The Truth of Tango

October 12, 2022 § Leave a comment

“Steps, attitudes, the embrace, and closed eyelids allow one to live a fiction, to act out as characters in a fleeting novel that nevertheless expresses something that’s true, that is no less authentic for being imaginary. Dancing tango puts the adamant, indomitable potency of desire on stage.” (Edgardo Cozarinsky [1])

“Tango is a feeling.”

In a video interview, recorded shortly before his death in 2006, Ricordo Vidort, a man who had been dancing for decades in the milongas of Buenos Aires, said that tango was “a feeling,” something you have inside you and carry with you. It’s a curious way to describe a dance that had generated glowing praise and harsh criticism in equal proportions during its infancy. And it fails to address any of the external characteristics of the dance, the things that might distinguish it from other social dances or highlight its uniqueness and cultural significance. 

But Vidort wasn’t alone in his vision of the dance. Many men and women of his generation, regular fixtures at the local milongas, were equally parsimonious in their descriptions, referring to tango sometimes as a “feeling,” sometimes as “passion,” sometimes as “love” or “emotion.” Simple words, vague, diffuse, and hard to pin down, they tell us little about what we wish to know. About the why’s and wherefores of the dance. In a sense, their responses are a way of deflecting the question with another question, for, implied in those brief statements, is the reluctance or inability to explain exactly what is behind them, what they represent. Of course, there is the dictionary definition, which will show us the contours of the thing—that tango is a dance, as well as a body of music, with a certain structure, which came into being in a certain place at a certain time. But in this case, all we are left with are reference points, coordinates, teasing hints and misleading clues, a bit like those found on an old treasure map. A tantalizing bit of information, but not enough to disclose the treasure concealed beneath our feet. Or, to shift the metaphor slightly, it is as if we had been sent a box or container, one traveling from Buenos Aires, say, to Paris or New York. Maybe the box contained some of that highly regarded grass-fed Argentinian beef, which was shipped out in such large quantities to Europe a century ago, helping to make Argentina a wealthy country. But upon arrival, the box was empty. Nothing but a void. The meat of the matter gone. 

“Put all the meat on the fire.”

The above words were spoken not in reference to a barbecue but to tango. The idiom is Argentine and expresses the fact that if we going to do something, we should do it well and with feeling. The words were intended as a form of criticism, spoken in a uniquely milonguero context, specifically with reference to the way in which one dances, the upshot being that, when it comes to tango, we must dance like we mean it or not at all, there are no half measures. It’s a sensible admonition, but we will have to go hungry for the moment. The question we first need to answer is what’s inside the black box of tango? We have the laconic statements of personal belief, based on experience, and we have the dictionary definition, based on historical sources. We have a large number of sociological and cultural studies as well. And shouting from the sidelines are tango’s many admirers and outspoken detractors, many of them quite notable. Borges, for example, was no fan of mature tango [2], whose music he considered a betrayal of its origins. For him it had become nostalgic, sentimental, Italianate—qualities typical of many tangos of the Golden Age. And he felt that the songs of Argentina’s favorite crooner, Carlos Gardel, with his smooth-edged vocals and polished delivery, were the death knell of tango. In 1916 Leopoldo Lugones, in a now famous quote, described tango as a “serpent born in a brothel.” More recently, British journalist Angela Rippon wittily referred to it as the “vertical expression of a horizontal desire.” But these jibes are not the thing itself, they are not the truth of tango. They are the commentary of the uninitiated, of the observer.

Where, then, do we begin to look for the contents of that empty box? The sentiments of the men and women who condensed a lifetime of experience into a word had to have been formed somewhere, somehow. So, logically, if we are going to look anywhere, we should look at the milonga, the place where tango happens, and at the dance floor itself, with its slowly moving circle of closely entwined couples revolving, like planets in a solar system, around an absent sun. What does this tell us about tango’s latent meaning or it’s truth though? To an outside observer, to someone who is not part of the tango community, probably not much—the sound of some unknown yet vaguely familiar music perhaps, a crush of bodies moving, seemingly at random, to an unheard rhythm. And yet, if the words of the milongueros have any meaning at all, if they even begin to approximate tango’s truth, it is to be found here.

I recall the first time I was brought to a milonga by a friend—this was several years before I began studying tango. The event was held weekly at a large restaurant in midtown Manhattan. A space in the front had been set aside for dancing and there was a long bar near the entrance. There was a DJ with a laptop, there were a couple of speakers on stands, and circling the dance floor, no more than 20-feet square, a small crush of dancers. The music would play for a while, three or four songs, then stop, broken by a curtain of entirely unrelated music, then begin again but somewhat differently. People sat down, then got up to dance in what seemed mysterious pairings; there were no permanent couples in the group. It felt more like a ritual than a party. The moment was lighthearted but it wasn’t exactly a celebration. Later, stepping out into the springtime air, I had no distinct impression or sense of urgency about becoming a member of that strange community. And yet, something must have left its mark.

