Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Sacred Silence at the Milonga

Link to German Translation

Imagine an evening of tango without any talking?  I do not have to imagine it anymore.  I experienced it last Sunday night in Heidelberg, Germany.

This post is NOT fiction, although it seems a bit surreal.

 Don Carlitos Tanzpalast in Heidelberg, Germany has a pleasant, happy atmosphere.  But it was different on last Sunday evening.  It seemed like the atmospheric pressure changed as I walked in.  The Sunday milonga is usually monthly, but this was a special milonga on a different Sunday than usual.  The email message made it clear that there would be only music and silence.  It scared a few people away perhaps.  All the better.  I was ready for this new experience.

I love the sound of music and people as I get near or enter a milonga.  I express myself in a social setting by enjoying conversation; so I am not against talking! I think there is a "music" to happy people talking.  However, there was a calm from the silence in the milonga's foyer which struck me with a déjà vu.  The nicely decorated room to change one's shoes, strangely reminded me of
something I had experienced as a small child and throughout my life:  The encounter with silence as one enters a church or any sacred place.  A sacred place announces itself with the need to be quiet, or even better, a need to be silent in order to listen.

Rumi, the Persian poet and theologian wrote:

Why are you so afraid of silence?
Silence is the root of everything ...
If you spiral into its void ...
A hundred voices will thunder 
    messages you long to hear ...

Breaking through the Milonga Chatter
Although I think that tango can bring a sense of heaven on earth, a brush with the sacred, often this is NOT what I experience from the usual tango crowd but instead from my dance partner. Only with a person who doesn't have to say much or is simply silent makes this sacred feeling possible.  She's the person who just sighs as if seeing a wonderful sunset we are both attentively watching, the person who hangs on in the embrace--not wanting to lose the moment.  Luckily my life-partner is this way too.

Doesn't silence describe the sacred moments throughout our lives?  I know about silence and sacred places--the Sierra Nevada Desert, the razor-sharp ridge lines of the Guadalupe Mountains, the depth's of the Red Sea, heights of Mount Sinai, the sculpted rock of Petra, Jordan, the moments between the movements between Beethoven's 9th upon hearing it live for the first time. Sacred moments and places command silence or at least a whisper.   I also know about touching the hem of the divine with music. Silence is golden, but silence with music? It's platinum. 

Music can be the auditory expression of a silent crimson sunset.  Perhaps the most amazing moment for me of silence combined with music happened years ago in Paris at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the basilica overlooking Paris.  The organist played a piece that still haunts me in the most wonderful way.  I don't have to search for the music and buy it.  It still is inside of me as an indescribable feeling that does not transfer well to the MP3 format.

But tango music and silence? Don't we all do that at home?

Not really.  Rarely do we listen to music at home.  Most of us, at least I, multi-task with music at home. Dancing to music can be the most intensive listening moment for me, a close second to playing in a improvisational ensemble (usually jazz) with other musicians.

Silence is the room that allows Musica to express herself.
When the room was silent, the music had dynamics that I had never heard so well at a milonga. Our collective dance, combined with music and silence surpassed platinum, creating an amalgamation of the gold of silence, the platinum of music and the rhodium* of a warm embrace. This amalgamation of precious metals are suitable for a ring to encases the precious "stone" of a dancing embrace.  This precious stone is not a diamond, as you might have guessed, but a white stone--rarer than diamonds and priceless.  I'll explain later.

If silence expresses the sacred, what is the profane (less than sacred):
  • The guy behind me who is having a conversation about what he was doing at work. Loud or soft--that's profane.  It's even profane to whisper while dancing in the Argentine tango world.
  • The group of people who are so loud at the tables that it is hard to even hear the the pulse of a song when dancing near their chatter--that's, well, less than sacred.  Social conversation is considerate of the social context.  You can swear in the dining facility of a marine boot camp, but not at the dinner table with grandma.
"Try it, dear...dancing in silence."
  • The two couples standing on the dancefloor who didn't quite make it off the dancefloor, and stand there, chatting for the entire tanda, oblivious to the havoc they have created on the dance floor--that's taking the dance out of "social dance."  Profane, asocial at best.
  • The couple, who chats through half of each of the four songs of a tanda, causing everyone to either dance in place or go around them.  Your choice: rent a room or sit down. Renting a room would be less profane and more fun for everyone involved.
  • Even the silent woman who sits with her smart phone with her face aglow from the screen she is poking at, loudly announces how she in not present.  She just as easily could have put on loud earphones and listened to heavy metal in order to be entirely in another place and time, far from intimidating silence or tango music.   That is, sadly, a is a profane expression of the beauty of technology, and a society neglecting their children as they give their full attention to their "smart" phone.
Yes, silence can be scary when avoiding one's own obsessive thoughts, one's own anxious feelings of being good enough for the partner who finally received your eyes' request, one's own need to talk to someone about the feelings inside.

