Saturday, October 31, 2009

A "Milonguisimo" Poema

We just came across this video on Youtube of Alberto and Paulina with the rest of the cast of "Milonguisimo" (that's Oscar Hector Malagrino and Teresita Brandon, Jorge Uzunian and Haydee Malagrino, Juan Esquivel and Susy Tilbe - all our favourites and frequently mentioned here in our blog) performing to Poema during one of the events of the mundial competitions:

What can we say? Sheer happiness and pure bliss.....we should all be so lucky to be able to dance like this someday!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Buenos Aires 2008 - Part 3



One great thing about staying at Hotel Wilton is the breakfast buffet. Now, it's nothing fancy - no omelets done to order or eggs hollandaise - but it's got the good basics. Bread, pastries, fresh fruit, fruit salad, yogurt, hard boiled eggs, cream cheese, deli slices, juice, tea and coffee - nutritious and simple and a great way to start a new day. Because every day we spend in Buenos Aires is long and exhausting, and god forbid that we run out of steam by 3:00 p.m.!

Since Friday was a complete shoe shopping write-off - the first item on our list on Saturday was Comme Il Faut (I insisted). The boutique is about 1.2 km from the hotel. It's lovely to walk there, through peaceful streets lined with tall leafy trees and turn of the century continental architecture. Although Arenales (where Comme Il Faut is located) is not a major throughfare like Callao or Santa Fe, there are many high-end stores (gourmet, fashion, home furnishings) on the street with impeccable and charming window displays. If it were any other similar sized street in Toronto there would be nothing on the street except residences and at most a convenience store.

The dog-walkers were out in full force, so we had the opportunity to enjoy the sights of the delightful groomed dogs in all different shapes and sizes. They are such well-behaved cuties - the dog walkers would loosely tie a whole bunch of them by the side of the road while dropping off each dog at their homes, but none of the dogs would run into the road or sniff and bark at strangers who passed by!

We were on a tight schedule, so we got to Comme Il Faut moments after it opened its doors. Shopping for shoes with Man Yung is the BEST. People can't believe that I'm so lucky to have a husband who could double for a very competent fashion consultant. Some of the salesladies recognized us from the previous year - and they were inclined to be even more friendly and helpful when they saw how quickly Man Yung looked at the shoes. He would go through the boxes incredibly quickly - what we liked we put to one side and what we didn't we put to the other side without that strange, agonizing, constipated indecision that plagues a lot of the other patrons. What we went through we made sure were returned to their boxes and stacked back neatly. We gave enough information about heel height, shoe type and colour preference to the salesladies so that they were able to decide accurately what we wanted to look at, without having to bring us every shoe in the store. Within fifteen minutes we had four perfect pairs for me - two blue pairs and two red pairs. "Why don't you have men's shoes?" Man Yung asked. The salesladies looked horrified. "NO! NONE for the men! NEVER!" they exclaimed.

The ladies of Comme Il Faut are great - professional, classy, (Man Yung would also like to add: "Very beautiful!") and proud of the shoes that they sell. That's one thing we notice time and time again whenever we shop in Buenos Aires - people are proud of what they do and what they make. And when you show them respect and appreciate their product or services - they are all smiles and they treat you like long lost friends. I had a problem with one of my Comme Il Fauts that I bought back in 2007 and Comme Il Faut was able to resolve the problem very quickly for me after I emailed them. I wanted to thank the lady who helped me in person - but unfortunately, she was not in the store that day. However, just by expressing that I wanted to thank one person for something that happened a year ago, all the other people became even nicer to us!

After dropping off the brand new shoes at the hotel (you can bet that the rest of the day I was thinking incessantly about my beautiful new Comme Il Fauts), we went to the Galerias Pacifico, where La Escuela Argentina de Tango's central location is located, and where we were going to meet up with Martha and Manolo at their canyengue class at 1 p.m. We deliberately arrived early so we can have a nice lunch at the food court.

