The search for a role model

May 2, 2017 § 1 Comment

Kill your idols.” Guy Debord

How do we learn to dance tango? One approach, seemingly the most prevalent, relies on the use of group classes, where progress is arbitrarily defined by an instructor. Often, these classes begin with the so-called canonical elements of tango and move on to more complex movements. There is some consistency among teachers, but not much, and what are considered the “basics” differs from class to class and level to level. We “advance” from simple to more complex movements, from individual steps to an entire series of interconnected movements; embellishments are often introduced at this point. In some places, instructors may offer workshops on specific topics. Critical elements of tango are addressed in some cases, ignored in others: posture, balance, musicality, walking, improvisation, floorcraft.

Although useful, none of this necessarily results in dancing tango. For most of us, the problem is one of building upon these structural elements, such as they are, and creating an organic whole whereby the “steps” are subsumed in the dance. And given the limitless possibilities of tango, how can we shape these elements into something that is personal and reflective of an individual style, hopefully one that is open to the potential afforded by the music and our partner?

Dancers often try to develop by copying the style (which we can provisionally define as the sum of a dancer’s movements, musicality, improvisational skill, phrasing) of another, more experienced dancer, often a teacher or performer (frequently the same person). In traditional dance forms like ballet, specifically intended for performance, students are partly shaped by the constraints of an established tradition; in modern dance it is the vision of the company’s choreographer or founder (Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham) that provides focus. Tango, which originated as a musical form and then became a popular dance form, has developed freely and variously over the years. Through its popularization (and a healthy dose of marketing), it has bifurcated into social dancing and performance streams, amateur and professional. (Even within social tango, there are strong stylistic variants, often the subject of considerable debate.) Consequently, beginning dancers today are largely directionless and free to choose from a smorgasbord of teachers and classes that may or may not add up to “tango” as a social dance form.

Critically, what most of us lack are viable role models of social dancing. While we may follow the counsel of an instructor, that influence can be positive or negative. And outside of class, dancers often take their inspiration from performers. Exhibition tango is ubiquitous in North America, and many milongas depend on performances to maintain attendance. We also have access to a video archive of tango, which is extensive but historically shallow. A major shortcoming of this archive is that it is overrepresented by the most highly stylized examples of tango—almost none of it social dancing. A limited subset of such archival material might include (to choose some of the best known examples) names like El Cachafaz, Petroleo, Carlos Gavito, and Chicho Frumboli. Although this is a highly selective and not entirely representative list, these are recognizable names of individuals who are considered by many to be milestones in the history of tango. Unfortunately, although often revered as innovative dancers, they are outliers in the development of tango as a social dance (and, to some extent, even in terms of its performance aspects). We could say, to borrow a term from linguistics, that they are the most highly marked examples of the form.

We see these extremes reflected, in less polished fashion, in the miscellany of stylistic gestures and lack of consistency found on the floor of many modern milongas, which can comprise a blend of traditional tango estilo del centro and estilo del barrio, and tango nuevo and mixed styles of dance, with the resultant mayhem of floorcraft.

In the past things were different. Young men (and it was largely restricted to men), often teenagers, were assisted by experienced dancers at prácticas and learned to follow before they were taught to lead. Christine Denniston provides a useful summary of this history in an article entitled “The Traditional Way to Learn to Dance Tango.” According to Denniston, beginners could learn to follow in about nine months and were not taught to lead until they had done so. The entire process (following and leading) took a minimum of three years, at which point they were allowed, under strict supervision, to dance with a woman at a milonga. What this afforded young dancers was (at least potentially) a role model or a mentor, a personal guide who could introduce the neophyte into the ways and manners of the dance, not just individual steps or movements but its music, customs, and codes.

In this context, I’ll define a role model as someone whose dancing and behavior we strive to emulate. This person could be a friend, a teacher, or simply a dancer at a local milonga. Ideally, they are someone we can look to for guidance or assistance. In terms of the history Denniston describes, it’s easy to see how a young man, as a fledgling dancer, might find a role model through his interaction with more experienced dancers in his community.

