Factors Affecting the Survival of Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions in Non-supportive First World Cultural Environments (The Dominance of Tango Extranjero)

July 8, 2013

The milongas of Buenos Aires are not only a place to dance tango; there is a culture that pervades the milonga environment, with customs and norms of behavior (Codes and Customs of the Milongas of Buenos Aires: The Basics). In milongas following the traditions of downtown milongas of the Golden Age – milongas del centro – there are separate seating sections for men, women, and couples, with seats behind small tables directly facing the dance floor (National Geographic photo). In clubes de barrio (neighborhood clubs) people face each other across long tables that are perpendicular to the dance floor, and there is often a dinner and socializing before dancing (video). The cabeceo is used to invite someone to dance. The right of couples attending a milonga together to dance only with each other is respected. The music played for dancing tango is classic tango music from the Golden Age, with this music structured into tandas with cortinas; a dance partnership is maintained until the end of a tanda and the dance floor is cleared during the cortina. When dancing, couples embrace; this is their connection, a point of communication, both in creation of improvised dance movements and in the expression and exchange of emotion that is generated by the music and the movement (Tango Milonguero: Improvised Expression of Music through Movement in a Shared Embrace). There is a progression of couples around the dance floor in a counterclockwise ronda, with dancers respecting the space of other couples. Exhibitionist movements are frowned upon and may be a cause for reprimand, even ejection from the milonga. [Additional review of the characteristics of Buenos Aires milongas are discussed in: Do Milongas Exist outside Argentina? (The Milonga Codes Revisited)].

A dance classified as ‘tango’, sometimes even ‘Argentine tango’ is danced in many countries around the world, and has spread extensively, particularly in First World countries (economically advanced democracies with a capitalist economy: United States, Canada, most of Europe, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand). At the most transparent level, there is considerable homogeneity in this implementation of tango, i.e., the characteristics of tango social dance events that are typically advertised as ‘milongas’ in First World countries. Typically absent from these milongas are gender-segregated seating, and use of the cabeceo as the primary method of dance invitation. The custom of playing only classic tango music for dancing tango is often not adopted, with the playing of some tango fusion (e.g., ‘electrotango’) and non-tango music for dancing tango being quite common; one First World cultural invention is the Alternative Milonga, where most music played for dancing tango music is not classic tango music (video). Often dancers fail to embrace while dancing, or do not maintain the embrace if they enter into one. At times the ronda may be poorly defined, with dancers not progressing around the dance floor (video). Another Argentine milonga tradition that is often not adhered to is refraining from exhibitionism on the milonga dance floor (video).

Although the aforementioned characteristics predominate in First World milongas, dancers who have experienced Buenos Aires milongas desire to recreate this atmosphere in First World milongas. The rationale for recreating a physical and social environment that follows, as best as is possible, Argentine tango cultural traditions, is that the benefits and enjoyment of dancing tango are optimized under these conditions. The Tango de Salon of Buenos Aires milongas is a dance that offers the pleasure of the embrace, the peaceful harmony of connection between man and woman. Choice in partners to embrace is respected and modulated through the use of the cabeceo as the means of invitation to dance. Rather than being an outward directed dance with attention attracting exhibitionist movements, Tango de Salon is a dance where the partner is the focus in interaction. The harmony of the dance partnership is maintained and enhanced by smooth and coordinated movements among couples in the ronda, with the absence of collisions. The playing of classic tango music for dancing is a catalyst for interaction between partners, by generating a mood for sharing of emotions, something that is enhanced in the embrace; avoided is the playing of music that is discordant with the emotional atmosphere generated by classic tango music, e.g., music having a heavy or indiscernible rhythm, as is often present in electro-tango, tango fusion or non-tango music.

