February 25, 2015 § 3 Comments
Form, as it is practiced in the fine arts, is the art of making clear what is involved in the organization of space and time prefigured in every course of a developing life experience.
John Dewey, Art as Experience
There was an online discussion recently that generated a fair amount of commentary. The main thrust of the thread concerned the pointless negativity of criticism. More specifically, why criticize the way a man dances if his partner enjoys the dance? After all, she’s the only one who can judge what it feels like. Of course, this is correct, for in tango, we dance, first and foremost, for the person in our arms. And regardless of how we look, only she can tell us whether we have succeeded in making that experience enjoyable. Case closed.
Obviously, there are situations in which form, a significant element of the overall aesthetics of the dance, matters greatly. And that is in stage tango and performance, generally. While comfort and connection are important in social dancing, they are not the standard by which a performance is judged. What matters is style, technique, complexity, elegance of execution, musicality, innovation. These are the aspects of the dance that will appeal to an audience.
Javier Rodriguez and Geraldine Rojas
The situation, however, is somewhat more complicated. It would be naive to assume that in a dance as complex as tango, onlookers ignore how we dance or how we look when we dance. Of course, this too is a matter of individual preference. For some may not care at all and others a great deal. But how we stand, how we step, how we move, how we navigate, our behavior on and off the floor—all are visible and likely to be noted by someone, if only in passing. We observe and are observed in turn.
From everything I have read, traditional “old school” milongueros paid close attention to how other men danced, dressed, and behaved. And, of course, they paid attention to the women as well.
In the end, you can’t hide in the milonga. The milongueras will be watching you closely. They’ll see the way you stand, and step, and how well you use the compás.
(Tango and Chaos: School of the Milongueros)
In Buenos Aires they say that, “In the milonga, everyone sees everything.” It means that from the moment you walk in the door, to the time you leave, you will be watched. Your clothing, your walk, your posture, where you sit—all will be scrutinized.
(Tango and Chaos: Searching for the Modern Style)
In North America, the codigos are not quite as strict as this and there is less scrutiny of dancers on the floor and a more relaxed attitude to the formalities of tango. However, they are not altogether absent and the only way of getting an idea of how someone dances, short of actually dancing with them, is to observe them. This need not be judgmental, but observation is involved. How we look, move, behave (on and off the floor) may determine whom we dance with.
There is one other area where form is paramount, and that is teaching. I have yet to meet a teacher who did not stress form in all its aspects—posture, balance, arm position, head position, leg movements, length of step, and so on. In fact, it’s hard, given the nature of tango and the emphasis on form in teaching, to see how it wouldn’t be a central element of the dance. To fail to do so would entail teaching successions of figures and movements devoid of the elements of “good” form as understood by the (modern) tradition of tango. As in many other physical endeavors—classical dance, martial arts, sports—learning bad habits, or failing to develop good ones, early in one’s career can lead to problems down the road. Tango is no different. Although improvisational, it is highly dependent on developing good habits early in the learning process. You can only develop an individual style after you have internalized the basics of posture, balance, and movement. It does not matter if this is consciously sought out or not, a “style” of sorts will evolve over time simply by force of habit. Good form won’t necessarily make you a good dancer but it is less likely to make you a bad one.
There is another aspect of tango that relies heavily on formal elements—aesthetics. Tango has been referred to as an art by some, and why not? Its status on the cultural circuit isn’t terribly important to me, I’m more interested in how it is practiced and taught. How it looks and how it feels. But there is no denying the beauty of the dance and its visual appeal. Otherwise, performance tango would be less common, less popular. It has been said that the growth of tango in the United States was largely the result of the musical presentations that found their way to the Broadway stage. The most important of these was “Tango Argentino,” which opened in 1983 in Paris and toured widely throughout Europe and North America.
Its runaway success led to an explosion of interest in tango, which, in turn, led to the need for people to teach tango and the migration of professional teachers and performers from Buenos Aires to points north. That’s the approximate history.
