Improvisation: freedom or constraint

People often contrast Argentine tango with ballroom dancing by saying that tango is improvised and not composed of a fixed, predetermined choreography. While this is true of traditional forms of tango, the fact is that tango is now taught using set patterns that are no less fixed than those of ballroom dancing. The idea is that you learn snippets of routines—typically with names like Cruzada or Ocho Cortado to indicate that this is an actual ‘thing’—and then improvisation consists in recombining these in various ways. These memorised fixed routines can be reconfigured to navigate around the dance floor.

Most people have only a vague idea of what improvisation actually is in either music or dancing. The main confusion is the idea that improvisation is about lack of constraint and more freedom. In reality, in both music and dance, improvisation takes place within narrowly defined constraints. In a typical dance improvisation exercise the choreographer sets a dancer a constraint, such as, “imagine that you are inside a cube and are touching its sides”. The dancer uses this rule or mental image to create movement. Such a set limitation will elicit a movement naturally without a need to demonstrate, replicate and memorise a specific pattern. Moreover, with practice a dancer will get very good at improvising that sort of movement. In other words, improvisation is best defined as movement that is not copied and memorised, but rather is elicited by defining a set of constraints.

Improvisation is best defined as movement that is not copied and memorised but rather as elicited by defining a set of constraints.

The limitations in tango include the posture, an unchanging embrace, the walk and the music. The dancer needs to figure out the possibilities of movement within these narrow constraints. At first this will appear extremely limiting and difficult to do anything at all, but with practice the dancer will find greater freedom than the dancer who learns choreography that he copies and replicates. Moreover, he will find that when he loosens the constraints by compromising the posture, the embrace or the walk he has less freedom. In tango, the freedom and the improvisation necessitates the constraints.

The freedom implied in the idea of improvisation is primarily the freedom to respond in the moment to the situation, namely, to the music and to the limited space available on the dance floor. A student who has learned fixed patterns of steps needs to anticipate both because once he initiates a pattern he has to complete it. If, by contrast, tango is just a walk, I only need to complete a single step and can stop and go in several directions: resume forward, reverse backward, step to the left or right, pause for a few beats, or turn. All these options are available to me. These are complications on the walk, and if I try to do these without learning to walk in the constraint of posture and embrace I will compromise them.