How tango is danced in Buenos Aires
Many Europeans and Americans dance tango differently from the Argentinians. For years I tried to find a video to show how tango is danced in Buenos Aires in order to change people's perceptions. But I couldn't find a satisfying one because tango video clips are mostly shot by people interested only in their version of tango. A few that reflect the truth are often poorly made and with annoying nonsense. Perhaps even in Buenos Aires most milongas are not up to the standard, since foreigners are always heavily involved, making it difficult to capture a truly porteno milonga. Only recently I came across this video produced by Paul Holman, which I find is representative of a milonga that I can call home.
I love this video not only because of its clarity, lighting, color and cinematography, but also because of the producer's unique perspective. Paul Holman understood that tango is about the embrace, music and feelings, that steps and footwork are not important, that the milonga codes play a crucial role, and that he needs to capture the entirety of all the essentials and avoid the misleading trifles to let the viewers understand what a good milonga is. I watch this video every day lately, just to enjoy that soulful scene and remind myself of how one should behave and dance in the milonga.
How tango is danced in Europe and North America
In Europe and North America, people have a quite different perception of tango. Here is how they dance tango in a common Euro-American milonga.
They dance tango not to enjoy the embrace, but to practice steps or show footwork. I believe people understand tango is an intimate and soulful dance. Most of us even yearn to taste that apple, which is why we dance tango. (See Why People Dance Tango.) But for some reasons we just don't feel comfortable enough to be intimate with each other, so we shy away from the embrace, keep a bashful distance from our partner, and focus on the steps instead.
To be fair, this is not the worst case. One can tell it's a growing tango community. A number of dancers dance in the milonguero style, some of whom are fair to good dancers. But the majority are still novices who focus on the steps rather than the connection and feelings. Their musicality is very bad. They do not know how to embrace, so they rely on the arms and hands to lead and follow. Many are practicing what they recently learned. Some come only to socialize rather than dance. Most are emotionally detached. The milonga codes are poorly complied, as attested by the verbal invitation, blocking the traffic, remaining on the dance floor during the cortina, wearing ornaments that would rub the partner's body, loud background noises, and a lot of talking. The music, although traditional, is not very engaging, and the whole scene is quite chaotic. Towards the end there are some better dances. But overall, I don't find this milonga terribly attractive and satisfying. Unfortunately, this is a typical tango scene in Europe and North America.
Another common Euro-American tango scene
Common among our young people is another kind of tango scene showing below.
Young people seem need to discharge their youthful energy and to prove their ability of doing things unconventional. Dancing in open hand holds rather than embrace, they can do fancy steps and showy figures. Some even attained certain degree of skillfulness in what they are doing. Nevertheless, there is no fundamental difference between this kind of tango and other sport dances. Personally I don't see how such way of dancing tango is even enjoyable in comparison to the feeling-oriented milonguero style. I wish there were better reasons why some people insist on doing this when there's clearly a better way, other than they need to release energy, show off, have obstacles, or don't know better. As far as comfort, soulfulness, indulgence and gratification are concerned, there is really no comparison between the two styles.
It may be characteristic for young people to act rebelliously, but being obsessed with the stereotype or wanting to show that they are different from the old people is childish and naive. Old people are once young and rebellious, too. In fact, many milongueros can do Nuevo steps better than most young people today. They quit doing that because they become wiser after tried everything that young people with their limited experience cannot even imagine. Most young people learn tango from their peers, who learn from their peers, and they simply don't know another way to dance tango. Once they experienced the milonguero way, most will renounce theirs and follow suit. (See The Psychology of Tango.)
This is how milongueros emerge
Three decades of trial and error since 1983 eventually lead some tango dancers in Europe and North America to move away from exhibitionism and pay more attention to the embrace, music and feelings. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) As a result, scenes like this start to appear in Europe and North America in recent years.
Their embrace becomes closer. Their connection becomes more intimate. Their dance becomes more feeling-oriented. Their steps become simpler, more musical and elegant. Their milonga becomes better organized. Antisocial behaviors are less seen. While showy footwork still occurs, the embrace still brakes sometimes, the hand use still remains habitual for some, the music selections are still more dramatic than sentimental, the hastiness is still common, the dresses are still too casual, the skill levels are uneven, progress nevertheless is evident in comparison to the previous two scenes. Such transformation certainly would not come without pain, given the strong Western tradition of individualism, liberalism and feminism. But the dancers in this example prove that they can change. It is a reassurance that there is really a lot of hope in tango, in humanity, and in our ability to adapt.
How social tango should be danced
It is worth your time to watch Holman's video again and compare it to your own tango dancing. The following is a better edited version. This time please pay attention to how the milongueros and milongueras follow the milonga codes, from sitting, making eye contact, doing cabeceo, dancing, to sending the woman back to her seat. If you wonder what kind of steps they use to make their dance so coherent and concordant, you can watch those who dance in the background. But nothing fancy really. Their dance is not about the steps. (See The Conceptional Beauty of Tango.)
As you can see, they concentrate entirely on the music and feelings, as if the steps are irrelevant. Dancing tango to them is to enjoy the sentiment and intimacy, not to do gymnastics. They dance with complete relaxation, unhurried pace, subtle movements, and tasteful suspensions. Their steps are small and simple, totally void of flaunt, and used only to remain united with their partner in the dance. The beauty of their tango is in the oneness of the union rather than the performance of the individual. In their tango nothing is ornate, but everything is exquisite and elegant. Even the music selections are more sentimental and intriguing than ours, fitting perfectly to the mood of their tango.
Please also pay attention to the woman. Her ability to remain coherent with the man is amazing. She rests comfortably in his arms, intimately leans on him with her arm around his shoulder, so that she can enjoy the caress of his chest. Her eyes are dreamily closed, allowing herself to focus inwardly on the feelings. Her inconspicuous footwork magically keeps her body moving in perfect unison with his no matter how he turns, permitting her to tune to the soft whispers of his body and enjoy his attentive ride. (See Driving and Synchronization.)
To tango is to indulge yourself, not to impress others. On a crowded dance floor who cares about your footwork anyway. The only thing that matters is the feelings you experience. This is why performance tango doesn't make good sense in the milongas. I hope Holman's video will inspire more people to learn the milonguero style of tango and accelerate the transformation of our tango from a step-oriented dance to a feeling-oriented dance. (See The Four Stages of Your Tango Journey.)
I received several comments on the video selections for this post and understand now a little better how political correctness is produced in this culture. There are quite a few Noches Hungria Tango Marathon video clips on the YouTube. Most are positive. The clips I selected for this post are used to illustrate a phenomenon, not to reflect the whole picture of any community or event.