I am in love with language. Absolutely, completely, unconditionally in love with words and how they are put together. From when I first began to study Spanish as a 6-year-old in my elementary school’s before-school program, I was hooked. It drove me to study how language is related to culture. And it fuels my interest in language and tango.
Over and over I have heard people ask: Is it necessary to speak Spanish in order to fully understand and experience tango?
I won’t argue that you don’t really know tango until you know Spanish. It might help explain the names of certain steps, but language is not an integral part of dancing. One can even go out to the milongas, hear the music, enjoy it, and not understand the lyrics. An explanation or translation of the lyrics can explain what the songs are about. But for me, that isn’t enough. Having an understanding the language (as well as the slang, and the culture that fostered tango and its music) adds another layer to the dance.
A few nights ago, I was translating the lyrics to a non-tango song. Not only was I frustrated with my inability to express every nuance of meaning and every rhythmic expression inherent in the original, I also became very aware of the correlation between the music and the words. It reminds me of my favorite tango singer: Raúl Berón. I find myself drawn to the way he sings not quite in exact time with the music, drawing out or shortening the words or even delaying or rushing them slightly—but always in a way that makes sense with the meaning of the lyrics. I feel what he is singing because of how he sings it.
So I wonder if non-Spanish speakers feel the music as they dance in the same way that Spanish speakers do. I am sure that I, as a dancer who has never experienced Argentine culture firsthand nor studied Lumfardo extensively, am still missing some of the songs’ meaning despite understanding the words. But I do hear the moment in Al compás del corazón when the music peaks and Berón lingers on the word “nostalgia”. Or the point where he so lightly sings, “Qué feliz.” I react to it as I dance. And more and more I try to listen to the lyrics as much as I listen to the music as an inspiration for my dancing.
For me, knowing Spanish adds a dimension to my dancing. How do you, Spanish speakers or not, feel about the language and its relevance to your experience of tango?