Right, wrong, and handsome

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“It’s an interesting phrase…” my student said. “–The one the Argentine teachers use: ‘It’s not wrong, but…’ Why do they say that?”

There are obvious answers, and deeper ones. On the obvious level are several possibilities, such as: [1] The student might be using a different, perfectly legitimate, sequence to get the same result. Affirming that there are lots of ways to mark the same thing, the teacher is just clarifying what it was they were trying to teach: “…but the one I showed you starts in cross system.” Or [2] The teacher might be saying that you’ve performed the sequence accurately “…but it could look/feel better”.

Always looking for a deeper response, I first tried to translate this phrase, to rouse a memory of it in the Buenos Aires context, to taste its familiar character. I couldn’t. What I did remember was a number of conversations in which I tried to use the words ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’, and failed to communicate my meaning.

I have a particular and limited trust in what I experience culturally through the language space. Describing my Castellano, a friend says: “Your syntax is a disaster, but your meaning is always clear.” I have learned only by intercambios (interactions), not by classroom study. So my vocabulary contains most of the words needed to teach tango, orient oneself to milongas, shop, and get around the city. And these concepts –”right” and “wrong”– are not part of that vocabulary.

Instead of “wrong”, I know the word for “ugly” (feo). I also know the word for “bad feeling” (mala onda) which can apply to a person, a relationship, or an event. I know the familiar phrase ‘no me gusta’ (I don’t like it). *

Is it telling that the most common way to praise the quality of something, whether it’s a workshop or a performance is to call it ‘pretty’ (linda). The careful observer should learn something quite deep about how Buenos Aires and tango culture functions. Looking good is not only important, it is the bottom line. There is no deeper truth nor higher obligation.

As I understand it, Buenos Aires culture developed in a crucible of hybridity and competition. As tango was born (around 1880) and grew, immigrants were arriving in the city at such a rate that the native born were outnumbered 5:1. Dreaming of wealth and a scarce woman, every opportunity was precious. Talent and ambition were in surfeit, and surely a great deal went wasted and unrecognized. Wear your fancy suit and hide the holes in your shoes with pointed toes. Show your best right now, because you may not get this chance again. Regardless of your talent.

Imagine a society that did not have the myth of meritocracy.

Without it, the trump card of Having the Right Answer loses its power. What matters instead is holding the attention, with your eyes, your smile, your elegance, your humor,  your sweetness… Reputation, then, is the accumulation of holding attention.

The influence of foreign interest in tango and the emergence of a lucrative industry have added a new concept to the lexicon of what you can try to show to others: authenticity. But no one knows the history of a dance that was considered beneath contempt by the people who wrote history. By the time tango was embraced as national culture the Africans had been eliminated, the lower classes had been bought out, and the gender ratios equilibrated. And anyway accuracy will always be slippery with a hybrid and living art form that was already globalized by 1902 (when the New York Times reported tango lessons being held at fancy department stores in European cities).

Authenticity, then, is a personal performance no less than elegance. Untestable, charismatic, and authoritarian, it works by manipulating the observer’s desires and fantasies. It’s lovely and true that not much is “wrong” in tango. Few couples in a milonga are dancing alike, and innovation and improvisation is fundamental to the experience and the culture. The dance is personal. It’s evocative. It’s your opportunity and responsibility to breathe life into this old music, these difficult steps, this awkward intimacy.

Poignantly, those things that are Right and Wrong are related to the codigos, the social etiquette, not the dancing. An etiquette –it should be noted– that make no pretense to egalitarianism but is organized around care and feeding of the ego. You will neither portune nor reject someone in an obvious manner. You will not invade or delimit another’s space on the dance floor. The codigos are structured to support a show of charisma by those who can get it up. Those who can’t have sidelined themselves already.

Tango is tender, but as any persistent dancer knows, it is also brutal. Its decorum offers an appearance of grace, but no forgiveness. The milonga offers a vision of egalitarianism, within which the very tables have hierarchy.

The tables are woven together by a threadwork of kisses and smiles which generously belie, while serving, the very real stakes in every interaction. I don’t know who you are, so I will kiss you just in case you are important, or become so. I will kiss you so that you feel good and you associate that with me. I will turn from my important table and kiss you so that you remember me, just in case.

Wrong is not to take care of every possibility, with grace and charisma. (Here in Sydney, we have table territories guarded with authoritative scowls. No fabric of abundant friendly kisses and greetings here. The result is grim.)

The Right. Well there is no right. Because someone more handsome and talented hovers behind you.  There is only what is now. And  the threads which might make a future.


* If you’re wondering about the use of single and double quotes, be advised that I use the standards defined by academic philosophy. When not denoting verbatim replication of a printed or person’s statement, double quotes attend to the meaning of the phrase. Single quotes refer to the word or phrase itself.

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