It's crucial to understand that the job of tango performers is to entertain. Their only obligation is to amuse an audience that has no special interest in understanding the nature of tango. Everything else is secondary. This may seem obvious, but it's implications are far reaching—because in the end, it means that successful performers, who represent tango all over the world, have no great motivation, or even obligation, to follow its traditions. They can dance any way they like, to whatever music they like, and they can move in any direction at any time. They can even ignore the music and the traditions of tango. They have no reason to follow them, or even understand them. This isn't criticism, it's simply a fact. Dancing tango isn't part of a performer's job.
In a way, performing and teaching are the same things. Most tango teachers perform, at least for their classes, and most performers teach. This means that almost every student's first exposure to tango is through teaching performers, and the inevitable result is that inappropriate show-tango is constantly trickling into milongas. Many of these teachers, especially the ones who travel, are good dancers—but although what they show and teach is very pretty, most of it isn't tango. The word used in the milongas for this mix of tango and rehearsed decoration is "academia". For many years academic tango was promoted simply as "tango", but today some of it is being marketed as a "style" of social tango. (The terms Villa Urquiza and Tango Salon seem to be the current popular labels.) Don't let them fool you! Whatever name they give it, academic tango is fine for a stage, practica, or dance studio. But it's not for a milonga.
While a performer is free to do whatever he or she wants, a milonguero is not. Anyone who goes to a milonga has a duty to understand tango—and that means understanding the important differences between a performance, and real tango. A social dancer in the milongas (a milonguero) has three obligations:
1. To faithfully express the music by trying to understand the message of each tango, and to express it as closely as possible by moving to the melody and cadence.
2. To navigate the floor efficiently by using the space available, and to dance without bothering other dancers in any way.
3. To respect tango by learning and following the body of tradition that has developed in the milongas over the years.
Of course, most performers don't ignore all of these elements. They pick and choose from a mix of tango-like things in order to create an interesting show or class. While the result isn't really tango, it is tango-ish, and it can be misleading for students who want to learn to dance in a milonga. So on this page we’ll review some of the videos from the previous pages. We’ll compare them, and we’ll try to grade them objectively to see which ones meet the standards of traditional social tango we listed above. I’m not sure how it will turn out, but our goal will be to separate the tango from the tangoish.
The Copes video is almost pure tango fantasía. He exercises his right as a performer to ignore the rules of social tango—with one exception. He and his partner express the melody of the music by moving around the stage so well that it looks as if they're conducting the string section of the orchestra with their bodies. By following the melody, they are complying with the first rule (musical expression)—but only with part of it.
Like Copes, a milonguero would express the melody with movement around the floor. But the Golden Age Dance tangos are characterized by a mix of hard and soft—soft melodies of the strings and full orchestra, alternating with the sharp picado cadences of the bandoneon and the piano. As we saw earlier in the chapter, a good milonguero will usually pick up these sharper parts of the compás by stepping quickly on the weak beats of the music, and doing small groups of quick steps known as corriditas. This use of corriditas is one of the things that often separates social tango from figure-oriented academic tango. Let's see if we can isolate those differences in musical expression in two video clips. We'll compare a stage dancer, Copes, and a milonguero, Osvaldo Buglione, dancing to the same music:
Copes moves smoothly up, down, and around the floor to express the melody.
But he rarely takes, or leads steps on the weak beat of the music.
Like Copes, Buglione moves to the melody—but he also uses the compás.
He both takes, and leads steps on the weak beats to share the music with Alej.
The clue is in the "tick-tocks". Buglione uses the weak beats of the music to make little three-runs of quick steps. One way to identify them is by saying "tick-tock-tick", or "strong-weak-strong", or "1-2-3", whenever Buglione or Alej hit the three consecutive beats. At first, he brings in a lot of these three-run elements, and then when the music becomes more picado, you can count a run of seven consecutive steps. (There's a more detailed discussion on page 20). This rhythmic use of the compás is characteristic of the tango of the milongueros. It not only allows them to express the soft melodies of the Golden Age tangos, but also their staccato cadences. And it's a way of sharing the music with their partners. Rather than standing apart and doing the independent figures and embellishments of academic tango, milongueros share the melody with movements of the upper body, and the cadences by exchanging corridas with their partner. This close link between the special music and special dancing of the milongas is part of the tradition of social tango.
