A Critical History of Tango

Some people argue that tango keeps evolving and that tradition is of merely historical interest. The underlying assumption is that the new developments are always for the better, that they are improvements. They don’t consider the possibility that the changes in tango are not necessarily improvements, but actually constitute a step backwards. This sort of progressive view of tango is ahistorical in assuming that things always move in the direction of improvement, so that whatever is in existence now is better than what was in existence at an earlier stage.

That such a Panglossian view is not the necessary one can be seen in many areas where so-called progress was discovered to be actually regress. One example that comes to mind is the case of margarine which was supposed to be superior to butter. which is full of bad satured fat. Subsequently margarine turned out to be vastly inferior, full of harmful transfats, whereas butter is back to being healthy, as saturated fats are no longer viewed as the main cause of heart disease.

Another example is the products of exercise science and technology whereby we are deluged with hi-tech exercise equipment such as treadmills, stationary bikes, step machines, running shoes, isolation resistance training machines, and crossfit programs, yet people spending large amounts of money on all this gear are hardly stronger or healthier than our ancestors who got strong simply by lifting heavy objects like large stones. Thus, it is acknowledged by those who do not have a vested interest in the bloated fitness industry that the best way to build a strong healthy body is to lift heavy barbells, eat a nutrient rich diet and get adequate sleep, which is the exact opposite of the high volume endurance training recommended to gym members who sweat it out with micro-dumbells and eat low fat yogurt.

Thus we can see that in many areas of life what was considered progress subsequently turns out to be regress and finding our way back to healthy and fulfilling living often involves wasting large emounts of time, not to mention money, on another new age, low fat, vegan, systainable yoga fad that only leaves us weaker, undernourished, out of balance, spaced out, anti-social and with a lighter wallet. Yet we continue to insist that we are able to assess the value of putative progress without reourse to tradition and history in the uncritical assumption that if it’s new, looks cool, and feels good then it’s probably better. But the problem is that traditional ways of doing things provided a sense of what works and is healthy and functional, and therefore provides a norm against which to evaluate any claimed improvement, but without which we have no norms for assessing these products of marketing and promotion. Yet as we can see from the case of margarine, actually it does not always mean better, and then the triumphalist, progressivist mindset and loss of historical knowledge of tradition is no longer available to help us assess the new adaptations.

One way in which social practices change is when there is a paradigm shift. That means that at an earlier stage certain aspects of the practice are considered central or important and others are considered marginal or secondary. A transformation in a social practice takes place when what was previously marginal to the practice becomes central and important, and what was previously central becomes marginal and secondary.

An example of a cultural transformation is the shift toward technological thinking in our culture. Technological or calculative thinking existed in pre-modern cultures, but it was not central. Pre-modern cultures were centred around religious paradigms, and calculative rationality did not occupy the central place that it currently does. However, with the success of science and technology these have attained a central place in modern society, whereas the older religious understanding became marginal. In order to evaluate this transformation we have to critically analyse the history of this tranformation and decide for ourselves rather than accepting it without question.

Tango is a special case of a paradigm shift in that what we see today is that performance tango and movement skills have come to occupy a central position in the current understanding of tango. Tango performance and movement skills did have a place at an earlier stage but they were not central to the practice of tango dancing. The paradigmatic features of tango at an earlier stage were crystallised in the codigos, the codes, which encapsulate the value of tango being things like inner feeling, responsiveness to music, proper manners and consideration for others, conviviality, etc. Things like dancing well, movement skills, dance show, dancing lessons and tango related events were there, but they did not occupy such a prominent place within the larger tango community. They were subordinate to the codigos and the traditional values. However, roughly between 1980 and 2000 the paradigm has shifted so that the codigos and the traditional values lost their importance, whereas movement skills, performances, dance lessons and various tango events came to overshadow the traditional tango practices.

