Sunday, 10 May 2009

Floorcraft and the length of tangos

Lengths of tangos in my collection, by Traditional and Nuevo, including milonga and vals:

tango track lengthWhy?

Ghost, a frequent commenter on this blog, observed to me that when he was last downstairs at Negracha, the lane system was much more noticeable than usual.

He put it down to there being a live band, who were playing short songs, so that "the log-jam effect was for a significantly smaller portion of the time". There were also fewer people dancing than usual, and they may well have been the more competent or experienced than average, and more able and motivated to create lanes, but I think the observation about song length is quite interesting.

Does the length of a piece influence the problems of floorcraft? It seems quite plausible. What the log-jam video shows is that small errors accumulate over time. It seems reasonable to suppose that when everyone stops, they sort themselves out and start again.

It also seems quite possibly testable. DJ readers: is this something you think you already knew?

I've divided it into traditional and nuevo because the mix of lengths seems to be very different, and that difference presents a problem for testing Ghost's theory — the problem of controlling for musical style. You'd have to play short and long tracks in the same general style, and ideally in the same tanda, to make a good test. Then, of course, you would have to work out some way of measuring the results, ideally without relying on self-reporting. A video camera placed well above the floor might be one possible way.

In the traditional tracks, there isn't that big a range to work with. Now, that could be because traditional compositions have been subject to a longer period of selection by dancers and DJs, and have converged on an optimum range of lengths for dancing. Or it could be because they were written to be played live, and musicians prefer short ones, whereas CD players don't care. Or both, or something else. I don't think my classification of any track as one genre or the other would be controversial; my collection's not that interesting.

It's also small, and contains a lot of Di Sarli in proportion to the total, so that may be distorting the results. Here are the numbers:

          Traditional     Nuevo
1:30-2:00 1 1
2:00-2:29 27 1
2:30-2:59 101 8
3:00-3:29 46 4
3:30-3:59 13 7
4:00-4:29 2 4
4:30-4:59 1 2
5:00-5:29 0 1
5:30-5:59 0 1
6:00-6:29 0 2
6:30-6:59 0 0
7:00-7:30 0 1
I think that traditional music also includes more milongas and valses, and maybe these are characteristically short; I have not looked at that. It might be interesting to do so. If you were going to test the effect of length on the number of bumps, it might be very good to do so in a tanda of milonga or vals, because the relatively fixed rhythmic patterns would somewhat smooth out the differences between individual pieces of music. But you'd need a big music collection, I think.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it:

In the comments (or by email) I invite you to suggest a possible three or four-track tanda that could be used to measure the effect of track length, if any, on bumps.

Or, of course, you can say whatever you want in the usual way.


Simba said...

Hello fellow tango researcher ;-)

Somehow I missed the first post on this topic, but it was very interesting. I noticed a similar effect when taking and giving workshops on floorcraft.

The idea that the dancefloor needs to be 'reset' every three minutes is quite interesting. I believe the reason tangos in general are about three minutes is due to technical limitations of the 78 format.

For your experiment, maybe you could just play songs without breaks to see how the couples spread out, maybe even the same song over and over. I don't quite buy into the theory that length is that important, other characteristics of the songs are more important imo.

According to Jorge Dispari, the dance floors used to have much better flow back in the days, and he attributed this mainly to two things: 1. lack of skills of dancers today (We are talking Bs As here) 2. People used to interpret the music in the same fashion before.

The music as a coordinating force should not be underestimated, and in the example with the cars, it would probably work better if there was some coordination mechanism other than the other cars for the drivers (a light moving along the track at the right speed for instance.)

Maybe this was a bit confusing, I'll write up a post of my own if I find the time. Interesting topic!

londontango said...

This is all too technical for me, but I will send you some info on where to get some music, for free.

msHedgehog said...

I don't quite buy into the theory that length is that important, other characteristics of the songs are more important imo.Which ones? Opinion is fine, but knowledge means testing. And although I greatly respect the opinion of Jorge Dispari, I don't suppose for a moment that he has tried to test either of those (very plausible) explanations either.

ghost said...

I'm inclined to agree with Dispari as to why it happens. However there's not much that can be done in the short term to give people better floorcraft or get them to interpret the music in the same way. So if you accept that log-jams are currently inevitable, it then becomes interesting to see how the music can affect them as that is something that can be altered more easily. I wonder if milonga rythyms would create more flow or more logjams for example?

