Monday, 2 December 2019

Tango Traditions


Such a common word in our tango world: traditional milongas, traditional dance, traditional music... The milongueros promote the traditions, the neos break-up with them up, the dancers from Villa Urquiza abide by them and others seem to hate them because they limit their freedom. Ok, I am polarising, but how often was I called a tango-nazi, because I suggest the use certain guidelines at tango events! This post is to demonstrate how fluid the concept of traditions in tango actually is and how careful one has to be with these expressions.

What's that?

Wikipedia says: "A tradition is a belief or behaviour passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past."

I find traditions quite neat, because they provide guidelines about how to behave and put things into a larger (historical) context. Conservatives have their traditions, as have communists or anarchists. My group of friends has its traditions, e.g. meeting every year for dinner on X-Mas eve. Whenever a couple of people stay connected for a longer period, some form of tradition will appear.

The "codigos" represent an important part of tradition for a large population in tango.

But here's the problem: Tango as a dance had basically disappeared after the 50s. Milongas and dance halls closed or turned to playing new styles of music like Rock’n Roll. Only few people continued dancing tango and this was either in the sheltered environment of their families or as stage dancers. So when tango-dancing had its revival in the late 70s one could not just take up where it had stopped. There was no "unbroken tradition" of the dance and its rules of behaviour.

To specify: Over 20 years, the dance had mostly been preserved by the stage dancers who promoted a glamour version, upgraded with elements of classical and ballroom dance. So what the world was presented as tango argentino was far removed from the original social dance. Only in the late 80s and 90s, the "old milongueros" finally felt encouraged to tell their story about “the real” tango. Hurrah! Yes, but... actually most dancers of the golden era had passed and tango-culture had been suppressed in the years of dictatorship. Many of those who now emerged as connoisseurs had still been very young in the golden era and experienced it second-hand via their elders. Yes, there were also older dancers with very specific memories, but we all know the process of retroactive glorification and how little valid information actually is preserved in our minds over a stretch of 20-40 years. Right? So everyone told a different story. A lot of knowledge about how tango was danced and celebrated had been lost. Some of that is being re-discovered by serious research until day.

So, let’s be honest: the reanimation of tango culture was also a very complex re-invention and a lot of what we think we know is pure myth.

I discovered tango in 1995 and started taking it more seriously in 2000. I was lucky because my most influential german teachers (Just + Christel Kuhl) back then visited Buenos Aires on a very regular basis. They were seriously trying to grasp the real thing and felt a strong need to distinct their milongas from the many places where tango escenario or the free forms of tango nuevo were cultivated. “Authentic” milongas were still rare and ours was one of the first in Germany. If one can call it that...

Because every time my teachers visited BA, they came back with new, sometimes wild stories that painted a diverse pictures of tango culture - all of them authentic. You think that invitations in BA were always and everywhere done by mirada + cabeceo? Nope. At some milongas it was totally fine for men to ask a women directly. At others you had to get permission from her mother or husband. In other places they used early variations of mirada and cabeceo. I remember that one story when Christel had rejected a mirada of an elder milonguero and he came to their table, started jerking it up and down until he had intimidated poor Christel into dancing with him. The same goes for musical set-ups. You believe that tango was always presented in tandas and with cortinas? Far from it! One of the most renowned Argentinean djs who toured Europe in the early 2000s was Felix Picherna. As far as I remember, he did not use any cortinas, he changed the amount of tangos, milongas and valses randomly and he sometimes even mixed all three styles in one tanda. So in these years, when the authentic social dance of the porteños was being spread all around the world, it was in no way clear, what authentic actually meant.

You notice that I am still not using the term “traditional”, because back then, I did not not hear it that often. It might not even have been used in BA, because it had always been obvious, that in milongas one danced tango de salón, social tango. This differentiation from stage tango seemed to be enough to define the "what and how". The rest of the "rules" varied depending on the milonga or was vague. There was not ONE tango tradition. There were as many as milongas or at least as barrios.

