By way of introduction

August 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Tango High and Low is an attempt to share my experiences as a student of tango. It is not a history or an instructional blog. The opinions expressed here are my own and, consequently, limited to a time and place – New York, ca. 2012 and beyond. I assume the learning process would be considerably different for someone living in Buenos Aires or Paris or Rome.

But why “high and low”? There are, or appear to be, two worlds in tango – that of the stage, the world of the professional dancer, and that of the local or community dance, or milonga, the world of the enthusiast or dedicated amateur. The first is populated by men and women who have devoted themselves to learning the techniques of the dance and refining them to the point where they can be shared publicly with an audience. The level of skill here is extremely high, on a par with that found in contemporary modern dance, jazz, or even ballet. Generally danced to classical tango melodies, the performers are alone on stage before an audience of admirers. The performance is often choreographed and rehearsed by dancers who perform regularly with one another. Anyone who has been involved with tango for even a short period of time is familiar with such “high-end” tango and there are thousands of videos available on-line. Many of these are beautiful and inspiring.

“Low” tango, as I am presenting it here (and the word is by no means intended as a criticism), is the more humble but more commonly practiced world of the local milonga, populated by enthusiastic amateurs. It is the tango danced around the world today by non-professionals, and the tango that has been danced for a century or more in Buenos Aires and its environs. There is no audience sitting in rapt attention, no rehearsal (other than a great deal of practice), no choreography, and no applause. The dance floor is often crowded, sometimes chaotic, and difficult to navigate. We dance for ourselves and for our partner. Amateur does not mean unpolished or incompetent; some of the greatest and best-loved milongueros were amateurs. And I’m sure there were many more we know nothing about.

“Splendors and Miseries of Tango.”

But there are other ways in which tango can bring us high or low. Dancers frequently describe their complete abandonment to the dance, the sense of oneness they experience in giving themselves over to music and movement. There is the elation, the “high,” of moving in time to the music in a large crowd on a dance floor, of submersion in a collective experience, and of sharing that experience directly with the man or woman in your arms. Then there is the low of frustration and rejection, the sense of boredom with the seemingly endless process of learning and failing. The demands of time, money, and effort required to get to the place we want to be or feel we should be, however vague the goal.

This is not to say we should view tango or the learning process as a kind of Manichean struggle between opposing forces vying for our soul, or as a form of class struggle wherein the lumpen proletariat engage in the seemingly endless quest to rise up the social ladder to engage with the world of success, competence, and admiration; to turn erratic and hesitant movements into the gold of disciplined and coordinated movement. Not at all. There is certainly a progression from beginner to accomplished and confident dancer, but the path is by no means continuous or smooth. For many of us, for myself at least, learning involves more-or-less linear growth followed by a plateau of exasperating stasis.

I’m sure there are many exceptions to the process, for we must also account for natural talent, age, stamina, and dedication. There are those who advance quickly and those who advance slowly. I’m not sure how one would define “success” here or if it’s even appropriate or what it would look like. But it’s a fascinating process and one I intend to pursue.


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