Monday 24 January 2011

Tango cosmopolites - or not?

Tango is an international phenomenon. Nowadays, you can find Tango all over the world, from South Africa to Finland, from California to Japan. If you want to dance nicely, you don‘t have to travel to Argentina - you find great Milongas & Festivals everywhere. You will meet people, dancing to traditional music, respecting the codes of the Milonga and having developed a great new Tango combining the close embrace of the elders with the gift of real improvisation, deriving from the innovators. Tango is a product of an international exchange, that started around 1900 and that is still happening all over the world.
I even want to go further and postulate, that in order to understand modern Tango, it is not enough to stay in your hometown and save all your money for the important trip to Buenos Aires. No, to really get Tango, you have to embrace the world! 

So, experiencing an international process of evolution, I‘m always surprised to encounter national narrow-mindedness on the one hand and over-glorification of all that‘s argentine on the other hand. 

Here I am again, breaking a tabu. Tangueros are supposed to worship the Argentinean gods, but I don‘t.

But what can I do? I was born in England and mostly grew up in Germany as the daughter of a German mother and a Spanish father. We spoke German, Spanish and - even more important - English. Lots of our friends were Americans, because my parents worked as travel agents for the american military and their families. As a child, I travelled a lot and got to know different cultures and people and I learned several other languages. Today, I study European history and literature. I perceive myself as an international creature and am therefore very sensitive to shows of national superiority, wherever they manifest. 

In my first years of dancing Tango, I heard a lot of great stories about Buenos Aires. Although I‘m not easily impressionable, I was spellbound by the anecdotes of my German teacher, depicting all the phenomenal dancers, shiny Milongas and larger-than-life demos. In 2004 (I was teaching Tango since 2001), Detlef and me set out for our first trip to Buenos Aires. We visited the usual Milongas, danced with the porteños, where invited to do our first demo at the Confiteria Ideal... all very nice. But: I was definitely not overwhelmed. Apart from noticing a big concentration of top dancers, the average dance-level* at the Milongas was usually not very impressive and very often, the foreigners even raised the bar. I have to admit, that in 2004, many argentine dancers knew the music better and were more accustomed to navigate on a crowded dance floor. Do not misinterpret me here: I love dancing in Buenos Aires: They‘ve got the tradition and it‘s great, to experience the special ambiance of an original Milonga. But still: My favourite partner was an Italian. 

And there they were: all those guys who tried to impress me with their grasp and wanted to sell private classes to the gullible tourist. And this was just a side-phenomenon of a greater notion: the idea that, no matter how little he knows, an argentine will understand Tango better than all those foreigners. And although nowadays many argentines acknowledge the broad understanding and high development of non-argentine dancers, the myth of the super-human Maestro still lingers. 

No matter that a lot of the European or North American dancers developed a inferiority complex, manifesting in the most ridiculous ways: teachers making up false Spanish names and identities, students worshipping their Maestros and willing to pay 300€ for a private class, people plastering their walls with panoramas of the Iguazu falls and trying to drop Spanish words into every conversation to show: I‘m one of you! 

Listen up: You‘ll never be an argentine, unless you give up your original nationality and move to Buenos Aires for good. And even then... But that‘s actually not important! To become a good Tango dancer, you don‘t have to ape argentineans. You have to dance and study Tango, wherever you find it and with whoever you think can teach you best, no matter which nationality he or she has. 

Now this may read as If I were envying the argentine teachers their success, but if you look at our schedule, you‘ll see, that I‘ve got no reason to do so. And I can definitely live with the fact, that some organisers will never invite me to one of their glamour festivals, because I‘m German and my partner is too. Other sensible people will. ;-) 

The Germans! They are the boldest admirers of foreign cultures and lots of them speak several languages, one of them usually being English. Many get real enthusiastic and I already have to endure the tendency to glorify Argentina ... But now a reverse-problem seems to manifest. 

It‘s about language. I‘m used to French or Spanish people complaining, when you do not use their national idiom. Few of them they speak other languages, so I try my best. But I will use English as my default-language when teaching in other foreign countries, I use it on Facebook, on Youtube and I blog in English. Our Tangokombinat-site is now purely English, as our events attract an international crowd. Sometimes I even send an e-mail to our mailing list purely in English, when I do not have the time to translate it in French and German as well. 