This means, that when our tango community organised their first “Milongas como en Buenos Aires” to promote the “authentic tango of the porteños”,we had to make a choice about what this implied.

From what I can tell from conversations with Argentinians the same process happened in Buenos Aires, where the big influx of tango tourists and young people created a need for civilisation and specification. Unsaid guidelines had to be transferred into “reglas” and “codigos”. A common denominator had to be defined. And to implement these codigos, it helped to base them (at least virtually) on tradition. This is where the term “traditional” became important: “This is how we always did it, these are our traditions”, helped to make people respect the guidelines. Back then, I was not so much aware of this creative process, but looking back I find it amazing, how everyone helped to actually shape a common set of traditions.

So these are the "traditional" codigos that I have witnessed being implemented over the last 25 years:

Dancing in an unbroken embrace: The actual form of the embrace (parallel close, v-form, a little open...) always depended on the pre-dominant style of the alpha-dancers in a community. At encuentros milongueros, we now often find a more or less parallel close embrace, but no one will be expelled for loosening the embrace a bit once in a while.

Use of “classical” music: Around the turn of the millennium, this would include non-argentine old tangos or contemporary orchestras. In the early years of encuentros (2008-14), contemporary orchestras were pretty much undesirable and musical choices were limited to extended golden era: the late 20s to the late 50s. In recent years, the custom of using newer and contemporary orchestras has made a revival. Some djs now play exclusively 40s-60s + contemporary. This is totally a matter of personal taste and the directions that the organisers of specific events give.

Presentation of music in tandas and with cortinas: Tandas seemed to used quite early, at least as far as I can think back. It also makes sense to imagine them in golden age milongas, where the orchestras played shorts sets of similar music, but this is pure speculation. The introduction of short cortinas took definitely longer. See below.

Constant movement in the ronda and certain guidelines on how to do so: It took many years to fine tune the system. When I started teaching in 2001, it was e.g, still ok to overtake other couples in the ronda and we practised it in classes. Nowadays you won't see anyone doing it. If it is a good ronda.

Invitation by mirada and cabeceo: The concept of mirada and cabeceo itself developed hugely from “guy getting up and instead of asking verbally, just nodding from a short distance” over “guy looking and nodding, but staying seated” to a bidirectional process in which partners choose actively. And to take advantage of this form of invitation you needed a specific set-up of the location. In our home milonga e.g. the dance floor was on one side of the room and everyone was seated at tables on the other facing in all directions. To allow for better m+c, we changed the seating so that a central dance floor with tables around it was created. Now everyone could potentially make eye-contact with everyone else without having to get up or break their necks. As you can see, I don't see this specific seating arrangement as a tradition, more a necessity to allow for one.

Leaving the pista after a tanda to be free to dance with another person and to allow for mirada and cabeceo: At some moment, it became more common to change partners frequently and not to stick too long with one partner. This was also when cortinas had to implemented, because the organisers had to make sure, that everyone cleared the floor at the same time. A
mongst porteños, a cortina might not have been necessary, because everyone knew the orchestras and therefore knew when to sit down again. That is, when the dj even played tandas. 

Apart from the quite common codigos, other "traditions" where typical for certain sub-groups amongst the social dancers or certain milongas:

Separate seating: This set-up is used in some milongas in BA, only very few outside of BA and some more - but by far not all - encuentros milongueros. Please note that the first encuentros (Raduno Milonguero in Impruneta, YSM in Crema, Les Cigales, then the FCA) were very social gatherings where no-one would have thought of separating men and women. This developed later, when fans of milongas like the Cachirulo in BA started organising encuentros. It is in now way universal in the "traditional" tango world.

Elegant attire: I guess that was always very much depending on where and when you lived. A lot of milongueros in BA will be proud to dress very neatly as do most Italians dancers. But just go to an encuentro or so-called "traditional milonga" anywhere else and you'll find all kinds of clothing styles, including jeans and flat shoes for women. Sometimes there will be one "elegant milonga" during an encuentro, but even then the term will be interpreted very individually. We stopped announcing the gala milonga on Saturday evening of our FCA after several people complained about Detlef's too casual outfit. Yup...

