Jul 182012


In an effort to dispel the stereotypes and hostility focused on Tango Nuevo, I’ve already written two blog posts. The first just gives a run-down of my experience of this term in the Buenos Aires context (I haven’t heard it used at all there). The second post tried to explain what it is NZ/AU people might be seeing when they want to use that word. I very much hope this third post will finalize this issue.

This time I am aided and inspired by having read Carolyn Merritt’s 2012 bookTango Nuevo. I’ve been awaiting the release of the book with great excitement. It’s an important contribution to the global and local debates about tango as it grows and changes. The purpose of the book is to explore these questions:

Why do dancers in Argentina insist that there is “no such thing as “tango nuevo”? How is it that outside Argentina, flying limbs, gender-bending, electronica, and bell-bottoms are all cited as evidence -for good or ill- of something new, yet inside Argentina defended as simply part of an evolving tradition known as tango? [16]

After reading one chapter of Merritt’s dissertation, on which the book was based, I was looking forward to an entire book delving further into these issues (and naming names disguised in the dissertation) with even more historical and interview detail.  Merritt is an anthropologist, which means she is careful in her data collection and responsible in her interpretation and presentation. She is also a dancer, and has experienced the world she writes about. The book includes some personal reflections (set out separately from the main text) which show, among other things, her depth of feeling and understanding of the dance.

In addition to the chapter on nuevo tango, the book includes a history, an overview of gender issues in tango, a clever examination of tango’s reputations as addictive drug and healing therapy, and a very strong investigation of tango practitioners’ claims to authenticity. The epilogue is important as it updates the research to 2010. (The main research was conducted from 2005-7.) As described in my first post, between August 2008 and November 2009, the youth scene in Buenos Aires (and the US) made a retrenchment to close embrace and traditional music. So the book’s description of spacious practicas and free dancing no longer exists. By September 2011 Practica X, the mecca of Nuevo Tango, was no more.

I will start my review with what are for me the main points for tango dancers to gain from this book and then develop a few further thoughts below.

1. Merritt’s interviews with dancers and professionals (even at the height of the era of experimental practicas in BsAs) are consistent in the rejection of styles/camps/separation/differentiation.

“Most attributed to foreigners this emphasis on terminology and distinction of styles.” [29] For the people labelled by outsiders as “nuevo”, “when asked what they dance, nearly all replied “Tango”. Their typical response to the term was “Look, call it what you want, but for me it’s tango.” They view it as an art form that has always included “fusion, innovation, and foreign influence [32].

While asserting their determination to investigate and expand the dance’s possibilities, they remained adamant in defining their practice as tango, situating their dance within a larger historical tradition, where that tradition has been founded and survived based on its very capacity for improvisation, renewal, and change. [29]

Naveira and Salas, however, have always been outspoken in their rejection of the term nuevo to refer to their dance. Despite his being called ‘the father of tango nuevo,’ Naveira told me, ‘the term means nothing, absolutely nothing’ to him, and he hasn’t the faintest idea where it originated…Naveira and Salas insist that the tango they were dancing was not new, that they did not introduce any new steps into the dance’s vocabulary. What they did, however, was mine the annals of the dance’s history to revive movements that had fallen out of practice. [53-4]

2. The appearance of novelty can be traced to two main things:

  • Systematization:  Naveira’s “Cochabamba Investigation Group” of the mid 1990s did do something different, they stopped teaching and learning through sequences, and instead deconstructed tango to its building blocks, achieving a “new understanding of the physical mechanics of the dance“. The result was rapid innovation of new sequences, not by inspiration as in the days of Antonio Todaro, but by systematically exploring the possibilities of the dance and even “abstaining from…tendencies”According to a participant in Naveira’s investigation group, “I think many people call it ‘nuevo tango because they couldn’t understand how all those new [sequences] just appeared…they didn’t realize it was the same thing that they were looking at.” [48]
  • Women: Naveira’s group included “female tangueras with backgrounds in classical ballet, modern dance, and other dance forms [who] could identify and verbalize the mechanics within the embrace”. According to Raul Masciocchi, a participant in the group, when dancers who came from “traditions that already had a detailed description for every movement” participated in the investigation of tango “we could begin to understand how tango movements worked…Naveira developed it, but it was the women who really made it work.” [54]

