It’s been six months since I returned from Buenos Aires and I’ve definitely been writing less, dancing more and of course, working long hours at the office. I’ve had some time to think about my tango philosophy, which to me is just as important as my dancing or my technique. As a result, I’ve compiled a list of things about tango that in my experience are myths, and that I wanted to share with my readers. These are my myths, just like this is my tango journey. Yours may be different but, of course, I’m keen to hear what you think. Here we go.
It’s a myth that the man ‘leads’ and the woman ‘follows’. The man needs to ‘listen’ just as much as he ‘speaks’ and the woman is equally responsible in responding to craft the story that is created through the dance, rather than passively ‘nodding’ to whatever the man is ‘saying’. The man is not responsible for making the woman move, therefore he doesn’t need to exert force or nor worry about where she will go. He just needs to make sure he is doing what it is that he needs to do well and give her the time and space to respond. If she doesn’t, it’s a matter of her needing further training, not a matter of him overcompensating to the point of getting both the woman and himself into bad habits that are very hard to get rid of once they’re imprinted in muscle memory.
It’s a myth that there’s only one kind of ‘real tango’. Beauty can be found in many different styles and many different dancers. I tend to gravitate my favourite dancers but that doesn’t mean I can’t pick things I like from others. If Gavito had been alive when I was in Buenos Aires, I would have taken classes from him because I love how he interprets the music, and especially pauses. I took almost all of my private classes from salon dancers such as Sebastian Achával, Roxana Suarez, and Gabriel Angió but it doesn’t mean I stopped going dancing to my favourite milongas at El Beso, where the floor was so crowded that I could have never ‘practiced’ the long steps and the giros I’d learn during the day. Labels such as ‘milonguero’, ‘stage’ or ‘salon’ are useful only to a certain extent because this is a fluid art form and they all use elements from each other. Ultimately, I know tango when I see it. They’re never good when they’re used in a judgmental way.
It’s a myth that you can only have a connection in close embrace, with your chests touching each other. It feels much better than an open embrace and achieving a connection in the latter requires a lot of technique and effort but it is possible and it is the result of a number of things, some of which I can’t put into words. Again, you know connection when you see it, and sometimes, you can’t even see it because only the two people dancing will know. Moreover, it’s not true that close embrace is achievable only during a milonguero style or that in order to do fancier steps you have to break it. See one of my favourite couples for an example of how you can do this well.
It’s a myth that social tango is an internal experience only for you and your partner. While the main characteristic of it is that you create a dialogue between yourself, your partner and the music, by the very definition of ‘social’, you are dancing with other people. Every man on the floor dances with other men as well, in the sense that they are spatially aware of each other and collaborate to create that beautiful flow that seen from up above makes the dance floor on the milonga so appealing to the eye. To varying extents, every dancer on the floor knows that they’re being watched, and therefore there’s an element of exhibitionism in every dance. You want to look good to your dance prospects so you have better chances of being picked or picking later. Since its beginnings, the dance floor at a milonga has been where dancers from different gangs or neighbourhoods would show off their skills to each other, in a bid to attract the best ladies. So while I agree that beautiful tango doesn’t need to be about fancy footwork or complicated steps, there’s nothing wrong with performing complicated steps in perfect sync with the music and where appropriate.
It’s a myth that salon tango displays are not real tango because they’re rehearsed. The purpose of these displays is to delight, inspire, and showcase the skills of the dancers. They work hard at what they do and they want to please their audiences and also stand out from the myriad other dancers that operate in the very tough and competitive environment that is professional tango. This is why they add extra ingredients to make things more interesting. While they’re rehearsed, they’re still improvised. If they danced like they’d dance in a milonga, they probably wouldn’t get much recognition nor many students or festival invitations. The crowds demand a show and a show is what they get. But just because they go fast or do many steps, doesn’t mean these steps are alien. In fact, if you watch carefully any standard salon tango performance you can see that they’re using elements from an existing repertoire of moves, the same way as you’d construct complex sentences in a particular language. Just because the sentence is complex, doesn’t mean it’s foreign.
It’s a myth that you have to dance with the best dancers to have an enjoyable time or even to improve. Dancing with those old men at El Beso, who recycled the same three steps during the whole tanda or weren’t particularly comfortable in their embrace, taught me valuable things that I couldn’t learn from dancing with slick professionals at the break of dawn at La Viruta. Class isn’t always about beautiful enrosques. Making a woman feel wanted isn’t always about squeezing her and dancing isn’t always about stepping to the beat. It’s the old guys that taught me to take my time and enjoy the waiting pauses, and I’m thankful for that. Similarly, dancing with less experienced dancers can be a wonderful experience if you stop thinking about how they’re falling short and try to find at least one thing that they do well.
Finally, it’s a myth that the best dancers are worthy of your unconditional adoration. They’re people like the rest of us. They’ve got their fears, insecurities, things they’re good at, and things they’re not so good at. For some of them, tango is the only thing they know and you couldn’t imagine talking to them during a long bus ride. Moreover, it’s hard to know their motivations towards tourists. Are they friendly to you because it’s part of a carefully crafted image that is supposed to attract new business? When they ask you to dance is it because they want to dance with you or because they want to give you a taste of their honey, in the hope that you’ll go back asking for more. Of course, this is not always the case. I got to know all kinds of professionals, some of which are lovely people that I have the desire to stay in contact with. But at the end of the day, you need to dissociate (no pun intended) between their physical skills and their human skills in order to avoid disappointments.