What is a “thing” in dancing? The construction of the discourse of Argentine tango vs. tango milonguero

I’ve learned several skills in my life. In the last couple of years I’ve been learning to play classical guitar and I’m getting pretty good at that. Currently I’m learning how to trade charts: stocks, cryptos, foreign exchange, etc.

Whether it’s music or trading it’s a similar sort of process. At the outset the whole thing is a mystery. You look at something and you can’t make sense of it.

Then, as you take courses and move through the learning process you learn to identify various aspects. You look at someone playing a piece of music and you’re now able to decipher what they’re doing. You look at a price chart and you start being able to identify various components of what’s happening in order to be able to decide what will probably happen next.

The point is that learning a skill involves absorbing a theory of the domain which labels its various aspects. In music it’s tones, time, melody, harmony, scales, chromaticism, counterpoint, etc. In trading it’s things like trends, channels, reversals, support, resistance, etc. These things are categories that are imposed on whatever it is, whether it’s sound or changes in price.

It’s the same with dancing. When we’re new to it we don’t know really what we’re looking at. Learning to dance we don’t just learn movements to music, but also the categories that are used to organise the movement, things like the various kind of movement patterns, the frame or hold, posture, etc.

The major difference that I see between Argentine tango and tango milonguero concerns things like movements, hold, posture and how things look.

The Argentine tango framework is pretty much imported from the studio dances (ballroom and street latin). Movement patterns are given names and are thus rendered the things of tango dancing. Then there is the hold or frame and the posture.

The goal is an overall look.

Then within that framework you can have various styles: salon, canyengue, milonguero, nuevo.

What all these styles have in common is that the things you need to learn are movement patterns, hold and posture that lead to attaining particular sort of a look.

If you eliminate movement patterns, frame, posture and the particular look then you’ve eliminated all the things that a dancer of Argentine tango of whatever style listed above, as well as the other studio dancers, are able to talk about. In effect you will no longer be able to communicate with them.

For example, if you start talking about the music, the inner feeling, a hug, walking and turning, being economical with the space, etc. they might agree with all of that but they will only find that interesting to the extent that it either supports or compromises what they’re doing (ie., their movement patterns, hold, posture and look)

In terms of music, it’s only relevant to the extent that they’re able to look good executing their movement patterns. Same with the use of space, the hug, etc.: these things are marginal within their conceptual scheme which puts movement patterns, posture, frame and look at the centre.

To put it another way, when they’re dancing they’re responding to the music and participating in a social practice only marginally as a by-product of executing certain movements with a certain posture and a certain sort of a look.

Their orientation is essentially external and movement focused rather than internal and music focused. It’s the visual image that they produce for the onlookers that motivates the movement rather than the internal impulse in response to the music (see also Three approaches to tango teaching and practice: visual, cultural and experiential).

This is the result of the fact that the theory of dancing that they learn originates from exhibition dancing.

Once you’re trained to view dancing in terms of those categories you are stuck in that framework. You look at tango milonguero dancing and you will find that “they don’t do anything” because there is no set movement patterns, no frame, no posture and no look.

Having gone through the process myself I can say that unlearning this way of thinking requires a good amount of effort.

It’s probably because of the prevalence of the Argentine tango theory of tango dancing, which has also taken over the teaching of tango milonguero as just one style of Argentine tango, that it is so difficult to establish tango milonguero dancing outside of BA.

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