This new articulateless was striking in comparison to the existing method of teaching, which, according to Cecilia Gonzalez “when you asked how – [they said] ‘like this’ and they showed it. There weren’t words, there was no language for explaining things, and when they spoke they made it even more confusing.” [62] Naveira’s partner at the time, Olga Besio, recalls that before their work, “Back then, many people said you couldn’t teach tango, that it wasn’t something that could be taught…Actually everybody said that.” [59]

…the dance has changed…due to the fact that people are starting to understand what they do. When you understand what you do, you own the dance, so you can create more dance. – Luciana Valle, participant in the Cochabamba investigation group and organizer of El Motivo Practica at Villa Malcolm, f. 2004 [73]

Two other factors also changed something about the appearance of tango. The women dancers who came from other disciplines came with agile bodies, yoga experience, and brought an expanded range of ways to move the body, “playing with such elements as dynamic, momentum, speed…” [55] More agile bodies, and tangueras with a range of dance experience “has encouraged attention to the body in its entirety, not just the feet and legs.” [78]


Also the new generation of dancers preferred to “strip the dance of false emotion. “Before, you would see the ‘tango face’ in exhibitions, the man looking like he was in love with the woman…now…it’s the couple dancing, nothing more, And that’s wonderful…I don’t have to put on the cara de tango to move someone with my dance. The story isn’t in the face; it’s there in the couple, in their bodies.” [Pablo Inza, 56]

3. Nuevo is often portrayed as synonymous with dancing in “open embrace”.

The rupture of the front-front orientation of the embrace…is often cited as evidence of a break from traditional tango. However, tango history abounds with examples of alternative approaches to this facing of leader to follower.” Merritt cites Petróleo, Antonio Todaro, and Pupi Castello. [71] … So where is this perception from?

The fetish of close embrace tango has an easier history than nuevo itself, easily traced to one school and savvy marketing strategy. Susana Miller’s influential claim to “authentic” “milonguero” chest-to-chest tango began in 1995. [159] “Adherents of estilo milonguero have advanced the notion that the embrace, feeling, and authenticity are intricately bound…this notion has been hungrily devoured outside Argentina, inspiring the construction of stylistic divisions that may exceed porteño conceptions of such categories. The ‘propaganda of close embrace’…seeks to create a hierarchy of tango experience, where certain ways of enacting and speaking of one’s enactment of the dance are, at the very least, presented as more authentic.” [160-1]

One of the outcomes of this movement has been the claim that open embrace sacrifices “feeling”. Merritt gently asks if “the simplicity-authenticity link is perhaps a rather ingenious means of repackaging diminished or as-yet-unrealized physical capabilities under the guise of “feeling.” [71] (I have further developed this possibility in my post “I don’t think that’s style“.)

Attacks on the authenticity of nuevo often highlight its “absence of feeling” — alternately arising from the physical distance separating the couple, the expression on their faces, and their movement vocabulary — and appear to be grounded in the same sort of style=feeling=authenticity ideology that underlies many descriptions of milonguero…[An interview responds] It’s crazy, this idea that unless you’re chest to chest you don’t feel anything and there’s no connection… Whatever emotion there is in the dance is about the joy I feel in moving, the relationship I have with my partner… and the music.” [164]

Merritt goes on to say that for today’s professionals, there is a recognition as “two sides…of the same coin” of the intimate relation between the partners and investigation, as Masciocchi puts it, “constantly searching for new ways to play with the woman.” [164]

4. Innovation is part of the “Golden Age” of tango.

Petróleo was part of the 23 Club Nelson Men, their “goal being innovation”. [44] He declared the 1940s the era of “el tango nuevo” and was regarded as “a tremendous creator” with “unparalleled inventive skill. He and his colleagues were “rebels”, aiming to “innovate” and develop “personal style”. [60]

While indeed a popular dance often celebrated as just “walking with more finesse”, tango was always also about “blatant displays of prowess”. [56] Tango of the Golden Age was not only innovative but acrobatic, including jumps and lifts [44], volcadas, and colgadas [54].  (Regarding jumps and lifts, El Cachafaz from the 1920s also used them, as did Todaro in the 1960s.) Today’s “salon style” (for example, as defined by the Mundial) is a reduction and restriction of the Golden Age vocabulary, not a loyal reproduction of that era.