The Galerias Pacifico has a really, really nice food court - if a mall in Toronto had the same kind of food court it would be considered a gourmet food court and a tourist attraction. There's so much delicious choices I could hardly decide - and I have to decide for the both of us since I'm the only one who could read Spanish and actually have some idea about what we were ordering.
Apart from pasta, pizza, salad, fast food like burgers and the like, there's also several different kind of barbeque available - Argentinian and American styles - and we ended up ordering a small parrilla (you can see it being cooked on the big horizontal grill behind the counter and everything) which Man Yung washed down with some beer. There was soccer playing on the tv screen while we ate - perfect! Except that Man Yung was so engrossed in the game he set his plastic cup down wrong and spilled the beer all over the table - luckily my lightning fast kung fu reflexes kicked in and I was able to jump out of the way at the last second.

The way to the Centro Cultural Borges on the third floor where the school is located is always a bit of a maze. There's elevators, and then stairs, and then passageways, and more stairs - wait, there's a security guard, better ask him how to get there. Anyway, we made it. There were lots of people waiting outside the classroom for the previous class to end. We were pleasantly surprised to see many people from the previous year's Camicando festival - either attending the class that was ending or waiting to attend Martha and Manolo's class - and meeting them again, it was like we just saw them yesterday.

Finally Martha and Manolo arrived - and much hugging and crying ensued (especially by Man Yung) with the other students looking at us rather strangely. Martha and Manolo looked well - Manolo was in good health this year so he looked much better than the previous March, when he was suffering from a cold. We were overjoyed at seeing each other.

After the class we went together to a nearby cafe. We were the only patrons there as it was the awkward time in the afternoon - to late for lunch and too early for dinner. There was only a narrow sidewalk in front of the cafe, so there weren't any people sitting outside people-watching - in fact, in the congested streets next to the mall, who would want to sit outside and breathe in all the traffic fumes? But inside the quiet comfort of the small cafe - with its old world decor and efficient, polite waiters - we could talk and catch up.

Martha and Manolo did not have good news. Osvaldo Cartery had quit smoking and he was not adjusting well to the change. He couldn't even finish an entire tango, he got so out of breath. Now, we were really looking forward to learning from Osvaldo and Coca this year at Camicando - Man Yung had been studying his style all year - so we were really concerned when we heard this. Martha and Manolo were worried and stressed out themselves - as they said, they had been sleeping poorly, eating poorly and thinking too much. There was the big Camicando festival (which starts on the following Monday) that they had to organize and they had relatives who were in poor health, so they were constantly shuttling back and forth trying to take care of everything and everyone. I don't know whether it was the life of tango that they lived or whether it was some innate quality that suited them to dance tango - but no matter what their troubles or their worries, Martha and Manolo handled everything with incredible poise, tranquility, love, care and acceptance. Anyone else in the same situation (including myself) would probably be having a nervous breakdown and calling attention to themselves with all the drama.

We only had a brief hour together before Martha and Manolo had to leave and attend to their busy schedule - so we were on our own for the rest of the afternoon. It was so hot and tiring taking just one class of Canyengue, I seriously doubted whether I would be able to survive the festival. However, Man Yung was still full of energy after the class (and the very light dancing at La Milonguita the previous night meant that he was hankering for more dancing) - so off we went to El Arranque after a quick shower at the hotel.

El Arranque is about eight blocks from our hotel along Callao. It looks like a cinema from the outside, with lots of black, black, black. But inside - I always get the impression that the place is a grey green, moldy colour - was it the lights, or the floor, or the walls? We had been warned by some of our teachers about the nature of El Arranque: arrive at the right time and it's alright, come at the wrong time and it is a meat market/pick-up joint. As they would say emphatically: "MUY FEO".

We might have arrived during a "Muy Feo" time..... it wasn't crowded at all, but there were some very odd looking people sitting in the singles section, staring hungrily at one another. It seemed that the thousands upon thousands they had spent on plastic surgery did nothing to turn the clock back - rather, it had accelerated their descent into FREAK LAND.

Anyway, we arrived, got a table at the sparsely occupied "couples section" on the right side of the stage, and started dancing... but noticed that the level of dancing at the milonga was kind of low. "Hey, I'm the best dancer here!" said Man Yung, kind of surprised. Which was promptly confirmed - the older local couple at the next table deliberately started to talk to us to let us know that we were dancing very very well. The regular dancers in the milongas are generous in that way - if you dance well, they'll let you know.

