Summary of central claims

 

1. Postmodernism

The central claim I make is that the contemporary tango scene is Argentine tango taken out of its original historical context, namely, the development of European culture, and especially European music. This culture is characterised by a specific set of cultural values, beliefs and attitudes, such as sociality and beauty. These values are in the process of being shed, debunked, or deconstructed since the 20th century as markers of reaction, conservatism, oppression, kitsch, patriarchy, etc. and therefore can no longer function to provide a basis of criticism and justification for cultural practices in the context of the new postmodern culture characterised by individualism, subjectivism, relativism and progressivism. Leftist or  progressive postmodernism undermines the pririty or legitimacy of any basic or foundational values that characterises Western culture and views them as oppressive. They become merely the preferences of a particular group, typically ‘dead white males’, which happened to be dominant, but has no more legitimacy than the cultures of ‘living marginalised peoples’.

The Western or European cultural canon functioned as a bulwark against he onslaught of free market forces. Culture has always been considered as a realm that is beyond mere utility, a realm of ultimate values that gives respite from market forces. By deligitimizing European culture as a realm of ultimate values, postmodernism succeeds to blur the line between culture and the market, between ultimate and utilitarian values, so that the market intrudes into culture and takes over every realm of life. Losing the critical function of culture means that the market and herd behaviour decide the direction of commodified culture.

These ideological developments, channelled through progressive education in government schools and universities, explain the wide disparity between how tango is practiced in Buenos Aires and elsewhere. The experience of tango will be proportional to the degree to which a given location is subject to the ideology of postmodernism and progressivism. Buenos Aires itself is subject to these ideological forces and it is quite possible that the tradition will not be able to withstand the onslaught of these forces even there, and this is why it is important to understand precisely what is at stake.

2. Beauty

Postmodernism questions and devalues beauty. First, it claims that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that it is a subjective and relative matter, and that there are not absolute judgements to be made. The waterfall is beautiful only if it arouses positive feelings in me. Then, it moves to the claim that since beauty is not an absolute it cannot be an ultimate value. It places all beauty in the realm of kitsch, or false feeling, unless it can be shown as a product of an immediate and hence ‘authentic’ impulse. Authenticity is therefore removed from the realm of established art and placed in the realm of personal, individual expression, current feeling. Postmodern approach to dancing emphasises lack of technique and emphasis on immediacy and primitive impulse and transgression. My claim is to recover the traditional or classical view that beauty is a property of the object that is said to be beautiful. The beauty of the waterfall is a property of the waterfall itself and is independent of my experience of it. Second, beauty is not merely experienced but is discovered by way of a comparative method whereby we uncover the features that render an object beautiful or not. Finally, beauty is the realm of ultimate values that are beyond the realm of market utility and as such provide us with a foundation of aesthetic judgement that is not merely that which is useful or temporarily pleasant, and thus beyond mere fancy or impulse.

3. Authenticity

Today’s ideology views authenticity in terms of either the spontaneous culture of a marginal group, or else in terms of transgression against the norms of what it sees as the mainstream patriarchal Western culture. Marginal cultures are viewed as opposed to the aesthetic norms of the mainstream art tradition. Contemporary art sees the beauty of mainstream artistic tradition as culminating in reproducable kitsch. I follow Roger Scruton in the view that by doing so contemporary art ends up producing art objects that are “novel” and “interesting” but in the end become repetative kitsch themselves. Likewise, the interest in the spontenous culture of ‘marginalised’ groups (Hip Hop, Latin dances, etc.) cannot transcend the status of a merely touristic interest that renders these objects kitsch. Therefore, the postmodern strategy cannot overcome the problem of kitsch. I argue, following Roger Scruton, that it is impossible to experience authentic beauty unless we take the position that some objects have the status of the sacred, that they allow us to transcend the everyday reality, and that they are final, and not merely instrumental, and that they are vehicles for creating meaning in our life.

4. Historical context

The postmodernist ideology leads to an anthropological approach to social practices. Thus, writers and commentators typically either ask what a certain arbitrarily defined group of people (in this case so-called “milongueros” in Buenos Aires) do. Alternatively, they take a “phenomenological” approach, describing their experiences and feelings in learning and dancing tango. These methodological approaches miss the fact that tango as a dance and a music has a history that is rooted in the European tradition of art that going back hundreds of years. Without understanding this history, the anthroplogy and phenomenology lacks the context necessary to provide real understanding, and renders these things as in a vacuum, sui generis, emerging out of nowhere and without any specific place in our cultural genesis. It fits in with the relativism and subjectivism but in the end leaves us confused and ungrounded.

