In recent years it has become relatively common in North American tango communities to hear the term ‘organic tango’ being used, usually without definition. The goal of this post is to examine the meaning of the term ‘organic tango’ and explore the rationale behind selection of this terminology.
A formal dictionary definition of the term ‘organic’ may shed light on the application of this adjective to tango. The Merriam-Webster dictionary online provides the following definition:
- Main Entry: or•gan•ic
1 archaic : INSTRUMENTAL
2 a : of, relating to, or arising in a bodily organ b : affecting the structure of the organism
3 a (1) : of, relating to, or derived from living organisms <organic evolution> (2) : of, relating to, yielding, or involving the use of food produced with the use of feed or fertilizer of plant or animal origin without employment of chemically formulated fertilizers, growth stimulants, antibiotics, or pesticides <organic farming> <organic produce> b (1) : of, relating to, or containing carbon compounds (2) : relating to, being, or dealt with by a branch of chemistry concerned with the carbon compounds of living beings and most other carbon compounds
4 a : forming an integral element of a whole : FUNDAMENTAL <incidental music rather than organic parts of the action – Francis Fergusson> b : having systematic coordination of parts : ORGANIZED <an organic whole> c : having the characteristics of an organism : developing in the manner of a living plant or animal <society is organic>
5 : of, relating to, or constituting the law by which a government or organization exists
The most common contemporary American English usage of ‘organic’ is in reference to ‘organic food’, to which definition 3a(2) applies. The general perception within North American culture is that food produced without the use of applied chemicals is something good, and thus the adjective ‘organic’ conveys a positive connotation. There is considerable similarity in meaning between ‘organic food’ and ‘natural food’, so that the concept of ‘organic’ becomes nearly synonymous with ‘natural’.
The term ‘organic tango’ appears to originate with Homer Ladas, a tango instructor from San Francisco, California. His definition and explanation of ‘organic tango’ is provided below (numbering added for reference in discussion). First, in general terms:
- What Is Organic Tango?
1. The concept of organic tango embodies the cooperative, creative, and open-minded interaction between both men and women.
2. Both the follower and leader share in the responsibility of connecting with each other and to the music.
3. Each partner plays a distinct but equal role in the dance, continually communicating with one another through body movement and musical interpretation.
4. Structure and Style of one’s own dance are two independent entities that are allowed to reach their maximum potential.
5. Organic tango emphasizes the social nature of the dance and places primary importance not only on a keen awareness of one’s partner but also of the other couples sharing the dance floor.
6. To allow the tango to evolve in such an organic fashion, the organic tango dance philosophy was established.
It is not at all clear how this definition of tango as ‘organic’ relates to the linguistic definition of the word ‘organic’. The definition of organic tango provided above is in terms of abstract concepts (#1: cooperation, creativity, open-mindedness; #2: shared responsibility; #3: role equality, communication; #4: independence, attainment of potential; #5: social awareness; #6: allow organic evolution). Only the linking of ‘organic’ and ‘evolution’ relates to a previous application of the term, as in ‘organic evolution’ [Dictionary definition 3(a)1], although clearly it is not biological (organic) evolution that is encompassed within ‘organic tango’. Merriam-Webster definition #4 (‘forming an integral part of a whole’, ‘having systematic coordination of parts’) offer possibilities for dance, but these are not expressed in the definition of ‘organic tango’. Instead, the concepts of ‘cooperation’, ‘open-mindedness’, ‘shared responsibility’, ‘role equality’, ‘attainment of potential’, and ‘social awareness’, which are not inherent in the definition of the term ‘organic’ are attribured to ‘organic tango’. These concepts are key ingredients of a socially acceptable liberal political philosophy in North American culture (i.e., “political correctness”) and perhaps therein lies their appeal. Thus, what may be communicated in the concept of ‘organic tango’ is first, an association with the most common use of the term ‘organic’ – organic food – which is likely to produces a positive first impression, and perhaps thereby generate continued interest. The subsequent exposure to concepts associated with a liberal, politically correct philosophy that defines ‘organic tango’ is appealing to the educated urban demographic sector that constitutes a significant proportion of the tango population in the local northern California region, as well as throughout North America and elsewhere outside Argentina. The communication of a culturally acceptable sociopolitical philosophy within ‘organic tango’ provides an advertising advantage yielding benefits in recruitment. ‘Organic tango’ is a ‘brand name’ for economic purposes.
What is absent in this general definition is a description of the structural properties of the dance such that organic tango can be identifiable in such a way as, for example, tango estilo milonguero or tango estilo Villa Urquiza have been defined. Perhaps a more extensive elaboration on the concept of organic tango will provide the desired answers.
- What is Organic Tango? (Homer’s long-winded version!)
7. Organic Tango is more of a philosophy and approach to learning and dancing tango then it is a structure or a style of dance. The need for a title of “organic” came about after over five years of involvement in the dance and trying to understand what it really meant to me. I realized that each teacher had their own interpretation of how the dance should be done (which is not necessarily a bad thing)!
