Escaping the Tango Ideal:
A few Poststructuralist suggestions for enlightened and ethical dancing
A few Poststructuralist suggestions for enlightened and ethical dancing
Tango was danced without interruption since its creation at the turn of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries up to the 1950’s, when the political conditions of the Military Juntas and the Dirty War made congregation in groups at night illegal, and effectively put and end to social dancing. People in Argentina stopped dancing for thirty years, and forgot the ways of Tango.(32) Access to, and ex-sistence in realm of the Uncanny and the Real in the dance was no longer habitual, except in a small group of older dancers in Buenos Aires who had starting dancing before the 1950’s. The chain of understanding and acceptance of Tango phenomena was broken for the rest of the world and for the subsequent generations.
Argentine Tango re-emerged at the level of world consciousness at the end of 1970’s and 1980’s with glamourous, choreographed stage shows like Tango Argentino.(33) When people become interested once more in the dance and in learning to dance through watching these shows, they came to Tango without knowledge of the culture of the dance or recognition or understanding of the Uncanny in the dance. It must have been a fearful thing for the new generation of dancers to experience the Uncanny for the first time again in Tango’s embrace. This may have been the point that the characterization of the dance and of the Tanguera changes for the new dancers of the Tango to cope with the emergence of the Uncanny. In addition, professional stage performers (not the improvisational tango dancers of the milonga) brought Tango from the its place of exile to the center, the mainstream, setting it in choreography and in a series of marketable images to solidify it and to make it sell. Both forces served to bring Tango into signification, to “rescue” it from ungraspable notions like the entrega, and from the disturbing and Uncanny life of the milonga. As Žižek has expressed in his analysis of the femme fatale in the film noir universe, “the function she performs is exactly homologous to that of the Name of the Father, i.e., she renders it possible for the subject to locate himself again within the texture of symbolic fate.”(34) Accordingly, the serious, unsmiling (therefore sad), sexy, aggressive but ultimately submissive femme fatale Tanguera appears, just as vague concepts of Tango are brought into signification for mass consumption and to foreclose any uneasiness or horror in the encounter with the Uncanny and the Real. Lead and follow became the easy catch-all phrases for the dance, with a certain fixation on roles and dictionary definition of the meaning of Leader and Follower. The intimacy and touch of the embrace become “Sex” and “Passion”, Lead becomes “Domination”, Follow becomes “Submission” and “Surrender”. The concepts of leading and following are taken to their phallocentric, logocentric, symbolic and therefore logical conclusion, creating the Tango Ideal. The dancer who leads in the dance becomes the Leader, the originator of signification, the one that dictates meaning to the dance, and the only party privileged to express the music and communicate a closed meaning, while the Follower becomes the receptacle of meaning and an instrument of the Leader’s expression. The interaction between the Leader, Follower and Other became the one way monologue of the Leader. The Follower must become “nothing” in order not to hinder the efforts of the Leader to create signification. Any surplus from the Follower in the dance, including her unled movements, thoughts, desires, drives, personality have no space in the Tango Ideal.
What is worse is that the signifier shrinks and contracts. The Uncanny, especially in the Other of the Follower, but also in the Other of the Leader, and in the Other of the Dance which have no place in signification can never be completely exorcised from the dance. Each time the Uncanny is perceived it meets with a successively severe backlash that constricts the Ideal in an attempt to reduce it more to an exclusive and manageable “essence”.
The progress of the Tango Ideal can be observed in the post-1980 images of Tango and of the Tanguera. As seen from the images of the early Tango stage shows like Miguel Angel Zotto’s Perfumes de Tango, and Forever Tango(35) , the Tango Ideal was initially embodied in a legion of Tangueras that looked exactly the same, striking similar dramatic, sexy poses – dark slick hair, red lips, pale skin, tight skirts, stilettos, flashing long perfect legs, with expressions and movements enacting submission and surrender to the will of the Leader, who is dominant, hypermasculine with his dark suit and broad shoulders.
Other, more recent images: the Tango Ideal as portrayed on the cover of Kiss and Tango, the 2005 memoir of a New York woman who immersed herself in the world of Buenos Aires Tango for several years, and on the cover of the DVD for 2004 Tango show filmed during the hugely successful annual Cosmotango festival in Buenos Aires. Both the book and the festival cater to the consumers of Tango abroad, outside of Argentina. The Tanguera’s face and body have been cropped off the image, and only her sexy legs in fishnet stockings and stilettos remain. These Tangueras conform to the Tango even more perfectly: she still has the perfectly shaped legs to show off her sexuality and to perform the steps of Tango. But with no face, this Tanguera has no personality, thoughts or desires to interfere with her following in the dance.
