Tango notation for steps collectors   7 comments

Tango notation for steps collectors
The purpose of dance notation is to document a choreography for preservation. As such, dance notation may include stage blocking, specific movements for the dancers, and references to the music used and its composer. Pertinent information concerning where and when the piece was performed, and who the dancers were, is also found in dance notations. It could be said that dance notation is like a script with notes for dance historians and choreographers. Another purpose of dance notation is the documentation and analysis of dance in dance ethnology. In Rasche Notation, the book which is the subject of this review, the notation is not used to plan a new choreography but to document an existing dance.The primary use of dance notation is the preservation of classic dance documentation, and the analysis and reconstruction of any kind of body movement. It is used to document choreography and technical exercises in dance forms. Many different forms of dance notation have been created but the two main systems used in Western culture are Labanotation (also known as Kinetography Laban) and Benesh Movement Notation. Labanotation grew from Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958)’s interest in movement, which stemmed from his early travels. He studied architecture and philosophy in Paris and worked as an illustrator before becoming involved in the performing arts. His architectural interests led to his analysis of the spatial structure of movement itself. After publishing a shorthand system for his theories (Choreographie, 1926), he developed a more detailed and more widely applicable notation—one that spelled out the elements that produce movement patterns—and published it in the book Schrifttanz (“Written Dance”) in 1928.The Laban system is an “alphabet” system in which symbols represent movement components through which each pattern is “spelled out.” In standard labanotation a vertical three-line staff represents the performer. The center line divides the staff into right and left columns, which represent the main body parts. The staff, read from bottom to top, is written from the performer’s point of view. Each direction symbol is based on a rectangle and indicates four movement factors. Its shape shows the direction of the movement. Its shading indicates level. Its length represents duration of the movement (the shorter, the quicker; the longer, the more extended in time). And its placement on the staff indicates the part of the body that is in action. Families of signs represent the minor body parts, and additional signs such as pins and hooks denote details modifying the main action.

When it comes to the Argentine tango, the improvisational dance par excellence, memorizing steps has always been the domain of those who approach the tango as the eleventh dance of the ballroom circuit. Even though teaching steps by way of memorization is an inauthentic way to help a student learn to dance the Argentine tango, it is a good source of repeat business. The effect of memorizing the way two feet move, without any context with relation to body alignments and sense of direction, lasts a day or two before all is forgotten. As early as the mid 1990’s many people carried notebooks around the room trying to write down the steps shown by the traveling teachers. Filming videos was not an option. The scribbled notes tried to capture as much as possible of the subjective elements of the dance regarding music, affectations, mannerisms, feelings, as well as the actual steps.

The modern teaching of Argentine tango has evolved into a logical, three dimensional structure based on the concept of the woman dancing around the man in the man’s embrace, and the man dancing around the room while embracing the woman. As the couple progresses on the dance floor the relative position of their bodies has one leg moving inside the embrace and the other one outside. As a result of that, there are only six fundamental movements: a) two openings, one with each leg opening away from the other leg to any point in front, to the side or behind without crossing the line where the standing foot holds an axis, b) two forwards, one with the inside leg stepping on the outside of the partner and one with the outside leg used as steering wheel, and c) two backwards, one straight back step with the outside leg and one diagonal back step with the inside leg.

The man learns to carry the woman, marking one of the six leg motions available to her, and to move, using one of the six leg motions available to him to travel in an orderly fashion around the floor. The woman learns to hold her axis on one leg, allowing the other leg to follow her body which is traveling in the embrace, and to acquire a new axis when the movement is completed . There are no leading steps, or following steps. By nature of the embrace the dancers move together in unison on one beat of the music.

Unfortunately the good teaching of tango is underrated. It has to compete with the urge for instant gratification: to run before crawling, and also with the eye candy temptations that sexy and voluptuous bodies provoke when dancing a choreography for the pleasure of an audience. The “show me the steps” binge leads to the “I forgot/I don’t remember the steps” morning after hangover, and the “toxic” cycle seems to go around like the common cold, with no cure in sight.

Enter German dancer and teacher Thomas Rasche and his new tango notation system ‘Rasche Notation’, which has just been published in a new book. Rasche Notation is a sophisticated dance notation for Argentine tango that makes it easy for step collectors to write dance steps. Steps are written for two dancers. Although it is not specifically expressed, it is assumed that both dancers are fluent in the high level notation language which uses familiar text symbols to describe the destinations of each step, so that they can then be written by hand or computer. This remarkable book closely resembles the tutorials that computer programmers use to learn new high level languages, like Visual Basics or Pascal.

The first chapter covers the basics of Rasche notation: the philosophy of RaNote (how much better it would be if there was a simple way of writing all the steps people learn), what RaNote looks like (four rows with a dividing line, two rows above for music and comments, and two rows below for detailed man and woman steps notation), and understanding RaNote (movement is described as destinations with symbols that represent abbreviated words, using assumptions and notating only unusual elements).

In the second chapter the four lines within RaNote are defined in detail.

