January 21, 2022 § Leave a comment

"Like any dealer he was watching for the card
That is so high and wild
He'll never need to deal another"
Leonard Cohen, The Stranger Song

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

It is commonly accepted in the field of financial investment that there is no reward without risk and, generally, the greater the risk, the greater the reward or, at least, its possibility. The safest investments, such as government bonds, provide steady income and little to no risk when held to maturity. However, in this case, potential gains are muted. Equities, which provide much higher returns, vary greatly in terms of their volatility, from the relative stability of blue-chip companies to the sudden, large movements of small-cap stocks. Currency, precious metals, and bitcoin are for the truly adventurous, those willing to gamble on speculative investments that exhibit high swings in value. In general, when it comes to investing, our appetite for risk largely determines the type of investor we will become.

The theater of possibilities

The milonga is a theater of possibilities, where any number of scenarios can unfold. Every tanda, every dance, even the milonga as a whole presents us with the opportunity for various forms of interaction. All human interactions entail risks “of failure, exposure, and rejection,” but such risks “also hold out the promise of rewards if those hazards can be circumvented.”[1] The milonga is no exception. The notion of success or failure in this case is largely subjective, tied as it is to the question of personal satisfaction and expectation. To introduce an element of rigor, we would first have to define what we are measuring and our criteria for success. For example, what would a favorable outcome look like and how would we measure it? Where do we fall on that gradient? What exactly are our expectations? Does it even make sense to speak of success in terms of an undertaking so heavily dependent on personal feeling. (Were this a competition, there would presumably be some kind of objective measure of success or failure, or, at least, a ranking system, the kind we find in dance contests. However, the milonga is a place for social dancing not an Olympic event. Dancers may “compete” in subtle and not-so-subtle ways but competition is not the purpose of the milonga.)

In such a context, what exactly do we risk and what exactly do we gain? The consequences here, unlike high-risk sports or high-stakes gambling, are relatively small but nonetheless real. Ineptness, awkwardness, a lack of musicality or confidence, a lack of “skill” (however defined), repetitiveness, disruptiveness or a failure to conform to the social mores of the local community of dancers can lead to feelings of embarrassment, loss of face, self-doubt, shame, even rejection. Such emotional responses may be slight in the grand scheme of things yet consequential for the dancer who “fails” in some way. There are myriad ways to come down on the wrong side of risk.

Of course, it’s possible, even likely, that we have established our own criteria for what constitutes success, but that doesn’t make its absence any less biting. Losses and gains in such cases are harder to evaluate (being private and amorphous) and, unlike a coin toss, neither clear-cut nor absolute. Head or tail? The reward may be nothing more than our self-satisfaction, a sense of esteem or pride, of recognition or acknowledgement by others, or by our dance partner. There are manifold subtle ways in which each of these modalities can play out. They are important and ever present but not the crux of the matter.

The Dice Players by Georges de La Tour
Georges de La Tour, The Dice Players

Maybe, what we should really be asking is whether it even makes sense to speak of expectations? The concept of success in this context implies that we can measure things such as satisfaction and disappointment, or establish a fixed scale against which we can rank ourselves and others. (Interestingly, some individuals can and do approach such things from a purely quantitative point of view. For example, “I’ve danced five tandas tonight. My evening has been a big success and I’m going home.”) But this ignores the fact that intermediate outcomes are possible, even likely. Having an expectation of success already forecloses the possibility of other outcomes, including those that are unexpected or aleatory, or those that fall short of “success” but are nevertheless fulfilling in surprising ways.

“SIGNS: Whether he wishes to prove his love or is trying to determine whether the other loves him, the subject in love has no reliable system of signs at his disposal.”
Roland Barthes, Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse, “The Uncertainty of Signs.”

If success here were assured, there would be no risk, no consequences and, therefore, very little possibility of reward, for we would be certain of the outcome in advance. And the likelihood is great that the removal of the element of “consequential chance,” intrinsic to risk, will lead to boredom or disillusionment. (“Everything turned out just as expected.”) Could this be the reason dancers stop dancingbecause there is nothing to look forward to, no further sense of discovery, no possibility of failure? (Setting aside, for the moment, the many external constraints that prevent people from dancingwork, family, school, illness, travel, financial loss.) Uncertainty in other endeavors has been shown to be a motivating factor, a spur to action. It is not simply the possibility of success or reward that drives us, apparently, but the potential for discovering the unknown. So, while uncertainty may create anxiety, it is also a source of hope. It is what keeps us coming back to the milonga. It implies that, if the potential for disappointment is real, so too is the possibility of new forms of emotional fulfillment.

