This was a very educational class and I'm just going to summarise what I remember, because it's so interesting I can't shut up. To make sense of it all, you really need example recordings. I don't think this topic is directly covered in the book, so I can only suggest taking the class if you have the opportunity.
The topic was “modern tango”, with special reference to the musical relationships between Pugilese, Piazzolla and what is called nuevo tango. Modern, then, meant broadly “after 1945”.
During the period of dictatorship where there was no tango dancing in Argentina at all, Pugilese's band played concert tango, for people to listen to, not dance. Passages of strong rhythm are contrasted with passages where the melody stretches and wanders and does its own thing, abandoning the rhythm, which disappears completely. You can dance to the melody when the rhythm goes missing, but you can't rely on your internal clock to predict where melodic accents will come, and you won't be in time when the accompaniment returns. If you want to improvise to this stuff, and represent it exactly with your body, you really have to know the recording by heart. Or you can use it for choreography. (Non-concert Pugilese, however, is fully danceable — I think that means pre-1945).
At this point I think we practiced hearing and understanding the different rhythms and melodies, and walking to them, especially not mechanically. That meant not stepping if the accent isn't sounded. Surprisingly difficult, and an interesting thing to try at home.
Piazzolla took a different direction. Contrasts are provided not between rhythm and melody, but by different melodies and their accompanying rhythms, arranged in an overall structure characteristic of tango (the structure was explained in the class I missed, but is in the book). The melody is in charge, just as it is with Pugilese, but it respects whatever rhythm was chosen to suit it, and you don't need to know the piece to dance to it. If the rhythmic accompaniment disappears and you only hear melody, the melody accents you are dancing to will still be in time. You can use your internal clock, and you will be in time when the accompaniment returns.
I may have confused two classes, but I think it was at this point that we spent quite a lot of time learning to recognise and move to the 3-3-2 rhythm used in a lot of later Piazzola, the one that goes PánamaPánamaCúbaPánamaPánamaCúba. We looked at its structure in relation to the underlying four beats, and Joaqín's ingenious visual aids involving the velcro spots with little shoes on them were very helpful here. He mentioned that because Piazzolla uses the 3-3-2 a lot, some people suppose he invented it. In fact, it is ancient and universal and can be heard in the earliest tango recordings. [Another rhythm from the repertoire of the Ur-Busker — examples from flamenco and Arabian music are on the DVD. And in the café where I have my lunch and the Iranian Kurdish family play their favourite music.]
In dancing to either of the above, he said, your challenge as a dancer is to adapt and choose from your vocabulary to represent a rich, varying rhythm or melody or combination of the two. In both cases, the music is giving you lots of lead and lots of different things to do. If you know how to hear these things, and dance to what is there (not mechancially to a beat that may or may not actually be sounded), you're dancing in a way that is very satisfying to the couple. For this kind of dancing you need a vocabulary of fairly simple units, not longer than four to eight steps, the length of a musical phrase. And you need to understand them in rhythmic terms, so you can use them.
I'll note just there that the chapter in the book on teaching explains in detail one possible way that they might be taught in rhythmic terms. It assumes access to a reasonably good multimedia computer and moderate skill in using it, some sort of percussion instrument like a claves, and some equivalent of a box of Velcro Spots.
It's really too early, in Joaquín's opinion, to make any broad musicological statements about the Nuevo tango. There are only a few groups and it hasn't been around long, so there's hardly any material to look at. Asking us to put aside our personal tastes, and promising to do the same himself*, he played an example (I think it was Gotan) and asked us to listen carefully and consider what was happening musically, in the light of what we'd learned so far.
What was going on, he said, appears to be this: An extremely steady, unvarying and continuous rhythm all the way through the recording, with passages of melody and various sounds whose function is not thematic, but ornamental. They're not in charge.
He remarked that this makes a lot of sense in terms of the history of tango and the kind of dance done by younger dancers in Argentina.
‘Nuevo Tango’ the dance, he said, usually refers to the kind of thing developed by Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne, and pupils, since the 80s. At this point, [“and people will kill me for saying this, but it's true,” he added] tango had been entirely dead in Argentina for many years, effectively killed off by a determined government that regarded it as a threat. But it survived abroad, with foreigners who prized it, and with performers who toured mostly abroad**. And with the end of the military dictatorship, people in Argentina wanted to recreate it at home. Naturally, the people best placed to do the spadework on this were professional dancers who came to it with artistic and technical interests in dance for itself, not just as a means to a social or musical end.
For this, such music is ideal. It gives you unlimited scope to experiment and develop the technique, pushing it as far as it can go to see what you can do with it in terms of dance. You have total freedom to improvise whatever*** your imagination suggests and your body can deliver, with highly creative and complex variations, and the music isn't going to stop you. Here the music is artistically subordinate to the dance, not the other way around. The music is not dictating what you do.
Musically speaking, he saw it as a giant leap backwards, all the way to the 19th century — a return to a dance with a fixed rhythm, just like dance music generally has, as discussed in a previous class. Proto-Tango rather than Nuevo-Tango, musically speaking. [I'm not sure whether he actually said “Proto-Tango” or it's just what I understood and wrote down in my notes.]
People argue about whether it's really ‘tango’ or not, but Joaquín wasn't interested in going there, and nor am I, and I ask you not to go there in the comments, either (This Means You). I also ask you not to meta-comment about the fact that you're not going there.
As well as dancers, I think this class would be a help to DJs who aren't also musicians. I think it was new in the programme this year; and perhaps one day Joaquín might design a class with DJs in mind. And I'd be fascinated to hear whatever he said on that subject.
* His band is called Orquesta Típica de la Guardia Vieja — “Traditional Old Guard Band”.
** I think I remember reading what must have been an interview with one of these in a newspaper on a train in the eighties. I remember a mad woman saying passionately “It is with the legs. There is nothing with the head, nothing! It is the legs!!”.
*** Or indeed whatever else(!).