Beauty or kitsch: Making aesthetic judgements about tango dancing

I was just admiring how its done to the highest level: nobody got hurt, everybody had space, nobody passed the couple in front, not one boleo, not one gancho, …. And yet – sooo beautiful!

Facebook user comment on a Youtube video of a tango competition

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One often finds people on social media making aesthetic judgements about tango dancing performances, demonstrations or competitions. Such statements typically have the character of subjective affirmations. It’s difficult to argue with them because statements of aesthetic preference are notoriously difficult to render objective. Sometimes there are reasons given for preferring a particular style of dancing pointing to some objectively verifiable aspects such as absence boleos and ganchos. But what’s beautiful about this beyond the suits and dresses, and the practiced and competently executed tango moves? One could also point out that in fact there are many boleos, and while there are no ganchos, which are not really done in salon style tango, the boleos are high and wide:

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These couples have a good amount of space which can’t be taken for granted at a crowded milonga, so the length of their steps would not be normally viable. The men’s backward steps, the extending of the leg backwards for a period of time, or the wide low boleos, would all create high risk situations in a social dancing context. These factors would create a sense of risk and tension among the dancers, and therefore provide a poor model for social dancing, for example, for those reading the Facebook post who take it as an informed judgement by someone who is in position to make such judgements, and so use these dancers as a model of competent social dancing.

Arguments about etiquette and the safe way to dance feel tedious and preachy, and so are not all that effective in getting people to have second thoughts about dancing this way at milonga. What is more difficult but perhaps more interesting are judgements about what is beautiful. This is probably more effective in convincing people to go one way or the other. Yet the aesthetic response is viewed as essentially subjective and personal: we generally assume the truth of de gustibus non est disputandum, that there is no accounting for taste, that beauty is the eye of the beholder. How can I argue with the sentiment expressed in “And yet – sooo beautiful”. That’s a gut feeling of this person who affirms this dancing as of “the highest level”.

Perhaps at some time I would have shared this sentiment, or perhaps my response would have been undecided, of the sort “It looks pretty, but does that represent what tango is really about?” We don’t necessarily assume that our immediate emotional or aesthetic responses are always to be trusted. We reasonably accept that they might dupe us into following something false, insincere or fake (well, at least people used to assume this, before social media, I guess). Just because something tastes good doesn’t mean that it’s good for us.

So in situations in which we do not trust our own judgement we judiciously fall on the verdict of authorities: doctors, nutritionists, or tradition. The problem is that in the arena of culture and art the experts, ie, those who specialise in cultural criticism, have eschewed beauty as mere kitsch, as inauthentic clichés, and have instead opted for abstraction and originality. Beauty has been removed from the realm of art and art education, and as a result, for most people aesthetic judgements have come to mean either uninformed subjective gut responses, or else the rule of the majority of the consumers on the market place.

Thus, in the case of Pop music it is the market that determines the standards. And yet we do know that people who have some basic knowledge of music, that is, how music is constructed or composed, it’s grammar so to speak, the basics of harmony, rhythm, interpretation, do not automatically share the positive evaluation of the products of the music industry. They see through the tricks and hooks that are used to get the masses addicted to the likes of Lady Gaga, and recognise that contemporary music appeals to our lower instincts, is dumbed down, and makes us correspondingly dumber.

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The ‘wristaround’ and the ‘fingertip’ hold accommodate the figures

So how can we go about evaluating the aesthetic value, the beauty, of tango dancing? I believe that anyone with sufficient experience of dancing tango will come to the view that the beauty of tango dancing resides significantly in the unique tango embrace understood as the couple being open to, rather than from, each other and fully embracing each other. It does not reside in the sort of mechanical frame in which the couple merely touches each other at the fingertips as mere support for the execution of choreography where the man is a mobile wall for her ochos and decorations whereas the woman a mobile chair for his sacadas.


This embrace is not ‘flexible’

If we just bother to look we can easily see whether a couple is focused on the embrace and moving in the embrace or whether they are focused on executing their routine and using the embrace as a supporting frame (see Embrace: the essence of tango). This is not to say that there is not a technique aspect to the embrace but rather that this aspect must open the way into active engagement with the partner without which the dance is really nothing more than the execution of choreography. If the goal is the execution of set patterns then that technique is always compromised in order to facilitate the footwork, and so there is a constant tendency in the direction of the fingertip embrace or worse, opening up completely and even going so far as doing a Salsa turn in order to dissipate the tension building up in the arms.

Second, the beauty of tango dancing resides in an immediate response to tango music. Tango music, in particular the Epoca de Oro recordings, is an aesthetic achievement and our dancing is both an aesthetic response and a creation. So we have to understand tango dancing as comprising an element of listening  and responding to music.

Again we can see immediately if we bother to look what the couple hears or fails to hear in the music. Unfortunately, we have lost the ability to hear music and instead tend to perceive it as vague background noise.

Nowadays the predominant manner of experiencing music is in the form of background noise or “musac”: in the supermarket, the elevator, or blaring into our earphones while we are busily distracted with things like shopping or eating. We rarely actually attend to the music and its various elements. Prior to the age of musical reproduction and ubiquitous audio devices people rarely heard music and when they did it was probably by sitting and listening to it, giving it a significant amount of their attention. In the era of ubiquitous music we have learned not to attend to music but simply to consider it as background noise. When we watch a tango performance we are mesmerised by the visual image of dancers in making loud moves and wearing equally loud costumes.