Because the newcomers to tango do not have access to the historical tradition of tango but are presented with the established paradigm in an ahistorical way, they have no way of assessing its value. On the other hand, those who look at the new developments from knowledge of the tradition may respond in one of two ways. First, they may either see the continuities and just a change in emphasis which they may find acceptable. They may still prefer to dance at their local milonga the traditional way but they do not object to others doing tango in the new ways. Second, they may reject the paradigm shift as not an improvement but rather as a fad and a regression.

From the point of view of the new approach to tango practice the first response is viewed as a traditionalist doing things habitually and not wanting to change, but not being hostile either. The second reponse, on the other hand, is not viewed as an informed judgement, but rather as stubborn backwardness, hostility to progress and recalcitrance. In other words, “history is written by the victors”, and they view the previous approaches to tango as merely the stepping stones towards the current form which is viewed in Panglossian terms as the best possible world. The values important in the previous paradigm are therefore discarded as merely a historical curiosity, a way towards attaining the higher evolutionary level of tango.

When the new paradigm starts squeezing out the older approach this is not viewed as an intentional decision to ‘take over’ but rather is touted as inevitable course of progress or evolution. The older way of doing tango is necessarily viewed as inferior because, within this evolutionary conception of progress, it is the prior and simpler form. Because a paradigm shift means a shift in values, from the vantage point of the new tango and its new values the prior stage of tango merely represents a simpler, primitive and inferior way of dancing. That is, because the new paradigm values movement skills and stage dancing the older tango is of course going to appear inferior.

By the same token from the perspective of traditional practice and its values, the new paradigm is inferior. As a consequence, the situation created by a paradigm shift is that the two groups are destined to always to talk past each other. Given that the two ways of thinking are based on contradictory values, the paradigm shift cannot be achieved through some sort of argumentation, since we are dealing almost with completely different cultural mindsets, values, interests and categories. Therefore, rather than being a natural evolution and progression the attainment of a paradigm shift can only be achieved through intentional and persistent political action. In other words, pressure to effect a change of paradigms must be sustained because there is some benefit to those who advocate it.

For example, it is not inevitable that science replaces religion as the central cultural paradigm given that at least some people have found it possible to be religious and practice science, otherwise there would be no need for an ‘atheist movement’ and everyone would necessarily turn to atheism without the active squeezing out of religious teaching in government schools. The spread of atheism and scientism need to be advocated and therefore are not natural or rational but rather constitute a political movement.

Similarly, there must be some benefit for those actively advocating a paradigm shift in tango and the shedding of the learning of its history. A critical historical approach to the paradigm shift in tango therefore needs to look at who benefits from the paradigm shift, that is, for whom the earlier paradigm is inconvenient and therefore needs to be interpreted from the vantage point of the new paradigm as merely a more primitive and inferior way of dancing tango. Looking critically means not assuming that the new paradigm is not necessarily an improvement but may be either a disaster or else a mixture of improvements and regressions. A critical history of tango requires us to look closely at the history of tango, analyse closely the forms and values of the current and prior forms, in order to assess them. This assumes that there is no inevitability of the paradigm shift, but rather that those who are in some sort of power are pushing a particular version of that history from their own preferred vantage point.

Undertaking a critical history of tango means that we neither adopt the triumphalist perspective of the current ‘victors’ nor do we uncritically accept the validity of the values of the historical predecessors. A systematic critical history of tango requires that we look at the historical and current forms and analyse their respective values, in order to evaluate them and propose what directions are possible. This mean that we do not adopt an uncritical view of the tradition either in its current or previous forms. The benefit of such an analysis is that we circumvent the current situation of either uncritical traditionalism or ahistorical triumphalism which characterises the stalemate in tango. (It is possible that a critical history of tango could be a research discipline with its own online journal of some sort. This way the currently scattered critical analytic texts found around various blogs could be collected and organised in a more systematic and comprehensive way.)

