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Professionalism and commercialism in tango

Some observations…

  1. Tango is an international industry, with annual revenue of $400 million and growing.
  2. It’s a service industry with no certifications, no educational system, no required training, no industry standards. Functionally, the qualifications are conveying an aura of “authenticity” and having somehow acquired a reputation.
  3. In most of the world outside of Argentina, tango communities have been built with a community-service ethic. Many tango teachers and organizers have worked for decades without pay.

As tango becomes more popular internationally, the tango economy is growing. This provides opportunities for local and traveling teachers.

It’s still hard to make a living locally as a full-time tango teacher. Traveling Argentine teachers are able to live decently in Buenos Aires based on a handful of international trips per year.

Organizers who have been working for free for too long already are getting grumpy about it. (It’s the same burn-out that affects volunteers for any social cause.)

Commercialism is the process of treating tango work as a business. This is often avoided, for a couple of different cultural reasons. Inside Buenos Aires, the mode of business culture is personalism. Businessmen don’t make contracts, they “take care of you”. A business arrangement with a tango teacher in Buenos Aires is often couched in social language, such as “I’ll be happy to help you”, “when do you want to come see me?”, and “only for special friends”, rather than “what time would you like an appointment?”  Milongas are more businesslike operations. Outside of Buenos Aires, the project of building a tango scene is an act of service, and teachers and organizers take pains to downplay any commercial interests. It’s presumed that they have another primary source of income and tango remuneration is just a token of appreciation for the work they’ve done to build the community.

For community-service tango workers outside of Buenos Aires, commercialism can be a healthy transition from burn-out to self-respect, honoring their investment, commitment, and skill.

For Argentine traveling teachers, commercialism can be an empowering way of asserting contractual standards in situations where they’re at the whim of someone who sees the whole situation as a voluntaristic enterprise.

Honest commercialism is also the first step to professionalism. Professionalism means a set of ethical standards which govern the quality of what you are selling and how you will treat your customers.

So long as your tango teacher is acting like they’re doing you a favor, and you know they’re not getting paid enough, it’s hard to hold them to any standards at all.

So long as the teacher is riding a lucky whirlwind of contacts and flirtations, there’s no reason to worry too much about the content of the courses. Instead, just keep flirting.

Everyone helpfully chants “it takes ten years to learn to dance”. This disguises the lack of effectivity in the teaching.

But no one goes into tango as a promising career. It’s a compulsion which destroys the rest of your life to the point that it starts to make sense to try to get a little money from it. Or it’s the only thing you’ve ever been good at. Either way, the money, all too-little of it, is a bit of a miracle.

And this is another reason that most of us avoid both professionalism and commercialism. They threaten to taint what is precious and beautiful to us, perhaps the most precious thing we have. Yet many of our friends yearn for a job that captures their heart.

We are afraid that if we dance for business, as professionals, we will destroy something heartfelt, personal, and rare. We worry that commercialism is always crass. But there are soulful, creative, and generous businesses. The commercial part will always be unpleasant unless we put creative power into it. And the professional part will always be draining unless we take pride in how we do it.

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