Dancers, who have been dancing for a little bit, I do feel your pain. And I am listening to your complaints. You were attracted to this dance called Argentine Tango and now teachers telling you to embrace a certain way and then more experienced dancers telling you to dance a certain way, guest instructors say something else, like it’s the only truth.
Sometimes I can find the thread of truth in all these. After all, aren’t all these tango teachers just regurgitating either, what they were taught or what works for them?
When I was first learning tango I seem to vaguely remember terms like Salon Tango or Tango Salon being tossed around. I wasn’t clear as to what it meant and I remember going to Buenos Aires on my first tango trip and seeing dancers dancing chest to chest at the milongas. No one mentioned to me a label, it was clear we were all dancing tango in a salon de baile (a ballroom or could also be called pista de baile). Yet I was learning to dance a more open embrace in the US. I was vaguely confused but made a decision that I was going to dance, what I wanted to call, social tango, something that I saw in the milongas in Buenos Aires, after all it’s a social dance, right? Ironically, a friend in my home community articulated his frustrations that what he was learning in classes wasn’t very useful at milongas. And at the time I thought, “Me Too!”
Subsequently over time I think I ignored the labels that people were giving to the Argentine Tango. I found teachers that were recommended to me and I took a lot of group classes and I went out to milongas to dance socially in a close embrace that I had experienced first hand in Buenos Aires. Everyone seemed to be doing it, dancing close embrace, and those that weren’t; I didn’t dance with all that often.
In retrospect I can see that there was a lot of confusion in people’s bodies as to how to lead and how to follow. What I too would hear from one teacher would be totally contradictory to another. What a mess and that was only 14 years ago. One teacher would explain leading through the right arm, another would explain leading as being in the chest, the shoulders, the solar plexus, the center, and others would divide the leaders from the followers and give each of us our pattern and then we would fight it out together! Somehow I swam through the sea of confusion as many of you, or shall I say us, still do now.
You may know that I began teaching Argentine Tango out of curiosity and somewhat by default. I began by teaching what I knew to be my experience in Buenos Aires: from those teachers that shared what I most closely understood to be that which I danced in the milongas in Buenos Aires. Teaching has taken me on a very long adventure which fortunately or unfortunately has included changing what I understood and therefore, what I have taught.
I set out to teach others how to social dance in Buenos Aires as I had done. I did not have a label for it: to me it was Argentine Tango. Soon after my return to Arizona, where I began teaching only Argentine Tango, did the questions begin to arise. “Are you the milonguero teacher from Phoenix?” I recall being asked by a prominent festival organizer. I didn’t answer or maybe I did by the strange look on my face and the repetition of the words, “milonguero teacher?”
I made an attempt to see if I needed the label. I looked up Argentine Tango online only to discover that there were several more labels that I had never heard of, I looked around to see who was labeling themselves what… (The 90’s saw the label Milonguero and then soon followed was Nuevo, and then came Villa Urquiza.) What kind of a teacher was I if I didn’t have a label? My students were dancing with little complaints so I continued without a label.
My journey has now taken me into a new realm – into an actual label. In competing in Argentine Tango we are now labeled as Tango Salon and thus seemingly poo-pooed by those hanging onto another label. Which is funny to me – because I still can dance at the milongas. For me nothing has changed, except that I am training to look and dance a certain way with my partner. Somewhere in the tango label lineage Tango Salon went categorized as being closer to Stage Tango and with learning choreographed steps. Interestingly enough Melina Sedo in her blog, Melina’s Two Cents, has had a similar struggle with labels and enlightened me that Tango De Salon in France was interpreted as ballroom tango.
Recently a friend of mine who teaches back east said to me, “Aren’t you learning essentially choreographed steps for the competition?” I thought this was an interesting claim as we are constantly working on certain turning patterns that are expected in this label, Tango Salon, and in the competition in the category of the same name.
So where does this bring us – to our frustrations as students. And an entire blog without too many confusing labels and to my point.
A female student came to me recently. She has been studying fast and furiously with many teachers, going out to milongas diligently, has a practice partner, and was beyond confused and frustrated. How does a follower follow all these different leaders? All these different corrections?
From the follower’s perspective I don’t think any of it is wrong but it is about learning and understanding that there are certain possibilities based basically on embrace. Which means that if I am dancing super close, chest to chest and socially, there are a certain set of expectations (this has been labeled milonguero). Those expectations are not to leave the chest, not to pivot the hips, and I think often misinterpreted that the follower is “hanging” on the leader, although I have never heard those words come out of a teacher’s mouth but I observe it all too often on the dance floor and then hear about it from the leaders and their pained shoulders.
I could also be dancing a little less close and socially which offers me other options. The music will dictate and the space and geography might all give me clues, yes, for me as a follower too.
The clues are exhibited on the dance floor for me to see, as a follower, and as a leader. And in this case “like attracts like”. Do you see an embrace that you like? Basically that embrace will dictate that dance. And when you are in that embrace remember one of Graciela Gonzalez’ adages: ”Follow what you feel not what you think”.
(part 2 of labels next week and for more historical notes on Tango Styles visit Stephen Brown’s site at:
http://www.tejastango.com/inside_2011archive.html#0004 and scroll down to The Continuing Conflict over Tango Styles.)