The claim is not that the anthropological and phenomenological approaches have no place, but that they must be located in a historical context. Progressives reject the study of history on the grounds that it is merely the story of “dead white males”, and slander European history as nothing more than the story of colonialism and oppression.
Shedding a proper historical context, anthroplogy and phenomenology become relativistic. If we consider the proper historical context of Latin music and dance generally, and tango specifically, we find that these practices have their origins in English country dances, subsequently spreading in Europe as “contradanza”, and that the specifically latin music emerged in Cuba, subsequently termed “Habanera”. This historical context can provide us with an understanding that can inform our understanding of tango music and of tango dancing as a social practice, other than as merely in terms of individual and subjective experience.

5. Expressivism

Subjectivism and relativism tend to view cultural forms as a matter of transgressive expression, that is, loss of inhibition and rebelliousness. Anthropological texts on dance and music written by progressive academics always emphasise these transgressive and non-conformist aspects, usually as a matter of imaginative interpretation rather than objective fact. Postmodern dance moves away from the strictures of classical beauty and emphasises dance as an expressive form. However, if we take a historical approach and view tango as continuous with Contradanza and Habanera it is more likely that dancing is essentially a social practice rather than an individual and expressive one. It is pretty clear that viewing tango as an expressive practice incompatible with viewing it as a social one, the two tend to be in tension with each other. Learning tango as a matter of conforming or fitting in with the music, one’s partner and other dancers is quite different than learning it with attitude that it is a stimulus to personal self-expression.

6. Choreography

Undermining art as an autonomous realm opens up practices like tango to commodification. The commodified dance market requires that dance teachers package their dance product in terms of ‘pretty’ or ‘cool’ choreographed steps and patterns or routines. Dance classes are fronted by teachers who demonstrate the routine to the students who then attempt to perform it themselves. Learning is assumed to be linear, progressing from simple steps to complex routines. At an intermediate level students progress to workshops that focus on ‘technique’, typically meaning the learning of adornments, or perhaps ‘musicality’, where they typically they will learn a pattern tailor made to a particular type of tango music. The focus on choreography and the assumption of linear progress of steps means that learners focus on the feet and neglect their posture, embrace and the music. These are always compromised for the sake of complex step patterns. An alternative to this is to stick to walking and some basic patterns and focus on the embrace, posture and music. The steps, rather than being markers of mastery, are viewed as variations on walking while in the embrace, with good posture, and while listening to the music. From this perspective, set choreographed patterns are not viewed as the product itself but rather as a means towards improvised dancing whereby the steps naturally emerge out of variations on walking.

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Proposal for an Alternative Tango Nomenclature: Tango Dramático, Tango Romántico y Tango Expresivo

The globalized tango scene is reaching new heights of marketing fervour. Systems have been set up with Facebook groups and pages, professionally photoshopped posters for marathons and DJ lineups complete with the DJ’s bios and face pics. All this marketing is primarily in the service of the organisers because in the end the events are the same in terms of the important things: the ambience, the DJ-ing and the dancing. These are consistently dissatisfying even as the marketing gets louder and more professional. Marketing is really the only thing that is improving in the tango world, and as always, it only serves to promote vapid consumerism and to confuse rather than to help in decisionmaking or to educate.

I believe that a significant source of the problem is that the designations Salon Style Tango, Tango Milonguero and Tango Nuevo are no longer useful. The nomenclature needs to reflect the orientation of the dancers, the value that they extract from the event, and the values that the people attending the event hold. What do the categories “salon”, “milonguero”, “traditional” and “nuevo” tell us? Not that much, in large measure because these words lack connotations that would quickly conjure up images and inform whether this is something that one might find appealing.

81CP1j-zprL._SL1500_For example, the words “blue”, “cool” are associated with the jazz of Miles Davis and jazz musicians of that era. Later, Herbie Hancock initiated “funk” jazz which is associated with words like “groove”, “hip” (as in Hip Hop which is derived from Funk Jazz), and “beat”. These words provide information as to what to expect from this type of music: one is bluesy but cool, so that it’s something listen and relax to (hence “chill out” to but this is a more recent term). The other has a danceable (funky, groovy) beat. We use words to describe the music and the type of attitude that would be associated with it. It gives us an image of the personal style and so tells you whether this is something that would suit your particular individual or personal style, and so whether it is something that you could get into.

The problem is that the words “salon”, “milonguero”, “traditional” or “nuevo” don’t really do the job in tango dancing that the words “blue”, “cool”, “groovy” or “beat” do in relation to jazz. They are not descriptive or evocative enough as adjectives so that one cannot really conjure up an image without getting more information in the form of a lengthy verbal explanation. But if the designating word does not generate an emotional, vivid picture, and you need to use many more words to get the idea across then that word does not function to help in deciding, educating and persuading. The result is that marketing takes on that function with imagery of its own, for its own purposes of producing ever more meaningless consumable entertainments.

Now, there are readily available words that do in fact function to get across the ideas that are normally, albeit inefficiently, contained in “salon”, “milonguero”, “traditional” and “nuevo”. We normally try to express the emotional colouring of these designations using certain adjectives. If a person asks me what sort of music and style one finds in a Salon Style Tango milonga I would say that the music is dramatic. It’s usually quite loud and seems to aim at creating a sense of excitement and drama. This is reflected by the style of dancing, with an open embrace and somewhat exaggerated movements. I often hear that if the music being played is at a lower volume and is more traditional and laid back these people get bored and demand something louder and more exciting. They seem to always crave more of those dramatic peaks more typical in non-traditional (post-1950s music hall) recordings and always at an uncomfortably high volume (eg., you could not have a conversation at such volume without shouting).

Tango Nuevo on the other hand seems to me to be expressive, which is similar to the dramatic aspect of Salon Style Tango but there is even more use of outer space in the service of expressive and fluid movement. They seem to want move their arms and legs in wide circles in a manner that seems best described as expressive and outward. They usually emphasise the freedom to creatively explore possibilities and express one’s individual preferences, and to be open to possibilities and novelty.

Finally, if a person asks me to characterise Tango Estilo Milonguero I would say that it is interested in the romantic aspect of tango music expressed in a more introspective appraoch to dancing. Romance connotes a more receptive, introspective attitude that connects to the sense of longing and sadness in the music. The emphasis on conformity to tradition seems to be misunderstood. The sense of romance that is conveyed in Golden Era tango music can only be appreciated through a sense of quiet and stillness. As Roger Scruton points out, the first step in learning to listen is to learn to appreciate silence. The cultivation of the inner response to the subtle moments demand quiteness and inwardness. Unlike drama or expression, romance demands focused listening and the feeling to be shared in a more inward manner, as it were, as lovers might share a beautiful moment (a sunset, a moon) silently, holding hands.

I accept that perhaps these might not be the connotations that you make, and I am not claiming that these adjectives cannot be applied to all of the different styles. Just as Miles Davies’ jazz can be both cool and groovy, Salon Style Tango can be dramatic, expressive and romantic at the same time. The point is not to draw exclusive categories but to indicate the main focus and value that the participants attach to the event and the activity, what they prioritise. It seems to me that Salon Style Tango dancers prioritise a sense of drama, and that romance or self-expression are really just side dishes for them if one judges by the type and volume of the music that is demanded at those events and the manner of their movement. When Tango Estilo Milonguero people emphasise feeling in tango it seems to me that they are talking about the sense of romance that Golden Era Music always contains and that needs to be inwardly cultivated. When Tango Nuevo people prioritise individuality, creativity, freedom and improvisation it seems to me that their primary interest can be summarised as the pursuit of self-expression.

So I submit that the designations Dramatic Tango, Romantic Tango and Expressive Tango, or Tango Dramático, Tango Romántico and Tango Expresivo, designate much more effectively the different approaches to tango in terms of the dancing, music and ambiance. It expresses more effectively what sort of music the DJ is likely to select, his or her approach to the music set up (music files, player, DAC, speakers, filters and volume), the manner of promotion and event type (encuentro vs marathon), and the manner of dancing. The currently used designations simply do not provide useful information as to what type of teaching, organising and DJ-ing one can expect, and tend to lead to confusion and dissatisfaction among many dancers.

The fundamental problem of global tango: too much floor space

“In Buenos Aires …”

At the traditional milongas like those held at the iconic Salon Canning the floor is packed with dancers shoulder-to-shoulder. When I first arrived it was an intimidating sight but once I got over that and plunged in by the end of my stay I was addicted. There you are with your partner and there is really very little you can ‘do’ and really nowhere you can ‘go’ or ‘walk’. You are stuck in a tiny space and all you can really do is make tight turns until the couple in front moves half a step for you to progress. By the end of my stay this experience has completely changed my understanding of tango and in turn my approach to dancing it. If for no other reason you should go to Buenos Aires at least once to have this very experience. Here is what I learned.

