Wednesday, 30 July 2008

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.

1 comment:

El Loco said...

A very refreshing viewpoint. I'm sick of the Tango Police in the Uk who say "Tango has to be danced this way and with this music."