More on the Tango Conversation - a bigger issue?

My answer to Cherie's comment, which was:

Really interesting post and one that obviously you have thought a lot about.

Please don't take it as a negative when I say that the dancers of traditional tango milonguero here in BsAs don't feel that way.

The idea of a conversation between two bodies is rather recent, and foreign. Enclosed in the tango embrace, the body is one--not with four legs, but with two, as this body is only standing on two legs at any one time.

It's Ying/Yang--one whole from two parts that meld together and make something new.

When I dance I don't feel the need to tap or to do rulos or raise my left shoulder in time to the music--I am completely within the music and at the command of my partner, and with his design of the dance, I can express myself and the music perfectly in his embrace without adding anything but elegant posture and good technique.

It's not a struggle between two minds of how to dance this song, but a blending of souls.

Well, that's the way I would describe it anyway.

Besos,
cherie

And my answer, which was too long to put in comments, according to blogger.

Cherie -

I don't take your post negatively and I respect your opinions on the matter very much. (I also hope that my response doesn't come off too negative.) Actually, I expected more responses like yours.  Maybe others who usually comment similarly have given up on me. Your post was kinder than theirs' would have been though, I think.  Please forgive me for using your comment to address a somewhat larger issue that comes up so frequently over posts like this.

As my post wasn't about traditional milongueros in Buenos Aires, was your comment meant to inform readers who may want to travel there? I do know several dancers have been "surprised" (run off the pista) as a result of their ignorance of the differences in dance cultures. I suspect people who have been reading this blog know that I'm specifically addressing tango as it's danced in North America - though I can start putting the disclaimer in the beginning again.

You're absolutely right, in North America tango has a more conversational quality to it. And I know the traditional milongueros don't feel the way about it that I wrote in my post.

I do take exception to this: "raise my left shoulder in time to the music" - which I didn't say and didn't mean. What I wrote was, "moving my shoulder slightly"  (which I'm told I do occasionally on the last note of some songs.)  *shrug*  Leaders do similar things on that last sharp note - so what would be so terrible about it?  Raising my shoulder in time with the music, on the other hand, would look rather like a spasm and not something musical. I was trying to think of examples of things I, or someone else might do if they felt it in the music.

I want to clarify one thing that wasn't clear from my post - when I "adjust" my interpretation of music in a dance, 95% of the time I'm quieting it down - not adding something in. There are a few orquestras I get (possibly) overly-excited about and have to temper my enthusiasm. I very rarely (and usually at practica or in class) consciously add stuff in - but how else should I write it? "A little toe-raise was manifested"? Language fails me for things like this because dancing has always been about, and for, the things I am not able to write - ironic I know, considering how much I write about tango.

I did want to ask about this - "It's not a struggle between two minds of how to dance this song, but a blending of souls."

Really? Every single time? You never have a different feeling from/about the music playing than your leader? You're always in synch? Wow. If that were the case here, I would probably feel exactly the same way. No sarcasm at all - I really would. But I'm not writing about traditional milongueros in Buenos Aires.  I'm writing specifically about the times when that total synch is not happening - or at least not happening right away. 

For example, most nights I dance, someone tells me they've never heard a particular song that's playing - so it's a whole new adventure for them, and for me when I'm dancing with them. They're feeling their way through the music - and trying to connect with me at the same time. So there's a key difference again - in Buenos Aires, the dancers know the music on a very different level. And that brings me back to the point I mentioned earlier about comparing the Buenos Aires dancing experience to, well, anything else really.

As my dear friend (who has traveled to Buenos Aires a few times a year for the last dozen or so years) told me, and tells those who come back from dancing there, "Adjust your expectations." Please note she did not say, and did not mean, lower your expectations.

If I go into every dance looking for that experience, not only would I likely end up disappointed and sitting a lot because I was looking disappointed - but I would be missing the beautiful strengths and unique treasures the leaders here offer me every night that I dance. People come to tango for different reasons, with different histories, and different gifts.

It's not that I don't appreciate hearing how it is in Buenos Aires - I do, and I am hopeful that I will get there. My circumstances don't allow for it right now and, I suspect, not for quite awhile. It's just that sentiments like that, create this idea that until we (North Americans) "get it" and start dancing like they do in Buenos Aires, we're not really dancing tango - we're just dancing some kind of inferior imitation. Almost like we're somehow not worthy. The tone of it is very often belittling.  It's not the words "that's not how it's danced in Buenos Aires" - it's the implication behind the words, whether you mean them or not. Often, it feels like, 'what you're doing doesn't really count as tango.'  When it gets said again and again, and when that standard is the only standard by which all tango in the world is judged, it alienates a lot of people who love the dance, and the music so very much.

