Tango Identity and Authenticity

The battle rages once again on Tango-L and Dance-Forums about the ownership and identity of tango. For better or worse, I'm jumping into the fray.

With stories like these:

- Unesco grants tango World Heritage status: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/music/story/2009/01/25/tango-unesco.html

- Remains Found of Cafe de Hansen -- Famed Birthplace of Argentine Tango: http://www.laht.com/article.asp?ArticleId=324238&CategoryId=14093#

all eyes turn to the Rio de la Plata.

Such attention is great for tango in both countries - and for the tango communities all over the world, but it also sparks the usual debates. Is there an "authentic" tango? If there is, what is it? Who dances it?

There are also other specific questions that divide participants in these discussions. To be a good dancer/teacher of Argentine tango, do you have to study in Buenos Aires? Can milongas outside of Argentina and Uruguay ever be anything like the milongas of BsAs and Montevideo?

Questions like those can't be answered outside of the bigger context - the harder reality of tango's origins. Tango, and the milongas, came about as a response to cultural conditions that were specific not only those particular places - but to that particular time. The conditions that created tango in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, more importantly created the milongas, (because we frequently break down into discussing etiquette more than aesthetics) don't exist as they did - not even in Argentina. And those conditions - which equate to cultural trauma (poverty, crime, a pervasive feeling of exile, uncertainty financially and politically) never existed to that degree in this country.

Not only can milongas in Seattle, for example, never be like the ones in Buenos Aires - neither can the milongas in Buenos Aires today be like those of the 30's. We can argue all we like - and we may want to preserve those aspects of tango culture we like - but we can't truly recreate it. Especially if no one really wants to talk about why those conditions existed.

So many elements at the milonga - obviously the music and the dance itself, but also the codigos - converged to create a safe place for a group of people who were suffering uncertainty, isolation, grief, and far too often, fear. The embrace of that tango, at that time, conveyed acceptance, safety and warmth that didn't require your name, your status or your background. Tango then really was 'a feeling that is danced.' Now tango is many things to many people (it was always that way of course, now those things tend to eclipse it's origins) - an art form, a musical expression, a creative outlet. Yet, it's still that comforting 'feeling that is danced' that I seek every time I walk in to the milonga. Sometimes, if I'm lucky, I can get a ghost of that feeling, a small taste - and that's what keeps me coming back.

So is one dancer's experience of tango more authentic then someone else's? How could anyone ever judge that? Tango is personal. We can judge our dance by how it affects those around us - but we can't judge another's experience of it.

Do you have to go to Buenos Aires to be a good dancer or teacher? As far as technical skill and teaching ability, I don't think so (let the hate-mail begin lol). Just as going there is no guarantee of anything. Would you be missing out on something very profound to never experience the dance as it is danced there? To never experience the people and the culture that it grew, and continues to grow, within? Absolutely I think there would be something missing. But just showing up there is no guarantee of gaining some tango epiphany.

Now I think I'll just shut up and go dance...


tangocherie said...

You are so right about not being able to judge how others are affected by tango.

But those "feelings that are danced" are not archaic historical out-of-date isolated emotions of another time.

Loss, anguish, love, melancholy, homesickness, loneliness, etc. are universal. Everyone on earth feels them from time to time. And we feel better when we express them. But most of us lack outlets to do so.

And that--and the embrace--is why we can feel so good after a night of tango. It's more than just the endorphins from exercise.

Do you have to come to Buenos Aires if you dance tango? So as not to repeat myself on your blog, I hope you don't mind my citing a post on "Why Do Some People Bother to Come to BsAs to Dance?"

Meanwhile, keep up the good introspection and writing! I enjoy your blog.


Mari said...

Cherie - thank you for the response and the post on your own blog is outstanding. You are right, of course, to emphasize that tango is still (and will always be) a feeling that is danced. I can't (and don't want to) imagine it existing any other way. Maybe it's always been the case that some dancers feel that way, and some don't - even in the very beginning of tango.

(And I adore your blog too!!)

I should also have mentioned the sources for my little essay (rant) above, which I left out: Robert Farris Thompson's: "Tango, The Art History of Love" and Marta Savigliano's "Tango: The Political Economy of Passion."


Unknown said...

Since different states in the U.S. have various ideas on how Tango should be danced, I'm sure the same applies to Tango in BsAs.

Going there would be a wonderful experience, but so would learning in California as opposed to Maryland.

You're right, the dance is personal so internalize each of your different learning experiences and evolve your own Tango.

That's what everyone else is doing as the dance progresses. Tango evolves because the people that dance it change and grow. Find your roots, then water them :)

Proper principles of motion and partner communication should be your foundation after exploring the "authenticity" of the dance.

I have my sniper rifle ready for your hate-mail senders!