In early October a somewhat frantic Los Angeles journalist contacted me by email, SMS, and webchat to interview me as an “expert” on “the burning edge of sublime”. I responded to all of her questions but she eventually cancelled the project because our videos were “handheld” and the photos were not high resolution. Here’s an assembly of the Q (in grey) and A…
Was Borges wrong about the origins and duende of tango? As you know, he maintained that tango arose in the brothels, prisons, streets. Now it’s danced in shopping centers!
Everything I know about Borges I learned from literature professor Sylvia Malloy who gave a talk about Borges at a conference about tango at Harvard University in 2007. She explained that Borges was a sickly young man whose family was rich and protective. He was not often allowed to go out of the house. His friends came over to entertain him with likely-exaggerated stories of the exotic (poor) barrios. Borges’ writings further elaborated the perspectives and fantasies of the inquisitive upper class boys’ reports on what we now call “slumming”.
At the same conference musician and auto-didact historian Pablo Aslan explained that he tried to verify knife fights in tango halls and so forth in old police ledgers and could find no evidence of these myths.
I am therefore totally hesitant about any myths of tango. Robert Thompson’s book The Art History of Love (stupid title) does a remarkable job of organizing the evidence about the Africanism, which I find to a be a far more interesting story than the brothelism.
There is a move afoot to sanitize tango— to make it happy and squeaky-clean. For me, that effort is off-base spiritually. For me…tango is about heart-pain —–separation——despair———lashings of tears ——— longing —— loss ——— adoration —— surrender to the moment —in the arms of a stranger in the dark. An alchemy of forgetting. Absinthe and Nepenthes. Desiring, yearning, mourning, grieving. And the desperate burying of one’s heart.
The sanitizing has been going on for a long time. Tango came to Europe around 1902. It was cleaned up to be presented to royalty and in department stores. It was therefore mixed with ballroom dancing.
Back in Argentina it was used by various political parties to build nationalism and class solidarity until the dictatorship. And after the dictatorship, it was used to “sanitize” Argentina’s violent image on the international stage… Chapter 2 of Carolyn Merritt’s book is a super competent description of this part of the history.
I don’t see it getting happier. I see it getting more formalized, in competitions, and taking itself more seriously. In Buenos Aires when I was there and dancing in all sorts of milongas, what I found was that a typical and good tango dance incorporated contrast, fast and slow, happy and serious, dramatic and light… This is what has been sanitized. Now in most of the world there is a severe narrowing of which music is played, which steps are used, which emotions are on the faces. And bigotry. Everything outside of that narrow lane is “not tango”, “ugly”, “not authentic”, “not danceable”… etc.
For the heart pain I direct you to the most superlative text I know on tango, Julie Taylor’s Paper Tangos. About how in Buenos Aires people used tango to “recover from”, grieve, etc. the dictatorship.
I guess what I am responding to is the overall insistence that tango is not desperate, degenerate, depressed. My premise: tango is our Shadow in the Jungian sense.That forbidden aspect of ourselves we deny. And which always comes calling when we least expect it. It calls to us from the shadows. Tango is the Outsider in each of us. The Outlaw. The Outcast. The Outlier.
For me the “forbidden aspect of ourselves that we deny” is the very ugly fact that feminist women want to be held and shoved around by a man. The tighter he holds her and the more authoritatively he shoves her around, the happier she is. I have tons of evidence of this from living and working tango in the most feminist countries on the planet in the last 15 years. I have no idea what was going through people’s psyches in the 1940s in Argentina.
This is perhaps our starting point. Are you aware of a person called David Deida? He has a huge following in the US. He is a self-proclaimed sex shaman, and his premise is polarity— that hetero men and women do best when they do NOT try to be more “like” one another. Per Robert Bly, Iron John, the Post WWII “soft” man is more sympathetic/empathetic to women — and women of my generation and younger are fed up with boys who cry in the movies. Does this resonate to Freud’s insistence that women want to be raped? Even Camille Paglia says so.
Ok, but it’s a jump from “a strong embrace” to rape…
Here’s how the women say it to me…. They are complaining about not getting enough dances or not the right dances and I say “why don’t you learn to lead? then you are in control of your evening.” They say “I’m a professional. I have a business. I’m a scientist. I am in charge of 15 people, etc. etc. etc…. I lead all day, I don’t want to lead at night, when I’m not at work.”
What it means is that women who have done the feminist stuffs on a professional level still want the traditional gender roles in their personal, physical, romantic life. As in to be held in the arms of a man. (Even though they will say that I am a better leader than most men and more interesting to dance with they prefer a man because he is stronger, cosier, they can relax and let go and be taken care of.)
I don’t really think this is bad news. The men I talk to all over the world say they are totally perplexed, they don’t know what to do, don’t know how to be good men. They want to. They are afraid to open the door or pay for dinner. So maybe it’s good news that women still want men to be gentlemanly after feminism?
When I train men they are so afraid to push their hearts forward into my body. They think that strength is violence, I have to teach them the difference. Women want their strength in an embrace. That doesn’t mean the women want violence or rape.
Feminism has not produced new cultural images about romance. It’s still proposals, rings, white dresses. We’ve just nicely added gay people. But no change in the culture/symbology of emotions, the “structure of feeling”.
What do you consider authentic— and what moves flag an approach to tango as inauthentic? – Is historic authenticity even relevant to dancers? Is tango a “museum”— or a living, breathing thing which by nature must change?
About authenticity I’ve written again and again, in several directions. I can’t add anything to the political economy of authenticity that I wrote most concisely in Until Forever, based on the collection of posts on this page.
As an outsider: the embrace. I get heart-to heart. But so often tangueros seem deathly afraid of pelvic contact! I watched some dancers on Friday who danced with their, well, their nalgas! stuck way out into space as if to avoid pelvic contact. Is this just bad dancing? Seems oddly Puritanical. ?
Tango’s etiquette is very very formal and respectful, so you might conclude the lack of pelvic contact has to do with that.
Thompson would say this is an African posture and one of the references to the African origins.
I can tell you that there are two functional reasons for the arched relation of the bodies.
One is to create shared balance. Although ballet was performed in Buenos Aires before the emergence of tango and influenced the aesthetics of the tango foot and walk, the ballerina’s axis is irrelevant to tango as she can’t withstand the lateral force we use to lead. This force must be resisted with bone and muscle through some engineering best understood and visualized as an arch.
The second is that we need that space between the hips! Because in tango the partners are often not moving in a mirror image, there are many movements in which the follower or the leader does a maneuver through that space.
What moves do you like, not like?
I like all tango moves. They are all charming, moody, expressive. We need them ALL! What I don’t like is people who claim that certain moves are “ugly” or “not tango”. More and more old moves are disappearing. And of the ones that remain in use, people only use one or two variations out of the 8-72 variations that exist for each move. The number of movements possible based on the vocabulary of tango is roughly 1000. That’s the same as the number of sounds a piano can make. That means tango dancing ought to be as diverse as piano music. (Imagine, only Chopin!!!) Instead we see all over the world the same small handful, in a few variations, with scarcely any change of dynamic, being applied ideologically and idiotically to ONE decade of music from one country.
In addition to ugly economics about mythical and bigoted authenticity, there is also some ugly politics going on about the movements. I can’t say it any better than it is here: https://tangoforge.com/pleasureprinciple/
there is the allure of anonymity. Milongas. Maybe I am projecting my own experience. ? But my sense is that at the social clubs, people meet for the first time, or maybe not for the first time, but they are not friends. Or lovers. They don’t know each other outside of the dance floor. True? Partly true? So the anonymity. Secrecy, in a way. Of sharing searing intimacy — grief — loss — desire — in the arms of a stranger — whom you may never see again.Is the above accurate for you? How do you feel while dancing?
When I started dancing in LA lots of movie stars and other rich or powerful people dancing tango in LA, I don’t know if they still go to the public events as they did in those days. But everybody used a single name. It was not really ok to ask someone’s last name or what they did. Lots of the single names were sobre-nombres.
These days dancers who meet and like each other are immediately adding each other on fb. I don’t really like it. For me the anonymity was delicious. My first tango crush was a guy who didn’t dance with me every time he saw me. We never spoke and I didn’t know his name. I dreamed about him.
There is something more exciting about not knowing if he will be there. Maybe also addictive. Not wanting to miss out on him, or on someone new who I could meet for the first time.
I’ve had 19 professional dance partners. Most of them, including Roberto who has been my partner for 9 years, I met at a milonga.
Here’s the first thing I ever wrote about tango. It still kinda says it all.
Is tango “tragic”?
Here’s are two blog posts on that topic. The first is advice. It’s called Better than Sex. The second, Buscamos. is biographical, yet also somewhat the standard tragedy
Also in my experience as a teacher, most couples who start tango will break up. Because one of them likes it and does well and the other does not. And the riches that open to the one who enters are irresistible and incomparable.
Why do you dance? And why tango?
When I started dancing tango I was a professor. I didn’t want people I danced with to find out about my politics, so I like many dancers before facebook used a “sobre-nombre”, Violet. My first teacher was Argentine and called me Violeta, then she made a dimunitive, Vio, and that caught on and everyone called me that. When I became a professional that was already my name. Like many professionals with distinctive names, we go by the sobre-nombre, or by the couple name.
I founded my company and started blogging in 2009. The correct way to refer to me is Vio of TangoForge.
I’m from San Francisco originally. I went to Montessori school and studied art as a child at SFMOMA, the DeYoung, and the Exploratorium (that was science, but I didn’t know the difference). I trained at San Francisco Academy of Ballet. I was on the Squaw Valley Ski Team. I want to Hamlin School, later Cate, then MIT, and did my PhD at UCSB. At MIT I was one of few undergraduates who studied at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (one of the first centers of collaboration between artists and engineers). I did my B.S. and also Masters in City Planning there, where I learned about community development and self-determination. My PhD was in political economy and social movements.
After 9-11 and Fox News it became impossible to teach, and I was already frustrated with the glacial pace of academic publishing. I was becoming a bitter academic who could figure out what was wrong with anyone’s ideology in 5 minutes. I didn’t like myself. I decided to leave her at home. I started dancing and throwing dinner parties. Tango induced ecstasy and cognitive dissonance, and I decided to trust it without understanding it.
I met the love of my life at a tango festival. We went to train in Argentina, where he abandoned me. That was 2009 and I never went back to the university or the US. I’m still living with what I had in the suitcases with me. I’ve lived from my work with tango since then, building my business first in New Zealand, then Sydney, then Berlin.
So my editor is looking for gorgeous, commercial videos. Like these. Do you object?
“Dancing with the Stars”-quality choreo —slick as porno ——is how most people are exposed to tango. Advice?
That’s the hook!!!!
The real tango is done in the dark. Even pro photographers don’t get much. There are no red dresses with slits. And people don’t want their husband to see the photo.
The real tango is not on a stage. People don’t wear much makeup. It’s all going on in the shadow between the partners’ bodies, where you can’t get a camera.
Just curious: how would you rate this vid?
That video is choreography, only used for stage shoes. He is not leading. A lot of the people who do this stage dancing can’t even dance socially which means they can’t lead and follow. All thr sublime and shadow stuff you are talking about has to do with the social dance in which we are doing lead follow and it is improvised. In the videos I sent you there is no choreography. I hope you can see the difference in the intensity of the concentration and also that the woman is moving as a *consequence* of the man (a little later and you can see that there is motion in his body that transfers to her). Tango is the only dance that has consequence.
Argentine Tango is a social dance. That mean that the main form it takes is that amateurs get together at bars and dance schools and lion’s clubs or other institutional places to dance. This event is called a “milonga”. It has an etiquette. They dance mostly to recorded Argentine music from 1930-1970, sometimes to live cover bands, and sometimes to contemporary tango music or other music. This is happening all over the world. Tango is big in Russia and China. It’s in India and South Africa. It’s in small towns in Italy. Berlin is the number two tango city in the world, with, according to some estimates 10,000 dancers. There are 8 milongas on Wednesday nights in Berlin. You can see the schedule of events in Los Angeles here, to get a sense:
At milongas, everyone is improvising from tango’s base elements. There are about 25 elements which can be done in about 1000 variations. Unfortunately most people use only about 100, which is frustrating to more ambitious dancers.
Not every night, but at more important milongas, there will be a “show”/performance. Some professionals (often a couple who is visiting town to teach for the weekend) are invited to dance 3 or 4 songs. The dances sit on the floor to scrutinize, and learn. These dances serve to prove the abilities of the professionals to improvise and they inspire and educate fellow dancers.
The most famous dancers are amateur social dancers who got very, very good, started to get invited to perform in milongas, and then began to teach. It’s not a career path.
There are also stage shows displaying choreographies. Their performers are often not social dancers. They are young people who go to dance school, learn many dances, and choose tango. Some of them learn to dance socially, but often not very well. They dance choreographies on stage for tourists in Buenos Aires. Some of the stage shows feature “stars” of tango who came from the social scene, but very often the dancers on stages are not able to dance socially. And the stage scene is totally irrelevant to the roughly one million people around the world who dance tango.
Every year in Buenos Aires there is now a “world cup” of tango (the Mundial). This is a global competition (starting in cities around the world and building up to the finals in Buenos Aires). It is rigged to be sure that Argentines win. It now serves as a career-maker for the winners. The competition is very controversial, because social dancers do not believe there should be competition, it seen as the “ballroomization” of tango, and the rules are very political and set in Buenos Aires. They do not reflect the global tango scene. There are now people running around being heralded as the “best dancers in the world” who no one heard of last year and did not ever do a performance in the milongas in Buenos Aires.
In the US more than in Europe, the feeder competitions to the Mundial are distorting the world of social tango. It’s causing beginners to dance very stiffly and doing very limited movements, pursuing the “style” of the competitions. They prioritize training for the competitions over training to be good social dancers, training to express themselves. They all dance alike and it’s very boring.
How can YOU tell (by watching) improv from memorized sequences?
The woman’s leg starts moving before or at the same time as the man moves. That means she already knows what’s going to happen.
As I wrote before tango is the only dance with consequence. The follower’s movements are the consequence of the leader’s because he is deciding in real time. She moves just slightly after.
I can also see in improvised dancing the level of concentration. Sometimes in tango shows they take “tango face” very serious, but you can see when this is authentic concentration.
Also there are very tiny mistakes in improvisation, tiny gaps in communication, quickly covered. In choreography either there are no mistakes or they are big mistakes.
I recommended these videos. Chicho is one of the top three dancers in the world, many people say he’s the best. Chicho and Dana both were super important in figuring out how to make tango contemporary, with the dynamic necessary to dance on contemporary music.
So we would not use a video like this bc it’s hand-held and rough. Vio, we need professional visuals. Pls advise!
Sometimes this business with production values is very annoying. There is not a lot of money in the tango world. These days there are “professional” photographers and videographers, but they, like all but the top 10% of the artists, don’t get paid enough to live on. This is an art form that it still made possible by a social movement and volunteers.
My company does have some stuff shot by professionals. But the top professional who ever shot us, who only shoots dance, also shoots hand-held as did the guy with the red camera.
The two videos I sent to you before that you dismissed as “handheld and rough” are extremely famous and important videos. Such improvised performances in the milongas of Buenos Aires are one-time events. Improvised. The music chosen at the last moment. No one knows the dances will be superlative. It’s lucky that anyone had a decent camera on these performances and uploaded it.
Here’s another great dance by Chicho and Juana, in a very intimate setting, better quality. And here’s the most beautiful dance by Dana and Pablo. This was an even better dance. I was there. But there is only this one low resolution recording.
You will be hard pressed to find any video regardless of production quality where the dancing is better than these two.
Specifically, what makes Chicho+Dana’s contribution “contemporary”? How is it different from tango of 1940? 1950?
