Sunday, September 21, 2008

On Tango :: A Letter To My Friends

Some of you may have picked up on the fact that my thirty year high school reunion is this coming Saturday. I have reconnected with bunches of high school friends, and their curiosity has been piqued about tango - this dance that I seem to be obsessed with. I could write for hours on the subject, so it will be challenging to keep this brief. All of my blog friends, and others "in" tango understand about this - explaining to family and friends - "non" tango folks - explaining what tango is all about. It can be a difficult thing to convey.

Okay, here we go, off the top of my head.

First, I use the word "tango" to describe Argentine tango, which is not American/Ballroom/International Tango which is what you see on "Dances With The Stars".

Tango is chess. Salsa is checkers.

Tango is probably the most difficult "casual" "social" dance you can endeavor to learn - ballet would be harder.

There is no head snapping movement in tango. There are no roses in the teeth with tango. That's Flamenco, an entirely different dance - from Spain.

The fedora is an unfortunate stereotype from one particular aspect of tango in years past - the "dandy" character - which I won't go into. Real men do dance tango, but real men do not wear fedoras indoors at night in the presence of women.

Tango sprang forth from the cultural melting pot of Buenos Aires - from very early beginnings in the 1880's through the 1920's. The "Golden Age" of tango was in the 1930's and 1940's. Argentine tango was actually very popular in Europe in the 1910's and 1920's - before it became all the rage in Argentina. There have been changes - ebbs and flows - in the culture of tango in Buenos Aires over the years - mostly due to the military dictatorships in Argentina. Tango has enjoyed a resurgence in the U.S. and Europe since the late 1980's and early 1990's.

Tango is a feeling...that you dance.

Tango is all about the music, and the connection with your partner. The dance and the movement flow from the music, which we refer to as "musicality". It flows "from" the music, but to outside observers, it appears that the dancers are dancing "to" the music.

Tango is not about showy or flashy moves or figures. It is danced between two people, for their own mutual enjoyment and the social aspects of the dance. They don't dance for an audience, and there is no competition nor competitive events for Argentine tango.

However, there is "show" or "fantasia" or "stage" tango which is danced in the shows (on stage) in Buenos Aires and traveling tango shows around the world. There are varieties or styles of tango which include "salon" (dynamic embrace between open and close), "milonguero" (almost entirely unbroken close embrace), and "fantasia". Am I missing one?

Tango is purely improvisational, with no choreography or memorized steps. Many people migrate over from ballroom dances for this reason. There are "fundamentals" and "vocabulary", but each leader is interpreting the music in his own way. Prior to tango's emergence in the early part of the last century, partner dances required everyone to do the same exact steps at the same exact time. Tango was also the first partner dance to bring the leader and follower into close proximity/contact with each other.

Sometimes, the connection between two dancers can be so intense and intimate that evokes a strong psycho/meta/physical response. Some call it a "tango trance", some call it a "tangasm". A guy named Dan Boccia up in Alaska came up with the best definition of a "tango trance" that I have run across - "the state of being so completely immersed in the music and so profoundly connected to your partner that movement flows from within the partnership uninhibited by conscious thought..."

It can take one to two years or more for a leader to get to the level where he is dancing "uninhibited by conscious thought". There are leaders who have been dancing tango for six years and still don't get it, and some prodigies who "get it" after only six months.

The learning curve for followers is less steep - I would say in one or two months (of weekly classes) a follower will have the basics down enough to start dancing socially.

A social dance party/event is called a milonga. There is also music called "milonga" and the dance that you dance to that music is "milonga". So, you can dance milonga, to milonga music, at a milonga. Confusing, I know. Then there is "tango", and "vals" or waltz. Milonga, Candombe, and Canyengue are all precursors to tango - they existed before tango and tango evolved out of these dances.

The lead is all from the connection and the torso. There are no hand signals or use of the arms or verbal cues in the dance. The follower has to be very in tune with the leader - she has to "listen" to the lead - feel the lead - wait for the lead.

