Back in the U.S.A.
October 18, 2003: We walked off the dance floor at the Portland Tango Fest last week and ran into our friend Steve from Port Townsend, Washington. We hadn’t seen him for a while, and he looked at our smiling, sweaty faces and said, “So, you like this tango thing? Think you might stick with it for awhile?” (Funny guy) Alejandra and I are at a great place in tango right now, and it must show. It’s a place where the music and the dancing seem almost endlessly deep. The more I learn, the more there is to learn, and the more interesting tango becomes. It seems infinitely perfectible, and the future looks challenging and fun.
It seems to me that at a certain level, tango becomes a number of different dances. The music begins to separate into very different things, and the ways of moving to the different types of music become clearer. At first you may notice that dancing to the old marching/walking tangos is a very different thing than, say, dancing to D’Arienzo or to Calo. As things begin to separate more you notice that some music asks for a smooth flowing movement, while other music is powerful and energetic, and some demands a precise, almost robotic way of moving. And then it separates more, and you notice for instance, how much Di Sarli’s music can vary from piece to piece. Sometimes sweet and smooth, sometimes with a very sharp, picado feel, and sometimes just blasting out with raw emotion. Over time, these distinctions become more and more apparent—first between the general styles of tango, then between the orchestras and the different singers, and finally, between the instruments and the phrases within each piece of music itself.
Right now, fast vals may be the best for me. Maybe it’s not necessarily the best for listening—but I think for dancing, nothing else matches it. It’s certainly the most intense…the crack cocaine of tango! Regular tango has a single beat between the main beat, while vals has two quick beats between the main beat. To understand the difference, click here to listen to a tango beat, and for a vals beat click here.
Something about this vals cadence, combined with the rapid flowing, spinning, pausing and swirling drives me nuts. But it wasn’t always that way. Tete also likes vals the best, and for a long time I didn’t understand why. He’s not that articulate (at least with words), but I remember him once trying to express something in a very sincere way along the lines of: “Vals is very special. If you are free, if your body understands, you can fly in the vals. You can have wings, and you can fly.” At the time I thought I understood. I knew that when you reach a certain level you can fly on skis, or on a bicycle or a windsurf board. The irony is that this “flying”, this freedom, only comes after spending a lot of time shackled to hard discipline and training. To know freedom, you must first know work and tedium—sweating on the road doing intervals, or struggling forever doing drills on the ski slope. But eventually it will come. About 6 months ago, Alejandra and I sat down after a vals tanda and she said, “Wow! It’s like we were flying!” I realized I felt exactly the same way, and that’s when Tete’s words came back. I really understood what he meant. Now when we hear the first beats of a vals tanda- maybe Canaro, or D’Agostino, or Tanturi, with that pulse and the two quicks in between—we exchange a glance, and we are on the floor instantly. We don’t even pause, we just walk together and we are dancing. Each one seems to last about 10 seconds, and the entire tanda about half a minute. The world drops away, and there really are times when it feels like we are floating about 6 inches above the floor.
I feel like I have a good perspective on tango in the U.S. right now. We have done most of our dancing in BsAs over the last two years, but we have also spent time traveling within the U.S., and we’ve been to a lot of milongas in major cities on both coasts. So I’d like talk about a couple of the differences I’ve noticed between the U.S. and Buenos Aires. I’ll note here that some people may not like what I have to say, but I think we would all enjoy tango more here if the milongas were a little more Argentine. So toward that end, I’ll risk offending some people—with the hope that this may help in a small way to change things.
The most obvious difference, of course, is the difference in the way the Argentines understand and feel the music. I’ve already discussed this at length, and so have a lot of other people, so I’ll leave it alone for now. But there are two other things that I have recently noticed that I would like to discuss. I’ll call them “technique”, and “attitude”.
What the Argentines Can’t Seem to Teach Us
The difference in “technique” between the two countries is not easy to see, and it is even more difficult to describe—but I,ll try. By technique, I mean the actual physical movement of the leaders and followers on the dance floor. More specifically, the way the leaders step, and most specifically, the way they begin the step. For me this is a critical part of tango. When I look at a dance floor in BsAs in a certain way I see one type of movement, while in the U.S. I see something a little different. If I focus my eyes on a spot above a floor filled with good dancers in BsAs and try to absorb the movement below in my peripheral vision, I see a surging movement, mostly forward through the beat, and then pausing or slowing on the half beat, as the heels pass each other. If I do the same in the U.S. (I tried this both at the Denver and the Portland milongas) I see a bouncing movement that doesn’t surge through the step. If this is so (and you could of course argue that I am full of beans and Bacardi), then why? This example looks at the dance on a macro level, but I think to find the answer you need to look at the U.S. dancers individually. Here is what I see. Some begin the step (from the heel-to-heel position) somewhat upright. This is a good place to start, but then they slightly bend their knee, to push forward into the step. This is bad bad bad because it creates a bouncing movement that gives a bit of a lunging look to the step. Other dancers are doing something different. They never straighten the knee at the heel-to-heel position in the first place. This “soft knee” gives a uniform, catlike movement to the walk. They move forward at a constant velocity, and keep the head at the same level. This is a common walk among ballet dancers and stage performers, but in the rhythmic world of the milonga it appears very flat and artificial. In BsAs those who come to tango from classical training in Teatro Colon have a tough time losing it. There is a Russian guy in BsAs from the Bolshoi who has been dancing tango for a couple of years. He can’t seem to get rid of this habit (as well as a problem connecting with the music), and the milongueras avoid dancing with him.