Point 7 clearly states that the delineation of organic tango as a definable entity is based on a philosophical approach rather than the structure of the dance. Thus, it would appear that one would either need to know the origins and evolution of a dancer’s style or the personal philosophy of the dancer to know whether what is being danced is ‘organic tango’. Since these are not immediately knowable, this reduces the value of this definition of organic tango as an ‘operational definition’ that would identify it when seen..
- 8. What really got to me is how a few members of the tango community (teachers and dancers alike) negatively influenced the growth and interpretation of this dance in the United States. Out of my desire to discover my own tango – several key points kept making themselves more and more apparent…
9. To this day, there is no clear distinction between “structure” and “style.” Furthermore, some folks try hard to contain tango in a box and enforce their views on others. And lastly, the lines between stage & social dancing, past & present, and the Argentine vs. non-Argentine way are not very clear and, unfortunately, on more than a few occasions – have been abused.
10. My reasons for using such a title (Organic Tango) will one day, hopefully, not exist and new students will just simply learn the “Tango” – or whatever our society is calling this social dance at that point (although several of us will probably be forever labeled as the “organic tango” groupies)!
Points 8 & 9 provide some insight into another rationale behind the development of the term ‘organic tango’. These points identify a perceived conflict within tango communities, one apparently caused by the definition of tango and the communication of this definition to others, which are perceived as obstacles or an imposition for those who wish to develop tango along different dimensions. Point 9 further argues that perceived unclear differentiation of tango by location (stage vs. milonga), time (past and present), and culture (Argentine and non-Argentine) is a valid rationale for not defining or differentiating tango along these dimensions. The validity of these perceptions will not be addressed here, as each could be the subject of its own blog post. The purpose of this post is only to identify the characteristics by which organic tango is defined by its creators and differentiated from other versions or visions of tango.
- 11. Organic Tango Dance Philosophy:
a. You own your own dancing, nobody owns the Tango.
b. Dance the most natural and comfortable way for your own body and that of your partner’s.
c. Keep an open mind and respect for yourself and others.
d. Appreciate and learn from the past, dance in the present, and allow the future to unfold.
11a. This implies the tango is defined by the dancer. This is true to some degree, but it is also defined by the Argentine culture in which it has evolved, at least if one wishes it to be recognized as Argentine tango, something which is apparently not demanded for ‘organic tango’.
11b. This ignores that there is a certain manner of movement (for example, in walking) that characterizes tango (or at least Argentine tango). Although a tango walk in a comfortable embrace is natural, not all natural movement has the characteristics of tango. If interpreted literally, this is a license to include any comfortable movement within the tango, plus the possibility of each dancer developing a personal perspective on what is comfortable.
11c. This is a good philosophy for life in general.
11d. There is an apparent transference of context within this statement. One can assume that the past to be learned from is the history of Argentine tango. Benefits may be achieved in understanding this history before coming to the dance floor. The rest appears to reference the dance on the dance floor. Milongueros dance in the present and allow the future to unfold as they dance, in their improvisation (Tango Milonguero: Improvised Expression of Music through Movement in a Shared Embrace). However, it is possible that in this point, the reference returns again to the history of tango, this time the future history, in which the participants in organic tango shape the future evolution of tango.
- 12. Some Basic Ingredients
(That may or may not be present, at different degrees, in your tango – listed in no particular order!):
(a) Posture (b) Grounding (c) Balance – on & off axis (d) Relaxation & Breathing (e) Core Movement (f) Elastic Energy Transfer (g) Linear & Torsional Energy (h) Impulse & Momentum Transfer (i) Connection (j) Musicality (k) Style (l) Creativity (m) Social Awareness (n) Open mindedness
Point 12 offers some observable dimensions on which tango could be examined and presumably defined. (One essential characteristic of tango that was omitted from this list is ‘emotion’.) However, the characteristics of organic tango along these dimensions are not elaborated upon. This is consistent with Point 7 above, which emphasizes the primacy of philosophy over structure in organic tango.
The characteristics listed in Point 12 could also be dimensions for examination of ballroom dance (or any social dance), and most apply as well to such non-dance physical and philosophical disciplines such as martial arts or yoga. The lack of specificity reduces the utility of this defintion for the practicioner, although it does allow the teacher maximum flexibility in adjusting communication of concepts dependent upon context.
Thus, what one is left with after reading this definition of organic tango is the following:
(1) The use of the term ‘organic’ elicits a positive response due to association with other favorably viewed uses of the term ‘organic’.
(2) There is promotion of a ‘politically correct’ liberal philosophy that appeals to a demographic sector (educated urban population) that is attracted to tango.
(3) There is an intentional avoidance of specifically defining the structural or stylistic properties of tango. Those who define tango structurally or stylistically are identified as repressive and anti-social.
(4) The positive connotation of ‘organic’ and the promotion of a politically correct philosophy with a ‘brand name’ provide economic advantages in the promotion of ‘organic tango’.