On the crest of the wave

I think it's arguable to say that the visibility of tango outside of Argentina has reached a point not seen in recent memory, perhaps even not since the heady early days of the last century when it first took Europe by storm and made Valentino a star. The recent declaration by UNESCO validating tango's prominence in world culture, the explosion of non-Argentine milongas, teachers, festivals and commerce, the increasing use of tango in marketing (from television commercials to the publishing industry), the burgeoning number of tourists making trips to Buenos Aires... all seem to point to one thing: tango is in.

So I don't think it's particularly surprising that I am having a negative reaction to all the attention. I admit it's certainly a common response when a niche movement moves into the popular arena, the early adherents vocally lamenting the "selling-out" of what was once pure. While I hope that my perspective isn't coming from such a bratty backlash, I will say I am wary of three things: exploitation, misrepresentation, and mediocritization. A good illustration of what I mean can be found in this clip of b-boy culture, particularly starting at around the 4:30 mark:

I feel as if I'm already seeing this in tango, and I can say personally that I've been getting more and more disinterested. A lot of what I see is pretty meh, and even with dancers who I consider skilled there is often a lack of a unique style, which makes the dance seem like something I think it was never meant to be--codified and regimented. What was once a process of discovery and invention has crossed over into something packaged and bought. On the social scene, I almost never go out to milongas anymore except for community service purposes, although there are reasons beyond--or maybe I should say, behind--my lack of interest that I may expound upon in another post. As for the exploitation, I can't tell you how sick I am, for example, of these memoirs and "fact-based" novels about middle-aged women going to Argentina and "discovering" tango. Even as they purport to present the culture as something profound, in truth they tend to utilize it merely as a hook to promote themselves. And as a very respected colleague of mine noted, all the books tell the same story, which is particularly puzzling and frustrating given that in the richness of the culture there is so much more that can be explored than this superficial journey of female self-discovery. "Eat, Tango, Love," so to speak, over and over again.

Now, it's hard to say at what state of a movement one is in. Perhaps this is just the beginning. Perhaps nothing will come of it. Or perhaps something will come along to really shake things up and reinvigorate the progression of the dance and the culture, which currently appears to be shallowing as it spreads.

But then again, who am I to say that the culture isn't evolving, pushing forward, growing and mutating to reflect the times? Could it be that I'm just too immersed to see it? Going back to the b-boy reference, I recall that by the time I moved on from the culture it seemed we had pretty much exhausted the possibilities. It was around the time in the video clip, where as the great Ken Swift remarked, it started to get ugly. And if I am to be honest, I was perhaps part of the problem. Being a young kid from a California suburb I didn't really have the means to really know what the culture was about or understand its history and influences. I just wanted to do something that was fun and looked cool. And though I did develop into a fairly skilled dancer for the time, for me it was never really so much about creation and innovation as simply imitation. So when b-boying was declared passé and the popular culture turned its attention elsewhere, I moved on as well (though in my defense, I didn't let go easily--one friend remarked that I was "lost in an era" since everyone else had already dropped it while I soldiered feebly on). Many years passed before I came across it again, and what I saw astounded me. In the time I was away, the dance had taken in influences from places I never would have thought to look. The technique and athleticism was far beyond anything I was familiar with, and the sheer imagination and creativity, the breadth of dance vocabulary, not to mention an adherence to musicality that had been neglected previously, was truly inspiring. But mixed in with that feeling of awe and pride at how far the dance had come was a quiet regret, almost a sense of shame, that I had written it off and walked away. That I had missed being a witness to the evolution as it was happening.

I suppose if I had learned anything from that experience it would be to trust the art. Have faith in it, even as it appears to be floundering. And to try to see the big picture. While on a day to day basis it may appear to be like the same thing over and over, when you look back on the tango scene just five years ago, and then five years before that, many things have changed significantly, and much of it for the better in my opinion. Teaching methods have much improved in terms of explaining technique, there is more awareness of certain códigos, and the knowledge and availability of the music is far greater. Even the current wariness I am experiencing may be a sign of progress, at least for me, in that five years ago I may not have even been aware of the things I am scrutinizing now.

So I suppose it would be foolhardy to be concerned about the welfare of tango in regards to the effects of popularity and mass commercialization, or to lament the apparent stagnation of the dance.

