In last weeks post I left off with a brief summary about the dramatic history of Argentine tango. With tango week just around the corner, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the distinctive intricacies surrounding the dance and culture, and how they have inspired me and driven me crazy all at once!
What’s all the Fuss About?
Tango came to be what it is today in part because of its striking, sullen history.
Built upon a tempestuous past, this formerly small town became populated overnight with an explosion of single men who emigrated from Europe in the late 1800’s to develop Buenos Aires’s infrastructure. Working a world away from their families and without female companionship, brothels became a popular place to spend time. The intense competition amongst brothels caused owners to hire musicians who played tango music. From its inception, tango lyrics blamed women for the heartache, longing, anger and other intense emotions that were compounded by having to compete over so few available women; Early on the dance was equally intense in its aggressiveness and sexuality. This should be no surprise In a city that had 100,000 more men than women in the early 1900’s.
Cultural traditions and unbalanced demographics of gender led to customs like men having to practice dancing with each other, sometimes for years before being able to dance with (and subsequently court) a woman of his choosing. This also contributed to complex movements, relationships and stern standards of etiquette, which ultimately fueled a blend of passionate emotion and aggressiveness expressed in (aspects of) the music and dance. When combined with the detailed intricacies of the dance, and the lengthy time and effort required to learn it, it is no wonder why many of its long-standing traditions seem to be fueled by such austere sentiment.
Cultural Customs vs. Modern Movements
After all but disappearing in the 1950’s, tango re-emerged in the 1980’s then went through a transformation in the 90’s with a new style of music and dance that reflected the changing times. This tango nuevo, literally translated as new tango, differs from its original predecessor in its relaxed, modern feel and departure from the strict customs of the milongas of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Even today most traditional milonga’s (tango socials) tend to uphold many of the old school customs and attitudes from decades past, including separate seating for men and women and dinner accompanying the event, generally with only serious tango dancers in attendance. Other prevailing traditions are the non-verbal invitation to ask someone for a dance, called a cabeceo (head nod), in which the man nods his head toward his desired partner, who then nods in response to accept or decline his invitation to the dance floor. The rules about the line of dance (as in other ballroom styles) adhere to couples traveling in a counter-clockwise direction. However at traditional milongas in Argentina, stopping to showcase adornments (fancy moves) is highly frowned upon,
and in some cases cause for being ejected from the dance! The emphasis is instead placed upon the couples’ embrace, allowing them to experience an emotional connection during the tanda (3 or 4 song sequence), in which a couple is expected to dance together before changing partners during the cortina (brief musical break in between song sets).
At most traditional milongas you will find most couples looking quite serious while in total silence, while some followers keep their eyes closed as they focus deeply on their footwork, music and shared connection. These displays were a complete shock to my system and have taken some time getting used to. Particularly in my case having come from such opposite extremes of social dance like salsa, where many people sing along out loud to the lyrics of songs as they dance; or samba, where the exuberance and effervescence of the large bateria (percussion band) is translated into joyful, high-energy, pulsating rhythms that stir the soul and create a celebratory Carnaval atmosphere. In many hip-hop scenes, crowds form around groups of dancers, cheering each other on in a competitive yet comradely dance battle. Although inherently different, each of these dance scenes share some common traits, like having fewer rules with less formalities and having to focus in noisy conditions. So although some find a beauty and simplicity in tango’s silence and stillness, I must admit that I found it extremely challenging to adapt my animated, sociable personality within its conservative confines.
A Jarring Journey
I talk fast, walk fast and for years have thrived doing fast dances. I liken being whipped, dipped and spun around the floor to the adrenaline rush felt while driving a sporty car at high speeds. Suddenly having to slow down can take away a lot of the excitement. I’m also accustomed to dancing ’till I drop, at times being dragged to the dance floor so often that sometimes I don’t sit for hours. Whereas on the contrary, tango’s long standing custom of not teaching on the dance floor can make it tough for beginners to find enough partners to dance with in a milonga filled with highly skilled dancers.
In a dance that requires such dedication and focus, there may be an initial hurdle for some to overcome in just trying to master the steps. So when another challenge like the rules of etiquette are presented, it can be intimidating for some. The good news is that there are places like ATOMIC that strive to create an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome. From encouraging patrons to ask each other to dance to arranging the music in a way that allows dancers to mingle with one another and rotate partners more often, ATOMIC’S owners and staff are planting the seeds for a kind of milonga that is inclusive and friendly. Another great thing is that the instructors here at ATOMIC are simply superb.
Not only are they knowledgeable in what they do, but they are also genuinely nice people who are passionate about their craft and sharing it with others. ATOMIC’S classes are divided into various stages with lessons broken down in a way that allow students of all levels to learn at a comfortable pace. Even a total beginner who’s never danced a day in his life can attempt an intricate dance like Argentine tango without worry. In addition to the group classes, there are special workshops each weekend, private lessons and of course the social dance each evening at 8:30 P.M. Also, starting on April 6th there will be a special week long series of Argentine tango themed classes and workshops (not to be missed!) with special guest instructors Luciano and Alejandra.
Despite my shaky start, and love-hate relationship with this elaborate art form, I’ve continued to push forward because of the great rewards that come with such dedication, patience and practice. Besides improving my technique, I have also learned to be more patient with others and myself. From trying to develop connections, to waiting for the leader to initiate a certain movement, I’m learning to connect each of my senses with dance in a different way. “Easy goals don’t exist. A goal is a point of achievement that requires effort and sacrifice. There are no esteemed ventures worth participating in that don’t require some level of effort and struggle”. -Author Unknown. This quote describes many things in life, including learning something new like the sometimes-tantalizing tango. If you haven’t already, you should give it a try. As unique as its colorful past, Argentine tango is sure to offer a special experience for those who come along for the ride.