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.