Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of connection, love, unity, beauty, harmony and humanity, i.e., an idealism that is not consistent with the dehumanizing reality of the modern world. The world divides us as individuals, but tango unites us as a community and people. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.

December 25, 2011

Social Tango and Performance Tango

The more I think about the challenges that tango is facing, the more I feel the need to draw a distinction between social tango and performance tango. People who promote performance tango often say, “Why draw a line? They are all tango. The tango is one.” But that is not true. Social tango and performance tango are different dances that serve different purposes. They are different in almost every aspects, including appearance, embrace, connection, feel, steps, techniques, lead/follow methods, and philosophies. (See How Tango Is Led.) Any definition describing one dance automatically excludes the other. In fact, people who only have learned one dance are not able to dance the other dance. Instead of palming performance tango off onto beginners, it is better to tell the truth, so beginners would know what they actually get into.

Social tango is a popular dance. It is a simple and user-friendly dance suited to the tastes, needs and abilities of the ordinary people. It is danced on a crowded dance floor for pleasure and not for show, and is administered by the milonga codes. It is an intimate dance typically danced in close embrace with considerable bodily contact to serve the need for affinity and intimacy between the two sexes. Improvised and feeling-oriented, it is danced in simple and compact steps so the dancers may concentrate on the emotions stirred by the music, the comfort and sensation of the embrace, the communication of feelings through the torso connection, and the harmony of movements in unison with the music. Dancing social tango is a soulful and personal experience. What matters is how it feels and not how it looks.

Performance tango, on the other hand, is a highbrow dance designed for show on stage. It is a dramatized version of tango involving difficult steps and techniques not suited to the ordinary people, but professionals with expert skills. It is a choreographed and movement-oriented dance, typically danced in an open embrace for broader movement possibilities. Its steps are wide, fancy, showy, and often dangerous and requiring a lot of space to do. It is not intended to be an intimate, soulful and personal experience, but a display of flashy figures and dazzling movements to impress and entertain an audience. It does not abide by the milonga codes and is not suited to a crowded dance floor. Safety, comfort and user-friendliness are not its concern. What matters is how it looks and not how it feels. (See Highbrowism and Populism in Tango.)

I believe it is not for the best interest of most people to learn performance tango, especially before they have mastered social tango, because it’s a waste of time and money as very few of them will ever become stage performers, and because without the foundation of social tango it is impossible for them to be good performers anyway. Worse still, the bad habits acquired from learning performance tango, such as using the arms and hands to lead and follow, the inability to use the torso to communicate, the focus on the look rather than the feelings, the disregard of the safety and comfort of others, and the difficult and dangerous footwork, not only hinder their own enjoyment of social tango, but also cause disturbance to others in the milonga.

For most people, social tango is what they should focus their energy on in their study of tango, because their purpose is to dance in the milongas for personal pleasure and not on stage to entertain others; because they want a simple and user-friendly dance suited to their ability, not a complicated and difficult dance beyond their reach; because they want an intimate, soulful and comfortable dance that serves their need for intimacy with another soul, not a gaudy and uncomfortable dance to show their ego; and because they want to be a good social dancer and lay a solid foundation before, if ever, they decide to learn performance.

In the US, social tango and performance tango are mixed, which is one cause of the many problems in our milongas. In Buenos Aires, the two dances are separated. Social tango (tango de salon) is danced in the milongas. Performance tango (tango fantasia) is danced on stage. (See The Styles of Tango.) The professionals who dance show tango on stage will dance social tango exclusively when they go to milongas. Those who teach social tango will say they teach social tango, and those who teach performance tango will say they teach performance tango. They don’t hang up a sheep’s head and sell dog meat. Separate competitions are organized for each dance. I believe that is how it should be elsewhere in the world as well.

December 18, 2011

Highbrowism and Populism in Tango

Popular arts are arts suited to the tastes, needs, educational levels etc. of the ordinary people. Highbrow arts are those considered to be of highly cultivated tastes and skills superior to that of the common people. A highbrow song finds few singers, because its range and technique are beyond the reach of most people. A pop song, on the other hand, is less in range and technique; therefore, everyone can sing it.

The notion that complicated arts are superior to simple arts, however, is misleading. A photograph can be more tasteful than an oil painting. A simple movement can be more beautiful than an intricate figure. A pop song can be more appealing than an opera song, though it is easier to sing. Very often things are better when they are simpler and easier, because simplicity and easiness reflect elegance. Empty space brings design to a painting. Pause creates a mood in the dance. Silence can express more. Too much could be worse than not enough. A master performs his art with great ease. Simple doesn't mean artistically inferior. Easy doesn't mean less skillful. On the contrary, it takes great sophistication to achieve simplicity and easiness. Those who can make arts simple and easy often are better artists than those who can't. (See Simple Is Beautiful.)

This is so also because arts, especially popular arts, are for common people. What’s the value of a pop song if it is beyond the reach of most people? What’s the value of a social dance if only few can dance it? Argentine tango is a social dance. It was created by gouchos, sailors, immigrant workers and street women. It is still a grassroots dance in Argentina today. Most people who dance tango are ordinary people. They love tango because tango is a simple and easy dance that meets their need for connection and affinity with others. Those who regard themselves above the crowd try to make tango increasingly complicated and difficult. I don’t think that effort serves tango well. Tango will not cease to improve, of course, but changing it to a highbrow dance like ballet is heading the wrong direction, in my opinion. The vitality of tango is in its sociability and popularity without which tango will become a castle in the air.

Schopenhauer's famous words "Man is either vulgar or lonely" contains different connotations. You may read it as to be yourself and not follow the crowd. You may read it as not to be so aloof as to become a loner. You may read it as to suit both refined and popular tastes and avoid extremism. As far as tango is concerned, I believe the last take is the most wise because, as a Chinese saying goes, "Water too clear has no fish, man too high standard has no follower." If you are too elitist, there will be few partners for you. Schopenhauer's words, therefore, can be read as a warning.

December 14, 2011

Tango and Romanticism

When people comment on someone's tango as gymnastics or acrobatics, they are referring to a lack of romanticism in the dance. Gymnastics is an athletic exercise involving skilled physical movements to build muscles and strength. Acrobatics is an exhibition of physical feats, such as flipping in the air, balancing upside down on one arm while doing the splits, bending the body 180 degrees backwards, etc. Such exercises are designed to show what the human body is capable of for sportive or entertaining purpose. They are difficult to do and are not intended to be comfortable and romantic.

Tango, on the other hand, is a social dance that expresses the emotions of the music and the beauty of the body through movements. It emphasizes the humanistic and artistic aspects such as feelings, music, beauty and harmony of the dance rather than the physical aspects such as strength, speed and tricks of the steps. What matters is how soulful, graceful, coherent and harmonious the dance is, not how challenging, difficult and thrilling the steps are. Tango is intended to be an intimate, comforting and romantic experience. It serves the need for affinity between the two sexes and is suggestive of an idealized romance. In the soul of tango is romanticism, which differentiates it from gymnastics and acrobatics.

If we take romanticism away from tango, what's left is a sport or show. Unfortunately, in a culture where electronic games rather than classics, sports rather than arts, and technologies rather than humanity are the main influence, that is what tango increasingly becomes. People, especially young people brought up in this culture, exhibit a lack of depth and lasting quality. They focus too much on the flashy forms rather than the substance, and constantly seek for change and novelty. To retain tango's classic, simple, romantic and elegant style, we have works to do. One of which is to reflect more romanticism in our teaching and dancing, for example, being simpler, going deeper, showing more feelings, and focusing more on the elegance rather than tricks and degree of difficulty of the steps. Fashion will be outdated but never will romanticism, because it resides in our humanity. We only need to awaken it.