What’s love got to do with it?

May 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

Para mí el tango es amor
Juan Lencina


agapé: “spontaneous self-giving love expressed freely without calculation of cost or gain to the giver or merit on the part of the receiver.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged


Monica Paz has conducted a number of interviews with the milongueros and milongueras of Buenos Aires, men and women who have been dancing for decades [Monica Paz interviews]. At the end of the interview, she asks her subjects to describe tango in one word. Often, that word is “passion” or “emotion” or “a feeling.” Although expressive, these are vague terms that seem to dance around the question. Interestingly, and perhaps more to the point, I have never heard (or read, many of the interviews have subtitles) any of her interview subjects describe tango as “fun” or “creative,” or even a form of “self-expression.” For them, this dance, expressed within the confines of the couple, is personal and private. Whatever their talent may be (and her interview subjects are, by and large, the best of the best, individuals who have spent a lifetime perfecting their tango), these men and women rarely display any interest in performance as an end in itself or even as something essential to tango. But they have spent a lifetime cultivating a deep attachment to a social dance that is, simultaneously, casually public and intensely private.

“Which is the best dancer? The one who shows that he knows a lot or the one who tries to give you his heart, his feeling? I believe in the last one.” Ricardo Vidort

Both Ricardo Vidort and Carlos Gavito, for example, have described tango as a “feeling”: something internal, private, and non-transferrable. Both men are explicit in stating that this “feeling” is something that cannot be taught but must be developed, must be cultivated by the dancer [Interview with Ricardo Vidort and Interview two with Ricardo Vidort]. It is a quality that has to unfold organically from within. It has little or nothing to do with technique or virtuosity and everything to do with an individual’s approach to the dance. And both men are equally emphatic when they focus on the commitment required to dance tango. Vidort—and I’m paraphrasing—says that when we dance tango, we need to give it everything we have, that we must dance like we mean it, otherwise it’s a waste of time. Gavito is equally emphatic (in a vague kind of way) when he describes the essence of the dance as a “feeling,” the thing that allows its beauty to emerge: “Solamente el sentimiento le da comprensión y belleza.” Unique to the dancer, it is something that cannot be taught. It can, however, be shared.

Cuando dejás de bailar el tiempo, es cuando empezás a bailar el sentimiento. El sentimiento no tiene tiempo: tiene alma, tiene espíritu.” Carlos Gavito

A “feeling” of what, though? What sort of “passion”? The descriptors used in these interviews cover a lot of ground, from the banal to the sublime. Some of us are passionate about gardening or knitting, others have a feeling for art or poetry, grow emotional when we hear an aria from Madame Butterfly or a song by Sinatra. Who is to say? Clearly, they can’t all be the same. The dictionary discriminates among several senses of the word “passion”—from individual enthusiasm to sexual love, a very broad spread along the spectrum of meaning. (Etymologically, the word is derived from the post-Classical Latin, passio, or suffering, from the verb patir, which is itself derived from Greek pathos. It is in this sense that we speak of the Passion of Christ. In many instances of early usage, a passio is a disease. Passion as a disease of the soul or the mind. It is often said that to love is to suffer.)

Maybe I can relate this to something I had written earlier about the abrazo in tango and its centrality [“In the loving calm of your arms”]. All of the dancers interviewed by Paz are old-school milongueros and dance within that tradition (Gavito is somewhat unique in that he defined a style that was his own but is a tributary of that older or, perhaps, parallel tradition.) For practitioners of the “milonguero” tradition, the abrazo is central to tango and, one could say, is what distinguishes Argentine tango from other dances. (The terminology is somewhat confused but helps to identify a way of dancing that has typified tango for many years, notably the “tango estilo del centro” danced in downtown Buenos Aires. For a detailed discussion of the various “styles” of tango de salon and the relevant nomenclature see: TangoVoice: tango-estilo-del-centro.) But as important as it is in defining and limiting the contours of the dance, the embrace of tango does something more than determine the scope of our movements, for it allows us to immediately and directly engage physically with another person. In tango we do something, often with a stranger, that is generally limited to our family, our lovers, our closest friends, but is otherwise proscribed. The embrace is an expression of sympathy, affection, protection, love, desire, need, tenderness, and is essential to healthy human psychological development. This is reflected in countless images, in painting and sculpture throughout the ages. It is both natural and necessary but something we are often guarded about, something we hold in reserve. (Is it surprising that tango originated in Buenos Aires, a “Latin” country, a country of the global South? A dance of such intimacy could never have originated in the United States, with its Puritan past and historical sense of shame about the physical body or public displays of affection. Instead, we gave the world clogging and the turkey trot.)


Madonna and Child (Bellini)


Camille Claudel – La Valse – 1905


In a way, tango, at its best, is an amalgam of these sentiments, a way of reaching out to the stranger and bringing them inside our protective embrace. In so doing, we temporarily form a unified being whose movements follow the shape of the music. It is this gesture of creating a space in which we can share something of ourselves with another, give ourselves to another that makes tango so deeply satisfying—a kind of dispensation.

And the abrazo offers more than “communication,” which we hear so much about in tango. It transcends the notion of dancing for our partner or the subtleties of leading and following. As important as these are, they are not what makes the dance so compelling. There is something deeper and more personal that tango “milonguero” allows us to express—if we are willing to let it. There is a beautiful passage in Barthes’s Fragments of a Lover’s Discourse where he speaks of tenderness. He writes: “Sexual pleasure is not metonymic: once enacted, it ceases to exist. . . . Tenderness, on the contrary, can only be metonymically infinite, insatiable; to interrupt the gesture, the episode of tenderness (the delicious harmony of an evening) can only be painful: everything seems to be called into question: the return of rhythm, the separation from nirvana.” Infinite.

Whether we can achieve nirvana through tango I am unqualified to answer. But to appreciate its true potential, we have to open ourselves up to our partner, we have to make ourselves vulnerable, push our ego into the background and dance with courage and humility. Ultimately, and in its fullest expression, it is an act of love.

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