Monday, October 10, 2011

Breaking Bread: the Essence of Tango

Julia Elena, a local promoter and tango teacher in Washington, D.C., asked me to introduce an evening of live tango music and spectacular tango dancing.  The event was sponsored by the Argentine Embassy in D.C.

Perhaps I was the wrong person to ask.  I am not one to go to such an event because tango to me is a social event of feeling and connection, and stage tango seems to be -- at least at times-- the very opposite of my sense of what tango is.  Also, it tortures me to sit and watch tango;  I would rather dance than watch people dance.  To be fair, it is true that I am often deeply moved by performers.  Moreover, who can deny that great feats of balance, strength and beauty expressed at many performances?  I had fun this time because at times I was back stage moving around to the music.  Gott sei dank, I didn't have to sit down the whole time!

Below is the longer version of what I wanted to say.  The original was somewhat shorter because of time restraints:

Welcome to a night of Tango Argentino.  Tonight some among us have never seen this incredible music or seen this beautiful dance.  Tonight, if you are new to tango, I believe your life may be changed, as was mine six years.  How could I have been a professional musician and lived for three years in Latin America without knowing about the wonderful music and dance of tango until recently?  So it would not surprise me if many people tonight have gone through their lives without knowing anything about Argentine Tango.

El Tango!  What a magical thing!

"Tango" -- this is an interesting word.  Some scholars claim that it comes from the word "drum" or what people do around a drum.  Many scholars deny this, but perhaps it is because in tango today we mostly have orchestras without drums or drummers.  But I like this definition of tango.  I'll tell you why:  The dancers are the drummers!  In rock music, the drummer strikes instruments with feet and hands.  We tangueros and tangueras use just our feet.  Our instrument is the floor, and we accompany the orchestra.  Ideally, no step is taken unless the music requests that step.

Also, in tango we use the word "accompany" a lot.  The musicians accompany each other and we accompany each other on the dance floor.  In the best moments, the dancers join the orchestra as honorary members.  We dance this dance without prescribed steps.  We improvise and dance one moment with the rhythms which came out of Africa that are explicitly or sometimes hidden behind each tango.  Later in the same tango, we might change and follow the flowing lines of the violins.  Our feet might sweep the floor and slow our steps, crying along with the squeeze box, called the bandoneón, this iconic instrument brought from the Rheinland of Germany by immigrant musicians.  The dancers accompany the music, and the music, the dancers.  The woman accompanies the man and the man, the woman.  At this moment we all become tangueros and tangueras, sharing as couples and as a community.

Interestingly the central word of "accompany" (acompañar) is "pan" -- the word for "bread."  At its root "acompañar" means "to break bread together."  In the orchestra we see distinct roles of each instrument.  On the dance floor, the man and woman have distinct roles too.  Yet, we all sit down to "break bread."  It is as if I have as a man brought flour from the mill home, and my partner has made the bread, but we break bread together and enjoy its taste and nourishment.  This what we do in tango.  This is the essence of tango:  To break bread, to share in the emotions of life through music and dance.   Tango is sharing nourishment for the soul through music, movement and an embrace.

So tonight, if this is you first evening of tango or a yours is life-long experience, please accompany the musicians and the dancers and each other in this moment of the magic of tango.  When you do, you are truly tangueros and tangueras.

Enjoy the show!

Photo Credit:
Feet drumming

Special thanks to Alejandra, one of the D.C. tango event editors, who had a great dictionary and a lot of curiosity about the way I was using "acompañar" as a replacement for "lead and follow" in an earlier post.  She is the one who discovered that "pan" was hidden in the word "acompañar." See "companion" or accompany in any good dictionary.


  1. What a lovely way of explaining tango to non dancers!

  2. @ Terpsi... thanks. I see you have been very active with some wonderful insights into the world of tango. We are enriched by your posts. -- Mark

  3. Very nice analogy, this "breaking of bread". It is what tango is for us, as a communion. Lovely indeed.


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