It is a very steep learning curve as stepping onto the dancefloor you discover that you need to radically augment your dancing normally adapted for at least twice the amount of floor space. You need movements you can do in a close embrace that are tight enough and controlled enough such that you can stop at any point due to there being another couple in the space that a moment ago you thought was available. You are basically required to learn the skill of those acrobatic dancers doing tango on a small tabletop but the tabletop is moving under you.

As a leader I soon learned a couple of things. One is that because there is really nowhere to go and no space for loud flinging movements I was soon falling into monotonous repetition. There is only so many turns (giros), stops (paradas), ochos and sandwiches available. I was running out of material usable under these cirumstances before monotony set it. There are as far as I could ascertain only two available strategies. First, you want to make every move count. That means that if the music lets you do one move instead of two or more then you do the bare minimum and you really work it squeezing every ounce of feeling and involvement out of it you can. You really work that movement before you go onto the next one.

Second, because you need to dump a lot of the big walking steps you then need to load up on the tight turns, stops and pauses that you can do in the close embrace in a small area. Because I ran out of material pretty quickly I decided to try to get some more. My first strategy was to attend some classes and see if I can pick up stuff from the local teachers. This was a total failure. All the classes I could find focused on walking and patterns that ate up loads of space or were unleadable in close embrace. (The teachers who would yell in your ear to make bigger steps in the class would become a different person when you saw them at Salon Canning.) I now had to confront the reality that I need to rely on my own resources and adapt. I realised that I fell into a pattern that limited my dancing and I need to be more creative by improvising on the dancefloor and brainstorming some ideas that I learned over the years, adapting them to this new situation.

By the end of my stay I came up with my own ‘package’ of figures that fit the purpose. I was able to avoid dangerous brushes with other couples, protect my partner even from some ‘show’ couples that insisted on high boleos and extended elbows, lead even relative beginners, and have an emotionally satisfying experience. While a lot of the standard things touted about visiting Buenos Aires like the “Paris of South America” meme, great dancers, great teachers, the codigos, etc. came out to be pretty much a nothing burger, the experience of dancing on a packed dancefloor was a singular learning experience. Arriving back in Europe I see pretty great dancing except for this: too much movement, too many steps, steps that are too big and too fast. It would not work at milongas in Salon Canning and it is really a different thing.

Once you experience dancing on a packed floor and enjoy it this, I believe, will change your perspective on the dance and what it is fundamentally about. I do not believe that this feeling can be replicated on a floor that gives you enough space. Even in Buenos Aires I found dancing at milongas that allowed ample floor space boring and really felt like milongas you find anywhere in the world. I was missing the packed crowd of tight dancers. I noticed a couple of things. At Salon Canning, even when the floor seemed packed to the brim people keep piling in. It is as if space is created out of nothing. Second, however, when there are couples who take up too much space by their manner of dancing this completely changed the situation, sucking the energy out of the space. Suddenly you have a young ‘show’ couple endangering your partner with extended elbows and white swipes of the feet. A packed floor only provides that unique satisfaction when there is a mutual respect among the dancers and an effort to accomodate. When the dancing of the adjacent couple is either aggressive, actively blocking your progress, or disregards your presence focusing on their own loud dancing, you feel it immediately.

Seeing the half empty dancefloors at milongas in Europe I wonder whether the experience could be replicated outside of Buenos Aires, whether perhaps teachers and organisers could consciously make the effort to provide less floor space by booking venues that would easily fill up rather than booking spaces that provide ‘enough’ space. Because it seems to me that having enough floor space is actually detrimental. I saw in such venues in Buenos Aires the same thing as I see in Europe: too much movement. Too much movement in the sense of too many steps and steps that are too big and too fast. Dancing with women used to such conditions I feel pressure to keep moving as they are constantly into the next step before me. Dancing with these sorts of women at Salon Canning I found that they keep brushing up against other people’s feet and elbows and soon learn their lesson and start to slow down and dance more tightly. I think there are lessons to be learned here for those who want more traditional milonguero style tango in their home communities.

The dystopian future: hipster tango

“In Buenos Aires …”

… while some traditional milongas maintain a foothold there is a growing number of “neo milongas”. These are not the Gustavo Naveira Tango Nuevo trained people. Nope. These are the tatooed, dreadlocked hipsters you find in the gentrified inner city neighbourhoods of any Western metropolis. They are located in trendy theatre-type spaces with beer, kitschy art and often a live band playing Piazzollaesque tango music. If you thought that Tango Nuevo will be the ruin of tango think again. The Nuevo crowd still learn steps and wear proper clothing. Hipster tango dispenses with such formalities. High heels and dancing skills are optional, a matter of personal taste. There aren’t any rules really and the stale atmosphere closely resembles a hipster pub anywhere in the world.

