Tuesday 24 June 2014

Dressed to kill?

Within the last year, I have been blogging less and living more. Mostly in a non-Tango context. I even got to spend time with intelligent, non-tangoing adults.

So there‘s a discussion I had some time ago:
A non-tanguero: "Why did you dance with that guy in jeans?" (Referring to a photo on Facebook)
Me (after having identified the tanguero with a few questions): Why should I not dance with him? Because he‘s wearing jeans? A lot of guys do that!
The non-tanguero: "In my opinion, this shows a severe lack of respect. ... I‘d dance with him in a club or at a party, but not at a ball. Milongas seem to be formal occasions as it can be deducted from the way women dress up? These occasions ask for a certain respect towards the partners and the setting - as does any other form of social environment. Therefore women should not dance with men, who do not show that form of respect towards them and the occasion. By this, women could actually provoke a change in men‘s attitudes."
My intuitive reaction (not having thought about that question in Tango context a lot): "Hey! I chose my partners according to their skills as dancers and out of sympathy. I am quite picky and dance with very few people. If I‘d start to sort out the ones who are not dressed to my liking, I‘d get to dance even less!"
From then on, the discussion took another turn, but some of the thoughts stuck and kept on working. 

So let us have a closer look at the argument.

First of all, I will have to check the initial assumption: A Milonga is a formal event.

Non-tangueros might consider tango as an environment, where dressing-up is pretty much the standard or at least should be. They could imagine gentlemen in three-pieced-suits and ladies in evening gowns, maybe with a touch of nostalgic accessories. I‘ve heard that actually a lot. But how do they build their image of tango? I guess by watching movies, TV, from books and other similar sources.  They might also evoke memories from dance-school when everyone was asked to dress up for the balls. These are valid associations that generate the images of formal events. And - let‘s face it - these images fit to what tango was a couple of years ago or still is in some places.

When I started out, tango was an exotic and very special pastime for middle-aged academics. Going to a Milonga felt a bit like tango-show-re-enactment. Everyone was dressed up, some men wore braces and two-coloured shoes, the ladies dressed in red and black. I was lucky to discover close-embrace Tango de Salon right in the beginning and did not get stuck in Tango Fantasia, but I still liked liked the idea of living the tango-fantasy. Back then, I even wore fishnets. Imagine! And yes, Milongas felt like formal events.

But over the years, our environment changed a lot. 

Sure, there are still the grand balls with shows and orchestras and people in evening wear, there are still more genteel Milongas in and out Argentina, where a certain standard of clothing is considered appropriate. There is still a formal Tango setting. But that‘s not the world I live in.

So what‘s my Tango-setting like and why did it change?

Over the last 10 years, more and more young people joined, importing their habits of communication and dressing. Tangueros got more and more interested in getting to know the music, in learning how to communicate and how to develop their dance and less interested in showing-off their attire. Tango became an important part of many people‘s lives and sometimes, it was hard work. In a way, tango became everyday life.  It might be an addiction, but it has in the same time been secularised for many and professionalised for some. It‘s been analysed, it‘s steps have been taken apart, it‘s history has been studied and old myths have been dissected by the minds of tango-scientists. Mind you, we‘re still big weepy romantics who cry over a Tango by Di Sarli or explode in hysteric laughter when we manage to do that one perfect shift of weight exactly on the syncopated note. But tango-life nowadays is much more profane than it used to be. 

And events have become quite casual occasions. There is still a difference between afternoon Milongas where people show up very casually and the evening events where everyone pays a little more attention. But in general the Milongas, Encuentros and Festivalitos I visit are more like parties:
You‘ll make new friends and meet people, with whom you have already spend many hours at similar events. They have seen you at the start of the Milonga when you‘re all new and shiny and at the end of it, when your make-up is smeared and your clothes sweaty, your feet swollen and your walk unsteady. They have shared your room at the youth hostel and hung out with you at the swimming-pool. They have seen you cheerful and sad and annoyed and enthusiastic. And you‘ve embraced them so many times... These are no formal acquaintances. They are friends or sometimes enemies. Pretty much like the crowd you used to hang out at university. I expect them to behave politely on and off the dancefloor as I would on any other occasion. If they want to dance with me, I will also expect them to keep up an agreeable level of personal hygiene, to have a comfortable embrace, to connect nicely to the music and to not annoy me by pushing me around or by rattling though memorised steps. But I will not expect them to dress up. When my eyes are closed, I will care about how you move and not what you wear. As you all know, I spend a lot of time at Milongas sitting and watching or talking to people. I can make a very educated guess in saying that the majority of dancers at these sort of event will agree to my last words. (If not, please speak up.)

So, let me state: the tango events that I visit are no formal events. Wearing clean jeans and an ironed t-shirt is considered to be appropriate on these occasions by the majority of those who participate. Different standards might apply to those who perform (work) at these occasions. But this would be another topic.

But still, my partner in the above cited conversation has made a another valid point, that might be of importance: there is a misbalance between the clothing habits of men and women. The days of formal evening wear might be over at Encuentros, but women in general still dress nicely, wear a little make-up, high heels - even when their feet hurt... They do it for themselves, to feel better, to boost their self-confidence and ... to please the eyes of the gentlemen. 