The Compass line is used to notate and describe the music with three elements, a) form, the way a piece of music is constructed in various sections labeled A, B, C…, b) phrase, the equivalent of a spoken sentence, identifies one row of notation, and c) audible count, the timing of each step within a phrase.

The Description line contains notes and symbols that relate to the whole dance. For example, the name of steps and musical terms may be included to describe a feeling (vigourous/soft/strong/smooth/accented/sad/joking). A fundamental misconception of the tango (that the shape of the embrace is the origin of various styles) is nevertheless described at the start in terms of open, closed, or milonguero, with additional details about the nature of the lean, and the position of the head. A step sequence or dance phrase also goes into the description line. A summary of symbols used on the description line provides a blueprint for the faithful choreographic imitation of the way somebody else dances, or the perception by the step collector of what s/he thinks s/he is watching and understanding.

The Man and Woman lines carry the step symbols, describing the destination of each step taken by the dancers. Essential symbols are M(an), W(oman), L(eft), R(ight), 1… 12 (directions on a clock face as if drawn on the ground around the dancers), # (close feet), % (step between partner’s feet), C+ (clockwise pivot), C- (Counterclockwise pivot). Complex symbols condense information that contains many movements, such as the steps of a turn. The geometric component phases of each step, collect/balance/projection (including placement of foot)/partial and full weight transfer, are symbols written in lower case.

The third chapter contains a detailed and comprehensive list of diagrams and examples that include, close directions; close steps; giro steps; phases of a step; step symbols; walking geometries; step sequences, and a full transcription of a tango. Here, the complexity with which a simple closing of the feet with or without weight change and the dreaded eight-count-basic with back step are annotated, is akin to explaining how to find the location of the toilet using the logarithm of pi and the coordinates of the polar star. Yet, the considerable time and effort that has gone into quantifying a large collection of steps is remarkable and for many will be a good excuse to add mystery and complexity to the relatively simple concept of tango dancing within a clear structure.

Consider the familiar tango resolution which usually but not always follows a simple salida. The man advances straight forward with his left leg while marking a back diagonal to his left for the right leg of the woman. This clears the path for the man to take a second forward step to the woman’s left provoking a turn to the left, which converts his forward step into an opening to his right, and the woman’s step into an opening in the same direction. They both close with weight change, left to right for the man and right to left for the woman. Finally, the man takes a short back diagonal with his right bringing the woman forward with her left into the original home position from which a new salida or base can be initiated. Let’s see that simple count of four sequence in RaNote,

Compas 1 2 3
Description Man’s left forward Man’s step right Man’s left closes

M L R3 #
W R L #

The information on the Description line is repeated on the Man and Woman lines, so it can be removed. Instead a description of the step can take its place. The Compas and Description can be reduced to C and D.

C 1 2 3
D Resolution

M L R3 #
W R L #

A further reduction into a smaller space leaves a neat and easy-to-read note,

C 1 2 3
D Resolution

M L R3 #
W R L #

This clever, ingenious and elaborate system for tango steps annotation follows the perceived illusion that the dancers move shopping cart style (man pushing or pulling the woman while keeping her straight in front of him). For example, the second step of the resolution is described as a side step towards 3 o’clock without change in front (R3). Notice that the resolution ends at the closing of the feet rather than with a fourth step to bring the dancers to the home position. This approach makes no distinction between the unique characteristics of each tango step. Forward steps with the right or the left leg are rendered the same. Back steps with the right or left legs are the same. In this system there are no inside or outside legs, straight or diagonal steps. In other words, everything is geometry, with men leading and women following agreed choreography. Thus the annotations. The use of the obsolete eight-count-basic as an accepted sequence of steps betrays a lack of understanding of the fundamental structure of the tango, and it caters to a subset of dancers who collect steps but don’t want to pay for them at a ballroom studio.

The dichotomy of this book is that while it presents a system with a degree of complexity that requires a great deal of thinking and reasoning, this complexity is simultaneously what thwarts most people’s efforts to learn the tango as a dance of improvisation. If people can’t grasp the notion of a simple structure of six distinctive and unique steps used for the purpose of circulation, with the woman dancing around the man and thus executing the code that calls for the trailing leg to alternate crossing inside and outside the embrace, how can they be expected to read, write and memorize a mnemonic language of symbols and descriptions devoid of a logical structure? By the same token, if a person can become fluent in a sophisticated notation language to describe steps they see others do, why can’t they accept and learn the simple foundation upon which the structure of the tango is based?

The Rasche Notation’s attempt to encode many steps collected in group lessons from teacher to teacher, fails to show an accurate understanding of the structure of Argentine tango. It is then almost useless even for historians and choreographers, and is certainly of little value to the social dancer, or to someone wanting to teach the dance.

This being said, Thomas Rasche must be commended for his attempt, and the tremendous amount of work it must have taken to produce this book.