Fundamentals

As a dance, there are two things that characterize Argentine tango: the walk and the embrace, or abrazo. Tango is said to be a “walking” dance and by that is meant that all of its movements are built upon a way of walking or stepping. Of course, over nearly a century of development, many refinements and complexities have been added to its original forms (in tandem with the development of more sophisticated music), but the step, the motion of walking, the cadencia, remains a consequential element of the dance. In tango, how well one walks often determines how well one dances.

The other bedrock element of tango is the embrace, the abrazo, which is typical of tango and makes it unique among partner dances. The abrazo (literally, a hug) is not simply a frame, a context; it is not a tool or decorative element but the essence of the dance. It is not the physical contact alone that is important here but the nature of that contact. There is physical contact in ballroom dancing, for example, and in many other dances, but they are radically different. The abrazo of tango is centered on the heart; it is derived, quite literally, from the embrace, the kind in which we wrap our arms around someone’s shoulders and hold them tightly to ourselves. In traditional tango, this chest connection is maintained throughout the dance. And in those moments of stillness before the dance or when we pause, we can synchronize our heartbeats and our breathing. We are one organism.

The closeness of the dancer’s bodies is both a limitation and a release. While it may inhibit certain movements and restrict us to those that can be enacted when in close proximity, with experience we come to understand that tango doesn’t require great complexity or acrobatic maneuvers to be beautiful or profound. The fundamentals are enough—this is what the old milongueros have always said (although their dancing was often quite sophisticated). We can, of course, make our movements elegant and refined through training and experience, and that’s a laudable goal, but they are meaningless without good fundamentals. At the same time, this simplicity frees us, for it allows us to focus on the music and, most importantly, our partner, and exposes us to the profound humanity of the person in our arms. Through our embrace, if it is heartfelt, if it is sincere, we bring that person into ourselves and, in so doing, also expose ourselves to them. There is some risk involved because we must do two contradictory things simultaneously: we must take control of our dance through technique, musicality, and so on, we must guide it, shape it, but we must also, and perhaps most importantly, surrender to it, we must give up a certain kind of control. If we are to let a stranger get close to us, we must lower our defenses, we must trust them; only then does all the hard-won business of form and technique disappear and merge into the continuous movement of the couple as a single entity. 

From this subjective perspective, tango can be viewed as an amalgam of desire, empathy, sensuality, exhiliration, uncertainty, and fear. Vidort’s comment above aligns well with Carlos Gavito’s criticism that you cannot teach feeling, you have it or you don’t. You can teach technique, you can teach the mechanics of the dance, specific steps or movements, but you cannot teach or impart feeling. And he chided students for pretending to feel by overdramatizing without really understanding what tango was all about or what it meant. Gavito’s own public performances often appear to be overheated displays of passion. A paradigm of tango as it is construed in the popular imagination. But Gavito, unlike his students, had the cultural authority, the technical skill, and the prestige to pull it off. The short video excerpt below is taken from Forever Tango, the very successful stage show that toured the world starting in 1994. As such, it is a performative act, a spectacle of sorts. Forever Tango was a dramatic recreation of the historic evolution of tango and, as in the clip below, a visual enactment of passion. As such, it bears little or no resemblance to the subtle and sober gestures of the milonga, which are not intended for an audience. 

Carlos Gavito and Marcela Duran in Forever Tango

Tango’s truth arrives as a revelation, a sudden and unexpected realization, an experience of abandonment, a dissolution of the self within the couple. It is a condition in which we walk a fine line between surrender—the loss of self in a waking dream—and the need to remain aware of our circumstances, to be alive to the universe around us: the music, the other dancers, and the intricacies of our movements. The “truth” of tango abides not in the fact that it is “traditional” but in its ability to create moments of sudden and unexpected intimacy within the complexity of the dance. The suddenness of its arrival and the intensity of its force are also its truth. The fact that it is fleeting in no way diminishes its reality or its beauty, a beauty, moreover, that is not guaranteed, for we can dance traditionally and fail to grasp this truth, even suppress it. Tango is not, at its core, a means of proclaiming our individuality, a forum for self-expression, or a structure in which to display artistry. While these may be understable, even praiseworthy, goals in certain contexts, they are somewhat misleading, like those equivocal clues on a treasure map. There is really only one dance, made by two people who create something together. There is no his or hers, there is only us.

Come to us, fire!

We are avid

For sight of day,

And when the ordeal

Has passed through the knees,

Woodsong is within hearing. [3]


1. Edgardo Cozarinsky, Milongas, translated by Valerie Miles (Archipelago Books, 2022), 131.

2. “For Borges, therefore, the fact that the non-professional composers of the first tangos did not take themselves or their tangos too seriously, or put differently, that their composition was disinterested, accounts not only for the aesthetic and ethical superiority of the early tangos, but also, may explain why they have endured.”  John Turci-Escobar, “‘Era de lo más pobre y de lo más lindo’: Reconsidering Jorge Luis Borges’s Views on the Tango,” Variaciones Borges, 43 (2017), 81.

3. Friedrich Hölderlin, from “The Ister,” translated by Richard Sieburth in Hymns and Fragments (Princeton University Press, 1984).

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