Saturday, July 9, 2011

Wide Spectrum Tango

How wide of a spectrum is your taste for tango?
I am more and more aware of how tango dancers are like musicians.  Some musicians find themselves out of work because of two things.  First, they want to play what they like.  So if they only like 1950's country western, they find themselves in a niche that may never have a revival and their audience may die off before they do.  

The second type of musicians have a wide spectrum except their "spectrum of light" is not in the visible spectrum of the majority of people (red through violet).  It is like being able to see a band of light invisible to the naked eye, such as x-ray light or infrared, but your friends and audience cannot see what you do.  

Some dancers will find themselves not out of work like these musicians but perhaps out of inspiration to dance because of having either a narrow spectrum of tastes or a spectrum that most other dancers don't "see."   It is true that some people turn to socializing or just listening to the music, and it is not an indication of snobbery or a narrow spectrum.  Much of Piazzolla's work, for example, is not something that many tangueros/tangueras in Argentina would dance to.  However, they may have a deep love for this music.  Also, in Columbia, where Gardel died, one can hear tangos being played on the streets, but less dancing.  Again, listening is okay, and an perhaps an indication of a wide and discriminating taste of tango -- perhaps more discriminating than mine, because you will find me on the dance floor for anything, kind of like clapping between the movements of Beethoven when I first heard his work live for the first time.  I was a boy from a small town in Nevada.  I had a passion for Beethoven's music but little cultural development.  (Luckily, I wasn't the only one clapping.  There were other small-town people in the audience too.  We just did not know better.)

Having a wide spectrum which normal people do not have, however, can be a good thing.  This may be a "visionary" taste and appreciation.  This person can be very alone unless people join the vision.  Rembrandt's use of shadow was not appreciated in his lifetime.  He stood alone.   Being visionary is the way that new music is created.  Classically trained musicians disliked cords that jazz musicians played.  A C minor 7th with an added 9th would have made Bach roll over in his grave.  Rock 'n roll musicians loved playing cords, like C major 6th, that jazz musicians hated or felt were too simple.  They put their noses up in the air and stopped working as much.

It's ideal to have a very wide spectrum of tastes in tango.  If your tastes are either very narrow -- one composer, let's say, or one era, then milongas will become very disappointing.  You can tell yourself that you have discriminating tastes, but that could be tantamount to refusing to share a glass of wine with a friend because she only has white wine and not the quality that you allow your taste buds to experience.  That is the problem with developing tastes in anything.  Sometimes it is a great advantage of not becoming to trained in things.  This is the paradox of becoming more sophisticated in any art. 

The task at hand is psychological.  If the goal is individualistic, then you will find this path very interesting and deep.  However, if your goal in tango in your life is social, then the realm of tastes of your friends will be important as much as your own.  Also if your goal is social, you will minimize the mumbling under your breath (negative self-talk) when you consider the context of a milonga.  Are you in NYC at a milonga, or are you at a milonga in the middle of Nebraska?  The context is important in a social setting.  (Sorry, someone in the middle of Nebraska may have one of the best milongas in the world; so I offer apologies now.)

I knew a man who had nothing good to say about a local production of Amadeus.  First this was poor social skills on his part, because my friend had given us all a free ticket to the play.  Then my friend put on a party after the play.  Why was this guest being so critical of a gift?  Secondly, he did not take into consideration the context.  He was used to going to NYC; however, this play was in a small town outside of Boston.  Would I ever invite him to a high school play with my children in roles if he didn't understand the concept of context?

Similarly, if I go to El Paso to dance, I would go there because I have good friends there.  I would also know that the DJs may not play the repertoire of tango I enjoy, nor even follow the idea of tandas.  I would expect to hear a lot of tango nuevo songs, played over and over and sometimes in the same night!  But I would dance with friends and enjoy myself in that context. 

I should mention that I worked a lot as a musician.  As long as I was playing I enjoyed the music.  I wouldn't go home and listen to much of what I played, but I enjoyed a wide spectrum.  Musicians who had a small spectrum we called "bag" musicians.  "That is his bag; he only plays 40's Jazz," we'd say.  Also, I saw embittered musicians who hated new music.  They just wanted to play their "bag." 

Musicians who were working appreciated the dancers, our colleagues on stage, and the challenge of doing whatever genre we were playing in an authentic way.  It is a challenge to play simply and authentically.   There are lots of ways to make yourself challenged.  We could exchange places -- I would play the bass and the bassist the drums.  Or I once learned to play country western left handed -- making yet a new challenge.  

I would not say that the narrow spectrum tango mind is a disease.  We are all born with a no-spectrum tango mind, unless our parents played it loud enough to hear it from the womb.  For different reasons we may grow up to expand our love or tango, or it stays very narrow.

My spectrum was very narrow (that is, NO-Specturm tango) until I heard it as an adult.  Then I noticed, as many many people, that I preferred tango nuevo because as an American I was used to a stronger bass and the presence of drums for dance music.  But my spectrum keeps growing.  I love it all, but of course, I have many favorites.

So when I hear someone refuse to dance because they are waiting for a tango they like, I wonder if they are enjoying listening or are they sitting there tortured by the music they do not like.  If I have a hurt foot or an aching back, of course, I am going to be choosing the music very carefully before I dance.  However, many listeners and dancers who justify their "tango bag" will ultimately have no reason to be at a milonga.

Recently I went to an alternative milonga.  Now it is true that I felt that the DJ chose some music that was very difficult to dance to, but I did enjoy myself in the social context, and I was exposed to some music that truly was great and it inspired new ways of moving.  I smiled and held friends in my arms.  Considering the context -- a milonga that I purposely chose because it was very close, that I knew the DJ's vision of danceable music is different than mine, and that it drew a certain crowd -- how could I complain?

May your spectrum grow from the middle of the tango rainbow!

Photo Credit:


  1. This is one of the most sensible things I've read in a long time. The idea itself is simple, but you've managed to convey it so very well with so few words - thank you!

  2. VM: Thanks for your kind words. Above I have revised a little because a friend said that I was too hard on people who sit out, and she was right. Some sit out for health reasons, or truly the music is more listening than dance music. It was a fair critique. -- Mark


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