Romanticization of Tango--A Pragmatic Inquiry

On Sunday I went to see a tango show where much of the focus was on educating the audience on the history and culture of tango. At one point, the narrator spoke of some of the opinions on tango during its formative years, and to paraphrase, he said that no one had a perspective that was blasé or half-hearted. Emotions ran high both for and against it. It seems that it's fairly rare for someone to be objective. But it's precisely a perspective that I've been mulling over lately. Maybe it's because tango has lost some of its magic for me--it's like the stage of a relationship where the giddiness of infatuation has faded and much of the mystery is gone, but there is a comfortable familiarity. Yet, when I speak of tango to my non-tango friends, it's difficult to convey exactly what my investment is. They ask me if I teach--I do not. They ask me if I perform--I don't. Then when they refer to it as a hobby I get a little indignant, because it seems like more than that. But I can't explain why it is more. So it forces me to step back a little and consider that maybe it is just a hobby.

Why is it that we hold tango in such high reverence? The comparisons are familiar refrains; tango is a drug, an obsession, a religion. Tango isn't a dance, it is a feeling (which is to suggest that it taps into some deeper instinctual, biological programming, the essential needs of the reptilian parts of the brain rather than the more whimsical pretenses of the higher cortex). When someone refers to it as "just a dance" or "just music" our blood starts to rise a little. But is it indeed so much more?

Aside from the considerations of the beauty of the dance, music, culture and community, I've broken down the allure of tango into two basic factions. First, for structurally minded, obsessive-compulsive types, it is the elegant logic of tango which fascinates. The way the steps work. The communication of lead and follow. The architecture and geometry of two bodies in motion relative to one another. Examining the possibilities and investigating in depth just how things function provides near limitless opportunities for discovery.

The other faction is emotional, the distinctly affecting quality that tango has. The key to this is the embrace, and it is in this where I believe the old comparisons have a literal, concrete truth to them. To get technical, there have been studies that show that when people embrace one another, it causes the brain to release oxytocin, which is a hormone that, among other things, fosters sexual arousal as well as bonding instincts between people, and heightens tendencies towards generosity and feelings of trust. Some studies suggest that the effects of MDMA (ecstasy) stem from the drug's stimulation of oxytocin activity in the brain. So it can be argued that the embrace, and by extension tango, is a natural substitute for MDMA and therefore truly is a drug, in a manner of speaking.

Yet, I suspect, putting science to the equation may be off-putting to some. Like tampering with the spiritual, something that isn't meant to be dissected in that way. Perhaps in considering tango a "feeling" it extends to question the makeup of feelings--love and hate merely the result of chemical processes or as a consequence of sentience and free will. Then to the question of whether we are divine beings composed of extra-physical, mystical qualities, or that all we are is made up merely of complex systems of amino acids and cellular networks.

Okay, backing off. Getting back to the subject, maybe we elevate tango because of what drew many of us to it in the first place--the exoticism. I wonder, if tango wasn't such a relatively obscure culture and community, would we feel the same? If EVERYBODY was into tango, would we still hold it so dear and consider it so special? Certainly, there is an appeal in defining oneself as a "tango dancer." Mention tango to a non-aficionado and it conjures images of passion, sensuality/sexuality, drama and mystery. Then when they they talk about their impressions, it can be so gratifying to tell them how much more there is, and how most people don't know the real tango, how Hollywood always gets it wrong, etc. This is part of the tango snobbery, and I know this must be a factor. For someone to elevate themselves by association, the glory in whose reflection they are basking must be bright, indeed. And it doesn't hurt to be a part of a fairly exclusive group, either. Even within the community there is a tendency to compartmentalize, ie. those who haven't gone to BsAs and those who have, and then by frequency and duration. Or who one has studied with. It seems some of us are always chasing the keys to some ever elevating executive washroom.

I should mention that, in general, I don't have a problem with romanticization. I do it all the time. But I suppose I get wary when people start taking it places where I would be fine if it didn't go. Like when people start getting all new-agey and touchy-feely. Talking about tango in relation to spirituality and the like. To me, that's like trying to raise tango to the heavens. Whereas tango--as we tangueros all know ;-)--is rooted firmly to the earth. Flor de fango.


Festival rant on sleep dep.

February 14th weekend, and we all know what that means...

Been thinking lately about why I'm not much for festivals. Everyone else seems to love them, so why not me? Don't I love tango? Hasn't my life come to revolve around it as much as any of these other festival deadheads?

Well, maybe. Maybe not. But I certainly won't be racking up any frequent flyer miles anytime soon.

I suppose I wonder, what exactly is it that these people are chasing? Is it that their hunger for dancing can no longer be sated in their own backyard? That they need to constantly replenish the affirmation of dancing with new partners ("Hey, works with this person, too!")?

I've said it before: I don't dance much socially. That's not something that would be likely to change in a different locale with different or more people to choose from. So why would I go through the trouble and expense just to sit and watch, which is what I mostly do?

