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.

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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.

Tango as culture: anthropology vs. criticism


Ethnomusicology is the study of music from the cultural and social aspects of the people who make it. … It is often defined as the anthropology or ethnography of music, or as musical anthropology. (Wikipedia)


 

When a student starts taking tango classes the discourse of tango is established by the way the teacher and others talk about the genre. Lets for a moment ignore the commercial aspects of this discourse and assume that the student manages to ignore all the talk about workshops, privates, and trips to Buenos Aires, and tries to break through all of that to try to get a deeper understanding of tango, the dance, the music and the culture. What they will inevitably arrive at is information that can be loosely called ‘anthropological’. He will find that tango is a culture confined to a specific area (Río de la Plata), practiced by its inhabitants, with music that is specific to that area and these people. To get an in-depth knowledge of tango one needs to be a sort of anthropologist, namely, to learn about the music and culture of these people who inhabit this place.

In characterising this framing as anthropological I am being generous and somewhat disingenuous because it is really touristic, or an impoverished sort of anthropology. A real scientific anthropology would utilise sophisticated comparative methods, eg., it would demand knowledge of music theory, and would compare this culture to other cultures to draw objective conclusions. What the tango student is faced with instead is a picture of a culture that is sui generis, that on the standard narrative, emerged out of a meeting of European and African cultures around the middle of the 19th century, that it is a popular culture, meaning not a culture of the elites but rather of the common people, and that produced a unified cultural idiom that we recognise as uniquely Argentinian.

We notice that this narrative creates a mystique about the form implied in the image of the Argentine people as having a natural talent to elicit emotional responses that the touristic consumers seek to acquire. It renders tango foreign, other, and exotic. It also gives those who are native to the form a special insider knowledge that requires no justification, proof, evidence or reasoning, on the assumption that cultural practices require no external justification: it’s just what people do. It is, as Wittgenstein put it, a ‘form of life’.

In my view, this sort of anthropological/touristic framing is severely detrimental to the teaching and learning of tango. To come to participate in the practice one needs to ‘go native’, ideally by way of lengthy stays in Buenos Aires. Tango teaching and learning consists in finding out ‘what people in Buenos Aires do’. In terms of music, it consists in learning the names of the orchestras, their recordings, and something about the history of the Golden Era.

The anthropological approach to tango education asks the student to emulate a cultural group without asking for reasons. However, since there is no real justification given or necessary this framing leads naturally to the idea that tango ‘evolves’. Since there is no particular reason to want to emulate this group beyond one’s touristic consumer preference it leads naturally to the idea that just as Argentinians created their local tango culture foreigners can take those aspects of tango that suit them and create their own ‘nuevo’ or ‘transgressive’, or ‘alternative’ or ‘whatever you wish to call it’ tango. On the other hand, the anthropological framing gives traditionalists no basis for criticism of the new developments if they already promoted the idea that their own practice is sui generis, specific to a place and people, and therefore an unjustified set of preferences.

The problem is that an anthropological framing is descriptive without being in any way prescriptive. Without some sort of a norm or standard of judgement that is exernal to the culture it is not clear how we are supposed to get from an is to an ought. As a result tango traditionalists, while they reject non-traditional forms of tango, have really no way to argue against them. One wants to say that the traditional tango practice is more authentic, but why should one prefer authenticity in a postmodern world which rejects such notions. Moreover, there are economic barriers to acquiring the authentic thing in terms of cost, finding teachers, getting information, etc. If these things have excessive economic cost why not settle for what is available and affordable?

Of course the natives do not see the matter in that way. They feel that there are values in tango that are not merely utilitarian and so would reject that one could replace them with a cheaper substitute. But so long as they are stuck in the anthropological frame those values are no different from the values of any other cultural group: they represent the sentimental attachments of one group of people. Unless one has some other reasons for wanting to assimilate to that group this approach cannot really have any wider appeal.

To have an appeal that is wider and more universal what is necessary is not anthropology but art criticism. When we say that something is a work of art we do not mean that it is art of a particular cultural group. Art is assumed to have more universal appeal and, given that, the art critic’s job is to find a language of expressing these universal values thereby providing reasons for preferring some works over others. The art critic must find a language that identifies features that characterise good art and provide for standards of good taste.

The idea that tango is a popular form seems to invite an anthropological rather than a critical frame but that does not necessarily follow. Jazz is a popular form and yet it is subject to criticism no less than classical music. Thelonious Monk is considered art whereas Kenny G is generally viewed as kitsch. Cultural critics even address pop and try to provide reasons why Elvis Presley might be better than Genesis.

Like ethnomusicologists (who are a type of anthropologist) critics use comparative methods, and must know something about music theory and the history of music. Both, ethnomusicologists and critics differ from the natives in that they try to draw more general conclusions about the cultural practices, but they differ from each other in that the goals of ethnomusicology are primarily descriptive, whereas the goals of criticism are primarily prescriptive. Criticism does require an adequate description, so that disagreement about description, ie., about the facts, will make a difference to the critique, but in the case of criticism there is a normative component, that is, there is the assumption that things are to be preferred on other than merely personal, subjective or consumption preferences.