Creating a milonga environment with the characteristics of milongas in Buenos Aires is, in theory, a relatively straightforward endeavor because the primary cultural characteristics of the Buenos Aires milonga are well defined (Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga). However, there are factors strongly operating against the implementation of these goals. The goal of this post is to identify the factors affecting the implementation of Argentine tango cultural traditions in First World countries, with particular attention focused on North America. Some strategies for connecting with a tango subculture devoted to promotion of Argentine tango cultural values are presented and evaluated.

Factors Limiting the Adoption of Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions in First World Milongas

The primary factor operating against the adoption of Argentine tango cultural traditions is economics. For dancers in First World cultures who have not experienced Argentine tango culture firsthand, some education is required to understand the nuances of tango as practiced in Buenos Aires, in particular the centrality of close partner connection and subtle yet complex improvisation focused on musical interpretation (Tango Milonguero: Improvised Expression of Music through Movement in a Shared Embrace). In contrast, offering a modification of Argentine tango to a form that has characteristics expected for social dancing in First World dance culture(s) is more widely accepted. Since monetary investment and return on investment is necessary to some degree for the promotion of a dance activity, and certainly income will be increased the more the character of the dance reinforces existing cultural expectations and biases, the proliferation of a dance form will be directly linked to its economic income potential and, for this reason, tango in a culturally modified form, which will be labeled here a ‘Tango Extranjero’, has become a viable international business enterprise.

The modification of Argentine tango for profit in First World markets can be as straightforward as the promotion of tango out-of-context, i.e., the transference of some form of Argentine tango into an environment that is different from that where it occurs in Argentina (Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression: Part I – A Rationale for Classification by Niche Adaptation). In this regard Tango Escenario, adapted for the stage, and Tango Nuevo, adapted for the Practica Nueva, have been transported onto the milonga dance floor, where they do not exist in Buenos Aires. This transference can occur not only because most First World tango dancers are ignorant of Buenos Aires milonga codes, but also because social dancing in First World cultures characteristically consists of the learning of visually conspicuous patterns of movement, as well as the fact that exhibition moves, rather than being frowned upon as they are in Buenos Aires milongas, instead are a source for admiration by others. Generally absent in First World cultures is an emphasis on partner bodily connection and the sharing of emotions of passion while dancing, both of which are considered to make a dancer personally vulnerable. Some First World cultures in particular have moderate to strong social prohibitions and inhibitions against maintaining close physical contact while dancing, which further makes Tango de Salon less palatable in these cultures.

Nevertheless, fueled by the  One Tango Philosophy with its inherent business intelligence, Tango Extranjero does not exclude Tango de Salon in toto, but rather incorporates it as needed into its repertoire of tango offerings, sometimes with modifications here as well. The realm of Tango Milonguero may be broadened with Nuevo Milonguero, a misnomer, which adds a veneer of off axis elements (volcadas and colgadas) to a dance in close embrace superficially resembling the Tango Milonguero danced in Buenos Aires milongas, in order to make it more interesting, exciting, and marketable. Likewise, Tango Estilo del Barrio, a stylistic variant of Tango de Salon sometimes advertised as ‘Tango Estilo Villa Urquiza’, is presented in such a way as to emphasize conspicuous footwork elements as sacadas and barridas, and even sometimes (probably typically) the milonga code restrictions against boleos off the floor and use of ganchos are ignored in order to generate greater tango consumer interest.

