Saturday, September 10, 2011

Heartbreak Milonga and the Tango Tomcat

        by Cassiel.  Translation from German by Mark Word.
Recently, on the edge of the dance floor, I spot a tanguera (we shall call her simply "Eleanor") who bravely sat bolt upright in her chair and looked blandly through the dancing couples. It seemed as if she were not really present. Her face betrayed no emotion. An attentive observer could only imagine what was going on in her thought. To truly get a glimpse of her newly acquired personality, one would have to be aware of her history with Kasimir, the Tango-Tomcat.
You see, only a few weeks ago, Eleanor was still Kasimir's favorite tanguera and he danced almost exclusively with her. But now she has been replaced with the next tanguera in the line of waiting ladies. Eleanor's new role tonight is just to watch as she is deprived of the favor of the gato-maestro's hold. Currently at the front of the line is -- we'll call her "Cutie Pie" -- who is glad to be the present favorite of el maestro, el Gato de la Noche.

No question, Kasimir is a good tango dancer, and he knows it. He had enough time to perfect his skills and has had the opportunity. Kasimir is open, loose and often a little too loud. He is the heart-throb of many women. If he enters into his carefully composed exterior of a milonga, then his appearance has something messianic. Kasimir occurs in different outfits. Sometimes he appears in a bright suit, the sunglasses in his hair, and sometimes he comes dressed in extremely casual sports clothes. Then again, he sometimes is almost inconspicuous in jeans and T-shirt. Many ladies watch him with longing eyes. Kasimir seems to have trained long and hard to ignore the swooning observers. But perhaps a careful view of him would reveal the restlessness of a troubled soul. He constantly scans the environment and controls the performance of his carefully crafted persona, which must be exhausting. But he is well aware of the power of his persona, his mask. In the same way, he moves navigates over the dance floor waves: His leadership is pervasive, effective and controlled. But there is a question if his control matches the music. Although this lapse is hardly discernible, the careful observer can see it: It's the moment in which the music betrays his stormy inner life. One will see Kasimir at a loss during a tango when the music offers a motionless waiting, a stillness upon the dance floor sea. He seems not to be able to endure self-reflection.

Just one of many
But we'll come back to Cutie Pie. Also waiting in the line of ladies is Lucinda, who presently sits and hopes for her chance with Kasimir. Having completed his round of jovial, friendly, professional greeting, Kasimir finally comes around to her with an outstretched hand to her and asks for a dance. He dances with her tanda after tanda. And she sinks in the happiness of the moment, not knowing that this happiness will find itself with a high probability in the same trash heap of those who went before her.

And what do all the tangueros make of this? Surely some Tangueros undoubtedly will wonder how Kasimir does it! How he so effortlessly captures the favor of the ladies! Is it his verbal wit or maybe it's his physical aura that grips the ladies? But the mystery remains in Kasimir's little box of catnip secrets.

I should mention another unfortunate feature of his personality: Beware of his territory marking. Let's just call it peeing on your leg. As a leader of the cat-pack, he claims the alpha position in a group. If a lesser tango-gato dances too long and too intimately with a tanguera, he must confront them on this rather forward behavior. He must defend his role as leader of the cat-pack. As in the wild, so it must be at the milonga! His dealings with other tangueros are rather difficult. Somehow, he very often gives the impression that tango-size does matter with his not-so-hidden "length comparisons." It's all so tedious.

Maybe we need to describe a few archetypes of hopeful and ultimately disappointed tangueras from his past so that the phenomenon is more tangible in order to understand a persona such as Kasimir. First let's mention "Fanny, the frustrated": She has sworn him off after her great disappointment with the Kasimir -- her tango also died too. Then there's "Farah, the Furious": In her sense of him nothing that would be positive to say of Kasimir. But it has had a larger toll on her too, as seen in her tango, which has become noticeably more performance-focused and more hectic. (For her the world of a tango of feeling has replaced itself with a tango of outward perception.) And that brings us finally to "Ina, the Indolent": For ages, she has continued on apparently without any heartbreak. She, like a French wife of a politician, stands in solidarity with Kasimir and his current mistress, hoping that he realizes one day that she is the only true adoring one.

Is there hope for Kasimir? This question is not easy to answer. Certainly, it will be difficult for him to leave the hunt of the latest Kitty even though this hunt leaves marks upon his soul. Precisely for this reason, his great performance slowly seems to have become more hectic. Perhaps he will find that the tango social milieu is not an endless ocean on which he can sail his pirate ship. One day he will find that the waves he has made upon his own tango ocean will have him upon the rocks. A cold and wet Kasimir then hopefully will get to know the real world of tango, the silent and peaceful sea of tango. Maybe he can find social tango--one of connection with another soul.

Translator's note:  Since this was written, the tango community in this town was totally decimated. It's rebirth will be contingent on the love of tango as a community and a bit of wisdom.