But what happens when we get away from the stage and the performance circuit and back to the dance floor? Do aesthetics matter? I believe they do. And since we are no longer among professional dancers, performers in front of an audience, the beauty, the expressiveness of choreographed movements is no longer an element of the dance. But this does not rule out the importance of other factors that contribute to the grace and elegance of good tango. I’ve watched dozens of videos of nonprofessionals dancing and, in the best of them, there is an obvious attention to form in its various manifestations: the beauty of the embrace, posture, the elegant walk, the clarity of line. Technique is not as obvious as it is in the case of a professional dancer, but it is there, nonetheless. The result is cleaner, simpler dancing, free of many of the annoying tics and flourishes found on the stage—the dramatization, the exercise of technique for the sake of technique.
Miguel Balbi, in the above video, is not a performer but he’s been dancing tango for decades and his skill is apparent. Clean, elegant, “simple,” tango but impeccable form. A style worth emulating.
I suppose the question of form boils down to this: can one be a “good” dancer and have bad form? I have seen (many of you have) performers whose style of dance looked exaggerated or strained, but you couldn’t say they didn’t know what they were doing. The underlying technique was certainly there, the formal elements were in place, yet the parts added up to a whole that somehow looked ungainly or odd, like a bad note in a musical performance. Yes, of course, it’s a personal “style” (where style is a breaking away from the norm) but one that leans too much in the direction of idiosyncrasy. In dance, perhaps more than any other art, form and style are integrally related. I don’t believe you can develop a recognizable personal style if the formal elements are not in place. You may develop quirks and mannerisms, but these do not add up to a “style” of any kind.
“’Form follows function’ means that when something works well, it begins to look good.”
If form is the “art of making clear,” the importance of the underlying structural components of tango mentioned earlier become apparent: posture, balance, musicality, efficiency, comfort. If all the elements are in place, the chances that the resulting form will be “good,” that is, clear and expressive, are much greater. Of course, as I remarked earlier, only your partner knows how it feels, and she may not care what it looks like. But I suspect that if the formal elements are not in place, if form is so lacking, the result is liable to be muddied and confused. And if form does follow function, bad form will function poorly or not at all, it will not “work well,” it will be inefficient and awkward.
Be that as it may, it is probably best to set aside the examples of bad form and accentuate the positive. Praise those we admire, imitate them if need be, learn from them whenever possible.
Tango Argentino was scheduled for one week at City Center, New York, in June 1985 when tickets were $10-$30. After great reviews, they were booked at the Hellinger theater and had 198 performances. In New York the cast met Danel & Maria who taught ballroom dancing. Danel immigrated from Buenos Aires to the USA when he was 20 and met Maria in NYC. They toured with the company teaching tango classes. Everyone who saw the show wanted to learn.
I’ve heard Juan Carlos Copes describe their uncomfortable flight to Paris in 1983 on a military plane from Buenos Aires, because there was no money to pay for commercial airline transportation for the cast, musicians and crew. What they did to bring tango to the world!
I support your position, and would like to add that (all other things being equal) dancing with a partner who has good technique is much more enjoyable, than with one who lacks this foundation. For that reason, I certainly do observe and judge the male dancers at a milonga before engaging in the cabeceo.
A good foundation gives a dancer the skills to express the music with their partner with efficiency and ease. And what a pleasure that is!
Looking good is a duty to the community. When we watch others move, our brains mirror what we see using the same areas that we use to plan our own movements (Calvo-Merino et al. Cereb Cortex 2005;15:1243-9. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhi007). It is literally “monkey see – monkey do”. This is one of the reasons why teaching tango in the US is such an uphill battle: apart from a handful of teachers, there are no good examples to look at. So it’s best not to look around at all, but watch YouTube videos from BsAs instead.
Tango is so ergonomic that what is functionally correct is bound to look decent. If something looks ugly, then chances are that it is also incorrect. The converse is not true: what looks good can be wrong and unpleasant to the partner. Many stage tango routines are obviously not enjoyable to perform, even though they look impressive.
There is a caveat: for how dancing looks, body aesthetics matters a great deal. Beautiful people will always look better than the rest even if they can barely stand upright. Others will never look as good, no matter how perfect their form and technique is. This is why stage dancers have such uniform physique: they are selected based on what looks best on stage – lean body, small head, long neck, long legs. And this is why dancing with the prettiest partners is socially smart. But in reality, for enjoyable social dancing, all that is needed is good basic technique, hygiene, and politesse.