February 28, 2017 § Leave a comment
“All that glitters is not gold.”
Typically, prestige is associated with feelings of respect and admiration; it accrues to those who have been successful, those who have been widely praised, those who have overcome great challenges, and those who have shown themselves to be the best in a given field. It can also be acquired by virtue of one’s birth or wealth, and can even be conveyed by royal decree. The many instances of knighthood and ennoblement are examples of this act of social consecration. Although more common in the past, such traditions have persisted until today. In 2002, the once disreputable Mick Jagger, a man whose music was long considered unsafe for juvenile ears, was knighted. In accepting the title, Sir Mick cast off the mantle of rebellion he had worn for many years and replaced it with the cloak of royal respectability. Such is the world. Our idols have feet of clay.
Prestige is also acquired through skill or competition, typified by the aura of fame that surrounds well-known athletes. It can, as well, be attached to inanimate objects, to names and products. In a competitive marketplace it is a quality that is actively sought by luxury brands, sometimes being acquired through longevity or by association with prestigious clients (“purveyors to the Crown”), sometimes through exclusivity or rarity, sometimes purely because of price.
Although they are all somewhat different, these various inflections of prestige provide similar benefits to the bearer. Prestige is a form of status elevation, a sign of intrinsic worth; it commands respect and deference, but only in those trained (through education or custom) to value it as a mark of distinction. Outsiders may simply view it as a strange and unwieldy means of social organization (for example, systems of rank and nobility in cultures other than our own, hereditary kingships). It is, if you like, a form of social capital that can be acquired, saved, or spent, as the case may be.
Teachers and educators, as well, have a measure of prestige by virtue of holding a position of authority in their community and possessing knowledge that others do not. Typically, such knowledge is obtained through education—school, examinations, training, the acquisition of the requisite degrees and licenses—and provides the bearer with a quantity of what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has referred to as “educational capital.” But such educational capital can also be acquired in other ways, notably through one’s birth and by immersion in the appropriate social environment, a situation where one can engage with the objects of knowledge (works of art, musical compositions) on an intimate basis. In traditional or archaic communities, such culturally significant knowledge was held by healers or shamans, or the rhapsodes of classical Greece, whose oral recitation provided a form of embodied history and culture that was passed down from generation to generation. In contemporary Western society, it has long been our leading intellectual and scientists who have captured the admiration of the public.
So, how does this relate to tango? While learning takes many forms, it is safe to say that most dancers today were introduced to the mechanics of tango in some kind of loosely structured setting, such as a dance school or a milonga (pre-milonga classes are common). Classes are taught by instructors, whom we trust to be more knowledgeable, more skillful than ourselves and capable of imparting the requisite knowledge. However, based on the historical record (the dates are somewhat fluid), tango, once it had established itself as an acceptable social dance in the early years of the twentieth century, was learned not from a dance instructor but from someone with experience, someone more skilled, more capable than ourselves. The main reason being that there were no (or very few) “teachers” with whom to study, which is to say, formally trained dance instructors. Men (and it was primarily men) learned from other men, from milongueros, who were recognized to have the necessary skills to pass on the rudiments of the dance to others. The experience of the milonguero was, of course, the result of long practice. And in conjunction with the personal mentoring that went on between novice and expert, knowledge was also gleaned from what might be called the “family” of milongueros within a community of dancers. In other words, there was a body of tradition, spoken or unspoken, that could be passed down from generation to generation outside of any formal structure.
Today, some milongueros teach and some teachers are (or claim to be) milongueros. They are recognized by the community as having the necessary skills by virtue of their age or experience, and we now have a video archive (still quite limited) that lends credibility to such claims. So, for example, both Susana Miller and Monica Paz are heirs to the tradition embodied in the dancing of Ricardo Vidort and others like him (this is not a qualitative evaluation, although I happen to admire Vidort) and offer classes and train students in a manner that self-consciously purports to be a continuation of that tradition. There are many other individuals who provide training that is tied to that tradition; some of them identify themselves as milongueros.