25 comments:

Terpsichoral said...

On the one hand, I value the input of people of the older generation like Cherie. It is vital that we don't forget the history of tango, that we don't lose touch with the way the older milongueros danced and continue to dance.

But her Buenos Aires is not my Buenos Aires. Not at all. And I have also lived here, for years. So I consider my experiences to be just as valid and real. And my experience has been that the younger dancers not only accept but DEMAND that the dance be a conversation to which the follower contributes a great deal.


I am often tempted to weigh in when I read comments about how things are in Buenos Aires, "how people dance in Buenos Aires", even "how we who live in Buenos Aires" think about and experience these things. I hear a lot of patronising comments on the web about how I don't know the "real" Buenos Aires or that my Argentine friends are somehow "not real Argentines". This is not the gist of Cherie's comment at all. But I think we should stop the "more Argentine than thou" game and accept the full range of tango as it is danced here in its birthplace. Botanists talk about centres of genetic diversity for specific plants, in the places where those plants originally evolved (e.g. the Andes for the potato). And, just as there are many varieties of Andean potato in that plant's homeland, there are many varieties of Argentine tango here in Buenos Aires.

The younger Argentines dance tango in their own way. But they take the tango extremely seriously, care deeply about the music and the quality of their dance and, as a result, the tango as a dance is continuing to grow and evolve here. Much more than anywhere else in the world, this is a huge, diverse and incredibly vibrant tango scene. I feel happy and priviledged to be a part of it.

I have written about the specific subject of the tango conversation, as I see it, from my perspective as someone who lives and dances here in Buenos Aires, in the following blog entry, which is about one of my favourite Argentine dancers:

http://tangoaddiction.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/decorations/

tangocherie said...

Mari, while I don't care for "conversations" of any kind on the dance floor, I love this kind of meeting of minds that you began with your previous blog post on this topic.

To clarify: I'm not writing about "milongueros," but the traditional style of "tango milonguero," or "close embrace" or "club tango" or whatever you want to call the dancing in traditional milongas down here.

Also, I wasn't quoting you about the additions of taps, rulos, and left shoulder raises (although you mentioned taps and rulos, and moving of the shoulders)--I've never seen you dance so I wouldn't know which or when you raise your shoulder. But I see foreign women doing it like crazy down here until they learn to calm down and let the "man dance them." Ruben once observed a foreign woman on the floor and commented that "she's moving more, but dancing less." And by foreign I don't just mean North Americans, but Europeans, Asians, Australians, well, you get the point.

And lastly, the melding of souls doesn't happen every single time, but it is the goal, the ideal to strive for. And if everyone is doing their own thing in their own way, it's never going to happen.

To those of us who dance like I do, tango is assuming roles: he takes control, and she gives it up to him so that there is one mind and one body and two legs moving to the music in harmony.

It often is extremely difficult for foreigners to assume these roles, and thus, the conversational tango has evolved.

Ojo, I'm not saying this way of dancing is "bad." Everyone dances who they are, and there is not one holy way to dance tango. I'm just trying to describe my way and the way of many others who don't read or write blogs and comments.

tangocherie said...

Terp, while I may be "older" than you are, I think it's cutting the younger generation short to assume they don't dance or want to dance traditional tango. That's not what I see. There are plenty of 20-somethings dancing milonguero style in BsAs without a gancho in sight.

Ghost said...

In Martial Arts America, A Western Approach to Eastern Arts, Bob Orlando makes the point that because North Americans of his generation grew up watching cowboy films whereas in Japan they grew up watching samurai films, the way in which they fight is fundamentally different. As such a lot of the concepts that Japanese martials arts are predicated on don’t work in real fights in North America because the person attacking you doesn’t attack you the way he would if he’d been raised in Japan.

I feel there’s a strong parallel with tango. Different places have different social mores and that effects how tango is danced. So much in the same way it makes sense to fight differently if you’re in North America than when you’re in Japan, it also makes sense to dance differently if you’re in BsAs or North America. For me the question is two-fold. One, if I insist on dancing the way they do in BsAs despite being in say North America, is there anyone else who can and is willing to dance with me this way at the milongas I can get to? Does that constitute enough dancing for me for it to be worth it (obviously on this point people’s mileage varies considerably)? And does it make sense for me to dance this way in the milongas I go to? Eg what if they play Nuevo and the dance floor is basically a grand melee of swirling chaos and violence?