And now the Germans are complaining! Since about two years, several German Tangueros annoy me with comments on our Youtube videos, mails or now even on my blog. These are people who complain that I do not use German as my official language. What? German chauvinism in the Tango community? That‘s really more than I am willing to stand. 

As I said: Tango is international. Get used to it!

By the way 1: I wrote a paper on "Tango as a product of international exchange" for my history studies. It's unfortunately in German, so it does not make sense to publish it here. Sorry.
By the way 2: English native speakers are of course very lucky. Their language has developed into THE international idiom. Fine... That does not mean, that learning other languages does not make any sense for you. He? ;-)
* As an explanation and response to several comments: when talking of "dance-level", I do not refer only to technique or complexity. A high level in dancing especially manifests in a nice embrace and rich musicality: the "feeling".
BEFORE you write a commentary on my text and start raving about bad Melina denouncing Argentine culture, please read again. I am NOT advising people against dancing in Buenos Aires and learning with the argentine teachers. I am just speaking out against over-glorification and thoughtless imitation. Get it?


Andreas said...


Melina Sedo said...

@ Andreas: yup. :-)

Anonymous said...

I like this post. It's certainly strange how some still think that BA is the only Makkah for all that is tango. Football was invented here in England, but you will certainly find football to a better standard, with as much (or more passion) and an even larger following in some other countries. (I hate football by the way). And, my 5 favorite dancers come from 3 different countries, and I haven't even had to travel that much (for tango) to find that out.

arrabaltango said...

My main teacher, the late Miguel Gonzales, who died here in London over ten years ago, used to say that it was good for "Westerners" to go to Bs As not to learn tango, as there were plenty of good teachers all over the world, but to find out about the culture of the second-generation immigrant. However, as I was a second-generation immigrant here in the UK, there was no pressing need for me to do so. & I haven't been yet. Actually, I'm looking for a sponsor, so that I could go over there to find out why the Argentine do NOT dance tango [well, 99% of them in Bs As].

Game Cat said...

Nice post.

Many people forget that the dance and the music of tango were themselves enriched by international forces - African, native and European music and instruments - coming together in BsAs, itself a consmopolitan melting pot.

The dance received a new lease of life when expat Argentinean dancers returned after the military dictatorship and contributed their professional dance ideas.

More fundamentally, the complex mix of emotions evoked by the songs are human and universal - loss, love, regret, melancholy, friendship, hope....people everywhere can relate to this.

I am grateful that Argentina nurtured and shared this with the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

The only place where to immerse oneself in the culture of tango is Buenos Aires. It's not tango without the culture that this city provides. It's the only place where you can see old milongueros/as dancing.

If one is expecting to be impressed by every Argentine who dances at the milongas, you will be disappointed. That is the case with anything; there are few who excell in anything.

Those who judge the dancers in BsAs haven't yet realized that tango is a feeling that can't be judged.

Two trips of two-weeks in BsAs isn't going to give anyone a good perspective of what tango means to those who dance it in Buenos Aires. I've lived in BsAs for 12 years, and I'm beginning to understand what tango means to the milongueros. It's not something that can be measured or viewed, it can only be felt in the embrace. That's the HOW and WHY of tango for them. A sharing of energy for three minutes. That can only be done by one who loves the music and dances a feeling.

Melina Sedo said...

@ All: thanks for the comments and the discussion.

@ Janis: Thanks also.
Let me comment on one aspect: Sure, you cannot really get to know a city in a few weeks and "feeling" cannot be judged. For me, the feeling is the most important, not the steps. That's why dance so simply.
But: I've danced with old Milongueros in BA, young Milongueros in Ba and dancers from all over the world. I've found lots of feeling everywhere. I've had very intimate dancers with French, Italian, Slovenian and German dancers. And some of them have never been in Buenos Aires.
As GameCat hints: Feeling is international as well. ;-)

Tango Salon Adelaide said...

Sensitive responses to the rich music of tango are not the sole preserve of portenos. However, I do love dancing in BsAs (with portenos and foreigners alike) because of the culture of tango which I experience there.

