Friday, November 12, 2010

"There is no such thing as a Tango Waltz"

Tango Waltz = vals cruzado or vals criollo.  This is the Spanish term for the most beautiful expression of 3/4 time in the world in my not humble and limited opinion.   [Note that I italicize foreign terms in my blog.]

I was duly corrected by a "person who knows all things tango."  And he was right.  I learned something.  The proper name is vals criollo or vals cruzado – in Spanish, that is. Having a blog and being corrected by brash anonymous writers is a great way to learn new terms and the depths of my ignorance.

But I also have a lot of feelings behind people who mean well but confuse others while using jargon.  Vals Criollo or Vals Cruzado, is a perfect example.    My ignorance was only of a Spanish term.  But “Tango Waltz” is a perfectly good translation.

Let me explain:  I was living in Mexico and the church I was going to was bilingual.  They had a bilingual service although everyone there could speak Spanish.  The little church refused to have a service in just Spanish because the founder and philosopher behind the religion spoke English.  I argued the case as the ONLY native speaker of English in the church that it was nonsense to have a bilingual service when the church was filled with mostly monolingual Spanish speakers, who just sat there listening to WORDS THAT CONVEYED NO MEANING.  Monolingual members of the church came to me secretly and said, "Only you could have argued the case. Thanks."

Then I lived in Boston and started a Spanish speaking church service.  I gave out Spanish Bibles.  Now I was being criticized by my church that the prisoners should learn English, and that the writings of the Founder of the religion's writings really only could be understood in English.  Those behind bars were often young "burros" taking cocaine into the country, thinking they were carrying a load of things for Aunt Anita in Boston, MA.  They were young, naive, monolingual and in jail.  Learn English?  Are you on coke?

This church was very critical of the Roman Catholic Church because of many things, but one was how the Church made Latin a holy language, although the original texts were in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic.  Now my church was doing the same thing with English.  Agape was really hard with these nut cases. J

2010 November.  I am sitting in a briefing for newcomers at Walter Reed Army Hospital, and I am stopping a briefer who is throwing out acronyms left and right.  "I don't know what MDT means," I say.  I stop him over and over, mostly because I DO understand but know that the newcomers mostly do not know what a 2487 is or that ASAP is not what they think but “Army Substance Abuse Program.”   In several cases he didn't know either what an acronym meant.  Poor guy.  Well, why was he using terms that he didn't even know?  And with new people?  He had what I call, the command of words without meaning.  Sound like some tango classes?

Today I got an email from a tanguera (woman dancer) living in Australia.  She was told to learn Spanish.  Yes, I would agree that if you really love tango and want to go to Mecca (Buenos Aires) that you should learn Spanish for practical reasons.  Knowing terms in Spanish is good because there is a certain tango jargon world-wide.  However, she could go her whole life without knowing the term "vals criollo" without being the lesser for it because a damn good English term is:  Tango Waltz (borrowed from Spanish and German, “Waltzer”).

But isn't it fair for us to pay attention to names?  “Tango criollo” is not a name of a person or deity but a musical term.  Do you know what the English translation of “mambo” is?  Sure you do.  The English translation was made up in New York City.  The word is “salsa.”   Salsa is not Spanish, which means “sauce” or “dressing” and tomatoes may not be even inside it.  It means “hot, chunky tomato ketchup” to most Americans.  Or “that music that is tastey, hot and Latin.”   And what about tomato “ketchup”?  From whom did we steal this word?  China.  Ketchup is also not a foreign word any longer.  Don’t hold your breath on “vals criollo” going the way of salsa and ketchup, okay?  It just isn’t going to happen.  Tango waltz means something to us like salsa and ketchup do.  These terms convey meaning. 

So following the above logic, denying a term like "tango waltz" even exists or is "wrong" feels to me like the holy language stuff I have already rejected in Mexico and Boston.  Will we need, like the Priesthood of Tango like the Catholic Church had -- a group of people who can use and understand the original language of tango?  And will those who have a command of words without meaning, just as the Church have special people with pointed hats and distinctive collars?  And how long will we play that game until someone allows a translation that the normal person can understand?  Or are we like the Armed Forces, talking jargon to each other and the newcomer's perspective is not even taken in consideration?  It feels that way to me, but as I have already confessed:  I have unresolved baggage.  I am still fighting a fight with the church.  And the US Army nearly daily annoys me with WORDS without MEANING.  “This tango waltz stuff,” I tell myself...  “Cálmate Marcos, los tangueros son amigos. Remember all the friends you love in this wonderful community of people who hug.  Mellow out, hombre.

