Thursday, January 23, 2014

R.I.P. Tango: 1983-2033

The one who believes she'll live forever, takes the biggest risks.
The Body Tango is us.  I'll call her, Señorita Tango, but she is us.  The Body Tango says to itself, "I live forever!"

Denial of mortality is rather normal, I suppose.  But let me guess, perhaps by the year 2033 Señorita Tango will succumb to a slow death.   Could it be that soon?

She has had a long life, as far as dances go.  The "swim" died after a few moments of glorious life on the dance floor.  See anyone doing the twist?  Even tango died, or nearly died, but then was "resuscitated" in 1983 after the fall of Argentina's military junta.  Social tango was forbidden, and Argentina celebrated its freedom from repression by dancing.

When social tango no longer is danced, it will die with little chance of resuscitation.   It came back to life because it was forbidden, and it was resurrected from the dead.  There's nothing like prohibition and banning a dance to make it popular later.  Tango is likely not to be forbidden or repressed this time around.  The people who love her will poison her.

Jazz's social dancers had their Golden Era too, and Jazz's great era came to end an very much like tango's:  People stopped dancing and started sitting down and listening to it as the music became more "sophisticated."  Jazz lovers poisoned the one they loved.

What would kill social tango by 2033?   Knowing her doom holds the solution to constantly rejuvenating her, but few of those who adore her seem to know it.  Her doom is performance tango, her life is social tango.

I believe when performance tango and competition tango grow, social tango will proportionally begin to have health problems and premature aging.  Performance/competitive tango will also dwindle -- allowing a zombie-like tango to live on in a long, listless coma.  Toxic levels of performance and competition grow every year.  Even "social tango" is taught in an antisocial, snobby way at times, so I am not talking about a style so much as the community of dancers.  Are they at the milonga to show off or to be social?

I know already that many will disagree because many love (as I do) watching performances.  But performance jazz, salsa, rock, tango, etcetera have been the coffin for all of types of dance music.  I felt this, but did not understand this concept until I saw a documentary on tango long before I ever danced it.  I remember in that documentary an older bandonión player asking a younger player what he imagined when he composed his tangos.  The younger man said, "I imagine myself playing in a small, smoke-filled room with people listening intently to my music."  I didn't expect the older musician's reaction.  "You will kill tango!  When tango is not danced anymore, it will die!"  Within a week, I heard the same words come out of Tito Puente's mouth.  The salsa master (better known as the Mambo King) knew what kept salsa alive:  The dancers.

The ballroom and dance-sport scene keeps the cadaver looking well preserved by alluring people into competing.  Dance studios are often a business first, and showing off is the only plausible way to keep people coming back for lessons.  (If your social tango does this, then probably it is not social.  It is a group of "friends" who get better and better at dancing at semi-private events that are on their way to being old-folks homes.)

Competition dancing is cold and calculated, stale and artificial.  Show dancing is a fake love affair full of smiles or passion that is painted on the dancers' faces.  And through competition, the need to impress morphs the dance to be gymnastics.  Already tango performances get the biggest applause when the most-unlike-tango move comes along.

I dare you to watch for this to happen at the next show that interrupts your dancing at a milonga. In Austin Texas, I learned to leave the room and not watch the performance.  Wouldn't it be great if everyone got up and left?  Put it on YouTube and I will watch it!  I came here to dance not to watch you dance.  And I DO love performances at times, but never during a milonga, especially a so-called close embrace mini-festivals, called encuentros, which are popular here in Europe.  But even at encuentros one has to see the advertisement-dance of the teachers here in Europe.

Perhaps there is no way to stop the coming-and-going of all things on this earth.  Señorita Tango is not a goddess, immortal.  But I would like tango to have a long and noble life rather than a sick and crippled life, a tango in so much pain that its death would come as a relief.  All too often love comes and goes in this world--both for people and for things we love.  Today you love tango, but unbelievably for the present aficcionados of tango, many will love and leave tango.  Probably the thing that will kill tango for you or me is a toxic, anti-social environment.  What happened to the melting, heartfelt embraces?  Then a new avocation is sure to come along, or a partner who doesn't want to dance, or just being tired of show-offs running into you, or hurting you and your partner.  Tango dies for people with the social element dies.  When you leave tango it will likely be the day that antisocial elements drive you away.

Tango is more fragile than many believe. It really never fully recovered to a new Golden Age because half of the body is zombie-like.  We now have living dancers and mostly dead musicians.  That is not a new Golden Age.  The modern musicians we have are at times great musicians, but the majority of their repertoire is performance tango, such as Astor Piazzolla's compositions, the very composer who disparaged the dancer. 

I am happy that we honor the great musicians of the Golden Era, but we are not in that era.  I probably esteem tango's message to the world because it is more than just a dance for me, so I do not want to be Dr. Doom.  Nor do I want to be Dr. Delusional.  If you really doubt that performance-focused tango musicians or performance-focused dancers will keep tango alive, you are tragically wrong, happily serving toxins to la Señorita.