One other thing that occurred to me was that there was applause after each song. I think this led to more of a "re-settling" of the dance floor as when the couples break apart to clap, social conventions about naturally spacing out kick in.

Might be worth asking Dance Inspired to try this at the next LGTN :o)

Simba said...

I'm all for the experiment, but to control all the variables you will have to create a synthetic environment, I think, and that itself will bias your results.

Still, it would be very interesting too see.

Some characteristics I think are more important are complexity (rhytmically, emotionally etc) of the music, speed (bpm). I think many djs will agree that if the crowd is out of touch with the music, the floorcraft gets worse, and playing different music can improve the situation. Example: in my local community, many inexperienced dancers have trouble with early Troilo instumentals and Biagi, while OT Victor makes the ronda much nicer, this I have experienced on several occations. (Rhytmically challenging versus simpler) With a more experienced crowd, it might be oposite.

Also, while it is hard to test Dispari's hypothesis that it is worse now than before, it is easy to verify that less skill and more heterogeneous musical interpretation detoriates flow. Just compare your local community with a well working floor in Bs As.

ghost said...

So is Dispari's music an attempt to solve the problem?

ie by making it much clearer where it makes sense to progress and when to pause and by making the music easier to predict he's making steps to create more homogenous dancing? Also becuase it is "simplier" you don't need "advanced figures / moves" so again making headway to solving that problem...

Cool :o)

Tango commuter said...

I remember Jorge Dispari saying at a London workshop that at some milongas in the 40s there would be a sign on the door saying 'NO FIGURES'. He couldn't remember if ochos were allowed, but certainly nothing bigger. Basically you used walks, presumably to Troilo, D'Arienzo or Pugliese live, and the ronda moved very smoothly. 'Stage tango' didn't really exist in those days: people just had good basic skills. I've heard that young leaders were not allowed onto the floor unless they were known to have basic competence.

We all know why crowded milongas in the UK can be such a mess: we are taught mostly by stage dancers who make a living by impressing people, which is fine choreographed on stage, but who generally have little sympathy for the milonga. But their demonstrations have convinced many dancers here that tango is a display, and display has become the currency of UK tango. I'd love to believe that playing the music in a different way would make everything better but I'm not convinced that some dancers actually listen to it. At worst it's just a background to the step collectors' repertoire displays.

I'm pessimistic: I don't think there's much chance that the established milongas will change. To me the question is whether smaller milongas where people meet up to dance sociably are an option. Maybe, because a lot of people complain.

Simba said...

@ghost: yes, I think that is an important point, somehow dancers need to understand that when people say it's a walking dance, it's not just something we say.

@tangocommuter: I don't know if it is possible to create a real milonga outside of BsAs. You will need some serious guts to send home everyone who isn't good enough ;-)

I remember Dispari also saying something along the lines of '70% compas' (i.e. walk). A bit off topic, but that's a clue to what Villa Urquiza (the 'style') is really about, musical interpretation. In the centre, people dance differently, but as it is coherent, I believe it supports Dispari's hypothesis. (There is not one superior way of dancing, but that people dance in more or less the same way in a milonga improves the flow of the ronda). Few or none figures is also a characteristic of this 'style' (milonguero/club style/almagro style).

Simba said...

I just posted a new post on my blog that elaborates on my first comment. On circulation. Comments appreciated.

Game Cat said...

MsH -

Interesting topic - I'm all for scientific testing of song length effects on ronda. Only comment is you will have to strip out vals and milongas in your music sample. The rhythms for both are very regular and fewer people dance to them than tango, so results I guess will be better flow on average.

I think there is no dispute that "re-setting" during cortinas/ breaks between songs can help flow. However I notice that 1) many people don't spread out when they have a break, 2) it is common for some to enter the floor in the MIDDLE of a song when there is already flow and 3) new dancers start off in the nearest floor space rather than actively look for gaps.

Perhaps simply reminding people at milongas could make a big difference (e.g. signs at the entrance, cards on the table, bouncer having a quite word with a serial infringer). This doesn't require much investment by the organiser and good flow will make the milonga more attractive.

That said, re-setting is a second-best world. Improving floor craft should be the long-term solution.

msHedgehog said...

I don't think it's actually necessary to create anything artificial; if you found a way of measuring the bumps you could simply do that directly over several ordinary evenings.

Really, my approach above is probably backwards; the right approach is to try to falsify it. But I'm not feeling well today and I can't think how.

ghost said...

Do once with a tanda of short dances. Once with tanda of long dances. Once with a random tanda. Wash, rinse, repeat.