However, at El Arranque that afternoon, it really was not that big a deal. We were in a place where hugging lasciviously was more important than actual dancing!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Buenos Aires 2008 - Part 2

The first entry "Part 1" for our 2008 Buenos Aires trip could be found here. Sorry for the big delay!


Dear V,

No first day in Buenos Aires can be complete for chinese people without a trip to Chinatown. Not only is it important for a chinese person to connect with chinese food (A hot, late lunch with a large Quilmes beer at Todo Contento yet again - although walking down the block we were almost tempted to try "old marinated style duck necks and chicken feet" at one of the smaller restaurant/take-out places - seems that there are quite a few very very chinese establishments that have no inclination to cater to non-chinese in Buenos Aires), it was crucial for us to buy as many packages of cup noodles as possible to last for the rest of our trip. At 4 a.m. in the morning after an exhausting day, a mere twenty metre walk (more like a mutual limpy drag - I'm dragging Man Yung and Man Yung is dragging me) to the twenty-four hour La Madeleine for food is beyond contemplation - therefore, a trusty pava electrica (electric kettle) and cup noodles are a must.

The food at Todo Contento was good, although to our sophisticated Scarborough "protein lovers" tastes rather basic - more carbs like rice and noodles than anything. We noticed that more non-chinese are being hired in the restaurant as well as the supermarket though compared to 2007. Was it a change in the law? Or a change in the clientele? The proprietress let us know that it is mandatory that all the chinese stores hire at least a minimum number of Argentinos. Which means that many of the chinese here are not yet "Argentinos", but may be there either illegally or temporarily.

It was still mid-afternoon when we completed our shopping in Chinatown, so we hailed a cab and went back to the hotel - and immediately headed back out to buy Lacoste polo shirts at the Santa Fe Lacoste location. That's how it is for us for the first 24 hours in Buenos Aires - a mini shopping frenzy involving Instant Noodles, Lacoste shirts (Man Yung can sweat through about four or five during a milonga - disgusting!) and Comme Il Fauts. The staff at Lacoste recognized us from last year (I've discovered that if one exhibits the same kind of good fashion taste and quick, decisive skills of selection as Man Yung, one would always be remembered) - however, the handsome english-speaking manager was not around ("Que lastima!!" we all exclaimed in unison) because he had gone on vacation.

Unfortunately, the sun, the heat and yes, the very long flight had contributed to us feeling extremely tired and cranky - so no shoe shopping but a nap instead was in order.

Alberto and Paulina came to pick us up in the evening. We had been exchanging emails with Alberto and Paulina throughout the year since our last trip but Man Yung and I are such lowly insignificant tango dancers, what if all that wonderful friendship was only a dream? How could we even imagine Alberto and Paulina treating us so well and taking around all the milongas and introducing us to there friends even though we dance so poorly? And how would Alberto react seeing our yucky dancing after putting so much of his heart and energy into teaching us how to dance well just the year before? Would it drive him to an early grave? I was a bundle of nerves.

But when they arrived in their car - all the anxieties melted away. Alberto and Paulina aren't just two wonderful dancers on Youtube, or world-famous milongueros and teachers of tango. The way they greeted us showed us what was really important - and that we were friends, and that mattered more than anything.

Alberto and Paulina took us to La Milonguita, a milonga run by Blas Catrenau and Graciela Lopez that had recently moved to a nice new location at the Centro Montanes, right at the edge of Palermo. During the drive there, I was eager to hear more news from them, and to give them a preview of the horrible dancing from us ahead so that they wouldn't be too disappointed ;) .

Alberto told us about his performance with his assistant Ms. E at Susana Miller's festival this year - she was under immense pressure as her mother just passed away, the funeral was just on the morning of the performance. However, dancing and teaching tango was E's dream - and to complete the performance was something she had promised to do not only for herself, but for her mother who supported her with her whole heart. It was a performance to remember, a tango that encompassed all of love beyond life and death.

We also talked about Alberto's other performances - a recent memorable one with a trendy new live orchestra that played in the style of one of the good old ones (I'm not saying which one because then you will be able to guess!) How was it? Just plain awful - the music that is. The music was brassy and loud, oddly accented and would bust your eardrums apart. It just shows that no matter how you try to recreate it, some methods of playing the tango have been lost and it would take years of trial and error and experience to get the playing back to the sophistication of the golden age. Alberto had heard the lovely playing from the original orchestras and to hear the modern equivalent was too much of a contrast. Anyway, at least they are playing tango - it would take time, but eventually they will get there.

We arrived at La Milonguita early so we could have dinner there - we peeked into the milonga hall so that Alberto and Paulina could say hello to their friends Blas and Graciela. There was a tango class going on and we were curious too, after watching Blas and Graciela dance in a video on Rick McGarrey's website! (However, it would not be nice to run away and take classes with Blas when we were out on the town with Alberto, right?)

Alberto, like most of the Argentinians we have become friends with during our trips, knows all the good places to eat - and this one was no exception. There's a spanish restaurant next to the milonga hall right in the same building - I believe the place is a club and many come to eat there whether or not they had planned to go to the milonga afterwards - and being early, we had our choice of tables. Alberto picked a table in the corner next to open doors leading out to the concrete courtyard outside. There was a nice mellow breeze coming in from the open doors, and the twilight was settling in. We were with our good friends and teachers, about to share a hearty dinner. It was a moment of harmonious tranquility. Sensing the moment, Alberto ordered the perfect red wine - "Rincon de los Amigos". It was delicious with the torta and the seafood paella.

We did more catching up with Alberto and Paulina over dinner. We had missed Alberto and Paulina when they travelled to New York the previous summer - but they had plans to visit North America again in the fall of 2008, if, that is, their plans with an organizer from Montreal worked out. We hoped that this would come to fruition for Alberto - we knew how difficult it was for good teachers from the older generation to be able to teach overseas when everyone wanted to learn the newest trendiest tricks from the most shameless self-promoters with the biggest brand names. While we were talking and eating, Blas Catrenau came over to say hello to Alberto and Paulina, and we were introduced. Blas is a very charming gentleman - and an incredible dancer who won the first metropolitano competition with his partner Graciela, back when people actually won for dancing fabulously in their own idiosyncratic way and not for parroting some "sure-win" style.

La Milonguita Fridays was not very crowded (it is more crowded on Sundays) and because of Alberto and Paulina we got to sit at a very nice table right on the edge of the dance floor. The floor must be marble or white tile, it was glossy and smooth, and there was plenty of space to dance! Man Yung was able to cabeceo with success - a plump young portena adornista was intrigued by the way he danced - but one tanda and 300,000 molinetes later, it was quite enough for the poor thing (Nothing new here!)

And as for our dancing? Being one of our teachers, of course Alberto would be concerned. However, it was not so excruciatingly bad after all - Alberto did raise an eyebrow and suggested to Man Yung that there was one "minor thing" that he would like to take the opportunity to correct (was it the continuous molinetes, or the dancing on the toes, or the strange posture, or perhaps the speeding around the dance floor without even a thought of pausing? Or all of the above?) Phew! He didn't disown us. What a relief.

We didn't stay so late, and Paulina and Alberto were not party animals either. We left after enjoying some nice tandas together. It was a wonderful evening - and it certainly would not do to tire ourselves out on the very first day when so much was lying ahead!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bad Poetry

I'm currently taking a writing course and the instructor told us to write an inspired poem in the style of Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire".

My god.

I am not poet. I don't write poems. I am only an lowly and humble blogger of Tango.

I spent the whole night not sleeping and tearing my hair out about the assignment! And this is the unfortunate result:

Argentine Tango

Like a ding on the door of a brand new coupe,
Like a horsefly falling into haute French soup,
The nagging mediocrity of his perfect bourgeois life was most distressing.

Like a lunatic's vision of God,
Like the ecstasies induced in Pavlov's dogs,
appassionata of the acrobatic stage dancers made his heart sing.

Like the projectile bounty of cornucopia,
Like a five-day losing streak at Casinorama,
A fortune he expended to learn and know.

At times like the flapping of a chicken without its head,
And at other times like the rigid gyrations of the undead,
Alas! His dancing was only so-so.

(Some folks should just not dance the Argentine Tango)

After I inflicted this monstrosity on the unsuspecting class, everyone was in an uproar - and unanimously voted to kick me out.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Lesson

In between watching soccer, playing with our cats and doing laundry this fine Sunday morning, we were searching for tango videos on Youtube. We wanted to check on our "old friends" from Cosmotango (as Man Yung said, "Hey, I don't think I have heard anything about Cosmotango this year - did they even have one?") and so we did a quick search on the usual culprits.