Besides, on the occasion that I do dance, it's still my dance. Doesn't matter who I partner with, I'm still calling most of the shots. And to be honest, it doesn't make all that much difference who I dance with, sorry to say. It's all a degree of the partner's ability to follow (and compensate, if need be) and mutual chemistry. A good match is fantastic, but I don't necessarily feel the need to seek it out. I already know dancers with whom I share a good connection. That's good enough for me. In a sense, it almost feels as if looking to dance with new partners cheapens the good dance relationships I already have. Not that I only want to dance with the same people all the time. But there's already so many good dancers locally who I have yet to dance with, and others with whom I enjoy dancing but have not yet explored in depth many dynamic possibilities and developed the chemistry to its potential. It just doesn't seem worth it to go elsewhere to seek something out, especially in the case of a festival where any potential for development with new dancers is limited to time constraints. And as far as dancing with friends, I can do that in my home community. Why go away just to dance with the same people?

Perhaps you could say that I'm depriving the festival circuit of my singular approach to tango, arguing how every dancer is distinct and has something special to offer. But quite frankly, there's not much unique about my dance and I'm not doing anything that no one else is doing at least as well, so I don't feel like I'm neglecting some civic duty to the global community.

Granted, I think it must be a different story for followers, and I can understand the allure for them--every lead really is different. (Not to say all followers are the same, or even that all followers with whom I share good chemistry are similar. But then, neither variety nor consistency are primary considerations for me).

Then I hear the stories about overcrowded floors, the formation of cliques and hierarchies (deliberately or not), the planchadores/as who actually can and want to dance but are being shut out through sheer lack of recognition, and of course the festival mentality which brings out the worst exhibitionistic tendencies in some people. Plus all the schmoozing and networking. Ick. I'm not one who's looking to fill my yearbook with signatures (or boost the quantity of my Facebook friendship queue).

Another thing that bugs me, and this is strictly a personal beef, is how the festival mentality affects the local community. Here in the SF Tango scene there are so many festival freaks that the milongas feel noticeably drained during mass migrations out of town. Perhaps it's partly because of the relative wealth and travel accessibility among the dance population here. I don't know... to me, it feels almost like a dis of the hometown scene. I understand there are some professionals that have to make appearances, whether they are booked as teachers/performers/musicians/djs, or simply to promote themselves abroad as participants. But non-professionals who jet off to every festival they can... I don't know. Sometimes I think, they can go away and stay away. If the home community isn't good enough for them then to hell with them. I don't know why, but there's something about it that strikes me as kind of phony for some reason. It goes along with the tendency of some to trumpet their "obsession" or "addiction" to tango, to go out of their way to show others just how ravenous their appetite for tango is.

(I once had this conversation with a very respected figure in the tango scene, questioning out loud if my interest in the culture is so much less than these others who demonstrate--and talk up--their obsession. She replied, "I think that people just like being obsessed." As a state of being, something that defines them. Or, as I take it, at least they like talking about how obsessed they are. It's like some kind of one-upmanship. "This week I went to eight different milongas, had five privates and two workshops and only got two hours of sleep every night!" Fine--I fold, you win.)

Pah, whatever. As long as people are having fun, I suppose. Meanwhile, I need to get my grumpy ass some sleep.


Cuartito Azul

Hi all. The repeat visitors among you may have noticed something different here. First off, I changed the address for the blog to something I think makes more sense. And since I was changing things around already I figured it might be a good time to shake things up a bit with the layout. I was never completely happy with the color scheme of the last one but for whatever reason the template only allowed limited tinkering along those lines, at least as far as I could figure out. This new template allowed for more flexibility color-wise (I think the template is called "Jellyfish," if anyone is interested).

Initially I went with a theme that was as close to the earlier site as I could get, but I didn't like where the new template placed the old photo (another fyi, that was a pic I took on my first trip to BsAs in 2003--my partner was the lovely Natalia Pastorino, a really beautiful dancer that I don't seem to hear much of nowadays but can be seen in that fantastic National Geographic issue on tango a few years back, dancing with her then partner Alejandro Nievas at El Balcón in San Telmo. Also, pictures from that article were subsequently used for current editions of Lonely Planet's Buenos Aires guides). So I removed the picture field which subsequently removed the picture, and when I set up a new picture field in a new location I decided to go with something different. The current photo should be familiar to the real trasnochandos out there. It was taken sometime in 2005 at roughly around six o'clock on a Saturday morning at La Viruta, as the room dropped into darkness before the solo violin strains of the Forever Tango interpretation of La Cumparsita began its wail over the loudspeakers, the blue lights gradually emerging to reveal the slowly rotating black silhouettes.

Given the color of the photo, I thought more of a blue theme would be more fitting. I tend to like darker colors so I kept it shadowy with the exception of the title, which I wanted to match the color of the Argentine flag.

Finally, there is the inspiration of the song, whose title I hijacked to head this blog post. It was this song which first turned me on to El Pibe de la Paternal, maestro Osvaldo Fresedo, with his distinctive singer Ricardo Ruiz.

Cuartito azul
de mi primera pasión,
vos guardarás
todo mi corazón.
Si alguna vez
volviera la que amé
vos le dirás
que nunca la olvidé.
Cuartito azul,
hoy te canto mi adiós.
Ya no abriré
tu puerta y tu balcón.

Hopefully, this new look works. I like it, but if anybody finds something they really think could be improved (ie. readability) please let me know. Thanks.