And as Terpsichoral points out, human beings tend to have a fair amount of variation when it comes to art. It would be difficult to define exactly what London Tango is for example as you’ll see very different things in different milongas. So trying to nail down exactly what BsAs tango is, is probably going to be problematic. Plus art tends to evolve naturally over time, further complicating the issue. I think at best you can define what it means for you, so at least people know what it is you’re talking about.

And then there’s the matter of figuring out how it is that you personally want to dance tango in a way that brings you enjoyment. While it might be useful to be informed by others, ultimately it’s a personal thing. Monet isn’t better than Picasso. It just depends what you want.

Terpsichoral said...

@Cherie

I don't think this is a case of traditional versus non-traditional tango. Though I'm not sure how you define those terms. If you include salon/Villa Urquiza style as traditional, then most of the younger Argentines are dancing traditional tango. I don't get led ganchos very often. And tango nuevo is very out of fashion. Also, a significant minority of the young people I dance with prefer to dance what I call milonguero style (other people sometimes use different terminology) i.e. they don't open the embrace at all during the dance. But I didn't think this debate had that much to do with traditional versus non traditional styles. Within salon, you can dance in a pretty active way as the follower (see Roxana Suarez and Sebastian Achaval for an example). And you can do so in 'milonguero style' too (see Noelia Hurtado dancing with Carlitos Espinoza).

Terpsichoral said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
tangocherie said...

And I forgot to say that 70% of our students are under 35.

Terpsichoral said...

@Cherie

PS What I do think is largely (not completely: there are exceptions both ways) a generational thing is how active the follower can be within the dance. When I dance milonguero style with younger Argentines, I listen intently to the music, try to express it in the type and cadence of my step, add decorations to express little moments in the music, etc. (As described in my blog entry, "Decorations" -- it's not clear from the entry, but the leader I describe dances milonguero style). When I dance with older Argentines, on the whole, they don't leave space for that kind of play. I listen to the music less and to the lead more, perhaps. And I find that most of them prefer a soberer way of interpreting the music, stepping only on the pulse, etc. The older guys also don't tend to lead boleos, even low ones. Maybe my experiences aren't typical, as I dance overwhelmingly, most of the time, with dancers who are 40 or under. Since they tend to be the better dancers at the milongas I frequent. There are exceptions to all of these statements I'm making; but I'm trying deliberately to generalise a little.

Mari Johnson said...

@Terpsichoral - Thank you for your comments - and for posting that link. It was great to read that again.

I spoke with several leaders before posting a response to Ghost's initial question - that's part of why it took so long to post it. I specifically spoke with leaders (8 in all when I decided I needed to stop researching this to death - and just write it) who had danced in Buenos Aires within the last two years (for more than a week). I really wanted to get a sense of what it is to dance as a leader in the milongas there, so I'm very happy that you posted your thoughts on this as a leader and as a dancer in BsAs, because it reflects some of what they said. There were a few common themes in what they told me, so I want to just pick out a couple of the things they said that I think are especially interesting (to me anyway).

Two of the leaders I spoke with, one originally from Buenos Aires and one not, said that one of the biggest differences in followers in North America and those in South America is the "Northern obsession with technique". Especially in light of the fact that what is considered good technique in N. America is often considered somewhat irrelevant by those dancing in Buenos Aires. Neither gentleman would let me use his name, but they both said I could use what they wrote to me:

From the gentleman from Buenos Aires originally,

"The biggest difference I feel when I return to Buenos Aires to dance is the full presence of the porteña in the music. She is fearless in giving me her complete expression of the orquestra playing - which means I'd better be as well if I hope to dancer with her again. It's mind-blowing. She's an instrument of the orquestra. Here's the surprising part for some of my friends - what North Americans may think of as good technique just isn't the focus here. At least not like it is up there. I dance with women in their 80's all the way down to those in their 20's, in milongas all over, and even outside of, Buenos Aires. Some of my favorite women to dance with, the ones who can tell you volumes of history with their bodies during the dance - some of them, they lean back on their heels, or their head hangs forward and heavy, or they don't have very good balance, or their posture isn't so good - and that's all completely irrelevant. Her gift, what's she surrendering to me, to the music, to the moment, isn't about her posture - it's about her love for the music and for dancing. Nothing else matters. When we part after the tanda is over, I feel her pull a piece of me with her."

