Thursday, 31 July 2008

A shared language

Nice post from MT today on 'one tango'.

I'm a big believer in one tango. Tango is tango. The proof of this, imo, is that we're all able to dance with each other! If I got up and tried to follow a salsa dancer or a swing dancer I wouldn't have a clue what to do. I can't understand them - we speak different languages. But any kind of tango dancer can lead or follow any other, because we're all speaking the same language. We may have different accents; sometimes our accents may be sufficiently different that we have to make an effort to understand each other, to tune in our tango 'ear', and of course we dance more easily with those with a similar accent. Sometimes our vocabularies vary too. You say freeway, I say motorway, you say ride, I say lift. But it's still the same language. We still understand each other.

We're all creating our little tango-poems with our shared language, even if our accents and vocabularies vary. And it seems to me that if you avoid talking with someone just because they have a different accent, you're going to miss out on lots of interesting ideas and beautiful poems.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Nothing nuevo under the sun pt 3

"The aesthetic of tango has changed but structurally there's nothing new. The women has a lot more aesthetic participation. The structure for example volcadas, already existed."
Graciala Gonzales

Which supports my two points: that 'nuevo' steps are not actually new at all; and that no current style is aesthetically like those of the past. So no style has any greater claim than any other to 'authenticity', and we should all stop worrying about it.

Really must do some work now.

Nothing nuevo under the sun pt 2

Many thanks to Sarah, who just sent me this clip (and apologies to her, as she intended it to be an argument *against* my point, not for it).

It's Pupi Castello at La Ideal. What I'm excited about is that he leads a long 30-second-or-so soltada right at the beginning of it. This giant of 'traditional' tango joyfully and playfully leads something widely considered to be an evil invention of 'nuevo' tango, an empty 'trick' which undermines the sanctity of the embrace. Clearly he didn't consider it to be evil! Or new, probably! He was probably doing that back in the 50s before people like me were twinkles in our mothers' eyes. And he's in open embrace for most of the clip - obviously he didn't consider that evil, either.

(Edit for clarification: that paragraph was not directed at Sarah, and I apologise if I looked like it was. She didn't say anything about soltadas or embraces or similar. She sent me that video simply to show me Pupi saying that he felt that Geraldine danced the way they did 'in the old days'. I then got excited about the soltada, and posted about that, and perhaps I should have been clear to say that the two issues were separate. Sorry Sarah.)

Fear and loathing in Villa Urquiza

(I should point out I have nothing against Villa Urquiza or Villa Urquiza style - I just needed a placename associated with a 'tradtional' style to make the heading work!)

When I started this blog, one of the things I planned to write about was the old/new divide in tango, because as a dancer who learned in the nuevo style, it felt like wherever I turned, someone was having a go at nuevo. I never got round to writing the planned posts - I had too much to say, it mattered to much to me, I wanted to get it right. And then I went to BA, and I stopped worrying about it, because there I never felt marginalised. It's funny: I went out there with a liking for all styles of tango, but a feeling of faint persecution, and left there with my preference for nuevo vastly strengthened, but not feeling persecuted at all. What I found there was that there was such variety of style and movement that it really seemed hardly worth worrying about styles anyway. Take any two salon couples there, and the differences between them might be as great as those between them and the nuevo couple one table over. Because of this I developed a huge appreciation for everyone's individual way of doing things, and by extension, a sense of security in my own way of doing things. No right or wrong: what works, works, and the rest is personal taste. So I felt so chilled that it didn't seem worth the effort of writing about it.

However, I do still regularly encounter people spouting the most incredibly vitriolic stuff about tango nuevo. People who are apparently perfectly reasonable on other topics will positively froth at the mouth about nuevo. I've just come across some anti-nuevo rants that have motivated me to finally write up a few of the things I orignally planned to talk about here. So here we go.

It seems to me that a lot of the real nuevo-hate stuff - the people who think nuevo is the work of the devil and a harbinger of the apocalypse - is based on simple misconception. So, here are a few of the common complaints made against nuevo and its practitioners, and my opinions on them.