Señorita Tango, The Body Tango, thinks she is 30 years old, and will live forever--beautiful and pretty damn smart.  "She" was born in 1983.  In 2001 she was still a teenager.  Now she just turned 31, and tells everyone, "I feel like I'm still 18!"  You are, my dear!   That is, you are getting older but not wiser.  You still think you will always be young, beautiful, and pretty damn smart.  On the course you are on, my guess is that by 2033 you will be a physical wreck from all the toxins of your younger days.  Maybe you will live on ... but in a vegetative state until 2053 in ballroom competitions everywhere.

But your youth was social tradition and your wonderful maturity was innovation as a social dance.  That all died in 2033.  Rest in peace.

Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd.  Without innovation, it is a corpse. --Winston Churchill 

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  1. Thanks for this extremely well thought out piece, Mark. You are putting out a critical message for her continuation as a magical integral part of our human experience.

  2. Thank you Tango Therapist for such a provocative and insightful piece. I hope that it will stimulate more discussion and awareness amongst tangueros.

    I feel some resonances to what you write about.

    I find myself conflicted at times about the difference between performance and social dancing. On the one hand, I know there can be a joy in watching two people perform when their dance is filled with their joy and creativity. I think of watching Murat and Michelle Erdemsel dance - how they communicate their love of the form while I know from their teaching how much they value the importance of building community. Seeing and feeling that kind of energy in a dance can inspire me to get up and participate.

    I know many people who have begun dancing tango after having seen a demonstration (granted, that may be different than a performance) and wanting to participate in what they saw.

    On the other hand, I also feel that the joy of watching is part of the objectification dis-ease of the modern times. Watching can just as easily separate ourselves from our own creative energies and our connection with others. I believe that the overblown performances shown on Television distance the average person from their own dance.

    Also, your comment on the music and what the musician is thinking about is spot on. On the positive side, I do think there are musicians today that are creating music, coming from the dance, and for the dancers. I have been a musician at different times in my life and frequently imagine making more music for dancing. I regret that so far my creative energies have not been large enough to let me create music as well as dance.

    But, I believe that there is a whole new wave of people coming into dancing that will reinvigorate the music that we dance to for the dancers more than for performance.

    It seems to me that some form of connecting is at the heart of what tango is about. There's the connection with myself in a physical way, outside of an abstracted mental state. There's the connection with a partner, a living, embodied human being. There's the music, and it is totally different with live music, people in the room. And there's the group mind of a whole dance floor in that connection together. Outside of this, is the social connection to community around dance.

    I believe humanity in general is hungry for this kind of connected experience and we will continue to nurture it as tango ages.

    I was reminded in a conversation with the teachers Hernan and Daniela recently how the milonga is not just about dancing, but also an opportunity to connect with friends, to meet new people and to relax together. The milonga also offers us a place to be where we can watch something beautiful happening that we ARE participating in.

    With gratitude, Patrick.

  3. I admire your courage to write about your imagination and association regarding the aging of the spirit of Tango. I unfortunately agree. I could draw several similarities to certain Tango scenes. Arrogance dominates the milongas of Berlin. I stopped joining 6 months ago. Tango somehow died for me. In 2013!

  4. I can see the point and I agree that performances can kill the energy of a milonga. I prefer when the performances are early and I arrive afterwards.

    Lack of new dancers will kill tango too. There is a delicate balance to maintain.

    Similar things have been said about women leading so for many I am killing tango.

  5. Admiring some of Your ideas and with due respect I cannot agree on some of Your analysis. The statement Jazz were killed by the sophistication of the music and the lack of danceability I cannot agree on . Any blessed musician I know will tell You that what he tries to do in Jazz just as well as in classical music is make it "dance" .
    The longing for death and a kind of morbid attitude more likely seems to become the passion of the connoisseur. After the big disappointment Tango wouldn't have saved our lives one is quick with sentencing it ( or her.. if You like) to death.
    Maybe it´s more a sentence that belongs to our disbelief that Tango will do well even without our beliefs. A tough thing to think .
    Anyway I agree with You on the tragedy that competition does to a Milonga. But I believe there we have a deep and terrible companion of our times... thanks so much for Your article.
    Mathias Che Galeria , Vienna Austria

  6. Hola Mathias...we do agree on a lot. The mention of jazz is not that important. But let me add that I am a jazz musician, and I have played in big bands and combos in America and Europe. Sure we try to make the music dance. But that is different and internal. Making music that makes PEOPLE dance is much different. It is external proof not a musician's evaluation of his/her own playing.