Then again... writing this now just reminded me of something that a couple of friends of mine, truly traditional-minded milongueros, once said regarding innovation. I had once asked them about the dilemma of making tango relevant in a modern context, with modern influences, rather than merely being an exercise in nostalgia. Their response was that back then, people didn't feel things differently than we do now. Love, hate, jealousy, joy, pain, humor... these things are ageless. People felt them the same a thousand years ago as they will a thousand years from now (assuming we're still around that long). The tango came about as a response to and a reflection of these feelings, and in its classic form is a very successful concoction. So is it really so urgent to come up with new things all the time? As long as the feeling is true and well presented, that is what is most important. I think this is something I truly need to remember, lest I fall into the misguided allure for novelty, as it seems I may have when I began this post. And as for mediocrity and exploitation, there has always been bad tango, and distorted tango. Bad music, bad dancers. Probably a lot more bad than good. But there has always been good as well, and it's the good we remember and which inspires us, the good which is the root from which we want to grow. And there is good tango now--a lot of good tango, indeed. This is something not to be taken for granted, as perhaps I have.


The Rise of the Know-It-All

For some time now I've been somewhat bemused by the growing onslaught of self-appointed experts in the field of tango. You may know the ones I'm talking about. The ones who, hearing the first strains of Dime Mi Amor, start giving lectures about how Maure is a poor substitute for Echagüe. The ones who, watching the milonga from the rock star seats (most milongas have them), lament about how much it sucks compared to Sunderland. Et al. Usually their unsolicited expertise comes in the guise of a weary complaint or as a dutiful correction of someone else's ignorance. Sometimes you'll see two of them go head to head trying to one up each other. It's kind of like watching that scene from Good Will Hunting where the snobby Harvard guy gets his comeuppance by the more knowledgeable main character--but with both the tango guys being the Harvard guy.

I suppose it's understandable. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so the saying goes. Once someone gets hooked into tango it's natural to develop an appetite for facts and figures, and since information is so readily available nowadays it's not hard to research. I guess what I find a little annoying is just how susceptible so many people are to feeling like big shots so quickly, and with no more than the discovery of Todotango.com. Or perhaps from a trip to Buenos Aires, which automatically imbues them with expertise. Among the most annoying of this ilk are some of the lucky souls who have the means to relocate down south for extended periods of time. The ones who seem to have the attitude that their living in tango mecca trumps everything else and so they lord it over anyone who ever has a different opinion. "I've lived in Buenos Aires so I know..." Entire books have been written by some of these people.

Specific to the dance front, this supposed prowess often comes as a result of having studied with such-and-such and so-and-so. Or with the sheer amount of time one has spent with tango. Neither of which necessarily means anything. One question that I'm sick of hearing when meeting someone new is, "How long have you been dancing?" Though it may appear innocuous, it's a question with loaded expectations, and I often get the sense that there is an evaluation being made depending on the response. But everyone knows people who have been dancing for a good amount of time but who still, to put it mildly, kind of suck. Of course, some of these people feel that they've put in the hours and have earned their degree, and become "teachers" in some form. Either by actually holding classes, or more informally by instructing people they meet in the milongas and/or prácticas.

I wonder if it ever occurs to them that considering themselves authorities with such relatively little time, effort and/or ability actually diminishes their subject of supposed mastery? That, if they are experts already, it must mean that the history and culture of tango really isn't all that rich and complex, or that the dance isn't all that exacting?

Personally, I'm happy to consider myself a relative child in tango. Knowing there's so much more to learn is a big factor in keeping me interested and pushing me forward. When you're already a master, where else is there to go? What else to discover? (Hint: if your answer is "a lot" then guess what--you're not a master).


On the lack of desire in United States tango

A friend of mine once told me about the time she first met a brilliant dancer when he just arrived in town. They danced close and by her account it was a really lovely dance. Not too long afterwards, this dancer began to strictly utilize an open embrace approach. Curious, my friend asked him why he never danced close anymore, and his reply was that with all the dancing that he would do, dancing close embrace all the time was too emotionally intense. By using open embrace he could protect himself from that intensity without sacrificing the amount of dancing he liked to get.

Now, I'm not sure I can relate to this sense of emotional overload, although to be fair I dance a lot less than this guy. But it makes me wonder if a common factor for people who dance strictly in an open "nuevo" style is something along the lines of this kind of self-protection. A way to excise emotion--or specifically, desire--from the equation. Incidentally, I've noticed that many people who really excel at this style strike me as highly intelligent, left-brain types--people in the medical field, or law, or engineering. I wonder if the pleasure they derive is from the logical construction of figures, as if it's the playing with structure that fascinates them. Like solving puzzles in order to build new puzzles of increasing complexity. The fact that there is someone attractive opposite them who is assisting in the figure creation is, while perhaps a nice bonus, ultimately beside the point.

