Tango as religion

November 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 1994 Umberto Eco published a now well-known article in an Italian newspaper highlighting the difference between the Macintosh operating system and MS-DOS. The difference between the two systems mirrored the distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism. The article is characteristic of Eco’s erudition and wit, and worth quoting.

I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counterreformist and has been influenced by the “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

That “baroque community of revelers” includes those who dance tango, and for many of its practitioners tango is a kind of religion, a cult—an object of worship and admiration. And like many cults it assumes the trappings of religious devotion. Like the major systems of religious belief, tango has its rites and rituals, and is distinguishable by its outward signs and symbols, although these are often exaggerated and frequently misleading. Because of its origins, its pomp and ceremony, its codes of behavior, its virtues and vices, tango, like the Macintosh operating system, could only be Catholic.

And so tango has its sects, its outcasts, its iconoclasts, its patron saints. There is no pope to speak of but the rock upon which the church is built can be found in Buenos Aires and congregants make pilgrimages there on a regular basis to offer their prayers at one of the various houses of worship. Tithing is commonplace and generosity is encouraged. Many have donated what little earthly belongings they possess as they advance along the path to salvation, which often resembles the Grail quest in the number and variety of challenges it presents and the constantly thwarted desires encountered. Many will be tested; most will fail. Other devotees have abandoned secular life entirely to give themselves to the work of the church and the advancement of the faith.

In this church as well sinners are commonplace. Consequently, confession is encouraged and those who have wandered from the true path are advised to atone for their sins or risk ostracism or excommunication.Unlike the church, tango has no clearly articulated method for achieving salvation, is based on no Manichean absolutes. One ascends upon the ladder of competence to reach the pure bliss of absolute oneness, total communication, the free and unfettered exchange of feeling. There are pitfalls along the way, of course, and many temptations to lead the believer astray. Anthony of Thebes was not the only man to have been assailed by the temptations of the flesh as he trod the path to sainthood.

Tango has its priests (male and female, tango is a broadminded church) of course, who officiate at various ceremonies in houses of worship around the world. These holy men and women travel the globe, spreading the faith and training novitiates in the art and practice of the dance, a lengthy process that can take years, a lifetime in many cases. The novice is encouraged to abjure other forms of physical or mental stimulation, to steel the body for the rigors of practice, to toil late into the night in the attempt to purify the spirit. Fasting and self-abnegation are commonplace. Many pray for divine inspiration.

Like the church, its priesthood is divided among various orders, each with its own traditions and practices, its own followers, its own precepts. All claim to be participants in the same church and the church claims to embrace them all, but these schools have been riven by conflict since the dance’s veiled origins in the distant past.

And, as with the history of Catholicism, tango has been blessed with a rich musical tradition dating back to its inception. In fact, it could be said that without the music there would be little to celebrate. This music is characterized by a range of styles from early, to classical, to modern, although the latter is something of an outlier and mostly associated with forms of worship that have yet to be acknowledged by the church fathers. Overall, it is a musical tradition that is still very much alive and a necessary element of all liturgical ceremonies, but subject to its own controversies.

Can the milonga of tango be said to resemble the liturgy of the Catholic church? Here, celebrations are not held in near silence and there is no sacred text, no devotional prayerbook, no certain process for achieving salvation. For the most part, according to tradition, congregants were clothed in a manner suitable for the gathering. Men and women wore their “Sunday best,” a form of respectful attire in which to engage with the ceremony of worship. Like many things, this has changed considerably over the years and, today, a wide range of sartorial modes can be found among followers—ranging from the formality of suits and evening dresses, particularly for the officiants who lead the congregation, to a kind of pseudo-grunge for the casual participant less wedded to tradition. But it’s a big tent and there’s room for all in the house of the lord.

Of course, all religions require faith—the belief in something that cannot be demonstrated, that cannot be proven or disproven. Tango, although more limited in its aims than mainstream religions, also requires faith. Faith that we can improve, faith that there is something here that can change our life, faith in our ability to achieve a certain level of competence, faith too that tango is something more than physical exertion, a way of letting off steam, something more than a mere formal structure involving a series of learned steps. The faithful believe, and I count myself among them, that the dance holds the promise of something more, always something more. We speak often of “communication” and “connectivity” but these are vague, ill-defined terms that could just as well apply to a long-distance phone call or an e-mail message as to the kind of direct human interaction implied here. Others speak of “zoning out,” “harmony,” “relaxation.”

It has been said that there is a kind of “transcendence” associated with tango at its best, although here too language has a way of slipping from our grasp just when we need it most. I’ve written elsewhere about the sense of shared intimacy, the sense of being in the moment together, the sense of exhilaration brought about by the smooth flow of movement while in another’s arms. There is a feeling of elation that is achieved when tango “works,” a kind of bliss associated with living truly and completely in the moment. Broad, vague, overused terms, I know. And yet . . . When we speak of sharing or connecting or communicating in tango, I think this is what is meant. It is something that has less do with skill than with the complete engagement with the man or woman in your arms. It is based on trust and attentiveness more than it is on technique (however necessary) and to achieve this requires that we give something of ourselves, that we are able to give ourselves to the dance, to the music, and, most importantly, to our partner. A kind of faith, if you will, an unproven belief in our ability to achieve something extraordinary, something so far out of the range of ordinary experience that we are willing to give everything we have to try to obtain it. It is a bit like love. It is our heaven, and our hell.

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