October 24, 2019 § Leave a comment

Ritual: “a sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects, performed in a sequestered place, and performed according to a set sequence.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ritual]

There is an aspect of tango that is rarely discussed but seems to highlight what might contribute to the near universal consistency of the dance, namely, the experience of the milonga itself. For aside from the vagaries of individual climate, demographics, population density, location, and so on, milongas the world over largely follow a similar structure and sequence. Any milonga, anywhere, which claims to be a place where traditional Argentine tango is danced, will have features that are easily recognizable and highly characteristic: a DJ playing music from tango’s Golden Age organized into tandas of three or four songs separated by cortinas of markedly different music, the grouping of a single orchestra into a given tanda, the counterclockwise direction of the line of dance, the organization of the dance floor into outer and inner tracks, the use of the mirada/cabeceo to invite partners to dance, and so on. Obviously, there are local variants and differences between the more traditional venues in Buenos Aires and milongas elsewhere, where men and women seem to mingle to a far greater extent. However, in spite of the sometimes idiosyncratic nature of local events, the core elements rarely change.

What is it that makes this so, and what can be gleaned from the continuity of tango de salon throughout the decades? How and why have the core elements of tango remained largely unchanged and what is it that makes them so compelling? When examined from the perspective of its historical development—roughly from the early nineteen twenties to the mid-fifties, through its years of suppression and decline, and its subsequent global resurgence in the early nineties—we find a striking uniformity in the forms and attributes of the dance and its setting. And what seems most significant is the use of the milonga itself as a space for ritual.

A cursory examination of the qualities of ritual reveals that the milonga shares many of those same features. Ron Grimes lists a number of qualities typical of ritual practice. For Grimes, ritual is:

  • performed, embodied, enacted, gestural (not merely thought or said)
  • formalized, elevated, stylized (not ordinary, unadorned, or undifferentiated)
  • repetitive, redundant, rhythmic (not singular)
  • collective, institutionalized, consensual (not personal or private)
  • patterned, invariant, standardized, (not improvised, idiosyncratic, or spontaneous)
  • traditional, archaic, primordial (not invented or recent)
  • valued highly or deeply felt, meaningful, serious (not trivial or shallow)
  • condensed, multilayered (not obvious; requiring interpretation)
  • symbolic, referential (not merely technological or primarily means-end oriented)
  • perfected, idealized, pure, ideal (not conflictual or subject to criticism and failure)
  • dramatic, ludic (not without special framing or boundaries)
  • paradigmatic (not ineffectual in modeling either other rites or non-ritualized action)
  • mystical, transcendent, religious (not secular or merely empirical)
  • conscious, deliberate (not unconscious or preconscious)

[quoted in William G. Doty, “Sacrificial Scapegoating the Origin of Myth/Religion?” in Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2000)]

It should come as no surprise that some of the features in Grimes’s list do not apply, or not obviously, to the contemporary milonga (even the mid-twentieth-century milonga). More interesting is the fact that so many of them are relevant. We can elide the “mystical, transcendent, religious” aspect of the milonga, which is secular in nature, as well as its “perfected, idealized, pure” aspect, characteristic of religious rites and liturgies. But all of the other qualities Grimes presents do apply in one form or another. For example, it is quite obviously performative in nature, enacted, and gestural, dance being one of the most common forms of ritual expression throughout recorded history. It is formalized and stylized; repetitive and rhythmic. (This should not be construed to imply that the music is repetitive, only that the overall structure of the milonga varies little from place to place.) The milonga is a form of group experience and, therefore, collective in nature, always consensual, and, to some extent, institutionalized (loosely).

While not primordial or archaic (an attribute of dance itself, however, and not limited to tango and its immediate precursors), it is certainly traditional and, if the African origins of the earliest progenitors of modern tango (candombe, the early milonga) are accepted, would share in the dance heritage of the African peoples brought to Argentina as slaves.

As a dance and as a cultural lodestone, tango, specifically, the milonga in which it is enacted, is deeply meaningful to its most dedicated practitioners. Many older dancers speak of the experience of tango in deeply respectful, even reverential terms. For these men and women  it is more than simply a frivolous pastime. (See Monica Paz–Practimilonguero for a series of recent interviews.)

Ricardo Vidort, for example, has spoken of tango in these very terms. In one interview, he states:

Improving in a small place where the leader has to find the way in the middle of a crowd of dancers on the floor, taking care that no one bumps his partners, with both dancers in the beat and rhythm, embraced inside a vibration which cannot be compared to anything else. This is the therapy which liberates the soul. 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.

[See the Ricardo Vidort interview at Tango Chamuyo for a more complete transcription.]

While not everyone may experience tango as the sublime vibration Vidort speaks of, his comment points to the fact that the milonga was perceived by its devotees as something more than an amusing social event or a night out on the town. Conceptually, the space of the milonga was not that of a dance hall or nightclub (regardless of where it took place). It bespeaks a degree of involvement and intensity of presence atypical of social dances generally and more akin to a kind of physical epiphany.

The milonga is condensed, multilayered and, to return to Grimes’s list, not obvious, certainly not to the uninitiated. In spite of its cultural significance and global renown (largely through theater and tango shows), there is an esoteric element to tango in that there are clear barriers to entry (in this case, becoming proficient as a dancer and familiarizing oneself with the music) and considerable confusion as to its true nature. Learning the dance and its morés is itself a kind of initiation process. And how it appears to the outside world, to the nonpractitioner, has little to do with how it is experienced from within the community or by the individual dancer. While neither pure nor idealized, there exists what could be described as an “ideal” of tango, which is the perfection of a social dance form that can never be achieved, only approached. You could say there exists a “Platonic” tango but no one has ever or will ever reach that plane of perfection.

The symbolism of tango has developed over more than a century of waxing and waning practice, widespread popularity, and periodic suppression. It has developed its own iconography and its own mythology (as misleading and uncharacteristic as aspects of that mythology may be), largely associated with its uncertain origins and rapid development in the ferment of early twentieth-century Buenos Aires, with its dense immigrant population. Its symbolic associations have both contributed to its appeal (largely passive) and obscured its cultural importance and its significance for its most dedicated practitioners.

The ritualized interaction between men and women (all participants, really) before, during, and after a tanda embody elements of the dramatic and ludic characteristic of theater. But the dramatic nature of many tango songs has long been acknowledged and, of course, the dance itself lends itself to forms of dramatic posturing and playfulness. Tango lyrics attest to such dramatization, its iconography as well. Early tango lyrics are often a distorted mirror of a social reality experienced in daily life and reported in the daily press. While such lyrics are not necessarily contemporaneous with the events described, they capture the sense of poverty, loneliness, despair, sex, love, betrayal, jealousy, and, sometimes, death experienced by the city’s inhabitants. Additionally, many tangos (early milongas most likely) were popularized at small, local theaters in Buenos Aires, where they served as a musical accompaniment for the short, dramatic plays, or sainetes, that were staged there. These were ephemeral, often simple, productions that appealed to a popular crowd and were forgotten almost as quickly as they appeared.

The sainete’s imaginaries offered a view of the everyday, seeking to bring coherence to the spectator’s sense of social laterality within the urban experience. It seemed that any event in the everyday history (petite historic) of the city could resonate in theater performances. The sainete was verbose, stereotypical, populist, and melodramatic. It was the first modern discourse to record the immigrant city and to offer an image of a collective in a constant state of definition, transition, and change.

[Adriana J. Bergero, Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires, 1900-1930 (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008)]

The dance itself, coupled with the music that gave birth to it, embodies a form of drama most often found in the performing arts. Indeed, tango is one of the few popular dance forms that has been dramatized in feature films (Carlos Saura’s 1998 film Tango and Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson, being two of the best known examples) and received the benefit of staged dramatic productions that either center around tango or use it as a creative spur to more fully choreographed works, such as Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Milonga,” staged at New York’s City Center in 2015.

Whether it is mystical and transcendent is an open question. Tango is physical and performative in nature, and deeply rooted in the here and now. But, as the quote from Vidort attests, many of the older milongueros do speak of its ability to provide a sense of psychological well-being. Moreover, there have been several recent studies attesting to the physical and mental benefits of social dance generally. One such example of this sense of dissolving boundaries and elation appears in an article recently published in Scientific American:

Michael Kimmel, a social and cultural anthropologist who has researched the interpersonal dynamics of tango, writes that dancers “speak in awe of the way that individuality dissolves into a meditative unity for the three minutes that the dance lasts. Time and space give way to a unique moment of presence, of _flow_ within and between partners.”

[Julie Sedivy, “Can Another Body Be Seen as an Extension of Your Own?” Scientific American (January 2016)]

Kimmel’s quote condenses and reformulates what so many of the older generation of dancers have expressed in other, perhaps less nuanced, words. Vidort’s comment is only one of many that attests to the profound significance the dance holds for its practitioners.

And lastly, it is conscious and deliberate—there is nothing accidental or happenstance about tango.

Los Codigos

To a large extent, then, the milonga environment exhibits nearly all of Grimes’s characteristics for ritual behavior. Most of these are unspoken in the sense that practitioners, milongueros if we are speaking of the “Golden Age” through the recent past, were familiar with these aspects of the milonga and enacted them on the dance floor without the need to explicitly identify them as forms of ritual behavior. However, we have verbal and, in some cases, written reports of their presence in the codigos, or “codes,” of tango, which do describe the parameters for behavior at milongas. While not identified as elements of ritual per se, they functioned as such and played a key role in the efficacy of the milonga as a site for activities that were built around the dance. Tango was a transformative experience. And given the manner in which many milongueros have described the experience of dancing tango (passion! emotion! feeling! love!), this should come as no surprise.

(Given the large number of milongas active in Buenos Aires in the mid-twentieth century, it is possible that there were local variants of the codigos. Reports indicate that there were hundreds of milongas a day, some of which were formal and heavily attended, some of which were local and informal, attracting a small crowd largely from the local barrio. However, it is likely that, at all of them, the most fundamental aspects of the codigos were in play and the latent potential of the milonga always present.)

I have written elsewhere [Codigos] about the nature, importance, and longevity of the codigos in various forms. Here, I simply wish to point out the way they help codify and make explicit the traditional milonga’s function as a site of ritual. Although it may not have been specifically viewed as such by the dancers or musicians of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the fact of the existence of the codes, which stipulated consistent behaviors for dress, social interaction, and activity on the dance floor, allows for such an interpretation. Ritual serves as a kind of frame, helping to shape our experience and the way in which we interpret the world. It is not something that is done to us or for us but something we do for ourselves through our active participation. Our complicity is key. The following quote sheds some light on this aspect of ritual:

The performance of ritual creates a theatrical-like frame around the activities, symbols and events that shape participant’s experience and cognitive ordering of the world, simplifying the chaos of life and imposing a more or less coherent system of categories of meaning onto it. As Barbara Myerhoff put it, “not only is seeing believing, doing is believing.”

[“Ritual” article from Wikipedia]

The frame constitutes “a unique set of rules, expectations, and attitudes. . . . Within the ritual frame … messages are understood to be somehow true and real; another way to put this is that the ritual frame articulates that which is taken to be of ultimate, foundational, and fundamental value.” [Barry Stephenson, Ritual, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press)]

Although the physical space of a milonga may differ, sometimes considerably, from place to place, ranging from elegant, indoor spaces dedicated solely to tango or dance, to small ad hoc spaces contrived for the purpose of a local milonga, the conceptual frame holds and the performative elements of the milonga remain the same. Clearly, for this to be successful, for it to retain its potency and efficacy as a rite, it requires that the constituent elements remain consistent and are observed by the dancers. The codigos were an attempt to ensure that consistency and continuity.

Julie Taylor, in an insightful article on tango and the grotesque, highlights the ritual nature of the traditional milonga and its relation to a kind of national malaise resulting from the many years of economic uncertainty and political repression experienced in Argentina. Locally, tango functioned as a response to various national crises that had profound repercussions on the individual psyche of the country’s citizens.

In this light, the milonga might be seen as an institutionalized ritual arising from what some Argentines call a grotesque experience, an aesthetic creation of a particular culture, echoed by other creations of the same culture. The milonga, like other grotesques, evokes dissonance rather than harmony. It responds to the many forms of violence inflicted on individual lives, in this case over the course of more than a century of entry, expulsion, and reentry into an ever more globalized macro-economy.

[Julie Taylor, “Death Dressed As a Dancer: The Grotesque, Violence, and the Argentine Tango,” TDR (1988-), Vol. 57, No. 3 (Fall 2013), 117-131]

It should be noted that the grotesque here represents a “moment of tension between human strengths and human frailties, a tension that dancers at some level know that the milonga triggers.”

In what sense is this important? I believe an acknowledgment of the ritual frame serves as a useful reminder in trying to reorient the contemporary milonga in the channels in which it has flowed for so many decades. The modern world is not that of the thirties, forties, or fifties, and this is especially true outside of Buenos Aires, in places that do not share its history. Tango today is practiced in cultures wildly different from its place of origin. Yet it is helpful to focus on what made tango and the milongas where it was practiced such a vibrant and important aspect of Argentine and, specifically, porteño, society for so many years. There is and will continue to be a constant push-pull between old and new, modern and atavistic, where some contemporary dancers want to push back the borders of traditional social tango and let it flow into new channels. Acknowledging the ritual elements of the milonga allows us to situate ourselves comfortably within a tradition and its morés without the pressure of having to redefine the dance for today. It also allows us to tap into what might be described as the “healing power” of tango, pinpointed by Taylor in her article and alluded to by Vidort and many of the milongueros interviewed by Monica Paz and others. It is why I believe it is mistaken to treat the traditional milonga, no matter where it takes place, as a “party” or “event” in which the primary goal is one of amusement, entertainment, or fun. This is not to say that it shouldn’t be enjoyable, even an occasion for rapturous joy—by all means, yes to that. But its joys are of a deeper, less visible sort. Tango offers us the opportunity to experience a moment of profound harmony, a nonverbal but deeply felt form of identification with someone who may be a complete stranger. The dance extends its hand in a gesture of welcome. All we have to do is grasp it.

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