…[A contemporary Argentine professional] told me that for him tango had always meant “crazy things,” that as a child he witnessed old people doing “crazy things” on the dance floor, and that he associated a close embrace and simple momements with bolero rather than tango. [52]

“Golden age” tango was neither danced chest-to-chest nor did it mean keeping the feet close to the floor. Petróleo and his club of men tango dancers had as their goal innovation and new moves. These included giro, lapiz, enrosque, pique, voleo, and gancho. It was Petróleo who first wrote the term “el tango nuevo” to celebrate choreographic advancement.

5. It is impossible (and unwise) to analyze and consider tango –especially claims to “authenticity”– outside of the economy of the $400M annual industry [4].

The global market is a keen subject of consideration for professionals who want to market themselves. And Buenos Aires itself, where 1/4 of this money is spent, is the site for the sale of the “authentic fantasy”. The very dancers who eschew the term ‘nuevo’ to describe their art prudently use the term to market themselves abroad. “Despite a philosophical rejection of the nuevo label…many admitted the term held a certain marketing cachet, and confessed to reluctantly employing it in order to attract foreign students – a necessity for the Argentine seeking to make a living in tango.” [29]

At the same time, it is foreigners who most adamantly insist on certain rigid histories of tango, for example, the “authenticity” of Susana Miller’s “milonguero style”, a new way of marketing purported authenticity. Indeed Merritt argues that Piazzola’s famous claim that “In Argentina, everything can change except tango” today applies more to the global tango community’s attachment to Miller’s illusion than to Argentines’ own view of tango. [39]  Every professional is marketing themselves in the context of foreigner’s mis/perceptions and fantasies. I recommend especially pages 158-165 of the chapter on authenticity.

José Garofalo, organizer of the popular downtown mionga Porteño y Bailarín, told me that on a recent tour of the United States, his classes were marketed as tango nuevo on the west coast and tango milonguero on the east. [52]

6. At the same time, dancers desire to express their own art

And they do this in the historical context of tango and to maintain their proud patrimony. In practice this means affirming their place in uninterrupted lineage of tango as a living art, feeling entitled to improve upon it (the example of dropping the tango face is an example of a perceived improvement), and working to maintain space for it to remain Argentine. One of the forms this is taking is a re-popularization of the dance by a return to less agile “neighborhood” dancing.[179]

The style of 2010 is rhythmic and closer in the embrace, avoiding alike the flashy leader’s giros and flying follower’s legs. (But how much of this is populism and how much is the perceived need to be “authentic” (and thereby marketable) in the way that tourists (under Miller’s influence) are defining it?)  Nevertheless the local heroes – notably including Naveira’s son and daughter, showcase a mix of all these skills and concerns. And Ariadna Naveira unabashedly leads, not only her brother’s partner Ines, but also her own man, Fernando Sanchez.

Further thoughts

I have here not mentioned several other wonderful dimensions of the book, such as the emphasis in the history section on the changing class and political affiliations of tango during the Golden Era, the fabulous exploration of tango “addiction” and “therapy” in chapter 5, and the very strong discussion of “authenticity” in chapter 6 (an analysis for which Merritt is especially well-prepared as an anthropologist).


The weaknesses of the book, in my view, are slightly academic. I found the presentation a little disorganized, especially with the discussion of Naveira broken up in several chapters, including the history chapter, where it seemed out of place. I often found the personal fieldnotes confusing, and I wished for more interpretation of their contribution to the discussion at hand. I find parts of the history chapter a little too received, perhaps because I am so struck by Pablo Aslan’s independent research and Sylvia Molloy’s warning that Borges was an unreliable source for the ideas of tango that he mythologized. But these are very small points.


