The parasitic relationship of performing artists to social tango

Today I chanced upon a blog of a tango teacher in Montreal called Graffiti Tango. It seems like he has been running a school for a long time. Many of the things he says, and he says a lot, seem to resonate with me, both in terms of some of his views about teaching and some wider political issues. However, while he was saying some of the things that I might say, I noticed that there was a significant difference of perspective.

This teacher has a background in classical ballet and a lot of his material is concerned with performance. When he talks about improvisation, for example, he’s referring to improvised as opposed to a choreographed performance. This couldn’t be more different from the way that I use the idea of improvisation which has nothing at all to do with a performance for an audience.

This actually connects to a broader issue concerning the relationship of performers to social tango dancing generally. I include musicians as well as dancer here because I also found myself at odds with live musicians whose music was very good, but whose perspective on tango was radically different from mine.

My general impression is that both musicians and performing dancers have a parasitic relationship to social tango dancing, in particular traditional milonguero dancing, and their influence has a generally detrimental effect on the latter, whether or not they themselves are able to perceive this or intend it that way.

For example, when I was in Buenos Aires a couple of years ago there was a tango band from Poland doing a tour of the milongas. I chatted with them after their performance at Salon Canning. Later at another venue I complimented the leader, who was on bandoneon, on playing traditional tango because all the bands I’ve seen so far in BA were doing some sort of Piazzolla stuff.

Instead of accepting the compliment the guy shot back angrily that they normally play Piazzolla stuff. The next time they were playing at a milonga he announced that their normal repertoire is Piazzolla stuff. When they finished and I asked him politely why that’s relevant at a milonga he became really aggressive, telling me that it’s his artistic history or something of that sort.

My general impression was that, while they were very competent musicians, this guy at least has very little interest in the traditional tango music that he is playing or for that matter respect for the people dancing there. But the milonga scene provide them with a ready-made audience and a source of income. But instead of biting his tongue when talking to a fan of traditional tango he became confrontational, showing how little regard he has for the people paying his salary at the door.

I feel a similar sort of attitude from many teachers who seem to have a performance dancing background, and who have to lower themselves to teaching social dancing, but who really look down on the traditional stuff. A typical response from an Argentinian teacher when I mention tango milonguero has been that they (meaning the milongueros) don’t do anything. As with the musicians I feel a contemptuous vibe from these people who, as far as I can tell just by looking, have never been to a traditional milonga, and if they ever danced socially at all it was at one of those hipster nuevo places like La Catedral.

Traditional milonguero dancers are very welcoming and happy if anyone takes an interest in tango, but my impression is that these musicians, performers and nuevo teachers are parasites on traditional tango dancing. All of them tend to push tango in a particular direction, towards more dramatic tango pieces (Pugliese, Piazzolla, etc.) and bigger “kinesphere” movements, meaning movements that are very stretched outward and highly visible. Everything is invitably bigger, and in their view therefore better.

It’s understandable given that they’re trained in the performance arts. But then they’re dealing with social dancing. Can you see the possibility of a disconnect?

The thing is that when you consider the results, the global tango scenes that are built by attracting an audience by way of this sort of dramartized material are invariably fragile and lack any sort of coherence or cohesiveness. There’s loads of lessons, workshops, shows, performances, videos and images, all having the effect of obverwhelming your consciousness with a hyperstimulus.

But the consequence of this hyperstimulation is that social dancing itself becomes an anti-climax. It can’t possibly match the heroic efforts of the various performers who take centre stage. It’s inevitably diminished and rendered inconsequential.

I have to witness it, talk about it, be exposed to it, even if my main interest is the dancing with that woman in the flowery dress across the room. But I won’t have a chance to dance with her again because all the dudes in the place are worked up into their show routines and she feels violated and won’t come back.

The Montreal teacher discusses pedagogy but his main topic of interest seems to be his fellow teachers, his own Argentinian teachers, performances, his own performance history, and like stuff. What if I’m not interested in any of that but just want to know whether, if I come to his milonga, there will be great music and great dancing to be had. I can’t tell from his blog. I find that when I look at these public materials on these tango scenes, I don’t exist at all in their conceptual scheme, in their “meta-language”. It’s all about them. But I need to read more of his blog, it might be there somewhere.