Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Beauty of Obligation

"Obligation" has become a dirty word to some in the tango world--something to be avoided. In reality, "obligation" is a wonderful word.   The word "obligation" is mostly understood to be a burden.  "Euphoria" means "good burden" or to "bear something."  Sometimes language blocks us from understanding concepts.  We need the word "eu-obligation" in our vocabulary.  I am obligated to my children, my family, my work, my neighbors, my environment, country and world. There are indeed moments when false "obligations" can ruin things, but mostly obligations are what make social animals truly social.

The wild west cowboys used to have a great saying with obligation as its center. The cowboy would save a woman's life. She'd say, "Thank you, sir, for saving my life!" He would respond, "Much obliged, ma'am." No, in reality he wasn't truly obliged, but he felt obliged and that made him a gentleman and a hero. Obligation is cool.  Why think of "obligation" just a "must" and as a "burden"?  How superficial some act about obligations when indeed they rely and accept many obligations as "eu-burdens"--a type of euphoric obligation, which is a burden that is easy to bear (eu-phoric).
The Dark Side

Being in a social group, such as in social tango, is to be a part of a group with like interests. Obligation is mostly not even felt but merely practised out of shared interests of the group. An example of shared obligation in a social group is to get a ride to the group's event. The wrong kind of obligation is when someone is overstepping boundaries of the group by manipulating further than the norms of the group.  The light obligation of the group is the glue that holds groups together, which is far from something to be avoided!  I call this "eu-obligation," the normal obligation of the group. On the other hand, I call it "dys-obligation" when the obligation oversteps the boundaries of the group or another person.  "Dys-obligation" is too often confused with the myriad examples of "eu-obligation."  Here are some examples of beautiful obligations (eu-obligations) in tango:
  • Social tango promotes not asking for dances because our shared obligation is allowing the freedom to choose with whom, when and where others might want to dance. The cabeceo's positive energy is being obligated to others' freedom.  The negative frame of the cabeceo is NOT making someone feel obligation.
  • Social tango comes from Argentine culture,  a culture of showing self- and others respect by what one wears in public, and especially a public event. Sure, we can wear anything we want if we are just obligated to ourselves, but an obligation to the group and the customs of the dance is a light obligation.
  • Hygiene is a eu-obligation.  The very person who might think "obligation" is a drag, probably very much enjoys the fact that most see hygiene at social milonga as an eu-obligation to others. 
  • The best DJ at a social milonga is one who is obligated to the dancers and not to their own interests in playing some new version of a song that one never hears.  Eu-obligation is the DJ's obligation to focus on great dancing not having a forced "music education" class!  :-) 
  • Social milongas honor the obligation of hospitality.  How wonderful it has been for me when I visit a small milonga for the first time, and a few people invite me into the group without any knowledge of my dancing abilities.  
  • Social milongas are haven for developing friendships.  One of the best dancers in Austin seemed to avoid me, and as a new dancer that confused me because she at times danced with men far below her level.  I wondered what was wrong with me that I could not catch her eyes. When we finally danced, she told me that she was gladly obligated to people who were good friends.  That's social tango.  Obligation is light and wonderful, not a bad thing.
  • At a social milonga, don't you love it when men feel obligated to honor the courtesy of catching the eye of the oncoming man before stepping on to a busy dancefloor?   Often a lack of obligation invites the chaos of an asocial milonga.  Isn't it great when women allow these "old fashioned" courtesies?
  • If the gender balance is really off, it is not a bad thing when two men who want to dance with each other--gay or heterosexual--wait for a later moment before practising both roles or indulging.  I know women who love to be in the arms of a gay man while dancing, especially when he is a friend and a real gentleman who takes obligation as a light burden between friends.
  • But perhaps the most wonderful of all obligations is the obligation that everyone felt when they drove on the correct side of the road as they drove to the milonga.  Thanks for feeling obligated to my safety!  Sure, that painted line is just a rule of obligation, but so easy to honor.  And the second best feeling of obligation at the milonga?  That those at the milonga dance in such a way that others feel safe on the dance floor.   Ah . . .  the beauty of obligation!
Tango etiquette and feelings of obligation are for everyone, not just social tango traditionalists.  If you value freedom to choose and freedom to do what is best for you, obligation becomes the obvious choice in the long run.  Obligation is beautiful. 


  1. For anyone else wondering if they previously totally misunderstood the meaning of this word, here's reassurance from an English dictionary:

    an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.
    * the condition of being morally or legally bound to do something.
    * a debt of gratitude for a service or favour.

    So I'm glad obligation is markedly absent from the experience of social dancing in the milongas I enjoy.

  2. I would add two obligations
    - do not overuse perfume
    - do not let the milonga be to stiffening for you – keep dancing

    As to the perfume – if you are not sure whether the amount you use is righ, ask someone you trust, but avoid smokers for that purpose. Do not expect your dancing partners will tell you. It is an ungreateful task to say "I would prefear that the other dancers do not smell on me your perfume."

    As to milonga getting too hard on you – try to uncharm it. Proclaim your own "pijama day". Put on some clothes you feel comfortable at home and go (maby not the actual pijama – do not go to extremes). If noone will dance with you that day – it is OK. They may be "slightly" confused. Though it may even appear that some may acctually invite you to dance. However that is not the point. The next milonga go back to your standard milonga dress-code. Milonga is not ment to be a permanent "pijama party". It is just good to remind yourself and everyone else that acctually noone on the milonga is born in a splendid dress and make up and we are there for each other and not for what we wear.


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