The Current Impasse

A fundamental problem with cultural forms like tango is that they are not readily exportable. The tourism and cultural export industry depends on the possibility of extracting the value out of the cultural product of a community of people. Cultural products are the inheritance of a cultural group which have specific meanings for that group, and serve specific social-cohesive or affiliative functions. They have completely different meanings and functions for the touristic consumers of these cultural products, and usually these products need to be selected and adapted in some form in order to be marketable to ‘foreigners’. The problem is that understanding the meaning of these products requires significant effort in terms of learning about the cultural group’s language and customs, and this is not something that most tourists are willing to undertake. Instead, the typical cultural tourist wants to experience the local culture without the cost of having to assimilate to it. As a result, the meanings and categories associated with the cultural products remain opaque to the tourist who consumes the transient aesthetic experience for a set fee.

Herein lies the problem for those practitioners who complain about the contemporary developments in tango. They want an ‘authentic’ traditional tango. Whatever else this might mean, it is at least that they want a local cultural product that in its unaltered state, which as such is not easily consumable by outsiders. These adherents to traditional tango are either the local practitioners themselves, tourists who have had the luxury of regular travel, or even moving, to Buenos Aires, or who come from European cultures similar enough to allow them to eventually gain an understanding of the form given enough effort.

But those who do not fit into these categories (eg., people in North America or the Far East) whose cultures are quite different and who don’t have the luxury or willingness to travel to Buenos Aires, are left out of the charmed circle of cultural immersion and will necessarily remain as outsiders giving their own ethnocentric interpretations of the form. What they will do with tango will be deeply unsatisfactory to the purist traditionalists who ascribe a set of values incomprehensible to members of an outgroup, who nonetheless, for reasons of their own, want to pay to consume the products of tango. These will inevitably have to be altered to suit the needs and interests of the outgroup consumer, which will equally invitably will outrage the traditionalist insider who sees the adapted form as threatening his own cultural practice.

So the problem for the traditionalists who insist that all of these touristic forms are not ‘real’ tango is two-fold. First, the traditionalist operates with a set of culturally-relative categories that are penetrable only to the narrow segment of insiders, ethnics who participate in the practice and have constructed the categories that go with it. Whether these categories have any universal validity outside of their cultural context is one matter. A more immediate problem though is that, valid or not, they are generally incomprehensible to the outsiders who are not even in position to decide whether these are values that they would want to adopt. This need not be necessarily due to lack of flexibility and openness, but simply due to the fact that assimilation is very costly in terms of effort required and access to educational resoures such as teachers, which would be required even before one can decide whether tango is really worth it. In addition, assimilating to another culture, as with learning a new language to any degree of proficiency, usually require a fairly major shift in one’s personality, and if the local tango scene is not receptive to the traditional values anyway then there is really no payoff in making such a major transformation.

Advocates of traditional tango, looking from within the tradition, are in a catch-22 situation. They want to convince people that the traditional form is worthy of pursuit but are unable to communicate the value of the form to people who are not already capable of comprehending these values due to cultural differences. Their new tango adversaries, on the other hand, are marketers who adapt the form to the categories readily understood by the outsiders. Positioned within the tradition the traditionalists are unable to take the culturally particular or ethnocentric categories and render them universal enough to be communicable to people with radically different sets of categories to begin with. Sometimes it seems that traditionalists are unaware of the cultural specificity of their categories and their impenetrability to others. Sometimes they seem to be unable to deal with the problem, or are just uninterested.

But on the other hand it seems that, second, they are required to confront the issue because the derivative touristic tango is so successful at spreading that it is actually damaging the fragile cultural ecosystem that sustains traditional tango itself, threatening to make it completely extinct. Unless they are able to extricate the culturally specific values and render them comprehenible to at least some of the outsiders, they are unable to explain why the extinction of their preferred traditional form of tango is not merely a loss of a local sub-culture that has no wider global relevance. In that case, losing traditional tango might be of no greater consequence then the potential extinction of the San Marzano tomato. While tango might be a matter of identity, meaning, and social cohesiveness for Argentines, it is merely a form of touristic consumption for outsiders who will simply move on to the next Latin dancing fad.

