February 15, 2020 § Leave a comment
Multitude, solitude: terms that are equivalent and convertible by the active and fecund poet. One who is unable to populate his solitude, is equally incapable of being alone in a bustling crowd.
Charles Baudelaire, “Crowds,” Petits Poèmes en Prose
Tango is a dance of solitude. In spite of its reputation, its mythology, its often misleading visual representations, at its heart it is the intimate encounter of largely solitary individuals in a communal setting. It is also, quite obviously, a dance of couples, possibly the most challenging of all social dances and one that forces us to reveal ourselves in unexpected ways. The traditional milonga provides the mise-en-scène for these brief interludes of union between two dancers, who are often strangers to one another or only passing acquaintances about whom we know little, sometimes not even their name.
Historically and by tradition, dancers are separated by sex and seated on opposite sides of the room—men on one side, women on the other. Formal couples, if there are any, are seated together. There is no requirement that dancers know one another and personal information is rarely shared. Invitations are wordless and gestural—the mirada, the use of the eyes to signal interest, and the cabeceo, the nod of the head, to indicate acceptance. Once acknowledged, the man approaches the woman, who remains seated, and offers his hand. Only then do they join the other couples on the dance floor. Sometimes introductions are made. Sometimes there is small talk. But none of it is necessary and silence is often preferable. After all, there is the music, the regular rhythm of their breathing, the beating of two hearts. To a large extent, verbal language, the chatter that transpires before and between songs, is superfluous and often distracting. For the dancers, there are other ways of communicating. When the tanda is over, the man accompanies his partner to her seat and they separate. Two solitary individuals once more. This man, this woman. A brief interlude of unfamiliar intimacy after which they may never see one another again. Of course, communities of dancers exist everywhere tango is practiced and, with time, faces become familiar and friendships may form, but they are not essential. What is necessary is the music and the setting and a man and a woman.
The embrace, the abrazo of tango, is itself a contradiction. It is the heart of tango, the most intimate and comforting of gestures, and yet it transpires between two individuals who may never have met before. We allow ourselves this privilege . . . and the risks it entails . . . because in this way we can get as close to the spirit of the music as humanly possible. And when it is over, we return to our anonymity, our unknownness. We resume our place as another face in a crowd of dancers.
The physical intimacy of the abrazo requires a corresponding element of etiquette. This is one of the reasons for the development of the codes, or codigos, of the traditional Argentine milonga, with its separate seating areas and guidelines governing things such as proper attire and behavior on the floor. The codes developed along with the dance and came to be seen as an integral part of its practice in Buenos Aires. Some of them, such as the use of the cabeceo, are near universal, but others have found little purchase in other parts of the world and among populations that have not experienced tango as an important element of their social and cultural heritage.
The nature of the codes, the appeal of anonymity, make sense when we consider the economic and political history of Argentina, especially the unrest it experienced throughout much of the 20th century. During that time, this rich and fertile land weathered a series of economic and political shocks that included coups, military dictatorships, and years of violent repression that suppressed public gatherings and punished political dissent and protest with a reign of terror that left its population reeling. It is the reason for the disappearance from view of tango as it went underground for a period of over twenty years—a different kind of violence and one experienced most acutely by its most ardent practitioners. (In fact there was more than one attempt to suppress tango in Argentina. Following the 1943 military coup, the government introduced “la ley seca,” which, in addition to its attempt to cleanse Argentinian Spanish of its use of lunfardo, the local slang of Buenos Aires, promulgated drinking laws that were largely aimed at suppressing tango. At bottom, the junta felt that tango was an inadequate symbol of national pride and turned to more folkloric elements of Argentinian culture. The ban on lunfardo (common in tango lyrics) was not lifted by Perón until 1949.)
During the period of its most extreme suppression, large public gatherings, considered to be a threat to the regime, were banned. It is of note that the conclusion of the Golden Age of tango, roughly 1954, was followed by the Plaza de Mayo bombing of 1955, led by anti-Perónist forces, and the overthrow of Perón’s government in September of that year. The “Dirty War” itself began, by some accounts, in 1969 (officially 1976-1983) and lasted until Argentina’s defeat in the Falkland Islands war with Great Britain in 1982. Only in 1983 was a democratically elected government returned to power. This suppression of a popular dance form, one that had served to define the country’s cultural heritage and national identity, helps to explain the seriousness and resolve with which traditional dancers approached the milonga following its restoration and revitalization upon the fall of the dictatorship. For many of these men and women, the milonga was a way of returning to the lost world of their youth and a way of working off the collective trauma resulting from years of violent repression.
Julie Taylor, in an incisive article on the parallels between tango and the Argentine grotesque, highlights the close relationship between the experience of national collective trauma and the need to comply with the codigos in the traditional milonga, or milonga pesada. For Taylor the clash or incongruity that dancers experience between the intimacy and solace of the abrazo and the return to anonymity upon the conclusion of the tanda is also a kind of violence. Violent as well is the potential for rejection or invisibility that may befall a dancer who fails to live up to expectations or commits a social faux-pas of some kind.
“These codes, then, are perceived by the dancers as violent. When we consider the level of violence enforced by the codes, in relation to the behavior typical of people marked by trauma . . . we begin to glimpse the reasons for the intimate anonymity of the milonga.”1
Further compounding the problem is the fact that rejection may last for an indeterminate period of time. The reasons for such rejection often remain unknown to the parties themselves. Because the codes impose strict rules of behavior on all participants, there are social penalties for failing to comply with them. (To put things into perspective, it is important to note that Taylor’s research was conducted in 2006 and based partly on person-to-person interviews at the milongas of Buenos Aires where the codigos were observed most stringently. Taylor is herself a longtime dancer of tango. It would be interesting to compare the feelings and behaviors of her correspondents with the historical record, especially the period from 1940 to 1953 when the codes were in full force and widely observed.) While similar circumstances do not apply to milongas in North America, Europe, and Asia, where the historical background is quite different and observation of the codes is inconsistent, the general framework remains (certainly at any milonga that considers itself “traditional”), as does the legacy of Argentinian cultural traditions embodied in the milonga format itself
It is important to clarify that Taylor is referring to a form of the grotesque often associated with Argentine theater. The theatrical grotesco was a subgenre of contemporary popular theater whose most prolific expression was found in the sainete, the popular farce that proliferated in small theaters throughout the city at the turn of the last century. While both forms trafficked in popular themes that appealed to the city’s large working class and immigrant population, the grotesco, in general, represented something different, namely a clash between expectation and reality, and a breakdown of ordinary mores.
“The action of the sainete unfolds in public spaces (tenement courtyards, streets, and bars), while that of the grotesco takes place in dark interiors and wretched store back rooms—spaces so oppressive they seem more like caves or prisons. This specialization addressed different objectives. Signs in the grotesco are ambiguous and uncertain because they are intended to demonstrate that institutions such as the family and the state have deteriorated. By contrast, the sainete proposes encounters, truces, and hopes, metaphorized in the racial and linguistic mix found in the conventillos, from which Argentina’s razza forte (mighty breed) will emerge.”2
More than anything, the grotesco seemed to signify dashed hopes and impossible dreams. We reach for the golden ring only to end up with a handful of clay. Our lot is to suffer disappointment and failure in spite of our outsized hopes and unfulfilled longings. In a word, the grotesque reflected the experience of the city’s poor and working class inhabitants, especially its recent immigrants, the same demographic that made tango so overwhelmingly popular in the early years of the 20th century. Although separated in time, we can trace a symbolic path between the theatrical grotesco criollo of early Buenos Aires, with its desperate hopes, unfulfilled promises, and impossible claims, largely undone by a reality of want and deprivation, and its mid-century embodiment in the milonga pesada, where the sublime rubs shoulders with the ridiculous. Though we enter as kings, we leave as jesters. As Taylor points out in her essay, the grotesco incorporates the presentation of opposites held in tension; the “moment of tension between human strengths and human failures.”
“The violence of this cacophonic moment further brings to light the idea that the milonga pesada traditionally involved many Argentines who are deeply marked by violence. The milonga provides them with the setting—a theater—that resonates with some of the behavior patterns that have emerged from their trauma. The incongruities of the resulting codes and aeshetics help us to see how in Argentina—and therefore perhaps elsewhere—the grotesque can help people speak to the unspeakable.” 3
It is easy to see this contrast of opposites play out more fully in the milonga pesada given its participants’ willingness to tolerate fairly strict codes of conduct, while also seeking the transcendance of the abrazo that would allow them to forget a troubled past, at least temporarily. Obviously, when removed from this context and, especially, outside of Buenos Aires, Taylor’s dialectic may or may not be quite as obvious or quite as forceful. However, the simultaneous presence of solitude and union, of violence and solace, in the singular moment of the embrace is, I believe, intrinsic to tango in general. Its effects may not always be as powerful or as obvious as they are in the milonga pesada, but they are an integral part of the experience of the dance nonetheless.
“O Solitude! You are my home, Solitude! Too long have I lived wild in wild and foreign lands for me not to come home to you in tears!”
Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Return Home,” Thus Spoke Zarathustra, tr. Graham Parkes (Oxford University Press, 2005)