1. Nuevo is dangerous - nuevo dancers have no regard for those around them, and cause accidents.
Accidents are not the result of style, they're the result of bad manners and bad floorcraft. Bad floorcraft is definitely not limited to nuevo dancers! Sure, a badly timed boleo at a busy milonga can do some damage. But so can a stiletto ground into your foot by someone just walking. I've had far more injuries at Nino Bien than at Villa Malcolm; far more stiletto-in-the-ankle injuries from 'traditional' dancers than stiletto-in-the-thigh injuries from 'nuevo' ones. A good dancer is aware of the space around them, has consideration for their fellow dancers, and adjusts their dancing to the environment, whatever their style.

2. Nuevo is not suitable for the social dancefloor.
This is very related to the point above, but not quite identical, so I think it's worth an extra point. When people say this, I can only think they're confusing nuevo with stage tango. They think that you need lots of space to do nuevo, so I assume they think that nuevo inherently involves great big boleos and the like, and that 'traditional' tango inherently involves dancing small. But look at Tango x 2 or similar. These shows are not nuevo in style, they're stage tango developed from a 'traditional' aesthetic. If you read an interview with Miguel Angel Zotto, you'll hear him talk a lot about the codigos, the traditions, elegance, all the salon stuff. But his stage shows are chock full of crazy moves where they throw the woman around, giant kicks, sinking to the floor so your legs stick way out, etc. Does this mean he's 'not suitable' for social tango? Of course not! He would never do such things on the social dancefloor. Do you think nuevo dancers have any less sense? Salon dancers doing a performance will use just as much space as, say Chicho and Eugenia doing a stage show, if not more. But at the milonga, all will dance small.

Nuevo is not tricks and giant moves. For me, it's a mixture of things - a way of thinking about the mechanics of tango, an organic aesthetic, an exploratory attitude (though of course it means different things to different people - more on this here). You don't have to do whopping great boleos to be dancing nuevo. A nuevo dancer can be just walking, but they're still dancing nuevo.

Besides, if nuevo is 'not suitable' for the social dancefloor, then what do you think we're all doing at Villa Malcolm or Practica X? Rehearsing for non-existent stage shows? No, we're dancing socially! Milongas aren't inherently packed to the gills, in any case - sardine-like conditions aren't a defining feature of the social dancefloor. Go to La Viruta at midnight, and you may not have space to do more than walk. Wait till 4, and you may have room to do whatever you like. It's all still social dancing.

3. Nuevo dancers have no feeling / don't care about the music - all they're interested in is doing as many tricks as possible.
Musicality and feeling are not restricted to 'traditional' dancers! There are musical and unmusical dancers in all styles. Look, we're not aliens, we're just like you! We want the same things you want - musicality, connection, feeling, a lovely embrace. Tricks are fun, but a good dancer knows that cramming in as many tricks as possible is like eating chocolate all day long - desperately boring. There are some guys who think they should throw in all their special moves in every tango - but these guys can be found amongst the 'traditional' dancers as well as the nuevos.

4. Nuevo dancers don't care about the embrace.
Not so. I've written about this before, so I won't repeat myself. A short summary - the American idea that nuevo = open embrace is mistaken. We spend most of our time in close embrace. We like to snuggle too.

5. Nuevo is not Argentine - it's European/American.
Oh rly? Do you want to tell that to Naveira and Salas, who basically started nuevo back in the 80s, back when hardly anyone outside South American had even heard of tango? Do you want to tell that to Chicho, Eugenia Parrilla, and the many other brilliant Argentine artists pioneering nuevo today? Are you really going to tell them that they're jumping on a European or American bandwagon?

The fact is that Buenos Aires is still the creative hotbed of tango. Sure, interesting things sometimes happen in places like Berlin, but there's still no comparison with the scene in BA, any more than the large number of excellent Indian restaurants on Brick Lane make London a rival to Mumbai for Indian food. Open-minded artists will exchange ideas, and that's a good thing. If Chicho is inspired by something he sees in Berlin, does that mean what he does is no longer 'Argentine'? Should we tell Michel Roux that what he does isn't French cuisine because he's tasted Lebanese food, or because he's lived in the UK and Switzerland? If dancers in Berlin excel at a certain kind of tango, does the fact they're in Berlin mean they're not dancing tango? Do we tell the Bolshoi that they're not really dancing ballet because they're not French? Do we write off Japanese ballroom dancers for not being Anglo-American? Are you going to tell Swedish lindy hoppers that what they do isn't lindy because they're not from 1930s Harlem? Sweden has some of the best lindy hoppers in the world!