There is one other "tradition" that for me actually is a non-tradition, but that I need to discuss here, because it has become relevant in recent discussions on social media:

Mandatory gender-typical dance roles:
Myth has it that tango in the olden days was danced among men and you can also find vintage pictures with women dancing together. But as far as I can tell, dancing the non-gender-typical role was never very common, so one could call the dance of men with women a tradition in most couple dances.
Yet in my tango-world, this vague tradition never resulted in the declaration of a codigo.
My first teacher in 1995 was a leading women as well as the second. It did not strike me in any way weird, because it was obvious that women would be more interested in dancing and become engaged in it. When I discovered “authentic” tango, I for the first time met a few people who opposed the idea of leading women, but even my conservative teachers would not forbid it at their milongas. As long as only a small number of women would lead and almost no men follow, it was never a big deal. I soon started leading a bit - it was the logical thing to do, in particular as I started teaching in 2001. Why would one only want to see one side of the medal? And I was not the only one, wherever I went in the next 19 years - at every festival, milonga (traditional or not) or encuentro milonguero - I met leading ladies and - much more seldom - following men.
The same goes for BA. Yes, dancing the unconventional roles seems still to be frowned upon in a majority of the conventional milongas, but it still exists and always did. I remember one special occasion: Detlef and I had given a demo in the conservative “A Puro Tango” milonga in Salon Canning. I think it was in 2007. In spite of the intimidating setting, I decided to lead a young lady. Coming from the dance floor we got stopped by an older women. Instead of criticising, she complimented us and next invited my friend for the a tanda - by the way verbally. I then went on dancing with male milongueros who did not shun me for having lead. I had expected problems - there were none.
But that has changed in recent years: A strong need to restrict dancers to the gender-typical roles has developed alongside and because of the fact, that more and more people started changing roles. The increased role-fluidity applies not only to "non-traditional" queer-tango or open-role-events. Many of the "traditional" events like encuentros milongueros invite dancers to register as followers, leaders and double-rolers to create a role- rather than a gender-balance. You can now even see men dancing together at the oldest existing encuentro in Italy. This would not have been imaginable when it started in 2008.
But this is starting to bug a part of the community. I think that what we are experiencing is a formerly marginal phenomenon that expands into mainstream and thereby causes a radicalisation of those who had before just mildly rejected it. They become hyper-traditional and react accordingly, e.g. by organising events in which the dance in a gender-a-typical role is not only frowned upon but actually forbidden. I find this regrettable but also understand it as a natural course of human behaviour as we can see in all other fields of society and politics. I hope it will - after a period of friction - dissolve in a new, freer handling of this specific question.

So... traditions... a difficult concept in tango!

As a dancer, organiser, teacher and even blogger I have not only seen them evolve, put into a logical context and specified, I have actually consciously participated in this process of "traditionalisation". This is why I am also critical towards the over-usage of the word. It could be understood in a broader sense, because there have always been guidelines to bring order into the chaos of our tango world. But they have not been carved in stone by some tango god in the epoca d'oro and were never universal. They always varied in different communities and are constantly being adapted to the needs of each new generation of dancers. Some codigos are very recent developments.

I am now using mirada and cabeceo for invitations. But who knows, what the future will bring? Most likely a special app for the phone. I will surely be amongst the first who try it out.

Because tango is no anachronistic role-playing game. It is real life. 

A more personal note:
People always assume that we are very old fashioned aka "traditional" because we dance a rather unspectacular social dance in a close embrace and promote the usage of the main codigos at our events. But already from what I've written above, you can see, that you have to be careful with labels. If you then take into consideration, that we use tango nuevo as a teaching method, that I dance both roles, that we teach beginners both roles consequently from the beginning, that we change roles as teachers constantly, that at our events, there is always a large number of double-rolers... well? And there is no separate seating at our events. Won't be before hell freezes over! So... yup traditional... One does not need to do high voleos and open the embrace or cut the ronda to live in the modern world!