Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating philosophy, culture, and lifestyle. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit 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 people and species. 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.

June 23, 2012

Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts

Buenos Aires is one of the largest metropolises in the world. One thirds of Argentina’s 41 million people live in Buenos Aires. The city was built by the European immigrants. At the beginning of the 19th century, Buenos Aires was only a small town with a mixed population of Native Americans and Spanish, often intermarried. The Spanish brought in slaves with their music and dances from Africa. During the second half of the 19th century, the Argentine government made a conscious decision to reduce the black population and expand the white population, which led to the massive immigrations from Span, Italy, and other parts of Europe to Argentina. By the end of the 19th century the original population of Buenos Aires has been completely swamped by the European immigrants. We can trace tango to 150 years ago to its African origin from which the primitive form of the dance first appeared, but the main inventors of tango were the European immigrants of the late 19th century and early 20th century who built the modern mega-city of Buenos Aires.

The fact that tango was created mainly by the immigrants is significant. Far away from home, disproportional in gender, the immigrants were the most lonely, homesick and nostalgic people. They came to the milonga to dance the loneliness, homesickness, nostalgia and grief in them, to find a shoulder to rely on, to quench their thirst for love, and to touch and be touched by another human being of the opposite sex. Tango is their refuge. The intimate, soulful, sensual and comforting nature of tango reflects and serves their deep, inward, human needs. That’s why tango is danced in close embrace in which the two partners intimately lean into each other, chest against chest and cheek touches cheek. Through such intimate bodily contact they express and communicate with each other their emotions and feelings. Like the dance itself, tango music is created to express nostalgic sentiments. Its rhythm is robust, crisp, constant and forceful, but its melody is supple, emotional, sentimental and moody. Every note or phrase is played with a “masculine” effect - strong, firm and steady, or a “feminine” effect - lingering, submissive and emotional. The two moods intertwine and respond to each other, reflecting the man and woman in the dance. (See The Characteristics of Classic Tango.)

Tango reached its maturity and dominated the culture of Buenos Aires between mid 1930s and mid 1950s. This period is known as tango’s Golden Age. That was followed by almost thirty years of the Dark Age during which tango disappeared. In 1955 a military coup ousted Juan Domingo Peron, the democratically elected president. Peron had actively supported tango. The dancers aligned with him were suspicious to the anti-Peronist juntas, who created a climate that discouraged tango. (See The Styles of Tango.) As a result, people stopped dancing socially and musicians stopped playing for the dance floor. The music produced in the Dark Age is largely for listeners and not dancers. The revival of tango started in 1983 after the restoration of democracy in Argentina. Since then tango has gained worldwide popularity, and is now danced in almost every country in the world and almost every city in Europe and North America.

As one BBC commentator remarked, “Tango contains a secret about the yearning between men and women.” In many cultures, intimacy between the opposite sexes is deemed sexual, and therefore is repressed voluntarily or involuntarily. Men and women cannot be intimate unless they want to have sex. In other words, such cultures do not approve non-sexual intimacy between the two genders. But Argentine tango represents a different view, or culture, that recognizes and sanctions innocent intimacy. The Argentinians are an intimate people due to their immigrant cultural background, and tango is a product of their history. The triumph of tango, after all, is the triumph of its idea, which regards nonsexual intimacy as decent, healthy and beautiful. 

But, the triumph of that idea does not come without a cost. Many things have changed after the Golden Age. The tradition has been suspended for almost thirty years. The immigrants have settled down. The gender balance has regained. Many old dancers have died. The entire young generation did not know how to dance tango. The only tango survived the Dark Age was the stage tango. As a result, the revival of tango was led by a group of stage performers, who, in 1983 and 1984, brought their show, Tango Argentino, to Europe and North America, where they ignited an enthusiasm for learning their style of tango - Tango Fantasia, which is different from the tango danced in the Golden Age.

The tango danced in the Golden Age is Tango de Salon, or social tango. It is a popular 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, feeling-oriented and improvised dance, typically danced in close embrace with considerable bodily contact between the partners. Its steps are simple and compact, allowing the dancers to concentrate on the emotions stirred by the music, the sensation and comfort of the embrace, the communication of feelings through bodily contact between the partners, and the harmony of movements in unison with the music. Dancing Tango de Salon is an intimate, soulful and personal experience. What matters is how it feels and not how it looks.

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

Without the same historical and cultural background, the Europeans and Americans are more interested in Tango Fantasia than Tango de Salon. They do not have a sudden explosion of lonely, homesick and nostalgic immigrant population crowding together in one big city. They do not have a severe shortage of women. (See The Chivalry of the Milongueros.) Their dance floors are not crowded. Their cultures do not sanction innocent intimacy. The open-embrace style meets their taste. On top of that, their teachers are the stage performers from Argentina. Before long, Tango Fantasia becomes a fashion in Europe and North America.

Despite that, the tango fervor abroad rekindled the pride of the Argentinians for their traditional dance. Milongas are reopened. Portenos return to the dance floor. Tango salons and tango clubs are packed again. Tango music, tango fashion and tango tourism flourish. Buenos Aires once over becomes the Mecca of tango, where dancers from all over the world come to dance tango with the locals. But foreigners quickly discovered that the tango they have learned at home is not the same tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires.

Having tasted the intriguing close-embrace tango of Buenos Aires, most visitors don’t want to go back to the open-embrace style again. Some decide to stay for good. Others return home to spread the message. Their number increases every year as more and more people come to Buenos Aires to dance tango with the locals. Trend starts to shift from open embrace to close embrace in Europe and North America. (See From Steps to Feelings.) It may still take time for the close-embrace tango to settle down and become the dominant style in those societies, but that will inevitably happen, I believe. Tango is created to serve a human need. (See Why People Dance Tango.) Its form must meet its purpose. What is external and fashionable will change, but what is internal and essential endures. As more and more people savor the charm of close embrace tango, as milongas become increasingly crowded, people will want to, and have no choice but dance in close embrace. Eventually, what belongs to the stage will separate from what belongs to the dance floor, again.

Here is an example of the tango danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires.

June 16, 2012

Dissociation and Gear Effect

The woman's weight should be placed on the ball of the foot so she may pivot as if on a fixed pin. But she does not pivot her whole body. She only pivots her lower body from the waist down. The waist is like the swivel that joins the upper body and the lower body. Since the torsos of the partners are connected in the embrace, she has to turn her lower body sideways in order to dance around the man. This technique is known as “dissociation”.

An experienced woman knows that a tiny twist of her torso by the man indicates and must result in a big rotation of her lower body. The man leads her by turning her torso slightly to the direction that he wants her to go. On receiving the signal, she needs to swivel her hips to let her lower body face that direction. In this twisted position she is able to walk on the side of the man while her chest is connected to his torso. The rotation does not need to be huge. In most cases a 30-45 degree turn of the hips will enable her to walk on the side of the man. In some cases larger rotation of the hips is required.

It needs to be pointed out that dissociation is different from CBM (contra-body movement). CBM is turning the right side of the body towards a left moving leg or turning the left side of the body towards a right moving leg, but dissociation is the swivel of the lower body only. When practicing dissociation in front of a mirror, you should let your torso face the mirror still and rotate only your lower body from the hips down. You should not cheat by turning the torso instead of swiveling the hips.

A typical figure using dissociation is the ocho, in which the man leads her to draw an S on the floor with one leg, and then draw another S on the floor with the other leg. The two S's are overlapped in the opposite directions so they look like the figure 8. To dance the ocho, she needs to swivel her hips to one side of him and make a forward step, then swivel her hips to the other side of him and make another forward step, and then swivel her hips back to face the man. A similar figure using this technique is the back ocho, in which she dances the ocho backwards. She first swivels her hips and steps backwards to one side of him with one leg, then swivels her hips and steps backwards to the other side of him with the other leg. If she is able to make very big hip rotations, she can move forward by doing the back ocho and move backward by doing the front ocho. A third example using dissociation is the molinete, which is a combination of four steps, a forward step, a side step, a back step, a side step, in a circular motion. In all these examples the woman keeps her chest connected to the man's torso and rotates only her hips side to side. The technique suits the flexible body of the woman and highlights her femininity, as she turns her hips alternately while her chest remains connected to the man.

The rotation of the hips causes her torso to roll slightly on his torso, generating a pleasant sensation know as "gear effect". The chest is the center of her attention through which everything, including emotion, feeling, music interpretation, intention, seduction and flirtation, is expressed and exchanged. The woman should not glue her chest on the man's torso, but should let it roll as she swivels her hips. At each swivel, the weight of her chest is shifted to one side. As she swivels her hips to the other side, her chest rolls along on his torso until the weight is transferred to the other side. 

The rolling of the chest is caused by the rotation of the hips. She needs to make the rolling void of abruptness and bumpiness so it feels smooth, musical and comfortable, which is not easy to do and needs a lot of practice to master. A beginner who does not know how to dissociate her lower body often crosses her free leg in front her standing leg or behind her standing leg without swiveling her hips. Consequently, her chest sticks on his torso and does not trundle. Tango is a dance in which both partners pleasure each other with their bodies. An experienced woman knows how to use her body to comfort the man, just like an experienced man knows how to display her feminine beauty. (See Revealing her Beauty in Tango.) Gear effect increases the sensual pleasure of the dance - a feature of close-embrace tango that is missing in the open-embrace style. It is one of the things that make the two styles fundamentally different.