The Essence of Tango – Feelings or Steps?

19 03 2010

What is the essence of tango? What generates the passion that makes tango both seductive and addictive at the same time? Does the same motivation that gets us started in tango dancing continue to generate the emotion and excitement to sustain it?

One of the ongoing debates within American tango communities is a focus on feelings vs. a focus on steps. The discussion goes back to the introduction of tango in America. At the time, Americans were captivated by what they saw on stage, and wanted to learn that stage dance, to dance socially. Many tanqueras and tanqueros have come to understand tango social dancing as what was performed on stage, when in fact these same performers danced a very different style socially – and still do today.

Yet the trend persists. Social dancing for some as become synonymous with learning steps, steps to perform for others. Yet most traditional tango social dancing in the salons and barrios of Buenos Aires is a much more understated style that focuses on feelings generated by posture, embrace and musicality. That dance is commonly called ‘milonguero’ style, though it’s sometimes confused with ‘salon’ or other ‘close embrace’ variations. ’Millonguero’-style social dancers feel what stage dancers see. They’re inspired in their dance by their connection with their partner and how it feels to them, instead of how their performance looks to others.

Is there a natural growth or progression? Only time will tell for each person. As in in many types of artistic expression, the best artists may never feel like they have finally arrived. Instead their art continues to evolve through their own understanding, inspiration and interpretation.

Good tango dancers can only aspire to the pinnacle of tango; they never reach it. Some of the best dancers in the world feel like they’ve only just begun.” As recently stated by older and wise ‘milonguero’ who has been dancing tango in Buenos Aires most of his life, “After over 60 years of tango dancing, I think I’ve finally learned how to walk.” How humbling for those of us who have only danced a few years, while sometimes feeling that we have already learned how to walk.

As perhaps best stated by Daniel Trenner — one of the early pioneers in bringing ‘milongueoro’ style social dancing to North America:

“It took years to get past being fascinated with the steps, which were my first draw to the dance. The dancers who were doing less footwork were uninteresting to me and I just didn’t see them. Then, years of advice from the milongueros to feel the dance, not just learn steps, began to take effect. I started to notice the dancers for how they stood, embraced and felt the music. It isn’t like I didn’t know about these things before, I just didn’t see them… even though they were right in front of me.”


One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

9 11 2009

My ongoing growth and development of my Tango dancing seems to carry with it a certain rhythm – unlike other partner dances I’ve experienced. I’ve heard the expression “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back” for years, but I’m still trying to figure out what it means. After all, taken literally, it would mean you’re going backwards, instead of advancing in your Tango dance. And yet, like I’ve experienced over the last few years, I do continue to advance — although at times the key growth spurt comes when I seem to be moving in the wrong direction.

I felt the impact of a true growth perhaps most profoundly during the last few months. At the beginning of this period, my dance felt comfortable, in fact too comfortable. And when I really started to pay attention to how I was dancing, I realized that I had a lot that needed to be fixed. Luckily, my teacher from Buenos Aires was coming to town and I was looking forward to taking a few private lessons with her so she could help me fix what was wrong.

The list of things to correct wasn’t totally surprising, but it was profound. And as I spent the following few weeks working on those things, I felt was dance retrenching and getting worse at the same time. I was dancing fewer interesting steps, I was losing my musicality and I wasn’t feeling grounded any longer — all of which are needed for a good dance. And the harder I worked at it fixing the other stuff (e.g, core, axis, walking) — the worse my dance seemed to become. I had briefly felt this before for perhaps a few days to a week or so, but never for this long a time. Three of four weeks after my private lessons, nothing seemed to have improved. And while I was still dancing with most of my Tango partners, I temporarily lost a few along the way during this transition.

Out of frustration, I checked in with a few of my Tango mentors who’d been dancing Tango for a long time. They were reassuring, but I still felt like I was stuck on this downhill slide that I struggled to recover from. My teacher returned 3 weeks later – 3 weeks after my private lessons with her — and we dance together at a Saturday Milonga (tango social dance). It didn’t go that well, and after the dance, we both acknowledged that I actually didn’t dance with her as well then, as I had a few weeks earlier — even though my private lessons were supposed to help fix all of that. Yes, I was actually dancing worse. What to do?

I considered taking more private lessons with her, but decided that I was too off-center to take in any more input and needed to find myself on the dance floor. Fundamentally, I felt that I had the tools to fix what I needed to fix and get everything out of my head and internalized into my body, but I just couldn’t seem to make it happen. The following week, I danced with another tango teacher visiting from Buenos Aires and something special started to emerge. Although I continued to concentrate on the basic technique of my dance, I felt some of those magical moments start to return, things that had been missing for over a month.

I savored the moment, took a few more days off from tango dancing, and then visited a new milonga in the northwest suburbs where I danced with some old friends, as well as some new. I started to feel my dance re-emerge, not just where I had left it weeks ago – but I seemed to be dancing better than ever before. So perhaps this is what is meant by the expression “One step forward, two steps back” is literally that. It’s not a figurative concept about the need to regroup, but a more literal concept — where I literally had to go backwards in my dance before I could advance. And despite all of the insecurities I felt during that time, I had to trust the path I was on, even when it was uncomfortable — trusting that I would re-surface in a new spot dancing better than I had ever danced before. My experience last weekend with yet another group of dancers confirmed that for the moment, I was in a good spot and all of the stuff I had struggled earlier with seemed to come together and I was able to share my embrace and musicality in profound ways I hadn’t been able to do earlier.

While my recent growth and development felt a bit disconcerting at the moment, I realize how important and necessary it was for me to go through the process to get where I wanted to go — for now!

And yes, with Tango:

< To go backwards, is to move forward.

< When you think you have it, you lose it.

< Seek tango, and it will elude you.

< Dance tango with humility and respect, and it will embrace you.

< Be vulnerable, and feel it’s power.

~ …

Wow…One of the best tango valz performances I’ve seen–with Alberto Dassieu and Elba Biscay

26 10 2009

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