Sunday, October 11, 2009

Escaping the Tango Ideal: A few Poststructuralist suggestions for enlightened and ethical dancing - Part I

Back in December 2006, when Man Yung and I were just fledgling Tango dancers, I once wrote twenty page graduate essay on Argentine Tango. Since the course (with an truly excellent and enlightening professor - Professor M. Ruti - I'm still living and writing by the things I have learned in that course today) was entitled "The Creative Legacies of Post-structuralism", it was only natural that the essay would include, well, lots of "Post-Structuralism".

Caveat 1: "Post-Structuralism" is really not my thing. I'm better at analyzing Chaucer. If the essay seems a little uneven at times - well folks, this is caused by a graduate phenomenon called "panic".

Caveat 2: It's been three years since I wrote that essay and knowing what I know now, I might not draw the same conclusions today - I was a rabid adornista back then and after three years, three trips to Buenos Aires and the experience of dancing with different milongueros I dance completely differently. I don't think that 95% of the followers (worldwide) necessarily have sufficient following skills and balance to do adornments in a way that doesn't disrupt the dance - so they should really stick to just following the lead instead of following the "Adornista Tango Ideal".

Caveat 3: If reading about Tango someone's incoherent academic tango musings in the context of Freud, Zizek, Cixous, Irigaray and Nancy is your thing - enjoy! If not, for god's sake, skip this - you'll be feeling sleepy enough gorging on turkey for Thanksgiving and reading this and eating turkey at the same time will likely put you in a coma.

Happy (Canadian) Thanksgiving!

(In Two Parts)

Escaping the Tango Ideal:
A few Poststructuralist suggestions for enlightened and ethical dancing

Part I

It’s 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night. The same scene is re-enacted in the milongas - Argentine Tango dance parties - in urban centres all across North America. Women from all walks of life – professionals, white collar, blue collar, housewives, students, retirees, rich, middle class or poor – transformed into glittering sexy Tango femme fatales. These Tangueras, young and old alike, have taken special care to look “Tango” tonight: dark eyes, red lips, flounced tight skirts, fishnet stockings, stilettos.

Such artifice, for what prize? The Tanguera nervously anticipates the moment in which the dapper Tanguero, the male tango dancer, would graciously deign invite them to dance, to sweep her up in his arms. Dominated by his embrace, she imagines she would find a totality of pleasure and being:

I didn’t need to fight to stay upright anymore. I could relax into the arms of my knight in shining armor. He did all the work, while I did nothing at all. Instead, I lay back and closed my eyes like a cat that is being stroked … I surrendered myself to this stranger as I have never surrendered myself to any man before. I was more fused with him than I had with my mother in her womb: we were One. (1)

With a Tanguera with the perfect look and the perfect level of submission in his arms, the Tanguero stages his own fantasy, the Tango Ideal. Fevered images of perfect passion from the most recent Tango show playing in his mind, the Tanguero whips the Tanguera around the dance floor. He contorts the Tanguera into performing the flashiest and most death-defying figures from the newest tango workshop and dances contrary to the line of dance – nothing gets in the way of the performance of his fantasy. The music ends: the Tanguero angles for the big dip finish that would take up the biggest amount of space and attract the most attention. It’s that perfect Tango pose, that screams simultaneously “Look at Me!” and “Hot Sexy Sultry Sizzling Tango!”

This Tango Ideal has no space for any woman. There’s a scene from The Tango Lesson, the movie by Sally Potter about her fictionalized biographical experiences in the Argentine Tango with her dancing partner, world renowned Tango dancer Pablo Veron, in which Pablo gives Sally hell for failing to give the ideal Tango performance with him:

Pablo: You should do nothing when you dance. Just follow, follow! Otherwise you block my freedom to move, you destroy my liberty! And then I cannot dance, I cannot dance. I can do nothing.(2)

Sally is not a bad dancer, and she dances admirably in this first-time performance. Sally’s major fault in Pablo’s mind is not that she is lacking. Conversely, she is too much: Sally is too old, too intelligent, too wise, too confident, too expressive, too English, too successful as a director with too big an ego (she stars as herself in her own film!), too much herself to fit in the Tango Ideal. No matter how she tries, she cannot “Just follow”. She cannot do “nothing”, she is not “nothing”. Her crime is that she cannot surrender the excess of her Being which exceeds the Tango Ideal.