So if the traditionalists are complaining about the impingement of non-traditional export tango that means that they need to find a way of articulating their values in such a that they are able to find a wider appeal beyond the inner circle of local ethnics. If farmers want to save the San Marzano tomato from extrinction they are going to have to find a new market for it, otherwise their business, no matter how high-minded they might be, will not be sustainable. Similarly, avoiding the issue of marketing and of rendering the local values appealing outside of the circle of knowing insiders, is not an option if the form is facing extinction due to the spread of forms that do successfully promote themselves and appeal to the needs of consumers. Whatever their local, social-cohesive values, cultural forms need to provide, and make comprehenible, enough value to enough people in order to be able to at least pay for themselves.

One strategy that is found among those traditionalists who do seem to care is to try to educate consumers of the new tango about the differences between the traditional form and the new form, presumably in the hope that once people’s awareness is raised they will be more informed in making choices. The hope is presumably that at least some people will prefer the authentic traditional tango, and that this will help to preserve the traditional form. The problem with this sort of approach is that it simply reiterates what certain folk do, and what meanings and values they ascribe to their practice, without explaining why other people should care about these practices and values. It assumes that once the values and categories are laid out people will see the point of doing things a particular way. But the categories (such as ‘feeling’ or ‘codes’) are not easily comprehensible by people from rather different cultural backgrounds, and so one typically needs a reason to take them seriously which needs to be more than simply that this is the traditional way of doing it. What traditionalists typically fail to comprehend is that whereas for insiders tradition requires no justification, for outsiders it does require a justification.

The American philosopher John Dewey pointed out that language has two aspects: a social-cohesive aspect, and an instrumental-utilitarian aspect. We use language for affiliation as well as to achieve specific utilitarian purposes, often at the same time. The same holds for cultural forms more generally. It can be said that the tango adapted for the purposes of touristic consumption, that is, adapted to certain sorts of niches such as workshops, performances, festivals, marathons, and comptitions is high on specific sorts of utility but low on meaning, cultural participation and social-cohesion which requires assmilation and understanding of the culture. Traditional tango is, on the other hand, high on social cohesion and meaning, but for that very reason is low on utilitarian marketability. The local farmer in Italy may want to preserve the local tradition in growing the San Marzano tomato, and this may be very satisfying and meaningful to them, but sadly the consumers who pay for it and therefore make farming it sustainable mainly care about its usefulness. The local meanings and traditions associated with it are at best secondary.

From this perspective we can see that virtually all of the development in tango over the past 20 or 30 years have been ways of adapting tango to make it consumable by a wider audience, and this has been so successful that it risks the extinction of the traditional form. In fact, it is possible to imagine that the extinction of the traditional form would be seen as as welcome development by those who want tango to attract more tourists and consumers from abroad. From their point of view, the traditional form is just a peculiar, curious and lesser form of the stage derivative forms that really pull in the crowds and provide ample material for consumer products. One can hardly blame the promoters of tango tourism for their specific purposes in the utilitarian use of tango. Clearly, tango can be used in these ways and so the question is whether there are reasons not to do so.

Dancer burnout

It is in the critique of the derivative marketed forms that we can begin to see how we may approach broadening the appeal of traditional tango. For what marks the derivative form is its inherent transience: the tango consumer is taken through a series of carefully choreographed consumable steps such as classes, workshops, events, performances, and marathons, in the belief that they are investing in something that is authentic and relatively permanent, only to find that once they’ve consumed the choreographed and managed events and the novelty aspect wears off, there is nothing there. The consumer tango scene is designed for students from beginner to proficient. After that you are thrown on a chaotic ‘milonga’ scene which exists only to (a) provide marketing opportunities in the form of people ‘dancing’ their moves, performances, etc.; and (b) provide practice for students of the local teachers. The function of milongas is fundamentally different in that they are not really for dancing but for either practicing or marketing, creating buzz and a pseudo-community. Regular experienced dancers are merely tolerated at such events.

Those who are at the end of the tango consumption conveyor belt feel that they’ve been duped and you have the syndrome of dancers who drop out altogether or at best attend a milonga a few times a year, whereas initially they would have been attending two classes a week, a milonga and all the workshops. Often the trip to Buenos Aires is the last desperate attempt at recovering the investment. One finds the phenomenon on these tango scenes whereby, even though the scene has been in existence for over a decade there are very few dancers who have more than 6 months experience and many have only 2 or 3 months experience. This seems to be more the case with women, as the female population on these scenes seems to be highly transient, with many going crazy about tango only to drop out a few months later. This is not unique to tango and one finds the same in Salsa and other dances.

