Disclaimer 1: This is an English version of the article I originally wrote in Russian around 2013. To my surprise, it enjoyed quite some popularity, and I got numerous requests about its translation into English, which I finally produced.
Disclaimer 2: I started dancing tango in a post-Soviet community, so many issues raised here are typical for social dancing in CIS generally. I do not claim universal truth, and your mileage may surely differ.
Disclaimer 3: This was intended as a humorous piece, so if you think that my article is racist, sexist, xenophobic and generally intolerant, it probably is, with my full awareness of that.
Tango is a social, fully improvisational partner dance based on the idea of leading and following. It developed out of African slave dances in
Argentine tango in its traditional understanding is divided into three types of dances: tango as such, tango waltz/vals (the same tango movements to “one-two-three” rhythm, but with more rotations) and milonga (a fast dance with frequent changes in rhythm, which has best preserved its connection with the African predecessor). Those who think they have learned it all can dance candombe (the same African drum rhythms out of which milonga and later tango emerged; unlike in tango, here the follower is allowed and even encouraged to sway her hips) and canyengue (tango predecessor from the “thieves and whores” stage featuring walking on half-bent legs and placing the leader’s hand not on the follower’s back but – you got it right! – her back…side). Particular fun in studying two latter dances can be derived from the fact that no one knows how to dance them correctly anyway. You can also become a fan of Argentinean folklore and learn chacarera and Argentinean zamba. In both, rows of men and women move towards and away from each other according to an exact sequence of figures. However, if the former is rather merry and serves to fire up the audience who has got a tad bit bored dancing tango, the latter is more to the sad side of the spectre and is accompanied by melancholic waving of kerchiefs (could this be the reason why post-Soviet dancers fancy it so much?).
Argentine tango is NOT identical to the tango, which is a part of ballroom classical set. The latter is characterized by learning sequences, using acrobatic elements and dancing only with one’s own partner. As Argentine tango features none of the above, it is no wonder that “ballroom” dancers can’t stand “social” ones and vice versa. By the way, the real aficionados of Argentine tango do not compete in festivals or participate in championships. If someone you know has mentioned they have been to a tango festival, don’t ask about their prizes or rankings, or you risk being ganchoed right in the face.
Who Dances It and Why
Unlike salsa, which is a place of socializing for young co-eds and men on the hunt for them, tango is mostly danced by 25-45 age group. Just like in all partner dances, the lack of men is obvious and immediately becomes a challenge.
Traditionally people choose tango having listened to too much Piazzolla and Gardel or seen a hundred reruns of THAT SCENE with Al Pacino in The Scent of a Woman (unfortunately, sometimes it can be Richard Gere in Shall We Dance?). However, brutal reality quickly shatters those dreams into pieces and it turns out that Piazzolla is much too modern and offending for “Golden Age” tango, and no one dances to Gardel in
Those who have gathered up the courage to master the “dance of passion” are emotionally as tender as filet mignon, and the depths of their inner worlds make Mariana Trench blush. Tango is probably the most complex of all social dances, so both leaders and followers have to bear the stigma of a beginner for at least a year. As we can see, one needs iron will and extreme patience to master the dance. Slow progress plus one’s own little idiosyncracies lead tangueros to regular (ideally, biannual) quitting the goddamn drug, with heart-wrenching posts in social networks about it as an accompaniment. However, abstinence syndrome is no picnic; that is why the sufferer soon comes back to the family, not forgetting to post a fresh update on Facebook for everyone’s information.
A young padavan coming to tango holds a naïve belief that he’ll be taught various lifts, and future tangueras seriously think about investing into hours of stretching practice before gathering up the courage to come to tango. Sadly, the dreams about the sweet forbidden fruit are immediately destroyed, because “real” Argentine tango is only steps and turns in fully closed embrace (milonguero) or half-open one (salon). Leg-swishing and other works are only suitable for tango nuevo and tango fusion, which are despised by the aficionados of True Tango ™ as devoid of “primeval energy” and “deep meaning”. In their turn, those who opt for capering about call the dancing of traditionalists “crawling with eyes closed over the dance floor” (holy war detected!).