We as women, like Sally, will always be too much for the Tango Ideal - we cannot be reduced to a set of seductive ideas: Sex. Seduction. Passion. Domination. Surrender. The series of words and their related images that constitute the Ideal appear to completely consume the whole notion of Tango and the roles that the dancers, both male and female, play in the experience, production and expression of the dance.

So why and how should I, as a woman, dance the Tango? Is there a way to reclaim a space for woman’s Being and singularity in the Tango? When did the idea of independence and collaboration between woman and man in the creative process of Tango become suppressed and constricted within the boundaries of that misogynist Law “Just Follow” – follow the man’s lead, follow the man’s steps, follow the man’s Tango Ideal? This is contrary to the essence of Tango, which is freedom.

The Tango was born free, constraint was and still is antithetical to its spirit. There is no historical consensus on the origins of Tango as music or dance, or even on the origins of its name – Tango is not tied to any tradition. There is no official record, no history, only ephemeral mythologies gleaned from a series of impressions, deductions, hopes and fears, wishes and dreams of a people about an ever-vanishing past, focusing on the ingenuity, the drive, the creative freedom and energy of the immigrants to Argentina who are attributed as the creators of Tango. Immigrant culture and spirit are the keys to understanding Tango, which was accordingly created free of the trappings of History or the social and cultural constraints of the Old World. As the performers in the stage show about the history of Tango recount in the movie Tango Bar:

We conjure up those tough guys of the past who with persistence and courage shaped the tango, that sad thought made into dance … tango was made by immigrants who fell in love with this country … even the bandonéon was an immigrant … all those people who came to build Argentina. They came and created something new … Without the people, there’s no tango. (3)

“Tough guys”, sadness, immigrants and the spontaneous creation of Tango are also integral to the Immigration scene in Carlos Saura’s Tango. In the commentary track of the DVD of the movie, Mia Maestro and Carlos Saura, respectively the lead actress and the director of the movie, comment on how “touching” it was “to do the immigration scene” in the movie which reflected how the cast and crew’s families came from different places to Argentina to “build a country.”(4) The history of the origins of Tango was not officially recorded due to the low social status of its creators and the nature of its creation – a creation not by one person, but by a group of anonymous persons reacting to music in a certain setting, each building on the creation in his or her own individual way. Nevertheless, the mythologies of Tango’s creation dwell in the collective psyche of the Argentineans. Tango Bar and Tango contain the best cinematic depictions of these mythologies, summarized as follows:

1. Tango was created by the immigrants to Argentina at the end of the 19th Century. It was created by the poor and the dispossessed, the economic exiles of the Old World who came to Argentina seeking a better life.

2. The origins of Tango has no set date, it is set in a vague dawn or twilight of a people – twilight of the Old World, dawn of the New.

3. Tango was created from the influences of the different languages, different cultures and different musical traditions of the immigrants from different places in the Old World. However, Tango was an utterly new and original creation, not bound to any tradition.

4. Tango was a spontaneous burst of creative expression in dire and desperate conditions – in the midst of the temporary shelters of the immigrants as they arrived in the new land, in the crowded, decrepit tenements, in the ghettos and in the streets.

5. Dance turns the melancholy of poverty, rootlessness and disenfranchisement of the exile into joyful movement, uniting children and adults, young and old.

6. Tango is completely improvised and danced differently by different couples, with a kaleidoscope of styles, embraces and steps. It is free from choreography, and it is a renewed creation every time it is danced.

7. Tango facilitates the meeting and communication of men and women, both sexes proud of their skills as dancers and as individuals – eager to show their own original interpretation of the music, competency, skill and inventiveness in the dance to each other and to their audiences.

Any tango film or show touching on the history of Tango inevitably include scenes ridiculing the appropriation of Tango by the mainstream and by persons of status and wealth – the suave debutantes in Tango Bar, the rich flappers and international jetsetters gliding and posing in their long silk gowns and ostrich feathers in Miguel Angel Zotto’s show Una Noche de Tango. These upper class dancers are invariably portrayed as dancing Tango in exactly the same perfect, elegant, bloodless way. As set out in the lyrics of the popular Tango “Asi se Baila el Tango” (translated as “This is how you Dance the Tango”),

What do the stuck-ups,
the emaciated and the fops know,

what do they know what is tango,
what do they know about rhythm?

