August 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

O kings and princes of this fev’rous world,
What abject things, what mockeries must ye be,
What nerveless minions of safe palaces,
Where here, a monarch, whose proud foot is used
To fallen princes’ necks as to his stirrup,
Must needs exclaim that I am mad forsooth,
Because I cannot flatter with bent knees
My conqueror!

  John Keats, “Otho the Great,” act 1, scene 2: 100.


It’s been said that for tango to be tango, an act of surrender is required. Whatever the immediate implications of this thought, let us suspend judgment for a moment and examine the matter in greater depth. Surrender is not always an instance of capitulation or defeat.

Generally, when we think of surrender, we think of warfare or conflict. Two opposing sides meet, one remains victorious. There are no intermediate states of winning or losing, no gray areas, only victor and vanquished. The act of surrender can be honorable or shameful depending on the antagonists and the stakes, but the terms are set by the victor.

Velazquez – The Surrender of Breda

To surrender in war or battle is a sign of defeat, despair, often ignominy. It can mean the fall of an empire or a nation, the loss of freedom, the death of a people, the overthrow of a government. For the vanquished tribe, army, or nation, such defeat often means servitude or submission, even the loss of national identity. It is said that the Roman army sowed the plains of Carthage with salt after the city’s defeat in 146 BC to ensure that the region would remain barren and lifeless for the forseeable future. Thus ended the Third Punic War.

Ecstatic surrender

There are other forms of surrender, however. For the world’s major religions, the path to salvation lies through the abandonment of the self, a form of self-surrender, to the greater glory of God and to God’s will. By serving God, by relinquishing the quest for purely earthly achievements, we can achieve eternal life in the glory of God or release from our earthly bonds. The concept is prominent in Christian theology, Hinduism, and Buddhism. 

“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” Bhagavad-Gita, 18:66.

“But I am straitened between two: having a desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, a thing by far the better.” (Philippians, 1:23-4)

“To the soul inebriated with love, the first consideration is not the essential glory which God will bestow upon it but the entire surrender of itself to Him in true love, without any regard to its own advantage.” (St. John of the Cross, Stanza xxviii, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Volume II)

For a believer, such surrender, although difficult, even dangerous, reveals the true path to eternal salvation. We consign ourselves to the power and beneficence of the godhead in the belief that we can transcend our worldy station. While this may entail great struggle, doubt, skepticism, and the negative judgments of others, we are promised a benefit that far outweighs the sacrifices made here on earth.

Erotic surrender

But there are forms of surrender that we abide in willingly, if not eagerly. In matters of the heart, the beloved is often depicted as surrendering to the lover or the lover to the beloved. In either case we succumb to the embrace of the other, a surrender absolute and complete, which represents the fulfillment of desire. Such self-abandonment should not be taken lightly. In classical mythology, in Greek poetry of the Classical age, surrender to desire is often presented as a form of unwilled capitulation to the force of Eros. Here, desire is a form of madness, the sign of an unsettled mind. In the classical poets, in Sappho and, later, in Catullus, eros itself is seen as a threat to one’s sanity, even to a sense of mental integrity. For the classical world, the relief or satisfaction obtained in the abandonment to desire, to eros, was never something to be embraced without trepidation, for surrender brings with it the possibility of a concomitant loss of identity. With submission we lose the edge of desire that defines the limits of personal identity.

Canova – Cupid and Psyche

(In a curious parallel, the clichéd imagery of stage tango, in which we find the woman in a position of erotic submission at the end of the dance—nearly supine, head thrown back, eyes closed, arms open and receptive—bears a striking resemblance to some of the mythological depictions that occur in pre-20th century sculpture and painting. Have choreographers unconsciously borrowed the tropes of ecstasy from the plastic arts? The image of the beloved in a state of rapturous abandon as the conclusive denouement of a tango has bled into the popular imagination and come to typify the dance.)

Music and dance . . .

With respect to tango, what is preeminent, although not always acknowledged, is that, before all else, we must surrender to the music. If we are not in thrall to the music, if we do not dance in the music, there is no tango. There is motion, there is movement, but unless the dancers serve as conduits and interpreters of the music, the dance becomes a simulacrum. That is why there is such strong emphasis on “musicality” (or cadencia) in social tango. Musicality in tango is often taught as moving harmoniously to the beat or rhythm of the music. As with all dance forms, tango is an outward manifestation of internal energy, of feeling, a physical response to the external stimulus of the music. Early tangos are fairly predictable and consistent in their rhythmic structure, later tangos much less so. And in the greatest compositions of artists such as Troilo and Pugliese, the rhythmic structure is highly complex, punctuated by silences and changing rhythms, making its interpretation a matter of equal complexity. Musicality in tango is the ability to interpret the music through the dance and the belief that if we are not doing so, if we are not listening with our bodies, we are not only not dancing tango (or only superficially, just scratching the surface), we are doing a disservice to the dance.

And the dancers? Although unstated, the concept of surrender is implied in the commonplace notions of lead and follow with which the mechanics of the dance are often explained. Man : Woman = Lead : Follow. But is surrender necessary and, if so, is it a one-way street? To some extent this is an open question. Indeed, the one who leads can be considered the one who follows, to follow where the follower leads. This is not as paradoxical as it appears. The man (or whoever inhabits the man’s role) may initiate, or “suggest,” a movement but the woman (or whoever inhabits the woman’s role) must complete it, leading to a new position in space, which will both expose and foreclose new possibilities of movement. But the concepts of lead and follow in tango are somewhat superficial. Useful, but not the heart of the thing. The willingness, the ability, to surrender to our partner, is also, and perhaps most importantly, a matter of trust, and this, obviously, makes demands on both parties. It is not an assertion of will on one side and passive acceptance on the other, both are inextricably linked; every motion, every gesture implies a consequent motion or gesture. The failure of one entails the failure of the other. Nor is it a question of slavish abandon but, rather, of an exquisite sensitivity to mood and motion, a keen alertness. When a tango is successful, when it is complete, we move as one. A gain for one is not a loss for the other. There is no gain, there is no loss. In the closeness of the embrace, we surrender to each other.

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