There is similar tension in activities such as surfing, a pastime not without risks, occasionally life-threatening. Yet the search for the “perfect wave,” the ability to balance on the cusp of oblivion for as long as possible, has driven surfers to travel around the world on an endless quest for a kind of perfection. The risks, often considerable, are considered a suitable trade-off for the potential rewards. Erving Goffman, in his book Interaction Ritual, speaks of surfing as one of many voluntarily assumed endeavors that involve high levels of riskmountain climbing, automobile racing, and sky diving are others. He speaks of the capacity for bodily self-control asked of surfers and the need for “physical poise” as an essential element of the sport. Poise, balance, equilibrium, “bodily self-control” are central elements of tango as well. It is a dance that is, to a large extent, dependent on composure and confidence for its execution.

Goffman writes about the significance of risky or “consequential” undertakings in life and his comments are apposite here. “However, there is some ambivalence about safe and momentless living. Some aspects of character can be easily affirmed, but other aspects can be neither expressed nor earned safely. Careful, prudent persons must therefore forego the opportunity to demonstrate certain prized attributes; after all, devices that render the individual’s moments free from fatefulness also render them free from new information concerning himfree, in short, from significant expression. As a result, the prudent lose connection with some of the values of society, some of the very values that portray the person as he should be. . . . Enterprises are undertaken that are perceived to be outside the normal round, avoidable if one chose, and full of dramatic risk and opportunity. The greater the fatefulness, the more serious the action.” [2]

Like surfing, tango has been said to be obsessional, even addictive. These aren’t terms to be thrown around lightly. Yet it is quite clear that, at a certain point, tango can become something integral, even essential to our definition of self. And the hard work and effort, the discipline required to improve in tango can bleed into other aspects of our life in positive ways. The comments of many lifelong dancers would seem to support this view. Ricardo Vidort, during an interview, described it this way: “Tango is a choice of a moment for all your life. When the obsession is finished, you realize tango will be inside you for all your life, like a feeling that never dies.” The momentousness of this choice, aside from whatever attractions the overall social experience itself may holddressing for an evening out, meeting friends, having a drink, sharing gossiplies in the value of the potential rewards the dance itself affords. These are emotional but also, perhaps primarily, physical and distinctly different from whatever satisfactions other aspects of our life may provide (professional or economic success, marriage and family). Tango inhabits its own space.

For the one who risks, the tinge of loss will always hover nearby. Were tango a “safe investment,” it would be boring, secure, innocuous almost by definition. Yes, it would offer the customary benefits of socializing, and these are important. But we do not attend milongas only to socialize, we go to dance. Tango has been called many things, described in many ways, but it is really about desire. While physical pleasure is certainly a part of tango, its much touted “sexual” nature is probably the least interesting and most misleading aspect of the dance. Desire can be about sexuality but it is mostly about wanting, about a lack, about the absence of something essential that we can’t readily put a name to. Whatever potential risk we face in the process of answering that need should be considered not only a spur to our commitment but a path to further discovery. It is why we return, hoping for the “high and wild” tanda that allows us to forget everything else and live fully and expressively in the moment.

At this particular moment, the very large elephant in the room entails a risk that is far more concrete and far more consequential than that of the milonga, namely, the risk of Sars-CoV-2. The virus has become something of a permanent presence in our lives for the past two years, and it should come as no surprise that it has affected the tango community, leading to the lengthy closure, slow reopening, and now (January 2022) renewed closure of most events. But the potential harm carried by the virus affects everyone, not only the tango community. It presents us with an existential risk that transcends the narrow borders of the milonga. We can follow the protocols and take all the necessary precautions but we cannot isolate ourselves from the more generalized dangers it presents to society at large, which are not only physical but economic and social as well. The members of our local community have been good citizens in this respect and the organizers have followed best practices since the return to tango and should be commended for doing so. However, like everyone else, we are at the mercy of a rapidly mutating virus and will have to wait for a return to some kind of “normalcy” before we can again think of dancing “safely.” Perhaps then we can look forward to the more ordinary emotional and psychological risks of the ronda.

  1. Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual (Aldine Transaction, (1967) 2008), x.
  2. Ibid, 260.

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