The freedom in tango is not that of the part in a lower sense, but that of the whole in a higher sense.
Tango is not only a fascinating dance, but also a fascinating culture, idea, lifestyle, and philosophy. In many ways, tango is a metaphor of life. The pursuit of tango is the pursuit of connection, love, 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 species. In tango we are not individualists, feminists, nationalists, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, etc., but interconnected and interdependent members of the human family. We are humanists. Tango calls us to tear down the walls, to build bridges, and to regain humanity through connection, cooperation and compromise. If you believe in this cause, please join the conversation and let your voice be heard, which is urgently needed and long overdue.
Together we can awaken the world.
December 16, 2014
The freedom in tango is not that of the part in a lower sense, but that of the whole in a higher sense.
November 22, 2014
Tango, as a drop in the ocean of human civilization, both reveals its beauty and reflects its pollution. The problems in our tango today in fact are not the problems of tango alone, but those our civilization is facing in the modern era as well.
Just like how one understands tango affects how he dances it, how we perceive ourselves affects how we behave and live. In the course of human evolution of the past millions of years, mankind have gradually separated ourselves from the beast. The distinction between man and animals can be summed up in one word: humanity. Our understanding of humanity has reached its maturity in the Renaissance of 14th–17th centuries. Contrast to the twisted and demeaned image of man in the contemporary art, his dignity, nobility and beauty were the dominant themes of the Renaissance. The consequent sublimation of human spirit formed a powerful force, which eventually led to the rejection of all forms of bondage, oppression and violation of human liberty, the establishment of democracy, the discharge of human creativity, the increase of production, the advancement of science and technology, and the prosperity of modern civilization.
In this process, however, mankind have gradually lost sight. We left footprints in every corner of the Earth. Farmlands replaced forests, cities replaced farmlands, pollution replaced purity, materialism replaced idealism, extravagance replaced simplicity, competition replaced cooperation, stress replaced enjoyment, individuality replaced fraternity, monopoly replaced sharing, polarization replaced equality, pragmatism replaced integrity, corruption replaced uprightness, legalism replaced common sense, games and sports replaced literature and art, sex liberation replaced marriage, single parent family and gay family replaced traditional family, artificiality replaced natural production, machine replaced people, self-interests replaced common cause, antagonism replaced harmony, violence replaced peace... Modernization has led mankind farther and farther away from nature and humanity. The living environment is deteriorating. The resources are depleting. The morality is decaying. Individual persons, genders, races, special interests, political parties and nation states are infighting with each other for self-gains. It seems that human liberty, the very thing that has led us to prosperity, is leading us to self-destruction. (See Tango Is the Search of a Dream.)
Someday, ideas like returning to nature, environmentalism, thrift, equality, coexistence, cooperation, sharing, agreement, moderation, harmony, and humanism will replace dogmas like being unique and different, individuality, competition, aggression, power politics, winning, conquest, expansion and success, to become the consensus of most people, I hope. But by then it may be too late.
The world needs a different philosophy, not the narrow-minded and unbalanced doctrines like individualism, feminism, liberalism, pragmatism, materialism, capitalism, etc., but an idealism that can lead mankind to nobility, magnanimity, cooperation and greatness. Hopefully, tango will play a positive role in the return of humanity, because it manifests the values and spirit that make us human. (See The Spirit of Tango and The Freedom in Tango.)
October 9, 2014
Except in few large cities, most tango communities in the US are still quite small. Tango enthusiasts often travel long distance to big tango festivals around the country to dance tango. But that could be quite expensive. Festival pass is $250 to $1000 per person. Private lesson is $100 to $300 an hour. Round trip by air is $250 to $500 per ticket. Hotel room for four nights is $600. Rental car and gas add another $250. Plus other costs such as parking, toll and food. A couple could easily spend two to three thousand dollars for a single trip, enough to travel to Buenos Aires for few weeks.
That is why now I do not go to big tango festivals as often as I used to when I was single. Instead, I go to smaller events within few hours of driving. I still go to some big tango festivals, but only attend their milongas and skip the lessons to save time and money. Many seasoned dancers do the same.
In recent years, tango marathons have replaced tango festivals to be my favorite form of event because in which I can focus entirely on dancing. Unlike a tango festival, a tango marathon does not provide lessons, thus saves the organizers the trouble to find instructors and the money to hire them. As a result, the cost of a tango marathon is much lower than that of a tango festival. Without professional instructors, there is no shows to display, which only cause confusions to the beginners. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.) With fewer novices, the size of a tango marathon is smaller. Most participants are experienced dancers, thus the level of dance is higher, the floor is less crowded, milonga codes are more closely observed, and the atmosphere is more cohesive. It has everything that suits me better than a tango festival.
Two weeks ago, I attended the Boston Tango Marathon. Although this was only their second year, thanks to the organizer Alla Lakov, Peter Simoneau, and fifty volunteers of the Boston tango community, it went very well. The pass of the marathon was only $100, which covered 40 hours of dancing in three days, plus meals, refreshments, drinks and an ice cream party - everything is free. Obviously, making money was not the priority and efforts were made to provide the dancers with a wonderful time. Best of all, there was a refreshing theme in this marathon: friendship. The theme was emphasized again and again during the marathon. Every time when Alla and Peter asked the audience what was the theme of the marathon, the audience replied with one voice, "Friendship." And it worked!
I appreciate such efforts to make the event a warm and friendly experience for all, especially here in the US, where attentions are often paid only to the dance and not enough to the culture or human side of the dance. In Buenos Aires, however, the reversal is true. It is regarded as their duty to promote a friendly culture by the organizers of BA milongas, where guests are cordially greeted at the door, seats are meticulously arranged to facilitate the cabeceo, tables are covered with pressed clean clothes, food and drinks are served to the table, milonga codes are observed, and conducts are addressed if violations occur. While in the US the break time is the announcement time, in Buenos Aires it is often the time for tango education. In the BA milongas, participants are advised to follow the milonga codes. Bad apples are even advised to leave on some occasions. Once I saw two children were brought to the dance floor, a committee of milongueros quickly discussed the matter, and the parents were politely advised to take the children out of the floor. I am sure everyone visited Buenos Aires know stories like this. Richard Miller mentioned in his blog a post that he saw at the Milonga Cachirulo, which reads:
“Welcome to the best milonga in Buenos Aires. Tanguero friends, please pay attention.
• Here we dance milonguero style tango, and we learn to respect the codes of the milonga.
• We dance with a warm, respectful and close embrace.
• We follow the line of dance, in a counter-clockwise direction.
• We try not to step backwards into the line of dance, always walking forward, as it should be.
• We do not lift our feet too much from the floor; this way we avoid hitting other dancers.
• We invite women to dance through the classic 'Cabeceo del caballero'.
• Furthemore, and very important, respect is the first card we play in the game of the milonga.
Much to our regret, not respecting these codes will make it impossible to dance in Cachirulo.”
It is the collective efforts like these that made the BA milongas wonderful. I am glad to see that now the organizers in this country start to move in the same direction. Tango is a simple pleasure created by the dancers for themselves to enjoy. Its focus should be the connection and fellowship rather than steps and self display. (See Exhibition versus Fellowship.) It shouldn't cost an absurd amount of money to enjoy. A friendly culture governed by milonga codes must be introduced through education and good leadership. Now, thanks to Boston Tango Marathon, we have a good example.
September 16, 2014
Someone asks me to compare Euro-American tango and BA tango. Though a short essay cannot cover such a big topic, I am willing to make an observation from one perspective.
Those who see tango as a skill often think that once they mastered the skill, they mastered the dance. Such people often disrespect the culture, ignore the codes, pay no attention to the conducts, overlook the relationships, care little about other people's feelings, regard others as of no importance or rivals, are indifferent or even hostile to others, do not surrender themselves in the dance, and focus only on personal performance, etc. This kind of attitude is more visible in Europe and North America where there is a strong standing of individualism, which is incompatible with tango. (See Tango and Individualism.)
As the saying goes, "It takes two to tango." Tango is not a solo dance. Not only so, tango is not a show dance performed by a fixed couple only, but a social dance involving a large group of people. The majority of whom, like the immigrants who created the dance, come to the milonga to seek connection, friendship and love, consider tango as a refuge or family. (See Why People Dance Tango.)
The highlight of tango, therefore, is not how stunning its steps are, but the connection, surrender, love, communication of feelings, and satisfaction from the same devotion that others paid in return. In that sense, tango, much like a church, is a fellowship. To enjoy tango, one needs not only to master the skills, but also be a part of a friendly, warm and intimate community, without which the skill is meaningless no matter how good it is.
For this reason, he/she who only dances exhibition tango with a fixed partner is not a tango dancer in the true sense. Unfortunately, this kind of career performers are often regarded by novices in Europe and North America as role models. Under their influence, many young people do not see tango as a fellowship, but a show or performance. Hence the alienation of tango. However, vanity cannot meet the need of the soul. Once mastered the skills, most people will continue their search for deeper and more essential things, move away from exhibitionism and turn to love and fellowship. (See The Four Stages of Your Tango Journey.) This, I think, is where Euro-American tango still falls short from BA tango due to the influence of individualism in our cultures.
The revival of tango, started in the mid 1980s, has been thirty years now. In these three decades, Euro-American tango has also grown. Technically, many tango centers already show signs of readiness to keep up with BA tango now, and should and must start the fellowship building. This is not a one man's job, and will take the efforts of all dancers, teachers and organizers. How each and every dancer acts in the milonga, treats others, invites or accepts the invitation, dances, and so on, not only reflects his/her understanding of the dance, but also impacts the community. (See How You Dance Matters.) I hope next time we go to a milonga, we will all look around and remind ourselves: "I am a part of this community, and we are all in tango together. I must contribute to make this home of us a warm and welcoming place for all." If we do so, I believe, our milonga will become more and more like the milongas in BA. (See 惜缘.)
July 3, 2014
Jeanette Winterson said, "I want to go anywhere that is filled with love. I want to be like a migratory salmon, relentlessly looking for the trace of love." Love and loneliness are really the same feeling. Without that understanding, one cannot truly appreciate tango.
You do not have to leave your country to be an immigrant. Students going to schools far away from home, migrant workers looking for jobs in big cities, college graduates just stepping into the society, entrepreneurs struggling alone to start a business, homeless people, wandering travelers, lonely single adults, women who married a wrong man, powerless people bullied by the powerful. . . aren't they all immigrants? One can say that immigrant is the common status of most people. Ever since we came into the world, we became lonely migrants in search of the love and home in our dreams.
Thus, tango, known as a refuge, or home, came into being.
Xiaomu is talking about tango as well. Tango is not a form, but a feeling. Without affection and love, tango became a cold building.
But affection and love cannot be seen. People can only see the cold building.
Cancer patient Yu Juan wrote in her death bed: "When facing life and death, you realize that working overtime (long-term staying up late is suicidal), pushing yourself too hard, wanting to buy a new car or new house, these are all vanities. If you have time, spend it with your children, use the money saved for the new car to buy a pair of shoes for your parents, don't work overtime in order to move to a bigger house. Being with the loved ones is warm even live in a small apartment."
Yu Juan is also talking about tango. The most important thing in tango is not to impress others, but to enjoy your own feelings. Happiness is simple and artless, it belongs to yourself.
But happiness cannot be seen. People can only see what is impressive externally.
The milongueros tell the beginners, "Fancy steps are useless in the milongas." But the beginners do not believe, they want to learn fancy steps. After they have studied all they can learn, they decide that the milongueros are right. So they tell their students. But their students do not believe, they want to learn fancy steps.
Again and again, how many efforts of the mankind are wasted on pursuing the vanity?
"Happiness is actually a lot simpler than what we thought. The problem is, if we do not explore all the complexities and experience all the miserable, if we do not climb all the mountains and fall all the falls, we would not believe that happiness lies in that small piece of shade under the tree under the foot of that hill." - Liu Yu
Perhaps that is how people learn. But those who can set aside ego may avoid many unnecessary detours.
Tango is feelings, relationship, communication, oneness, harmony, comfort, love, refuge, home, etc. The only thing that tango is not, is performance. A performance is a pigment-added show, just like golden fritters deep-fried with recycled oil, made only for others to see. Have you ever seen anything that is made for others to see real? Tango is tango only when it is not a performance.
Not that you cannot watch videos. But keep in mind that tango is not learned with the eye. It is learned with the heart, for love can only be felt.
Men and women look for different things in tango. What is programmed in the DNA of the male is strength, which is why men are attracted to women. They need to be comforted by women. What is programmed in the DNA of the female is softness, which is why women are attracted to men. They need the sense of security. Masculinity and femininity attract each other, complement each other and bring out the best in each other. This is the law of the universe.
Woman, you should make the home comfortable, so that he may feel where you are is his home.
Man, you should lead and protect her attentively, so that she can rely on you and feel secure.
Happiness is a feeling. The secret of tango lies not in aesthetics, but in psychology.
It makes a lot of sense for tango to be short. It is only three minutes, so the aftertaste is endless.
"Perhaps the most beautiful love is that you love him and he loves you, but the two of you are not together." - Anonymous
Tango does not need to be long, or danced by those who are together. A poem entitled "The Kiss" wrote, "I ran up the door, opened the staircase, put on my prayer, said the pajama, turned off the bed, got into the lamp, all are because the kiss you gave me, when you said goodbye." Many women left the milonga after a perfect tango, just to preserve that surprisingly wonderful feeling.
Tango is the art of feeling. It is created to feel.
In that feeling, many found a temporary home.
May 25, 2014
In tango, various body parts, including the head, the arms and hands, the torso, the hips, and the legs, play different roles. Dancers need to understand the functions of each body part, properly allocate the attention, so that they can use their body in a controlled and coordinate fashion in the dance. Incorrect use of the body parts is a common problem in tango.
The woman's head may rest on the man's temple, cheek, or chin in the embrace according to her height. It's fine if she chooses not to do so, but most women like that comfortable feeling. The touch of the heads is a sign of intimacy, thus should be gentle without force. Some women use their heads to prop against the man's head in order to avoid the chest contact. Beginners tend to draw support from the head when they are in action. These practices reflect a misunderstanding of the function of the head, which is used for intimacy, not for keeping a distance or assisting the movements. The touch of the head should be light and gentle. Dancers need to dissociate the head from the body and avoid using it subconsciously to support the action of the body, as which is uncomfortable.
The function of the arms and hands is more complex. Arms and hands can be used to hold each other to form a warm, intimate and comfortable embrace. They can also be used to support, protect and sooth the partner. These are the correct usages of the arms and hands. Arms and hands can also be used to convey intentions and to fight. Some people hence use them to coerce or resist each other, wrestle with each other, prop against each other to avoid intimate bodily contact, or grab each other to help the body and legs do the movement. These are the misuses of the arms and hands. Beginners need to overcome the habit of using arms and hands. Tango is led and followed by the torso. Arms and hands should be used only to form a comfortable embrace, not as tools to lead and follow, let alone to kill each other as weapons. The touch of the arms and hands should be gentle and weightless. Dancers need to dissociate the arms and hands from the body and not use them to lead and follow, or grab the partner in order to maintain stability or do steps.
The torso is the communication and command center in tango. The couple use their torsos to lead, follow, exchange feelings and bring on the movements of the hips and legs. The featured intimacy, comfort and oneness of tango is directly associated with the torso, which, unfortunately, is often ignored by those who use an open hold to replace the embrace, putting the torso to petty use under the command of the arms and hands. As a result, the action-oriented show tango that they created becomes a totally different dance from the social tango that emphasizes the embrace and feelings. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)
In my previous post I quoted a tanguera's insightful observation on tango. What she called the first layer technique, namely, to maintain a comfortable embrace, and the second layer technique, namely, to pursue the visual beauty, in essence refer to the function of the torso and the function of the legs respectively. In tango, the torso is in relative rest in the embrace, but the movements of the legs are brisk and colorful. If the torso is associated with feelings, then the legs are the representatives of beauty. A good tango is a perfect combination of the two. Formalist dancers concern only about the look and ignore the feelings, and they use the torso as but another limb to create movements under the command of the arms and hands. However, pursuing the visual impression at the expense of the intimacy and comfort of the embrace is not worth the candle, in my opinion. Throughout its history, from tango milonguero, to tango Villa Urquiza, to tango fantasia, to tango Nuevo, the alienation of tango clearly follows an aesthetic path farther and farther away from the embrace and feelings. (See The Styles of Tango.) I do not think that direction is worth advocating. I believe the juxtaposition of the comfort of the embrace and the beauty of the footwork is totally possible. It does not have to sacrifice the embrace in order to pursue beauty. Many beautiful tangos danced by outstanding tango dancers, such as the Poema danced by Geraldine Rojas and Javier Rodrigues, and many tangos danced by Noelia Hurtado and Carlotos Espinoza, are classic examples.
These dancers can achieve such degree of excellence because they are adept in using the hips, which are like the swivel that joins the upper body and the lower body. Because their torsos are connected in the embrace, the dancers need to swivel their hips in order to move their legs around each other. This in tango terms is called dissociation. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) Educated tango dancers can dissociate their upper body and lower body to a greater degree, so that they can step freely around their partner without breaking the embrace. Dissociation is not only a physical separation, but also an artistic division of labor, enabling the upper body to remain in the comfort of the embrace, while allowing the lower body to maximize its creativity. In comparison, the bodies of the novices are not flexible enough to be dissociated freely, so, instead of using the torso to lead and follow, inexperienced guys often lead with the hands, and gals tend to turn the whole body instead of swiveling the hips, and they grip each other with the hands to support the movement of the body, causing the rupture of the embrace and awkwardness of the movement. You may call it by the fine-sounding name of "open embrace", but its real reason is the lack of the ability to maintain the embrace in the action, thus resorting to a relatively easy substitute, which in fact is cheating. But cheating has a price to pay, as it can only fool others, not yourself and your partner. The professionals use open embrace on stage to perform for an audience, not for their own comfort and pleasure. They pay this price for their job. As soon as they go to a milonga, they switch to dancing in close embrace. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.) Novices who envy their glamour on stage, blindly imitate it in the milongas without even can embrace well. Such crude imitation only makes them look foolish.
To sum up: When dancing tango, the head and the arms and hands should be completely relaxed and not interfering with the movements of the body. The function of the torso is to communicate the feelings and bring on the actions of the hips and legs via an intimate and comfortable embrace. Tango's beautiful steps are the function of the legs. The key to maintain a comfortable embrace and simultaneously maximize the beauty of the footwork lies in the swivel of the hips. Learning tango is not primarily learning the steps, but learning to control, coordinate and properly use the functions of various parts of the body. Focusing on the steps and ignoring the embrace and feelings is the primary course of the misuse of the body parts in tango. (See The Thirteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.)
May 17, 2014
Fish is the primary ingredient of a fish dish. Other ingredients, such as garlic and onion, are subsidiary. Short of the latter, fish is still fish. But without the former, the dish would be unworthy of the title. So is tango, which is made of many elements. Among them some decides the basic characteristics of tango, without which the dance cannot make itself; others are less essential, causing no harm if they are a bit less or more. We often see tangueras made their dance neither fish nor fowl, because in it the subsidiaries superseded the primary.
So, what is the primary ingredient of tango? Beginners tend to think that is the steps. But that is wrong. Steps, like garlic and onion, are dispensable. The key ingredient of tango is the embrace, which decides the distinct features of the dance. By embrace I do not mean "open embrace". Tango as "the dance of love" is evolved from the real embrace. When two lovers hug each other, they lean intimately into each other, chest against chest, cheek touches cheek, and arms encircle and hold each other tightly. They do not make a fake gesture without actually touching each other's body. A pretended embrace may look like a real embrace, but the people involved can tell. Stage dancers use pretended embrace in order to entertain an audience with fancy steps. But social dancers do not tango for that. They tango to enjoy the intimacy and affection between themselves, which is why they use a real and snug embrace to facilitate the communication of feelings. This is the fundamental difference between tango and show dances, including the stage tango. (See Social Tango and Performance Tango.)
Other dissimilarities are the consequences of this fundamental difference. For example, unlike other dances in which the dancers use their arms and hands to lead and follow, in tango, communications are carried out through the torsos. Although the arms and hands can transmit feelings and intentions, they are not as direct and efficient as the torso. Dancers can achieve better understanding and synchronization by using their torsos to lead and follow. Intimate bodily contact is not only comfortable, but also susceptible, effective in communicating feelings, thus leads to a deeper understanding and agreement between the partners. The distinct characteristics of the tango steps are associate with the embrace also. Since the torsos of the partners are connected in the embrace, the woman has to swivel her hips and turn her lower body sideways in order to move around the man. This technique, known as dissociation (see Dissociation and Gear Effect), is the basis of most tango steps, making the dance particularly capable of displaying the feminine beauty of the woman. The intimate embrace also attaches importance to the feelings, causing tango to be a sentimental and feeling oriented dance. (See The Conceptional Beauty of Tango.) Although formalist dancers have made unremitting efforts to exploit the visual impression of tango, the style that they have created cannot satisfy the needs deeply rooted in the human nature for intimacy, love, connection and the communication of feelings. These needs can only be met through the real embrace.
A young woman wrote about the importance of the embrace in tango this way, "From the perspective of a girl, I think tango has two layers. The first layer is the core layer, which is to maintain a comfortable embrace with the partner in the dance and let him feel your absolute obedience and sufficient control of yourself. If you can do that, you will be able to survive the milonga even if you only can dance ballroom. The second layer is external, to pursue the aesthetics or the visual beauty like other dances such as ballet, with similar artistic requirements. To put it in another way, ignoring the first layer and focusing only on the second layer is not tango. In most cases, if you can integrate some second layer techniques into a solid first layer foundation, your tango will be quite stunning already." I appreciate this young woman's insight. She understood the essence of tango. As a result tango becomes a simple and easy dance for her. Although one cannot dance tango without the steps, the essence of the dance lies in the embrace. The dancers must not compromise the embrace for the sake of the steps. Rather, they should concentrate on the embrace, keep the embrace intimate and comfortable at all time, and use the steps to facilitate the embrace, thus put the embrace and the steps in a correct order. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.)
Unfortunately, many tangueras do just the opposite. They focus on the steps and ignore the embrace. Some women think it is inappropriate or embarrassing to be intimate with a strange man, and try to keep a distance when dancing. In order not to let her body touch his, the woman may lean backward, or prop her head against his head, or push herself back with her hands propping against his arms, or use her shoulder against his shoulder to prevent her chest from touching his, resulting in an embrace that is awkward and uncomfortable. Such demeanors are often associated with the idea that a woman should keep a distance from men, or with shyness and the worry of giving men ideas, or self-centeredness, focusing only on her own performance, or the aesthetic tendency regarding tango only as fancy steps, etc. In short, such tangueras have not yet understood the essence of tango.
I believe the problems that tango faces in non-tango cultures are mainly ideological. But ideologies and techniques are linked. Different ideologies could lead to different techniques. For example, in Europe and North America, many women prefer to dance tango in an open dance hold in which their body is not attached to the man. Instead of swiveling her hips like she must in a close embrace, the woman in open dance hold can turn her whole body, which is easier to do than rotating her hips. Consequently, her dance is short of a tango feel. Even when dancing in a social setting, women accustomed to open dance hold often break the embrace and switch to open or semi-open position, because they are not used to dance in a compact frame, or cannot maintain a comfortable embrace while in action. I am not talking about the professionals adept in social tango and can apply the right techniques when they do performance in open embrace on stage. Novices without proper training, on the other hand, tend to do whatever is easier. That's why I believe learning tango should start from the close embrace style. A beginner should not start from the open embrace style associated with performance until she has laid the foundation. Otherwise, the bad habits that are gained may not be easy to overcome. I know tangueras who have danced for many years, but their embrace is still uncomfortable, easily turning stiff in the action. Such tangueras are like a flower vase, looking good only from a distance, but cannot be held in the arms. In another post, Women's Common Mistakes in Tango, I listed twelve pitfalls of tango women, which are closely related to the subject of this writing. The embrace, however, is an even bigger issue, deserving a separate chapter. Hence the title.
The following video shows how social tango is danced by the milongueros and milongueras, as it should be danced elsewhere in the world as well.
April 29, 2014
One hundred years ago when immigration was at its peak, the gender ratio in Argentina was five men to one woman. Sexual hunger caused by such gender imbalance is beyond our imagination. In other words, in a typical milonga, there would be ten women dancing with fifty men. Most men today, with our attitude and demeanor, would have little chance to find a woman partner then. The situation was so unfavorable that men did not even have the guts to invite women. They would only spy at a distance and wait for women to nod at them, only then dared they venture to dance with the goddess. This was the origin of cabeceo. (See Women's Role in Cabeceo.) Before a man was able to dance with a woman for the first time, he had to spend years to practice with other guys and did not dare to try for real until he had completely grasped the craft. He would be extremely gentle and careful with the woman in the dance also, fearing to lose the favor of the goddess had she felt uncomfortable. Men's cherish and respect for women has since become a notable feature of the tango culture.
In such a gender ratio, the privilege of dancing with a woman was granted only to those capable of making her completely satisfied. Therefore, self-centered peacocks could not compete with men who had a comfortable embrace, exquisite musicality and the ability to accommodate, pamper and protect women. Laymen may think of milongueros as a bunch of goof-offs. (See Tango and the Outlook on Life.) But if you believe that surrounded by a battalion of admirers the goddess would pick a mediocrity, or that she would be fooled by fanfares, you certainly underestimated the goddess. Even today, women cast their eyes only on the best. They don't want men who are sloppy, who do not have a comfortable embrace, who feel insecure, whose musicality is less perfect, who use the arms and hands to lead, who can't do cabeceo, who do not have a good manner, and who don't know the codes, not to mention in those days. Therefore, the milongueros are thoroughly steeled tango elites with great knowledge and skills on the dance, music, codes, culture, lunfardo, and the ways of the milonga world. Like the knights in the medieval Europe who were gallant, honorable, generous, kind and respectful to women, and like the samurais in feudal Japan who were loyal, courageous, simple in living, and preferring death to dishonor, the Argentine milongueros are a group of sophisticated technicians who follow certain principles in life. For them, tango is their religion and milonga codes are not only guild regulations but life principles as well. One may say that, though without the title of nobility, the Argentine milongueros are a comparable class to European knights, Japanese samurais and Chinese literati. Their doctrine is the chivalry, bushido and Confucian orthodoxy of Argentina.
Today, times have changed. The gender ratio in the milonga becomes one man to one point five women. In addition, women are instigated to compete with men for supremacy, and the chivalry is criticized by feminists. (See Tango and Gender Equality.) As a result, men do not cherish and respect women to the degree they used to. Even a beginner who can't walk stably dares now to oblige a woman to dance with him and use her as a foil to his self-centered exhibition, totally disregarding the codes and manner. One has to reckon this a failure of feminism. Feminists thought that the two sexes would be equal if women were strong as men, little did they realize that once women lose their femininity, they are no longer the goddess in men's eyes.
Dancers of the contemporary age need to review the history and reflect on their demeanor. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) For the sake of tango women cannot lose femininity and men cannot lose their love for women. Gender roles play a crucial role in keeping the two sexes in harmony. (See The Gender Expression in Tango.) Interfering with nature will have serious consequences. (See Tango and the Relationship of the Opposite Sexes.) I wish men will always cherish women the way they did when there were five men to each woman. I wish women never cease to be feminine and quit to play the masculine role. Tango was created to be a bridge connecting and uniting the two sexes. I hope it remains that way.
April 19, 2014
Although there are moments of rest, tango is mainly in flux. The feel of the dance needs to be materialized in the flow as well. Experienced dancers know that the body produces continuous lilts or cadences due to the alternate weight shift from one foot to the other in the dance. (See Cadencia.) When two dancers swing together in rhythm to the music, it feels like a baby being comfortably swayed in the cradle, or fish being gentally surged by the wave in the water. Which is a very cozy feeling especially for the woman, as she is the one nestling in his arms and enjoying the ride. (See Driving and Synchronization.)
The swing could be towards one direction, but usually it alternates in opposite directions, that is, right and left, or forth and back. The man swings the woman's torso, causing her free leg to swing along. As her leg lands on the floor, he goes on to swing her torso in the opposite direction, resulting in her other leg to swing reversely. In order to do so, the woman needs to swivel her hips at the time her weight is shifting to the landing foot, so that her free leg could take advantage of the inertia of her moving body to swing in the opposite direction. This is known as ocho, the most common step in tango. The cadencia used in both front ocho and back ocho is essentially the same technique. (See Dissociation and Gear Effect.) Often, tango teachers do not emphasize the swing of the body and leg when they teach ocho. However, if the cadencia is blended in, it will not only make the ocho more elegant, outlining the feminine beauty of her flexible body, but also produce a swing or flying like feeling, making the movement more enjoyable.
To generate the swing, there must be some speed in the horizontal direction. If you remain at the same place doing steps without a forward or horizontal motion, it would be difficult to generate the swing. That is why skilled dancers like to dance in the flow. When the floor is full of experienced dancers, you will see the flow of people moving counterclockwise like the waves surging forward in accordance with the rhythm of the music, and the speed of the flow is quite fast. But if there are too many novices on the dance floor, then the speed of the flow is slowed down. Sometimes it even becomes like a pool of stagnant water.
Novices who have no sense of flow often stay at the same place doing steps, disregarding the people behind waiting for them to move. (See Spot Dancing in Tango.) On an empty floor this may cause no problem, but in a crowded room that is too senseless. Mark Word calls such people "rocks in the stream." You drive to work in the morning and suddenly there is a car way below the speed limit in front of you, that is exactly the same kind of feeling. People dancing on a crowded dance floor must not be such "rocks in the stream." I'm not saying that you cannot slow down, pause for a moment, and then move on. Veterans do slow movements as well. But they do so only when the music tells everyone to slow down, or when there is enough space around. If the people behind are approaching, then you need to move forward to avoid causing obstruction to traffic. This is the codigo, which everyone dancing on a crowded floor should know and follow.
April 1, 2014
Dancing tango is not just stepping on the beats of whatever songs played - that perhaps is how disco is danced, but not tango. Dancing tango is dancing the feelings of the music. This dance, created by early immigrants to Argentina, contains the homesickness and nostalgia of its creators and reflects their thirst for love and longing for a better life. (See Tango: The Historical and Cultural Impacts.) Good tango music is very sentimental. This is a notable feature of classic tango. Modern rock bands with electronically amplified instruments might be able to create a more majestic sound, but they could not replicate the lingering sentiment of the classic tango. This is not only because electronic instruments are short on expressing the mood of tango, but also because the contemporary rockers lack the experience of the early European immigrants. Classic tango is a product of that particular era. The environment of its mass production has ceased to exist in modern times. But, the human feelings expressed in classic tango, I believe, are universal and ageless, which people of the contemporary age, especially those struggling at the bottom of the society, can still understand and resonate. (See Why People Dance Tango.) When dancing tango, one should not just dance the steps and ignore the feelings of the music, because only by understanding and resonating with them can one dance tango well.
The feelings expressed in tango are those of men and women in real life. These opposite moods coexist in tango. Good tango music has a lucid rhythm that is easy to dance to, but its melody is soft, beautiful, moody, and deeply sentimental. Each note or phrase expresses the masculinity, strength, resolution and firmness of men, or femininity, softness, obedience and affection of women. The two opposite moods intertwine and respond to each other, reflecting the man and woman in the dance. The juxtaposition of opposite moods complementing each other is a notable feature of classic tango, which is heterosexual rather than homosexual in nature. Dancing tango is like having a conversation between the two sexes. One is like the bandoneon, the other the violin. One is the passion of the drums, the other the beauty of the melody. One is philosophy, the other poem... When dancing tango, you have to imagine that you are playing the music with your body. The man and the woman are different instruments, each with its unique sound, expressing different emotions. Both are indispensable and irreplaceable. They must complement each other and collaborate harmoniously in order to create a beautiful tango. (See Masculinity & Femininity in Tango and Other Music.)
Those who deny gender roles do not know what they are doing. (See The Gender Roles in Tango.) The so-called new tango or alternative music promoted by them often lack an opposite theme. (See The Signature of Tango.) It is either too soft, without a clear rhythm, or too monotonous, lacking of rhythmic diversity. In contrast, classic tango is created in line with the characteristics of the dance. Unlike mush soft-music or monotonous march, classic tango not only has a recognizable rhythm, but also is rich in syncopation, and so is very danceable. Syncopation means changing the location of an accented beat by emphasizing an unaccented beat, or beginning a tone on an unaccented beat and continue it through the next accented beat. Syncopation modifies the original rhythm, making the music more interesting and challenging, adaptable to a rich variety of footwork to express complicated emotions. This feature of the classic tango, however, may cause a difficulty for a beginner to grasp its rhythm. As a result, some people prefer the monotonous alternative music instead. The taste of the beginners will gradually improve with the advance of their education and training. Tango dancers need to study tango music, understand its sentiment and be familiar with its melody, rhythm, syncopation, tempo, extension and pause, etc., in order to dance tango well.
Most classical tango music has a vocal part, which usually is not throughout, but appears only in certain parts of the song, as if it is an instrument collaborating with the other instruments. The lyrics are commonly written in lunfardo, the old street slang of the lower classes in Buenos Aires, expressing nostalgia, homesickness and the pain of lost love. Only old milongueros and a small number of portenos today can fully understand these lyrics. Those who do not understand the lyrics may not always feel easy to grasp the syncopated and extended syllables, thus could have a difficulty to follow them. But these beautiful lyrics express deep and delicate feelings, and so are favored by the Argentinians, especially the molongueros. Many of them can sing the lyrics and dance to them with facility. Which is one of the reasons that the Argentine milongueros perceive their dance quite differently from the foreigners. Not understanding the lyrics is an unfavorable factor of the foreigners, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle. The dancer's education may complement his/her inadequacy in language, because as long as one is willing to listen, the emotions of the music can be perceived through the melody, tempo, rhythm and mood of the music. Of course, learning the language can help to better understand the feelings of the song. By the way, some foreigners understood neither the culture nor the language of tango, but they thought they knew tango better than the milongueros, which to me is ridiculous. (See Tango and Gender Equality.)
March 18, 2014
Tango only happens when the two partners are immersed in the music and find the connection between them. There cannot be tango between two beginners who do not listen to the music, do not devote to each other, are physically detached and emotionally disconnected, focus only on the steps and the self, and are unable to communicate their feelings. (See Tango Is a Feeling.) They dance like two individuals bickering and disagreeing with each other. In contrast, mature dancers are able to communicate what they feel. They commit to each other, surrender to each other, pour in their feelings, concentrate on the music, which stirs up their emotions, arouses sympathy, enables them to identify with each other's feelings, and allows them to feel the connection between them. As a result, they dance like two soulmates in perfect understanding and agreement. This agreement is what makes tango intoxicating.
What we are looking for in tango is the affinity and harmony between the partners. A good tango partner does not need to be good-looking, but he/she must be a good match to you so that dancing with him/her makes you feel the chemistry. In real life people tend to be attracted by superficial things like appearance, status and possessions. But such external things are irrelevant in tango. What is relevant is a dancer's inner quality. When being asked who his ideal partner is, Carlos Gavito answered, "My ideal does not have a face. She's a dream of something I want in real life, but that ideal does not have a face." (See Tango Is a Shared Moment.) In other words, what's important is one's intrinsic attributes: her femininity, gentleness, softness, obedience, affection, adaptability and agreeableness; his musicality, masculinity, strength, dependability, protection, thoughtfulness and finesse; and the connection and harmony between them. Those who pursue the vanity and ignore the essence cannot find tango, just like they cannot find love. People often compare tango to love because the two share a common theme. They both involve a relationship between a man and a woman in which the two sexes play different roles but complement each other. They both aim at achieving harmony through understanding, submission, accommodation, and cooperation. A reader, after read my post The Gender Roles in Tango, remarked, "These seem to be applicable to real life as well." Indeed, the concept of tango has a universal value. It reveals the way to achieve inter-gender, interpersonal and social harmony. (See The Lessons of Tango.)
Beginners need to change their focus from on what is external to what is internal. I do not mean that you should not learn steps. But when you learn them, your attention should be placed on being one with your partner rather than executing the steps. If you only focus on doing the action, it is easy to forget about your partner, or even blame him/her for not doing so well and try to correct him/her, resulting in two partners uncoordinated. If you focus on being one with your partner, you will try to collaborate with him/her, or even being conceding enough to make him/her feel at home, so that the two may become one in the dance. Tango is like marriage. What makes it work is not pressing your partner to follow your will, but being cooperative and accommodating. Novice women often feel comfortable dancing with a milonguero, not because the novices know their stuff, but because the milonguero knows how to accommodate them. Surrendering, adapting to, and being one with your partner, therefore, are more important than doing the steps. (See Tango Is a Relationship.)
March 13, 2014
Created by the early immigrants to Argentina, tango reflects and expresses the nostalgia, longing and hope of its creators. (See Tango: The Historical and Cultural Impacts.) A milonga is like a utopia, where brotherly love, fellowship, intimacy and comfort triumph over prejudice, hatred, animosity and injury, where masculinity and femininity still attract each other and bring out the best in each other, and where peace and harmony are still achieved through cooperation and accommodation, not confrontation and power struggle. It is like an oasis in which people can enjoy a temporary relief from the stressful modern-day life.
Those who think of modernization only as a progress do not understand its down side. In fact, it is a dehumanizing process that leads mankind farther and farther away from nature and humanity. Modern science and technology have empowered people and made individual persons increasingly self-sufficient, independent, egocentric, arrogant and aggressive. It diminishes the human bond that united people, shifts their attention away from common interests to personal interests and individuality, and deprives them from the connection, cooperation and fraternity that they used to share. The mutual attachments, interdependence and care among people have faded away, gender roles have transformed, family has disintegrated, the harmony between man and nature has disappeared, the environment has suffered irreversible damage, natural resources are depleting, and societies are increasingly demoralized and polarized. Individualism, feminism, homosexualism, divorce, same-sex marriage, single-parent family, materialism, competition, stress, psychological imbalance, violence, cruelty, corruption and crime grow in intensity. In short, humanity has been replaced by modernity. (See Tango and Individualism.)
The popularity of tango in the contemporary world is a profound phenomenon. We dream of a human society that is equal, fair, friendly, cooperative, orderly and harmonious, like a well-organized milonga, not one that is driven by self-interests and imbued with competition, hostility, injury, stress, madness and polarization. Is modernity at the cost of humanity and environment worth pursuing? A blogger wrote, "The world is like water and mankind is like ink. What men do to the world is like what the ink does to the water. With the passage of time, the ink only makes the water muddier, not clearer. Comparing to today's postmodern world, the past is simpler, purer, hence better." A woman wrote, "In modern-day life, we are centered around our work, which demands aggression. But if we keep being aggressive in our marriage, constantly fighting for self-interests and pushing our partner to make concessions until he gives up, then such marriage can only create an unhappy person." A Facebook friend wrote, "How many American businessmen lie in a hospital bed, after their heart attack, before they look around and ask themselves, 'How did I end up spending my life this way... working too many hours... the love of my life is a stranger, if we haven't divorced... I missed my children growing up because I worked too much... I spent my lifetime, not with my friends, but pursuing financial security... and in the end, I ended up here?'" Indeed, modern life is like a fatal attraction that causes us to lose the essence of being human. What happened to our intelligence and sanity? Why couldn't we create a world that makes more sense? (See The World Needs a Different Philosophy.)
I believe this universal reflection on modern living and the nature of being human, this yearning for a balanced life and a harmonious society, is not irrelevant to the revival of tango today. One hundred years ago, immigrants far away from home created this dance in which they placed their dream, a dance full of human spirit and beauty, a dance that highlights human connection, cooperation, complement and harmony. Today's tangueros and tangueras are searching for the same dream, I believe. People who love tango has a responsibility to preserve this sanctuary for the mankind. We not only need to teach people how to dance tango, but also to teach them its ideas, because without which tango could be assimilated by the world as well. (See The Freedom in Tango.)
February 12, 2014
Form and content are an important proposition in tango. Tango is created out of a human need. (See Why People Dance Tango.) From that need comes beauty, which then results in a tendency to deviate from the need and only pursue beauty, hence the alienation of tango. The admiration for beauty is not an unjustifiable one, without which there would not be art. But, in the pursuit of art it is easy to forget that in the end the form cannot stand alone and must serve the content. A watch that cannot run properly is not a good watch, though it may look exquisite. A selfish woman is not a good wife, though she may look beautiful. It is same with tango. You may invent fancy steps, but without the essence of tango it is not a good tango.
People new to tango tend to focus on the look and ignore the feelings, just like young people who are not worldly-wise tend to use external standards to measure success. Warren Buffett said, "The truth is, when you come to my age you will understand, success is measured by how many people really care about you and love you. Money doesn't make people happy. What makes us happy is love." You may be attracted by someone's look, but in the end you only want to be with a person who cares about you, knowing that the inner quality is more important than the look.
Marie Curie said, "If you are not beautiful at seventeen, you may blame your parents for not giving you a pretty face. But if at thirty you still are not beautiful, then you only have yourself to blame, because in that long period of time you haven't added anything new into yourself." In other words, what is truly attractive is one's inner beauty. A dancer who focuses only on the look and ignores the essence of tango is like a parvenus, who may live in a big mansion and drive luxury cars, but at heart he is still a poor man. What makes one noble is not his possessions, but upbringing. Formalist dancers and extravagant upstarts are birds of a feather. Arts that stand the test of time, whether painting, music or dance, are that with inherent depth of humanity rather than just aestheticism. Mother Teresa once eloquently said: "Hunger does not only mean the need of food, but also the need of love. Cold does not only mean the want of clothing, but also the want of human dignity. Homelessness does not only mean without a home, but also the rejection and abandonment by the society." What tango quenches is the thirst of the soul. It is not only beautiful in its look, but more so in its content, depth and humanity.
This kind of inner beauty is invisible. It exists in human minds, emotions, imaginations, characters, and relationships. (See Tango Is a Relationship.) In the eye of a lover, his beloved is a beauty. What seems plain at the first sight may become attractive with time. Some people are beautiful because of their intelligence, others because of their charisma. Certain beauty can only be perceived with the heart and not the eye, such as poem, music, love, harmony, kindness and comfort. A tango can stir up different feelings, as what people hear may not be the song, but their own emotions. Everything seems bright when the heart is shiny, and gloomy when the heart is clouded. The past is more splendid in the memory than it was in reality, and so is the future in the vision. All these suggest that beauty is not only a form, but also a subjective feeling.
Ultimate beauty is conceptional. It goes beyond the visual boundaries, allowing the emotions to fly in the realm of imagination. Unlike painting, sculpture or ballet, tango is not primarily a visual art, but an art of perception and feeling. (See Tango Is a Feeling.) In tango, dancers can close their eyes and follow the intuition and instinct. You do not see the actions of your partner, only feel his/her body, embrace, touch and movements, and through which his/her emotions and feelings. His masculinity, strength, dependability, support, protection and finesse, her femininity, softness, obedience, affection, seduction and tacit agreement, all are but feelings. Even his/her musicality, mood, skills and quality of movement are conceived through the sense. Tango provides plenty room for feelings and imaginations. Dancing tango is like attending a banquet of emotions. Its beauty is largely conceptional.
It is regretful that the formalist dancers focus only on the external and ignore the internal. What makes tango uniquely fascinating and different from other dances is its inward, human, emotional, and conceptional beauty. Tango has great potentials in this area. Exploring its inner beauty so that tango may become an even richer emotional feast is a worthy goal. Although it is normal for beginners to focus on the external, as comprehension proceeds from the outside to the inside and from the shallow to the deep, and with time and experience they may gradually understand the essence of tango, my wish is that people can shorten the process so that when they come to the age of Warren Buffett, Marie Curie and Mother Teresa they would not regret for what they have missed out in their pursuit of vanity. Isn't that often the case beyond tango? (See The Psychology of Tango.)