Yes. Although the Milonguero nowadays will not anymore be so easily tricked into dancing with a beginner because of her Comme-Il-Fauts, he‘s still a man. And men like pretty women. They will probably invite the lady in a nice skirt more often than the hag in clogs. Won‘t they?

And this is where it gets unfair, as a lot of men have taken the „come casually“ idea a little bit too far. They seem to think, they can show up in their pyjamas and still get the all women to dance with them. Mind you, they are not the majority, but it‘s not a rare phenomenon either. 

Where does this overly careless attitude come from? In the last decades, men have learned that there are many more women in tango and most will not be too picky about their partners. They‘ll accept every invite, no matter how lousy you dance, behave or dress. It took me several years of self-reflection and a lot of willpower before I was able to reject the ones I did not like or who would not please me as dancers. In my classes, I encourage women to say „no“ if they don‘t want dance with a guy. And they are slowly getting there, especially at Encuentros where the numbers of men and women are evenly balanced. This is why most guys nowadays notice, that it makes sense to improve their dancing skills, to mothball the old macho-attitude and in general to pay attention to what women like. But they forget about the visual aspects of partner choice.

So, this may come as a surprise, but guess what? Women have eyes too. They will most-likely not reject an invite because the guy is wearing jeans, but there are certain limits to what a woman is willing to accept.

And: I have to admit that a well-dressed and prettily-groomed gentleman will attract my special attention. There is always that one guy who stands out from the crowd, who has developed a modern tango, but who kept a little bit of an old-fashioned charm about him. Who shows that sweet respect to the occasion and the ladies by taking a little extra care of his appearance.  Sure, I‘ll choose him mainly because of his skills as a dancer, but: physical attractiveness plays a role. Dancing with him makes me feel special. Why lie?

So. It might be worth while getting a shave, having your hair nicely cut and once in a while wearing a tasteful suit. It‘s not outdated, it‘s not cheesy. It shows respect. 


Tango Therapist said...

Melina, your non-tanguero friend had some good insights. Your post is clearly a European's opinion. Jeans are informal wear in the US but less so in Europe where the mentality of "jeans mean money." US imperialistic fashion (which makes being stupid cool) reigns all over the world now. Milongas are no different. Your post is not helping this problem. Also, you have expressed an opinion with a strong female German accent, which in my experience creates the very problem it criticizes. You cannot have it both ways. In the past you have railed on men for dressing like slobs. Now, it's kind of okay? Women can be the ones "provoking a change in men's attitude." Yeah! I am all for that. But start earlier! My boys were dressed like slobs by their German mother. I was the first to buy them shirts, teach them to wash dishes and change toilet paper. My 20-year old son now dresses to kill, and I buy his clothes as he studies. If parents teach their children that being male means being a slob, then don't blame the boys or the men they become.

You posit that milongas are no longer formal events? If they are not, you will have to tell the many who take showers, put on perfume/cologne, dress nicely and adhere to many fine elements of etiquette from South America. If they are informal in anyone's mind, it is only feeling "at ease" in a formal event. I have danced wearing a triathlon wetsuit on a beach--that (and your examples) are only exceptions to the rule. The university voted to be "the best dressed" is the University of Texas, El Paso--ONLY because of the Latino/a culture at the school. The latin@s dress impeccably. I believe that if dressing like slobs is okay, then it is just another "gringo" accent of the local milonga. Lastly, you address "the overly careless attitude" of men, which is not easily ascribed to how many women are at a milonga. That may be important, but it is much, much deeper than that. Attitudes are a product of the input of both sexes, and are created out of how both boys and girls were raised.

Dressing poorly, is only aided by this post. Please get off the idea (often repeated in your blog) that we men are like little children distracted by any eye candy that goes by. We are (at least I am) but not any more than women. Non-research-informed opinion that men and women are TOTALLY different make men visual and women are ….? Check out the research.

Men do not have to be shamed, blamed, chided or pushed to dress nicely. A kind, gentle approach is needed to help men outside of Latin America to understand that dressing up is an issue of self-respect and respect of those with whom you would invite to dance. This is Argentine tango, and a bit of culture goes along with the dance.

Melina Sedo said...

humm… Tango Therapist:

Don't I write that women "have eyes too" and physical atraction plays a role for them as well. Is this not exactly what you say: men and women are not so different when it comes to reacting to visual input.

Also: where have I ever said, that it is ok to dress as slobs??

Just to summarize my point:it is ok for me to dress informal (I am referring to a clean jeans and t-short when speaking of men) at a Milonga/encuentro/festivalito as those are (in my opinion) no highly formal events. Most women dress-up anyway. But it won't hurt for a male dancer to suit-up once in a while, because: women are visual beings too and make choices depending on level of attractiveness.

Janis said...

I agree that dressing well (no matter what the social situation) shows self-respect and respect for others, including tango.

There is a milonga in Brussels that doesn't allow jeans, sneakers, sportswear, etc.