I look forward to immersion in the traditional milonga where the codes of etiquette are the norm and the atmosphere of the milonga all the better for it.


Alter said...

thanks for the post!
I prefer your and Detlef's approach to tango over 95% of Argentinians tango teachers I see here in Europe.
You both were so clever (and lucky?) to stick to the approach to tango as a culture of feeling (music, embrace, etc.), which is very authentic IMHO. Lucky your students!
Not all of us were so clever/lucky. It's because european/international tango environment is broadcasting a very different, a very noisy message, you can see it in most of European tango festivals. And you have to fight for years to find what tango really means.
Therefore I 100% agree with Janis how important for international tango community culture of milongueros is: Buenos Aires (not argentinians!) is the only place where you can see what REAL milonga must look like, what REAL tango means and so on. It must be ragarded as a kind of standard, a baseline. It is the only hope to preserve at least a core of that wonderful invention.

Melina Sedo said...

@ Alter:

Thanks so much for your post. Yes, we focus on embrace, music, the codes of the Milonga. And - as I wrote in my post - dancing in BA is a special experience.

But, I do not agree with your statement, that you can only find real Tango or Milongas in BA. I think, you can find them all over the world. The Milongueros might be younger in Europe, but they are still Milongueros. ;-)

And are we (Detlef, I and many of our friends) not an example for the fact, that Tango is being developed all over the world:
Sure, we've visited BA a couple of times for a few weeks and we've taken important ideas from discussion with argentine people or those who've visited BA frequently.
But: we've never taken classes in BA, we did not live there, many of our early teachers were nuevo or stage dancers, we do not have any old Maestros to follow...
Detlef and I developed most of our (teaching) philosophy in the exchange with our european and north-american friends or students by focussing on what WE wanted to be the essence of our Tango, technically and emotionally.
And somehow our Tango evolved into an entity that has a lot (but not everything) in common with what is danced in the more traditional Milongas of Buenos Aires. That's good, because it shows how international certain aspects of this dance are: the need for a real connection, the appeal of a complex music, the wish to dance in a social setting with "rules" that help us to interact...

But I actually do not think, that our positions (yours, Janis' and mine) are very far apart.

What I wanted to point out in my post, is the absurdity of imitation, national superiority and glorification. Tango does not need that. It's universal.

And I think, most of us can agree on that.

Melina Sedo said...

Funny btw. that nobody's commenting on that weird -german-language-thing... Scared of insulting germans or connecting them with national chauvinism?

Anonymous said...

@melina: "weird -german-language-thing..."
maybe they don't understand it? ;-)

Melina Sedo said...

yup... maybe... but I don't think so... :-(

Tangocommuter said...

Yes, tango is international, and actually learning something often gives you better insight into it than if you grew up with it. But I still see good reason to visit BsAs. It always seemed a good idea to meet and learn from dancers who were around before the tango hiatus, while they are still with us. They've willingly shared their lifelong experience, and been unfailingly kind, helpful, funny and hospitable. I'm still in touch with most of them. It's been great.

Since the advent of blogging I doubt that anyone who does their homework thinks that the standard of tango there is unfailingly amazing: the songs have always been heard but the dance has to be learned. We're also aware now that there are Argentines who are desperate to earn money, too: unsurprising after recent history. But generally the standard is excellent. Look at the 100-odd clips uploaded to : just the regulars dancing on their birthdays. The problem is that not many of us get to dance with them because they prefer to dance with each other! Still, it's a treat just to sit and watch.

Damian Thompson said...


I love this post! I had the pleasure of dancing a D'Arienzo tanda and then a DiSarli tanda with you in NYC at Tine's Milonga... You may or may not remember me...

Funny, many said to me, "why do you want to dance with her? Melina is not your style..." Well, I danced Tango, and loved that time and dancing with you.

Keep up the tango love and sharing this great passion that some of us are lucky enough to travel and share with others - especially those that don't get to go to BsAs...

Melina Sedo said...

Thanks all for the lively debate.

DAMIAN: of course I do remember you. Facebook helps.
People asked me the same question and I remember two lovely Tandas! Hope to repeat that one day again.
I'll surely come back to NYC and if not: we'll meet again somewhere in this Tangoworld! :-)

Anonymous said...

