During this time of Distance, I am thinking a lot about whether I want to return to tango, and if so in what way.
Given the rapid cycles of pain and pleasure, I have always found it hard to do the accounting about tango. That’s why I wrote Until Forever and accompanied it with the Dark Silences workbook, and now I’ve written a workbook especially designed for this period of Distance. I have discovered that there are more things I do not miss than things I miss.
I will not abandon those dancers who are part of my community, but the idea of exposing myself to the vicissitudes of a milonga is not high on my post-crisis to-do list. For me the Distance has been an experiment in pain and stress reduction and I’m not at all sure I want to “repolarize the hull plating.”*
*That’s a Star Trek reference meaning to erect an invisible defensive shield in anticipation of battle.
In addition to the pain and elation cycles of milongas, which every dancer I know experiences, as a professional there are additional disturbances.
Besides the financial stress, there is for me a great deal of ethical stress. Before tango I was part of democratic and feminist communities committed to solidarity, self-reflection, and dialogue. The wave of tango deposited me into a landscape that seemed to have no moral structure whatsoever beyond the codigos, whose only purpose is care for the ego.
It is worth thinking about the difference between caring for egos and caring for society. At first glance we see that an ego-care system could be egalitarian and support individual sovereignty. But what goes missing when that is the only system we have? What indeed is social, and what social dimensions require care?
What do I mean when I say that the tango industry is unethical?
As a former professional educator, I am horrified by both standard deceptions and diverse transgressions that I am expected to countenance without reacting. These are the most egregious common violations of educational ethics:
- withholding information from students so as to prevent their accession
- “dripping” information slowly to keep students paying for a longer period of time than necessary for learning
- refusal to take responsibility for student outcomes
- lack of assessment and revision of teaching practices
Further violations are diverse:
- using flirtation and seduction to attract new customers and to keep customers loyal, even cultivating the customer’s belief in a secret love (especially private lesson students) loyal
- putting pressure on students to attend classes or events
- the cultivation of snarky fiefdoms to keep students confined to one school
- trumping: using claims to authenticity in lieu of instruction
- thrall: showing off or bragging to the students instead of empowering them
- humiliation: making fun of the students , rather than giving instuction
- manipulating history in the interest of a product/sales strategy
- failing to respond to gifts of housing, rides, organizing with a comparable gift of dances and recognition
- use of unverifiable nonsense words
- using choreography in a purportedly improvised performance
- denigrating students and social dancers for using the movements that professionals use in performances
- variable friendliness based on the hierarchy of who is in the room
How am I part of this?
My own students may believe that I am doing more good than harm, perhaps even that I help to repair some of the damage. Why then am I increasingly reluctant to participate?
In the first place, I hear a lot of disturbing information about what people are teaching, and I see a lot of students so ill-served that they deserve refunds. These damaged students haughtily tell me that I have a different “style”. That is frankly irrelevant to the basic competencies that should and can be imparted in the first six months of dancing. Instead what is mostly produced are armies of numb zombies pounding out the few sequences they can remember with strong defenses against perceiving what they are missing. In a few years they engrave debilitating habits that are very difficult to unlearn.
Secondly, the lack of objectivity and the distortion of history mean that my work to teach all of tango is a battle in which I am somehow an “outsider”, despite being better trained than most of the people who talk about me. The competition, feudalism, hostility, and dishonesty make this career very lonely. In business it’s very important to have mentors. I have to laugh every time I read some business coaching about getting “endorsements” from more established industry peers. This doesn’t happen in tango.
I want to be part of an industry with peers committed to self-awareness, self-reflection, and solidarity.
My collection above is far from complete. Some themes are dishonesty, manipulation, fraud, facade without substance, abuse. As you can easily determine, the codigos’ protection of the ego from rejection doesn’t protect anyone from any of this possibly more damaging stuff.
Further, the damages are not just individual, but distorting to our communities. We are all collectively learning too slowly, and passing around too much bad information. Recent global events have illustrated that infodemics are truly dangerous in all sorts of ways, not least their broadscale effect of undermining the possibility of trust.
The morally emaciated codigos come from Argentina, a nation that has been continuously traumatized since its founding. Tango was born and bred and continues to be led from a condition of trauma. Those who know Argentine people know that no matter how lovely they are in many ways also recognize that trust is simply not on the agenda.
Let us consider the fact that we are spending time, money, energy, and opening our hearts and minds to a culture which is fundamentally asocial.
And let us consider what we can do about that when we return.
Building a new tango culture
It does not begin with throwing out the cabaceo. That’s one of the best things we have, because it is all about the very contemporary issue of consent.
And the codigos are mostly pretty good.
We just need a bit more. Here are some ideas:
- Students must insist upon a curriculum, rather than just following along from sequence to sequence. The TangoForge MasterCourse is one such curriculum. Students can use our Lexicon to evaluate their progress.
- Students must learn to identify and actively reject forms of teaching that are not effective instruction. That doesn’t mean leaving your teacher, who is a great dancer and feels like a friend after all these years, but challenging them to improve the quality of the information they are conveying to you.
- We need community codes to accompany the individualistic codigos: I’ve written a draft Code of Ethics for Tango Communities.
- We need to have some overdue conversations about forms of compensation of volunteers who have worked for decades and the professionals whose careers they have made possible.
- We need to strategize about the financial viability of local milongas and instructors with solidarity rather than
- We need to gently open a whole lot of space to discuss the ways that tango’s extreme gender roles affect us. From the “pressure” men feel to the silence imposed on women and everything between and around. We need to become experts in the small and large ways that this retro role play affects our real bodies, relationships, and psyches.