To the contrary, art criticism has assumed that art ought to stand outside of the sphere of mere utilitarian or consumer values and that it has a higher moral dimension. That is why the distinction between art and kitsch is so central to criticism. This distinction does not touch objects that are cultural artefacts of some group because the members of the group attach an authentic significance to these objects. However, some writers (Adorno?) have suggested that these artefacts become kitsch as soon as they are purchased by a tourist who does not attach that significance to these objects and for whom they are mere decorative trinkets. The question is whether this is not precisely what happens to tango when it becomes a mere object of touristic experience.

A major reason for the anthropological approach to the dissemination of tango has to do with the consumers themselves. Earlier generations have grown up with an intuitive understanding of the difference between real and fake, art and kitsch. With modernism in art and academic postmodernism we have an attack on the idea of authentic art. Modernism in art, music and architecture relentlessly debunks all traditional notions of good taste and renders everything equal and relative, a matter of personal preference and only worthy of attention if it is interesting or better, transgressive. proxy.duckduckgoModernist artists such as Andy Warhol elevated consumer products to the status of high art, and the ordinary person can no longer rely on art criticism for guidance on good or bad taste, being thrown onto the wasteland of loud consumerist promotion.

Given the loss of any basis for judgement of good or bad taste, the learner is thrown rudderless on the ethnodance market to figure things out for themselves. They are now supposed to know what they prefer without being told what they ought to prefer. Since the ordinary person, with the now standard schooling in non-judgementalness, cannot be expected to bear such a heavy burden they simply follow the guidance of the loudest marketers and the crowd. Contrary to what one might otherwise expect the contemporary tango is a case study in unscrupulous, vapid consumerism and crowd behaviour. It is hard to believe that people capable of discriminating judgement could respond positively to the dressed up kitsch promoted on tango websites and Facebook pages.

What is the alternative to the anthropological and consumerist paradigms currently in power? The conservative view of art, music and culture, at least the one that we have inherited from romanticism, is that culture is the realm of authentic values that transcend ordinary utilitarian and merely hedonistic values. Writers on culture have recognised for a long time that all traditional societies distinguish between sacred and profane values. In European culture art has come to occupy the place of the sacred, and the aesthetic experience of the art object is not regarded as having a merely utilitarian significance. Art, including painting, music, dance and ritual, is the domain of sacred values or ends, and as such has a moral significance. Bad art is not merely unpleasant, but rather, pleasant or not, it is morally bad. Listening to bad music and surrounding yourself with kitsch art makes you poorer as a person. It debases rather than elevates because it is a source of easy satisfactions and fake emotions that do not demand any effort or sacrifice.

Art criticism is difficult because it is not easy to identify why certain art is better than other or what makes it morally elevating or debasing. People were once able to follow their gut instinct and normal people still are highly suspicious of art that occupies contemporary art galleries, atonal music or modernist architecture. They still prefer to see classical architecture even if some are still drawn to the modernist curiosities, although it is questionable that they would choose to spend much time in them or live near them once they have taken the obligatory snapshots. In the same sense the consumer tango that we are served nowadays is largely a disposable product, a way to spend an evening in a foreign city.

An alternative to the anthropological framing is a view of how dancing makes us better and brings us closer to others. Traditionally dances have had a moral and truly social dimension in bringing people together. This more authentically moral, social and elevating aspect has been supplanted with ideas about exoticism, authentic cultures, tourism, fashion and hedonism that are typical of kitsch ethnodances like LA Style Salsa, Bachata or Zouk. Anthropology and tourism have inadvertently directed tango into a seedy, degraded neighbourhood on the false assumption that it has only the barest connection to European culture and is the product of the latin brothel. Sadly that is a framing and a narrative that appeals to people already predisposed to be drawn to easy ‘transgressive’ touristic experiences.

Related:

Sex roles: is tango compatible with women’s empowerment

When tango emerged out of the primordial swamp the world was still in the grip of an oppressive patriarchy. It was an era of primitive practices such as religion, lifelong marriage, female modesty, enforced monogamy, and complementary sex roles: homemaker housewives and breadwinner husbands. After many millenia we are finally emerging out of the darkness into a brave new world of feminization which liberates us with atheism, equal partnerships, no-fault divorce, serial polygamy, career women, single mothers, government schooling, alimony, welfare and affirmative action. A fundamental social transformation which liberates women from their traditional roles at the cost of men (whose jobs and income must be sacrificed to the benefit of women who are not their wives) and the family (which must not impinge on state’s power to indoctrinate the new generation) is bound to have affected tango which is not a world unto itself and whose participants are bound to reflect in their behavior the norms of the new utopia.