My eyes are used to this kind of tango. In a way, the Copes performance is more beautiful and entertaining, but to me, his stylized marching on just the strong beats looks artificial. And of course, Copes is only connected to his partner through his right arm and left hand, so he's unable to share his feeling for the music by transmitting the compás through their embrace. They are separate people, dancing to independent choreographies. One way to think of it is that Buglione's job is to entertain Alej. If you listen to the ticks on the soundtrack, it's kind of neat. It's like he's showing her how he hears the music by using her feet to play with the compás. So, this is an interesting comparison. We see two accomplished dancers from the two different worlds of tango dancing to the same piece of music in different ways. The performers are sharing the melody with their audience, and the milongueros are sharing both the melody and the compás with each other.
Another part of a milonguero's duty is to try to faithfully express the sentiment of the music—or at the very least, not make something up that isn't there. While there are no lyrics, the name of the tango is Recuerdo, which means "memory". So we can assume that like many other tangos, it's about nostalgia and things lost. I'm not sure exactly how I would dance to it, but knowing what it's about would have some effect. The problem is that Copes and his partner dance the whole thing while staring at each other as if they can't wait to sneak away and get a room. They turn a classic tango about nostalgia into sexual foreplay.
Copes and Saura spice up their movie by turning a classic tango about
nostalgia and loss into a mini-drama filled with sexual tension.
Copes and Saura are pro's, and they know that the world movie audience couldn't care less about the name or the message of the background music. They also know that the quirky interplay between the harsh bandoneons and the softer melodies that characterizes the Golden Age tangos is an acquired taste that might not go over well in a big budget movie. So they use an "easy listening" arrangement that emphasizes strings and romance. As far as the second element, Navigation, there isn't any. They dance a racetrack pattern laid out for the camera. And as far as the following the third rule, the Traditions of Tango (connection, lead and follow, man's step technique v. woman's, using corriditas), I don't see any of that either. Out of 3 possible authenticity points, I would give half a point for moving well to the melody, zero for using the compás creatively, zero for navigation, and zero for following the traditions of tango. Score: 0.5 points out of 3.
Park and Perform
The pictures below demonstrate how the performers we've been looking at regularly swing their legs away from their bodies. In a milonga, this is an aggressive and impolite violation of the codigos, but other dancers will usually compensate for it by giving up some of their own space.
often extend their legs out in sweeps or kicks.
These kicks and leg swings are annoying, but the real problem with academic tango comes from the planned nature of the dancing. Teachers and performers like to mix in figures that require partners to pause, separate, and dance independently. They do it because it's easy to teach, it's fun to learn, it allows more freedom of movement, and when it’s done by talented professionals, it’s a pleasure to watch. But I suspect they also do it because it panders to people's secret fantasies of stardom (the Argentines don't call it tango fantasía for nothing).
Real tango is a moving dance, in which the partners interpret the music as they maneuver around in traffic. The music and the surrounding dancers present new situations from moment to moment, so a close connection and instantaneous communication are essential. Milongueros often pause when the music and the situation call for it, but couples that stop to perform pre-planned figures cause huge problems. Not only do they disrupt the movement of nearby dancers, but they also create a ripple effect that travels around the floor. One person pausing this way can affect a dozen other couples. That's why moving smoothly and embracing closely are fundamental traditions of tango. They are the things that separate the crowded dancing of the milongas not only from the separated, parallel choreographies of academia, but also from almost every other dance in the world.
Unlike Copes' choreographed performance, Paiva's dancing seems to be a mix. He improvises and leads in some places, but his spectacularly decorated giro was obviously planned ahead of time—and you can see below that his partner actually pulls him through some of it. Paiva was too smart and polite to do it in a milonga, but this "park and perform" tango is the bread and butter of almost every workshop. It's also displayed in the second row of pictures, where Esther and Pablo Pugliese separate to do the choreographed "robotic" sequence captured from the video on the previous page.
Tangos play at around 75 beats per minute, which means that during the 12 seconds Paiva spent on this giro,
most dancers in a milonga would want to take about 15 steps, and move about 10 feet to express
the music—which they couldn't do if he were blocking the way.
13 more seconds of milonga-blocking choreography. No matter how famous the teacher who
taught it to you, don't do it if you want to be welcome in the milongas. (See above.)
Here's the Paiva video again, for those who want to review it:
The Copes and the Paiva performances are similar in several ways. Both have selected instrumental tangos, both do a great job moving to the melody, and both dance in the compás without really expressing it creatively. Paiva's positioning of his partner off to his right side at an angle, and his weight-back posture make it difficult for him to do runs of quick steps—so just like Copes, he selects slow music, and expresses the compás by stepping slowly on the strong beats. I would give him half a Musical Expression point for using the melody but not the compás, and I would give half a Navigation point, because he does a little improvised leading. As far as respecting the traditions of tango, I would deduct a point for doing planned figures, for keeping his weight back, and for not doing corridas to express the compás. But I would give back half a Tradition point for having a unique style (something that's respected by milongueros), and for being able to use it in the milongas without bothering other people. Score: 1.5 points out of 3.
The Pugliese video is more difficult. Esther and Pablo are from different generations—and so is their dancing—so we'll look at them separately. Esther's dancing is an example of the kind of tango that was common in the neighborhood milongas 50 years ago, and it still exists today in many of the barrio clubs. Like all tango, it's a product of its environment. The neighborhoods of Buenos Aires are filled with places that are a combination of athletic club and social club. They usually have a small restaurant, and spaces for meetings, sports, and dancing. There is a tradition in the barrios called Salida del Sabado, which means dressing up and going out to the local club on Saturday night for dinner and dancing. All over Buenos Aires, hard working people look forward to it. The men get haircuts, and the women put on their best dresses to go out, have dinner, and dance tango. Most of them are experienced dancers who were raised with the music, but they aren't milongueros. They are weekend dancers who may take their children and parents along, and dance in front of them—so they maintain a certain amount of decorum. This is G-rated, family dancing. Like Pablo and Esther, they maintain a bit of separation. And like Esther, they maintain an upright posture, and step into the floor. But rather than using the curved corridas that are common in a closer embrace, they tend to express the music mostly with their legs and feet. The result is the kind of dignified look you would expect in clubs and private parties where married couples dance together in front of family members. This tango is still common today, and Esther displays a polished version of it. For Musical expression she gets 1.0 (look at how precisely she sets her feet on the compás). (Navigation is not applicable for a woman.) For Tradition, I give 0.5 (half point deducted for stopping and separating for choreography). Score: 1.5 points out of 2.
Esther's "Salida del Sabado" tango and her son's
tango nuevo are an interesting combination.
Pablo's dancing, on the other hand, is as new as skateboarding. He looks like he was trained in other types of stage dancing, and he walks with the light step of a ballet dancer. Because most Golden Age dance tangos are a mix of smooth melodies punctuated by Troilo's angry bandoneons, and Biaggi's "shatter the keyboard" fingers, milongueros use a combination of flowing movement and stiff-legged walking to express them. Pablo, however, absorbs everything with his knees. It looks cool... but tango isn't cool. As Natu said, "Tango no es academia. El tango es bajo y sucio." Tango is down and dirty. And as Natu's hero Troilo said, to create tango, you have to "embarrarlo"—to throw some mud on it. I have to admit, dancing like you're riding a skateboard around the pista looks nice... pero es muy chato. The movement is flat. It's all done at the same speed and altitude. There's almost no up down, and no fast slow.