Another factor limiting the spread of Argentine Tango de Salon in First World cultures has been, ironically, the role of tango instructors from Argentina, who have been willing co-conspirators in the proliferation of Tango Extranjero. This began in the late 1980s and 1990s when cast members of the stage productions ‘Tango Argentino’ and ‘Forever Tango’ saw opportunities for increasing income by teaching Tango Escenario, which was applied immediately to the dance floor in First World milongas, with little or no mention that this was tango for the stage and not used for dancing at milongas in Buenos Aires. This misrepresentation of Argentine tango by tango instructors from Argentina has continued into the 21st century with numerous Argentines whose primary source of income is teaching Tango Extranjero, in the form of Tango Escenario, Tango Nuevo, or a glamorized version of Tango Estilo del Barrio replete with sacadas, barridas, ganchos, and a variety of adornments. By the fact that they are from Argentina, an air of validity is bestowed upon these instructors, and naïve audiences believe they are learning the social tango of Buenos Aires from practitioners of the art form, whereas in fact the participation of these Argentine tango instructors in the milonga culture of Buenos Aires is often minimal at best (outside of their appearance in exhibitions). The fact that these Argentine tango instructors misrepresenting Argentine tango are headliners in numerous tango festivals in First World countries further limits the communication of Argentine tango milonga culture at the expense of a more marketable adaptation for First World cultural proclivities, i.e., Tango Extranjero. In contrast to the general misrepresentation of Argentine tango cultural traditions, tango instructors from Argentina who have participated extensively in dancing in Buenos Aires milonga are few in number. Particularly sparse in this instructional stream are milongueros and milongueras, men and women who have spent significant parts of their lives living tango culture on a regular basis in the milongas of Buenos Aires. Instead, a version of tango dance labeled as ‘Tango Milonguero’ increasingly is being taught as an element in their teaching program by tango instructors who are not active participants in the Argentine tango milonga culture [The Rise and Fall of Tango Milonguero in North America in the 21st Century (Highlighting the Denver Tango Festival)]. This diversification of the tango instructional program meets the needs not only of the instructors from Argentina, but also serves the economic interests of promoters of the One Tango Philosophy in offering additional instructional modules for tango consumer consumption.

Another significant modification of Argentine tango that has occurred in First World markets is the infusion into tango social dance venues of First World music or music by Argentine composers influenced by First World musical genres. Among the latter, the nuevo tango music of Astor Piazzolla, strongly influenced by European classical music and American jazz, as well as the so-called ‘electro-tango’ music (typically disco, techno, house or hip-hop musical rhythms with the overlay of a bandoneon) are commonly played for the purposes of eliciting movements characteristic of tango dancing at social dance events advertised as ‘milongas’ (video). Also commonly played for this purpose is non-tango music from musical genres such as blues, rock, pop, jazz, new age, and European and Third World folk music. Some events, sometime advertised as ‘Alternative Milongas’, i.e., an alternative to Argentine milonga tradition, have musical programs that consist primarily or entirely of music of the aforementioned genres. The rationale for such musical offerings is that the classic Argentine tango music of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s that is played for dancing tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires, which has vocals in Spanish and often has a low recording quality, is unpalatable for First World tango consumers, whereas the playing of contemporary ‘tango fusion’ and non-tango music for dancing will attract more newcomers to events that are advertised under the rubric of ‘tango’.

The consequences of promoting exhibition tango and non-tango music for dancing, which are popularly received, at the expense of the more subtle Tango de Salon and classic tango music, is that the modification of tango and its environment for First World cultures creates a new standard of expectation, a new definition of tango, a new genre of tango – Tango Extranjero. Historically, this is not the first time this has occurred, as it has occurred previously with Ballroom Tango and Finnish Tango in the early 20th century (Trans-Cultural Diffusion and Adaptation of Tango Argentino in the 20th Century). With its contemporary transformation, the audio-visual environments of some events in the First World advertised as ‘milongas’ (video) have more characteristics in common with a First World cultural antecedent (video) than they do with Argentine tango cultural roots (video). The ultimate deception in promoting this culturally modified aberration of tango is that it is still advertised as ‘tango’, often as ‘Argentine tango’, without acknowledging that it indeed is not Argentine Tango, but rather a product modified for promotion in foreign cultures. Nevertheless, the value of Tango Extranjero as a cultural adaptation is often heralded in its description as ‘the evolution of tango’, sometimes presented with an air of inevitability, without explication that the evolution of tango in this form exists primarily as a commodity modified for foreign consumption, and only exists in Buenos Aires as a tourist attraction.