Cast of characters in their appearance in this drama:
Cutie Pie

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Photo Credit: tomcat in the bush

PS: Hats off to Cassiel. I ask his forgiveness with some of my freedom I took in a few places in the translation.


  1. I think your posting here shows clearly one the main features of the pista - its power to make us and our behavior visible for others.

    When reading about this maestro, my thoughts went back to a book about Finnish tango, where every other chapter is a bizarre story about a tango dancer's life and ideas. When he wants to take some tango steps at home he picks out the skeleton from the closet and then whirls together with it around in passionate tango!

    I think for most of us the intensity of this dance comes from the size and number of skeleton's we need to air during a tanda or two! Its a relief when we can do it in this way without any words - many times we maybe even couldn't find any words.

    I think also that a couple with skeletons in same size will find each other; these skeletons are like magnets pulling them together and then pushing them apart.

  2. You know, living in Buenos Aires, I don't even think in terms of Tango Tomcats, Vultures etc. because there are just simply so many of them. They are legion. Unlike the Kitty Cat of the story, some of them are actually really wonderful dancers. And the tantalising promise they hold out to their favoured partners is not just that of a few good tandas at the milonga (of course, in Buenos Aires, you don't dance tanda after tanda with the same person) but of a potential career teaching and performing with them. The stakes are higher. But perhaps, in their sheer numbers, these guys become less harmful. Also, the competition you mention does spur them on to greater heights in their tango. On the whole European men who dance lack this motivation to improve. There is not the same keen sense of competition. And I think that has its disadvantages, too.

  3. @ Leading Lady: I think there is a lot of wisdom to what you have written. I have also heard that a person dances as he is inside. Some of us are truly drawn to the wrong person. Sometimes innocent people are not drawn to those who would do them harm, however. These things you know. Did the Finnish book ever get translated? If not, you have a good tango project before you! If it has been translated, please share with us the title and author. Kiitos! Mark

  4. Terpsi... I always learn a new angle when I hear from you. Your comment clarifies something for me: The issue between the tomcats you describe and the tomcats in small communities is that these small tango town tomcats can make a thriving tango community into a tango-ghost town. The Kasmir story was in May of 2010. What has happened to that community since then? (That will be in my next blog!!) What you describe is the difference from having many alpha cats to just one. Another way of putting it is that there is an important difference between an urban scene vs. the smaller tango and more fragile "ecosystem." A tango tomcat is not going to harm a larger community like mine in Washington DC, but I have seen it devastate tango in places that should have had huge tango scenes, going by the size of the cities. Cassiel's article describes a one-tomcat town in Germany. Also, in BsAs tango etiquette is more generally taught to new tangueras; so as you point out, even the newest tangueras know the rule "more than one tanda" means something much more than just "I like to dance with you." Women who grow up in BsAs know how to take care of themselves around tomcats. That is my guess from living in Latin America myself.

  5. Could I just clarify something about dancing multiple tandas? In Buenos Aires, you don't dance multiple tandas in succession, not because of what it would mean (i.e. not really as a choice) but because everyone clears the floor during the cortina and the conventions against taking to the floor again with the same partner until a few tandas have gone by are just very strong. It's simply not usually done, at most milongas, unless you are sitting together and have come to the milonga as a couple. (Even so, you still clear the floor during the cortina).

    In Europe, you can dance multiple tandas with the same partner. I have very mixed feelings about this. When I'm waiting to dance with someone, I get frustrated if they are dancing tanda after tanda with another woman. However, when I myself am in the arms of good leader, getting tanda after tanda of lovely tango bliss, it's different. In Europe, there are no hidden meanings behind these long tango sessions.

    And you're right, in Buenos Aires there are so many tomcats around that women very quickly get wise to them. They can still do damage though -- but less to women at the milonga. The real damage they can inflict is if you are trying to work with one of them professionally (luckily, this is not my case at the moment, but sometimes it's unavoidable).

  6. Terpsi: Regarding the difference between Europe and BsAs. The difference is that Europe may find its way to a stricter etiquette -- the hard way. You see, from a sociological perspective, that "código" or etiquette came out of real issues of psychological and physical safety. I was always an iconoclast with rules; so I am not a fundamentalist by nature, but I think that we are naive to reinvent tango etiquette to "fit us," only to find out that "our parents were right." Some rules like eating pork stay in spite of new circumstances... but wait, new research is bringing us back to not eating pork. The Kasimir story is Europe! Generally, German milongas and the sense of safety at them is wonderful. This series on psychological and physical safety has made me realized that Tango Etiquette has a much more basic function than what I first thought. More on that in my next blog. But again, thanks for you insights. I think your experiences with performing tomcats would be very interesting.

  7. Your views are intriguing. I'm looking forward to hearing more in the next blog.


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