Here it is the elegance,

what a look,
what a silhouette,

what an appearance,
what an arrogance,

what a class to dance.(5)

It is against the original spirit of Tango to dance it without individuality, to hold it to some rigid standard of elegance, to reduce it to a line drawing of canonical steps. Many of the older generation of dancers agree that originality and personality are most important in a dancer, foremost before even “beat, elegance, … choreography.” (6) According to El Gallego Manolo, a world famous dancer who has been dancing the Tango for over fifty-nine years, one of the worst things you can say to a good dancer is that his/her style is “academia,”(7) which is a cookie-cutter, by the book, mainstream kind of dancing. Tango celebrates originality, creativity and free unabashed and direct expression of emotion and feeling – sadness, joy, and everything in between - in the dance and the music. “It doesn’t try to hide strong feelings under a layer of irony or cool talk. Tango just hangs out there, and says exactly what it feels.”(8)

In the space of Tango’s inventiveness, originality and freedom, marvelous inconsistencies and improvisations arise. The Bandonéon, the free-reed instrument that is the soul of Tango music, was originally created to play church music(9) , not music of the demi-monde and the ghetto. Instead of drums or any other percussion instrument, Tango music’s beat or compas comes from the sharp exhalation of the Bandonéon’s bellows – a note and a beat at the same time. There are multiple variations of the same Tango songs, all with different distinctive styles and sounds depending on the era, arrangement and performing orchestra, sometimes sounding so original that you can’t tell that it is the same song – over twenty versions are listed for “La Cumpursita” alone on one particular website(10) . Tango lyrics and song titles deal with the expected themes of love, heartbreak, melancholy, relationships between men and women, and tango life, but also with other unexpected topics: the neighbourhood (“Tres Esquinas” – Three corners), horse racing (“El Yacuré” – the name of a jockey), gambling (“Naipe” – cards, “Suerte loca” – crazy luck), political topics of the day (“Union Civica” – the name of a political party), even cowbells (“El Cencerro” – the cowbell). Many Tango songs are written in “…. a mix of languages … Castellano, Italian, Lunfardo, … even a French word.”(11) Tango lyrics written as a monologue from the perspective of a man are sung by a woman and vice versa. There are no set rules in Tango as to what Tango should be or should consist of, certainly not in the music, and certainly not in the dance. The dance itself is not limited to a portrayal of the meaning or the lyrics of the titles of Tango songs– you dance the music, “not what the lyrics say.”(12) You may even choose not to dance to the emotion connoted by the lyrics of Tango – as one dancer who had been dancing since before the 1950’s expressed, the lyrics to Tango may be sad, “but not the music. The music is merry.”(13)

Tango was created as an improvised dance between man as leader and woman as follower, both free to move independently in the embrace to express the music. Originality, personality, inventiveness and musical expression were paramount, stubborn adherence to any style or idea discouraged. Why then has Tango been constricted to an Ideal? When did Tango become reduced to the suffocating closed set consisting only of the following:


whereupon the Leader is the sole party interpreting the music and the source and creator of signification, and the Follower is the instrument of the Leader’s expression, to the extent that she surrender all excess of her Being to the Tango Ideal?

In the dance of Tango, not everything is reducible to lead and follow. Only part of the energy of the Leader goes into generating the lead, which should never be coercive, but an invitation for the Follower to make the next step. The rest of the Leader’s energy goes into various channels such as feeling and interpreting the music, accessing the affect and emotion of the music and memories of past dances, transmission and communication of feeling to the Follower, navigation on the dance floor – an infinite number of nuanced things. Likewise for the Follower, the energy of the dance is not restricted to just following, but also into her own independent responses to music, musical interpretation, marking the rhythm, adornments, communication of feeling and musicality to the Leader. It is a fallacy to believe that all that the dance consists of is the Leader creating the steps, and the Follower executing them in an automatic, robotic way. Tango involves the whole Being of both dancers beyond lead and follow, and the Being of Tango itself - the music, the atmosphere in which the dance occurs, the experience and memories that both dancers carry within them from past dances, all those feelings and emotions which are evoked by the dance. There is furthermore an unnameable quality, the entrega or the “sauce” of Tango. (14) The entrega, related to the Spanish verb entregar, or “to deliver”, is a quality that could not be pinned down to a strict definition or meaning. One North American Tanguero has attempted to describe it as the “ghost” which is the “whole point of tango”, which is something to do with putting everything you have into the dance “all the meat on the fire”.(15) A great Tango dance must always have entrega, a fully committed unequivocal delivery of all of Being - the Otherness of you, me and Tango itself. A more accurate depiction of the dynamics of dance between Leader and Follower can be drawn as follows:



(This diagram was supposed to have arrows pointing from each item to all the others. But while I can draw them by hand on the paper, I can't for the life of me draw the same arrows with Blogger)

Freud spoke of the notion of “…. the uncanny, the unheimlich: literally, something foreign in the heart of the familiar”(16) which is connected in Lacanian psychoanalysis with the notion of the Real, that Other which could not be reduced to meaning or brought into signification. The Uncanny is the discomfort, even horror one feels in the encounter of the Being of the Other. In the closeness and touch of the embrace and the entrega of Tango, the dancers cannot help but perceive the uncanniness of the Other, the other dancer, which goes beyond the familiar social façade that the other wishes to convey with appearances and words, the tools of signification. How you make the embrace, how you respond and interpret the music, how you respond to the Other in Tango and in your dance partner, how you reveal the Other in the Tango and in yourself – the dance unfolds revelation upon revelation of the Other in the improvisational flow from moment to moment. When I hold a Leader in my arms in the embrace of Tango, I know immediately whether he is a good dancer or a bad dancer, whether he likes the music, whether he wants to dance with me or not. In addition, everything hidden in his heart is revealed – his arrogance, selfishness, fearfulness, tenderness, generosity, his whole personality – just as I am unable to arrest a revelation of my own heart. In the dance, I have felt the absolute beauty in the Other in a Leader, aliveness, and a totally present connection to the music and to me as the Follower. I have also felt horror at the Other in a Leader: his emotionless, expressionless mechanical, repetitive movements, disconnection with both the music and me as the Follower and to Life itself.

There is always something deadening in the world of signification and language. As Luce Irigaray as stated, naming, or bringing something into signification and language, is something “which paralyze[s] life, breath, energy.”(17) In Tango, with its improvisation and with the entrega, the dancers live and respond from moment to moment. It is interesting that the basic step of the Tango is the salida, which can be translated from Spanish as “the exit”(18) . The salida in Tango is one of the most mundane of human locomotive actions – in actuality, the walk and in Tango, by just walking, the dancer exits into the realm of the Uncanny and the Real, to find ex-sistence - we exit to exist. Tango and the culture of the milonga operates in a realm of experiences and communications outside of signification and language, where the music (as Hélène Cixous writes, “music is not subject as the text is to the fearful imperatives of language”(19) ) the gaze, gestures, touch, and your whole body “speak” without words. Once again, we are dealing with the freedom of the exile: the exile in Tango and the Tango that is created by the exile is not only free from traditions and social-cultural norms, but also from the restrictions of language itself. As expressed by some of the older generation of Tango dancers:

We think that tango must be felt close to your heart: your ear, heart and at last your feet ‘speak.’ When I dance the Tango I get so possessed when I dance, that if you speak to me, I can’t take another step … The couples who talk while dancing do not feel it. (20)

In fact, speaking and words actually impede the experience and production of Tango. The milonga contains two worlds: the world of normal subjective existence, of small talk, of the social gathering, and the world of ex-sistence - the realm of the Real, the Uncanny and “material signs that [resist] meaning.”(21) In order to engage with this world, the dancers need a sensory and subliminal hyperawareness, an “uncanny ability to read … body language … and nonverbal communication in the milongas ….”(22) You cannot ex-sist in this world if you do not understand the nonverbal communications of the milonga, and if you do not understand the entrega necessary for the dance. In the milongas of Buenos Aires where the older generation still dance the Tango, “There is a phrase you hear time and again: “El no existe.” It means that person does not exist— a man (or woman) who isn’t there.”(23) Those dancers who approach other dancers and use words to ask for a dance, who call attention to themselves with their showy moves and loud talking, with who do not “answer the music with the body” (24) and who miss the subtle nonverbal communications going on beneath the surface of the milonga, do not ex-sist in the milonga. They would not be invited to dance. They would be ignored. From the moment a dancer steps into the milieu of the milonga, he or she will be subject to the gaze:

In Buenos Aires they say that, “In the milonga, everyone sees everything”. It means that from the moment you walk in the door, to the time you leave, you will be watched. Your clothing, your walk, your posture, where you sit—all will be scrutinized.(25)

The gaze, that ambiguous regard of the Other that has not been explained by language, is something which Žižek has characterized as something “uncanny and disturbing.”(26) The gaze in any other context among strangers would be taboo, or seen as a challenge. Being engaged in the world of the milonga and being invited to dance rests solely on using the gaze in the ritual called the cabaceo: ““Cabeza” means “head” in Spanish, and “cabeceo” is the Castellano word that refers to the way the head is used to signal the offer and acceptance of dances at a milonga.”(27) But before the head nods to acknowledge to accept the invitation to dance, the gaze of the Other must be accepted and returned. One Tanguera who has experienced the milongas of Buenos Aires has remarked about the excitement of engaging in the cabaceo, and how being subjected to the cabaceo by other dancers caused feelings of intense “aliveness” and a sudden realization that one exists through another’s gaze.(28) Žižek also makes this connection between the receipt of the attention of the gaze of the Other as confirmation of existence “of the Subject’s being “I exist only insofar as I am looked at all the time.””(29) .From the silent ubiquitous observation and communication with the gaze, the cabaceo, the embrace and the dance itself, Tango is set in a world of repetitive and ambiguous gestures outside of universal signification, for communication solely within the world of Tango itself. Tango is an Uncanny pleasure, its rituals “radiate jouis - sense, enjoy-ment”(30) in an unnerving way. But then, as one of the dancers from the older generation has said, Tango’s no good unless you get “goose-pimples”(31) – the Other and the Uncanny are accepted and cherished parts of the experience of Tango.

(End of Part I - Footnotes below)


1. Marina Palmer, Kiss and Tango: Looking for Love in Buenos Aires, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 21.

2. The Tango Lesson, Dir. Sally Potter, Perf. Sally Potter and Pablo Veron, 1997, Videocassette, Sony Pictures Classics, 1998.

3. Tango Bar, Dir. Marcos Zurinaga, Perf. Raul Julia, Rueben Juarez and Valeria Lynch, 1988, Videocassette, Warner Home Videos Inc., 1989.

4. Tango, Dir. Carlos Saura, Perf. Miguel Angel Sola, Cecilia Narova and Mia Maestro, Argentina Sono Film S.A.C.I, Argentina Alma Ata International Pictures S. L. SPAIN, 1998, DVD, Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1989.

5. Elizardo Martínez Vilas, “Asi se baila el Tango”, trans. Albert Paz, Tango Lyrics in English , New Orleans: Planet Tango 1999-2006. Dec 10, 2006 .

6. Tango, Baile Nuestro, Dir. Jorge Zanada, 1988, Videocasette, Facets, 1988.

7. Manuel José Maria Salvador also known as El Gallego Manolo, Personal interview, 6 May 2006.

8. Rick McGarrey, “Cracking the Code: A tango dancer’s guide to the music”, 2007, Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires, screen one. Dec 10, 2006 .

9. “Bandonéon”, Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation Inc., 7 Dec 2006. 10 Dec 2006, .

10. Stephen Brown, “An Annotated List of Tandas”, Tango Argentino de Tejas, 2000-2006. 10 Dec 2006, .

11. McGarrey, “Cracking the Code: A tango dancer’s guide to the music”, screen one.

12. Tango, Baile Nuestro.

13. Tango, Baile Nuestro.

14. Manuel José Maria Salvador also known as El Gallego Manolo, Personal interview.

15. McGarrey, “Searching for a Modern Style”, 2006, Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires, screen twenty-one. Dec 10, 2006 .

16. Roberto Harrari, How James Joyce Made His Name: A Reading of the Final Lacan, trans. Luke Thurston (N.Y.: Other Press, 2002), 221.

17. Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love, trans. Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluháček (Great Britain: MPG Books Ltd., 2002), 84.

18. Ed Loomis, “A Guide to Tango Terminology”, Tango Argentino de Tejas, 2000-2006. 10 Dec 2006

19. Hélène Cixous, “The Author in Truth”, trans. Sarah Cornell, Deborah Jenson, Ann Liddle, Susan Sellers, “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, ed. Deborah Jenson, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1991), 148.

20. Tango, Baile Nuestro.

21. Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy your Symptom!: Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out., (N.Y.: Routledge, 2001), 199.

22. McGarrey, “Searching for a Modern Style”, screen two. Dec 10, 2006 .

23. McGarrey, , “Searching for a Modern Style” screen one. Dec 10, 2006 .

24. McGarrey, “Dreaming Tango: Life in the Clubs” 2003, Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires, screen three. Dec 10, 2006 .

25. McGarrey, “Searching for a Modern Style”, screen one.

26. Žižek, 203.

27. McGarrey, “Searching for a Modern Style”, screen one.

28. V.R., Personal interview, 2 Dec 2006.

29. Žižek, 203.

30. Žižek, 199.

31. Tango, Baile Nuestro.

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