The other gentleman, a European who now dances primarily in North America now, wrote (after returning from Buenos Aires):

"If all you care about is masterful technique and perfect posture, you can dance in Portland (for example) and get that. There are amazing dances and dancers to be found all over the country - all over the world, really. It's a whole different ball game in Buenos Aires. As you would say, the stakes are higher. And it has damned little to do with her physical prowess (is that the right word?), as a dancer. Porteñas are taking this tiny sliver of time and space to tell you their story, and bare their soul, in this music - and they want to hear your story, feel your soul, in the music, so you'd better be ready to bring it (and know the damned music!)"

tangocherie said...

Amen

tangocherie said...

So Terp, when will we see you at Los Consagrados?

Mari Johnson said...

@cherie and @terpsichoral - I'm really interested in reading about how tango may be experienced by different age groups, etc. - but since I can't really weigh in on the issue, all I can say is thank you to you both for sharing your observations.

Mari Johnson said...

@Ghost - there are so many comparisons made between martial arts and tango (as well as other dances) for good reason I think. The art form develops in the region it's in and reflects the spirit and experience of the people creating it. You're right that ultimately, we can only speak for our own experience of any art form. (I also find it very telling that there are so very many martial arts practitioners in tango.)

Tango Therapist said...

Mari...what great discussion that this has generated.

What I dance and what I think may be two different things, but I have never understood the "conversation" analogy. Conversation is like playing catch, and is a wonderful, magical thing, but not what I think is going on in tango. Conversation like all other words are just analogous to the real thing -- tango. So conversation in some ways works, but it is a distant analogy -- at least for me.

I love your sticking up for tango outside of BsAs. There is a huge snobbery that goes on sometimes, even downright ethnocentricity expressed by some as superiority by blood. Sure, most of us would be flattered to be called "Porteños," when dancing with someone from BsAs. There is no better compliment. However, didn't stage stars from BsAs create the way we dance? The boleos, ganchos and very visual tango comes from Porteños teaching in America.

Regarding North American interest in technique: I would argue that an obsession in technique is our main "import" from Argentina after Argentine wine. I am not so sure people are interested especially in N.America in technique as a people. The ONLY exposure that we have had to tango is by PEOPLE from BsAs who as a rule are technique freaks -- stage stars who live by performance and teaching. THEY are obsessed, and we have learned to be obsessed by their technique obsession. Technique is what makes them so amazing as performers, but also some of the worst social dance teachers. They teach us absolutely stupid things to do on the dance floor.

So if we are not dancing like Porteños, it is at least in part because of the limited exposure we have to a certain limited group of maestros porteños. People from BsAs can look at themselves for what they have created around the world. They have nothing to be proud or snobby about when we do not get it. We are doing our very best under the circumstances.

You are dancing with men who know what it is like in BsAs. The teaching now begins. As Rome was falling, the Empire continued in Alexandria and other places for many years. As BsAs is being invaded by "barbarians," maybe some little milonga in Austin will be more representative of BsAs than ANYTHING in Argentina. I would hope not, but with the thirst for tango tourism, I would not be surprised.

Terpsichoral said...

@Cherie I'm not sure about this Saturday. But, if not, next Saturday definitely.

Mari Johnson said...

@Tango Therapist - As always, thank you for your comments.

I agree that 'conversation' isn't really the word we need, but I don't there's a word that adequately describes what we're talking about - if only because trying to "talk" about it is so difficult. And when discussions like this break down into arguments over semantics, the discussion usually ceases to be very useful to anyone. We get hung up on the words when we can all usually agree that words will never really be accurate to what we are trying to express (which is why we do other things to express ourselves - like dancing, instead of talking.)

And you're right that we (North Americans) are a product of the teachers who came here and had to make a living teaching and performing the sort of tango that would sell here. Between that and our own cultural expectations, tango was always going to be a different "ball game" here.

Terpsichoral said...

I disagree strongly with what is said here about technique. Yes, technique is a means to an end, not an end in itself. My teacher, who teaches technique, likes to say that if you only have technique you have nothing. But what good technique enables you to do, ideally, is to forget all about the technique itself and focus on music and connection with your partner. When I am not falling off balance, moving in a stiff, awkward block, worrying about how to follow a back ocho, hurting my partner by pushing, pulling, grabbing or leaning on him, wobbling in my high heels, etc. That's when I can REALLY dance. When I have technique on my side. Just as, when I play the piano, if I have to worry about the fingering I can't play the piece with as much expressiveness as I can when I have practised and ingrained a technique for doing so. I am with Martha Graham on this one: technique is the dancer's freedom. It has nothing specifically to do with flashy or stage dancing at all. You need technique for all types of tango, if you want the dance to be a pleasant experience for yourself and your partner. Clearly, I live in a different Buenos Aires from others, since my Argentine friends are very conscientious about practising their technique. And believe that it is an extremely important basis for the dance.

Terpsichoral said...

PS I think what requires the most technique is walking in close embrace.

Mari Johnson said...

@Terpsichoral - I think that just reinforces yours, and others', comments that where each of us dances - even within the same cities - we are having _very different_ experiences based on the people we tend to dance with and the expectations we have. I've been at a milonga where three different out-of-town dancers had three dramatically different impressions of the dance culture in Austin - from the exact same milonga and even dancing with some of the same people.

We each value different things, look for and respond to different things, and that lends colors everything we see and experience. I pulled those two quotes because they were the most compelling and intriguing to me - as they were the opposite of things I'd heard or read elsewhere. And again, they were doing their best to express things that are very difficult to express in words.

Mari Johnson said...

lolz - I wish I could blame autocorrect. That should read "lens" not "lends". *snort* . . need more coffee . . .

Mari Johnson said...

"PS I think what requires the most technique is walking in close embrace. "

Agreed 100%

Terpsichoral said...

It's often just a matter of perspective and of what you choose to emphasise, too. And, can I just say that I LOVE the fact that there are so many tango scenes and different tango experiences out there. And I'm looking forward to getting a little glimpse into Cherie's world at Los Consagrados.

Tango Therapist said...

@ Terpsi... a wide spectrum of ideas have come out here on technique. I am pretty sure you don't disagree with everything said because I agree with you on the points you mentioned. As a musician, my first teacher had an obsession with technique. Then I saw great musicians playing with "bad" technique. I still remember this as an awakening at about the three-year mark of playing.

Terpsichoral said...

I can't speak for the North American tango scene. I have never danced in any North American country (not even Mexico). But what I saw when I was visiting Europe was, I felt, in many cases (not all) way too little, not too much, focus on technique. I saw quite a lot of dancers eager to learn more and more figures and steps, when they didn't have a good understanding of basic tango movement (their fancy figures looked pretty disastrous on the dance floor and looked as if they *felt* horrible, too). It is probable that some of the visiting Argentine teachers unfortunately pandered to this. I also heard some people saying they 'didn't believe in technique' as code for they didn't want to have to put in the hard work of practising their walk, their dissociation, etc., daily. Of course, there are dancers whom I enjoy dancing with whose technique isn't perfect. But putting emphasis on technique will not make your dancing cold or heartless. Mari said it very well in her quotation: "good technique can keep our bodies from getting in the way of our soul's expression".

I experienced some wonderful dancers in Europe. And there are many not so good dancers here. But what I saw a lot of in Europe -- and see much less of here -- was beginner dancers without basic technique attempting really advanced moves. Ach, technique, who needs technique, I just want to be able to dance a back sacada followed by a chain of ganchos. That seemed to be the attitude of many. To be fair, in London, in particular, the older dancers were much more prone to this attitude than the younger ones. So perhaps this situation is changing. (Again, there were exceptions).

My Argentine friends rarely say the word 'tecnica' incidentally. They just talk about taking classes, practising and learning. There may be some geniuses out there who don't need to do this, or who are able to find their own techniques. But I'm not among them. (Are you sure the musicians you admired had 'bad' technique, not just an alternative technique?)

Mikko said...

For practical reasons, I dance, even in the same milonga, all those styles which Teprsi calls nuevo, salon, milonguero. I like all of them, for different reasons. But for me, they are actually different dances, as they put different "thing" in the center of the dance.

I have practiced almost exclusively nuevo, again for practical reasons. It seems to be technically most difficult to reach a comfortable "level" of dancing, although beginners often seem to think otherwise.

The difficulty in milonguero is the proximity. You dance physically, mentally and emotionally close to another person. This means that you must open up, otherwise you become tense and the dance becomes uncomfortable. For some, it may take years to open up enough emotionally. For me, it took close to two years of almost daily dancing.

Of course, I have only been to Buenos Aires once, for six weeks, so I do not have as much as authority as the others who live there... but now going back there in few days, perhaps I will learn more salon.