So let me suggest something of a solution.  English is actually good at certain things and bad at others.  "Tango Waltz" is a delightfully better term even on the streets of Madrid.  Vals cruzado or "criollo" will even in Barcelona or Cali or Lima or Guadalajara have no or little meaning compared to "vals de tango."   In English we have the term "jazz waltz."  Isn't that a great term -- jazz with the feel of a waltz? 

We also have the wonderful term in English:  "Tango waltz" -- tango with the feel of a waltz.  Too bad Spanish doesn't have such a great term for what tangueros do at their dance parties (milongas).  Vals cruzado” sounds like what a dancing priest might do as he waltzes away from the alter while crossing himself.  And “vals criollo”?  Sounds like something I could order on a Cajun menu.

"Tango Waltz" conveys meaning even to people who know very little about what happens at a tango dance party.

Are there any Spanish words that are clearly better than English?  Sure.  I like "cabeceo,” from the word “cabeza,” meaning “head.”  English needs twelve words:  “A nod that one shows someone with whom you wish to dance.”  I vote for Spanish on that one.  What about “milonga.”  Now that is a problem.  It is a dance and it is a party and in certain parts of Mexico a “milonga” is a mixed drink. So the question remains:  When does the original name obscure meaning in a new culture or even a culture outside the boarders of Argentina? 
So you may never understand the depths the intricacies of the proper Spanish terms of tango.  But if you dance with all your heart and soul, then you have arrived at the archetypal tango party.  There you will find people who think it is natural to hug each other and walk around to tango music while hugging.


  1. Thanks for the accurate analysis Mark. Last night, at a milonga, my dance partner mentioned a thing or two about posture and leaning in before the music started. She is a good dancer, but was remembering what some teacher had told her a couple of years before, and was questioning whether she was doing something "right". I told her not to be concerned about it because whatever she was doing, it certainly was a good embrace and we enjoy dancing together very much.
    What occurred to me and I told her was that "rules" are overruled when one acts from the heart or an intuitive place that transcends.
    Dancers get into the tango zone not by following rules that constantly are in their mind but by transcending them and being free from those constraints(while actually fulfilling the intent)
    This isn't exactly what your post is about but it has some of the same spirit. I really enjoy tango waltz. I know what it is. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. @Jim: I hear great things about your lead from the ladies because you hear the music. You are also known for holding them and continuing into the next song. I often do this too. But that is your trademark. (Mine is probably "the wild ride.") I think that we all need reassurances in life. Isn't it a paradox to be nervous over performance and posture during an embrace? If your words and embrace decreases anxiety, then you are a great tanguero indeed. Also, your comment will inspire more enjoyment and less self-critique. It may be far more important to some future reader than my rant about semantics!

  3. I agree that "Tango Waltz" is a good synonym for Vals, but I had to do a google search for exactly what the difference is between Vals Criollo and Cruzado...
    A consistent vocabulary is extremely useful when it comes to learning or teaching or describing what has happened within the dance, but getting bogged down in terminology to the point that you no longer enjoy it is ludicrous, plus, if you can do it and do it well then who cares what you call it? There are a lot of subtle points in tango that aren't necessary, but can enhance dancing.

  4. @SMW: I wrote a long comment with lots of links and then lost it! You will find mostly dead ends to finding something that will sound truly like a tango waltz as you know it if you follow links on the Internet to "vals criollo." It has Peruvian and many other influences (including the Boston Waltz) and even seems to have influenced the closer embrace which now defines tango. That is the music. "Vals curzada" is the dance. Isn't that again the halmark of tango. I know of no partner dance that gets into the cross system at the beginner level except tango. But we do not STAY in the cross system in any dance danced at a tango party (milonga). So, as I said, some translations are better than the original to convey meaning. The term "Tango Waltz" is one of the rare examples of this phenomenon. Tango is more than music or a dance it is a cultural expression, and I would argue that in most cases knowing the language and the lyrics and the Zeitgeist of tango is necessary. But vals? It is played by tango músicos, danced by tangueros, sung by tangueros, composed by tangueros even our passion is "la pasión de tango" -- not "creole passion" or "passion in cross system." :-)

  5. Just a sidenote on this: I rarely hear dancers use the terms "vals criollo" or "vals cruzado" (actually, that second one is new to me, after 6 years in Argentina!). They generally just call them, rather endearingly, "valsecitos".


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