I am in love with all Latin music whether it is the Argentine tango, Brazilian sambas, or bossa nova. However, I feel a particular affinity for the tangos of Ernesto Nazareth, which seem to combine the sensual world of the Argentine tango with the quicker Brazilian dance forms. To play this music, one must thoroughly understand the style. Nazareth’s music features the almost imperceptible delay of the downbeat, the languorous breaths, and the required ability to play alternating syncopations with both hands while highlighting rhythms that have pulse but are not metronomic. Nazareth, who loved Chopin’s music and was a classically trained pianist, played his own compositions with a gentler touch than the percussive technique of jazz or ragtime—even though the rhythms of ragtime are obvious in the left hand. Artur Rubinstein, a Chopin expert, played Nazareth’s music and was a fan, as were composers Heitor Villa-Lobos and Darius Milhaud. Nazareth’s music evokes tropical parties, reflecting the rapidly changing moods and tempi of dancers. His score is just a guide and his notation not an exact formula. I wanted to play these tangos with a lovely tone and freedom of movement. The only way to really feel the wealth of subtle rhythmic flexibility was to be able to dance to the music.
Armed with my pianistic visions and dreams, I went to a professional dance studio for tango lessons. I was told that to dance tango properly I should learn all the 10 required ballroom dances and focus on the Latin. So my journey began. Fortunately there were two dance teachers and a director who were compassionate about my early efforts to tango. One of the teachers loved to discuss rhythm and technique in such detail that his dance lessons seemed to parallel my own piano teaching. I worked many hours with the added benefit of some weight loss. They could not lift me if I weighed too much over a hundred and fifteen pounds. Not only did the exertion make me more t overall, but I also developed a deeper understanding of the movement of our bodies in relation to music with its fluctuating tempi and rhythms. I entered countless ballroom dance competitions and won first place in every tango class I entered, as well as in rhumba, meringue and cha cha. A boxload of trophies is hidden somewhere in a closet.
A real highlight of my lessons was working with a professional tango teacher from Buenos Aires. He didn’t speak any English and communicated only through music and movement. As I began to experience tangos through my entire body, my playing improved. The challenging rubatos and cross rhythms in Nazareth tangos, which can become too affected if not paced properly, finally began to flow. Even my touch on the keyboard improved, became more lush and connected naturally with the keys. My hands and feet became grounded yet light at the same time. The heaviness and stress disappeared and, whether it was my feet or hands, everything flowed smoothly from head to toe in the undulating syncopations of Nazareth’s music.
His music is elegant and graceful with delicious sound and hints of seduction. Brazilian scholar Brasilio Itiberê wrote: “There in its rhythmic context, the melody oats, swings, and circles the limits of pulse. At times, it is so vague and imprecise, as if it wished to escape any attempt to measure it.” However, to be really free, you also need to have a strong sense of rhythm and pulse in music and in dance in order to indulge in the Brazilian tangos.
I have nothing but happy memories of my ballroom and tango experience. My children finally put a stop to my competitive dreams and I was reluctantly pulled back to reality. But what remained became that harmonious bond between movement and music, feet and hands, and those hypnotic and mesmerizing tango dreams of a bygone era.