Wednesday, 30 July 2008

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.


Sarah said...

"They didn't dance like that in the old days. They didn't dance like Geraldine Rojas, either."

Puppy says Geraldine does dance the way they did/do:

Psyche said...

I think that depends how 'old' the 'old days' are.

But in this case, he says he dances 'the style of the 40s'. But for him to have been dancing in the 40s, he'd have to be over 80 now, and he looks a lot younger than that to me. If he didn't *learn* in the 40s, he doesn't actually *know* firsthand how they danced then. He actually confirms this later by saying that he learnt at the practica 'like they did in the 40s'. And at no point does he claim to have *learnt* in the 40s, as far as I can tell. Actually, my Spanish isn't good enough to hear what he's saying properly - I'd love a proper translation if anyone can do it, and will profer appropriate apologies if I'm wrong.

This is a key problem for me - lots of people saying 'in the golden age they danced like this', who weren't actually dancing in the golden age. No disrespect intended to him - he seems like a lovely guy and a great dancer, and of course I have no way of knowing for sure what he does and doesnn't know (and he's certainly a lot closer to golden age BA than I am, both in place and time).

He also doesn't say in what way he thinks Geraldine dances like he does. He may be talking about feeling or attitude rather than style or technique. No way of knowing. What we do know is that she doesn't dance like either of the women in the Gardel video I posted earlier.

I must do more research on this - there must be golden age videos kicking around.

Thank you very much for this clip - what interests me is that this guy who identifies with a very traditional style leads a 30-second long soltada, and soltadas are one of those things that are 'supposed' to have been 'invented' by nuevo dancers, and which are therefore 'supposed' to be evil! Nothing nuevo under the sun.

Psyche said...

Calculating backwards from this article, it looks like Pupi would be 72 if he were still with us. So I would guess he learnt in the 50s.

But again, this desire to pick a point and say '*that*'s when tango was at its best' seems foolish to me. Tango *has* changed since its birth - why should one point in its history be more revered than another?

He seems like such a lovely guy in that video. So down to earth. Approachable.

Mtnhighmama said...

Your comments about the quality of dance versus the style of dance being what should be judges regarding floorcraft, safety, etc...

I have to say that at the milongas in Seattle I was really impressed with how contained and respectful some of the "big" moves were. I saw a lot of care for the ronda, and people being very kind dancers. There were very few injuries, kicks, etc. And the bumping going on?, I think, was mostly newer leaders.

That said, it's like riding in a bicycle pack. It's nervewracking to have people so close to you, to trust that they won't injure you. And I saw this mostly with the more nuevo style dancers. Their comfort level and the knowledge of their range was superb, but still made me tense. My problem and not theirs, perhaps?

At one point I put my hand out to prevent the follower from colliding with my leader, and the leader looked at me with a very nice smile, with the weighted implication that of course he knew exactly where they were, and of course he knew we were an inch away from being a tangle of bodies, and of course he was completely and totally in control and would never let that happen.

And you know what, I believed him.

Psyche said...

That's interesting! I'm usually on the other end of the experience - my teacher, for instance, has the most incredible sixth sense for the floor, a supernatural sense of flow. Unless the floor is really very packed, he leads the most amazing stuff in surprisingly small spaces. He knows exactly how much space and time there is, and exactly how much space and time I will use when I follow what he's leading, so he can fit a giant boleo into a small space with no risk whatsoever to anyone around him. I've never had any kind of collision dancing with him, or even a near miss.

But I can see from your account that that might sometimes be scary to others - like when you're on the road, and you're not sure whether the other drivers know what they're doing or not!

miss tango said...

The culture here is different, people brought their kids to the neighbourhood milonga, so it is a possiblity that Pupi learned in the 40s. Or at least observed.

I wish my husband´s grandmother was still around. Club Sunderland was her stomping ground, in the 40s. Apparently people would just get up and sing, there would be musicians jamming, much different than today.