I’ve come so far, only to watch tango die.
I sit in vigil at the historic Clärchens Ballhaus, where people have persistently made their way to dance together amidst the ruins of Berlin for so many years.
I watch them fade away, week by week. The decline is heart-rending. Their frailty shows in fewer and fewer efforts. This week they seem to do nothing much more than side steps in different rhythms. These sexy girls don’t realize how much more there is to want from a tanguero.
I am not here to keep watch over the Bohemians, that local species of Berlin, unschooled dabblers who see in Tango a way to pass the time with a few sequences they learned 7-10 years ago for a few coins each night. Have at it.
No, I am here for the young elites, the ones who have trained their posture and their muscles, who invested enough in tango to master correct technique of embrace and walking, before being laid waste by the fatal toxin, struck down in their youth by the glory of a small mastery before they had a chance to discover the riches of improvisation.
The next night ice cream promises more pleasure than any milonga on offer, so I take a walk with my fancy new headphones. I bought them because I am in this moment committed to applying tango to more of the music from my culture and history. But tonight it is foreign music which draws me, the colonizer of my sentiment for the last ten years, traditional tango. And it’s not Pugliese, it’s d’Agostino. I am marking in my mind, the dance I remember from Buenos Aires and yearn to feel, and see. It breathes between long caminitos, tiny milonga-like steps following the fast melodic trills, and spirals of intertwined and trusting legs.
Most of what I dance is in disuse. Crosses on the second side, volcadas that end somewhere else than a front cross, crosses that end in ganchos before the next full beat, and the element that cracks tango open – the element I cannot dance without (and the one who explains why I dance with so few girls), the Revel’s back sacada. This is the element that puts the unwind of a front voleo to its full potential. The move that demands my partner reach for her full potential, and that I rely on her to be my equal in technique and astuteness.
Of course, most girls won’t even dance a Revel’s front sacada. (My students’ persistent complaints on this point confirm my own experience.)
The Revel’s sacada is crucial to balance the dynamic of the dance, demanding of both partners the courage and trust that can only come from self-confidence. Dancing without her sacada is like having only missionary sex. It’s a dance with no vulnerability. Nice, but a little too safe, and certainly lacking in dynamic range. I don’t want to extend this metaphor except to say that most people’s description of “good sex” these days is at least co-participative, even when their fantasies are more dominating. (In the world of BDSM much effort is made to articulate submission as an agentic act. Only in tango is domination so artlessly unreflexive.)
Frankly, I don’t really care about people’s nostalgic fantasies, overblown egos, and passivity. Here’s my public service announcement about addiction.
But I do care about tango. I do care when this historical reenactment of authority and passivity takes precedence over tango as a living art.
I sit in vigil at my beloved’s bedside, guarding his corpus against the authorities who seem to be practicing careless amputation (“ganchos aren’t tango”) and bizarre bloodletting (“voleos aren’t elegant“), justified with dishonest claims about tradition. I stay awake to intercept the doping administered by ill-trained volunteers who appear in the night, zombies muttering insipid reactionary truisms ingrained by tango’s Fox Newscasters: “steps don’t matter, only musicality”, “don’t show off, pay attention to the ronda”, “you only need the embrace and connection”, or “it’s not a sports hall, it’s a milonga”.
The repetition of sequences (and fewer and less demanding each week) only numbs Revels so that they have no reason to concentrate in the connection. Sequences disserve the ronda because you need access to the elements to skillfully use the available space. And sequences enable only the crudest expressions of musicality. As if the maestros of the 1940s weren’t showing off! Anyway if all you want is the embrace, stay home and have tantric sex. Tango is the analytic and athletic version of spiritual unification of two beings.
• • •
I am dancing in what seems to be a squat, an old factory missing most of its roofs. This room has been renovated into a warehouse-volumed gallery with chalky white walls and grey non-slip paint sealing the concrete floor. I am surrounded with haggard men and younger women (I wonder where are the women of the men’s generation?). They are all smoking, and ravaged by alcohol and art. I realize this is the real Berlin. Perhaps some of them were famous in a more forgiving and chaotic time. They clearly know what they are doing. One grabs the microphone to succinctly launch his hat in service of a band of Danish teenagers: “These guys need to record their music. Recording costs money.” Another, in well worn suit and cravat, pours his power through the available electronics to drench us in a voice that would give Leonard Cohen a hard run for his money. Last week the 20 somethings didn’t look up from their beers when we danced. These guys see us in the shadows and pull the chairs out of the way to make us a path. They cry out, strike their beer bottles with their rings, and give us opulent compliments.
We struggle against the floor, I lose control of my step twice, but my shame is invaded with their emotion and a new knowledge breaches inside me: No one gives a fuck about tango.
They do care about the intensity, the nuclear power of our irreversible fusion of physical unity and improvisation.
Tango is nothing more than a technology we use to do that well.
The goal is to make our emotions visible, and to move through them together.
And the greatest possible honor is when others give us their attention, and are willing to be moved as well.
Vio y Antoine . TangoForge with WilderGarten . Werkhalle Wiesenburg, Berlin . 4.May 2018
camera by Heather Allen