Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Tango Anthropologist

Perhaps you started as an anthropologist and now have joined the tribe?

We are all in some degree tango-anthropologists.  The beginner comes into Argentine tango with much of the same questions that any anthropologist does as she or he goes out on a field trip.  But after we join a group, it is easy to forget our most basic skills.  However, the questions still need answering that you had at the outset!  Don't forget your skills as an anthropologist!
How are your observation skills as tango evolves before you?

Tango Anthropology Self-Test:
Gauge your own skills.  Below I list some basic anthropologist skills.  How are you doing at getting better and more observant?

Origins.  Are you curious about the origins of tango in the group that you are in and tango itself?  Do you accept the myths of tango as a brothel-born dance or do you know about the readily available historical context?  Do you know the other tribes outside of the studio-tribe from whence you came?

Language:  Tango has its own languages.  The language of the music, the language of how it is taught, the analogies of how we explain complex social behaviors or movements.  Do you know these languages? Can you communicate it when new blood enters the group?  Is the language used to help people enter the group or used to keep them out?

 This is the science of how we come to know and understand our state of being.  What draws you and those around you to tango.  Is it negative, addiction language that you use?
Is it eros, philos or agape language that best describes our personal or the group's "way of knowing and understanding" our state of being within ourselves or with the group?  Are there limited foci or compartments rather than a broader based understanding of tango as fulfillment of human need on many levels?

Ontology: This is the science our being within time, space.  It starts with what happens within us when we dance or interact in the community, but grows to include others' experiences in our growing tango tribe (group).

Ecology: Tangueros in their "environment" is the ambiance of their classes and social gatherings.  Are they sustainable?  Does the group allow beginners to grow and adjust to the group?  An advanced tango-anthropologist may reject outright or even like a teacher from out of town perhaps emotionally abuses people -- as long as the information is highly valued. Either way, they are aware of the toxic or harmonious ambiances each tango group.  If it is toxic, is it worth it?  If not, the group is doomed.  An advanced tango-anthropologist will differentiate between praticas and milongas.  Are people are talking, teaching and working on things in both venues?  Here is where beginners usually are not aware, and ask for instruction on the milonga dance floor.  They do not yet know (as some "advanced" tangueros should) that talking on the dance floor is tantamount to talking loudly in a theater about the movie that you are watching:  It is not only bothersome to the recipient of your observations but to all those in earshot of your pontifications.

Religion:  Unknown to tango atheists, anthropologists of all kinds do not wonder if there is religion.  They find it, if they are good at their craft.  So the question in tango is:  What is spiritual, magically inexplicable or divine for you and for the group?   Many find the epicenter of the magic of tango in the embrace.  But for me there is a "Trinity":  Music, Embrace and Movement.  Religion also includes definitions of ethical behavior.  In tango there are the códigos (tango etiquette rules) which can have some of the feel that the Ten Commandments have.  Not knowing or respecting rules of a community can lead to ostracism, and having no rules at all creates chaos.  Of course, there are always "Protestants" and "iconoclasts" who by their very nature do not like social norms (mostly without even knowing if they are indeed practical or helpful for the group).  After the iconoclasts break all the rules, they tend to realize later how necessary they are in perhaps some other form.

Traditions and Ritual:  Some things are very traditional in tango.  In Buenos Aires, no one is going to dance to "Adiós Muchachos," but if a tango tribe did not know it was linked to the death of a tango icon (Gardel), that group would be easily able to decide to use it as the last-song "benediction" at the end of each milonga in which we say goodbye instead of the Cumparsita (which means "parade of sorrows").  A song of "adiós would seem appropriate as a last son on the surface, while a a song about a parade of sorrows does not seem very much like a way to say goodbye.  Not playing Adiós Muchachos at a milonga is a way of standing in awe of the unknown -- tragic and sudden death of "a prophet" of tango.

Love and Hate:  A good tango-anthropologist can easily become a director/producer of the tango play going on in town.  Good tango-anthropologists start slipping over into the practical applications of tango-sociology.  They (as producer/directors) may enable a community to unite because they have a larger view of love and hate, and are not mere participants in the play.  The tango-anthropologist, as any anthropologist, needs to look at the question of love and hate:  Why are we compassionate toward some humans while capable of hating (even killing) others.   "I love this teacher; I hate that one."  "I love tango nuevo and hate traditional tango."  These antipodes are not in some communities; it is a part of each community.  But there are civil ways of dealing with differences. Why does this group never dance with the group which meets across town?  Why does that teacher mention the teacher at the other studio with contempt at every chance?  Certain communities are so bogged down in love and hate, that even little towns nearby have better and more diverse tango scenes than the much larger city.

There are other basic questions, such as self-determination and power.  But you get the picture.

Are you getting better with time as a tango-anthropologist?  My guess is that you are, otherwise you would not be reading this.  You may have noticed if you read this blog that we are both on a path of observing from outside all the while we are drawn into the epicenter of the group at times.  Is isn't it amazing?  Thanks for joining me with your great curiosity for this most amazing thing called "tango."


If you like the evolving tanguero, you can get this graphic on a t-shirt at:

Acknowledgements:  For more on the essential elements of anthropological study, I suggest doing a search of anthropology.  I liked Dr Rodney Frey, Professor of Ethnography's course syllabus for Anthropology:

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