A mentor is someone quite different. Here, the relationship is direct, personal, and relatively long-term, and is focused on the practical application or refinement of previously acquired knowledge. Mentoring is common in education and business, where an experienced person works with a student or protégé to help develop a set of tools that will benefit them in the real world. It is not designed to provide theoretical knowledge but to build upon that knowledge by helping the student develop the means to solve real-world problems: how to interact with clients, how to become more efficient, how to refine the skills they have, and so on.

In contemporary tango, social tango, we lack both functional role models and mentoring. Neither of these is quite the same as working with a teacher during a series of private lessons, which is primarily a business relationship. So how, then, do we learn to dance in a way that allows us to integrate the inherited knowledge of the tribe in some meaningful way, and how do we continue to deepen and refine that knowledge over time?

It’s been said that we learn by doing, so, presumably, we learn to dance by dancing—in other words, through practice and repetition. While accurate in its broader implications, this truism overlooks the fact that we begin (most of us) from zero and need to acquire a minimum set of skills before we even hit the dance floor (whether such a precept is universally followed is a matter of dispute). Once those basic skills are acquired, we can begin to dance and even improve. Once we acquire them—which begs the question of how we get them in the first place.

A further consideration, complicating the growth process, is the perceived need for constant improvement. Presumably, as in many things we do, we get better with experience and, as elsewhere in life and unless we are particularly obtuse, we are always learning to some degree. But the mania, the pressure, to upgrade our skills is largely promulgated by teachers, performers, and competition organizers. This has resulted in a kind of mini-industry within tango that supposedly will help us achieve some kind of mastery. Unfortunately, this is a never-ending process because not only is total mastery of our craft an impossibility but it is perpetuated by a system that has a vested interest in promoting its attainment.

Veronica Toumanova is a dancer and an astute observer of the social dynamics at play within tango. In an article entitled “Why tango dancers lose interest in improving their skill,” which, as its title suggests, examines why dancers give up on learning, she writes:

I see many dancers end up in a situation in which they want to dance with better dancers but do not manage to reduce the difference in skill. They don’t progress because they have lost the pleasure in learning, and they lost the pleasure in learning because they have stopped believing that they can get to a level of skill high enough to become desirable. They lost confidence in themselves as successful learners.

There is some truth to this, of course, in the sense that we can give up on learning through disappointment or failure. However, the assumption is that the better we are, the more skilled we become, the greater the number of our potential dance partners will be. We will become “desirable.” The problem is that this approach treats the learning process as largely instrumental. In other words, we do not learn because we enjoy the process, the acquisition of new knowledge or skills, but to increase our marketability on the dance floor. If we improve, we become a more desirable partner and those we want to dance with are more likely to want to dance with us. In reality, however, and with certain exceptions, it is less a question of skill than of compatibility. We dance most and best with those who want to dance with us. (Moreover, seeing someone dance doesn’t really tell you all that much about how they will dance with you, regardless of apparent skill level.) The complex matter of partnering has more to do with our approach to the dance, our attitude, if you will, and our ability to please our partner than it does with skill per se. It helps if skill levels are matched, but it isn’t essential that there be complete parity.

Toumanova believes that we stop improving because we lose the desire to continue learning. And this happens not because we believe there’s nothing more to learn but because we grow complacent about our abilities or disappointed in our progress. As our desirability quotient declines, we grow frustrated and lose faith in the need for improvement or even its possibility.

All of this—coupled with the inconsistency and narrow focus of the learning process, the lack of suitable role models, the absence of mentoring, the fact that learners are largely unguided, the presumed need for constant improvement—is compounded by the prevalence of the traveling show of performance and performers, with whom we are constantly encouraged to compare ourselves, even if implicitly. The result is a not-so-virtuous circle of perceived inadequacy, continuous study, and comparison with ideals that are not only impossible for most of us to achieve but not intended for the world of social dancing in the first place. Like the snake swallowing its tail, in the end, we consume ourselves as well as our desire.


February 28, 2017 § 1 Comment

“All that glitters is not gold.”

Typically, prestige is associated with feelings of respect and admiration; it accrues to those who have been successful, those who have been widely praised, those who have overcome great challenges, and those who have shown themselves to be the best in a given field. It can also be acquired by virtue of one’s birth or wealth, and can even be conveyed by royal decree. The many instances of knighthood and ennoblement are examples of this act of social consecration. Although more common in the past, such traditions have persisted until today. In 2002, the once disreputable Mick Jagger, a man whose music was long considered unsafe for juvenile ears, was knighted. In accepting the title, Sir Mick cast off the mantle of rebellion he had worn for many years and replaced it with the cloak of royal respectability. Such is the world. Our idols have feet of clay.

Prestige is also acquired through skill or competition, typified by the aura of fame that surrounds well-known athletes. It can, as well, be attached to inanimate objects, to names and products. In a competitive marketplace it is a quality that is actively sought by luxury brands, sometimes being acquired through longevity or by association with prestigious clients (“purveyors to the Crown”), sometimes through exclusivity or rarity, sometimes purely because of price.

Although they are all somewhat different, these various inflections of prestige provide similar benefits to the bearer. Prestige is a form of status elevation, a sign of intrinsic worth; it commands respect and deference, but only in those trained (through education or custom) to value it as a mark of distinction. Outsiders may simply view it as a strange and unwieldy means of social organization (for example, systems of rank and nobility in cultures other than our own, hereditary kingships). It is, if you like, a form of social capital that can be acquired, saved, or spent, as the case may be.

Teachers and educators, as well, have a measure of prestige by virtue of holding a position of authority in their community and possessing knowledge that others do not. Typically, such knowledge is obtained through education—school, examinations, training, the acquisition of the requisite degrees and licenses—and provides the bearer with a quantity of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has referred to as “educational capital.” But such educational capital can also be acquired in other ways, notably through one’s birth and by immersion in the appropriate social environment, a situation where one can engage with the objects of knowledge (works of art, musical compositions) on an intimate basis. In traditional or archaic communities, such culturally significant knowledge was held by healers or shamans, or the rhapsodes of classical Greece, whose oral recitation provided a form of embodied history and culture that was passed down from generation to generation. In contemporary Western society, it has long been our leading intellectual and scientists who have captured the admiration of the public.

So, how does this relate to tango? While learning takes many forms, it is safe to say that most dancers today were introduced to the mechanics of tango in some kind of loosely structured setting, such as a dance school or a milonga (pre-milonga classes are common). Classes are taught by instructors, whom we trust to be more knowledgeable, more skillful than ourselves and capable of imparting the requisite knowledge. However, based on the historical record (the dates are somewhat fluid), tango, once it had established itself as an acceptable social dance in the early years of the twentieth century, was learned not from a dance instructor but from someone with experience, someone more skilled, more capable than ourselves. The main reason being that there were no (or very few) “teachers” with whom to study, which is to say, formally trained dance instructors. Men (and it was primarily men) learned from other men, from milongueros, who were recognized to have the necessary skills to pass on the rudiments of the dance to others. The experience of the milonguero was, of course, the result of long practice. And in conjunction with the personal mentoring that went on between novice and expert, knowledge was also gleaned from what might be called the “family” of milongueros within a community of dancers. In other words, there was a body of tradition, spoken or unspoken, that could be passed down from generation to generation outside of any formal structure.

Today, some milongueros teach and some teachers are (or claim to be) milongueros. They are recognized by the community as having the necessary skills by virtue of their age or experience, and we now have a video archive (still quite limited) that lends credibility to such claims. So, for example, both Susana Miller and Monica Paz are heirs to the tradition embodied in the dancing of Ricardo Vidort and others like him (this is not a qualitative evaluation, although I happen to admire Vidort) and offer classes and train students in a manner that self-consciously purports to be a continuation of that tradition. There are many other individuals who provide training that is tied to that tradition; some of them identify themselves as milongueros.

Of course, learning by example directly from a more experienced dancer in an informal setting is only one way of learning tango and no longer the most common method of instruction. Today, classes are generally given in dance schools or studios by dancers who are known primarily, but not exclusively, from their public performances. Some of them are social dancers, many are not. Some are primarily stage performers and come out of the tradition of modern dance or ballet. Clearly, the trajectory of their development, their cultural background, and their practice are widely divergent when compared to that of the milonguero of the “Golden Age” of tango and the kind of individualized, incremental instruction found within the milonguero community of Buenos Aires. However, if there exists a “traditional” methodology of learning tango and if individuals exist who can impart whatever skills are needed for dancing social tango, they are well hidden from public view.

Now, what is interesting is that the most visible, the most highly regarded and most prestigious teachers of tango are performers, frequently couples. The reasoning behind this assumes that they have the skills, the training, the knowledge, and the temperament to teach others. Evidenced, of course, by their willingness to risk performing in public and their talent at so doing, but, most importantly, by the approval of their fans. I haven’t provided any examples or links to videos because they are easily found. But among tango dancers of all stripes, these, the high-octane celebrities of tango, are not only the best known and the most widely seen, they are also those with the greatest prestige.

The curious—some would say, unfortunate—part of all this is that skill and experience alone do not provide one with prestige or status within the international (or even local) tango community. (Another, and possibly more interesting question, is why prestige matters at all.) There are many highly skilled dancers, of course, but if they don’t perform, if they don’t actively promote themselves, they remain largely invisible. Additionally, regardless of their capabilities as dancers, they may not be gifted teachers or even interested in training others, formally or informally.

Prestige, it is worth bearing in mind, provides a ranking system. It may be amorphous or vague or unstated, but it is implicit in the recognition given to some dancers and the way others are ignored or overlooked. We are, then, entitled to ask whether this is a positive or a negative development in the evolution of the dance. Moreover, this “system” promotes a kind of self-perpetuating aristocracy that presents itself as a model of behavior and style that we can emulate. It also affects the way we perceive and, more importantly, the way we learn tango. In no particular order, this emphasis on prestige results in the following:

* It creates hierarchies and a pecking order within the community.
* It creates feelings of inferiority among those who are not part of that hierarchy, at least potentially.
* It is exclusionary.
* It creates (unspoken) “standards” of behavior and assigns quality ratings to modes of dancing, elevating some and downgrading others. These assignments aren’t always explicitly articulated.
* It unwittingly introduces a mechanism for destroying a tradition by validating one form of dancing (performance, competition) and one form of learning (studying with star teachers or performers who travel on the international touring circuit). These mechanisms are endemic to the contemporary tango scene in North America and beyond.
* It obscures the origins of the dance and the way its traditions have been imparted to incoming members of the community, thereby erasing history.
* It promotes a style of dancing more appropriate to the stage than to a social setting.
* It makes it difficult, if not impossible, to foster alternative methods of learning, such as those in use when tango was taught by more experienced dancers directly to less experienced dancers—precisely those found in the milonguero tradition. It also does little or nothing to provide continuity with earlier modes of dancing and the conventions of the milonga (behavior, dress, floorcraft, musical knowledge).
* It formalizes the need to learn the dance from recognized instructors within a school or “academy” of some kind.
* It obscures the fact that tango is primarily a social dance, which transpires within a community of like-minded dancers.

Of course, in all fairness, the milonguero tradition isn’t what it was half a century ago and we don’t have access to a sufficient number of experienced dancers willing to work with novices and shepherd their development within the local tango community. Yes, there are still milongueros around who teach and there are those who, like Susana Miller and Monica Paz, are directly linked to that history, but a handful of instructors who travel the world preaching the gospel of tradition does not a community make. This may be an irresoluble problem and we may simply have to make the most of it, learning as best we can, when we can, from those we admire. But watch out for the flash and the glitter and the bright lights. Investigate the shadows from time to time.

“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


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