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.


Limerick Tango said...

On the sciencey bit, take a look at the use of Deep Pressure Touch in the therapy of sufferers of autism.

A starter would be my own post Slaughter House 9

and yes people can get awfully highfalutin when it gets to the deeply personal aspects of tango and not realise that they've lost the rest of the room.

Malevito said...

Hi LT, how are you?

Thanks for the link. I am only peripherally familiar with Temple Grandin but by all accounts she's a remarkable figure with unique insights. The distinct physical reactions from light pressure and deep pressure are fascinating and something I'd like to keep in mind in relation to the dance--yet more nuances of connection to consider.

I ran across another link while searching for articles on oxytocin that talked about "cuddle parties" in the UK, essentially a form a group therapy where people lie in embrace for some duration. In a sense, I think of milongas as cuddle parties with tandas and a ronda.

The link is here: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/cuddle-parties-will-the-uk-embrace-this-trend-435255.html

Also, I just want to reiterate that I don't mean to disparage anybody's perspective on tango. It's very understandable, for example, that those with a spiritual bent will find things that correlate very neatly. I'm just not one of those people.

Anyway, thanks for the comment!

Henry said...

Hello fellow tango dancer!

I think you would be interested in KnowTango.com -- the world's first wiki-tango map where anyone can add or edit events.

If you see an event that has wrong information or is missing, make sure to fix it. The site is totally free with no ads, so hopefully it's something the worldwide (and your local) community can use and enjoy :-).

Take a look and let me know what you think!

Mari said...

I wonder what the world would llok like if almost every body did dance tango? But back to the point, I started tango (very recently) because the music itself was a relief to me and dancing seemed to be a natural pain killer (I have a chronic pain condition) - so that sciency-bit is much appreciated. Thank you for the post - you have a wonderful blog!

Malevito said...

Hey Henry, thanks for the heads up on the website!

Hi Mari, how are you?

That's a shame about the condition, but I'm glad to hear that you find comfort through tango. That must mean your dance is very pure and true to the spirit of tango, indeed.

Thanks for the comments :)