The respective roles of the two partners in tango are not marginal to the practice. They reflect the place of sex roles in traditional society, the putative patriarchy. In traditional society men and women have always and everywhere occupied distinct and complementary roles. Men have been out in the world either hunting or, more recently, earning a living so as to provide for their family. To do so they had to exhibit skills and characteristics such as planning, goal-orientation, and rational decision-making as well as a natural sense of responsibility for their dependants. Women looked after the home and the children, for which the husband provides. In this world women have evolved to seek the protective male energy and the men to seek the nurturing female energy. These complementary roles are reflected in tango in which the woman lets the man lead and the man needs the woman to follow, and this complementarity of the roles and the provision of the respective type of energy offers much of the satisfaction of the dance.

In the new feminized society the two partners are equalized: men become more like women and women become more like men, that is, they both become more androgynous. Both sexes are expected to be able to fulfill both gender roles and this is supposed to be natural. True, men and women still dress differently, but this has become a merely external matter of fashion. gearjunkie_legacy_imagesThe urban lumberjack look with bushy beards, Timberland boots and flannel shirts no longer signal any corresponding masculine skill at physical labour such as chopping down trees or anything else for that matter. Hyper-feminine fashion with high heels, immaculate hair and copious amounts of makeup rarely signal actual feminine nurturing energy, which is instead expressed in a vacuous, narcissistic sassy attitude that men find superficially attractive but ultimately draining.

Although based in our basic nature the competent performance of sex roles does require preparation and training which the government schooling characteristically neglects or worse, actively discourages. The free expression of masculinity in boys is increasingly viewed as ‘toxic’, whereas girls are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and be more assertive.

Both sexes are to a certain extent capable of fulfilling both of the traditional roles: men can become more like women and fulfil the female role, and women can in times of need perform in male role. Men can learn to cook, clean and look after children, and in some cases they even dress and behave like women. Women can also work and provide for the family, have careers, and some girls who are tomboys even dress and act like boys.

Instead of viewing such behavioural plasticity as eccentric and marginal, radical feminists, SJWs and transgender activists draw a different conclusion: the sex differences between men and women are a mere social construct, a vestige of an oppressive patriarchal system of men’s power over women, gays, transsexuals, minorities, etc. Further, they insist that gender and sexuality are fluid and people can pick and choose their identity like fashion, as the mood suits them. Sexual identity is subjective and we see a proliferation of gender pronouns and other similar outrages.

Radical feminists view statistical differences in occupations or income levels not as caused by the differences in the choices that men and women make but the oppressive patriarchy whereby women and other oppressed groups (but mainly women) are prevented from career advancement by a ‘glass ceiling’, and are discouraged from going into certain professions by being saddled with artificial sex roles. Women who choose the traditional role of the housewife or caretaker are browbeaten for their complicity in the patriarchal oppression of their sisters.

So rather than allowing women to follow their natural preferences radical feminists reject that such preferences exist and instead attack traditionalist women who refuse to be competitive and career-seeking. time_newellemmettRadical feminism wants women to become more like men. The result is that we have a generation of women who are competitive but also unhappy, angry and aggressive. They often cannot easily compete against men who are naturally gifted—or perhaps encumbered—with high levels of testosterone, upper body strength, and an autistic persistence. But they are told that they ought to be as good as men at careers and various competitive pursuits. Denial of such differences leads to situations like transgender ‘women’ easily dominating female sports. Only people in deep denial, having been immersed in the ideology of radical feminism, could fail to see the obvious absurdity of what is being attempted.

Likewise the idea that same-sex tango dancing can be the same thing as traditional tango dancing can be entertained only by people who have been subjected to lifelong indoctrination into radical feminist ideology. The problem, however, is much deeper than that because the current generation of career women and compliant men have been subjected to decades of government schooling that seeks to erase sex differences and leaves them completely unprepared to perform these traditional roles. If tango depends on the ability to perform these roles within the dance then the new androgynous tango is a completely new type of practice. But as such it is unsatisfying if one comes to tango precisely because it offers the possibility of expressing one’s sex role.

Because the competitive career women do sometimes long to feel like women and likewise the compliant urban lumberjacks do sometimes want to be allowed to feel and act like men beyond mere external appearance. Unfortunately tango in itself cannot reverse feminist indoctrination and gender fluidity ideology. What you end up with is the shadow of tango: an egalitarian, androgynous dance in which the roles are performed as a mere formality. The assumption is that the partners are equal and the compliant men expect women to express themselves and compete.

In fact men express their protectiveness precisely by avoiding acting in an overtly protective way so as to not cramp the woman’s style and to ‘give her space’. Unencumbered by potential accusations of toxic masculinity female leaders lead in a way that women actually want men to do so, that is assertive and yet protective. Women are encouraged to ‘lean in’ and take the male role as men step aside. Given the background female empowerment ideology it is but a small step for these women to draw the conclusion that they must be naturally better leaders than men. Since men have learned over time that assertiveness and protectiveness on their part is essentially oppressive they can hardly be blamed for doing everything to avoid satisfying this need. The result is that on the contemporary feminized tango scene we see the shadow of the dance, failing to satisfy the very needs it would naturally meet.

Post Scriptum

Pointed commentary on vapid consumerism and fake musculinity of urban lumberjacks (and their causes) from Blue Collar Logic: