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 local ‘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. This would not work at milongas in Salon Canning and it is really a different sort of sensation.

Once you experience dancing on a packed dance floor it will change your perspective on the dance and what it is really all about. I do not believe that this feeling can be replicated on a floor that gives you ‘adequate’ space. Even in Buenos Aires I found dancing at milongas that allowed ample floor space boring and felt like milongas you find anywhere in the world. I was missing the packed crowd of tight dancers.

I also noticed that 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. I also noticed that when there are couples who take up more than their fair share of 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. 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. When I saw an Argentinian teacher in Poland moving furniture to make more dance floor space as more people came in, I pointed out to him that it’s not a packed dance floor by Buenos Aires standards. He replied “I’m from Buenos Aires”. A typical placating response that begs the question. Why is it always necessary to adapt tango to local conditions, or to the apparent requirements of the level of the local dancers? People learn and improve by adapting to the situation not vice versa. If you always give people loads of space for dancing they will get used to taking up a lot of space in their dancing.

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 nuevo 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 vacuous, nihilist, hedonist “culture”, 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 politics and criticism

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.

Feeling: music as movement and expression


“Tango is a feeling”


Traditional tango dancers in Argentina are often heard saying that tango is a feeling and one has to express that feeling in dancing tango. There is the technique of dancing and there is the culture of the milongas, but in the end all of that is subsidiary to the ultimate goal of tango which is the feeling. Learning dancing technique and tango culture may distract us from this fact because we may suppose that learning these other things will ultimately guide us to attain that feeling, to experience it, and to express it in our dancing. Yet it seems that this outcome is not inevitable and that it is possible for a person to go through the whole process without succeeding in feeling what tango requires. It is not entirely clear whether feeling is something that one should automatically or naturally experience, or whether it is something that is also learned.

One may suppose that the feeling in question is just whatever one feels when one is doing tango. The problem seems to be somewhat like the problem of art: is art some specific type of work that we put in art galleries because it satisfies some artistic standards set by the critics, or as some postmodernist thinkers suggest, is it art simply by virtue of being located in the art gallery. downloadIn that case, could a fire hydrant be an artwork simply by virtue of being located in an art gallery?

If we want to claim that some people don’t feel the music we must provide some sort of a standard for telling the correct way of feeling the music. Here we must assume that feeling is not merely an individual and subjective experience, but is something that can be shared and agreed upon. Otherwise, how can two people dance if they have no way of telling whether they agree on the feeling. That means that the the feeling must be expressed in the way the dancer expresses, interprets and hence understands the music, which may be more or less correct or agreed upon.

The idea that the feeling of the music is a purely subjective matter might be in part due to the fact that a lot of music is listened to in silence without any overt expression. The paradigm of listening is people sitting and listening to a symphony. How are we to tell whether they feel the music correctly or not? However, there are fairly clear cases where music either does or fails to make sense to a person, and where different people can agree on whether the music makes sense to them. One such case is the case of tonal vs. atonal music. Most people who are used to tonal music find that they do not understand atonal music. 

The latter is music that most people do not understand. Wikipedia defines tonality as follows:

Tonality is the arrangement of pitches and/or chords of a musical work in a hierarchy of perceived relations, stabilities, attractions and directionality. In this hierarchy, the single pitch or triadic chord with the greatest stability is called the tonic. The root of the tonic chord forms the name given to the key; so in the key of C major, the note C is both the tonic of the scale and the root of the tonic chord (which is C–E–G). Simple folk music songs often start and end with the tonic note. The most common use of the term “is to designate the arrangement of musical phenomena around a referential tonic in European music from about 1600 to about 1910”. … Harmony in jazz includes many but not all tonal characteristics of the European common practice period, known as classical music.

In other words, tonal music respects certain relationships between notes whereby a ‘key’ or ‘root’ note establishes the tonality and the functional status of the other notes of the scale. The interval or distance from the tonic note determines the character of the note and what can be done with it, eg., whether it is possible to begin and end a phrase on that tone. The relationships between the tones have a push-pull relationship such as that they create tension, gravity, etc.

Tonality is an organized system of tones (e.g., the tones of a major or minor scale) in which one tone (the tonic) becomes the central point for the remaining tones. The other tones in a tonal piece are all defined in terms of their relationship to the tonic. In tonality, the tonic (tonal center) is the tone of complete relaxation and stability, the target toward which other tones lead. The cadence (coming to rest point) in which the dominant chord or dominant seventh chord resolves to the tonic chord plays an important role in establishing the tonality of a piece.

Because of these features of tonal music, we understand or feel the music when we perceive the relations between the sounds in terms of movement. Movement in music and its various ‘spatial’ characteristics are generated by the relations between the different tones. Musical movement is not inherent in the physical sound. Rather, it is ‘intentional’: we hear movement in the line of notes as connected and moving even though there is nothing that is literally moving in the physical sound and each pitch is separate from another. There may be silence between the notes, but we still hear a continuous line of tones connected in a melody (Scruton 2009).