    I learned the concept from that film I mentioned (wish I could find it somewhere), the Mambo King (also mentioned), and then my own experiences. The big bands that made it to the big stages with people watching were always the product of playing for dancers first. Once people started sitting, jazz transformed and rock took over. Disagree as you wish. I see generation after generation dancing a cumbia or son because the musicians never forget the dancer. We jazz musicians did. Tango DJ's that start getting into all the different versions of a song rather wondering whether the other versions are good for dancers, do the same thing musicians have too often done the very music they love: They kill it by forgetting the dancers. These DJ's are also poison for the dancer or an evening of dancing.

  7. Well Said, TT.

    "even at encuentros one has to see the advertisement-dance of the teachers here in Europe"

    And worst is when they're not even honest about it.

    I'm reminded of this UK event that sold itself as an encuentro for people who don't "feel the need to show off"... and then in the middle of the main milonga sprung a surprise show from some dance teachers.

    Astonishing hypocrisy.

  8. @Chris, I think it is possible that a demo given by a teacher is an advertisement. It could also be "sharing experience optically". I would be less strict in my judgement, though. At least take the intensity or frequency of such might-be ads into account before announcing the verdict ("hypocrisy").

  9. @Mathias Che Galeria, well said. But I would not think this is against you, TT. But actually I think too that the drive to highest refinement and perfection can kill the emotional component. Taking jazz music as an example, what appalls me most are the applauses every few seconds at live concerts for certain flavours of this music - it rips listening apart with ugly noises and prevents any immersion or flow.

    But I also have to say that I share some of TT's points. Dead musicians is one of them. This calls for a constant infusion of new dancers to compensate and to keep Tango "dirty", emotionally living. Which, closing the circle, needs to restrict the influence of perfection-seeking silverbacks and other alpha types.

  10. @Mathias Che Galeria, well said. But I would not think this is against you, TT. But actually I think too that the drive to highest refinement and perfection can kill the emotional component. Taking jazz music as an example, what appalls me most are the applauses every few seconds at live concerts for certain flavours of this music - it rips listening apart with ugly noises and prevents any immersion or flow.

    But I also have to say that I share some of TT's points. Dead musicians is one of them. This calls for a constant infusion of new dancers to compensate and to keep Tango "dirty", emotionally living. Which, closing the circle, needs to restrict the influence of perfection-seeking silverbacks and other alpha types.

  11. I agree with the writer on the analysis of the current state of tango. I just wonder as to the source of the also prevailing learned helplessness syndrome.

    What I mean is, if you see that there is a problem, then you need to engage in some sort of analysis, such as exhibited in this article, in order to identify the source of the problem. Here, I would suggest that the critical element, that I haven't seen mentioned as a possible cause, is the loss of manners. Then, once you have looked at the analyses and decided on what the source of the problem you enage in some activism and education, to promote the values or ideas that you believe are necessary to reinstate, that if they are lost will kill the form.

    My point is that the defeatism is unwarranted. Tango is not something that is born or that dies by itself. It was intentionally created and is being intentionally killed, and can therefore also be intentionally preserved.

    My proposal is that the source of the problem is the loss of manners in something like the sense articulated in this blog:

    Difference Between Manners and Etiquette.

    We certainly need to try to understand how the language of tango and the culture of tango has been fundamentally altered, so that we rediscover the underlying structure of the dance.

    For example, how do we know that the performance or other such promotional activities do not impose and impinge on the feelings of the community? Well, this is a matter of judgement of people who are sensitive to such matters, who have the expertise.

    But the problem is that we have lost, and are losing, the ability to make such judgements, the expertise, because we are losing, or actively discarding, traditional knowledge. So we can complain and be defeatist in the face of so-called progress, or we can engage in recovering and promoting traditional knowledge because it is precisely the traditional knowledge that sustained tango.

    It is the kneejerk reaction against traditional knowledge and the failure to maintain it because of the current anti-traditionalist bias, and retarted ubiquitous surrender to progressivism, rather than any sort of inevitability, that is causing the current demise of tango.

    Remember that technology is not the problem, it's what you do with it.

    Once you acknowledge the importance of preservation of tradition, the path forward is pretty straightforward: engage in the task of learning, preserving and disseminating traditional tango knowledge and you can save your precious tango.

    Finally, the idea that there needs to be progress in tango is total rubbish. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Louvre does not need the pyramid or any other modernist or post-modernist monstrosity any more than tango 'needs' new steps or figures. We should collectively reject modernism and postmodernism in architecture and in dancing for the heap of trash that it is.

  12. DJ Polaco, thanks for your thoughts. The lack of manners in tango is indeed a problem, but I would wager that many have never been taught Tango Etiquette; so it is a lack of knowledge. I like the article you gave the link to, especially the last line. Finally, you mentioned ideas as being "total rubbish." Good manners here? :-)

    I assume you are not talking about me because I very much believe in the traditional *códicos de tango* ... and I have strong feelings about those who discard them without understanding the intent.


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