It is these sorts of observations that lead some to reflect on the meaning of tango and its deeper values. One starts to question the necessity of complex steps and figures, a lot of the technical information, starts looking critically at the music played, and the problems of getting satisfactory dances, in other words, all the things that are outside the scope of the typical consumer tango education. What becomes obvious is that just as the business model of gyms is about getting your membership fees and NOT about you actually using the gym, tango classses are about you spending money on tango products such as classes, events, performances, workshops and marathons, NOT about you actually dancing it. Moreover, all the steps and technique that gets thrown at you, far from making you a better dancer, lead to dancer burnout whereby the highs and lows associated with tango lead to some emotional upset. I’m not saying that the teachers and organisers intentionally teach in a way that causes people to burn out. What I am saying is that given their business model people burning out is about as problematic to them as the gym member who is out of shape despite spending hours on the purple treadmill is problematic to the gym owner: they don’t lose any sleep over it because you actually dancing tango outside of the pay-as-you-go class, workshop, event, performance or marathon is not in their business model.

Now, some may argue that it would benefit the teacher to retain more of their students so that they attend their events, but the fact is that in the case of all dance studios and classes the business model is not built around repeat customers but rather high levels of turnover with heavy reliance on marketing, buzz and novelty. That means that classes need to provide a lot of variety in the form of a lot of cool and exciting steps that have a strong visual appeal, such that the consumer feels that they are moving along a linear progression of steps with little repetition or practice, preferably learning a variety of dances, and also a good amount of technique. Notice that the primary orientation of this type of business model is to minimise boredom and repetition, and to maximise variety and novely. This is precisely the same strategy one finds in your modern gym which emphases activity and variety. It is precisely the opposite of what woud be required to learn something well and actually make real progress whether in physical training, learning a language or a musical instrument, which requires a lot of repetition and focus, which for the typical consumer is ‘boring’.

So this already points in the direction of certain corrections: (a) a business model that is actually predicated on having people actually stick to dancing tango in the long run, which means (b) teaching in such a way that avoids dancer burnout, but that also means that (c) the people teaching and organising need to have actual expertise and (d) the path will be linear, repetitive and therefore boring. What the traditionalist has is a way of teaching and practicing tango that is sustainable, that is, it is proven that people continue to dance regularly without burning out due to excess of non-functional marketing ‘stuff’. These are at least two utilitarian values that are universalisable beyond the local values of the insiders. The traditionalists achieve this feat, apparently, through simplifying the dance and careful curation of music. You need both. If the dance is simplified but the music is not appropriate then the dancer risks burnout. Tango music that is too demanding or inappropirate for social dancing will not be pleasant and the dancer will experience negative feelings. On the other hand, if the dancer uses complex and difficult choregoraphy and technique, this will lead to fatigue and negative feelings even if the music is carefully curated.

The concept of avoiding dancer burnout can be taken further, namely, to codigos. The concept of codigos has been transformed to that of mere ‘etiquette’. Etiquette strictly speaking means culturally relative rules of behaviour that are relatively trivial but allow one to avoid social faux pas such as using the wrong sort of knife when eating fish. As such etiquette connotes rules that are excessively formalistic, culturally relative and trivial. Etiquette here should be contrasted with manners, which implies more than mere rules of behaviour and connotes care and consideration for other people. Codigos are misunderstood by outsiders when they are viewed as mere etiquette, and need to be understood as manners, as expression of care. Codigos should be viewed as the essential means of avoiding causing others discomfort, loss of pleasure, and likelihood of dancer burnout. It is in fact part of the adaptation of tango for overseas consumption that codigos are translated as mere etiquette which is merely optional rather than essential. Understanding codigos as essential then seems like mere preference for stale tradition, a local value that has no application outside the ethnic subculture. However, if we view the matter from the point of view of dancer burnout, we can see that codigos serve an important utilitarian function in sustaining our dance practice.

