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Outside Maria Teresa's Casa Maria Tango - near Venezuela y Pasco

Two Cities

Surprisingly, to me at least, I was far more nervous about dancing in Albuquerque's Tango Festival than I was dancing in Buenos Aires where I didn't even speak the language beyond a few phrases. I know now, which seems so obvious in retrospect, that it was about my expectations. Buenos Aires was nearly a complete unknown. I had no expectations. If I sat, I sat. If I danced, I danced. The fact that I was in Buenos Aires was enough. In Albuquerque, I let the expectations creep back in. I felt I should be successful, whatever that meant, in some part because I had such success dancing in Buenos Aires. If I could dance like crazy there, than surely I could dance my butt off anywhere, right?

Not so fast.

I hadn't dealt with much of a culture shock when I returned to Austin's tango scene because I was happy to see, and dance with, my friends and be on familiar ground, in my familiar language. I was very relaxed. Maybe I was still marinading in my Buenos Aires experience. There were reminders, shifts, observations - but I didn't have the hard transition back that I worried I might have. Maybe in part because so many people in my community have been to Buenos Aires? I don't really know.

The culture shock I had expected came in Albuquerque - and it was truly disorienting for me as a dancer.

What happened? I was ready - more than ready - to keep traveling for tango. I couldn't wait for the opportunity. As my friend had warned me I would, I felt the pull the tango gypsy life. Surely, I would feel at home around so many other dancers on the same path.

Two things happened that made me rethink things a bit. First, instead of feeling part of a community, I felt a little isolated - out of place. It was good in a way because I realized why I was feeling the pull of travel. While I loved dancing in Buenos Aires, I missed the feeling of home - familiar faces, familiar embraces, familiar voices. When I returned, I relaxed more, but I kept waiting to feel 'settled in.'  I felt like I was still traveling - like not all of me returned. I wanted to travel again so that that peculiar alien feeling of not being at home, would be muted. If I'm not home, than there is no expectation of feeling 'at home'. I wanted to run from that expectation. Playing tourist in Santa Fe and Albuquerque did quite a lot for me in that regard. I reveled in it. I loved both cities and the mesmerizing terrain between the two.

The second thing was dancing in Albuquerque made me miss Buenos Aires far more than returning to Austin had. The skill level (for whatever that means to anyone) was very high in Albuquerque. Embraces were warm, the music was fantastic. Individually, my dancing experiences and in particular the gentlemen I danced with were beautiful. But the tango festival culture I was hoping to find a home in left me feeling tired. I danced often, and I think, fairly well. I met wonderful people and would love to go back - but that's after my expectations got a very serious reset.

Different Worlds . . .

(Note: some of what I am about to relate is directly attributable to _where_ I danced in Buenos Aires. Your mileage may vary. I danced in places like Club Gricel, La Milonga de los Consagrados, El Arranque etc. in El Centro. These are generally speaking more conservative, traditional milongas.)

In Buenos Aires, people dressed quite well - but rarely in what North Americans would call "tango clothes" - though the city has tons of beautiful offerings in that regard. Even my tango-adapted asymmetrical skirts from Goodwill seemed occasionally "over-the-top tango tourista". I rarely saw fishnets, gloves, thigh high slits, navel-deep v-necks. There were definitely some very alluring outfits, but refreshingly not the cliche tango image that's splashed all over the post cards.

Dancers were very well mannered, respectful of the codigos (usually) - but very relaxed, natural -  with few exceptions, not donning a 'tango persona' for the evening. They weren't acting as though they were "honoring tango etiquette" rather they were simply behaving in a way that was expected and appreicated. That's it. I may have been nervous sitting in my assigned seat - but once out on the pista, I couldn't help but relax. The sense of calm ease washed over me from my partners. It was infectious. It was also easier to feel because, admittedly, I had no expectations blocking the sensation.