The palatability of Tango Extranjero for First World cultural tastes gives it a competitive advantage over (Argentine) Tango de Salon in proliferation in tango communities, i.e., as recognized by proponents of the One Tango Philosophy, the inclusion of Tango Escenario, Tango Nuevo, Tango Estillo Villa Urquiza, and Tango Milonguero Nuevo in a smorgasbord of tango offerings attracts dancers with diverse interests and expands an instructional program, which along with diversification of the repertoire of music played for dancing tango to include a variety of tango-influenced and non-tango music not played at milongas in Buenos Aires, results in higher attendance at tango social dance events and greater income for tango promoters. This increased income serves as capital for investment in events with even higher attendance and higher income earning potential, such as tango festivals (e.g., Portland Tango Festival) with multiple instructors, multiple milongas, live music labeled as ‘tango’ for dancing (Chicago Tango Week; London International Tango Festival; Houston Tango Festival), ‘jam sessions’ for musicians (Denver Tango Festival) , and possibly even stage tango productions (Miami Tango Fantasy; Los Angeles Tango Festival). The income from tango festivals allows further investment in polished advertising for future festivals, which provide a preview on festival content as well as insight into the characteristics of Tango Extranjero (Dallas Fandango de Tango; Chicago Tango Week).

Less costly means of promoting Tango Extranjero are tango social dance events in public places such as bars, coffee houses, and restaurants that expose tango naïve individuals to this modification of tango for First World cultures; for increased exposure, outdoor (typically free) events such as outdoor milongas (New York City Central Park; New York City Union Square), or events advertised with such attractive names as ‘guerilla milonga‘, ‘hit-and-run milonga‘ or ‘flash mob tango‘ can assist further in educating the tango naïve public in the characteristics of dance and music associated with Tango Extranjero culture.

Options for Survival of Tango de Salon in Non-supportive First World Cultural Environments

Tango de Salon as a dance form is not the predominant form of tango danced in First World cultures. Responsible for this is the continual barrage of instruction from local and visiting instructors who emphasizes elements of tango that are not compatible with the milonga dance floor. In addition to the practice of exhibitionist movements, lack of concordance with Argentine milonga codes that are prevalent at First World milongas includes the absence of separate seating sections for men, women and couples, approaching a potential partner directly with a verbal dance invitation (thus, the avoidance of the cabeceo), absence of a progressive ronda, staying on the dance floor and possibly even dancing during the cortina (assuming cortinas are used), teaching on the dance floor, and the playing of non-tango and tango fusion music for dancing tango.

For tango dancers who prefer maintaining the customs of Buenos Aires milongas, there are some options available when living in a community where Tango Extrajero and its concomitant set of revised codes for tango social dance events are the norm for milonga behavior. Several of these are outlined below.

(1) Tolerate the violations of Argentine milonga codes and just enjoy as much as is possible the aspects of Argentine tango culture that are present, such as the good classic tango music that is played, partners with a good embrace and (for women) partners with good navigational skills and a good connection to the music.

This is a passive strategy that will not add more aficionados of Argentine tango culture to a First World tango community. Some dancers will inherently appreciate exercising choice in selection of dance partners, a good embrace while dancing, the absence of fear of collision on the milonga dance floor, the absence of teaching on the milonga dance floor, and the absence of discordant music such as neo-tango and other non-tango music played for dancing tango at milongas. However, with the repeated intrusion of exhibition tango, not only on the milonga dance floor, but also as taught by visiting instructors from Argentina that are highly regarded by many in a First World tango community, it becomes difficult for more than a minority of dancers to appreciate the value of adhering to Argentine milonga codes. In any case, even if suitable partners for dancing are found, the auditory assault from non-tango music, the visual assault from exhibitionism, the tactile assault from milonga floor collisions, and the uninvited invasion of personal space from approaching undesired dance partners proffering dance invitations with outstretched hands, make this environment tolerable only for dancers needing tango under the most challenging of circumstances.