Melina, I like mostly I like your Blogs and I think you are a very good teacher, but this Blog, sorry, for me is wrong. Of course tango is international, there is no milonga in europa like "lo de celia" and many others in BA. Very rarely I will find dancers in europe as good as in BA.

About language: everybody speaks English and only English, so I like to speake german and castellano.

Melina Sedo said...

Danke Peter, für Deinen Kommentar. Natürlich gibt es in Europa keine Milongas wie das Lo de Celia. Aber es gibt andere und sie müssen deswegen nicht schlechter sein. Anders eben.
Was die Sprache angeht, so sollte jeder jene verwenden, die er beherrscht und mag. Ich schreibe in Englisch, damit mich mehr Leute verstehen. Deutsch würden fast nur die deutschen Tangueros verstehen und diese machen noch nicht einmal unter unseren Schülern eine Mehrheit aus. Leider. ;-)
Viele Grüße,

Anonymous said...

I am an American living, working, and learning tango in Germany. I have taken several German language courses and still do not speak the language well. In most cases, conversations start out in German but as soon as they hear the accent, things quickly regress (for me) to English (smile). My tango instructors teach primarily in German and that's alright by me. They only resort to English when they want to communicate certain nuances. In this regard I am very fortunate in that they are more focused on me learning the tango than mastering the language. During lessons, I am frequently asked: "Do you understand what they are saying." Most often my response is: "Sometimes, but I learn best by observation and you don't have to speak to dance tango...I dance the way I feel and it has always worked for me." This has been a very interesting blog and associated comments.

Jacky said...

Thanks for speaking english , otherwise I woudn't read your blog, and I'm using english to answer you though I'm french... so the debate over the langage is off as far I'm concerned, like it or not.
About tango BsAs or not BsAs debate, I personnally think that we have to go there once in our tango's life, it is a must. It is also a must ( for me) to read about the culture behind this beautiful and inspiring dance... that's said I enjoy dancing in Montréal where the milongas are quite good, even if the cabeceo is not respected and also a few other rules like to return to our table after a tando etc..

Anonymous said...

Liebe Melina,
nochmal kurz um deutlich zu machen was ich meine. Wenn ich deine Infos zu deiner Arbeit als DJ lese, bin ich begeistert (Ich bin auch DJ). Leider ist die Musik in den meisten Milongas in Europa anders, es wäre schön, wenn viele DJ's so denken würden wie du. Ich kenne einige TänzerInnen welche regelmässig bei dir Workshops nehmen, sie tanzen wie oder fast wie die guten Tänzer in Buenos Aires, leider habe ich bis jetzt nicht die Möglichkeit gehabt bei dir einen Workshop zu belegen. Und leider, es gibt nicht so viele Tänzer hier die bei dir Kurs hatten In BA gibt es die gute Musik und die entsprechenden Tänzer sehr oft. Schade, dass du dies nicht so erleben konntest. Wenn man die richtigen Milongas in BA aufsucht kann man darin schwelgen.

Melina Sedo said...

Lieber Peter.

Danke für deinen kommentar. Natürlich hatte ich in ba schöne erlebnisse und tänze. Ich war mehrfach da und habe mich durchaus vergnügt. Und natürlich sind die milongas in ba etwas besonderes. Das schreibe ich ja auch.

Mein punkt war lediglich, dass ich nicht vor ehrfurcht erstarrt bin und dort auch nur "mit wasser gekocht wird".
Und dass tango international ist.
Ich finde heutzutage auf zahlreichen europäuschen festivals und milongas die gleiche qualität in tanz, umarmung und musik wie in ba.
Schade, dass du diese events wohl noch nicht für dich entdeckt hast.

In diesem jahr empfehle ich:
Crema, italien, ostern
Montecatini terme, italien, april
Abrazos in Devon, uk, mai
Festivalito con amigos, sb, deutschland, oktober
Festivalito rural, slovenien, september
Raduno impruneta, italien, november
Les cigales, frankreich, juli

Unddas ist nur eine kleine auswahl. Bei so vielen tollen milonguero events in europa muss ich nicht permanent nach ba fahren. Hier gibt es tollen tango!

Liebe grüsse,

Anonymous said...

Super, danke schön.
Nein diese Festivalitos kenne ich nicht. Mir ging es mehr um die Alltagsmilongas hier in Deutschland, die oft sehr enttäuschend sind. Und deine Liste zeigt ja auch, dass man doch in ganz Europa rumreisen muss um einzelne gute Milongas (Festivalitos) zu finden. Das ist allerdings schon mehr als ich wusste. Für mich ist Buenos Aires trotz allem unerreichbar, weil die hohe Qualität dort einfach jeden Tag haben kann. Natürlich erstarre ich auch nicht vor Ehrfurcht ( Ich bin ja auch kein Tango-Lehrer und brauche keine Ehrfurcht zu haben, ich kann mich einfach freuen.

Melina Sedo said...

... und das ist ja auch das Ziel: sich am Tango erfreuen. Wo auch immer.... ;-)

Übrigens gibt es auch eine Menge tolle "normale Milongas" in Europa. Aber ich wollte nur die besonderen Events aufführen.

Aber in einem hast Du übrigens recht: So viele gute Milongas AN EINEM ORT gibt es natürlich nur in BA. Deswegen lohnt sich die Reise auf jeden Fall!

Schönen Tag noch

Anonymous said...

ufff, what a theme...
i insist, you want to dance good argentinian tango... you have to get know portenios culture... how ever you can... may be you can get closer to this by having teachers that did go to Buenos Aires to enrich their dance, teachers that have experience Buenos Aires and their teachers a lot so that they are now able to bring you a little bit of the 'portenios spirit' into your dance.
Argentinian tango is not just about feelings! it is a dance, figures are in it, is a social dance not just 'venus/dance', differents style and different embraces you will find, different kind of conections you will find for sure too, different kind of teachers and masters as well, different levels of dancers too...
in Buenos Aires as well, you will find a lot of this things... but it is named Tango Argentino, there has to be a reason for that.
And i'm sorry Melina, but yes, to me you seems to be pretty much worried about you tango business otherwise why to recommend them no to go to Buenos Aires? They all have to go, if they can't or they don't care it is another thing, but at least tell them that it would be always a good idea. Respect other cultures, respect origins, and please let the people find may be things that you didnt find when you were there (nice you got the chance to dance in Confiteria Ideal, if they will just care about giving a profesional tango-card they will never give you the chance to dance in Buenos Aires as well, you see? nice peope over there, they want their respect as well.
If organizers in festival do not invite you perhaps is because some of them do not see you as an special dancer, or may be some of them yeah... are not so sensible... or whatever...
Recommend your students and to everyone to take more classes, and when they have the chance to go to Buenos Aires that they should take it, if they can't it doesn't matter because their teachers are going for sure to go Buenos Aires and bring them some portenios impressions... it is how it should be done. Like a chain... but it seems that in some countries this chain is broken... they think they know everything, that tango is international and so on... yeah, it will be, for sure, but are you dancing argentinian tango or just a kind of tango or just european new tango wave?

Anonymous said...

as a tango argentinian teacher you should encourage your students to visit Buenos Aires, if they can't they have to be happy because they know you will go and bring some fresh argentinian tango for them, if you can't you will try to bring them some argentinian tango teachers that you consider bring them something fresh from BA... this is how it works, like a chain.
In some countries it seems that this chain is broken, what's happend? are they afraid of Buenos Aires? i know that it is hard to dance at the begining but people find their way, you know, visit group classes, been social in the milongas, yes, it is hard, but once you are in you will understand more about argentinian tango.
and, even they might get ask to make a little performance in the confiteria ideal ( u see, they do not prettend just to give people a professional card, living from tango is not an easy issue so of course they will try... but they will also share with you and give you the chance to dance there, even you are not with the same level of dancing or if you are not so professional dancer, they will let you, of course!)
i would not say the organizers are sensible or not sensible because they don't invite me to dance at their festival, it is just a matter of level, experience and to have something special.

Appreciate their culture! if all of these inmigrants would have gone to a different country they might never have find Argentinian Tango there! It happend just in el rio de la plata, no in NY, no in Berlin, no in Rome, just in the rio de la plata...

Sorry, but tango argentino will be international, but if thouse who pretend to know everything about it just by using their brain ignore the fact that they have to take always classes, try to travel to argentina and so on, don't do it, well... tango argentino won't be tango argentino danced by europeans, but it would be just 'tango' or 'international tango' or 'hey look how creative and smart we are that we have a better and more full fill of emotions tango style'...

be humild, you are in front of an all culture here, respect it.

Melina Sedo said...

Hey anonymous:

may I quote from my text:

"Do not misinterpret me here: I love dancing in Buenos Aires: They‘ve got the tradition and it‘s great, to experience the special ambiance of an original Milonga. "

I tell that to everyone and I do encourage people to go to BA. - I just don't tell them that it is the holy land.

And, you write:
"And i'm sorry Melina, but yes, to me you seems to be pretty much worried about you tango business otherwise why to recommend them no to go to Buenos Aires."

Now, why should I be worried about our buisiness. WE ARE FULLY BOOKED ONE YEAR IN ADVANCE. And: in every place, I'm only once, maximum twice a year, every year new places. So, I do not need to cling to students, they cannot even cling to us - even if they wanted to. THis is why, I encourage everyone who takes classes with me, to take classes with other teachers as well, to travel and learn as much as possible. People can go wherever they want to go, to every teacher, may he live in BA or in Europe - we've still get enough work to do!

Please, before you go into judging- and lecturing-mode, just read carefully what I write.

Good day,


Melina Sedo said...

Some last words:

BEFORE you write a commentary on this article and start raving about bad Melina denouncing Argentine culture, please read again. I am NOT advising people against dancing in Buenos Aires and learning with the argentine teachers.

I've been in BA quite a few times and danced at the traditional Milongas. We've had many, many argentine Milongueros coming to us after a demo or after they had seen us dancing in the Salon. They were thanking us for respecting their traditions by dancing how we dance!

We are promoting social Tango that is based on a tradition in Argentina.


We are Europeans and see the contribution dancers are making towards Tango development ALL OVER THE WORLD. This is why I am speaking out against over-glorification of ONE culture and thoughtless imitation.

Get it?

tartaruga said...

Hey Melina,

I agree with not worshiping anybody just for being a beholder of the original culture. However, I have to admit that there is a certain difference between those who can express feelings and cry, those who are sensitive to any heartbreaking melody, flooded in the melancholy... Leaving in Germany as a foreigner thought me that you don't expect this from an average German. Some distinct examples apart, it is just not in their nature to be extremely emotional (sorry for crude generalization you can damn me for that or just disagree if I am mumbling stupid ideas :)).) least we have to pay this to Argentines if tango is about feeling. (I think italians are similar, I also like the feeling of balkans, spanish the same...)

Melina Sedo said...

Hi Tartaruga,

thanks for your comment.

Of course - different nationalities are also related to different kinds of social or emotional behaviour. And surely the argentinies feelings (and display of them) are different to those of - let's say - a german.

But we cannot mistake outer behaviour with depth of inner feelings. Germans - for example - may be reserved and cool on the outside. That does not mean, that they do not feel as deeply as Italians r Spanish people.

Plus: individual behaviour may vary. My father was spanish and surely much "cooler" than my mother, who's ot a very strong temperament although being german.

Myself, I am as cool and rational as my spanish father - but I still start crying when I hear Nueve Puntos. Every time! ;-)

So somehow this unique argentine music seems to trigger and relate to universal feelings that are shared by all menkind.

That's what I call international. ;-)

And now off to Finland to teach some argentine Tango.


Anonymous said...

It's a shame your first trip to BsAs was so late. Ten years earlier the milongas were completely different, with more dancers of a much higher level, who still knew and observed the codigos. After the economy crashed in 2001, it became harder for the older dancers to afford the entrada, and the government started encouraging tango tourism as a way to bring in hard currency. Combined with the inevitable loss of experienced dancers due to age & infirmity, the result was a general reduction in the average level at many of the more popular venues. You can still find plenty of good dancing in BsAs, but you have to go look for it. Get away from downtown & go to Mataderos, Avellaneda & other less-touristy locales. And don't go during a big festival or dance competition.