Then there are those who do dance close, even exclusively so, in a style they consider more "traditional," yet who still somehow create an emotional distance between themselves and their partner. While their bodies are in proximity, their embrace (if you could call it that) is cold and unfeeling. Perhaps it just hovers there, forming the outside boundary to the functional cylinder of the couple. It is well-meaning, intended to be unobtrusive and efficient, to grant freedom of movement to the other and to the self. Perhaps also to best serve as the conduit of communication between the partners. I think there are more than a few teachers and dancers who encourage this, perhaps as a reaction against the amateur tendency to hold too tightly and to compromise movement and function. But to me, it is akin to the wire monkey with the baby bottle--yes, it provides a necessity, but does it comfort or nurture?

Certainly, freedom--of movement, of intention--is very important in this dance. It provides the means to the greatest degree of expression. But is this freedom all-important? What do we sacrifice, or are we willing to sacrifice, when we prize this freedom above all else?

Finding an ideal middle ground is something my partner and I seem to work on with some regularity. While it is important to me to try to communicate affection, I have a tendency for far too much tension in my embrace. It's a problem I have been trying to address for a long time and which occurs without conscious awareness--even though I'm not aware of it and when it happens I'm not engaging my muscles nearly to their maximum it still transmits to her and in the long run is fatiguing for both of us. While I know it's getting better it still has room for improvement in order to make my dance maximally efficient and comfortable. But sometimes when I am specifically focusing on this my embrace gets a little too soft, which makes it feel absent to my partner.

"Relax," she says, "but don't stop holding me."

To hold, and to be held--isn't that the point? And if not, why not? Can you really call it tango without it? Or like Geraldine said, is that mistakenly thinking of it as a dance and not a feeling that is danced?

Maybe that's exactly what we Americans as a culture--much of which is derived from staid British restraint (no offense)--tend to find uncomfortable, the insinuation of feeling. Perhaps we don't want to come across as creepy or lecherous, or needy. We don't want to give the wrong impression. We want to make sure the other knows it's nothing personal. That it is, after all, just a dance. Maybe there's the concern that the expression of affection in tango necessarily portends something more, something that exists outside of the dance, that isn't left on the floor when the tanda is done and the thank yous have been exchanged.

As ever, I really don't know the answer, or even if it's a valid question. Am I totally missing something?


On the lack of dynamic in United States tango

Some friends and I were having a conversation on tango the other day and the subject drifted toward the manner of dance here in the states, in particular, what seems to be a common tendency among highly skilled dancers and professionals. To specify, I'm fairly certain it was in reference to many who dance in the style generally referred to or understood as "neo" or "nuevo," which quite frankly seems to comprise many of the well known professionals. Anyway, my friend was saying how she finds that most people she has danced with in this style who are from this country have a curious lack of dynamic compared to people from Europe or Argentina. By "dynamic," we mean the manner in which energy is shared between partners; the give and take of force. For example, how the leader can mark a propulsion in the follower and then use the energy from her subsequent inertia to power his own movement. (This can also work the other way, where the follower uses the leader's energy.)

One thought that we had regarding this tendency has to do with what is perceived as "advanced" technique in this country. That is, when beginners dance there is a tendency to muscle the lead and follow in a manner that is rough and inelegant. So perhaps among more experienced dancers here, the reaction against that "amateurishness" is to move away from muscularity as much as possible, the result being on the other extreme, where the lead/follow become so much of a subtle suggestion that it is almost non-existent, and there is very little actually felt in the exchange. It is this lack of feeling that my friend finds unsatisfying. If I understood her correctly, she feels it's as if each dancer is expected to bear responsibility for their own energy without tapping into or feeding the others', and that makes her feel separated from her partner.

Perhaps it has something to do with an exaggerated sense of diplomacy. Inherent in the give and take of energy is a kind of aggressive / submissive implication that maybe some people aren't comfortable with. So instead they utilize a very p.c. approach where it is encouraged that neither partner encroach on the others' self-sufficiency, at least to the degree to which it is possible to be unobtrusive. I think this may stem from our cultural ideal of individuality and self-reliance. And also, perhaps a heightened sensitivity to the notion of equality of the sexes and a subsequent aversion to well-defined "masculine" and "feminine" roles. And that aversion also seems to imply an aversion to the emotional character of the dance, the desire between man and woman (or between same sexes for those with that inclination), which results in a dance that may certainly be expressive and beautiful, but emotionally inert. But perhaps this is a line of thought that is veering off on a tangent from the topic of this post.

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear from others on this.


