“In the loving calm of your arms”

November 13, 2016 § 1 Comment

Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you
Embrace me, you irreplaceable you
just one look at you my heart grew tipsy in me
You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me

(from “Embraceable You,” lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin)

There is something so fundamental, so primitive, so elemental about an embrace that it almost seems pointless to discuss it. It is something we do naturally, effortlessly from birth to death, something that is considered essential to healthy human development. Studies have shown that a lack of such physical contact in early childhood can lead to psychological problems later in life, including an inability to form emotional bonds. In that sense it can be considered one of the defining features of being human (although similar forms of nurturing behavior seem to be prevalent in all mammals).

I came across an interesting piece at the blog Tango Therapist recently about the significance of touch and what it can communicate. The author quotes a recent study about the ways in which touch can convey quite distinct emotions, something I had never considered. The extremes are obvious, since they range anywhere from a caress to a slap, but it’s the in-between stuff that’s interesting. Commenting on the article, the author writes “The emotions included: anger, fear, happiness, sadness, disgust, surprise, embarrassment, envy, pride, love, gratitude, and sympathy. Men were just as good as ‘decoders’ as women in the experiments carried out in both Spain and America. Those trying to portray the various emotions were not told what to do, but similarities of touching behaviors emerged, such as stroking to show love, sadness, envy or sympathy.” If accurate, we can conclude from this that forms of touch, a touch of the hand even, can communicate more than the simple fact of our presence. They can alert us to distinct moods and feelings, often quite complex, which are integral, indeed essential, to everyday life.

The embrace, or abrazzo, is one of the critical elements of tango, some would say it’s a defining feature of the dance. The close proximity it affords enables dancers to convey not only changes of direction or intention but subtle shades of emotion as well, and it is the latter that is often praised as one of tango’s enduring benefits. Its clearest expression is found in the so-called milonguero style of tango popularized by dancers and teachers such as Susana Miller, Monica Paz, and their followers. It’s been described elsewhere, perhaps more accurately, as tango “estilo del centro” because its practitioners were found largely in the dance halls and clubs located in central Buenos Aires. (For an in-depth analysis of tango styles, see Tango Voice.)

The traditional abrazzo is one of the great virtues of tango. While all social dances help break down the distance between self and other, it is in the tango of the embrace that we experience this so forcefully because of its centrality. It focuses our attention on our partner rather than the surrounding crowd and allows us to experience the urgency of communicating emotions—our own, those expressed by the music—through movement and directly through immediate physical contact. It is this directedness that I have always found so compelling about tango, the need to focus on someone else, the need to channel the music through ourselves and our partner. This act of sharing, this emphasis on the integrity of the couple is one of the most compelling aspects of the dance. For, in forcing us to turn our attention to someone other than ourselves—our skill, our technique, our ability—we come a little closer to minimizing our isolation, our sense of being a disconnected, autonomous entity whose struggle is our own.


We can see this sense of inwardness and calm reflected in the many photographs of social dancers, and which seem to express the feelings of peace and serenity associated with contemplation or meditation, or deep relaxation. The embrace of tango is the visual expression of a shared secret, which is why it is largely silent, undisclosed to the outside world. For a culture, it also tells us something about how men relate to women and women to men. Characteristically, we never find it in performers (which is to be expected) or proponents of alternative forms of tango, such as tango nuevo. This stream of tango flows largely, but certainly not exclusively, from dancers such as Gustavo Naveira and his students, although precedents can be found in earlier forms of tango—Virulazo, being one example. The form of tango promulgated by Naveira and his followers is frequently danced with the bodies at arm’s length to allow for more complicated movements unsuitable to a crowded ronda but very much at home on stage. The separation allows the bodies of both dancers to be seen clearly by the audience and allows for individual self-expression.

A line can be drawn from Naveira and his followers to today’s peripatetic tango performers, who specialize in exhibitions and stage performances. Although not all performers are practitioners of tango nuevo, such highly choreographed exhibitions frequently entail movements that have little to do with the traditional tango de salon that has evolved over the course of the twentieth century.

Practitioners and teachers often speak of tango as either “open embrace” or “close embrace,” the former being typical of nuevo styles of dancing. This is a misnomer, however. An embrace is by definition something that joins two bodies in a reciprocal movement. The separation characteristic of tango nuevo is not an embrace at all, but simply a dance hold, a way of creating a frame for movement. It can be fun to dance and lovely to watch in a skillful couple, but it is something quite different from the traditional “tango of the center” in its form and intent.

Many have written about, and lamented, the way tango has developed in North America (and elsewhere) and how it has diverged from its roots to accommodate the influence of stage tango, performance tango, and nuevo tango. (For a discussion of this phenomenon, see Tango Voice.) And, of course, the ballroom dance known as American “tango” bears little resemblance to its southern progenitor. Indeed, it is hard to imagine tango evolving in the Protestant north at all, with its Calvinist severity and guilt, its suspicion of the body as nothing more than an impure vessel in need of cleansing. A propos of this forked development, there is an interesting comment made by Jo Baim in her book on tango. Speaking of the growth of the dance in North America between roughly 1910 and 1925, she writes:

Naturally, any dance master who included a written description of the tango wanted his or her students to accept it, so many writers included assurances that the tango was suitable for the ballroom and that its toned-down style had been purged of all objectionable South American elements. (Jo Baim, Tango: The Creation of a Cultural Icon.)

We find echoes of this even today in the prevalence of nuevo and “open” tango styles in North America, a marked contrast to the way the tango has been danced at traditional milongas in Buenos Aires. Tango—the music and the dance—originated in Buenos Aires and its environs (more specifically, the area around the Rio Plata), a southern culture in which physical contact was, and is, commonplace. Once it had become established as a legitimate form of social dance, the intimacy found in tango could be seen as an extension of everyday life, nothing shameful, nothing strange, nothing illicit. For this we should be grateful.

“The gesture of the amorous embrace seems to fulfill, for a time, the subject’s dream of total union with the loved being.”
(from Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, translated by Richard Howard).

“Hell is having arms but no one to embrace”
Jon Kalman Stefansson, Heaven and Hell.


July 18, 2016 § 1 Comment

hypnosis: 1. a state that resembles normal sleep but differs in being induced by the suggestions and operations of the hypnotist with whom the hypnotized subject remains in rapport and responsive to his suggestions, which may induce anesthesia, blindness, hallucination, and paralysis while suggestions of curative value may also be accepted. 2. any of various conditions that resemble sleep. (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged.)

There are a number of ancillary techniques considered beneficial for tango, given that, as a form of dance, it uses the body as both raw material and expressive form. These include strength-building exercises, pilates, tai chi, Alexander technique, yoga, meditation, and various tango-specific movements. To varying degrees and in different ways such techniques help improve posture, balance, agility, and awareness, and, therefore, our tango. As with many things in life, sometimes there are no shortcuts to success.

Not long ago I came across a flyer, which had been placed on my table one evening at a milonga. I was surprised, amazed really, to discover that hypnosis was being used as a tool for improving technique. Not only because this was the first time I’d heard of hypnosis and tango being mentioned in the same sentence but also because the juxtaposition seemed so jarring. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the workshop and can only speculate about how the hypnotic arts might contribute to the development of tango as actually practiced. (Ironically, the only reference I was able to find concerning tango and hypnosis was a negative one: “Nobody is barking like a dog or doing the tango while under a hypnotic spell.” [“Potent Practice,” by Bob Condor, Chicago Tribune, September 28, 1995.])

Hypnosis, of course, has a long and clouded history going back to the time of Franz Mesmer. It grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century and was used by charlatans as well as by legitimate researchers, primarily in the field of medicine and what was later to become psychoanalysis. Among its best known practitioners at the time were Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud.

If we are familiar with hypnosis at all, it is often in association with seances and table-turning, with spiritualism in general, which was once the subject of much heated speculation but is now largely out of fashion. Given its notoriety, it should come as no surprise that it would find its way into literature, particularly gothic romances and tales of the macabre. Poe, for example, in describing the behavior of a dying man under the influence of hypnosis in “Mesmeric Revelation,” responds to the doubters and the incredulous.

Whatever doubt may still envelop the rationale of mesmerism, its startling facts are now almost universally admitted. Of those latter, those who doubt, are your mere doubters by profession—an unprofitable and disreputable tribe. There can be no more absolute waste of time than the attempt to prove, at the present day, that man, by mere exercise of will, can so impress his fellow, as to cast him into an abnormal condition, of which the phenomena resemble very closely those of death, or at least resemble them more nearly than they do the phenomena of any other normal condition within our cognizance…

(Edgar Allen Poe, “Mesmeric Revelation,” in Poetry and Tales.)

With considerably less irony, the founder of the “talking cure” wrote at length about the efficacy of hypnosis in treating hysteria in his early work, Studies on Hysteria, cowritten with Breuer. The results were mixed and after several attempts with a number of patients (almost all young women from bourgeois families), he concluded that it would be better—or, at least, equally productive—to eliminate the attempt to hypnotize his patients but retain the other aspects of the encounter.

When, therefore, my first attempt did not lead either to somnambulism or to a degree of hypnosis involving marked physical changes, I ostensibly dropped hypnosis, and only asked for “concentration”; and I ordered the patient to lie down and deliberately shut his eyes as a means of achieving this “concentration.” It is possible that in this way I obtained with only a slight effort the deepest degree of hypnosis that could be reached in the particular case.

(Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies in Hysteria, p. 109.)

But what is so curious about the flyer and the introduction of the idea of hypnosis is the question of who is hypnotizing whom? Do we become “amazing dancers” by hypnotizing potential dance partners, for example, or, through an act of group hypnosis, by mesmerizing the surrounding crowd? Or is it, rather, a matter of self-hypnosis? Can we hypnotize ourselves to become “amazing”? Can we improve balance and alignment by a form of mind control? Or any aspect of our physical development, for that matter? The practice of auto-suggestion has been used and recommended for motivational therapy, dieting, pain management, and the control of addiction among other things. And dancers have been known to use techniques that improve self-awareness and focus, including meditation and mindfulness. But hypnosis is a form of control and submission to an external will; there is no question of awareness, much less self-awareness. If anything, such a “self-conscious” attitude might actively impede the attempt to create a hypnotic state in someone. Freud does discuss instances of auto-hypnosis in Studies in Hysteria but only in connection with a pathological state.

The tendency to auto-hypnosis is a state which is to begin with only temporary and which alternates with the normal one. We may attribute to it the same increase of mental influence on the body that we observe in artificial hypnosis. This influence is all the more intense and deep-going here in that it is acting upon a nervous system which even outside hypnosis is abnormally excitable.

(Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, Studies in Hysteria, p. 248.)

Presumably “abnormal excitability” is not what we are striving for in our attempt to become better at what we do. The question remains, therefore, just how hypnosis can be integrated into tango and how it might actually work in practice. The closest explanation I’ve found comes not from a tango source but from someone who uses hypnotic techniques to influence behavior for purposes of self-improvement. (In the following quote, Harry Matthews is a writer and a member of Oulipo, whose best-known practitioner was Georges Perec.)

What [Harry] Matthews is describing here—finding that his world-view changed when he shifted his focus from writing “about” his thoughts/feelings about the world to solving “playful procedures”—is exactly what can happen in hypnosis. Like the language-game procedures that entice Matthews and other writers/artists, hypnosis is a playful way to distract the mind from it’s habituated patterns of inner-reflection, which often have the tendency to run amok in confusion and doubt.

(Source: Kristin Prevallet: Trance Poetics)

The silencing of “inner reflections” run amok appears to resemble the effort to quiet the “monkey mind” found in yoga and meditation. What is curious is that hypnosis is here employed as a distraction. In other words, we get the mind to refocus its attention not on our “habituated patterns” of thought but on something else, presumably something creative and unexpected. Unlike meditation, however, it is not intended to bring about a state of quietude or peace. Now, trance experiments have been used for years by writers to create altered states of mind from which a stream of unrestricted creative impulses can flow. They are found among the Surrealists, who practiced various forms of “automatic writing” (the poet Robert Desnos, was, apparently, very successful with such methods), but a similar affection for “unreason” and mind altering states is present at least as far back as Rimbaud (De Quincy employed opium as his muse). Such techniques were used to provide a direct connection to the creative spirit without the need to have recourse to the obfuscations and interferences of the rational mind and its obsession with the world “outside.” But it is unclear how this might translate into an improvement of posture or balance in tango, or physical movement, generally, which is unquestionably enacted in the real world. The possibilities, however, are many and intriguing.

“As you wish,” concluded one of the guests, “but if you don’t believe in magnetism after this, you’re an ingrate, my dear sir”!

(Guy de Maupassant, “Magnétisme,” in Le Horla et autres Contes cruels et fantastiques.)




June 11, 2016 § 6 Comments

Code: “a set of rules prescribing forms of social behavior . . . a system of explicit social conventions.” (Winfried Nöth, Handbook of Semiotics).


Social conventions, whatever the field of endeavor, “help to structure the social world and stabilize behavior.” We learn them, as children or adults, in a specific context and for a specific purpose (the conventions of etiquette, military codes, the rules of the road). They can be general (culture-wide) or highly specific (a Girl Scout troop, a 4H club) and help govern expected behavior within those groups.

Conventions are “artifacts” and, as such, the remnants of an older form of social organization whose specific details may now be lost to us. Although a convention is an agreement among several parties, it can be implicit or explicit. What is crucial is that it requires a commitment on the part of the parties to follow the convention once it has been established. As such, a convention has to be public or “capable of being made public” when necessary. And once established, conventions “help to structure the social world and stabilize social behavior,” they act as guides (often tacit) to individual conduct and enable members of a community to anticipate and plan future actions. (See Alain Boyer, “Conventions and Arbitrariness,” in Mette Hjort, Rules and Conventions [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992].)

The “codigos” of tango are variously described as “rules of etiquette,” “guidelines,” “recommendations,” and “codes” of behavior at a milonga. They are generally not thought of as prescriptive (although they are) but as models of preferred behavior. Their history and evolution, however—what they are specifically, when they originated, and how they evolved—remain obscure. Those who know them appear to have acquired them through experience, or mimicry, or some more explicit but never clearly stated learning process.

“In Buenos Aires, porteños who dance tango in the milongas know the characteristics of tango dancing that are appropriate for the milongas (Tango de Salon) and the music appropriate for dancing tango (classic tango music).” (My emphasis. See Tango Voice.)

The above quote from Tango Voice points to the notion of the codigos as being both a form of learned behavior, acquired through years of dancing in the local milongas and an underlying body of rules—conventions, really—established over time. Presumably acquired through a process of trial and error, the conventions we have now were, at some point, deemed to be those most appropriate to dancing traditional Argentine tango at a milonga. The codigos vary in kind and number but the majority govern overall behavior at the milonga, floorcraft, and personal hygiene. Those I have seen include some or all of the following: use of the cabeceo when inviting someone to dance, navigation on the floor, etiquette on and off the floor, and, sometimes, dress. (See, for example, Codigos of tango.)

At some milongas, such as Cachirulo in Buenos Aires, the codigos are posted so visitors know exactly what is expected of them (Tango Chose Me: codigos). As with other such codigos, most of them refer to floorcraft, but at Cachirulo, they also address the manner of dancing—”Here we dance milonguero style tango, and we learn to respect the codes of the milonga”—and the consequences of flaunting the codigos—”Much to our regret, not respecting these codes will make it impossible to dance in Cachirulo.”

Interestingly, in this case, explicit consequences are associated with failure to observe expected forms of behavior. More than just suggestions or recommendations, the codigos of Cachirulo are explicitly prescriptive and entail a penalty for failure to observe them. Run a stop light, get a ticket.

A similar list is provided by Juntos, a traditional milonga in London. Once again, the majority of the codigos refer to floorcraft, behavior on the floor, and use of the cabeceo. But at Juntos, they also include a dress code. And like Cachirulo, consistently flouting the codigos can lead to expulsion from the milonga (Juntos: codigos).

In these cases, the codigos are made clear to all dancers and, like certain institutional conventions, such as traffic regulations, there are penalties attached to flouting them. Juntos and Cachirulo, however, would seem to be the exceptions. It is assumed—often wrongly—that dancers on the floor will have internalized the codigos so they do not need to be reminded of the finer details of behavior and etiquette. This may be true in Buenos Aires, where dancers have grown up with such traditions; for them the codigos are as much a part of tango as the music and the dance itself. Elsewhere, they must be taught as an integral part of the process of learning tango. That is, they should not be considered an afterthought or an inconvenient addendum to some form of freeform dancing. Which means that, for most of us, the specific conventions of tango will need to be spelled out—whether by a teacher or a more experienced dancer makes no difference—along with the intricacies of the dance. We can try to learn them by mimicking the behavior of those who have learned to incorporate the codigos, but in doing so, we can never be certain of what we are learning and can just as easily absorb bad behavior as good.

Although the codigos of tango are “simply” conventions and frequently ignored (or never learned in the first place), they do something more than provide a signpost to acceptable behavior. Where they can lead us and why they are important is shown by the following quote from Juntos, in London.

Once a tango dancer has this pattern language, it comes from within and at the same time is all around them in the ronda, in all the other dancers and the whole community at the milonga. The social context is just as important as the couple or the individual, I would suggest it is even more important. Within the medium of this shared language, the dancers create a common experience of their lives together – a community. They can then experience the union that this common process of creation generates inside and outside of them. This is a good feeling – a feeling of completeness and wholeness; a feeling of community, of being together, juntos. (See: Juntos Tango: codigos.)


It is the awareness of being part of a shared community that makes the codigos something more than a distracting annoyance. As implied above, when everything is functioning smoothly and everyone is cognizant of their role in that small community of kindred spirits, we are in the process of building toward something that we cannot achieve on our own. If we are willing to make the commitment, we will dance primarily for the beauty of the ronda, then for the beauty of the couple, and finally for ourselves, but never for an audience of bystanders. We become part of a beautiful wholeness, one that extends beyond the boundaries of our individual selves, a community of individuals working toward a shared emotion.

Someone once described a well functioning ronda as similar to a flock of birds wheeling across the sky in formation, rising and falling on the air currents. Collectively, a thing of grace and beauty, they circle, seemingly without beginning or end; unique individuals all, yet joined in flight as a single organism. No leaders, no followers, only motion and stasis.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

(Rainer Marie Rilke, Book of Hours, I, 2, trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.)

A Fashion Manifesto

April 9, 2016 § 2 Comments

Thus fashion represents nothing more than one of the many forms of life by the aid of which we seek to combine in uniform spheres of activity the tendency toward social equalization with the desire for individual differentiation and change.

Georg Simmel, “Fashion,” in On Individuality and Social Forms.

For some time I’ve been thinking of writing about “fashion” and tango. By fashion, I am not referring to the outfits worn during stage performances but the kinds of attire found at milongas. Even cursory observation reveals a spectrum of sartorial choices ranging from T-shirts and jeans to custom-made tango dresses and three-piece suits. Such variety can be found at just about any milonga on the local scene here. To my knowledge no milonga enforces a dress code; the possible exceptions being special events—New Year, Christmas—where “formal” attire is recommended. Not surprisingly, the least formal and most relaxed events are the outdoor gatherings that go live during the warm weather (from late spring to early fall locally). Here, as might be expected, we see anything from shorts and sleeveless undershirts on the male side to semi-formal  dresses on the female side. Footwear runs the gamut from none at all to dance shoes.

At milongas, apparel for women ranges from “tango” dresses and skirts—often brightly colored and strikingly patterned—designed for dancing (through the inclusion of a split seam or a gusset in the back for added freedom of movement), to less “purpose-built” but still somewhat formal outfits (dresses, skirts and tops), to dress slacks and blouses, to jeans and T-shirts (often decorated). On the male side, there is considerably less variation. Here, styles range from suits and ties or sports jackets and slacks, to casual shirts, trousers, T-shirts and jeans.

If I had to quantify the above, I would guess that maybe 10 percent of women wear “formal” tango attire (specifically designed for tango), 70 percent wear less formal but still “dressy” outfits, and 20 percent wear casual clothing. For men, the situation is considerably different. I’d estimate that, at any given milonga, no more than 5 percent of the men wear a suit and tie or a sport jacket and dress slacks; roughly 55 percent wear what might be described as “business casual” attire—button-down Oxford shirts and chinos—and the remaining 40 percent wear jeans or something equally informal, paired with some kind of top—T-shirt, Polo shirt, sport shirt. Here, as elsewhere in modern life, the women carry the burden of dressing well.

This was not always the case, of course. If we turn to images of the “Golden Age” of tango, roughly the period from 1925-1955, we find that, for the most part, men wore suits and women wore dresses—not purpose-made dresses designed exclusively for tango but something that might be worn to a dance or an evening out. In some, rare, cases men can be seen in formal wear.


Of course, during the first half of the twentieth century, up until the sixties, in fact, it was not uncommon to find men in suits and ties, often wearing a fedora. Photographs of Depression-era America show men in suits standing on breadlines or looking for work. They may have had only one suit and it may have been threadbare, but it was a suit nonetheless. Tango, like many social events of a similar nature, was marked by a kind of formality. It afforded—at least once it had become respectable and socially acceptable—an opportunity to mix and mingle with the opposite sex, to listen to music, often live, and to eat, drink, and, most importantly, dance. Visual media (and anecdotal commentary) seem to confirm that suits were a common sight at local milongas.

The modern suit has provided so perfect a visualization of modern male pride that it has so far not needed replacement, and it has gradually provided the standard costume of civil leadership for the whole world. The masculine suit now suggests probity and restraint, prudence and detachment; but under these enlightened virtues also seethe its hunting, laboring, and revolutionary origins; and therefore the suit still remains sexually potent and more than a little menacing, its force is by no means spent during all these many generations.

Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress.

What is interesting is that there’s been a kind of inversion in dress since the midcentury milongas. Men have become more casual in their dress, less attentive to displaying the signs of elegance, prosperity, and bourgeois respectability, and women have become more formal, often hewing closer to an image of the female tango dancer drawn largely from stage and screen. However, this was not always the case. If one looks at older videos and still images of milongas or milongueros, even performances, few of the women wear what might be termed “tango fashion.” In fact, in many cases, dancers, even when well-known, wore fairly conventional attire—staid, conservative, the kind of thing that could be worn to dinner with the inlaws or Sunday services.

The change in how performers dress, which, to a large extent, seems to have influenced women’s tango fashions generally, appears to be largely driven by the success of tango shows, such as Tango Argentino, and the growth in popularity of televised amateur and semiprofessional dance contests. In such contexts, dancers wear what should more aptly be described as a costume, rather than a dress, one designed to provide maximum freedom of movement and reveal more of the body than it conceals. It is risqué in the least interesting sense of the term. You see it with increasing frequency among younger performers, and it marks a significant contrast with the sobriety and restraint of dancers of an earlier time.



Such fashions, which almost always refer to women’s fashions, have drawn their inspiration from popular images of tango (visual and literary) as louche, flamboyant, sexually charged, dangerous, daring, marginal, vaguely unsavory, and harboring a range of connotations that it rarely supports. The fact that such associations are belied by the reality of tango in its everyday manifestations has had little impact on the public imagination or the global myth of tango that inspires clothing designers.

In spite of the impact of stage and screen on the popular imagination, the reality of the contemporary milonga (in North America, at least) is far more mundane. As noted earlier, there is a paucity of formal or purpose-specific clothing on the contemporary dance floor (primarily tango dresses and skirts, although custom-made suits have been made for male performers, affording greater freedom of movement). Attitudes to this can be positive, negative, or indifferent.

Notwithstanding the admonitions by teachers and authors to “dress for success,” as noted above, male attire is characterized by its informality, with “business casual” being the preponderant look. On the more formal side, we find men in suits; on the extreme informal side we find something akin to grunge, which shares pride of place with the nuevo look of parachute and cossack pants, T-shirts, and sneakers. Outdoor venues provide an opportunity for even greater variation. Here, the casual look reaches an extreme in the form of sleeveless undershirts, shorts, sandals, and, bare feet.

So, although we are encouraged to dress the part (and why not try to maintain the traditions of tango, an inherently atavistic pursuit?), and respect our dance partners in the process, one can only conclude that such wise counsel has fallen on deaf ears. There are periodic complaints, of course, but I don’t see these as having had any visible impact in practice. A friend once casually suggested that a list of tango dress Do’s and Dont’s be drawn up and posted at local milongas. But who wants to be prescriptive? Rather, as Michael Pollan has suggested in An Eater’s Manifesto, I’d like to offer three simple rules for success modeled on his own for healthy eating. (For those unfamiliar with Pollan’s writing, his three rules are: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) So, along those lines, I’d like to offer the following: Wear clothes. Preferably clean. Mostly stylish.

Fashions are a collective medicament for the ravages of oblivion. The more short-lived a period, the more susceptible it is to fashion.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

The Mirada

February 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

But while they are receiving sensory information, the senses are also transmitting information on their own behalf. Once again, the eye sees but also watches. By watching, it exposes, it casts before itself something of what it is for it to see and be seen. And always, in addition to this, knows it is incapable of seeing itself. All this is given in a glance of the eyes, where, as Proust writes, “the flesh becomes the mirror and gives us the illusion that it allows us, more than through the other parts of the body, to approach the soul.”

Proust’s sentence, all things considered, is not without strangeness, for while it is possible for me to see myself in another’s eyes, it is not this optical mirror function that justifies the sentence. Rather, it expresses the fact that in the eyes of the other, I see myself gazing and, consequently, also gazed upon—and always in keeping with this fundamental extra-version that will never let me see myself and which, therefore, exposes me absolutely.

Jean-Luc Nancy: Demande

I include this lengthy quotation from French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy not for its erudition but because it reveals something of the complexity of the underlying elements of the mirada. The notion of the mirada, or gaze, is a story as old as myth and expressed most profoundly, in the Western tradition, in the tales of Narcissus and of Orpheus and Eurydice. Ironically, in both cases, its effect was fatal. Eurydice is lost (again) to the underworld, Narcissus commits suicide or, in some versions of the myth, dies of sorrow.


While the cabeceo is an open question seeking a response, the mirada is the path through which that response is given, or the response itself. Certainly, our gaze can wander but, if we are alert, it will direct itself to the one who seeks us out. (As a practical matter, this can work only if we are attentive within the surrounding confusion. Socializing and conversation distract from careful observation. There is something solitary about this. We are alone in the act of looking and our momentary solitude is the necessary price of potential connectivity.)

In the mirada, a direct and immediate channel of communication is opened. We are visible, public, present; but the mirada is subtly private and intensely personal. It is the beginning of a dialogue that is continued in the dance. The practice of the cabeceo is presented to us as a matter of convenience and etiquette, allowing us to engage in a private conversation across a public space while unheard and unobserved. Of course, in practice, it is never quite that simple. For, we must first observe and put ourselves in a position to do so, and in doing so, in reorienting ourselves physically (and psychologically), in directing our focus outward, we also announce the fact of our looking.

The concept of the gaze is one that has been written about at great length in critical and psychoanalytic theory. In film theory it is often treated as gender-biased and typically associated with the “male gaze”; a similar approach has been taken in the literature on the phenomenon of the gaze in the fine arts, painting primarily. Lacan famously said that “desire is the desire of the Other.” Famously ambiguous as well. Like desire, the mirada is bidirectional, we are simultaneously subject and object, both the initiator of our gaze and the object of another’s. When we see in another, another sees in us.

Notwithstanding the various, often exhausting, theoretical studies of this complex subject, it suits my purposes simply to note that the beauty of the mirada lies in its ability to provide a gender-neutral framework for invitation (nothing says that it must be initiated by the man) without calling undue attention to ourselves or our potential partners. More than a channel of communication between two people, it is a sign of mutual recognition. But it also makes us vulnerable, for in making the public private, it makes the private public.

In vain your image comes to meet me
But does not enter where I am, I merely show it
Turning toward me you would find only
Your dreamlike shadow upon the wall of my gaze

I am that wretched man, I am like mirrors
That can reflect but cannot see
Like them my eye is empty and like them filled
With the absence of you, which is its blindness

from Aragon, Le Fou d’Elsa


Floorcraft (and its discontents)

December 7, 2015 § 4 Comments

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

I’ve avoided discussing technical matters because the focus of this blog has been on the process of learning rather than the process of teaching or specific elements of the dance. Until now, that is. The time has come to discuss an issue that is related to technique but not uniquely so. We are generally taught the rudiments of floorcraft early in the learning process, hopefully during the first few months. As early as the first class, we learn that tango moves in a counterclockwise direction around the periphery of an imaginary circle (ellipse, what have you) on the dancefloor. If crowded, a second circle of dancers may form within the outer circle, also moving in a counterclockwise direction. Simple.

Some teachers will go further and tell you to stay within the line of dance and maintain a comfortable distance between yourself and the couple in front of you. We assume that the couple behind us will do the same—maintaining a constant distance, moving forward with us at the same pace. And most importantly, we are told to avoid bumping into other couples. Pretty straightforward.

The reality is somewhat different, however. I’ll list, in no particular order, some of the behaviors I’ve witnessed that make floorcraft more than a bit of a challenge: overcrowded floors and traffic congestion; dawdling; tailgating; in-situ spontaneous “teaching;” showboating; nuevo tango moves on a crowded floor; high boleos and back kicks; performance tango moves; lane-changing; passing on the right; passing on the left; random pedestrians walking around and, sometimes across the center, of the dance floor; couples criss-crossing the floor; couples dancing against the line of dance; couples not moving at all; leaders entering the line of dance without looking; backing into the line of dance; failing to acknowledge the leader behind them when entering an already moving line of dance; stopping for a protracted conversation. With a bit of effort, I’m sure I could find a few more, but the above are a good place to start.

There are other factors as well that can affect how we move around the floor:

– the way in which our partner prefers to move
– musicality and the desire to advance at the pace of the music (could be fast, slow, somewhere in between)

These last are not primarily aspects of floorcraft, and they are certainly not negative, but they affect the way we move on the floor and, therefore, our relation to other dancers.

Further illustrating my point that floorcraft and its discontents are common problems, the following video is a humorous, but accurate, take on the subject. It was done (acted, enacted?) by Murat and Michelle Erdemsel as part of a series on tango etiquette.

While Erdemsel doesn’t focus exclusively on floorcraft, he does comment on one important aspect of it, which I alluded to above—signaling to the couple (really, the leader) behind that you’d like to enter the line of dance and waiting for a response. He goes on to say that we can, through this simple expedient, connect not only with our dance partner, but with the couples around us, eventually extending the connection to the entire room. It’s a lovely idea.

Of course, if there weren’t a problem, no one would be writing or talking about it. I doubt it’s unique to New York or North America, but I havent’ traveled enough to know. It is an “issue” here, however, given the number of people who have commented on it. But identifying the elements that contribute to making floorcraft a “problem” is much easier than correcting them.

Identifying the causes that lead to it is equally difficult. Some of it is ego, of course. There are many experienced dancers who either ignore or remain indifferent to proper floorcraft. And some of it is ignorance. Students may learn the basics of movement around the floor, but floorcraft is not a part of any regular “curriculum” and takes time to learn. But there must be some other factors at work here since bad floorcraft is not unique to learning situations or beginners and not everyone is a selfish egotist. And while you may get caught up in the mood of the moment and forget your surroundings temporarily, you don’t get a pass for submitting to the throes of tango oblivion. One of the aspects of good floorcraft is to yield to the music while remaining sufficiently aware of your surroundings to navigate safely around the room. I was recently told by someone who has danced in Buenos Aires for many years that the problem is simply “bad dancing.” That’s a very fluid term, of course, but we know that good floorcraft and good musicality are part of good dancing, so there must be some validity to the claim.