Lastly, the Tanguera has been reduced to a faceless, naked piece of flesh, under the strange logic of “what can be more sexy than a woman completely naked?” in the 2006 promotion posters for the Tango show “Tanguera.”(36) Her face is obscured with shadows, she has no expression. She is naked but artfully obscured by a feather boa, she is nothing but a piece of naked flesh on which all Ideals and fantasies can be projected. She embodies the perfect Follower who will do “Nothing” that would get in the way of the Tango Ideal.
The problem of attempting to capture Tango in a series of ever-constricting signifiers translates into a phenomena you can see weekend after weekend on the dance floor. Leaders who don’t know how to lead, getting angry and frustrated at Followers, inappropriately disrupting the line of dance by teaching Followers how to “just follow” in the middle of the dance floor. Men choosing only to dance with only women who fit into the Tango Ideal – preferably those who are young and sexily dressed, with beginners preferred over experienced dancers because the beginners are more open to be molded in Tango, to be taught and manipulated into a version of the Tango Ideal. Women too, buying into the fantasy, surrendering their Being to it, and agreeing to dance with men who humiliate them on the dance floor and who hurt them with uncomfortable embraces and moves that give the woman absolutely no space for independent movement or existence.
How can the Tango community produce dancers who can dance ethically without falling into the trap of reducing the Tango and the Tanguera to a restrictive Ideal? An understanding of the origins of the Tango Ideal, the history of Tango and an acceptance of the Uncanny of the Other in the dance are crucial to uncover the original free spirit of Tango. In addition, Luce Irigaray’s ideas in her book The Way of Love point to methods and a frame of mind to elicit the opening of space for understanding and communication between two singular Beings – methods that would be very useful to promote enlightened and ethical Tango dancing. Both Leader and Follow must realize that profound communication unfolds from that which is “impossible to say”(37) and that there should be no fear or move to bring the enigmatic feelings and gestures into a signification that is “some way closed.”(38) In addition, the Leader and the Follower must no longer fixate on their roles within signification, in particular, the Leader must not dominate and consume the singularity of the Follower in his Ideal, or to believe that the Follower should exist only through his lead:
The highest rule of the world would consist in not appropriating the thing but to letting it be as the thing … Moreover: to encourage the other to be and to remain other. How to let the other come into presence, even to lead them there, without claiming to be their foundation. (39)
Moreover, both parties must realize that the key is in: “not fixing or naming the subject. Because it annihilates it.”(40) “The other in us must remain flesh, living, moving. Not transformed into some idea no matter how ideal. (41) And finally, both Follower and Leader (but especially the Leader) must permit a “…. hollow space for the dwelling, in oneself and outside oneself….” (42) This is space for the Leader too, to be more than the role of the “Leader” - the hypermasculine, dominant originator of all meaning in the dance. But more importantly it is space for the Follower. The Tango Ideal and the enactment of the Ideal on the dance floor gives the Follower no time and no space to express herself. There must be a “hollow space” in the embrace and in the dance for her to keep her own independent axis and balance, to make her own movements, to interpret the music, and to communicate her thoughts, desires and feelings to the Leader.
But such a system of enlightenment requires the participation of the Leader and the Follower. Tango is a social dance that attracts all sorts of dancers – and all sorts of Leaders who are thrilled with the ideas of sexiness and domination, who are obsessed with their own self-importance in their role of Leader, and have no desire to discard with the Tango Ideal. If a Leader insists that we be reduced to “Nothing” in pursuit of the Ideal, what can we do as Followers?
We are not helpless. The most apparent and obvious recourse is the outright refusal to engage with the Leader and his forced signification – the “NO”. No to the invitation to dance, no to surrender, no to abdication of responsibility for ourselves, no to that sweet illusory promise of fusion to the Leader in the dance, the to become that “One” that in fact excludes our singularity, our Being.
Some Leaders feel it is monstrous, our “No” is a breach of etiquette, we should be in no position (and we have no right) to hurt their feelings with rejection. They complain about our “lame excuses” and talk about “revenge.” But it is absolutely necessary for us as Followers to be monstrous in Tango, to turn the Leader’s fantasy belief in our submissiveness in the dance on its head. We must breach the Tango Ideal with our refusal or with our bodies in order to reclaim a space in Tango for our Being. To use Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept, monstration is a combination of both the monster and the action of showing, montrer, necessary in the uncovering of Being, “the unique properties of the monster”(43) :
It shows in a stroke the stranger that is, it shows the strangeness of the world to the world, and it also shows its knowledge of monstration and of its estrangement.(44)”
Surrender and submissiveness are part of the Tango Ideal – by our “No”, we monstrate that we are not meek, not obedient, the Ideal has no basis in our reality. In addition, armed with knowledge of our Otherness and our Being, and knowledge of the Other in Tango, we must dance to monstrate, to show the monstrous Uncanniness that is in our Being and the Being of Tango. Famous for “her amazing embellishments”, Tango dancer Geraldine Rojas “tells the women in her classes 'Mas fea! Mas fea!' which means 'More ugly!' Let your embellishments be 'ugly' and imperfect -- do them with personality and gusto!”(45) Likewise, we must use our bodies to reveal our Being, our imperfection - that we will not be held to any perfect standard by some fabricated Ideal. Our “ugliness” will communicate to Leaders that the music is also ours to express, and that there is space in the embrace for us to occupy with our feelings, our entrega. We are not mere dolls to be manipulated - our living, flesh and blood bodies will assert time and space into the dance. Woman cannot dance Tango “without a body, dumb, blind”(46) – Tango’s technicality and the demand for entrega requires the presence of all her bodily skills, her senses, her feelings, all her modes of expression. Tango is produced by the body, through the body: Woman is already inside the “text” of Tango “by her own movement”(47) and the Leader cannot deny that by forcing her into an Ideal, no matter how compelling the Ideal. She only needs to open those eyes that she has closed in her surrender, to be present in her body and in the dance to reclaim a space in Tango for herself.
In Tango, Geraldine Rojas is recognized as “Lo Mejor(48) ” – The Best which transcends gender and time. Her improvised dance with Carlos Gavito(49) is a revelation, a monstration. Gavito, a famous veteran Tango performer and dancer, has always embodied the stereotypical Tanguero of the Ideal: hypermasculine, domineering in his performances. His usual dance partners are obedient, submissive Followers - swooning, leaning creatures(50) . Not Rojas. Indeed she follows - she never makes a false move - but the dance is hers. She finds spaces in the lead, in the music, in the rhythm for her own expression. It appears impossible to balance in the postures she takes on the dance floor, but somehow she is perfectly balanced through will and momentum. The music speaks through her body – Tango becomes tangible and visible, she intensifies and amplifies its Being through her every movement.
In this paper, I have discussed the manifestation of the Tango Ideal in the Tango and traced its trajectory. I have hypothesized about the origins of Tango to establish its spirit of freedom. I have set out elements of Tango’s origins in order to have these elements resonate with the rest of my beliefs about Tango - that it celebrates creativity, communication, originality. I have examined the feelings evoked by dancing, and hinted at the notion of Being, the Real, the Uncanny and Ex-sistence in the world of the experience of Tango. I have offered suggestions culled from poststructuralist texts in order to propose a way of dancing in which Being can be communicated in the dance, in order to reclaim the space in the dance for the Folllower and defeat the mortification of adherence to the Tango Ideal. I have offered an example of a dancer and of dancing that I believe monstrates the methods I propose.
But in some respects I have failed to answer my central question: Why and how should I, as a woman, dance the Tango? I have used rational arguments to justify my position. I have attempted to analyze the dance and grasp the concepts of the dance in words, using terms like “Being” and “Uncanny” and “entrega”. Yet the Being of Tango – its supreme justification for participation in the dance - eludes me. Its Being vanishes and retreats at every attempt to capture it in words - it is easier and more compelling to write about the Ideal. Tango’s beauty, its life, the feelings that infuse my body through Tango fades as it enters into language. To use a term to describe a milonga in which no-one is either expressing or connecting to the music – writing makes the experience of Tango feel “chato” (“flat”)(51) . Writing to liberate dance will always to some extent fail, just as capturing Tango into an Ideal has an immobilizing effect. I must dance to liberate dance – my body must “be heard”(52) in the production of Tango itself.
(End of Part II. Footnotes and Works Cited below)
32. Tango, Baile Nuestro.
33. Judit Lentijo, “Agony and Resurrection of the Argentine Tango: The Impact of the Show “Tango Argentino””, trans. Albert Paz, 1988, El Firulete, New Orleans: Planet Tango 1999-2006. Dec 10, 2006
34. Žižek, 169.
35. Forever Tango. YouTube, 2006, San Bruno, California: YouTube Inc. Dec 10, 2006,
36. Tanguera: El Musical Argentino, Diego Romay Entertainment Business 2001-2004, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 10 Dec 2006
37. Irigaray, 23.
38. Irigaray, 24.
39. Irigaray, 29.
40. Irigaray, 84.
41. Irigaray, 156.
42. Irigaray, 146.
44. Nancy, 70.
45. Jennifer Bratt, “Tango Embellishments”, Tango Argentino, 10 Dec 2006 .
46. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, 250.
47. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, 245.
48. Manuel José Maria Salvador also known as El Gallego Manolo, Personal interview, 6 May 2006.
49. Geraldine Rojas, Perf., Show La viruta TANGO EL GRAN GAVITO, YouTube, 2006, San Bruno, California: You Tube Inc. Oct 24 2006 .
50. Carlos Gavito, Perf, “Milonga a Gavito”, The best of CosmoTango (2003), 2003, DVD, Gotan Enterprises, Inc., 2003.
51. McGarrey, “Cracking the Code: A tango dancer’s guide to the music”, screen one.
52. Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”, 250.
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