Non-Traditional Niches and Traditional Values

One question then is whether traditional tango is a specific niche or context with its own values and the new tango is a set of separate niches with their own value. This is certainly one way to look at the situation, namely, that there are different niches in which different rules apply such that the tango dancing, the music, etc. is adapted to that specific sort of niche. This approach is proposed by Tangovoice, who argues against the ‘one tango’ philosophy. The view proposed by Tangovoice is that people need to be able to differentiate between the different sorts of tango, adapted to their specific niches, and then once they are able to see the differences they’ll be able to make an informed judgements. This type of stance is a sort of cultural relativism, and it assumes that the problem is with the ‘one tango’ philosophy which confuses people, and that once people become aware or conscious of the differences they will be able to make an informed choice.

The problem with this type of culturally relativist position is that is simply describes what people do without looking at why they do it. Telling people descriptively that there are these different sorts of tango adapted to these different sorts of niches is not going to motivate people to choose one way or the other without giving them some reasons. Generally, people will opt for what is available, accessible, easy, and exciting. The problem for traditional tango is that it is none of these. Telling someone how traditional tango is done is not going to necessarily motivate them to engage in the activity of learning it unless they have a reason to do so. Again, traditionalists like Tangovoice seem to be unaware that people might not see the reasons or be able to understand the values inherent in traditional tango. If they do, it seems that they accept the touristic raison d’être, namely, that people will opt for the traditional form because it is authentic and they have the luxury to purchase it through trips to Buenos Aires. By contrast, when it comes to actually organising traditional tango and teaching people to appreciate it, one needs to expend considerable effort both on the teacher and student part, and then one needs a better reason then merely that this is the ‘real’ tango whereas the other forms are merely niche adaptations.

So the relativist view uncritically accepts the different forms as mere adaptations to particular conditions or niches, and so refuses to critically analyse the values and render them explicit. It simply assumes that these are the values, interests or purposes that these people have, and that you will choose to participat in one form or another if you happen to share one or another set of values and interests. There is no effort, or possibility of effort, to provide reasons that go beyond the interests of the group. You either belong or you don’t. If you don’t share the interests or values of the tango traditionalist then can and should do something else, like the new consumer tango, so long as you do not commit the crime of promoting the idea that what you’re doing is the ‘real’ ‘authentic’ thing. One sometimes perceives in the discussion on Tangovoice’s blog the belief that only Argentines and a select group of friends, initiated into the practice through direct contact with the traditionalists, can do ‘real’ ‘authentic’ tango. The view, usually expressed with thinly veiled condescension, is that those who do not belong to this select ingroup are welcome, are indeed destined, to partake in the corrupted consumer tango (see eg., comments by the discussant “Chris”).

Again, if we ask ‘who benefits’ one might be drawn to the idea that Argentine traditionalists have a vested interest in rendering tradtional tango mysterious, whereby traditional tango is what traditional Argentine milongueros do (and thus thereby consecrate as the ‘real thing’) and then stop inquiry at that point. Digging deeper into the matter might reveal that what they do is not at all specific to Argentines but rather has a more universal application that would then allow for the unconscionable crime of ‘cultural appropriation’ to take place. In order to prevent this crime there must be a mystique built around what the ‘milongueros’ do and a sort of cultish or quasi-religious reverence that one sees in certain sorts of discussions. Interestingly most of this sort of discourse moves in the direction of building up images of revered milongueros which at least on the surface. goes counter to the stated value that tango is not about the image or about how people look when they dance. Thus traditionalists fall into the trap that they ascribe to their opponents of being visual and sanctifying the image of the dancer, that is, the traditionalist starts to worship the image of the dancer which is a sin he ascribes to the performer-innovator.

