Improvisation: freedom or constraint

My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.

Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music (cited by James Hober)

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 tango, the people who say this sort of things are usually tango teachers who then proceed to teach 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’, thereby fixing them) and then improvisation consists in recombining these elements in various ways, much as words can be recombined in various ways in sentences. These memorised fixed routine chunks can be reconfigured to navigate around the dance floor. This is somehow supposed to render tango more improvisational, and thereby more free-form, than ballroom dancing.

Most people have only a vague idea of what improvisation actually is in either music or dancing, but roughly the idea is 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 (in major part for pedagogical reasons, see The importance of not seeing), an unchanging embrace, walking on a crowded dancing floor with a partner, 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 walking he has less freedom. In tango, the freedom and the improvisation requires the constraints, limitations or rules.

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 dancing 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 on the other hand tango is just walking, I only need to complete a single step and can stop and proceed in several alternate 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 walking with a partner, and if I try to do these without learning to walk in the constraint of posture and embrace I will compromise them.