As neuroscience tells us, human cognition is characterised by a limited processing capacity at any given moment, and also the predominance of vision. Since the brain cannot process more than one thing at a time there is little mental space left to actually process the sound. We see the lovely shoes, dresses and tuxedos, and the whole thing roughly coheres with the background sound blaring out of the speakers, and we emit the gut response that it’s all “so beautiful”. The question is whether this is not equivalent of the sort of uninformed gut-level response one might have to Lady Gaga.

So what happens if we self-consciously ignore the tango dresses, expensive shoes, tuxedos, and workshop moves, and instead focus attention on the music itself, and then use that to evaluate the dancing as a response to the music? This cognitive technique changes the ‘framing’ of our perception and so will likely offer an alternative Gestalt. The  frame of reference will no longer the superficial and less significant aspects of dancing such as dress and show moves, but more essential elements such as the music and movement as a response to the music.

I want to point to certain aspects of tango music that it shares with most tonal music that would be apparent to anyone who has some knowledge of musical composition, and that should influence how we respond to it in our dancing. In most Western music—pop, rock, hip hop, blues, as well as tango—there will be some parts of the overall sound which are low middle or high. Different instruments occupy different range on the scale from low to high. Monophonic instruments such as the double bass or the cello will play the low-end, violin or flute will be at the top-end. Polyphonic instruments such as piano, guitar or bandoneon can play over the whole range.

The different part of the tonal spectrum is associated with different musical functions. In many types of music such as rock, pop also tango the low-end and mid-range section keeps the rhythm, that is plays in such a way that supports the melodic playing of the high-end.  So the rhythm section (usually the double bass, piano and bandoneon) and will usually play more staccato, that is, the rhythm will be tight and the notes will be short and separated. Also, the low end notes provide more of the feel of the music and often drive our movement more as can be seen from the fact that a lot of dance music comprises of a heavy bass. At the same time, these notes are more felt than heard, that is, you have to attend to them to consciously hear them.

A rhythm section (also called a backup band) is a group of musicians within a music ensemble or band who provide the underlying rhythm, harmony and pulse of the accompaniment, providing a rhythmic and harmonic reference and “beat” for the rest of the band. (Wikipedia)

The piano, bass, and drums comprise the rhythm section; their primary role is to accompany and provide support for the horn players as well as each other; they may also improvise solos. The pianist’s primary job is to play chords (the music that accompanies the melodies) in a lively, rhythmic fashion. (

Instruments such as violins, trumpets and also the high-range of polyphonic instruments (piano, bandoneon, guitar) play the melodic parts and will often play more legato, ie., the notes are long and connected, and also they will often play tempo rubato, ie., the notes will stretch time rather than keeping a strict rhythm.

We are more consciously aware of the high-end melodic section because it pops out whereas low-end is more felt than heard. But because its various characteristics, the high-end section is not typically ideal for constructing a dance because they will usually play more notes, giving the impression that the beat it faster than it actually is, and also because they do not usually keep a strict time. Lets say the rhythmic instruments (double bass, left hand of the piano and low end of the bandoneon) are playing a strict rhythm of four quarter notes per bar, whereas the high end (violins, high end of bandoneon, etc.) is playing high 16th notes interspersed with ample amounts of legato interpretations. Well, if you want to impress the onlookers who are consciously aware of the high-end you would probably follow that and pull out fast moves and smooth turns to squeeze out every ounce of passionate energy out of the melody line.

However, the rhythm section is not there merely as a sort of background that can be dispensed with. It is in fact the grounding that holds everything together, supporting the melody and allowing it to reach those highs. Connecting your dancing in the rhythmic low-end provides your dance with stability and grounding that helps to establish the connection to your partner and gives you control on the dancefloor.

Of course, the different aspects will be emphasised to different degrees. In tango, a composition will leave it open to interpretation of the particular orchestra to play the composition more stoccato or legato, and it is the balance between the two polarities that provides for much of the feel, tone or character of the particular recording.

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Grounded in the low-end or flying on the high-end?

When we become aware that the music has this structure and these elements, we can discern whether a couple is responding to the staccato, legato or rubato aspects of the music. Are they listening to the singer or the violins stretching out the notes with smooth turns or pauses, or are they responding to the bass and piano with their stoccato knocking out the rhythm. The music will differ in terms of the openness of different interpretations. If you are dancing to Biagi most of that will be stoccato so that dancing smoothly and pausing will feel strange. It would be equally strange to dance staccato to Di Sarli’s Dancehall Instrumentals. If you’re dancing to D’Agostino there will be more room for alternative interpretations and more variety.

From this point of view, tango dancing must consist of the ability to respond to the music, to be open to the music and what the music makes available. Instead, what we get in these tango competitions is a repetitive, smooth running through the walks and turns. When the dancers depart from smooth dancing, it seems to be mostly at those high points when the bandoneon plays a dense set of high 16th notes and the dancers do a set of fast stepping turns. Uninformed audiences see this as an exhibition of great skill, and in a sense it is that. The problem is that it is a skill at show dancing which is essentially inauthentic and, I would argue, therefore kitsch. As such it does not express any ideals that we ought to aspire to.

milonga5Finally, I would argue that the much of the aesthetics of tango resides in the social aspect. When we dance socially we do not dance as a lone couple but with other couples. In these competitions there are several couples on the dance floor, but the manner of their dancing is as if they were there alone, dancing independently of the others. They do not cohere as a group of dancers moving independently but in an emergent manner also in sync with each other, but instead are literally in competition with each other. The purpose of social dancing, and therefore the beauty ideally inherent in it, is the convivial atmosphere that is created by the people who know, trust and harmonise with each other. When that is lacking, what is left is the abstract beauty of the steps and figures that elicit an inauthentic emotion in the audience which, I would suggest, is the definition not of beauty but of kitsch.

Supplementary reading