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 perception. But I couldn't find a satisfying clip because tango videos are mostly shot by people interested only in their version of tango. A few that reflect the truth are poorly made, often 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 made by Paul Holman, which I found is representative of a milonga that I can call home.
I like 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 mainly about the embrace, music and feelings, that steps and footwork are secondary, 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 often lately just to enjoy that soulful scene and remind myself of how one should behave and dance in the milongas.
How tango is danced in Europe and North America
In Europe and North America, people have a quite different perception. Here is how they dance tango in the milongas.
They dance tango not to enjoy the music, intimacy and feelings, but to practice steps and show off skills. I believe the majority of them understood that tango is a soulful dance and that they come to dance because they want to taste that apple. But for some hypocritical reasons they don't feel comfortable enough to be intimate with the opposite sex, thus they use an open dance hold to replace the embrace, keep a bashful distance from each other, 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 danced in the milonguero style, some are fair to good dancers. But the majority are still novices who don't know how to embrace. They relied on the arms and hands to lead and follow. Some were practicing what they recently learned. Most were emotionally detached. Very few actually were dancing to the music. The milonga codes were poorly complied, as attested by the use of 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, was not very engaging. The whole scene was quite chaotic. Towards the end there were few better dances. But overall, I don't think this milonga is very 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 to do things unconventional. Dancing in open hand hold 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 is 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 older people is childish and naive. Older 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 learned tango from their peers, who learned 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 Styles 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. As a result, scenes like this start to appear in Europe and North America in recent years.
Their embrace and connection become closer and 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 proved 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 seating, 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 concentrated entirely on the music and feelings as if the steps were irrelevant. Dancing tango to them was to enjoy the sentiment and intimacy, not to do gymnastics. They danced with complete relaxation, unhurried pace, subtle movements and tasteful suspensions. Their steps were small and simple, totally void of flaunt, and used only to remain united with the partner in the dance. The beauty of their tango lies in the oneness of the union rather than the performance of the individual. In their dance nothing was ornate, but everything was exquisite and elegant. Even the music selections were more sentimental and intriguing than ours, fitting perfectly to the mood of their dance.
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 to allow herself to enjoy the caress of his chest. Her eyes are dreamily closed so she can focus inwardly on the feelings. Her inconspicuous footwork magically keeps her body moving in unison with him no matter how he turns, permitting her to tune to the soft whispers of his chest 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 emotions and 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 Social Tango and Performence Tango.)
I received several comments on my video selections and now understand a little better how political correctness becomes a necessity in our culture. Please be aware that the clips I selected for this post are used only to illustrate a phenomenon, not to reflect the whole picture of any community or event.