I say use the first four of one pattern, and the last four of another four. So you become a little more free with the structure of the patterns. See what it is like and experiment with what works to you. And I always try to emphasize the mistakes are the key to creativity. Sometimes when you think you are doing something wrong you are actually discovering something unique to you. Another way of thinking about improvisation comes from the music. I ask students to listen where there is double time, changes in the rhythm, or in the melody.

S: I noticed that people who are more advanced than me dance using different steps for different band leaders and music.

M: Yes, different orchestras you might improvise differently. This is d’Arienzo so I might use more double time. Or this is Disarli, so I am going to move much slower in half time.

S: Can you talk more about the relationship between technique and improvisation?


M: When we talk about technique, I think you are talking about body physics and body movement and position, posture.


S: Yeah, like dissociation.


M: Yes. I believe that they should be taught separately. And I believe that the technique gets much better if the student practices on their own. There is nothing like taking the time on your own, even in the practicas here. Take the time for yourself The Walk and the technique in general require time to assimilate.


S:  Even working a little bit on my own each day, feeling the connection to the floor and the way all the parts of the walk come together really helps me.


M: And then you can also work on improvisation on your own. Listening to the music and seeing where your body wants to go, experimenting and forgetting about the technique during this practice. Even just thinking about Tango for 15 minutes a day helps too, to integrate the technique with the improvisation.  


S: When you were learning how did you learn improvisation and technique?


M: You know at the time I was learning, the teaching of tango was very disorganized. I had some teachers here and there, I danced a lot… but now I studied tango a lot and I have a very clear sense of what a student needs to go through to be a very good dancer. I learned mostly from the leaders who I danced with in the Milonga. It was only in teaching that I really broke it down to know the process more.


S: I see. It makes me think of some of my jazz teachers of the generation before me. They didn’t have jazz schools to go to, so they had to learn “on the bandstand,” from the musicians with more experience then them. It’s only now that they have schools. And you learned improvisation from those dancers too?


M: Yes, so many amazing dancers I have to be grateful to. I was traveling back and forth a lot to Argentina and I had many friends from when I studied at National Ballet school so I was able to dance with many dancers, talk about the dance and in that way learn the dance.