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Rethinking cortinas

I became a tanguera in a community that never used cortinas. This was Los Angeles, a very big scene where, for those to whom such matters matter, at that time all the tango events were run by Argentines. Funnily enough, I can’t remember where I first heard a cortina played. I do know, from my old blog posts on etiquette for my students that I understood there was  a “curtain” ending the tanda, regardless of whether or not a snippet of non-tango music was played. That curtain was an emotional event, an ending to whatever feelings had been created during the dancing.

One of my friends has been reading my novel, Aleph Bravo Tango. Chatting at the milonga, he remarked that one of the significant impressions it imparted was the experience of timelessness. I responded by explaining that the novel is about beginning to dance, about the sensations upon first entering this powerful and magical world. There are experiences in the book that I don’t receive any more. In some cases that’s a good thing –I don’t feel powerless and passive as a follower, and in other cases it’s sad –these days I rarely lose myself while dancing to be utterly transported into raw emotion and presence beyond thoughts.

I never cease to be amazed by the graciousness of the universe in organizing affairs for maximum insight and education… Only moments after this conversation, another friend happened along to complain about the fact that as an emergency guest DJ I hadn’t included sonic cortinas in the playlist. In truth, this was an experiment.

Since learning about the use of sonic cortinas, which must have happened while I was living and dancing in Boston, I had been including them in my practica and milonga playlists. I did this because my strategies are mainly oriented toward my beginners, and I felt the cortina was a signal to them to perk up their ears and try to figure out what sort of music was playing next. Beginners tend to be so focused on their technique that they hardly notice the music.

Cortinas were something that I hadn’t questioned since learning about them — having neatly forgotten about dancing without them.

But a few months ago, Sydney was graced by the visit of a mysterious tanguero who declined to identify his homeland. While we were dancing, he complained bitterly at the cortinas. “It’s fascist to interrupt me and urge me to stop dancing. I want to dance as long as I want, without interruption.” Aside from my dislike of the overuse of the term ‘fascist’, his comment stuck.

And because I have decided to stop playing the authenticity game, and instead to ponder and analyze every aspect of tango to discover whether it serves my goals of popularizing tango and effectively teaching people to do it, and moreover since I’d never been able to observe any pattern to the use and nonuse of cortinas other than the whimsy of the DJ, I decided to do the experiment.

So I DJd without cortinas. And of course someone decided to educate a group of us about the proper use of cortinas. “At a practica, there is no need for cortinas,” he explained, “because it’s socially acceptable to dance as long as you want with one person. But at a milonga, there must be cortinas, because if you dance more than three tandas with one person” (of tangos, he emphasized, milongas don’t count!) “you have agreed to have sex.” So the function of cortinas then is to determine if we’ll be having sex or not. Cortinas mean that we are engaged in a negotiation. No cortinas, no sex.

This is a very good example of why we need to investigate the “authentic traditions” of tango and see if they serve us or not. I really doubt that anybody here in Sydney is playing by these rules.

What we THINK cortinas are for is to help us know when we’ve danced enough with one person. But as the mysterious visitor suggested, we already know whether we want to continue or not. That’s a personal decision, not an arbitrary one of the playlist! And should we want to escape, tango already provides us a way to extricate ourselves. We just say “thank you”, perhaps accompanied by a sweet squeeze of the hand and a smile. And we can do this and be perceived as polite anytime after completing 3 songs with one person.

“But it’s easier to just use the cortina.” This is the response of a lot of people. And this, I believe, gets to the heart of the matter for Us Here Now (which is what I care about in building tango culture and community). Here in Sydney, we have a problem. The problem is that the advanced dancers are mostly professionals, and they mostly dance for business. (This I believe has a significant negative effect on the overall power of a milonga. When the advanced dancers are dancing for pleasure the electricity they create affects everyone. When they are not enjoying, they deprive the milonga of that power. For this reason it was my New Years Resolution for 2012 to stop dancing for business in the milonga, and I have.)

The business orientation means they are generally not enjoying the dance, and they want a polite way to get in and out of it, without their students and would-be students knowing or noticing that something is missing. If everyone is marshalled into a routine of dancing only one tanda, the absence of pleasure is not noticed. (Moreover, if everyone breaks at the cortina, it’s easier for a professional to make the rounds, whereas, if many people continued on the dance floor, they do not become so easily and regularly available.)

“But”, my non-professional friends protest, “I want to dance with Miss.X but without a cortina I don’t know when she’ll be free.” If she’s worth the wait, then wait, savoring your desire for her and her coquettish unavailability. (Remember that she knows you want her, even though you have not caught her glancing in your direction). If she stays on the dance floor for multiple tandas, then perhaps she’ll not be yours tonight. If you’re already thinking about your next acquisition and can’t give your full concentration to the person you’re dancing with now, then sit your ass down. No one wants to be second choice. And don’t kid yourself that you can check out another dancer (or who has just walked through the door) without your partner feeling it. Yes, folks, Tango is the ultimate, seductive and vigilant invitation to Be Here Now. Yes, you get to be with multiple people in one night, but one at a time, and fully, and authentically as long as you both want to keep it up.

As I reflected afterward on dancing to my cortinaless set, I realized that the night restored the very “timeless” experience that my friend had noted in my book, and which I had just lamented. I did lose myself with each partner. Just as dancers sometimes maintain the physical/emotional connection by staying in the embrace between songs, we were able to explore our communion without rude interruption until our connected rhythm came to a natural end for that time. The interruption of a milonga or vals was something we could decide what to do about, and provided a lightening of the mood, and an opportunity for a gentler ending than the abrupt insistence of a cortina.

And then, only then, did I remember that my favorite place to dance, La Viruta in Buenos Aires, calls its tango events “practicas”, although to me they are indistinguishable from a milonga (tablecloths, cabeceo, dim lighting, continuous movement around the dance floor…). Cortinas are not used. And that is the place where I have danced with the most physical and emotional intensity. That is the place I’ve danced with a partner for more than an hour, enabling a depth of experience that cannot be had in a single tanda. Indeed it is largely based on my experience at Viru that I recommend to my students that they should dance multiple tandas, to get beyond the social insecurities of the first tanda to establish trust with their partner so they can experience and develop their dance with more concentration.

I had forgotten what had been lost, and I had no idea that it was still so close to my grasp. And this encourages me to continue questioning and exploring every aspect of tango, to seize and share and build beautiful and rich spaces of pleasure and connection.

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