The intentional character of music is expressed in language through spatial metaphors such as distance and movement. Music moves and it moves faster or slower, moves up or down, etc. Music has rhythm and beat, both of which are to be distinguished from the musical metre. Scruton argues that music can have beat without much rhythm. Rhythm arises out of the music and its accents, and generates the forward motion. Music can have beat without much rhythm, and vice versa, music can have rhythm without a strong beat. In the Western classical tradition up to the 20th century rhythm has been generated by the musical line. With the emergence of the drum kit the beat is introduced from the outside to music that has relatively little of either rhythm or beat.

So what room is there for a person to fail to understand tango music and how would that be manifested in their dancing? If we consider for a moment how one learns to play a piece of music on an instrument, the quality of the playing depends on things like rhythm and expression. Rhythm refers to the grouping of notes, accent, emphasis or suspension. Suspension, playing a note on an offbeat and holding it till the first beat of the next phrase, is present music that is syncopated which includes tango. Expression has to do with the phrasing of notes, the correct gesture, dynamics (playing loud or soft), crescendo (gradually increasing loudness), and so on. A teacher will make gestures to communicate to the student how to play a given passage. Otherwise, the performance will be mechanical and without feeling, like what one might get from software that plays from a written score.

We can see here that learning musical interpretation in dancing is going to be very much similar to learning musical interpretation in playing. Scruton suggests that it is possible to divide music that is influenced by speech and song, and music that is influenced by dancing. If tango emerged as dancing music then its beat and feeling will be strongly connected to the movement of dancing, eg., one should be able to tap one’s foot to it. The music will have a pronounced beat or pulse that’s danceable. There will be a perceptible ‘on’ and ‘off’ beat, and if the rhythm is syncopated, the ‘off’ beat will be emphasised and suspended, driving or dropping into the ‘on’ beat of the next phrase.

Now, different tango orchestras will interpret tango music with different emphasis, with more or less beat, rhythm or expression. This makes the task of interpreting the different recordings in dancing somewhat complicated. However, dance education devotes the majority of the time to movement and little or not time to learning how to listen to tango music. This is largely due to the prevailing false idea that listening is not a skill. One should already know what one likes and that’s the end of the discussion.

But the idea that listening and experiencing music is spontaneous and effortless is a new one, and it has really only arrived at a time of pop. Pop music (including Rock, RnB, Rap, etc.) is really a new kind of thing that departs from prior musical traditions, and moves away from the Western classical tradition. Western classical music has evolved to a high level and requires effort and cultivation in order to understand and appreciate it. Pop is based on a very narrow set of structures, in particular, an ostinato backing which is external to the music and which appears to require no effort to enjoy but is actually addictive. Pop music requires the harmony and melody to be fitted to the ostinato rhythm which absolves the music itself from generating a rhythm through melody and harmony.

Because there is no ostinato backing in classical music or tango the forward motion and rhythm is created through melody and harmony: grouping, accent, and emphasis. Rhythm is here to be distinguished from the musical metre. It is commonplace to hear that while milonga music is 2/4, tango is 4/4, and vals is 3/4. These, however, designate the meter in which the music is written, that is, the way that the musical bar is divided into sections. Rhythm, however, is not created through these and it is possible to have music in these meters that have little or no rhythm. For example, not all music written in 3/4 can be danced to as a waltz. Rhythm is also different from the pulse or beat. The pulse or beat is the point where you would clap or tap with your foot. But rhythm consists of all the up and down beats and stresses that happen in between, so that you have different rhythms with the same sort of beat.

So the first step to learning to dance with feeling, with the correct expression and interpretation, is to learn to listen. Dancing tango is difficult because one has to move with the partner to music. If we dance complicated patterns we will have little attention left to give to the music. Then we will be dancing mechanically, robotically, without expression. At first it is better to develop the practice of listening to a given orchestra without dancing. If you feel like moving you can stand and make gestures with your hands like an orchestra conductor. This gesture will flow into your body and ultimately into your dancing. Start by listening to music you can easily tap your foot to. When you’re finally on the dancefloor, dance to music that you are already somewhat familiar with. Before venturing out, give the music a few moments of attention and have caught onto the gesture that it elicits. This is the gesture that you communicate to your partner as you move into the first step.

Source:

Roger Scruton (2009) Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation. Bloomsbury Academic.

 

Appendix

Here is a series of videos that are helpful in understanding music:

[1] Examples of atonal music, which Roger Scruton thinks we don’t really understand because we naturally seek tonality.

 

[2] A lecture explaining tonality and atonality with examples:

 

[3] Listening to tango music is more like listening to classical than to pop, so the following videos apply to tango as well:

 

 

[4] Interpretation classes with Benjamin Zander are very instructive on how to think about emotion and interpretation in music:

 

[5] A lot of useful insights into the history of music (classical music was originally for dancing), structure and layers in music.