October 25, 2014 § 2 Comments
A great deal has been written about the intimate nature of tango, its sensuality, sometimes even its eroticism. I don’t agree with this last part but it’s an image that has been promoted in movies, stage presentations, and the graphic arts almost since the inception of tango (roughly contemporaneous with the growth of photography and film), and it’s a not uncommon trope in literature. It rests on a myth built around tango’s nebulous working-class origins in the port city of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century. Carlos Saura’s film, Tango, for example, plays up the overheated drama and smoldering sensuality of “tango” in its mixture of stalled creativity and sexual jealousy. Decades earlier, Rudolf Valentino in Rex Ingram’s 1921 film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse glamorized an image of tango that was louche, violent, and sexually charged.
Here, Valentino, dressed as a gaucho of the high plains, dances what passed for a tango with Beatrice Dominguez after tearing her away from her partner, whom he quickly dispatches after the man pulls out a knife. For decades, this came to be a prototype of the image of tango in the popular imagination. Like all myths, it was constructed from legitimate local traditions, daily life in the immigrant community, poverty, early tango music and lyrics, and the social world of the compadres and compadritos. Stars like Valentino added to these social realities a veneer of glamour, romance, sensuality, male ardor, and screen violence. They presented an image of the bas-fonds of Buenos Aires that was static, picturesque, and highly idealized.
This aspect of the dance is also treated at some length in Richard Martin’s essay “The Lasting Tango” in Tango! (Simon Collier, editor, Thames and Hudson, 1995, p. 173). In his essay, Martin quotes Waldo Frank, a respected American writer and critic, active in the early part of the 20th century. Frank writes, in 1917, and, therefore, roughly contemporary with the Valentino film:
Within the chaste contours of the tango figures, rages the desire of sex. The bodies do not touch, yet they are joined. So intense is the current within the man and the woman, that it leaps in the air and copulates them. This blue current of sex is also in contact with the music that is the substance of life itself, for pampa and altar and forest are within it.
Written when tango was just beginning to be known in the United States, one wonders if Frank had any direct experience of the kind of tango then being practiced in Buenos Aires or Paris, much less the elegant and involved tango of the golden age. However, such perceptions have continued to dog the image of tango throughout the century, especially in its visual representations.
Tango is a sensual dance, of that there can be little doubt, if we understand “sensual” to mean “pleasing or gratifying to the senses.” But sensuality in itself characterizes many human activities, most forms of partner dancing included. In tango, the combination of powerful, often hypnotic, often dramatic music and close physical contact can combine to form a heightened physical experience, but we must be careful to avoid layering our own experience of tango with images drawn from contemporary imagery and the mythology that has grown up in the popular imagination.
Unlike other dances, however, tango is characterized by its depth of intimacy, and I think this helps us get closer to the “truth” of tango. This intimacy is largely a product of the physical closeness of the dance and its sustained embrace. The traditional tango embrace, the “abrazo,” that most basic and comforting of human gestures, ensures this. It is the foundation of the dance and it could be said that a good embrace is a characteristic–necessary but not sufficient–of a good dancer. Tango has been described as “four legs and one heart,” and while a cliché, the expression does point to the notion of shared intimacy, even unity, inherent in the dance. At its best, tango, through the movement of the tightly bound couple around the dance floor, seems to condense and crystallize this sense of intimacy into a core of pooled emotion.
But underlying this intimacy and a feature of tango that is often overlooked (or simply not expressed) is the element of seduction. In the interplay of movements, the circular entanglements, the stylized walk, tango becomes the physical sign of mutual seduction, of withdrawal and pursuit. This theater of seduction and, significantly, its mutual acceptance by the dancers is caricatured in film and other dramatic representations of tango but nonetheless signifies a vital underlying reality. It is an aspect of the dance that is made explicit in at least one approach to teaching tango. In fact, it is a core concept of the method of teaching tango developed by Helaine Treitman, one she refers to as the “permission-seduction tango mastery system™.” Helaine is very clear about tango’s potential for enabling us to freely express what we might ordinarily suppress in our workaday existence. She writes:
I see my role as teaching men, by helping them master the manly art of tango, to feel confidently and abundantly masculine deep down, so that as each man expresses his unique self artistically, creatively and playfully to the music, he lovingly gives the women in his embrace the masculine energy that she so deeply desires. This in turn ignites and nourishes her womanly energy so that she, fully expressing herself in his arms through the womanly art of tango, gives her loving feminine energy to him. And here we are, living a healthy and joyous yin-yang cycle of intimate sexual expression, by dancing artistic and sensual tango, whether it’s with our spouse of many years, or with a stranger that we may never see again.
The point of the “permission seduction” encounter in tango, as I call it, is not so much to achieve an outcome like finding a mate or rekindling a marital romance, though those are certainly potential benefits, but rather to allow us to fully express our sexual identities and get the oxytocin high that comes from beautifully bonding with our sexual opposite for the 12 minutes of a set of tangos.
Helaine Treitman is a coach and trainer and is selling a method of learning tango. Nonetheless, she is an astute observer of human behavior and has taught for many years, providing her with broad experience of the needs and demands of her students. I think she’s on to something here. As I noted above, the iconography of tango as it has been presented to the public often leans toward the salacious; it is seen as something sexy, “taboo,” dangerous, dark, sinister. There are numerous representations associating tango with death (Borges) or sexual seduction (the Casanova figure). However, Helaine is the first teacher I know of to have built a methodology around what should have been obvious to anyone engaged in the business of teaching tango. For tango allows us the freedom to express our sexuality within a “safe” framework or context in a way that is non-threatening, relaxed, and socially acceptable. This form of shared enjoyment, this mutual seduction, the “permission to seduce,” if you will, gets far closer to the reality of tango as it has been practiced in the dance halls of Buenos Aires for the past 100 years and as it is practiced around the world, today.