...Silence is the root of everything ...
If you spiral into its void ...
A hundred voices will thunder 
    messages you long to hear ...

To be fair, I should not complain about any of the above mentioned people.  Are we not all guilty of not being present all through the day?  Not noticing the sacred moments around us?  And don't we all too often take for granted the milonga's sacred moments of music and the unfathomable tandem, improvisational movements of tango?  If our lifetimes were measured as one day, are not the rare precious microseconds of our embraces through our life precious and sacred?  Ask a dying person.

Silencio Sagrado
When I walked into the foyer at Don Carlito's, the person taking the "collection" had a large sign explaining the Milonga de Silencio in order that he would not have to have to talk.  The sign announced that drinks would be paid on the honor system in a basket as one left so that no one needed to request or pay for a drink during the milonga.

Catching each other's eyes for a dance is easy for this long-established group in Heidelberg, but a whole evening without talking?  A greeting with a hug and sparkling eyes, was enough.  It worked from the start to the finish.

A silent smile says much more than lips can utter.

No exchange of names or chatter between dances in a tanda was necessary.  I had names I could have given each woman.  The Apocalypse speaks of the moment when we will be given a white stone, and on that stone will be the name that the Divine One gives us, not to be shared with others.**  Why not give each other white stones after the tanda with a name inscribed on it that only that person and you know?

The look (mirada y cabeceo) to dance already gave us a head start.  Tango culture already insists on a silent look to request or assent to a dance.  Chatter was wonderfully missing between songs, not that we didn't have anything to say, but awesome things merit silence at times.  Before you think this sounds too pretentious, I also had the sense that we were also like children at times. The precious repressed child-like giggle said a lot too, like siblings in church who just cannot help themselves from giggling in spite of the rule of silence.  
Dancer expressing namaste greeting

Throughout the night, a funny thing kept happening:  I often saw two people put their hands together in the traditional greeting that goes with "namaste," which in sanskrit is the Hindu greeting/acknowledging/bowing to the divine in the person before you.

At the end of the night, a few of us lingered in the silence. As I left, I paid for my drinks into the honor-system "collection basket."  I needed change for my 20 euro bill, and I saw that the basket was filled with 10 and 20 euro bills.  I think most of us paid more than necessary out of gratitude.

Silence is more precious than gold when amalgamated with music and dance.  The ring your partner of embrace gives you at the end of each tanda has a white stone in that ring.

Read the inscription on it . . . in silence.

Footnotes and photo credits

* Rhodium goes for about $1000 an ounce more than platinum.
**Revelation: 2:17 "I will also give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name is inscribed that no one knows except the one who receives it."

German flag, thanks to the World Cup and artists at Webintegrator.
Shhh! woman at the top of this post.


  1. Wow. Wonderful! I'll be sure to look out for that milonga when I am next nearby.

  2. How beautifully expressed what I have been experiencing. no more words necessary. namaste.

  3. I read this lovely post after a noisy evening at my favorite milonga in BsAs. Two women seated next to me gabbed constantly. I had to interrupt them to ask why they were here if their priority was conversation. I have to leave my table twice to get away from them. I finally couldn't stand it anymore and went home. I hope they won't return. If they do, I'll beg the hostess to seat them somewhere else. I like listening to the music when not dancing.

    I remember the milongas of 15 years ago when conversation was brief and private.

    I'm going to mention the silent milonga to others. I like the idea.

  4. "Be silent, hide yourself, keep in
    Your feelings and your sacred dream –
    And let them, quiet, rise and set,
    Soundlessly – in your heart’s depth,
    Like stars do on the nightly rut:
    Admire them, but just be mute."

    [Fedor Tyutchev, Silentium,
    Translated by Yevgeny Bonver,]

  5. I've never experienced a silent milonga, but I recently danced a thrilling silent tanda at the Eastern Market Milonga in D.C. As a beginner, it's easy to chat away the discomfort of dancing with a new person, knowing your skill level is probably far below theirs. In this case, this didn't even come up, maybe because the lead displayed so much competence and warmth. It was also my first really fast-paced milonga dance. I was completely bowled over at the fun of it, laughing aloud with the movements of the dance. To me, the lack of verbal communication (where are you from? where do you dance? etc.) bespoke a stronger connection in the tanda.

  6. Next Silent Milonga in Eppelheim/Heidelberg
    6. July 2014 ... Psssssst


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