Rasche Notation for Argentine Tango
by Thomas Rasche
Paperback, 101 pages, ©2009, ISBN: 978-0-9561489-0-2
Suite 105, 179 Whiteladies Road
Clifton, Bristol BS8 2AG
United Kingdom


Posted March 28, 2009 by Alberto & Valorie in REVIEWS

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7 responses to “Tango notation for steps collectors

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  1. OK, I need some help here. I’ve done the writing bit in class (in the special Tango Notation Notebook, taking care to use the special Tango Notation Pencil), and now I want to do the recalling bit when dancing for real. How do I read the Tango Notation when I have a girl in my arms?

    Should I write it on her chest? Using a special Tango Notation Thick Black Marker Pen? Hmm… but then her next guy could copy my step for free. I’ll need a can of special Tango Notation Fast-acting Removal Spray…

    Or should I just use a Tango Notation Post-it Note, stuck on her forehead??

    Chris 😉

  2. Really excellent review! I admire your ability to clearly write descriptive, detailed information of this kind.

    As a reader, I found the article extremely interesting. I knew of labanotation before, but never used it. You have presented a concise description of it, as well as of the Rasche notation. I am not prompted to read the Rasche book, but I want to know that it is out there.

    General edification is all to the good, but as a dancer, I hold with your perspective on tango as an improvisational dance, and therefore I think I have little to glean from Rasche’s efforts.

    I do, however, want to encourage Chris (see comment 1) to try the Tango Notation Post-It Note…it’s less invasive to your partner…but only as a practice method.. Maybe then he will gain the confidence to abandon recall in favour of good old fashioned understanding and improvisation!

  3. Having read this review of my book, I would like to offer a comment.

    An essential question is this:
    If you wanted to write down your Tango, how would you do it?

    Tango is a dance, so writing it down in any form will only be a shadow of what the dance really is. Any representation in words (or symbols or graphics) is a ‘notation’.

    Ultimately, the writing will never perfectly describe dance. So, if someone chooses to write it down, then this reveals choices: the choice of what to describe and what not to describe. The choices that are made become clear, when recognizing for whom the writing is intended, and also how the notation is subdivided or structured.

    An example of these choices can be seen in the book written by Alberto, called ‘Gotta Tango’. In it, by writing some steps, his choice was to describe steps in detail, using long hand. Of course, this is is not a perfect representation of Tango, so he has also chosen to write about other issues, such as Floorcraft, separately to the steps (even though they happen simultaneously). Furthermore, since all the written text is not perfect, he has also demonstrated the quality of movements with the DVD. This works well in his book, as it is intended to be a study tool.

    Alberto had the advantage of space and time to write the book, and to create the DVD. But what if someone wanted to write their Tango, but wanted to do it quicker (less time), shorter (less space) or written only (no video)? What choices would they make? Would they write down everything (but this takes time and space) or would they select, choose and abbreviate what they write?

    Rasche Notation is a system where the choices are also clear. It assumes a knowledge of Tango. It describes the destination of steps, rather than how they are led. The intention is to condense and abbreviate what would otherwise be a large amount of long hand writing, so that the document can be read more quickly, and so that it can more easily be related to music (also abbreviated into the Compas line). This is done with clear definitions of symbols and a syntax, thereby ensuring clear understanding of what is meant. For example, the six fundamental steps can be described. Furthermore, the extent and qualities of these can also be described, should it be desired. Dancing in a robotic way is not implied: a step can be taken, either well or badly, but it may still be placed to the same destination.

    The purpose of the book Rasche Notation is not to explain Tango, and it should not be considered as that. It is there to explain a system of notation: a tool to use when writing dance steps. I believe either a good or bad explanation can come from using the notation; but it is not inherent in the notation itself. Alberto commented that it is suited for step collectors. However, this appears to suggest that only a few novices would consider it useful, but this is not the case. The choice is individual: whether novice, step collector, teacher, performer, choreographer or whatever. They will choose how, what and for whom to write down their steps. Then, at that point, they will choose a form of expression, whether writing long hand, abbreviating or using a video. Thereafter, what they actually say can be judged as to whether they have Tango knowledge or not.

    Many thanks to Alberto for his review.

  4. Perhaps, we have failed to communicate the differences between describing steps for memorization purposes, and describing the how to move legs and feet in order to dance the Argentine tango. Writing about other issues was not a choice when we were commissioned to write Gotta Tango, but the essential purpose of writing a handbook that defines the technical specifications and the structural definition of the dance. In other words, it is a manual aimed to teach, not to describe and collect steps out of context as any notation is.

    Writing down every motion of feet and hands during an hour in a flight simulator won’t make a pilot out of anyone, but describing how each movement results in an action that makes an airplane fly in predetermined routes will allow anyone to become proficient in knowing how to fly an airplane.

    Gotta Tango is not another choice to write down steps, but a know how handbook that teaches people how to dance the Argentine tango by understanding its structure and purpose. That’s where the main difference resides. People who know how to dance the Argentine tango need not to collect steps by writing them down, but are capable of creating infinite variations from a very clear, very logical, and very complete structure.

  5. > I do, however, want to encourage Chris (see comment 1) to try the
    > Tango Notation Post-It Note…it’s less invasive to your partner

    Less invasive than what, Jessica? Real dancing?? 😉

  6. Please describe the steps used in the tango? Please?

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