(2) Organize events that promote Argentine tango culture. Organize a milonga that follows Argentine milonga codes. Play only classic tango music. Choose a small dance floor that limits the expression of exhibitionist movements. Invite instructors to the community that teach Tango de Salon.

This is a financially risky strategy. There are economic costs in hosting milongas and especially in inviting visiting instructors. If the predominant Tango Extranjero culture places value on exhibitionism on the milonga dance floor, shuns the embrace, resists the cabeceo and gender segregated seating, tolerates teaching on the milonga dance floor, and draws and amplifies energy from non-tango music for dancing tango, all accepted as part of the inevitable evolution of tango, the success in promoting Tango de Salon and Argentine milonga culture will be limited. There may be an initial curiosity, but sustaining interest will be more difficult. Attendees at events designed for Tango de Salon may (intentionally or unintentionally) disregard the milonga codes designed for such events, so that the effort and expense directed towards bringing Argentine tango culture into a First World tango community will not reach the anticipated goals. In addition, missionaries from the One Tango Philosophy may infiltrate such events for the purpose of recruiting dancers to Tango Extranjero by promising larger gatherings, live music, and a wider variety of acceptable expressions of tango. Furthermore, promoters of the One Tango Philosophy are likely to co-opt Argentine tango culture by including some aspects of it (and modifying others to make them more attractive, e.g., ‘nuevo milonguero’) within the myriad of tango variations offered at festivals and within organized tango instructional studios. There is a key marketing advantage of the One Tango Philosophy – by offering a variety of expressions of tango, there will be something attractive to each tango consumer. Even if promoters of Argentine tango culture believe in the necessity of having tango social dance venues where Tango de Salon and Argentine milonga culture thrive, dancers who are only curious about Tango de Salon or are neophytes may not understand the value of a culturally accurate representation of tango, and may be attracted to the larger Tango Extranjero following, assuming incorrectly that attendance provides validation, or simply because larger attendance generates more excitement and also provides dancers more opportunities to meet other dancers for purposes other than dancing tango.

(3) Segregate from the larger tango community and form a smaller community that promotes Argentine tango cultural values.

Complete segregation from the larger Tango Extranjero community at first appears to be an attractive option. This means having a closed tango community, with invitation to events dependent upon known acceptance of Argentine milonga codes or some reasonable approximation of this environment. The advantage of this strategy is that there is an increased likelihood of having milongas without the distractions of exhibitionism and collision risks on the dance floor, direct physical approach in dance invitation, teaching on the dance floor, and demands for non-tango music to be played for dancing tango. Achieving this environment will require recruiting dancers for this community, which usually will necessitate providing instruction in Tango de Salon and education regarding Argentine milonga codes. However, by creating a closed community, there will be fewer attendees at events and less income. Perhaps it will not be possible to afford inviting visiting instructors, events which generate interest, attendance, and even generate sufficient income to meet normal operating expenses. Some of the costs of hosting events with the desired characteristics can be minimized by holding them in locations where rental costs are low or even non-existent (e.g., someone’s home) and instructors may need to have lower expectations regarding remuneration for teaching. It also needs to be pointed out here that offering tango events without charge, even if this is possible, may increase attendance but also attract people who are less committed to learning about Argentine tango culture.