One of the most difficult aspects of tango for followers is the concept of "surrender". Not submission. Not subservience. Not passivity. She must surrender to be led. She must "give" herself to the leader to be led. I can feel it in the first three seconds of the embrace either she wants to be there with me, in that moment, and gives herself to me, or not. Brand new beginners can nail the surrender in the first embrace. Long time followers can have no clue of what it means to surrender. There is much debate about whether this can be taught/learned or not.

There is to be no backleading by the follower. I have been backled very rarely, and always only once with that follower, because I will never invite her to dance again.

Invitations are more verbal in the U.S., but in Buenos Aires there are "codigos" or guidelines that call for the use of "cabeceo", or non-verbal invitations by raising the eyebrows with a slight nod. If the woman accepts, she will meet the man's eyes and nod back. If she wishes to decline, she will avert her eyes.

Tango is a walking dance. The upper body is very still and level - "liso" or smooth. There is no hip action like in salsa dancing.

The leader should always walk the follower back to her table after the dance - if she was in a tango trance, she may not know where she is on the dance floor in relation to her table.

Tango music is played in groups of three or four songs called a "tanda", which are separated by a non-tango clip of a song 30 seconds long or so. These are called "cortinas" or curtains, and allow the dancers to change partners between tandas. Once you've invited a woman to dance, you've committed to the entire tanda. The parties say "thank you" at the end of the tanda. "Thank you" means "I'm done". If a woman says thank you after the first song, it means she is having a really unpleasant time and needs to end the dance immediately. This is rare.

Tango is all about the woman. Hold her in your embrace. Protecting her from other leaders bad navigation on the dance floor. You want her to feel safe and protected with you.

Tango typically is all about dancing with various partners. Some married couples dance only with each other, but even that is rare. Some women dance tango without their husbands - hubby is off fishing or hunting - and she is out dancing tango.

It's about the dance, the connection with another human being, the music, the socializing with friends - it's not about sex. Tango has a reputation of being sensual and intimate, which it can be - but there is a line that people generally do not cross. The sensuality and intimacy ends at the edge of the dance floor - it ends with the end of the three or four song tanda. The songs are roughly three minutes each - so the dance with a partner lasts 10-12 minutes.

Sometimes, I can feel a woman's heart fluttering against my chest.

All tango music is very old. Most of what we listen to is from the 1920's through the early 1950's. After that, the orchestras disbanded during the military junta and in general, never regrouped. There are newer orchestras and quartets and quintets, but they are just not able to duplicate that original sound and feeling. There is also newer electronic (and unplugged) music called "Nuevo" or "Alt" Tango.

Tango can be addictive. They say "you don't choose tango, tango chooses you...". Some people approach it as a hobby, take classes in other dances like swing and salsa and two step and may move away from tango over time.

Others, like me, know that they are addicted to this dance for life. I eat, sleep and breathe tango. I think about it all the time. I listen to tango music all the time - at least when I'm not listening to Jimi Hendrix, The Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash, etc. I started dancing tango about four years ago. I've been writing this blog for a year and a week.

Because, you see, it's not "just" a dance. It's a feeling. It's a culture. It's an art form. It's a social outlet and event. It can become a part of your life, or it can become your life.

Here are a bunch of sayings and quotes about tango I have collected over the past year...

"It's not so much that he led me, but more like he willed my movements..."

"Life is like Tango... sad, sensual, sexy, violent and quiet."

"Tango is like riding a bike, there are no standard memorized movements that you have to recall..."

"Tango is like a language - you learn the alphabet, the vocabulary, the definitions, the grammar, the style and usage - then you can write whatever you like...."

"Other music exists to heal wounds; but the tango when sung and played is for the purpose of opening them, for the purpose of sticking you finger in the wound and to tear them until they bleed."

"Tango is not a dance, it's a feeling. And how do you teach a feeling?"

