What Argentine Tango Has Taught Me About Church Music

At first glance there seems to be no commonality between Argentine tango and church music.

The first is a dance form that evolved in the early rough pioneer days of Argentina, a steamy fusion of African slave culture and the cultures and nostalgia of poor, desperate immigrants from Spain, Italy, Great Britain, Poland and Russia. Tango dance venues were in the poorer neighborhoods, usually in brothels, bars and dance halls, and the tango dance form was repulsed by polite high society. The close embrace, in which man and woman are fully connected, body on body, down to the waist, and the sensual, seductive moves, especially of the woman, leave little to imagine what the dance was intended to imitate or to incite.

As a devout, practicing Christian, and a professional, trained church musician, I have a clear belief as to the sacred status of church music, and of my function as church organist. I am a humble servant of God first, and also a servant of the congregation in that my arts and skills are to lead them to true worship and adoration.

All my life I have been drawn to both playing instruments and dancing. My instrumental background includes music lessons beginning at age 6 on the accordion, continuing in following years with piano, recorder, violin, organ, and choral directing. But my musicality extends also to physical movement. From age 6 I also studied ballet, modern dance, and various forms of folk dance, including in the most recent years Argentine tango.

There is much in the principles of good tango dancing that are applicable to the function of church organist.

Argentine tango is a purely improvised dance form. There are no set sequences of steps as in many folk dance forms, and there are hundreds of possible steps and figures, in any possible sequence, all determined by the lead. He leads everything in the dance: every weight shift of the follow from one foot to the other, the direction and speed and force of each step the follow takes, and what figure she is to execute, the length of pauses, the style and character of their dance. The follow does absolutely nothing without the lead’s invitation to do so.

The lead is to utterly serve the needs of the follow, accurately assessing her skill level, her strengths and weaknesses as a dancer, and never exceeding those limits. Because this responsibility is his, if any error on the dance floor is committed, whether by her or him, it is his failure, not hers.

The lead is to treat the follow as the prized ornament in the dance, doing all to show her off to her best advantage, and assuring that she has maximum pleasure in the dance. He is to assure her safety on the floor, navigating among other couples in such a way as to avoid any collisions or injuries. If he is unable to avoid a collision with another couple, he is to maneuver in such a way that he, not her, receives the collision, and in such a way that she is not even aware that he has done this.

Of course, a good follow must also follow certain principles. She is to have a mental state of maximum alertness but receptivity, an emptiness of mind like meditation-presuming nothing, anticipating nothing, but being very available to the lead’s intentions.

As a follow, my favorite embrace, of the two traditional embraces in Argentine tango, is the close embrace. Then, as follows often do in this embrace, I close my eyes and become fully unaware of where we are in the dance floor. All I need to know to do the next step as he intends I learn from our connection, the embrace. I can perform perfectly steps I have never learned in class because his direction gives me such confidence and makes the next move so smooth and inevitable. My world is reduced to just him and me, our connection, our dance.

One way of describing the relationship and co-operation of lead and follow is to say, Argentine tango is making the other person more important than one’s self.

What from this can be applied to skillful leading by an organist, and the responsibilities of a willing congregation?

The organist is obviously the “lead dancer” in worship. There is equality of value and importance between organ and congregation, but obviously not power. With the organist’s power to determine the tempo, pitch and character of congregational singing comes his responsibility to being attentive to the needs and desires of the congregation.

The organist as perhaps the only trained musician in the house of worship is to assess the skill and comfort level of the congregation, and not exceed those limits in order to demonstrate superior musicianship.

The organist should know the tastes, strengths and weaknesses of the congregation, and play supporting those, without condescension or denying the possibility of growth in congregational musicianship, if led gently to grow.

The organist should play for the benefit of the congregation, not himself, carefully leading in a way to avoid “collisions”, and assuming full responsibility if a musical mishap occurs.

The organist is to honor the congregation as the center of the song, and not to overwhelm the congregation in such a way that attention is pulled from their singing to his playing.

Even an organist with limited training and technical skill can successfully lead a worship service. The essential requirement for the successful organist is not an arsenal of technical fireworks, but his intention to serve the congregation in accompanying their song.

Just as a tango lead needs a co-operative follow, every organist, even the most skilled, is dependent on a congregation that is willing to sing. There is no song if the congregation has ill-will or a closed spirit to what the organist is trying to facilitate. As they say, “it takes two to tango.”

A skilled organist will give the congregation such confidence in the song, such assurance of coming in correctly after the introduction, such trust in his leading through verses, interludes and modulations, that the congregation will be totally unconcerned about the mechanics of the song and simply relax into the embrace of the partnership with the organist, secure in his skill to take care of the details.

The result of applying these principles of the Argentine tango lead dancer to the church organist will be a “close embrace” of organist and congregation, moving through song with like-minded unity and mutual pleasure in the song.


Phyllis Ernsberger