Of course, learning by example directly from a more experienced dancer in an informal setting is only one way of learning tango and no longer the most common method of instruction. Today, classes are generally given in dance schools or studios by dancers who are known primarily, but not exclusively, from their public performances. Some of them are social dancers, many are not. Some are primarily stage performers and come out of the tradition of modern dance or ballet. Clearly, the trajectory of their development, their cultural background, and their practice are widely divergent when compared to that of the milonguero of the “Golden Age” of tango and the kind of individualized, incremental instruction found within the milonguero community of Buenos Aires. However, if there exists a “traditional” methodology of learning tango and if individuals exist who can impart whatever skills are needed for dancing social tango, they are well hidden from public view.
Now, what is interesting is that the most visible, the most highly regarded and most prestigious teachers of tango are performers, frequently couples. The reasoning behind this assumes that they have the skills, the training, the knowledge, and the temperament to teach others. Evidenced, of course, by their willingness to risk performing in public and their talent at so doing, but, most importantly, by the approval of their fans. I haven’t provided any examples or links to videos because they are easily found. But among tango dancers of all stripes, these, the high-octane celebrities of tango, are not only the best known and the most widely seen, they are also those with the greatest prestige.
The curious—some would say, unfortunate—part of all this is that skill and experience alone do not provide one with prestige or status within the international (or even local) tango community. (Another, and possibly more interesting question, is why prestige matters at all.) There are many highly skilled dancers, of course, but if they don’t perform, if they don’t actively promote themselves, they remain largely invisible. Additionally, regardless of their capabilities as dancers, they may not be gifted teachers or even interested in training others, formally or informally.
Prestige, it is worth bearing in mind, provides a ranking system. It may be amorphous or vague or unstated, but it is implicit in the recognition given to some dancers and the way others are ignored or overlooked. We are, then, entitled to ask whether this is a positive or a negative development in the evolution of the dance. Moreover, this “system” promotes a kind of self-perpetuating aristocracy that presents itself as a model of behavior and style that we can emulate. It also affects the way we perceive and, more importantly, the way we learn tango. In no particular order, this emphasis on prestige results in the following:
* It creates hierarchies and a pecking order within the community.
* It creates feelings of inferiority among those who are not part of that hierarchy, at least potentially.
* It is exclusionary.
* It creates (unspoken) “standards” of behavior and assigns quality ratings to modes of dancing, elevating some and downgrading others. These assignments aren’t always explicitly articulated.
* It unwittingly introduces a mechanism for destroying a tradition by validating one form of dancing (performance, competition) and one form of learning (studying with star teachers or performers who travel on the international touring circuit). These mechanisms are endemic to the contemporary tango scene in North America and beyond.
* It obscures the origins of the dance and the way its traditions have been imparted to incoming members of the community, thereby erasing history.
* It promotes a style of dancing more appropriate to the stage than to a social setting.
* It makes it difficult, if not impossible, to foster alternative methods of learning, such as those in use when tango was taught by more experienced dancers directly to less experienced dancers—precisely those found in the milonguero tradition. It also does little or nothing to provide continuity with earlier modes of dancing and the conventions of the milonga (behavior, dress, floorcraft, musical knowledge).
* It formalizes the need to learn the dance from recognized instructors within a school or “academy” of some kind.
* It obscures the fact that tango is primarily a social dance, which transpires within a community of like-minded dancers.
Of course, in all fairness, the milonguero tradition isn’t what it was half a century ago and we don’t have access to a sufficient number of experienced dancers willing to work with novices and shepherd their development within the local tango community. Yes, there are still milongueros around who teach and there are those who, like Susana Miller and Monica Paz, are directly linked to that history, but a handful of instructors who travel the world preaching the gospel of tradition does not a community make. This may be an irresoluble problem and we may simply have to make the most of it, learning as best we can, when we can, from those we admire. But watch out for the flash and the glitter and the bright lights. Investigate the shadows from time to time.