My larger concern may be largely a matter of discipline. In economics and sociology, researchers are expected to “make a call”, to conclude something from the data, not just present it. My masters thesis committee sent me back for a rewrite on exactly these grounds. I am highly sympathetic to the democratic possibilities of allowing the reader to interpret for themselves. Yet I also want what my committee wanted – an informed bottom line drawing deeply on material not presented in the book. Merritt’s hesitance with such a personally significant topic is surely understandable, yet the reader’s investment in engaging this book relies upon her willingness to mobilize her expertise with courage.


Most specifically I am disappointed with the treatment of gender in the context of nuevo. Masciocchi’s point is explosive, and Merritt just drops it. Although there’s a chapter on gender, she does not at all get into the possibilities of anti-nuevo being a backlash against either or both {1] the evident intellectual contributions of women and {2} how their “agility” was changing the nature of the dance.


How does this affect the retrenchment to close-embrace? Is the simplicity-authenticity-feeling claim actually a form of male sovereignty (supported as always by loyalist retro-feminine women)? My personal experience of people who aspire to so-called salon or milonguera tango is one of male authority, gripping me, not trusting me, and not taking any risks. When well done, he charms me with tenderness and rhythm. When ill-done, he tries to show off while keeping a very tight grip on me. Both are generally uncomfortable, boring, and decidedly his dance, his rigid performance of self-assurance.


The alternative (by whatever name and in whatever embrace), is an exploration of what we could do together if he allows me to contribute with my maximum capacities, if he relies on me to share the responsibility for the connection, if he depends on my strength to hold my axis, if he utilizes my elasticity and extension to express himself. It is this willingness to engage with the capacities of a given follower, the leader risking himself in the effort to do something new with her, that makes a tanda unique to the partnership, otherwise the leader dances his dance, the same, with everyone.[71]

Nuevo means to me that I’m on my own axis, and nothing more really.” (Ginger, American expat [49])

To me this statement is huge. This is what’s at stake in the retrenchment. A light and agile follower does make the moves feel different and perhaps some of the resentment against these developments is that men are more dependent on the skills of the follower. In the old tango, women were, more or less, interchangeable. Now one follower frees a leader, and another constrains him. The increase of skills means that he has lost a dimension of independence and authority.


Merritt also fails to discuss the change in follower’s dynamic which did not take hold until about 10 years after Naveira’s investigation group, marked by Dana Frìgoli’s dramatically visible fluidity and extension. This is what makes nuevo tango look so different. Much of the backlash is specifically about the proper position of the woman’s legs, how much space she will be allowed to take up, how visible she will be. The gender chapter fails to read this debate with feminist tools nor contextualize it in the obvious classical policing of women’s bodies and self-expression.


It also fails to connect tango women’s celebration of retro roleplay (“An exaggerated notion of femininity” [96]) with their acquiescence to the retrenchment, to a more controlled dance that allows less physical freedom to the women’s movement of her body. Even Merritt portrays the physical expansion of the woman’s body, extending herself to the maximum in response to his lead, as if it is undisciplined and self-indulgent by describing such dancing as “limbs explor[ing] the space around them”. [167]


I end with a few more exciting quotes from the book, in which interviewees describe what Nuevo Tango means to them:

An opening up, physically and psychologically; it works with power instead of force. (Brigitte, Dutch dancer, page 44 in the dissertation)

A happier form of movement. (Jorge Garnica [51])

When I started out, my maestro would show us a sequence, a mini-choreography. It took me so long to figure out that I was supposed to improvise. I didn’t know in the beginning because nobody told me. If you want to understand the dance, in my opinion that’s the worst way to teach – with sequences. Especially with a beginner. They need to know the rules of the dance, and from there they can create, they’re free – they’re not prisoners of the tango. (Pablo Inza [47])

What we have is a new situation in the world relative to tango…This new situation is much more interesting than the tiny idea of a new style. (Gustavo Naveira [81])

 18 July 2012