Tango is not only a fascinating dance but also a fascinating philosophy, culture and lifestyle. The search of tango is the search of humanity, connection, love, unity, harmony and beauty, 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 team, 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, accommodation, reconciliation and compromise. It is a dance that teaches the world to love.
December 25, 2011
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 Three Theories on Leading.) Any definition describing one dance automatically excludes the other. In fact, people who have only learned one dance are not able to dance the other dance without learning it. 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 affection 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 intimacy and comfort of the embrace, the communication of feelings through the torso connection, and the harmonious movements in sync to 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 dislay 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 dance hold 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 an exhibition 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 their time and money as very few of them will ever become stage performers, because without the foundation of social tango it is impossible for them to be good performers anyway, and because 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 put their focus in their study of tango, because their purpose is to dance in the milonga 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 comforting 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 a 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 performance tango on stage will dance social tango exclusively when they go to a milonga. 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
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 popular song, on the other hand, is less in range and technique; therefore, everyone can sing it.
The notion that complicated and difficult art forms are superior to simple and easy art forms, however, is misleading. A photograph is not necessarily worse than an oil painting. An opera song is not necessarily superior to a pop song. Very often things are better when they are easier because elegance lies in simplicity and easiness. Simple doesn't mean artistically inferior. Easy doesn't mean less skillful. On the contrary, it takes great sophistication to achieve simplicity and easiness. Art masters can perform their arts with great ease. Those who made their arts look 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 love tango are ordinary people. They dance tango because it is a simple and easy dance that serves their need for intimacy and affinity with another soul. Those who regard themselves above the crowd try to make tango increasingly intricate and difficult. I don’t think that serves tango well. Tango as an art form will never cease to improve, of course. But turning it into a highbrow dance like ballet is heading the wrong direction, in my opinion. The vitality of tango lies 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 also be read as a warning.
December 14, 2011
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 for body building. Acrobatics are physical stunts, such as flipping in the air and bending the body 180 degrees backwards, to entertain an audience. Such activities are designed for sportive or recreative purpose. They are difficult to do and are not intended to be romantic and comfortable.
Tango, on the other hand, is an art form designed to express human emotions through movements. It highlights the aesthetic aspect such as sentiments, emotions, feelings, music, and the beauty of the body movements rather than the physical aspect such as strength, speed and tricks. What matters in tango is how soulful, beatuful and coherent the movement is, not how challenging, difficult and thrilling the stunts are. Tango is created to feel, to express, to communicate, to comfort, and to serve the needs for affinity and intimacy between the opposite sexes. It is suggestive of an idealized romance. In the soul of tango is romanticism, which separates tango from gymnastics and acrobatics.
If we take romanticism away from tango, what's left is a sport or show. Unfortunately, in a culture such as our where 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 form rather than the substance, and constantly seek for change and novelty. To retain tango's romantic and elegant style, we have work to do. One of which is to reflect more romanticism in our teaching and dancing, for example, using simple and natural steps, showing more feelings, focusing more on elegance rather than stunts, etc. Fashion will be outdated but never will be romanticism, because it resides in our humanity. We only need to awaken it.
November 28, 2011
Most people do not think of tango as a language, but tango in fact is a language, which can be taught, learned, understood and used to convey intentions, feelings, musicality and movement traits such as the step type, variation, size, direction, speed, pause, syncopation, rhythm, etc. Those who know the language can communicate with each other, identify each other's intentions and feelings and move harmoniously and beautifully as one unified body. Those who don’t know the language are not able to express and respond to each other, and they feel awkward and frustrated in the dance.
Like any language, tango has its own alphabet, vocabulary, grammar and composition. The body parts, including the head, the arms, the hands, the torso, the waist, the hips, the legs and the feet, can be seen as the alphabet of tango. We use these elements to make movements or steps, which are the vocabulary of tango. Musicality and communication are like the grammar, according to which steps are improvised to form a dance. Choreography is the composition of the dance. (See Floorcraft, Choreography and Hastiness.)
Just like studying any language, learning tango should start from the alphabet and grammar. Without the alphabet we can’t spell correctly. Without the grammar we can’t put words into proper use. One problem in our tango learning is that we focus only on the vocabulary but pay little attention to the alphabet and grammar. We don't know how to use our body. (See The Functions of Various Body Parts in Tango.) We don’t know how to properly embrace and walk. Our posture is ugly. Our connection is broken. Our body is too stiff and heavy. We don't know how to dissociate the upper body and the lower body. There is no balance and stability in our movements. We don’t listen to music. We don't step on the beat. We don’t follow the sentiment and mood of the music. We don’t communicate well. Our lead is unclear and follow is clumsy. As a result, although we know a lot of steps, we can’t put them together in a meaningful, coherent, harmonious and beautiful way.
Like any language, tango has a large vocabulary. Nobody can do all the steps in tango, just like nobody knows all the words in a language. The fact is, we do not need to memorize the entire dictionary to speak a language. For example, in Chinese language there are more than 60,000 characters. The Kangxi Dictionary includes 47,000 characters. The official Xinhua Dictionary includes 8,550 characters. Of them only 950 characters are the most frequently used, which cover 90% of the total characters used in popular literature. An addition of 2,800 characters of the second highest use frequency increases the coverage to 99.9%. Most Chinese characters are rarely used.
Tango is the same. There are only limited steps that are essential in tango, such as walk, salida, resolution, pivot, dissociation, cadencia, cross, front ocho, back ocho, molinete, giros, rock, traspie, etc. These basic steps form 90% of the steps used in social tango dancing. More complicated steps, such as ocho cortado, sacada, enganche, boleo, sandwich, parada, media luna, arrastrar, barrida, corrida, carpa, planeo, zarandeo, calesita, americana, media vuelta, wrap, single axis turn, etc., form the other 9% less common, optional and dispensable steps in social tango. In addition to the above are steps used primarily in performance tango, such as giro-enrosque-lapiz combination, high boleo, back sacada, gancho, volcada, colgada, castigada, romantica, soltada, patada, sentada, high kick, lift, etc. These steps are mainly used by professional performers for special effects only. They lack the friendliness of the social tango steps, are difficult, uncomfortable, dangerous and requiring a lot of space to do, therefore are not suitable for social dancing.
It is unwise to spend time and money on stuffs that are of little use, but neglect the essentials that can benefit you most, and it is affected to use professional jargon to carry out a daily conversation. Unfortunately, that is what many students are doing. A much better approach to tango is to do the opposite: concentrating on the alphabet, grammar and basic vocabulary of tango instead of jumping into big fancy words without a solid foundation. Frankly, for most people, the basics are all they need to enjoy social tango. If you understand that, then tango is really a simple and easy dance. Those who are truly talented and want to become stage performers can go further to learn performance, but that should be pursued after they have laid the foundation, not before, and certainly not in the milonga where even the professionals dance sociably. (See Imitating Steps vs. Developing Skills.)
November 11, 2011
Raul Cabral is a tango master, a brilliant thinker and teacher of the milonguero style of tango. He published a series of essays on http://www.raultangocabral.com.ar. The following is a brief summary of his key message on achieving synchronization through proper embrace.
The most important qualities of a dancer have nothing to do with steps. What are essential for the leader are his musicality and his ability to drive the follower. What are essential for the follower are her abilities to be weightless and to synchronize the movement.
The leader is the driver in tango, who uses his body to effect the movement of the body of his partner. Every step of the leader should be expressed through his partner. Driving does not mean that he moves and waits for his partner to follow. Tango is synchronization, or moving exactly at the same time. This suggests that the word “follow” is an incorrect notion because “follow” implies a moment later. Even if the moment is minimal, there is no synchronization. What is correct for the follower is to enter the moving car of the leader and allow herself to be transported by him on their musical journey.
The unique and magical essence of tango, two bodies moving as one, is achieved solely by the ability of the body to communicate the message of its movement through the embrace. Many people, through tango, are beginning to discover the importance of the embrace, which takes us back to the first years of our lives, to the protection of the chest of women. It is the need of that connection that brings people into tango. The embrace is the reason that tango has triumphed in the multitude of societies in the world.
Driving and synchronization are achieved through proper embrace. Since the beginning of tango, there is only one communication in this dance and it is corporal, from body to body, not arms to arms. The two partners make contact through their bodies, which are weighted slightly forward on the balls but supported by the entire feet on the floor including heels. Each partner is responsible for his/her own balance. The man spreads his chest, offers it to the woman and welcomes her into his body. He embraces her firmly, but puts no pressure on her. There is nothing tense or hard in his body. He leads her with his whole body but his main message comes from his chest, from which he communicates the feelings, the direction, the size of the step, the timing, the cadence, the pause, etc. He never loses his contact to her, not even an instant, and he never cuts the flow of communication.
The woman settles into the man’s embrace, molding herself on him until it feels as if he were wearing her. She leans her body slightly forward against him and properly positions her chest so she can receive every minute message from his torso. She stretches her body from the waist on upwards, as if she were the string of a violin vibrating at his slightest touch. Her body is soft and relaxed. It is upon relaxation that her extremities, legs, arms and head, become void of matter, and her torso, especially her chest, becomes the main focus. This allows her to feel the messages from the body of the leader and move in unison with him. Her weight is on the inside of the ball of her foot, but her whole foot including the heel is in contact with the floor. Her arm lands gently and weightlessly on his shoulder. She doesn't hang on him or use the embrace to stabilize herself, but keeps her own balance, thus she is light. She is supple but toned, soft but with nothing loose (hips, for instance). Her presence is notable with subtle but assured pressure of her chest against his. She does not efface herself or break the connection, knowing if she separates herself from him she won‘t get the information from his body. She is continuously tuned to the messages he emits from his chest. Until the tango is over, her chest is permanently in contact with his. This is the most exact way to achieve synchronization.
November 2, 2011
Tango can be danced in many ways. For example, it can be danced in a virtual embrace in which the two partners dance around each other at a distance without any physical contact. The man leads the woman with a visual signal from his torso to show how he wants her to move and the woman follows the visual lead to carry out the step. A visual lead is difficult to perceive because it must be seen and cannot be felt. The difference between different signals often is so subtle that it is hard to discern by the eye. It's quite challenging for the man to send a clear visual signal and for the woman to apprehend it. Also, the virtual embrace lacks the physicality, sensation and comfort of the physical embrace. It disables movements that require physical support. Despite these limits, the virtual embrace discloses an important distinction between lead and follow: the former is to plot the dance and the latter is to beautify the dance. (See The Gender Roles in Tango.) It also reveals the fact that lead/follow is not just a physical process but also a psychological one, requiring mental concentration and comprehension. The awareness of this fact is important because one cannot dance well with the feet unless one can dance with the heart.
Tango can also be danced in an open dance hold like that in a ballroom dance where the dancers are connected only with the arms and hands without the contact of the bodies. The arms and hands are the extensions of the body. Even in absence of direct bodily contact the dancers can still sense each other’s intentions via their arms and hands. The open dance hold, known also by its fine-sounding name the "open embrace", provides more space for the dancers to maneuver their bodies, thus is favored by the movement-oriented dancers who like to do fancy steps. It is arguable, however, that in open embrace the dancers still lead and follow with the torsos as they theoretically should. In reality, due to the lack of direct torso contact, they tend to rely on their arms and hands, which is less coherent than using the torsos to lead and follow. Also, the open embrace lacks the intimacy, comfort and soulfulness of the close embrace.
Tango can also be danced with the torso connection only, free from the help of the arms and hands. Using the torso to lead and follow is a distinct feature of Argentine tango, which separates it from other dances and makes it an intimate and feeling-oriented dance. But students are often not used to intimate embrace and prefer to lead and follow with the arms and hands. In order to help them overcome that habit, tango teachers often ask students to dance only with their torsos connected with no contact of the arms and hands at all. Some teachers even put a piece of paper between their chests and ask them not to let the paper fall as they dance. People do not actually dance tango that way, but the skills attained from this training will lay a solid foundation for their tango. (See The Fourteenth Pitfall of a Tanguera.)
The most comfortable and communicative embrace is the close embrace in which the partners intimately lean into each other chest against chest and face touches face with their arms encircle each other's body. The close embrace provides the most intimate connection and effective communication, thus is favored by the feeling-oriented dancers who incline to the intimacy, comfort and soulfulness of the dance more than gymnastic acts.
Beginners may find close embrace hinders their movements. But that is only because they are novices. Dancing in close embrace requires a different set of skills and techniques that are different from those used in open embrace, such as using small and compact steps, dancing more rhythmically rater than melodically, the command on dissociation, the mastery of cadencia, the ability to do spot dancing, the knack in floorcraft on a crowded dance floor, the focus on the feelings rather than the steps, and the emphasis on the elegance rather than flaunt of the dance, ect.
Experienced dancers also use some variations of the close embrace to increase movement possibilities. One variation is the V-shaped embrace in which the two partners are connected with one side of their torsos and leave the other side open. Another is increasing the lean of the body to allow more space between their legs. The combination of the two is still another option. These variations require flexibility and stamina of the body. In actual dancing dancers may switch from one variation to another. For example, when doing ocho the woman often changes from one side V-shaped connection to a chest-to-chest connection to another side V-shaped connection.
The choice of embrace is affected by many factors, such as physical conditions (flexibility and stamina of the body), dance styles (movement inclination or feeling inclination), purposes (social dancing or performance), environment (floor density and milonga codes), music (fast or slow tempo), movements (fancy or simple, large or small steps), maturity (age and experience), and genres (tango, vals or milonga). Every embrace has its merits and limits. In the milonguero style of tango, the close embrace is used to secure the communication of feelings through direct torso contact. In the Villa Urquiza style of tango, a loose embrace is used to facilitate fancy footwork. In stage or show tango, the open embrace is used to deliver intricate performance with fancy steps, showy figures and thrilling stunts. (See Three Theories on Leading.)
The close embrace won tango a reputation of the “dance of the brothel” and caused its rejection by the "polite society" in Europe and North America. The emergence of the open-embrace style contributed to the spread of tango. Some dancers of the younger generation saw a new vein for fancy footwork in the open-embrace style and launched the Nuevo movement, which gained the momentum especially outside of Argentina where intimacy between the opposite sexes is a cultural taboo. (See Tango: Historical and Cultural Impacts.) As tango moved into that direction, it lost its original feel. Gymnastic tendency, antisocial behavior, the break of the embrace, the adoption of non-tango steps, the swap of gender roles, alternative music, same-sex partnership and other attempts to reform the dance come in succession, changing tango to a hybrid dance. The old guards in the home country of tango, the Argentine milongueros, strongly defend its roots. Their way of dancing tango, known as the milonguero style danced in close embrace (see The Styles of Tango), is still the dominant style in the milongas of Buenos Aires today. But the battle between the traditionalists and the reformers continues.
October 13, 2011
Recently my love for Tango music was rekindled when I played piano in a band for an informal dance during intermission at a San Francisco Symphony concert. Here are some gorgeous songs to give an example:
A la Gran Muneca
Part of what makes Tango magical for me is the juxtaposition of opposite moods. The music must be easy to dance to, so the rhythm is brutally crisp, forceful and rigid - but the melodies are fluid, rich and impetuously unrestrained. Sometimes these moods alternate, but usually they’re simultaneous. These opposite forces keep each other in check: whenever the melody tumbles into wailing passion, the rhythm seems to say “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, everyone has problems,” and when the rhythm gets locked into a pounding rut, the melody says “Hey, cheer up, look at that pretty lady over there.”
Given that Tango is a sexual dance between a man and a woman (traditionally), I realized that these two moods might represent masculinity and femininity. Viewed this way, the music mirrors the dance quite literally. Every note or phrase is played with a “masculine” affect - short and steady - or a “feminine” affect - improvisatory and emotional.
On the way to one of these Tango rehearsals, I listened to Save the Last Trance for Me by Paul Oakenfold. Trance may not be so fashionable anymore, but this is a serious fucking anthem. Anyway, I was reminded of Tango, because the beat is incredibly strong and raw - almost industrial, if you listen to only the first few bars. Every drum has unflinching impact. It sounds definitively masculine. But once you get to the meat of the song - the melody, the strings, the pastoral flute floating above - it’s just the opposite - supple, fluid, expressing blissful submission. Feminine, if you will. The two forces coexisting throughout give it an incredible feeling. If the drums were weaker, it would sound like sentimental mush; if the strings and melody were gone, there would be no warmth or feeling.
I started to feel kind of sexist using 1950s gender roles to describe music. I thought of that awkwardly antiquated view of Sonata-Allegro form, where the first theme is dominant and masculine, and the second theme is gentle and feminine. Obviously there are plenty of people and sonatas that invert the stereotypes, making that analysis offensive and stupid.
But I realized it illuminates a deeper truth: effective music often works to unite opposing emotions or states. You don’t need the gender descriptions. Sonata form dominated Western music for a long time - it must have been doing something right. I think the secret might be the pair of emotionally opposite themes, forced to intertwine and respond to each other. One of music’s strengths is its ability to evoke multiple emotions at once. I’m willing to bet that if right now, you tried to describe your favorite music ever - the stuff that puts you over the edge every time - you’d be contradicting yourself a lot. Majestic yet intimate, tragic yet uplifting, sweet but threatening, discomforting yet satisfying.
It’s a challenge to create music that evokes multiple emotions at once, because you can’t indulge your passionate impulses too much. You have to maintain a distant perspective on how the parts of the music interact, and restrain and balance everything appropriately. It’s counterintuitive that the most passionate, moving music is often created with a certain amount of detachment.
October 9, 2011
Music plays a critical role in tango. Lousy, unfamiliar, outlandish and non-tango songs never produced a beautiful tango. Well-performed tangos are all danced to excellent classic tango music, which is an inspiration indispensable for bringing the dancers’ skills into full play. Good classic tango music excites the dancers, stirs up their emotions, lifts their spirit, kindles their creativity, generates synergism and leads to what the Argentinians called duende, an elated state in which the dancers perform exceptionally well. Without good music, there is little scope for even a master’s abilities.
There are tens of thousands of tango songs available on the market. Only a fraction of which are good, danceable songs and the rest are either mediocre in quality or for listening and not dancing. The CD makers know their business. If they place all good, danceable songs in one basket, nobody will buy the rest, so they mix the trash with treasures. Very often, in a CD of twenty songs only one or two are good, danceable songs and the rest are junks. The Argentinians know their music. They buy a CD for that one or two good songs and discard the rest. American tourists, on the contrary, buy a CD and play them all. Our bad collection habit and bizarre taste keep haunting us. We collect junk songs just like we collect kitchen tools and fancy steps. Worse still, we show favoritism to eccentric and rare junks such as exotic, non-tango and alternative music.
Experts all agree that familiarity with music is essential to an exuberant tango experience. The Argentinians only play the best and well-known classic tango music in their milongas. They don’t even play rare and unfamiliar tango songs, still less outlandish and alternative music. Playing such music does a disservice to tango. It is weird. It lacks the richness and depth of the classic tango music. It changes tango to a hybrid dance. It caters to the low taste of the amateurs and repels the seasoned dancers who in Argentina are treated with great respect, free or discount admission, best seats and their favorite classic tango music, because they are the mainstay of the milongas.
Classic tango music is the signature of tango. It is created and developed with tango and for tango. People recognize it and associate it with the dance when they hear it. There is a sentimental attachment between the two. In fact, tango dance and classic tango music are two aspects of one thing called Argentine tango, inseparable as body and soul. The fact that tango can be danced to other musics doesn’t mean it can remain intact when so danced. One may dance tango to the music of Beijing opera, but that will not be tango. Alternative music from different cultural background does not have the same rhythmic structure and sentimental richness of the classic tango music, which is passionate, multi-layered, manifold, changeful, sentimental and moody, allowing the dancers to interpret and improvise. (See The Characteristics of Classic Tango.) Any music sharing the same rhythmic structure and sentimental richness will be recognized as tango and not alternative music. By definition, alternative music is the music that lacks the structural and sentimental depth of tango, therefore is not the best music for tango dancing. It only appeals to novices deficient in good taste or weird dudes seeking novelty and those who choose to pander to their taste in order to make money.
Those who love tango more than money, on the other hand, can do one thing for tango. A three-hour milonga only contains 15 tondas or 60 songs. If we meticulously select 600 best classic tango songs and play them repeatedly in our milongas like the Argentinians do in the milongas of Buenos Aires, we will change our tango culture and raise the level of our dance in more ways than we can imagine. After all, tango is intimately related to its music. The better the music, the better the dance, the better the milonga, the better the community, and the better we all will be. (See My Two Cents on Music Selections.)
September 17, 2011
In a scarce society people are used to frugality and simplicity, while in an affluent society such as ours, lavishness and extravagance are the norm. For tasks that other people do with a simple kitchen knife, we created one equipment to chop eggs, another to cut meats, another to slice tomatoes, another to peel apples, another to shred cucumbers, etc. Our kitchens are crammed with junks. Our houses are more and more cluttered. And so are our shopping malls, institutions, governments, miliraties and tax codes. Our national debt has passed $14 trillion. At the average rate of 2.5% the annual interest on the debt is $350 billion, and we still spend like there is no tomorrow. (*In May 2020 US national debt passed $25 trillion. Annual interest rate at 2.5% on the debt is $625 billion.) Our commercial culture is all about catching and impressing, which is why TV ads are made increasingly weird. I don’t think it's coincidental that some of us confuse weirdness with beauty. Just look at punk hairdos, tattoos, rings on the nose, lips and eyelids, and pants that are about to fall down… Everything is about catching eyes rather than genuine beauty.
The way we dance tango reflects this culture. Like life, tango is really a simple dance, but we insist on making it fancy and complicated. While in Argentina tango is danced in normal, natural, simple and comfortable steps, our tango is cluttered with showy, gaudy, farfetched and awkward movements. Simplicity and naturalness are acquired tastes that we don’t have. We regard complexity and bizarreness as beautiful. While in Argentina tango is all about music, feelings, relationship and physical pleasure, our tango is all about fancy footwork, thrilling performances, eye-catching dresses, expensive shoes, luxurious hotels and pricey festivals. We are too focused on the superficial things.
Let me proclaim a different aesthetics that values simplicity and naturalness. Nature is simple and it is beautiful. Light makeup looks better than heavy and queer one. A house simply decorated is more pleasant than that cluttered with ostentatious ornaments. Concise writing is superior to redundant expression. Empty space can add design to the painting. Pause can create mood in the dance. Silence sometimes expresses more. Too much could be worse than not enough. A kung-fu master practices his skill with great ease. The best way often is the simple way. (See Highbrowism and Populism in Tango.)
The same is true for tango. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication - a quality those who focus only on superficial things do not have. Tango is not a luxury. It is a simple pleasure that should not cost an absurd amount of money to enjoy. (See Boston Tango Marathon.) People who love tango should keep it original and free from the contamination of the commercial world and the frivolous custom of our times. There is no need to spend on fancy steps and flashy dresses to enjoy tango. Tango can be danced in a simple, moderate and natural way, like how the Argentinians dance it. We have to turn our attention from what is without to what is within. An ordinary-looking woman with refined inner quality is much more attractive than a pretty woman without it. Tango is the same. It is for feeling and not for looking. When tango stops to be a show, it will be simpler, deeper, better and more enjoyable. (See The Conceptional Beauty of Tango.)
September 4, 2011
We love tango in part because tango is a beautiful dance. There is nothing wrong with that. People pursue beauty for the same reason that plants bloom and birds sing. It is natural. It pleases the eye and attracts mates. It provides better chances for living things to reproduce. Beauty is a valuable thing for those who own it. Consequently, it is admired, worshiped, idolized and imitated. Fashions, cosmetics, hair styling, face-lift surgery, silicon implant and many other methods are developed to make people look beautiful. Billions and billions are spent each year for it. As a result, beauty is no longer natural and real. It becomes artificial, perverted and delusive.
When people are obsessed with superficial things, substances are overlooked and problems occur. A beautiful woman may have advantages, but at the same time she may also have disadvantages. She may be spoiled, supercilious and unprepared for the tough realities in real life. She may demand more and be hard to please. A likely prey of men, jealousy of women and heart breaker to many admirers, she could have more enemies than she can handle. Consequently, she could be overly aloof, self-protective, suspicious and cold towards others. Her relationship with people may become more problematic, and she may live a less worry-free life. One has to bear in mind its cost when pursuing beauty. Beauty is only a skin deep. It is neither the only thing nor the most important thing in life as well as in tango.
Just like people who focus on superficial things tend to ignore inner qualities, people fond of fancy movements tend to neglect feelings. However, without the feelings tango becomes an empty display. True beauty comes from within. It lies in the shared commitment, understanding, cooperation, agreement and harmony between the partners. If you visit Buenos Aires, you will see that is how tango is danced in their milongas by the milongueros and milongueras. They don't care much about fancy steps and impression. They concentrate on the relationship and feelings, and their dance is so beautiful that it is imitated by shallow-minded foreigners without understanding its essence. (See The Conceptional Beautify of Tango.)
Tango is still too young in America. It takes maturity to overcome superficiality and to understand true beauty. The more I dance with women of all ages, the more I appreciate mature women. Even in Argentina, I find that mature women are better dancers overall. Their youthful freshness is fading, and they start to focus more on the substance rather than the surface of the dance. It is my hope that tango in this country, too, will overcome its shallowness and pay more attention to the substance, as our dancers become more maturer.
August 14, 2011
When a man finds a woman attractive, the first thing he does is looking at her intently. His eyes are captured and he cannot take them away from her. The woman may respond by ignoring the man if she doesn’t want to encourage him, or looking into his eyes if she, too, is interested. The encouraged man then may wink or nod at her with intent to approach her, or he may move his eyes away from her if he decides not to pursue. This game between men and women is played every day, everywhere.
In the milongas of Buenos Aires, this is also the game men and women play. A man looks around the dance hall to search for a partner. If he found a woman he likes to dance with, he stares at her. The woman who is also looking for a partner will soon notice him. If she doesn’t want to dance with him, she turns her eyes away. If she likes to dance with him, she fixes her eyes at him and waits for him to invite her. He does so by nodding his head at her, and she responds with a nod of her head to accept his invitation. All these are done remotely in silence without any verbal exchange.
This way of inviting a woman to dance is called cabeceo. Cabeceo becomes a practice in the milongas mainly because tango is an intimate dance. Argentine tango is danced in close embrace with considerable physical contact between the partners. For a woman to involve in such an intimate activity with a man, she has to do it by her own will. Otherwise, even if she reluctantly accepts the invitation, she will be reserved, cold and dry. She will not surrender herself to him and dance with passion and feelings. That is why cabeceo is deemed a requisite part of tango. A milonguero will not dance with a woman unless she shows a clear desire to dance with him by looking into his eyes and responding to his cabeceo with a smile and nod.
The advantage of cabeceo over a verbal invitation is that it puts women in an advantageous position. For tango to be a satisfying experience for a woman, she needs a partner matching her in skills and musicality. To find such a partner, she cannot passively wait for someone to pick her but must actively participate in the partner selection process, and she must select among all men, not just a few who come to her table. An Argentine woman does not sit there waiting for any men come to ask her to dance. She takes initiative in the process by willingly showing her desire to dance with the man of her own choice. In that way she invites him to cabeceo her and prevents herself from being bothered by those whom she doesn’t want to dance with.
For men, cabeceo is also a better way to invite a woman. To ask a woman verbally, the man needs to walk across the room to where she is. If the woman rejects him, he not only has to swallow the embarrassment but also has to walk all the way back to his seat. By then other prospective partners may all be taken and he may need to wait till the tanda ends for the next opportunity. But by using cabeceo he can quickly and remotely find someone willing to dance with him without risking being publicly rejected by a woman.
For cabeceo to work, women must participate in the process. If women do not actively search for a partner, then men cannot cabeceo them even if they want to. But for women to be active, tango must be an intimate experience so personal to them that they don’t want to do it with anyone other than the man of their choice, just like they don’t want to sleep with anyone other than those they love. The reason cabeceo doesn’t work in the US is that our tango has not yet reached that level. Most women here are new to tango and are unable to dance tango in a deeply personal way. They dance in an open dance hold with no physical contact with the man. They do not surrender themselves and intimately engage themselves with the man in the dance. They focuse on the steps and neglect the partner. They sit there talking to each other and pay no attention to men. They avoid men's eye contact for fear of giving men ideas. They turn a blind eye to men's cabeceo because they do not know what that means and how to respond to it. (See Tango Etiquette: Eye Contact, Talking, Clique and Hierarchy). Consequently, they can only sit there for someone to come and accept any verbal invitation.
It is ironic that in macho Argentina women get to decide with whom they want to be intimate by using cabeceo, while in feminist America women have so little control on a matter so personal to them. Cabeceo is a product of a mature tango community. It results from women’s active participation in the partner selection process and is a sign of their maturity in tango, which, by the way, is another reason why milongueros only use cabeceo to invite a woman. (See How to Get More Invitations in the Milonga.)
July 14, 2011
Tango is an intimate dance. It allows your partner to touch your body, enjoy your gentle submission, snug embrace, attentive leading, obedient following, loving protection, sensitive accommodation, supportive complement and harmonious cooperation. It also allows your partner to access, listen and feel the inner voice, feelings, sentiments and personality of you. In fact, your partner can learn a lot about you in the dance. How you connect, move, communicate, respond and adapt tells a lot about the somatic, psychological, ethical, artistic and aesthetic qualities in you. The way you dance unreservedly reveals who you are: refined or crude, musical or deaf, sensitive or dull, affectionate or indifferent, calm or irascible, graceful or clumsy, adaptive or inflexible, yielding or controlling, agreeable or disagreeable, friendly or arrogant… all are exposed in the dance.
Tango is a relationship. Just like in any relationship where the well beings of the two are mutually related and interdependent, you have to be and do your best in order to bring out the best of your partner. In tango, as in any relationship, your ego is your worst enemy. It’s the ego that makes you self-centered, arrogant, controlling, inflexible, irascible, rude and counteractive. Tango is fully enjoyed only when the two partners act as one in complete agreement and harmony. You need to let go your ego, surrender to your partner, listen to his/her inner voice, follow his/her intention, accommodate yourself to him/her, tacitly complement him/her to make up his/her weakness and bring out his/her strength, and let him/her feel totally comfortable and enjoyable dancing with you. If you only focus on yourself and neglect your partner, you will fail the dance even if you can do all the fancy steps in the world. After all, tango is a social activity that requires good manner. Learning tango is much more than learning steps. It is, among other things such as acquiring a taste, philosophy and culture, learning to be one with another person. Unfortunately, this very important perspective is often being neglected.
April 30, 2011
As a comprehensive art form tango is different things to different people: to men it is leading, to women it is following, to novices it is steps, to veterans it is feelings, to lovers it is a relationship, to peacocks it is a display, to heterosexuals it is a gender expression, to homosexuals it is a gender-neutral play, to social dancers it is a dissipation for personal enjoyment, to professionals it is a show to entertain an audience, to ordinary dancers it is a simple interest, to milongueros it is a lifestyle, to foreigners it is a recreation, to Argentinians it is a history and deeply rooted culture... We all understand and dance tango differently for who we are and what philosophy we have.
Tango philosophy involves issues that make us different. The following is an incomplete list of such issues. Each may have many answers. Some answers may be more or less correct or incorrect, others may just be personal preferences and neither right nor wrong. But collectively these opinions and preferences decide the way each of us dances and behaves, and divide us into diffferent categories. Studying and exchanging views on these issues can help us deepen our understanding, learn from each other, improve our dance, and, hopefully, achieve mastery through a comprehensive grasp of all aspects of tango.
1. What is tango
2. Why people dance tango
3. The gender roles in tango
4. The relationship of the two sexes
5. Gender neutrality vs. gender expression
6. Feminism and its impact on tango
7. Individualism and its impact on tango
8. Individual performance vs. teamwork
9. Exhibition vs. fellowship
10. Elitism vs. populism
11. Pluralism vs. monism
12. Cultural bias and impacts
13. Social tango vs. performance tango
14. Close embrace vs. open embrace
15. Focusing on embrace vs. focusing on footwork
16. Movements vs. feelings
17. Romanticism vs. gymnastics
18. Dancing steps vs. dancing music
19. Dancing to rhythm vs. dancing to melody
20. The danceability of tango music
21. Classic tango music vs. alternative music
22. Tango styles
23. Three theories on leading
24. Self-centered leading vs. partner-centered leading
25. Active follow vs. passive follow
26. Form vs. content
27. Appearance vs. essence
28. Simplicity vs. fanciness
29. Comfort vs. beauty
30. Reform vs. tradition
31. Creativity vs. standardization
32. Free expression vs. milonga codes
33. Imitating steps vs. developing skills
34. Segregation vs. integration
35. Progressive dancing vs. spot dancing
36. Cabeseo vs. verbal invitation
37. Ordinary vs. extraordinary
38. Artistic sublimation vs. vulgarism
39. Extremism vs. moderation
40. The freedom in tango
41. Tango and the outlook on life
42. A dance that teaches the world to love
January 27, 2011
The traditional tango pedagogy put a lot of emphasis on walk. In those days tango masters spent an extended length of time teaching walk before they started any figures. There are good reasons for that. First, tango is a walking dance. No other dance uses so much walk in the dance as tango does. Second, there is a correlation between walk and dance. Those who can walk well usually dance well. Those who do not dance well, their walk usually sucks. Third, walk is the simplest step in all steps, yet it is the foundation upon which other steps have evolved. If one cannot do the simplest step well, it is unlikely that he/she can do complicated steps well, and their problems usually can be traced back to walk. Finally, because walk is the simplest step, it can be used to train other basic skills such as embrace, posture, connection, communication, balance, dissociation and musicality. People new to tango cannot distribute their attentions equally well to many elements while learning fancy steps. They need to develop good embrace, posture, connection, communication, balance, dissociation and musicality before learning complicated figures, not after or at the same time. In order to train these basic skills, the exercise needs to be kept simple, and walk is a perfect way to achieve that.
The subpar quality of our tango is due in many ways to the insufficient walk training. American culture holds that learning must be fun and painless. Our schools have the most entertaining environment and least homework. Our teachers do not want to bore students with dull drills, and our pupils want to get fancy before they learned to walk, which they think they can already.
Nothing is farther from the truth. You look normal only till people see you try to learn to walk in tango. In fact, everybody looks clumsy and funny in their first tango walk. That is because walking chest against chest with a partner in close embrace is not something people normally do. You are uncomfortable of intimacy with a stranger. You feel awkward to walk backward in a leaning position. Your body is stiff, heavy and unbalanced. You do not step on the beats. Your leg does not reach back far enough. Your toes are stepped on by your partner. Your behind sticks up and knees bend too much. You bounce up and down like a grasshopper, or wobble side to side like a chimpanzee. You cannot dissociate your upper body and lower body when walk on the side of your partner. You break the connection with your partner or drag him/her out of balance… Until you regain the comfortable zone in the embrace, you are not ready for the next step. That is why walk is so important. It is simple. It keeps you focused. In fact, it is not just walk. It is about everything fundamental - embrace, posture, connection, musicality, balance, stability, flexibility, lightness, dissociation, communication, elegance and harmony. (See Women's Walk in Tango.)