Understanding Argentine Tango (with the Assistance of Milongueros): It’s not just another Ballroom Dance

January 7, 2016

 

  • Many dancers at North American milongas appear to structure their dance around the conspicuous step patterns and not around the music.
  • The emphasis on producing step patterns while dancing tango is the consequence of tango instruction, but also an adaptation of the instructors to the prevailing cultural understanding that social dancing (as in ballroom dancing) is focused on producing step patterns.
  • In contrast, the overwhelming majority of dancers in Buenos Aires milongas use a small number of relatively inconspicuous movements.
  • Milongueros (experienced tango dancers in Buenos Aires) concentrate and improvise on the rhythmic structure of the music.
  • Milongueros emphasize that tango music generates emotions and the expression and sharing of these emotions are an integral part of the dancing tango.
  • Milongueros emphasize the importance of the embrace in the communication of emotions while dancing tango.
  • North American tango dancers who ignore the music and do not dance embraced are missing an important, unique and rewarding feature of dancing tango.

 

In looking out across the dance floor at many events advertised as ‘milongas’ in North America, it is apparent that the character of the dancing while tango music is playing is very different from the tango dancing in a typical milonga in Buenos Aires [Tango de Salon: The Tango of the Milonga (Part II of ‘Tango Styles, Genres and Individual Expression’)]. What one often sees among dancers in the North American event is a collection of step patterns, with names most dancers using them could recite, such as ‘sandwich’, ‘lustrada’, ‘boleo’, ‘gancho’, ‘sacada’, ‘arrastre’, ‘volcada’. (A categorization of tango into named steps is given in ‘Figures of Argentine Tango’.) Among the men who have acquired a collection of movements, there is often a display consisting of a nearly continuous and sometimes predictable sequence of step patterns, often without regard to the progression of the line of dance; complexity in the physics of movement appears to be favored over the highly improvised linking of small movements (often those lacking a codified name) that utilize only the space needed to progress in the circulating ronda. Many women appear to be focused on performing embellishments, finding as many opportunities as possible to use them, often without regard to whether or not the man has provided time and space for their execution, and without regard to the space between them and other dancers on the floor (Women’s Adornments for Tango Social Dancing). Tango dancing at North American milongas often appears to be a performing art (with questionable artistic properties), directed by the brain, not a social and emotional interchange between partners, directed by the music. Often absent in dancing to tango music in North American milongas is an embrace between man and woman, i.e., chest-to-chest contact maintained through the dance or, if there is any embrace at all, it is broken apart for the performance of conspicuous step patterns. Also absent is a close connection of movement with the music, even when the dance-facilitating classic tango music from the Golden Age is played for dancing. For the dancers who more or less are connected to the music (i.e., moving in conjunction with the primary beat), they are not exploring the intricacies of music by taking into account syncopations, as well as pauses associated with musical phrasing. It often appears as though the music is only a background for executing patterns, not a framework for structuring the dance. In the most extreme cases, the music played for dancing at these events advertised as ‘milongas’ (sometimes ‘alternative milongas’) is not tango music designed for dancing tango (i.e., classic tango music).

Deviations from the manner in which tango is danced in Buenos Aires milongas are seen readily in the following videos of dancing in North American events advertised as ‘milongas’: San Francisco Tango Marathon, Chicago Mini Tango FestivalNew York Milonga de Reus; Atlanta Milonga Luna; San Diego Moose Milonga; Portland Tango Festival; Albuquerque Tango Festival; Tucson Tango Festival.

In contrast, videos of dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires indicate a different manner of dancing tango that uses simpler movements in a more improvised manner with respect to use of space and interpretation of the music [El Beso (Cachirulo); Sunderland Club (La Milonga del Mundo); Salon Canning (Milonga Parakultural)]. Almost completely absent in these recordings are dancing without embracing, and use of volcadas and ganchos; rare are the use of sacadas, arrastres, and the ‘sandwich’, as well as high boleos and excessive ornamentation by women. [Note that these videos were selected from milongas that are attended by a significant number of younger dancers (less than 40 years old) and tango tourists, to match more closely the demographic makeup of the North American milongas for which video representations of dancing were provided above. Even closer adherence to traditional standards of dancing tango in milongas is evident in these recordings of dancing at milongas at Lo de Celia Tango Club and at Club Gricel (La Cachila).]

The characteristic manner of dancing tango in Buenos Aires milongas can be seen more clearly in the demonstrations of tango dancing given by milongueros, men for whom dancing tango in the milongas of Buenos Aires has been a central part of their lives for decades. Improvisation in musical interpretation is evident to varying degrees in these demonstrations.

  • Ricardo Vidort (with Myriam Pincen) varies the tempo of his walking (slow walks, corridas and pauses) in accordance with the varying tempo of the musically complex rendition of ‘Chique’ by the orchestra of Francisco Canaro.
  • Pedro ‘Tete’ Rusconi (with Silvia Ceriani) creates suspensions for Ceriani within back ocho and giro sequences while still stepping to the driving syncopated rhythm of ‘El recodo’ as performed by the orchestra of Roldolfo Biagi.
  • Ricardo Ponce (‘El Chino Perico’) (with Paola Taccheti) intersperses pauses within a dance that varies between single and double time rhythms, in connection with musical variations in ‘Poema’ as performed by the orchestra of Francisco Canaro.
  • ‘El Flaco’ Dany Garcia (with Silvina Valz) has been a master of milonga con trapsie, varying between single time (weight changes on primary beats only) and double time movements (weight changes also on secondary beats), at times dancing double time while Valz is dancing single time, and also varying between partial and complete weight changes, while dancing to ‘Milonga sentimental’ as performed by the orchestra of Francisco Canaro.
  • Walter Dominguez (with Monica Paz) has a groundedness in his walk (‘hugging’ the floor) that allows him to employ a traspie while dancing to the fast tempo milonga ‘Todos te quieren’ as performed by the orchestra of Angel D’Agostino.
  • Alberto Dassieu (with Elba Biscay), in dancing to ‘Valsecito criollo’ as performed by the orchestra of Juan D’Arienzo, improvises on the constant tempo vals rhythm, stepping mainly on count 1 (the strong beat) but also stepping on count 2 in the forward ocho-like weaving walk and a variant of this (right foot outside partner) walk that ends in a side-together to the right collection; he also steps on all 3 beats in a few backward corridas and giros. There are also a few points in the dance where Dassieu does not change weight but leads Biscay to change weight on each strong beat (some sequences ending in a cruzada).

Note that in these demonstrations there were no ganchos, volcadas, high boleos, arrastres, and sandwiches, and that ornamentation by women was using sparingly. Sacadas were also used sparingly by the men. The dances focused on the music, with movements selected to express the music, movements which in a social tango setting also function as a means for navigation. The movements used were not ostentatious; they were relatively simple, although a viewer with a good knowledge of tango dancing can recognize the precision and creativity in the dances.

Additional examples of milongueros giving demonstrations of tango dancing are presented in Videos of Tango Milonguero. Even more informative are recordings of Milongueros Dancing Tango in the Milongas of Buenos Aires. A more extensive collection of recordings of milongueros dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires is presented by Jantango.

The words of milongueros reinforce the notion that the focus of tango dancing is not the creation of complex and conspicuous movement sequences.

Regarding the selection of movements for dancing, Cacho Dante has said of milongueros as they developed their dance:

When they didn’t really know how to dance, they did 20 steps; when they knew a bit more, they did 10; and when they really knew what they were doing, they danced five… but with real quality.

The tango is a feeling that is danced. That’s why it is not choreographed, though it can have sequences, like all feelings. You can dance love, rage, happiness, pleasure, every mood. The tango is not a dance to demonstrate ability but rather an interpretation of feeling. It is not just moving your feet and posturing. The tango is Argentine, but it belongs to all those who understand its feelings and its codes.

Emphasizing the movements used in dancing tango as well as the music used for dancing, Facundo Posadas has said:

Don’t dance tango in a contemporary style, because the tango belongs to a culture; there are other kinds of music to dance contemporary. If we continue to dance as we are doing, we are losing our identity and we don’t show any skill. What we are showing is movement, but the skill is making you feel my dance, so that you are accompanying me, not showing that I can jump very high or drag you over the floor.

There’s nothing like tango, because of that embrace to the world. Why should we want to destroy it? Let’s continue with this one. There’s so much to do in a simple tango salon.

Regarding the selection of steps in dancing tango Ricardo Vidort has said:

People that dance tango all over the world … most of them they are crazy, all the steps, all the figures…

In contrast, Vidort has recommended:

You move with the grace that the music gives you to do it in the way you want to. We put that movement in several steps, that there are 7 or 8, and from those steps we can make 500 or more. Put the feeling; that’s the secret. That’s the whole secret of the tango. So you move and you hold the woman with strength but soft; she feels safe inside and she feels that you are taking her. So, in that moment the man, only the priority is the music and the woman. I don’t care the people… I dance for my partner; I don’t dance for them.

Further emphasis on connection with the music is provided by other milongueros.

Ricardo Ponce (El Chino Perico) has also stressed the central importance of the music in dancing tango:

The dancer listens to the music. You should know what you’re dancing to, what the singer is saying. Most people don’t know it because they like the dance. That’s OK, the tango became fashionable and they’re dancing. But the milonguero dances and with his body he has to explain to people that the tango is sad. … The milonguero, he knows the orchestra and the tempo in which he should dance. You should be one member more of the orchestra. 

‘El Flaco’ Dany Garcia has also emphasized how tango music generates emotions while dancing:

The music has to come in through the ear and, personally for me, it goes to my heart. And for the first place, I dance for the woman that is in my arms; after that, I consider the people. But always with heart. Without feeling you can’t dance the tango.

Pedro Sanchez also has placed emphasis on the role of tango music in generating emotions:

Well, the most important to me is to want the music, love the music. Love what you listen to. In tango, if you don’t get emotional when you dance, if you don’t feel the emotion, the nice thing that crosses your soul… yes, you dance. But I dance that way, I’m passionate of dancing.

In addition to tango music generating emotion during the dance, Alberto Dassieu has noted the importance of the embrace in communicating feelings:

As a final message … dance the tango, respecting the music; dance the tango respecting the people in the milongas; dance the tango with feeling. Dancing with feeling is a nice thing. Sometimes when one dances with this feeling, one feels that the heart of the woman is beating heavier; one can feel that the woman changes the rhythm of her heart, as an effect of the dance. … Embrace well; don’t dance separated.

A common theme in these comments of milongueros is the centrality of elicitation of emotions and their expression in dancing tango. Monica Paz, in her interviews of milongueros, usually asks them at the end of the interview to describe tango in one word. (Viewing the dance demonstrations after the interview is also instructive regarding how milongueros dance.) Here are some of the responses:

Thus, from the perspective of Argentine men for whom tango has been a central part of their lives, tango is not about dancing complicated and conspicuous patterns without regard to the music, but rather tango dancing involves embracing one’s partner, feeling the music and the emotion it generates, and sharing that feeling with one’s partner while moving smoothly around the floor within the circulating ronda using mostly simple movements that connect with rhythmic variations within the music. Dancing tango is not a cerebral activity that designs a dance from a vocabulary of steps, but rather an emotional expression of the music. (See also The Essence of Tango Argentino and Tango Milonguero: Improvised Expression of Music through Movement in a Shared Embrace.)

There are several reasons why dancers at North American milongas dance differently than dancers at Buenos Aires milongas. The immediate cause of step-based musicality-deficient dancing in North American milongas is most likely the instruction received from local community tango instructors, those who introduce prospective dancers to tango. It is from these instructors that beginning tango dancers gain the impression that learning tango consists primarily of acquiring a vocabulary of steps (e.g., Dallas; Los Angeles; New York; San Francisco Bay Area; St Louis). A video of Gustavo & Jesica Hornos advertising tango instruction provides an example of the extreme to which tango is represented as a sequence of steps lacking any progression in space and devoid of connection to the music; dancing of this type often appears to be the role model for aspiring North American tango dancers. The step-oriented instruction is reinforced by traveling tango instructors, most of whom in recent years have been young Argentines with limited experience dancing in the milongas of Buenos Aires. The step orientation of the majority of workshops given at tango festivals is evident from a review of the titles of tango workshops given at North American tango festivals held in 2015 or scheduled in 2016. Workshop titles that include the terminology ‘steps’, ‘figures’, ‘patterns’, ‘move(ment)s’, ‘sequences’ or ‘combinations’, or list the names of specific steps or movements (including ‘embellishments’ or similar terminology) comprise 17 of 21 workshops (81%) at the October 2015 Boulder Tango Festival, 31 of 48 workshops (65%) at the February 2016 Portland Valentango festival, 33 of 53 workshops (62%) at the July 2015 Nora’s Tango Week, and 24 of 47 workshops (51%) at the August 2015 Montreal International Tango Festival. Additional evidence that tango instructors traveling in North America focus on step patterns is evident from the ‘Didactic Videos for Sale’ web page of the Organic Tango School, where 33 of 45 videos for sale (73%) mention steps in either the title or content description.

In addition to a focus on building a repertoire of step sequences, tango instruction in North America (e.g., as indicated in the listing of tango workshops of festivals mentioned above) often focuses on an ‘elastic embrace’ or ‘shifting’ between ‘close embrace’ and ‘open embrace’, a movement not employed by most milongueros (who maintain the embrace throughout a dance) and even among those dancing Tango Estilo del Barrio in a milonga in the outer barrios of Buenos Aires (video), the embrace is not opened to the distance or for the duration often shown in tango workshops in North America (e.g., Tango Lesson: Elasticity from Close to Open Embrace).

There are also workshops on musicality given at nearly every tango festival, but they often focus on achieving a cognitive understanding of the music rather than emphasizing to students that one should allow the music to enter the body, generate emotions, and guide the body in movement. Often valuable workshop time is spent talking about concepts and giving demonstrations at the expense of students practicing connecting to music (e.g., Portland Valentango Festival). Demonstrations given at the end of musicality workshops often include step patterns that show off instructor movement skills, and they are sometimes even danced without a connection to the rhythm of the music (vals demo), thus not demonstrating musicality. Sometimes tango workshops focus on dancing to music that is not intended or designed for dancing tango (e.g., the music of Astor Piazzolla) and therefore fail to demonstrate musicality appropriate for dancing to tango music intended for dancing. The benefit of most of these workshops on musicality is questionable. In the development of their tango skills, dancers would benefit more from listening for many hours to the classic tango music of the dance orchestras of the Golden Age, in order to familiarize themselves with the music, and subsequently practice dancing to this music using simple steps, than to attend most workshops on tango musicality.

Traveling tango instructors provide guidance and inspiration to developing tango dancers. Demonstrations of tango dancing by popular tango instructors at tango festivals reinforce the notions that dancing tango consists of executing a series of complicated and conspicuous steps, that it is not important to maintain the embrace throughout the dance,  and that classic tango music is not required for dancing tango:

These demonstrations, with their displays of physical prowess and command of a large repertoire of movements, characteristic of tango for the stage, stand in stark contrast to the demonstrations of tango dancing appropriate for the milongas given by milongueros that were referenced above. Some developing tango dancers recognize that demonstrations of this type given by traveling tango instructors are show tango and are not influenced by the deviations from social tango, others recognize the deviations but believe that the codes of the milonga are changing and thus find raw material in these demonstrations for developing their social tango, others are confused regarding the boundaries yet model their tango after what they see in the demonstrations, and some are even naïve regarding the distinctions and find in these demonstrations inspiration for guiding their social tango development.

Given the type of tango instruction commonly available to aspiring tango dancers, and the demonstrations given by tango instructors, it should not be surprising that there is a plethora of step sequences observed at North American milongas, at the expense of close connection of partners with each other and the music. This focus in tango instruction on step manufacturing is set within a marketing environment that promotes tango as a performance dance, as is evident from the representation of tango in websites (The Representation and Misrepresentation of Tango in Website Images in North America) and the popularity and availability of YouTube videos (YouTube as a Source of Tango Information) of tango dancing that mostly portray show tango.

The cultural milieu into which tango is introduced in North America cannot be ignored with respect to its impact on tango dancing. Predominant perceptions that learning to dance involves learning step sequences, promoted by the ballroom dance establishment with its published step lists, contribute to this approach to teaching and learning tango [Factors Affecting the Survival of Argentine Tango Cultural Traditions in Non-supportive First World Cultural Environments (The Dominance of Tango Extranjero)]. Anxiety regarding the intimacy of the embrace also facilitates avoidance of or minimal engagement with a maintained embrace while dancing tango (ibid.). Lack of exposure to classic tango music within the culture hinders acquiring the familiarity with tango music necessary for improvisation on the musical structure; lack of appreciation of music from a foreign culture creates the opening for familiar music from North American culture to be substituted as a background for executing sequences of steps associated with some types of tango dancing (e.g., Tango Nuevo or Tango Escenario rather than Tango de Salon).

The causes of step orientation in tango dancing in North American milongas are obvious and have been discussed above and in previous Tango Voice posts. What have not been discussed in detail previously are the consequences of the cerebral orientation towards tango dancing on the nature of the engagement with tango experienced by the tango dancer. Obsession with the production of step sequences concentrates the dancer’s attention in the mind instead of letting the emotions flow. An analytic approach to the music prevents the music from enveloping and guiding the dancer. Repeated alterations in the embrace hinder the achievement of a communion between partners allowing an emotional exchange, perhaps even romance. If these qualities of absorption in the music, expression of emotion, and communication with partner are absent from tango dancing, then dancers have failed to understand tango as experienced by the Argentines, and they then fail to enjoy tango as a unique dance providing a unique and enjoyable emotional experience.

Tango is not just a collection of steps; it is not just another ballroom dance.

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