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!
Martha's Apartment in Buenos Aires
A Non-exhaustive set of Tango links in Toronto
- La Cachila - weekly milonga
- Paradiso -- weekly milonga
- Practica El Beso
- WE Tango
- Tango Sur - classes, shows
- Rhythm and Motion - classes, milonga, practica, annual Toronto Tango Festival
- Tango Obsession - classes, weekly Practica La Coqueta
- Tango Lirico - classes, practica, weekly milonga
- Tango de Oro - classes, shows
- Tango Soul Productions - classes, weekly milonga, shows, El Congreso annual Tango Festival
- Vivatango - classes
- Tango Argentino - classes
- Club Milonga - classes, special events
- Alternatango - classes, weekly milonga
- University of Toronto Tango Club - classes, practica
- El Abrazo - classes
- Tangoloft - twice monthly milonga