The quest for 'authenticity' is misguided, imo; unhealthy and frankly impossible anyway. I've just written a rather long post on the subject, so I won't repeat those points here.

6. They didn't dance like that in the old days.
They didn't dance like Geraldine Rojas, either. Again, see the rather long post I just wrote on the great authenticity fiction.

7. Nuevo dancers don't respect the codigos.
Any dancer worth their salt respects the codigos of whichever milonga they're at. For example, I personally reject the idea that one 'ought' to dress 'elegantly' in order to dance tango, but if I go to Gricel I'm going to dress appropriately, because to do otherwise would be disrespectful. I may stand through a cortina at a milonga in London or the States, but at La Calesita I'll clear the floor with everyone else.

If people turn up and walk all over the codigos at your local milonga, it's not because they're 'nuevo', it's because they're oblivious or rude.

8. Nuevo dancers have no respect for tradition, or for the history of tango.
In my experience, most of the leading nuevo dancers have huge respect for the traditions of tango, and for dancers of all styles, and maintain affectionate social ties with dancers of all styles, seeing the common ground more than the differences. While I was in BA, Practica X had Tete over to exhibit, and Tango Brujo had him over to guest teach their guided practica, and believe me, there were hugs and respect all round.

9. The way nuevo dancers move is ugly
This is a question of personal taste. We're all entitled to feel the way we feel about this. I prefer Cecilia Garcia's way of moving to, say Geraldine Rojas' - you may feel the opposite. Problems only arise if we confuse our personal taste with Truth. There is no Truth here. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some people talk as though there is only one kind of beautiful movement in tango. These people generally talk a lot about posture, and complain that nuevos look down, or drop their heads. Please understand, this is just your preference. A slightly lowered head is not 'wrong'. It's not necessarily a 'mistake' that some dancers make because they don't know any better, or they have bad habits. It may genuinely be their preference. Actually, when guys are a little towards me in this way with their upper body, it often feels more intimate to me; the bolt-upright Victorian-straight posture of some 'traditional' dancers sometimes feels very cold to me. The straight/bent legs thing, too, is just preference. I like down and dirty - I like it in lindy, too, which is why I prefer lindy to more upright forms of swing.


It's so hard to talk about styles of tango in a constructive way - the concepts are so fuzzy as to be unhelpful, really. Labels create division. How do we get past them? How do we spread the love? I really like the Desafios Maestros project, where the guys at Practica X invite pairs of teachers to do a class together, to compare and contrast their ways of doing things. This is great! Let's talk more about what we do, so we can see that everyone's approach is different, that we can learn things from each other. Let's talk to the dancer next to us at the practica, and find out why they like their way of doing things. You like the feeling of the woman giving you a moment of resistance before she moves? It makes you feel connected? I can understand that, and so I can respect it. I prefer to move without resistance, because it makes me feel more free - but I can prefer this without thinking any the less of your preference. Maybe we'll try your way of doing things for a bit, and then try mine, just trying them on for size. We can enjoy both. Every dance is a meeting, and every meeting ultimately requires compromise, as we each come towards the other and find the place where we can be together comfortably. I don't have to be wrong in order for you to be right; this isn't a zero-sum game. Respecting each others' approaches doesn't diminish our own - rather, it enhances them. Dancing with a range of dancers doesn't pollute our individual style - it distills it.

Nothing nuevo under the sun

The great authenticity fiction

In some circles in tango there is what I consider to be an unhealthy obsession with 'authenticity'; with the idea of 'the real' tango. These people claim that their style is best because it is most like the tango that was danced during the golden age, or at the birth of tango, or some other mythic time. And because they feel that 'good' can only exist in contrast to 'bad', they attempt to futher elevate their chosen style by dismissing and ridiculing anything that they consider new.

I consider the obsession with authenticity unhealthy, because in my opinion change is a necessary and unavoidable factor in any living art form. Tango is a living thing. It's danced by ordinary people, for their own enjoyment. It's a folk dance in the sense that it's a dance which was created by and still belongs to 'the people', which developed naturally, organically, and so involves natural, organic movements. It has changed, and will change, because any living thing grows and changes.

