Will the real tangocynic please stand up?

December 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

There’s a wonderful series of videos on YouTube published by someone who goes by the moniker “tangocynic.” The videos, about 20 in all, introduce us to a group of animated characters based on a template of pre-drawn figures. The author used software from Xtranormal, which allows users to create text-to-speech dialogue from a preexisting script and animate it from a collection of stock characters. The voices, in a range of accents, have all the charm of synthesized speech but the stilted quality of their inflections adds to the droll humor of the imagery.

What is wonderful and odd about these short (roughly the length of a tango) animated sequences is that they all somehow reflect an aspect of the tango experience in a pithy three-minute video. The dialogues, which seem to condense so much of the reality of learning and practicing tango, are wonderful and considerable effort must have gone into their production. They capitalize on a number of clichés about the dance (the “passion and the drama”) but also reflect some of the deeper truths concerning the personal interactions we experience in tango.

In “So You Want to Learn Tango,” a starry-eyed young woman reveals her desire to experience “the passion and the drama of Argentine tango” to Kurt, a young man who has been dancing for a while. The female character recites a series of off-the-shelf platitudes about the dance, throws in a few woefully mispronounced Spanish terms, squeezes in the names “Rudolph Valentino” and “Sally Potter,” and imagines herself slinking across the dance floor in sexy stockings with a gorgeous “hunk.” Kurt, matter-of-factly explains the reality of learning tango, the slow, difficult process of acquiring enough skill to actually be able to dance, the unspoken hierarchies of the milonga, the problem of finding a partner who  meets your expectations—hers being entirely unrealistic in this case since she has yet to take a lesson, much less step inside a dance hall—and so on. The dialogue is cynical, yes, but tangocynic’s videos are the first creative vehicles I’ve encountered that reflect the way tango is actually practiced as compared to its popular image.

“On being dumped in tango – part 2,” is a scathing three-minute exchange between a male and female character. The male character, dressed as if he’d wandered in off the set of Bonanza (the reference used in the clip) and sporting a dashing mustache, is trying to convince an experienced dancer to dance with him. He is a beginner, and rather presumptuous, and she is clearly disdainful of his abilities and sees no reason why she should dance with him at all. The dialogue is extremely funny but its humor also reveals the reality of the “codigos” of tango, the unspoken rules that guide behavior at the milonga. And behind the humor, which reflects a situation most of us have encountered at one time or another, lies the fact that in tango knowing who NOT to ask to dance seems to be more important than knowing whom to approach. The codes are complicated that way.

In “On Tango Darwinism” two women are talking at a milonga, one of them, the DJ, is seated behind a desk and the other, a beginner, sits off to her right (the off-the-shelf set in this gray-on-gray animation is the kind of thing you’d see on a late night talk show). The beginner is asking how to navigate the waters of the milonga, how one “gets to dance.” The DJ, who admits to failure on this point, agrees to give her an introduction to her new “milonga kingdom.” The dialogue at this point in the video goes something like this.

DJ: Welcome to our local milonga kingdom. You know, a milonga is all about survival of the fittest.
Newbie: You mean Charles Darwin?
DJ: Yes, my dear, it is a long way to the top of the food chain. But don’t worry, everyone is really lovely. Only sometimes it is better for a lady to say “I am sorry but my feet are hurting.”
Newbie: But I’m here to dance.
DJ: That’s what they all say in the beginning, but after a few milongas they start to remember the magic sentence.

She points out a number of male dancers on the floor and their multiple levels of incompetence as leaders and as men. And after several humorous character portraits, the newcomer asks about Kurt, who stands at the top of the tango hierarchy in their community, along with Priscilla, the woman he is dancing with. After being told of the improbability of Kurt asking her to dance, our newcomer, asks:

Newbie: In this case, should I ask Priscilla about her stunning Comme il faut shoes after the “tanda” is over?
DJ: You have just made a new friend. Welcome to the tango community.

I’m sure this doesn’t reflect everyone’s experience when first introduced to tango but there are truths here about navigating the dangerous waters of the local milonga. Not only does the newcomer find out whom to avoid and why, she turns out to be a fast learner, deducing that the shortest way to Kurt (“Ah, Kurt”) may be through Priscilla, and the best way to befriend Priscilla may be through a seemingly innocuous conversation about shoes. It’s a cynical assessment of human behavior but an accurate one, nonetheless, and the newcomer may have considerably shortened her journey to the top of the tango food chain by discovering the keys to the kingdom in the “magic sentence” of summary rejection and the use of flattery to approach the object of her desire indirectly.

All of tangocynic’s animated videos are worth watching and each has something to say about tango as it is practiced today. They may not match every aspect of everyone’s experience, of course. I’m sure some communities are less competitive than others or more welcoming, and there have to be a number of individuals around who simply do not care about these things. Nonetheless, the scenarios pictured are sociologically interesting and a fairly accurate reflection of the reality of the tango subculture.

I do have one nagging question, though. Is tangocynic a man or a woman, or a couple (or even a group)? There’s a short interview conducted in 2011 on an entertainment and “lifestyle” Web site called “The Examiner.” At the top of the article, the interviewer refers to tangocynic as “he.” Could be. Why not? It could also be a feint to throw us off the scent. But whatever the person’s sex, judging by the use of language in the article, I suspect the author is English rather than American.

During the interview, when asked about motivation, tangocynic replies:

I found that there are many universal themes and issues in tango that seem to crop up wherever the dance is practiced. Often we talk about them amongst friends but never voice them publicly: like the misrepresentation of tango amongst non tango dancers, like the “tango professors” who invariably lack some of the basic understanding of the dance or the people who walk into a milonga dressed up as tango dancers and everybody knows that they will either be really good or really bad. All I did was to add a pinch of cynicism to make these observations maybe somewhat more poignant than they would otherwise be.

The article can be found here: http://www.examiner.com/article/the-tango-cynic-tells-all-almost.

You be the judge.

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