Critique (and praise) of Tango

Tomasz Gil © 2006

"The body and the soul know how to play
In that dark world where gods have lost their way".


So I sit here and scan CD's stopping with fascination at songs where I can detect the rhythm of tango. Beat one strong, two and three variously interesting and four comes in thumping and strongly transitioning again into the next bar of music. "Nuevo tango" looks for this rhythm in places owned by dance styles from waltz to rhumba and mambo to even rock and hip-hop. Argentine tango spreads out to own all the dance music in the world.

Ah! - tango - the word makes Europeans half-familiar with Latin think of tactile pleasures - of touch. Tangere, tango, tactum - this presumed Latin grammar would make many a prof cringe while it inflames my imagination. Yes, it is true, sometimes.

But what is really the attraction? From external analysis it appears that tango is danced in quite close body contact but most of the movements occur primarily in response to mutual interaction of the partners and only secondarily in response to the rhythm of music. With very few rules of movement based on mutual connection - initiated by the lead (man) and completed by the follow (woman) - it is possible to adapt to a variety of rhythms and also improvise the sequences of moves to an amazing degree.

These few rules of tango can be expressed in a very condensed manner - I know because I have of necessity taught on occasion absolute beginning follows confronting me on the dance floor. I told them - move as elegantly as you can to be in front of me. This is more of an aesthetic maxim than a rule - which amazingly many women execute with great intuition. The rule for the lead is to move with great stability and decisiveness signaling the direction to the follow with his chest. Stability is very important but it comes from the positioning of the upper body in the hips and not from the feet. It is not easy to execute in practice but everybody with a bit of effort achieves a heightened degree of elegance. These rules, one for the lead and one for the follow, express the constancy of the connection between the partners which is the source of fulfillment obtained in the dance.

The close encounter between the bodies of dancers is always a great attraction. It breaks with other social interactions where a physical distance is to be observed. The dance of tango brings the possibility of having actual sensual and physical interactions between men and women, unmarried but committed only to the moment of dance, carried out with complete social sanction. It seems that the goal of most social dances is to create a lightweight form where such interactions can develop and thrive - as opposed to heavyweight forms of marriage and "relationships". An occasional departure from the "norm" is a necessary mental exercise just like physical exercises are needed for somatic health.

For me the physical and sensual aspects of tango are most important and greatly outweigh any visual aesthetics that many so appreciate. In the way of my senses I receive music in a quite similar fashion - merging the aural and tactile senses. My body, the partner's and the music form a type of composition joined together by physical sensation. I have a similar attitude toward my piano playing - I care about as much about the sound coming out of the instrument as about the dance of the fingers on the keyboard.

I came to dance tango by recommendation of a friend who liked the art of so-called contact-improvisation. It is a type of modern dance where any number of people can engage physically using any part of their bodies. I tried it a few times and found it somewhat underwhelming and not satisfying enough. I started with tango assuming that I can get ahead quickly just by extending some contact-improvisation ideas. That did not work but I remained a tango aficionado. The similarities and differences between contact-improv and tango are very apparent to me. Contact-improv is missing the erotic content removed by the focus on physicality where the dancers test each other's bodies, their strength and structure, while being rather indifferent to its sensuality. In tango the dancers test their sensual auras, awakened and unfurled by the music, rather than the base physicality of the body. This invites the erotic content (this does not mean sexual) into the interaction of the partners in tango. Why? Because tango dancers are coming into the dance to create a transformative experience - maybe lasting just 3-4 minutes repeated several times for a few dances - during which they do not talk but appear to each other in a completely changed form affected by the sensuality of each other's presence and by the presence of music. A transformation is to me at the root of any erotic experience and tango introduces it very strongly through music, interest of partners in each other (this is known as "connection") by which they reinforce the sensual aura. In contact-improv the interest is principally in being in the body - it is more like athletics than art.

Where is the critique? I keep talking about how wonderful tango is and explain how it goes further than contact improvisation. But we need to put some limitations on it. Tango is a Latin-American import - Argentine - and can bring with it a whole load of cultural baggage. This is really the heart of my objections. The Latino culture has the concept of passion to which it ascribes a high importance. The desires of men and women are always endowed with passion - otherwise they are not worth much. This passion is typically ignited by the high degree of polarization between these two genders. The Argentine tango executed in the USA tries to religiously replicate this perceived polarization. Passion and fiery desire is viewed by North-Americans with pious jealousy while Europeans seem to be more skeptical of the concept. Hermann Hesse, a writer and spiritual teacher from Europe, wrote somewhere that passion implies friction and resistance (I think in the "Glass Bead Game"). At least here in the USA the Latino culture appears as a case of high-strung, tense relations between men and women, overflowing with intensity and jealousy, where much erotic energy gets accumulated and then dissipated through the night of dancing. The North-American culture would dissipate it through a night of clubbing, smoking, drinking and tedious flirting. As the inter-gender relations in the North are marked by distrust and suspicion tango offers a very attractive means of mediation, but also invites cultural imports of dubious value.

There is a mutual inferiority complex between North and South America. The Northerners envy the Latinos for the passion, while the Latinos envy the Northerners for the ease of using money and seemingly relaxed lifestyle - the high-life. Latinos appear as the passionate, but ultimately high-strung and oppressive, lovers, while Northerners as comfortable only in the world of money through which they awkwardly seek pleasure and intimacy. These are romanticized traits and neither side has an idea of the cost paid for these seeming superiorities.

A European input would be valuable here. Europe deals with quite a bit of cultural variety all the time which is not beholden to something outside of it. The root of European culture is in Europe, while America is somewhat alienated from its roots which, to confuse the matter more, are dual - both in Europe and in the native cultures the colonists confronted in the new world. Europe has a definite limit on its patience with other cultures and always prefers its own. It is quite visible in the way they are dealing with the Muslim world. It is an attitude of being securely on its own ground, whereas Americans of both continents look elsewhere, outside of themselves, with a sense of inferiority, for guidance and lesson, for outside influence. Tango is a wonderful South-American invention but should be practiced and propagated elsewhere without the cultural baggage, which, while perhaps only perceived, can be damaging outside its native ground. European attitudes can help resist the South-American imports extraneous to the essence of tango.

I am a bit surprised myself to come to such conclusions after about a year of interaction with the tango scene in Seattle. Recently, the dances offered around here have taken a turn toward being more traditionally Argentinian and the "Nuevo" style seems to be losing favor. Let us patronize the "Nuevo tango" style, which permits any musical input provided the rhythm is danceable, and leads to a more culturally independent dance style. Dance should seek playfulness and pleasure in order to bring about some degree of intimacy and liberate the heart.

November 15-19, 2006