Look at the alternative. Ballroom dance is a good example of what I would call a dead art form. It's been codified, it's full of rules and regulations, created of course to make it possible to judge it with some semblance of fairness, but the result is that these rules and regulations freeze it, kill it, because they prevent it changing and growing organically. All the change that remains possible within it is for the regulation movements to be done in ever more exaggerated, stylised ways, becoming non-organic, requiring bodies warped into shape from an early age almost as much as ballet does. In my opinion, any attempt to freeze an art form at a particular point in time will kill it. We don't want tango to become a dead thing, to become stylised, something that requires a trained body to do. We want it to remain a natural dance of the people. (Sorry ballroomers - I don't mean to say that either ballroom or ballet is less valuable than tango, just that I personally value the organic nature of tango more.)

I also consider the obsession with authenticity foolish, because the idea that anyone today dances in the same style as they did in the 'old days' is crazy. And on the other side of the coin, the idea that people back then were different from us is also crazy.

The latter point first. People have this idea that in the old days everyone danced small, or they only cared about the walk, and they certainly never did any 'tricks'. Not true.

For instance; a teacher friend of mine, who dances a very milonguero style, told me that his very milonguero teacher, who learnt to dance during the golden age, told him that all the stuff that the young kids are doing these days, all the tricks and kicks and ganchos and boleos, he and his friends used to do decades ago, back when they were young men, in the golden age. They used to get together and think up the coolest, flashiest new stuff they could.

For another instance. El Pibe Palermo, who was also a young man during the golden age, and who was a big fan of the guardia vieja and known for respecting tradition, was adored, not for a nice simple walk, but for his tricks. He was that kid 'who knew all kinds of tricks'. On seeing him dance, El Tano Roque said, "Now I can die in peace. With this kid there is guardia for 60 years." Incidentally, look at the pictures on that page - not a chest-to-chest square front embrace amongst them. Or a pointy toe or stretched leg or 'face of tango' on any of his partners.

Which brings me back to my previous point - that noone today dances the way they did in the 'old days' - no, not any of those milonguero or salon couples who think they're soooooo authentic. Below is Carlos Gardel and friends dancing back in 1935. I think it's fair to assume they're representative. Although it's recognisably tango, stylistically it doesn't look anything like any modern style - not milonguero, salon or nuevo. Their movements are more hoppy than gliding; there a slight bouncing on each step, and several large shoulder shrugs. The second couple are smoother, but the woman is leaning backwards in a very odd way - I guess the salon idea that 'posture is everything' wasn't around then. The first couple's knees are very bent. There's not a pivot in sight (I'm told we only started pivoting relatively late in the history of tango, when we started dancing in nice ballrooms with smooth floors). And look! Their heads are both pointing forwards, more like ballroom tango than anything else - you can see where ballroom tango came from. And look!!!!!! At the end - that's a *soltada*!!! Nuevo my arse.

My point is two-fold. Firstly, all the styles today are different from the ones in this clip - they've all evolved, naturally, because that's what happens in a living art form. So no style in existence today can claim any kind of greater 'authenticity' than any other. Secondly, there's nothing nuevo under the sun. Those guys in the golden age loved to mess about and experiment just as much as we did. The idea that they only valued a simple walk is a modern fiction. So, who are the traditionalists to think they dance the same way people used to? And who are we nuevos to think we're doing anything that hasn't been done before?

So we should all stop worrying about new and old and just dance. After all, do these people look like they're worrying about extending their legs, or maintaining their connection, or looking pretty, or being too heavy or too light? No. They're just having a bloody good time. I bet those guys never had a teacher making them do endless exercises to learn the 'right' walk, or fretting about their axis.

So can we not just get over this already and dance? Let's just love and respect other dancers - milonguero, salon, nuevo; tango, salsa, ballet, raqs sharqi, nihon buyo, morris - as fellow human beings who share the same passion that we do, the primal, spiritual, sheer love of moving together to music.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Clearly about to do an enrosque

Invisible tango partner

Yes, I know, I've posted nothing for weeks but So You Think You Can Dance and lolcatz. I'm a bad, bad blogger. One day I'll get round to explaining why. Ach, here's the short version - my last six months of tango learning have largely involved things that don't go well into words. Sometimes, when you talk about an idea, you lose it, or change it.