"We dance tango because we have secrets." :: Marilyn Cole Lownes

"Great dancers are not great because of their technique; they are great because of their passion." :: Martha Graham 1894-1919, Dancer, Teacher and Choreographer

"I come to tango to relax - the music carries me and makes a dance for me. With other music, I have to make a dance myself"

"I believe that Tango has the potential to bring out the best in each of us, at least while in the embrace. We surrender our egos; leave prickly personality traits at the table; and cease to be CEOs, taxi drivers, engineers, unemployed. We replace all our externals with a purity of spirit, a generosity of kindness, splendid caring. And when these elements flow freely between partners, it is...the joy." (Johanna Siegmann)

"Tango is not about what is done, but how it is done"
(E. Santos Discepolo)

"Please, just for me, forget the steps...hold me, feel the music, and give me your soul. Then I can give you mine." [Sallycat]

Said by "El Flaco" Dany Garcia, subsequently interpreted by others - and now paraphrased here by me: "The music goes in my ears, is filtered through my heart, and comes out through my feet."

>The tango trance.
>Seek it, and it will elude you.
>Talk about it in too much detail.
>and it will haunt you evily.
>Live for it, and you will die many deaths
>Treasure it, but don't hold onto it.
>Dance with love and freedom.
>and it will embrace you.
>Be vulnerable, and feel it's power.
>Dan Boccia

"Tango can save your life, and it will break your heart." [Credit - Ms. Heartbreak Tango]

"I have tasted a lover's tears on my lips. But I have never felt his eyeballs moving inside their sockets." [Ms. Nuit of La Nuit Blanche - found by Ms. Heartbreak Tango]

“The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it,
but it still encloses, as does all that which is truthful, a secret.” [Jorge Luis Borges]

There is the now cliche'd one from the film "The Tango Lesson", Sally Potter asks Pablo Veron “How did you choose the tango?”, and he replies “I didn’t. The tango chose me.” So we now often hear the saying…”You don’t choose tango, tango chooses you…” [I suppose credit goes to Sally Potter, who I assume wrote the screenplay.]

“The follower feels the first half of the sentence [from my lead], and then she completes the second half of the sentence...” [Murat Erdemsel]

“Surrender Tango [a documentary], delves into the mystery of the tango connection--why sometimes you lose yourself in your partner's arms and other times three minutes seems like three hours. This thirty-minute film goes beyond tango as a dance to tango as a metaphor for relationships. The rules and roles of tango partnering reveal how giving space actually creates more intimacy. The film breaks down various aspects of the dance to see how a good embrace is about sharing; the lead is about clarity and commitment; the follow is about sensitivity and surrender. But surrender requires that the dancers be centered and independent of each other before they can truly give themselves to each other. Sensuality is the fusion that adds tension and excitement to the dance and music is the glue that holds the couple together.” [Film Commentary about the documentary film “Surrender Tango” – produced and directed by Tango dancer Marcia Rock]

A famous quote attributed to Enrique Santos Discepolo, a poet, journalist and philosopher, "Tango is a sad thought that is danced."

And some "general" dance quotes...

Movement never lies.
~ Martha Graham

Dancers are the athletes of God.
~Albert Einstein

A day I don't dance is a day I don't live.
~ Anonymous Tunisian dancer

Dancing is like dreaming with your feet!
~ Constanze

Only the wise can dance the rhythm of life.
~ Unknown

Nothing is more revealing than movement.
~ Martha Graham

Dance first. Think later. It's the natural order.
~ Samuel Beckett

Dancing is a relatively safe form of intoxication.
~ from Copeland & Cohen

Don't dance for the audience; dance for yourself.
~ Bob Fosse

Dance is not something to talk about. Dance is to dance.
~ Peter Saint James

Everyday I count wasted in which there has been no dancing.
~ Nitzsche

We're fools whether we dance or not, so might as well dance.
~Japanese Proverb

There are short-cuts to happiness, and dancing is one of them.
~ Vicki Baum

Will you, won'te you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
~ Lewis Caroll

It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.
~ Epictetus

There are tango communities in most major cities and smaller towns across the U.S. and around the globe.