An additional disadvantage of this strategy is that community segregation may be viewed by the larger Tango Extranjero community as hostile, exclusionary and elitist, and negative propaganda may circulate that will hinder recruitment. Of course, even the insistence upon adherence to Argentine milonga codes in a more open community (option #2 above) may lead to labeling of the pro-Argentine culture proponents as ‘tango police’ or anachronistic resistors to the inevitable evolution of tango. However, note that if a group were formed, for example, to reenact dance culture from the Civil War period in the United States (and such groups exist), with the expectation that participants acquire costumes and abide by the customs of the era, it is unlikely this group would be seen as elitist and exclusionary, yet if dancers wish to promote tango as it is danced in its country of origin and have expectations of participants abiding by the customs of the culture, this may be perceived as an anti-social activity. The source of this conflict is that promoters and practitioners of Tango Extranjero typically believe they have the rights of inheritance to the tango cultural legacy, along with its inevitable evolution, and by democratic majority rule they have the right, within their One Tango Philosophy, to impose their misguided and misappropriated tango cultural values upon even those people who wish to transplant Argentine tango culture as intact as is possible. In this context, the arrogance is not in the separatist movement, but rather in the culturally insensitive majority.

Thus, segregation from the larger Tango Extranjero community has substantial social costs and economic risks. It may not be possible to achieve the desired goals of having milongas accurately representing Argentine tango culture and then, after having alienated the Tango Extranjero community through exclusion, promoters of Tango de Salon may either have to swallow their pride and tolerate hostility in participating in the larger Tango Extranjero community or  may need to travel elsewhere to participate in tango social events that are more culturally representative of the Buenos Aires milonga environment.

(4) Travel to find culturally accurate Argentine tango milonga events

If time and money were not limitations, a tanguera/o could experience Argentine tango culture firsthand by traveling to Buenos Aires regularly. Some First World tangueros have even moved to Buenos Aires to maximize this encounter. (See blogs: Tango Chamuyo; Tango Cherie; La Vida con Deby; Sallycat’s Adventures).

In the absence of the ability to move to Buenos Aires or travel there frequently, and lacking a suitable tango environment in his/her own locale and the ability to create a subcommunity with Argentine tango cultural values, the tanguera/o needing a culturally valid environment for dancing tango will need to travel to less distant communities to find that environment; if fortunate, travel distance and time will not be excessive. In the first decade of the 21st century there were annual tango festivals in North America in Denver, Atlanta, and San Diego promoting Argentine tango culture [The Rise and Fall of Tango Milonguero in North America in the 21st Century (Highlighting the Denver Tango Festival)]; however, the competitive economic advantage of promoters of the One Tango Philosophy has caused the transformation or cessation of these festivals. The Chicago Mini Tango Festival still offers instruction that is primarily Tango de Salon. In North America there are smaller ‘encuentros’ that feature instruction in Tango Milonguero and milongas following Buenos Aires customs, including gender segregated seating and use of the cabeceo for dance invitation, characteristics of Argentine milonga culture that were not achieved in the Denver, San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago tango festivals; however, these events have been hosted primarily in southwestern US states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado) and thus have limited geographic distribution. More widespread geographic distribution of these events is needed to make it more feasible for tangueros in other geographic regions to enjoy Argentine tango culture with less expense in time and money in order to attend.

Conclusion

The overwhelming market dominance in the First World of Tango Extranjero, the tango product adapted for First World cultural tastes, makes it difficult for the tanguero seeking an environment for dancing tango that resembles that existing in Buenos Aires milongas. There are several options available to achieve at least some connection with Argentine milonga culture, but there are costs associated with these endeavors. A person seeking Argentine milonga culture either needs to travel to Buenos Aires to find that environment, or travel to geographically closer communities where some reasonable approximation of this environment exists, or to attempt to establish an environment with the desired characteristics is his/her own local community. Unless there is an existing compatible tango community nearby, none of these alternatives offers an easy solution. Trips to Buenos Aires to experience tango in the environment of its birth are a necessity for someone to gain at least some experience of the characteristics of Argentine tango culture, but with limited opportunities to do so, there needs to be some sustenance to maintain a connection with Argentine tango culture in the meantime. Networking and cooperation between tango communities in close geographic proximity seeking an Argentine milonga environment can provide some of the needed support to achieve these goals. Future posts will examine in greater detail some of the ways to improve networking and also strategies for establishing a viable Argentine tango cultural environment in a local community.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 240 other followers