Sunday, November 29, 2009


Man Yung was delighted when he came across this interesting tidbit in the newspaper. "It says here that the top five Thai Boxers in Thailand have extended an open challenge to the monks of the Shaolin temple. It is going to be a no-holds-barred fight in the ring where anything goes. The Thai Boxers even offered a handicap. They are willing to admit that they've lost if they are unable to knock down their opponent within sixty seconds."

"They have to knock down the Shaolin monk within sixty seconds to win?" I giggled at the thought of it. "You know what, I think that they can do it!"

We agreed on this point. Shaolin fighting has evolved into something that is entirely commercial and not at all practical. Recently "Shaolin Temples" have sprung up everywhere in China, intent on doing business and making money. The "monks" are not monks at all but graduates from the national and regional Wushu schools, and "Shaolin Martial Arts" have become solely about attracting more students and more business with flashy aerial gymnastics and good advertising.

I think that the last straw for us was seeing a supposed "Shaolin Troupe" participating in the tv show "Superstars of Dance". Aren't the martial arts supposed to be about fighting and not about tightly choreographed formations passing for "dancing"? What's a "Shaolin Buddhist Monk" doing on the judges panel announcing (with lots of put-on gravity - the faker!) the points he has awarded to the performances on the show? What about the Buddhist and Zen precepts against commercial self-promotion, and indeed, against participating in this kind of freak show?

Thai Boxing, on the other hand, is still about fighting - and knocking down your opponent in the most efficient and ruthless way possible. "Shaolin Fighting" is now merely window dressing: it looks good in the movies and in the hundreds of stage shows touring the world, but matched against a seasoned Thai Boxer in the ring, forget it.

This led us to ponder. What are the "martial arts" all about when you strip away all the frills? What is its core? What is the truth behind the martial arts?

Is it about good old fashioned fighting in a Thai Boxing way? Or perhaps in the Ultimate Fighting Championship way? Is it about street fighting? Is it about war? Is it about cavemen beating each other to death with sticks and stones?

We've concluded that it's about "survival of the fittest". You can dress it up or philosophize as much as you want, but it's really about about one force destroying another. The dinosaurs were into it. And the amoebas. Even the pre-cell atomic particles. And it's been this way since the beginning of time.

So what about tango? Lots of people claim to be the authority of the "truth" of tango. Can we believe them? What is tango really all about when you trace it back, way back to the beginning?

Is it about "Salon Tango" as opposed to "Show Tango" or "Nuevo Tango"?


Is it about "Villa Urquiza style" or "Milonguero style"?

I don't think so.

Is the dancing of "Fino Rivera" or "Portalea" or "Lampazo" or even "Antonio Todaro" the truth of tango?

I doubt it.

Then could it be the dancing of "El Cachafaz" and Carmencita Calderon? Is it Canyengue?

Sorry to say, that's not it either.

Is it the music of Eduardo Arolas? Of Gardel? Or could it be Candombe? Or the spontaneous movements of the African slaves to drum beats mixed with European immigrant music?

I don't think we are going back far enough.

We were scratching our heads about this question when we suddenly thought about Manolo.

During our classes with Martha and Manolo in Toronto in 2006, we started to realize that Manolo is not only an incredible dancer and teacher but also a Zen-master*. A lot of things Manolo has said to us seemed simple and straightforward at the time (Manolo is not pretentious and he doesn't put on airs of being very wise or profound) we realized later on had incredible resonance and significance for tango, as well as life.

Manolo is one of those rare gifted and sincere teachers who has the ability to open his students' minds. He knows the material he is teaching. He knows the key to every tango problem we have and he imparts his knowledge without hesitation. But what makes him stand out for us is that he has never imposed any "truth" of tango on us. He would never admit to being the "truth" of tango - he has seen too much of tango's history and has too much humility to think that his style is the best style or the most "authentic" style. It's just "his" style, and he likes it, that's all - it's not better or worse than any tango style."Who am I anyway, I'm just a dancer," he would say. He doesn't want to be put on any pedestal.

As the Zen Masters used to say: "Copying me is the way to death". The most faithful copy can not be anything but a copy, and it will never surpass the original. It's a dead end. Manolo knows this - and he doesn't even have any background in Zen philosophy. In contrast, some teachers will throw tantrums and accuse their students of betrayal if they didn't follow exactly what they have taught. Manolo has never stopped us from thinking about and analyzing the material he has taught and being creative with it. Indeed, he even applauds us when we think of something new that works!

Two things that are important to Manolo in tango, however, are "Compas" and "Being a good person"**.

We can do all the innovative, interesting, mind-bogglingly intricate steps we want, but if we fail to dance to the "Compas", we are not dancing Tango. "Compas, compas, compas!" Manolo and Martha would frequently say to us, in unison. Superficially, compas means "the beat", but it is more. Compas is the "everything" of tango, and of the music. If you can get your steps to the beat, that's great. But if your whole being dances with and in the music, in fact, if you are one with the music - then you've got it. Many people think they've got it, but they haven't yet. You need more than talent and practice to get it. You need humility and you need to surrender your ego, your entire being to the music, to the dance. Most people are so self-involved they can't even conceive of it. "Compas, compas, compas!"

As for "Being a good person", that's even more important. Whenever we have conversations with Martha and Manolo about the dancers they admire, they wouldn't emphasize the dancing. What they would say is this: "Such and such was a good person - una muy buena persona." They never talked about how this dancer's steps were fascinating, how this other dancer's steps were precise, or how another dancer stood real straight or had the yummiest embrace. What was crucial was that the dancer was "una muy buena persona".

As for the biggest and most reknowned dancer we could think about, they had this to say: "He has his nose in the air - arrogante. No es una buena persona". It didn't matter how famous he is, how wonderful his movements or how awe-inspiring his shows. He isn't a good person, with an ego the size of Mount Rushmore - Tango is not in him.

Brenda Ueland, creative writing teacher and author, has said something similar about writing. As she has expressed in her book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: "The only way to become a better writer is to become a better person."*** Likewise, Martha and Manolo's words suggest that the only way to become a better dancer of Tango is to become a better person.

So what is the truth of tango, if it doesn't reside in a certain dancer or a certain style? How far do we have to go back to get to the truth? To prehistoric man jumping up and down around a fire? To monkeys in frenzy upon hearing the rolling rumble of distant thunder?

Let's go back to the very beginning. To stardust. Remember what we said about particles set on destroying each other?

Well, there was also another force. We would like to believe that in the beginning, there was a positive, benevolent energy in the universe, sending off this frequency throughout space. The particles vibrated to it, it filled their being, it transformed them. They were no longer solitary or singular. Without ego, the particles were in harmony with themselves, each other, and the cosmos.***

It was the first rhythm. It was the first music. It was compas and goodness. It was the beginning of Love. It was the beginning of Life. This was where Tango began.

* The guy who actually promotes himself as the "Tango Zen Master" in Buenos Aires is actually quite far from it. We had the golden opportunity to observe him dance at Leonesa. Not only did he fail to navigate well in crowded conditions (obviously "Zen" has nothing to do with navigation), if there was anyone who was thinking about "Wal-Mart" when he was dancing, it would be him. Instead of being one with his partner and the music and dancing in the moment, here was a man who was preoccupied with self-image, self-interest, self-promotion - anything and everything.

"Hey, Man Yung, aren't you a Buddhist disciple and lay brother?" I remarked. "You know a lot about Zen. Perhaps you should start your own Tango Zen industry. With what you know and all your fancy steps, I bet you would be a runaway success!"


** Which Irene fails to be again and again as the horrible, universally hated snarky writer of this blog. Man Yung is on the other hand a saint - but only because he leaves the dirty work to Irene.

*** We talk (nonsensically!) about Tango as the manifestation of the free spirit of the original creative force, but this does not mean that people should just do what the hell they want in the milonga and hog as much space as possible in ego-gratifying death defying movements. Please guys, respect each other - more harmony and better navigation! Reserve your "appetite for destruction" for the Octagon!


Tangocommuter said...

That's one amazing post, everything from Thai fighting to Manolo to the beginning of the universe! Well done! I look forward to more of them.

Last night I was watching 83 year-old Ismael Heljalil dancing, and trying to define how unassuming his dancing is, and how devoid of ego too, and how beautiful. I was with Alberto and Paulina, thanks in part to you, and I'm looking forward to classes with Martha and Manolo later this week... & the sun is shining!

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear Tangocommuter,

Thanks for enjoying our post! What's really amazing is that you are in Buenos Aires! That means the dream that you were talking about in your blog was not completely a dream, was it?

Wishing that we were there too,

Irene and Man Yung

David said...

Dear Irene,
Thank you for the interesting post. I would like to know more about the idea that Martha and Manolo stated, that, to be a good tango dancer one has to be a good person. Next time you see them, could you ask them: WHY? The must have made some real life observations that led them to conclude that this is how it works. What were those concrete real life observations, and what is the good effect on tango, of being a good person?

Thanks in advance!

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear David,

Martha and Manolo's comments definitely suggest that being a good person influences the quality of one's dancing. We are planning a whole separate post analyzing this question. We will definitely ask Martha and Manolo (when we meet up and can talk face to face next year) for more details on this issue - and perhaps even ask Alberto Dassieu and some other of the older dancers we know to see what they think!

Thanks for your comment and your interest in getting a more in-depth analysis on this topic,

Irene and Man Yung

David said...

Dear Irene and Man,
I can't resist sharing more of my thoughts, as I can relate to this issue, in the present stage of my own learning.

I find that for tango motion to be natural, I need to be totally relaxed, yet fully awake/aware. It is the state and the quality of movement of a person, with his whole being, facing life smiling openly, going forward without hesitation, innocently, without bitterness or caution.

I would say, in this state my movements are relaxed and effortless, and I possess them/contain them within my own person, for my own enjoyment. They don't have any quality of strain, demonstrativeness or "lashing out." (I learned from maestra Mimi Santapa that, in the embrace, one uses the inside muscles of one's arms. The outside muscles are, as she explains, the ones used for clutching and clawing.)

As a side note: I've always liked dressing in colors that have some brightness. Among the dancers that I admire, the men also often dress in nice light colors.

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear David,

You seem to be describing a "Zen"-like state that's also tied into the need to be absolutely truthful and honest while dancing. It's wonderful that you can experience this while dancing, because there are no limits once you reach it... unfortunately we're at the stage where all Man Yung can experience is steps and all that Irene is thinking about is Wal-Mart! (just kidding)

Thanks for your comment, looking forward to reading your blog when you set it up - we hope to read more about your insights!

Irene and Man Yung

Irene and Man Yung said...

Dear David,

Ooops, we mean when we will be able to read your blog - you have it up but it's invitation only.

Irene and Man Yung

David said...

Dear Irene and Man,
Some of my pains of becoming a better person are reflected in my blog. I would like to re-birth it, and publish it again, after the pains.

I don't think the state is "Zen." Zen, as I understand it, is achieved by emptying out one's consciousness, but I aim to fill it up by focusing on what I want without contradictions.

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