I'll post some YouTube videos tomorrow...this is enough to digest for much for brevity...

To sum this all up, tango has changed my life. Four years ago I was a rhythmic retard and was always uncomfortable/inhibited about getting up there and dancing. To sum up, if you've been thinking about taking up dancing - do it - whatever the dance may be. Just do it.

Lastly, here are a couple of links:

Some of my tango photos on flickr ::

My favorites on my YouTube Channel :: (you will have to glean through some non-tango stuff)


TangoSpam said...

and tango brings friends from all over the world.

cindy said...

wow- a really difficult undertaking!
it sent me back to things i wrote to friends (nontango) when i first started. on my very first day ever (july 15, 2 years ago), i had a single hour & a half class in which we walked, and i came home and wrote this... (a little bit for your friends from a follower's point of view):

"it's all communication & invitation....
"i think the major part of it is getting your normal processing brain to DIS-engage & let go -- yet perceive, feel & respond at a very active & sensitive level. i could feel whole other brain muscles working... "

apparently mere weeks later i was already hunting down everything i could find on the web, because i wrote:
"i've read that using the term 'follow' as a translation of the spanish is probably not the best, as it confuses what is really happening with the kind of leading & following done in ballroom dancing. but the man is making the invitations, in any case, & so he must understand how to communicate his invitations - and, he is responsible for navigating the couple among other dancing pairs. this part i think i probably one of the most challenging for the lead, since it asks for some creative on-the-spot improvisation with a vocabulary of possible moves. milongas can be very crowded. i haven't danced at a milonga (a social dance) yet, but ---- gracefully negotiated around the footstool coffee table between the sofa & the chairs at my house last week, around & back out to the space by the dining room table..."

love this bit of yours~
Tango is all about the music, and the connection with your partner. The dance and the movement flow from the music, which we refer to as "musicality". It flows "from" the music, but to outside observers, it appears that the dancers are dancing "to" the music.

zigadenus said...

Thank you for that explanation of tango, Alex. I must admit, I did have a few misconceptions about it. I thought it was a dance with prescribed steps. I had no idea it was so interpretive.
To me, the most challenging part of the dance would be the synchrony between the two dancers. You know, I've danced most of my life, modern dance, very interpretive, ala Martha Graham, but usually solo or in distant relation to other dancers, never in close synchrony. I'm not sure what it means to dance "with" someone. Hmm. Intriguing. You've made me consider a whole new aspect of dance.

Alex said...

In reading all your wonderful and supportive comments, one other thing came to mind...

"Two people, dancing as one...."

Indicating the two axes (axis, plural) being danced as one axis, the follower's axis being gently guided (not "controlled") and coaxed by the leader.

Cindy is correct in that "lead" and "follow" are probably not the best words. It is most definitely an active partnership.

Hi miss tangospam, my good friend...yes, most definitely the "friends from all over the world" aspect of the social component of tango is not to be underestimated. The tango community is very close knit the world over. Very close knit indeed.

Alex said...

Thanks for the head's up about my feed. I've made a couple of adjustments to settings. Let me know if that changes anything.

Limerick Tango said...

This post made it to my list of Posts to read before you d...

Margarita Guerra said...

It is the most exact and complete text to introduce on tango I never read. And it confirms my theory that actual tango dance is authentically international. I'm absolutely convinced that people everywhere in the world can dance tango very well, they don't need to be born in Argentina or Uruguay (I'm uruguayan, from Montevideo, one of the 2 cities where tango was born, where Matos Rodríguez -the author of La Cumparsita- was born).
I have many friends all over the world that are very good milongueros.
Margarita from Montevideo

Alex said...

Thanks for reading Margarita!