How do you begin a step without pushing off of an already bent knee, or without instantly bending a straightened knee? There’s the rub! I have seen almost no dancers in the U.S. who, at least to me, seem to understand this. For me, the perfect tango walk should pause high and tall at the half beat, accelerate down and through the step, then begin to slow, and return back again to the heel-to-heel position at the half beat. It requires a very good connection, and the equilibrium to tip off of the heel-to-heel position like a falling tree. You can’t “muscle” the step, you must fall into it, falling forward slightly with the chest and upper body. The result is a natural harmonic motion, like a pendulum or a roller coaster topping a rise. And when done exactly in the compás, it’s very musical. This is absolutely the essence of tango. A dancer who masters this needs no “figures” or “patterns”. Why then do so many of the dancers in BsAs have a good walk, and people in the U.S. don’t? I’m not sure. I know it’s very difficult to see, and more difficult to learn… but most of those old BsAs guys don’t take lessons. I guess they just absorb it over the years through osmosis.
What the Argentines Are Too Polite to Tell Us
The other difference I see between U.S. and BsAs milongas is one of attitude. I will illustrate it by a somewhat extreme (and maybe cynical) example. I’ve noticed that milongas in the U.S. are still often burdened with a group of “tango-as-acrobatics” dancers. We were recently at a milonga in a large city on the east coast where, for some reason, this type of dancing seems to have taken over. We sat with a couple of Argentines and watched as the couples flew and kicked their way around the floor like they were performing on steroids. I think the low point came when a very sad tango by Canaro was played. It was En Esta Tarde Gris (“On this Gray Afternoon”), and it's not just sad, it's pessimistic—bordering on dismal. (But also beautiful in its way…one of the ironies of tango, no?) Anyway, most of the dancers didn’t miss a beat. Well, actually they missed a lot of beats… but they kept leaping around with smug looks on their faces. Looks that were in sharp contrast to the faces of the watching Argentines. The Argentines were too polite to say anything (at least in English), but their faces showed what they felt—sort of a mixture of pain and pity. A suggestion: If you hear a song that begins, “Que ganas de llorar, en esta tarde gris”, please don’t dance like you are auditioning for a Broadway production of Oklahoma. If you do, any Argentines that may be present will think you need counseling.
The point, if there is one, is that the attitude of tango dancers in the U.S. is noticeably different than that of dancers in BsAs. Most U.S. dancers are upper class, many have advanced degrees, and some of them seem to approach tango as though they are performing high art. They act like they are doing something very classy—very special and exotic. Maybe it’s because we have had to work so hard to get where we are in tango in this country, and this gets reflected on the dance floor. But to the Argentines, we must look like a bunch of kids with new drivers licenses... very full of ourselves, racing around the neighborhood streets with self-satisfied faces. The Argentines, of course, don’t approach tango this way at all. Go to most clubs in BsAs and you will see many people, often working class or retired, who are simply enjoying a part of their culture that is very natural to them. Tango was probably just given to many of them in their kitchens and neighborhoods as children. They absorbed it without any great effort, and while they instinctively hold a deep respect for the music and the milonga, and they put everything into their dancing, they put on no more pretensions there than if they were going bowling or square dancing.
I know this is may sound a bit cynical. And, in spite of my complaints, I think the understanding of Argentine tango is much greater than it was even three or four years ago, and most of the milongas do seem to be getting better. Well, a little better. Maybe it’s asking too much for us to ever reach the level of musical understanding, technical prowess, and easy unpretentious enjoyment that the Argentines have- but it’s a worthy goal. Earlier this year we were at a milonga in the U.S. when Danel Bastogne, who is the closest thing to a milonguero living in this country right now, came over to our table to talk and to ask Alejandra for a dance. Sounds and smells can easily take you to another time and place, and apparently so can dancing, because the minute they began to dance, I was taken back to the clubs of BsAs. I hadn’t thought about it for months, but suddenly I missed Argentina very much. All it took was watching a couple of porteños moving to their music with a bit of humility. Two people with tango in their blood who knew exactly who they were and what they were doing. I wish we could find some classes or videos that could teach us that here in the U.S.