Tango Lessons

September 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

There’s a new book out from Duke University Press, edited and with an introduction by Marilyn G. Miller, called Tango Lessons. In it are a series of essays on tango and its social, cultural, and visual manifestations. It is not a history of tango or a guide to how it is danced but a snapshot of tango as it is practiced today. There are essays on pictorial representations of tango, tango in film, and an interesting article on the development of Lunfardo and its presence in song lyrics and poetry. There’s an essay on Borges and his literary mythologizing of tango by Alejandro Susti and two essays on modern interpretations of classical tango music: “Contemporary Tango and the Cultural Politics of Música Popular” by Morgan James Luker and “Gotan Project’s Tango Project” by Esteban Buch. There’s a useful glossary and an extensive bibliography. The most interesting essay, however, and one that relates more directly to my interests is entitled “‘Manejame como un auto’: Drive Me Like a Car, or What’s So New about Tango Nuevo?” by Carolyn Merritt.

The essay attempts to position tango nuevo not simply as an alternative to traditional tango, the tango of the milongas and milongueros, but also as a reorientation of gender roles by the young in Buenos Aires in response to the perceived bias of traditional tango. The “new” tango is seen as eliminating or reversing the conventional  “lead-follow” dichotomy by creating a dance without leaders or followers, in which the contributions of both parties are roughly equivalent. Merritt presents interviews with several “nuevo” practitioners, who claim that women achieved greater autonomy and a more fuller access to information in tango nuevo than they had in traditional embodiments of tango. The author describes how younger women in Buenos Aires have rebelled against what they perceive as just another expression of male domination in the distribution of roles in tango. This dichotomy has been expressed in various ways: lead/follow, active/passive, strong/weak, and so on. Merritt goes on to describe the traditional approach to gender and sexuality in Argentine culture prior to the 1990s and the more nuanced approach that followed the introduction of tango nuevo, although she doesn’t assert the existence of a causal link between them.

It’s an interesting essay and worth reading if you want to get a fix on the changing face of tango in the 21st century. But I’d like to again address this notion of leading and following because it seems to crop up repeatedly in discussions of tango and the roles and responsibilities of dancers. While the terms are commonly used for the sake of convenience and clarity, I doubt there are many today who would challenge the idea that tango is a dance enacted by two partners, each of whom plays an equal, but not identical, part in its expression. The outmoded image of the dashing adventurer (cue Rudolph Valentino dressed as a gaucho!) sweeping a hapless female off her feet has, hopefully, dissipated (not that it was ever accurate or truly representative). This was, even from its inception, a romantic cliché that never captured the social reality of tango or its growth (music, lyrics, and dance). So, hopefully, we can set that image aside and address the more deeply ingrained patterns of male domination, machismo, and sexuality prevalent in contemporary cultures. These are real issues with significant consequences and have rightly been the subject of extensive discussion.

There is an interesting passage in Merritt’s essay where she addresses the notion of “machismo” and its relation to the larger culture. I’d like to quote it in full.

Tango and machismo have become so intertwined in the global imaginary that their connection may (mistakenly) appear to be somehow causal. But machismo is not an element of the dance itself, and this linking of the two ignores the fact that the essence of the dance depends upon a social connection. The threat of machismo lies in the practices of individuals themselves, and in the relationship they must establish within the embrace. As one porteño teacher reminded me, this relationship is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding—especially in Buenos Aires, where the two dancers are often communicating across linguistic, cultural, and generational divides. While the foreign tanguera might ascribe her porteño partner’s behaviors to the macho culture of tango, machismo is not a problem specific to the dance. Ultimately, each exchange on the dance floor, and any problem that may arise within it, is the product of the two individuals who meet in an embrace (Tango Lessons, 190).

And she continues:

The differences that separate us—language, culture, worldview—are subsumed in the moment of the dance, and this ability to converse through tango may facilitate communication outside of the embrace. In short tango may have something to teach us about accepting difference, about allowing—even enjoying—contradiction, about honoring the existence of self and other (Tango Lessons, 190-191).

Merritt, to her credit, places the burden of responsibility on the individual, where it belongs. What is lost in the focus on leading and following as strictly gender-based is the need for both partners to connect with one another and, perhaps more importantly, with the music. A more fruitful way to look at the interrelation of roles in tango is that of a shared interpretation of the music, which is, or should be, the driving force behind the dance. In a sense, both partners follow the imperatives of the music. They may do so in different ways, but nonetheless good dancing (“musicality”) is characterized by the ability to dance with and in the musical phrase. Once (if) we are able to do this, once our movements become an expression of the music, the distinction between leading and following, the need to assign roles and responsibilities, begins to fall away. At some point, if the man and the woman are really communicating through the music, the man may follow the woman through the simple fact of keeping up with her movements. The man may initiate a movement, a figure, a step, but it is the woman who enacts it. When both partners are fully in synch with the music, in a sense, they become the music, and in that moment tango is created.

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