I’ve included two clips of milongas in Buenos Aires, both very well known venues. What I’m interested in is not the quality of the dancing so much as movement on the floor. In both videos, although the floor is crowded, it moves uniformly and consistently to the rhythm of the music. I see just about every couple advancing at the same pace and maintaining a fairly constant distance between themselves and the dancers in front of them.

Club Gricel

Salon Canning

Perhaps this is simply the result of years of practice and a thorough familiarity with the music. Maybe there are cultural differences at play as well. Or a combination of factors. In any event, it’s something we need to work on. And isn’t it at the Cachirulo milonga in Buenos Aires where the host hands out penalty cards for improper behavior on the floor? Yellow or red, take your pick. A bit severe, but I’m sure it has improved floorcraft.

The Cabeceo

October 29, 2015 § 13 Comments

“Seeing comes before words.” John Berger, Ways of Seeing.

A critical element of social tango, but unfortunately one that is often not taught, is how we go about asking someone to dance. The traditional method involves the use of the cabeceo. Basically, this is a nod of the head, but it’s really a process composed of several distinct steps. These could be described as observation, query, response, and acknowledgement. Descriptions of the cabeceo can be found in several places online and in the literature.

(Information about the cabeceo and its use is described here — Cabeceo Confusion — scroll down to the January 2, 2015 blog entry.)

I don’t know if anyone has ever traced the history of the cabeceo or investigated its origins. Contemporary tango has inherited it as an element of the “package” of behavioral codes that come with learning tango. To judge by the historical accounts of the early days of tango, the cabeceo, in many respects, appears to be a rationalization of behavior that developed in tango’s infancy. That is, current explanations for its efficiency and face-saving qualities, notwithstanding, it may have developed for quite other reasons and out of different circumstances. And it would be worth asking why this method rather than another became customary over the course of time.

As I understand it, when tango was starting to become a social phenomenon in Buenos Aires and had lost its sheen of fevered sexuality and association with the much maligned conventillos, it began to spread from the city center to the outlying areas of the city. These were wealthier, cleaner, more middle class, aristocratic even. Propriety was important. If women were to be allowed to dance tango, to attend milongas, it would be in the company of a chaperone. Presumably, this would be a close relative: parents, aunt, uncle, older siblings. The milonga was a family affair. Based upon descriptions, young women sat along the outer edges, just outside the dance floor. In the earliest days, men clustered together in the center of the floor and had to make their way through the crowd to potential partners along the circumference of the room. We can assume that, at some point, this unwieldy and logistically awkward situation gave way to one in which men and women sat in chairs opposite one another, leaving the floor free for dancing.

The cabeceo may have been a way, perhaps the only way at the time, of approaching a young woman to invite her to dance. It would have been less brusque, less forward, and less intimidating than having a strange man approach her directly. Such behavior would have been frowned upon in polite society (and tango was striving to be polite). For the woman to approach the man would have been unthinkable. In the scenario I am proposing, I can imagine the young woman, once a man had caught her gaze, turning to her duenna, to obtain approval. A simple word or two or nod of the head from her chaperone would do (another cabeceo!). Once this had been given, she could rise and wait for her dance partner to lead her to the floor.

There could have been other methods. Women could have resorted to dance cards, listing the names of men who wished to dance with them. Since these were in use up until around 1930, the idea is not as farfetched as it might seem. Presumably, the list would have required approval by the chaperone. Cumbersome but not impossible. Names could have been written on slips of paper and presented indirectly to the woman of one’s dreams. Lists could have been prepared. It’s unclear how these would have worked in practice but none of them are inherently impossible. That the cabeceo has come down to us as the method of invitation, then, may be more a result of happenstance and convenience than planning and intention.

There are cultural factors at play here, as well. Studies have shown that in so-called “contact” cultures, such as South America and Southern Europe, people tend to gaze at one another more than in Northern Europe or Asia. If so, the use of looking, the use of the gaze as a means of invitation or sign of interest (which it is outside of tango, as well) would be a logical extension of a form of accepted social behavior. In a way, its later incorporation into a body of codes would simply be an adaptation to a new environment of what was an element of daily life in porteño society. That it would appear unique or unusual or problematic for North Americans, for example, would simply be a byproduct of cultural differences. One can only wonder what would have happened if the tango had developed in Sweden, say.

For the curious, there’s  a discussion of cultural differences in the extent and intensity of gazing in Argyle and Cook, Gaze and Mutual Gaze, (Oxford University Press, 1976).

%d bloggers like this: