The other night as I drove home after what had felt like a lukewarm milonga I kept wondering why the spark had been missing. I had arrived eager to dance, had immediately spotted some of my favorite dance partners and, after chatting with some long-time acquaintances, had positioned myself strategically so that I could be seen easily and, hopefully, asked to dance. But scanning the dance floor, I could tell that the energy was low. Most couples were sitting at their tables looking bored and seemed not inclined to get up. The ones that actually did dance somehow appeared a bit strained. My favorite partners didn’t seem to be eager to make a move, and when I was finally asked for a tanda, we didn’t really connect and enjoy the dancing. Then it finally dawned on me: it was the music! The music didn’t feel right. The songs were a mismatched mix of different styles, vocals and instrumentals, Nuevo and Golden Age, no highs, no lows, and didn’t inspire me to dance. I gazed over at the DJ, a popular local teacher who frequently spins the music, but that night he seemed to be paying more attention to his peers than to what was happening on the dance floor. He just seemed to be running down his playlist without observing the dancers.
After an hour and a half or so I gave up. On my drive home I thought wistfully of one of my favorite DJs whose milongas I always enjoy. As if by magic, she gets everybody (including myself) up and has us dancing all night, providing good energy with her music. People both on and off the dance floor usually seem to have a good time. Wherever she plays the music, whether it’s at some of New York’s popular milongas, other venues outside the Big Apple, or at intimate tango festivals, her milongas guarantee a great dance experience. So when we recently met, I decided to ask her: “What is your secret to a crowded dance floor? How do you get people to dance?”
My rather direct question sparked an hour-long passionate conversation.
The first thing I learned was that making tango music is not simply a question of making a playlist the night before and then going off and playing the music. Setting the right tone for the night seems to be the bottom line. The music should be chosen not just by name or composer, but by listening to it. A good DJ decides what feeling he or she wants, and then picks the songs.
It sounded simple, but it couldn’t be the whole recipe for success. I thought of cooking — a terrain with which I’m more familiar than the spinning of tango tunes. If you just follow the recipe in your cookbook, then your favorite dish probably turns out to be okay. But once you’ve peeked over your mother’s shoulder and watched how she adds her own personal touch of flavors and spices, and how she tweaks it, you know why it has become your favorite dish.
So I tried applying that to playing tango music. I kept prodding for more information: “So how exactly do you do it? What is your recipe for success?” I got a smile and then finally I learned that DJs usually have to play the seven standard composers: di Sarli, d’Arienzo, Pugliese, Troilo, Canaro, Mores, Biagi. I interrupted: “But since these composers are so well-known and have been heard so many times, doesn’t that get lame? What about all the other thousands of tango pieces?”
I was instructed that the secret lies in how to mix them. “Aha!” I thought. “So it is just like cooking!” Apparently, people want to hear music that they know. They want to choose their preferred partner for a certain kind of music. Most DJs play the hits, but their success with the dance crowd depends on how and when they play them and how they build them up. There are different ways to work the crowd, and I have observed that some DJs do it by watching how many people are on the dance floor, watching their faces and their embraces, and noting if there are good dancers on the dance floor. You can also tell by how dancers walk off the floor.
I’m interested about the significance of the cortinas since I’ve noticed that a lot of people actually dance to them. That they are very important because they set the mood is what I learn next. For example, it makes sense to play an emotional cortina after an emotional Pugliese.
A good way to get people into the mood is by starting the night with something upbeat, a tanda that is not too fast. This is also a good time for the DJ to get onto the dance floor and spend the first few tandas dancing to see if the sound works.
One thing is for sure, if you’re a serious DJ, preparing for a milonga is quite a lot of work. My interlocutor, it turns out, prepares for each milonga meticulously, listening to the first minute of each song to get a feeling for it, and knows intuitively the first and the last song of a tanda before she chooses the other pieces. During a milonga, if the mood is cheerful enough, she sometimes mixes up the classic formula, which is tango-tango-tango, followed by tango-tango-waltz, and then tango-tango-milonga. Occasionally, she uses large flipcharts with the names of the composers of the tandas. And at the end of the night she goes back to the music and goes over the playlist to see what worked out.
Argentine tango music speaks to people all over the world, and most of them don’t know the words. The late tango singer Alberto Podestá supposedly said that tango never sounded foreign to him. It’s a feeling, but learning the words adds a whole new dimension. So she has made it a habit on her long drives to events to listen to one piece over and over again to learn the lyrics.
I’m impressed at how organized she appears. Apparently, it hasn’t always been like this. She recollects that in the beginning, she listened to CDs from her first tango teacher. Then she inherited a massive music collection from another big tango star, but still knew little about the music. Gradually, she worked her way into the depths of tango music, first by listening to classic tango, discovering the rhythmic music of d’Arienzo, taking notes. That’s how she discovered for example the thundering bass with di Sarli’s left hand on the piano, and that’s how she learned to identify the sound of each orchestra. And that’s how she put the tandas together — not by the names, but by their sound — for example, high sound, deep vocal, bandoneon.
Discovering tango celebrities like Stephen Brown, Michael Lovocah, and Keith Elshaw, and how they played music has opened the eyes of many DJs. For many, however, the greatest influence comes, not surprisingly, from the DJs in Buenos Aires. One American DJ told me of an experience that happened after having been asked to play the music on a Monday night at Salon Canning. The famous dancer Graziella Gonzales came in, and the DJ understandably became a bit nervous. But at the end of the night, as everybody was leaving, the DJ was introduced to Graziella who said: “So you’re the one who kept me up all night!” Apparently, the music had been played right!