One other thing. Pablo takes huge steps—and step length in tango is directly related to speed. Because a tango dancer must stay in the compás, you move faster by stepping longer, rather than by stepping more. Show dancers, and people who enter concursos, always take big steps because they grab the eye. But moving rapidly around other dancers is a selfish thing to do in a milonga. On a selfishness scale, "Parking and Performing" gets a 10, rushing around between other couples using a big, "Every Step is a Show" walk gets an 8, and "Chorus Line Legs" gets a 7.
Ultimately, Pablo walks in the compás, but he doesn't really use it. Although neither Copes nor Paiva use the traditional step of a milonguero, they make great use of up and down movement. Notice how Paiva reaches out, and then rises up over his leg to follow the surge of the orchestra. But Pablo flows like water. He absorbs so much natural movement, that the dancing seems detached from the compás and the melody. It's pretty, but it's too cool for the music. It's good dancing, but it's not good tango dancing. There's no street in it. Musical expression: 0. Navigation: 0.5 (half point for leading a little, but too much high-velocity walking). Respecting traditions of tango: 0. (Leg throwing, choreography, and walking large.) Score: 0.5 out of 3.
After I posted the videos of the Puglieses and Tete dancing to Pollo Ricardo, I got an email from Derrick del Pilar, in Berkeley California. He obviously has a good ear for tango, because he noticed that there was another video in Chapter 5 with Di Sarli's Pollo Ricardo, and he suggested we compare it to the other two. So the Puglieses are above, next we'll put Tete's Pollo Ricardo, and then we'll do the one from Chapter 5:
¡Eso! Now we're getting somewhere. This is classic Tete. We've already discussed him a million times, but let's give him a quick score from our "Obligations" list. As far as musical expression, he certainly knows how to express the compás with his feet, so he gets half a point for that. The other half of musical expression is based on moving to the melody and sentiment. Let's look at two things. Notice what happens right at the very beginning of the video. I'm not sure how to write this, so bear with me, but right at the beginning, the music does a sort of: 1,2,3,4,5... swoop-Tink! Look closely at what Tete does. He uses the 5 counts to lead Sylvia in a staccato inside ocho, and then on the "swoop" of the orchestra, he bends both legs to his right, like tension in a bow, and then releases them and does a little stomp on the "Tink!" of the piano. Then later, he picks up on the jerky part of the music the Puglieses used, and starts walking to each side of Sylvia, and bringing his feet together in little stomps.
I've never seen anyone in tango who feels and expresses the subtleties of the music like Tete. He walks around a milonga joking and talking to himself like he's on another planet. Then he grabs a partner, wanders onto the floor, shuffles around a little, and suddenly, he picks up on a bit of the music no one else even hears... and does something so creative that you have to think for a second to believe it happened. Musical expression: 1.25 out of possible 1.0. Navigation: 1.0. Now for the tradition grade. Tete is a one of the world's great milongueros, but he's not a traditional milonguero. He's great at navigating, but he runs the floor. Sometimes he picks up his feet, and sometimes he tries to do so much that he gets out of the compás. Also, he plays around a lot in the milongas. I like him a lot—but Alej says he's a bad influence on me and she's always trying to keep me from doing things I pick up from him. Tradition grade: 0.5. Final score: 2.75 out of 3.0.
Now, here's the Pollo Ricardo from Chapter 5 that Derrick found:
Finally... a perfect score! Ricardo and Alej at Celia's,
with the afternoon sun on the curtains. (2001).
Okay, judges have traditions too. I mean, what's the point of being a judge, if you can't help out your wife and your uncle? We haven't had a perfect score yet, so I'll give one now. A perfect 3.0 for Ricardo and Alej! I must be turning into an easy grader, but the more I think about it, anybody who went to the afternoon milongas at Celia's in 2001 deserves a 3.0. Perfect scores for everybody... even the fat guy blocking the camera!
One of the last of the great milongas: Afternoons at Lo de Celia's, 2001.