“Contemporary tango” is a very fraught concept. First I have to tell you that tango is not just a dance, it is a genre of music. According the musicologists the music appeared around 1880 and the dance around 1890. Both were fusions of the incredibly diverse peoples inhabiting the Rio de la Plata region of Uruguay and Argentina. The main instrument of tango is the German bandoneon. Most of the instruments were lightweight and came with the sailors. Italian violins, guitars. African slaves in the region had independent communities, kings and queens, parades and festivals, which influenced the culture and aesthetics of everyone else. Their dance halls were called “tango” halls. There were coyboys singing stories in the plains. Then there was ballet and pianos… And the ships were stopping in the Caribbean and picking up rhythms there….
In the 1960s some tango musicians started to mix tango with jazz and classical music. They were hated in Buenos Aires and this started the policing of what IS tango and what IS NOT tango. These days at some milongas it’s specified that no music recorded after 1950 will be played.
Ok, so tango started out working class, wasn’t very well documented. Borges wrote some fantasies. It went to Europe, it got cleaned up, it came back, it got middle class. It got political. Very popular. Dictatorship outlawed it. Rock and roll generation didn’t like it. After the dictatorship c. 1980 it became part of nation re-building. Argentina sent out a tango stage show choreography around the world to recuperate its image. The government also paid anybody they could find to TEACH tango in local community centers as part of rebuilding society. Tango did help people heal. (Julie Taylor, Paper Tangos). People of the world loved the stage show and started little local tango communities. Some of the dancers got off the show and helped to build tango social dance communities in New York, Paris, etc. Foreigners started going to Buenos Aires to learn.
Late 1990s is the first electro-tango (tango with electric instruments). A French band, Gotan Project. Then there was the first Argentine electrotango band, NarcoTango. At the same time, some young dancers catalogued tango. Social tango to that point had always been danced in little phrases, sequences of 3-12 or so steps. The famous guys were those who could invent new sequences. The youngsters broke tango down to its most basic elements, words, instead of sentences, so they could improvise every step. This opened up the possibility to find the 1000, to apply tango to any music, which they did, dancing to electrotango and even to music that had no relation to the tango genre. Chicho is one of the most beloved of the dancers of this generation. Considered to be a genius for his musicality.
Women’s movements got more fluid, women’s role got more important. Dana was the first to figure out how to move her legs fluidly. Before her, the woman’s legs were always staccato and sharp. She was derided for “throwing her legs around” but all the professionals went to learn from her and now her way of moving is de rigeur. But women are still derided for “throwing their legs around”….
This era of exploratory, virtuosic dancing lasted until about 2010. The height was around 2006.
In 2010 a couple of bad things happened. Foreigners won the world cup, so Argentines had to find a way to make the dance something they would always win, to hold the patrimony. The openness of teaching and dancing in Buenos Aires started to close. (Also they changed the rules of the Mundial.) They began to dance in a way that more girls could succceed at. This idea of making the dance more “social”, less demanding for the woman than the virtuosic era, took hold internationally. There was also a very bad woman, Susanna Miller, who started going around the world telling people that only her ideas about tango were traditional and authentic. These two waves reinforced each other and in a few years electrotango music, women’s legs in flight, and half of the tango vocabulary had all but disappeared from milongas. Tango became “fundamentalist” and sadly, young people were at the forefront of this movement, in New York, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, and even Berlin.
These days there is very little contemporary tango dancing or music in the US. There is still a scene in Europe, but these dancers, DJs, and musicians have had to create their own events, because of the bigotry of mainstream tango. This new scene has made some innovations in DJing and also in the use of VJ projections across the dance floor, but there is nothing new in the dance.
Many of the virtuoisic era dancers, including Chicho, have recanted, and no longer dance on electrotango.
Here’s the archive of one of the most famous videographers for improvised tango, my friend Thomas Conte. Note that the dances of the last few years are all very similar.
Here are two performances you may like, with good production quality.
Sebastian Arce, a youngster alongside Chicho, with Mariana Montes, his long-time preferred partner.
Eugenia Parrilla (ex-partner of Chicho), one of the most adored women dancers in the world and my favorite. The guy she’s dancing with here is not famous, because he’s her boyfriend. She trained him. She’s one of very very few women in tango who work on her own name. This is a great dance.