In Albuquerque everyone was sporting their best, newest, shiniest tango clothes, accessories, shoes and jewelry. This was an event after all - and I should really have expected that. The codigos were followed most of the time and certainly more than I am used to locally - but from many people it felt like an affectation. The lighting was actually bright enough for long-range cabeceo - much to my delight. But the feeling was that we were all gathered to do this exotic, dramatic thing in as exotic and dramatic way possible. This was the opposite of the naturalness I felt in Buenos Aires. It was almost manic.  I didn't have the energy to participate in the fantasy. I just wanted to dance - to relax. In Buenos Aires tandas most often felt like a whisper - a private conversation. In Albuquerque it felt like many dancers were shouting their dances to each other and to onlookers.

I looked for quiet leaders - and there were many there, but hard to spot on the crowded floor. Those dancers were tiny pools of calm on the pista. I sought them out whenever I could. When I got to dance with them, I would get sublime tanda-long vacations from the mania.

Once I returned to Austin, the same 'home, but not home' feeling returned. I am making peace with it. Maybe it will pass. Illness has kept me home more than I would like and I haven't danced much these last few weeks. Another festival looms on the horizon, and one after that, and another . . . 

I'm not avoiding the festivals but I don't look forward to them like I used to. I look forward to seeing people I rarely see except at festivals - and to meeting new people. Mostly though, I'm just trying to keep my expectations from creeping in again. 

Ultimately, the tango home I'm seeking can only really ever come from inside myself. When I dance with others who have found their tango homes, I can feel it - they remind me to keep building.

Vignette - A Conversation*

Him: "What was the best thing about tango in Buenos Aires?"
Me: "Seeing it
not treated like some exotic fantasy role play."
Him: (blink-blink)
Me: "Tango, and music and dance generally in Buenos Aires, is every where....
It's every day. It's as every day as taxi cabs and coffee shops. On the corner by a farmacia, in a shop, on a patio, in a living room. It's living, breathing conversation. How can a dance become natural, internal, personally expressive - if it's always something separate and exotic from yourself? From your life?"
Him: "oh. . . well. . . huh."
Me: "How can I explain? The most important thing that happened to my dance in Buenos Aires is that tango stopped being a dress and shoes I put on. A persona I slipped into - some picture I had in my head. It sunk in to my bones. Even if I never danced again, I couldn't stop seeing my world through that lens."
Him: "wow."
Me: "Indeed."

(*Originally shared on Facebook.)


Ghost said...

I vividly remember the moment when a guy on the street tried to punch me in the face and I instinctively danced a giro around him to avoid it (I'm not sure who was the more surprised). I totally get what you mean about tango being you rather than something you put on.

The realisation I have finally come to and made peace with is that I actually was right all along. I like dancing with the dancers who feel like little oasis of calm. And there's nothing wrong with that. There's no need for me to go dance with someone and "enjoy it" because they're a teacher or "good" or whatever.

That's how I came home. I realised it was here all along.

Tango Therapist said...

Mari... thanks for your observations of BsAs, coming home to the warm embraces in Austin, and your expectations at a festival. I adore your perceptive view of the social ambiance of tango. You truly give your readers your heart. At times I fight feelings of envy of those who can go to BsAs because with two children still in school, I have vowed not to take a trip that would take away precious vacation time away from them. So I pray to the tango gods to bless me with an authentic embrace, a love for the music and the blessing of "calor humano" that Latinas/Latinos MOST miss when they leave their countries for the US or Europe. Since I have self-exiled myself from the epicenter of tango, I appreciate your keen social and personal observations such as your own that bring it's essence to those haven't or cannot visit.

Tangocommuter said...

Thanks from me too for your comments, trying to clarify your US tango experiences in the light of your visit to BsAs. & I think you've put your finger on one thing: in BsAs tango isn't a big event, just something people go out and enjoy regularly. It just happens to be something amazing, remarkable, too...

I've kind of instinctively avoided the European festival circuit, although I hear many good things of it. I doubt if the best festivals here are as extravagant as your Albuquerque experience, but I just feel more at home in the weekly milongas I go to. Somehow they seem the right places to be, they are more local, they feel right. The festivals give people a lot of dance time, which can't be bad, but if tango is to settle down outside Argentina, I suspect that it will have to follow that model of regular, well-organised milongas like those BsAs milongas where everyone is familiar to each other, may have known each other all their lives. It'll take a while before we get that far, but that's the way I hope things will go here. & there's a continuity in local milongas that's probably absent from the 'big event' festivals. Support your local milongas!