Well, apart from a snippet of a performance on the Cosmotango website, there was nothing on Youtube - I guess the organizers didn't want anyone to steal their "intellectual property" and start duplicating all the moves on the dance floor or in the classes of their own mini Nuevo festival? Anyway, it was not a big loss - just from the clip we saw and some videos from 2008 that were available we knew not only were we not missing anything, we had ample proof that age, time, experience, innate talent and hours of vigorous acrobatic practice can, in some instances, do nothing to improve one's tango and in fact, make it a lot worse (no surprise there).

We did come across a new video from Marisa Galindo's youtube site though! As the tango blogging community has already reported, Marisa Galindo has been uploading clips from the show she organized in the 90's with all the older generation dancers (our teacher Martha Anton was also in the show) and the footage is rare and amazing. She has recently uploaded the video of all the dancers on the stage dancing La Cumparsita in a simulated "Milonga" scene:

"La Cumparsita" with the Greats

This video is a treat because a) we can't stand watching cookie-cutter "contemporary" "campeonato salon style" tango dancers on youtube anymore - for us, it's the videos of the unique older dancers that are really worth looking at; b) there's a lesson to be learned looking at this milonga scene.

If you watch closely, there are "show-off" dancers (not exactly the same as "show dancers" - there is a distinction, you know) and "dancers from the milonga" on stage together at the same time in this video. Much like what you would find in a milonga of today.

And just like in a milonga, you have the "show-off" dancers doing every single "show-off" movement they know - regardless of the line of dance, the people around them, and the fact that perhaps it is inappropriate to finish the step sequence they have programed into their bodies given the music and the space available!

The "dancers from the milonga" can be dancing plainly (Portalea and Marta) or fancy (the gentleman in the brown jacket with the young girl, or Lito and Lidia) but some things they do really well are a) staying calm, despite the profusion of high boleos and charging "show-off" bodies; b) dancing in the music; and c) navigation - which frequently means expertly changing directions and running away from the "show-off's" when they come too close!

As I said, there's a lesson to be learned from all of this. Man Yung has to learn how to "run away" when he feels crowded by crazy "show-off's" in the milonga - would Portalea start to use his partner, helicopter-blade style, as a weapon in this instance? Not likely.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

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

(Continued from Part I)

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

Part II

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.

43. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses, trans. Peggy Kamuf (Stanford, U.S.A.: Stanford University Press, 1996), 79.

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.


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

Bratt, Jennifer. “Tango Embellishments.” Tango Argentino. 10 Dec 2006.

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

Cixous, Hélène. “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.

---. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. New
French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Amherst, U.S.A.: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1980.

Forever Tango. YouTube, 2006. San Bruno, California: YouTube Inc. Dec 10, 2006.

Gavito, Carlos. Perf. “Milonga a Gavito.” The best of CosmoTango (2003), 2003. DVD.
Gotan Enterprises, Inc., 2003.

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

Irigaray, Luce. The Way of Love. Trans. Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluháček. Great
Britain: MPG Books Ltd. 2002.

Lentijo, Judit. “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.

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

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

---. “Dreaming Tango: Life in the Clubs.” 2003. Tango and Chaos in
Buenos Aires. Dec 10, 2006.

---. “Searching for a Modern Style.” 2006. Tango and Chaos in Buenos
Aires. Dec 10, 2006.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. The Muses. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford, U.S.A.: Stanford
University Press, 1996.

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

Rojas, Geraldine. Perf. Show La viruta TANGO EL GRAN GAVITO. YouTube, 2006,
San Bruno, California: YouTube Inc. Oct 24 2006 .

R.V. Personal interview. 2 Dec 2006.

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

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.

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

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

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

Tanguera: El Musical Argentino. Diego Romay Entertainment Business 2001-2004,
Buenos Aires, Argentina. 10 Dec 2006.

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

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

Zotto, Miguel Angel. Perfumes de Tango. DVD. The Tango Catalogue, 2006.

---. Una Noche de Tango. Videocasette. The Tango Catalogue, 2006.