The padavan also believes he’ll dance to Piazzolla’s Libertango or at least to Sting’s Roxanne. And he’s wrong again! Warm and cozy “huggable” tango is to be danced exclusively to digitalized ancient records (1920s to 1940s only!). Creaky memories about great tango orchestras of the past are the best recipe to keep this crowd of bizarre intellectuals warm. The instruments used are piano, double bass, violin and bandoneon (not accordion, mind you). Everything written after 1950s is much too new and deeply despised. So you got it about Piazzolla, right? Those who just can’t get a hang of this music galore are pariahs not worth spitting on. That is why in CIS tango it is not really acceptable to dance to live music (excluding very few examples approved by local music gurus), because there’s no way these bands will play something at least resembling the work of past maîtres. As for dancing tango to non-tango music, it is equal to social suicide. All this is because post-Soviet dancers are the best in the world at understanding and preserving Argentinean traditions in tango, and
If You Got In Deep
So you started dancing tango. You are probably wondering how “real” tangueros and tangueras should pass their waking hours.
1) They go to tango lessons. Tango schools are now popping up all over because everyone who made it through two or three years of dancing already considers oneself fit for teaching. Moreover, with the right promotion you can ditch group lessons in favor of private classes, which is more efficient moneywise. Classes from foreign maestros (teachers) are also popular – the best ones are those imported directly from
2) They go to dancing events called milongas. As it is there that tangueros demonstrate what they have learned sweating in class (and we remember that one has to do a generous amount of sweating), no wonder that instead of pleasant pastime those parties transform into vanity fairs. If you want to be considered cool, you need to have ready a list of partners you always dance with, partners you dance with to certain music and partners you never dance with. It is for this reason that the so-called cabeceo (silent invitation via eye contact), though encouraged as “truly Argentinean”, doesn’t actually work in our environment as it cannot beat the list in one’s head. Another sore issue at the milongas is traffic, i.e. movement on the dance floor. If there are lots of dancers and they move chaotically, clashes and kicks with sharp heels are inevitable. There are certain rules of floorcraft, but tangueros overcome with passion often neglect those.
3) They travel to festivals and marathons. Except milongas, the festivals include classes from traveling maestros with their performances. Floorcraft and DJ-ing workshops, as well as performances of tango orchestras, are also possible. Marathons are attended by those who don’t care for all these bells and whistles and simply want to dance till they drop. That is why the value of a marathon is often expressed in the number of tango hours available.
4) A rather popular phenomenon in tango community is obsession with shoes, which must be either of a certain brand or a certain form. Those who dance in Latin dance shoes or regular shoes are despicable. At a later stage, despicable are those who only have one pair of shoes. This is true for both ladies and gentlemen.
5) However, the most favorite pastime of tangueros is online shitstorming. Mostly it happens on Facebook and sometimes on theme forums. The most widespread holy war topics are being soulful vs technical and Golden Age vs Nuevo. It is also good manners to gossip about the whole tango community and discuss where “the only true tango” lives (naturally, in
Except everything mentioned above, you can also get into DJ-ing, i.e. preparing music for milongas. In this case you are bound to participate in all holy wars about music and “feeling the dance floor”. The best DJ according to CIS criteria is the one playing the same tested and tried songs every time and never risking to experiment. This bore would definitely be called “soulful” and “feeling the dance floor”.
Those who still have time left learn Spanish (to understand the lyrics and realize with terror that not all of them tell about tragic love), do yoga and pilates (there are rumors this improves your tango) and attend a ton of suspicious seminars entitled “Contact Jam” or “Energy Transfer”, which have nothing whatsoever to do with tango but are considered places for acquiring secret knowledge never shared at regular classes.
And those who’ve got the cash travel to