Chaos Theory

September 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

I think it was Ford Madox Ford who said somewhere that in order to judge something, you need a base to kick off from or something to kick at, a fixed pole of reference. In other words, a foundation of some kind on which to ground your judgments and establish a basis for acceptance or rejection.

One of the biggest sources of inspiration for me during this adventure and the one that helped make my approach to learning somewhat more concrete and directed has been Rick McGarrey’s Web site Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires. I’m not sure how it started out, blog, standalone Web site, book, forum, but it’s there now and contains a wealth of information on tango, its history, and how it is taught. The site hasn’t been updated in several years but it’s still highly relevant because what McGarrey describes is not the everyday whirl of events involving tango and its practitioners but its traditions and spirit.

McGarrey began traveling to Buenos Aires in 2001 (and has lived there for many years) and it was there that he received most of his training after several attempts in the United States. However, Tango and Chaos is not simply a chronicle of one man’s learning experience but a guide to tango as it is traditionally practiced in Buenos Aires, the tango of the milongas and milongueros. Those familiar with the site already know the author’s attitude toward teaching methods outside Buenos Aires and, in particular, the endless round of workshops and seminars given by traveling performers. McGarrey has very strong opinions about this and, while he has known and interviewed some of the better known practitioners of performance tango, he has little sympathy for their style or methods of teaching.

But Tango and Chaos is not primarily a critique of teaching methods or the way tango is practiced but rather a guide to tradition. (It is also a fascinating kind of travel diary and McGarrey is a good raconteur of life in Buenos Aires.) In other words, what is it that constitutes the traditional milonguero “style” and how do you approach it? What is it about that style that is so important and yet seems so evasive to those who come to tango without being a part of its history, who have adopted tango, so to speak, rather than grown up with it?

Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires celebrates a tradition and lifestyle unique to the city and its past. However, Tango and Chaos is not so much a history of tango as it is a report on McGarrey’s investigation and analysis of the traditions of tango as experienced by the city’s many milongueros. He provides a wealth of material on body posture and walking, the abrazo that is so characteristic of tango, and anecdotes of life in the city. He has singlehandedly created an important video archive of many of the city’s milongueros, men such as Ricardo Vidort and Ismael HelJalil, who might otherwise have fallen into obscurity. These are vital resources for anyone learning tango or simply for anyone who wants to understand the genesis of a tradition. McGarrey is up front about his attempts to learn tango in the United States and the radical reorganization of his approach to learning when he went to Buenos Aires to study.

I mention this because Tango and Chaos has become my own “bible” of tango. It is the resource I use most when in doubt about my own abilities or the learning process, and the one resource that helped provide me with a sense of direction. I have used it not only to study technique and learn a bit of history, but to gain inspiration from the many legendary dancers he has studied and recorded on video. His discussion of the music and lyrics of tango are exemplary. It is one of the richest tango sites in terms of the depth of its analysis and the wealth of visual aids it provides. And for those unfamiliar with the traditions McGarrey describes it is a revelation. I wonder why it isn’t as well known as it should be.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything presented there, either about the learning process or specific details of the dance (body posture and angle primarily) but I am in complete agreement with his assessment of what is essential to tango: an appreciation and understanding of the music and the way it serves as a determining factor in the dance; the importance of basic structures and their potential expressiveness; the futility and irrelevance of elaborate figures and patterns; and the way in which stage dancing has diluted the power of the milonguero tradition and redirected its energies. I’m sure the site has its detractors and I doubt it has won him many friends on the performance and teaching circuit, but for anyone serious about tango and its traditions, it is indispensable.

In closing, I’d like to quote a paragraph from Tango and Chaos in which the author summarizes the difference between tango as it is practiced in Buenos Aires and tango as it is practiced in the United States.

The other difference I see between U.S. and BsAs milongas is one of attitude. I will illustrate it by a somewhat extreme (and maybe cynical) example. I’ve noticed that milongas in the U.S. are still often burdened with a group of “tango-as-acrobatics” dancers. We were recently at a milonga in a large city on the east coast where, for some reason, this type of dancing seems to have taken over. We sat with a couple of Argentines and watched as the couples flew and kicked their way around the floor like they were performing on steroids. I think the low point came when a very sad tango by Canaro was played. It was En Esta Tarde Gris (“On this Gray Afternoon”), and it’s not just sad, it’s pessimistic—bordering on dismal. (But also beautiful in its way…one of the ironies of tango, no?) Anyway, most of the dancers didn’t miss a beat. Well, actually they missed a lot of beats… but they kept leaping around with smug looks on their faces. Looks that were in sharp contrast to the faces of the watching Argentines. The Argentines were too polite to say anything (at least in English), but their faces showed what they felt—sort of a mixture of pain and pity. A suggestion: If you hear a song that begins, “Que ganas de llorar, en esta tarde gris”, please don’t dance like you are auditioning for a Broadway production ofOklahoma. If you do, any Argentines that may be present will think you need counseling.

But go find out for yourself what else Rick McGarrey has to say on “Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires.” It’s worth a trip.



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