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.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Spectacle

The performers: Lunatics.

The ones who paid to see it: Crazy.

The critics who wrote negative reviews: Wasted their time.

The critics who praised it: Insane.

Without a doubt, it was a spectacular success.

* Excerpt from a review of a theatrical performance from the book "Jiang Hu" by Hong Kong writer Lilian Lee.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Several years ago, I was once engaged in a conversation with a Toronto milonguera. We didn't know each other very well at the time - and she just found out I was a lawyer (and I didn't volunteer this information - she asked me).

Since she was in a profession somewhat related to my field, she suddenly felt this compulsion to talk about landlord and tenancy matters with me, right there in the milonga. Maybe she felt she had to prove something to me. Or perhaps she wanted me to prove something to her?

I stopped her. "Let's not talk shop in the milonga," I told her quite firmly.

Was she upset? No. Actually, she was rather relieved. That's because secretly, she felt the same way that I did - that the sacred space of the milonga should not be polluted by all the flotsam and jetsam of the rat-race world out there.

In Buenos Aires, the serious dancers leave all that stuff outside the door once they enter into the milonga. You go to the milonga to relax, to see your friends, to dance and to listen to music. Some dancers can go decades without knowing what their milonga friends do during the day. Some people even refuse to disclose their real names. It's an unspoken code that you don't bring your "real life" baggage onto the dance floor.

In the Chinese ballroom community in Toronto, being part of the dance crowd is all about getting clients and making connections. Some professionals and business people deliberately get involved in order to get ahead. And the dancing? Only a secondary consideration. Maybe that's why they have so many horrible, stiff, unnatural dancers, and I'm being quite generous in using the word "dancers". Posers with plenty of business cards, more like it.

I'm truly glad that this kind of thing has not infected Toronto Tango - as a rule, dancers in Toronto do not treat the milonga as an extension of their place of business. But there are exceptions. While no-one has actually been so crass as to ask me for legal advice in a milonga, there have been some who have felt very necessary to give people totally irrelevant and unsolicited details about exactly which lofty position in which multi-national corporation they work for, how much money they have made in the stock market last year, the humongous deals they make on a daily basis with the titans of industry, all the names of the bigwigs of business that they know, and by and large, how rich/educated/knowledgeable/important they are and how worthy they should be of admiration and respect.

No, no, no and no.

Instead of impressing me, this kind of thing fills me with revulsion and makes my skin crawl. I don't know about other people, but don't we tango specifically to escape such things? Instead of increasing my respect, they've instantly lost it.

Martha used to be a machine operator in a factory. Manolo used to be a taxi driver, and a grocer. Does this make us respect them less? Not a jot - they are our teachers, we love them and you know what? They have taught us more about life than any person with a degree (or a McMansion).

It's sounds like a cliche, but Tango is a great equalizer. In the milonga, we come together to dance - rich and poor, young and old, famous and infamous, good and bad. What you are in the "real" world is not important. In fact, forget about the nonsense about the "real" world - the milonga and the embrace is the place where we can be truly "real".

Please don't pollute it, okay?

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Martha and Manolo - news for October, 2009

Tango Canyengue - Martha and Manolo

Martha and Manolo just sent us this lovely photo of them which was attached to the Reuters article on Tango Therapy - the article has been posted in English on other blogs and websites but the spanish version is here:

Pacientes bailan al compas de la tango-terapia en Argentina

Martha and Manolo have been teaching and performing for the Tango Therapy program for several years now. It always gives them great joy to see how Tango has improved the lives and mental health of psychiatric patients.

Martha and Manolo are also having a very busy season teaching and performing. Recently they performed at La Viruta:

Martha and Manolo performing Milonga Fantasia at La Viruta

Apart from the La Viruta performance, Martha and Manolo also performed with a group of distinguished dancers of the older generation "Ronda de Milongueros: Los Federales" in Salon Canning on September 29.

As for classes, they sent us their schedule:

Our classes in September and October will be the same on Tuesday 17:30 and Saturdays 13:00 at La Escuela Argentina de Tango
Thursdays we will be teaching at La Salsera at Yatay 961
From October 9 to 13 we will be in Sao Paolo Brazil for a Festival
November we will go to Cordoba to give workshops

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