Hit it and quit it -- The promiscuity factor

Does the approach to social dance reveal the manner in which someone approaches mating, and is the milonga itself a metaphor for the dating pool?

When people dread the position of not dancing, is it that they are not feeling validated for their worth? The same kind of dread that some people have of growing old alone and not having anything to show for their lives when they die? And in the metaphor, is the dance the DNA we want to share, the bit of ourselves we want to pass on to exist beyond us thereby immortalizing ourselves in some small way? Do the seconds on the clock ticking towards the end of the milonga represent the days of our lives, and does every dance represent the loves -- or at least, the couplings -- we will have? Consequently, does a milonga devoid of dancing represent a life devoid of companionship, and the dances we did not share signify the increased likelihood that all that is ourselves ends with us?

For those who are selective about their dances or who seemingly feel less compulsion to dance than others, does that indicate that they are at a contented place in the balance of companionship and non-companionship? Are they more secure in their solitude? Or secure in their perception that they can get the dances they want when they want them; that they are only interested in sharing their dance/DNA where it will have the most benefit? Or does their restraint say something about their lack of libido/virility? For those on the extreme end who rarely choose to dance at all, are they, or at least are they seen as, "tango frigid" or "tango impotent," and does that perception seemingly point to their manner outside of tango as well?

Then there is the other side of the equation. There are those leaders, we'll call them "tango satyrs," who seem determined to dance with every woman in the room. And of course, there are the followers, whom we'll call "tango nymphomaniacs," who want the same thing from every guy -- although, here it is important to make a distinction: the tango nymphomaniacs are those who genuinely have that hunger for dance partners as opposed to the followers who "do their duty," so to speak, from a sense of obligation to be social and to maintain their appearance as viable dance partners.

For the tango satyrs and nymphomaniacs, do they even care or notice what they are giving up of themselves, or is it all about taking for them? Is it a chip on the shoulder that they have something to prove? Or is it about being at a buffet and constantly filling their plate so they haven't missed anything? Is the dance such an inconsequential thing that they have no issues with hopping from one partner to another in rapid succession, either discarding the previous dances as over and done or cataloging them as notches in a belt or items in a to-do list that they can cross off? Or is it possible that every dance really is something special, and if so how is that possible, that the volume itself doesn't dilute the well of experience (can the person who has bedded over a hundred different people feel as strongly for each partner as the person who has bedded only ten)? Or is it something they simply can't help of themselves, something obsessive-compulsive that drives them to constantly seek the euphoria of the fresh dance?

On another level, for those looking for casual hookups, is it a good indicator that the tango satyrs and nymphomaniacs will be both easier to hookup with and more reliably un-clingy in the aftermath? For those looking for a more committed relationship, do the more selective dancers seem to indicate better qualities of fidelity?

I'm not arguing for one thing or another, that one approach is better or worse or that tango satyriasis/nymphomania is necessarily a bad thing. Because honestly, when it comes down to it, what is tango for most people but promiscuity, in a sense? I am hard pressed to think of anyone anywhere who dances only with one person. As with everything, it's a matter of degree, no? Let's face it: monogamy is not human nature. It is in the best interest of our biological imperative to fool around with a lot of partners, hopefully partners with qualities that will benefit us in the long run. I'm just wondering if these are some of the possible multitude of ways in which the manner that one approaches tango reveals more about their character than they necessarily intend or perhaps would even want.


An unteachable lesson

A lot of people seem to approach a milonga as if it is imperative to get as much dancing as possible, or that they should brave a dance on a perilously crowded or dangerous floor because even a compromised dance is better than none at all.

My outlook, on the other hand, is that I would rather drive an hour to a milonga and wait through the end until the energy on the floor was right for me, and leave without ever having danced if that time never comes, than to force myself onto the floor just because I made the trip and paid the cover, or need to get my tango "fix". Will I feel it was a waste? In some ways, certainly. But there is always the foreknowledge that it could have been much worse if I had gone against my better judgment.

Certainly, the call to dance can be strong, and it can be difficult to resist. The dj plays an orchestra that I love, and a favorite dance partner is available. But if the dance conditions aren't within a certain workable parameter, ultimately it becomes a questionable endeavor. When I dance with someone, I always want to give them my best dance. Of course, that doesn't happen very often -- quite rarely in fact. Though that's the ideal, I would be satisfied at least with a good representation of my expression and feel. Where I come away with the sense that my partner has an accurate idea of how I heard and interpreted the music and the moment. So even if the music is great and the partner is willing, if the floor conditions aren't right then I can't really express myself anyway, so to what end would I be dancing? In fact, in that situation the frustration can be even more profound because the schism between what is felt and what can be actualized can be so much greater.

Anyway, my point being, there is one lesson that I think is of importance but cannot be taught, and that is how to know when not to dance. Of course, this is a very subjective thing; everybody has their own perception on what conditions are acceptable to them and what in the dance brings them satisfaction. Naturally, when dancing socially there is always some degree of compromise (at least there should be -- if this sounds alien to you I'd say it is more likely that you are a hazard to others on the floor). The prime dancing time, then, is a matter of gauging the zone of probable compromise on the floor at a given moment.

So how do I assess the conditions for myself? Well, barring partner compatibility considerations:

  • If I watch the floor and can't discern a clear flow, that's a bad sign. I'm sure we've all experienced the milonga that more resembles a pot of boiling water than something with a current. Perhaps acceptable for salsa or club dancing, but pointless for tango.
  • I will not dance when doing so places my partner beyond a certain degree of risk. If it seems that the majority of the dance will be spent on the defensive, trying to keep my partner out of harms way, that is too much of a compromise on my expression for me or my partner to enjoy. Similarly, if the floor is overly crowded and the traffic causes undue congestion I prefer to wait it out. Just as in driving a car, I can't stand the stop and go thing.
  • If I'm not feeling the music or don't care for the orchestra, I will wait for the next tanda. Or, if the djing is particularly not to my liking, I may not dance at all. (side note: I don't relate to those who invite dances during cortinas, before they even know what will be played next. I'm guessing the music doesn't matter so much to them and they love dancing for dancing's sake. In a way, I suppose that makes me more limited of a dancer than they as I can only dance honestly when I am compelled, and not everything compels me.)
  • If for unknown reasons I have been dancing in a way I feel is unsatisfactory, I will take some time away from the floor to relax and recalibrate, rather than dive right back in with the intention of fixing whatever isn't working. If the problem persists, I call it a night, knowing that it happens and therefore not getting down about it.
  • I generally dislike dancing milonga, and to a lesser degree vals, as my first dance, as it sets me up with an energy that can be hard to come down from.

I have become quite good at heeding my intuition and refraining from dances when I don't feel the conditions are suitable. Naturally, I have encountered people who were dubious about my reservations, wondering if I was making up some excuse not to dance with them. But what I have found is that as more people get to know me and my outlook, the more I develop a kind of reputation for being fastidious and they come to realize it's okay for them not to take it personally. And as a kind of bonus, some people have told me they consider it something of a treat to dance with me because they know I'm so damn picky. So, while I may not dance nearly as much as many in the community, I have found that being true to myself in being discerning has served me well. Quality for quantity -- I consider it a fair trade off.


Quejas de Blogdoneon, or, Writing/Tango = Dancing/Architecture?

Since this blog is not nor has ever been about chronicling the days and nights of tango life in detail, it is prone to these periods of inactivity. I always feel obligated to have a particular topic or thread of thought before I begin to write, yet I don't want to force something into existence just for the sake of updates.

That being said, sometimes I wonder just what it is that brings me to write in this public forum. For my own personal use I keep a private journal with thoughts and observances, notes on things to work on and such. These are things that specifically address my own issues with the dance, primarily technical issues, and as such are of little use to anyone but myself. The utility of this blog, as what has seemed to happen without conscious intention on my part, has been to raise questions without clear cut answers and gather responses from others. Although oftentimes I don't really see what I am presenting to the world that adds to it in any genuinely practical way. Or perhaps, to put it another way, there is a preponderance of tango blogs out there and the issues that pop up always seem to be the same ones--authenticity, floorcraft, new vs. old, finding ones place in the community, etc. So what am I asking--indeed, what can I ask of practical and common relevance--that hasn't been asked before or will be asked again? And has anything really been resolved? Or is it just about finding comfort bitching to the world from our lofty idealistic viewpoints of what should be, and that is all we bloggers can hope to take from our scribbles?

Also, in writing about tango--at least, in writing about the dancing of tango--I'm wondering if it's a misguided attempt at correlation and a practice that directly contradicts what I referenced in my last post regarding the overanalysis of tango. What am I doing here but analyzing the dance and the culture, often with considerations that may be far removed from anything truly relevant about tango or with no basis in anything that actually exists outside of my imagination? And do I share these considerations which may be deliberately peculiar as an effort to inject something different in the tango blogosphere? As a means to distinguish this blog from all the others? And to what end?

As has been the case especially of late, this entry is a meandering one. My apologies.