You might think that this is a marginal trend but consider that when you come to Buenos Aires what you find is that the old city, in terms of architecture and manners, is on the decline and what one sees instead in the younger population (ie., under 40) what seems like well over half of the people have ample unsightly tatoos and dress according to the hipster code (though many women seem to be wearing very little at all), which comes complete with the requisite disdainful attitude. It seems to be some sort of a hipster nirvana, what would be a part of a city elsewhere is much expanded and mainstreamed.

Hipsterism is a nihilist, hedonist culture (if you can call it that), what used to be a subculture but here seems to be ubiquitous. There are at least two types: the yogic and the transgressive hipster. The yogic hipster is the spiritual vegan meditating type. They are malnourished and have a superiority complex which can make them quite aggressive. The transgressive hipster is so countercultural that they all look the same, subscribing to a strict dress code of jeans, t-shirt, beard and/or dreadlocks, often a scateboard, bicycle or instrument of some sort, and always the ample unsightly tatoos that you can’t avoid looking at in amazement at the level of human stupidity and poor taste. They’re usually happy, if in suboptimal health, as they keep themselves satisfied with beer, cigarettes, weed, junk food, skateboarding, and trash rock music. We’re talking about people over 30 by the way.

The Tango Nuevo crowd probably falls more on the yogic hipster end of the spectrum and they are to be found at locales such as DNI Tango which is a corporate yoga-inspired type of venture. The transgressive hipster type dive bars are cropping up, however, and I count at least three to five of them (depending on how you count). They resemble arty pubs or jazz bars catering to hipsters in inner city areas anywhere: beer is cheap, there is beer food, the music is jazzed up for the contemporary taste and dancing skills are rudimentary. It’s tango for the post-90s hipster market to go along with tatoo shops, skateboarding fashion and Gothic rock or whatever rubbish they listen to. I will be surprised if this menace doesn’t take over completely within a decade.

Post Scriptum

Some useful advice from an older man to those considering tatoos and hipsterism:

Introduction to culture and politics

It is impossible to write about tango culture without talking about politics at the same time. Part of the reason is that, whether we like it or not, everything today has become politicised. You can try to ignore the politics and try to focus on learning the basics of dancing technique and tango culture and it may work for you in some places. But its increasingly difficult to live in such a bubble and ignore the politics because they seem to have a tendency to take over everything, so might as well confront them head on and call a spade a spade.

Tango culture and politics are connected in a number of ways that are intrinsically connected to learning tango:

To begin with, the different styles of tango create disagreements and it is not clear what is the nature of these disagreements. Are we talking about different shades of a colour or different colours altogether? Can they coexist?

More deeply, there is the question of tradition and authenticity. This question bears closely on our approach to learning and will affect our success. Should we take a culturally relativist stance to tango culture, and view it as sui generis, an exotic culture of the south, or should we view it as continuous with European culture, with English country dances, the habanera and the classical tradition, esp. Romanticism?

How we decide the question of tradition and authenticity will determine the question of the basis of judgement and criticism, of deciding what is good and what is bad, and in that sense also our learning. Are judgements about authenticity a matter of insider knowledge of those who participate in the cultural practice of a given ethnic group, or is it more like the aesthetic judgement exercised with respect to say classical music, where we appeal to more universal principles of beauty and taste?

I suggest that in the current state the participants on the tango political scene take a culturally relativist approach. I believe that this creates a relativist political game where there are competing cultural paradigms that appeal to consumer choice. I do not find this very satisfying and suggest an approach that is traditionalist but draws on art criticism, esp. in music, rather than narrow cultural relativism. In developing this argument I draw heavily on the writings of the philosopher of art Roger Scruton.

Finally, there is the wider set of issues generated by the cultural revolution of the 1960s which has given us the current culture wars, postmodernism in the arts, radical feminism, misandry and anti-white racism. Although academic postmodernism goes hand in hand with cultural relativism, it goes further in that it rejects beauty, tradition and all standards of critical judgement. What matters is not truth but power, and so radical feminism is the first step in the oppression olympics where white men are, from the outset, at the bottom of the pile, viewed with derision as victimising all the oppressed groups.

This sort of sexism and racism could be ignored when it was still consigned to sociology, gender studies and dance schools of some universities. Now that it has entered the mainstream (everyone has an arts degree, it seems) it has a tendency to infect all aspects of life. I try to point out some of the ramifications of this in relation to tango, eg., how the growing attacks on the ‘binary’ nature of male and female roles and the coming ideology of gender fluidity is affecting the practice of tango.