Art and Therapy

One sort of attempt to extricate a rationale behind the traditional approach is the idea that tango is a sort of emotional therapy. Thus, in Argentina tango is recommended by therapists while elsewhere various somatic therapists point to evidence that dance and movement to music is therapeutic and beneficial. Thus, whereas in the new consumer tango the form is viewed as a form of entertainment, distraction or socialising, in the therapeutic model it is conceived as continuous with forms of explicitly therapeutic dance such as Biodanza, 5-Rhythms and perhaps Contact Improvisation.

These New Age therapeutic forms are, however, distinctly dissimilar to traditional tango in several ways. First, they value improvisation, self-expression and devalue structure or skills. They are Dionysian in emphasising impulse, emotion and instinct and view the orderliness and rules associated with tango as subordinate to self-expression. As a result, the therapeutic model does not clearly justify preferring traditional tango over some new form of it, even though the Western proponents of tango as therapy might view the new consumer tango with equal level of distaste as the traditionalist. In valuing self-expression New Age therapeutics is ambivalent about tradition while accepting the cultural relativism of some traditionalists.

The problem for the tango therapist is that traditionalism sounds like the very contradiction of Dionysian impulsiveness and New Age therapy in emphasising restraint, discipline and order, apparently for its own sake. The tension between impulsiveness and emotionality on the one hand, and order and reason on the other, can be found in the tension between Dionysian and Apollonian aspects of art and music that was famously discussed by Friedrich Nietzsche:

Apollo and Dionysus were gods in ancient Creek religion.  More to the point, the were both gods in the Ancient Greek pantheon, despite representing nearly opposing values and orientations. Apollo was the god of light, reason, harmony, balance and prophesy, while Dionysus was the god of wine, revelry, ecstatic emotion and tragedy.

“Apollonian” and “Dionysian” are terms used by Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy to designate the two central principles in Greek culture. Nietzsche characterizes the differences this way: The Apollonian = analytic distinctions. All types of form or structure are Apollonian, thus, sculpture is the most Apollonian of the arts, since it relies entirely on form for its effect. Rational thought is also Apollonian since it is structured and makes distinctions. The Dionysian = inability or unwillingness to make these distinctions; directly opposed to the Apollonian. Drunkenness and madness are Dionysian All forms of enthusiasm and ecstasy are Dionysian.  Music is the most Dionysian of the arts, since it appeals directly to man’s instinctive, chaotic emotions and not to his formally reasoning mind.

Nietzsche, held that the Dionysian resulted from the absence of the Apollonian (and not the other way around) so in a sense the Apollonian held a kind of primacy.  Indeed the Greeks themselves held that Apollo was the superior God. … Nevertheless. Apollo and Dionysus were brothers (sons of Zeus), each was Divine, and curiously each was a musician—Apollo the Lyre and Dionysus the Flute. … Nietzsche sees the Dionysian consciousness as crucial to artistic creation. Source: Apollonian/Dionysian Dichotomy

Dance therapy aim for Dionysian values in advocating the letting go of inhibitions and repressions, and promoting self-expression through dance. Such therapies have become popular since the 1960’s Cultural Revolution and are distinctly a part of the hippie counter-culture which 50 year later is successfully displacing traditional conservative values and Christian religion from the mainstream and replacing them with Eastern practices such as yoga, meditation and Eastern spirituality and with Freudian psychoanalysis-derived therapies. The problem is that given the widespread promotion of hippie and therapeutic values including in institutions of higher education, where classical ballet has been replaced with dance improvisation and somatic practices, we would expect that by now this would be the norm throughout the whole of society. Instead, it has become a sort of elite practice of the educated bourgeoisie that is advocated as a new form of enlightenment and marker of education and enculturation.

Another problem with new age therapeutics vis-a-vis traditional tango is that they explicitly reject overt signs of musculinity as abhorrently toxic domination of women. Expression is encouraged so long as its not an expression of musculinity in men and femininity in women. Therapeutically conditioned tango dance practice by emasculated men and empowered women could be characterised as the cart pulling the horse whereby the man’s job is to let the woman express herself, or at best is has an egalitarian character where the couple expressively dance around each other.

Again, this might appear as merely different from traditional tango, a specific “niche adaptation”, but the differences might be much deeper than that. For the therapeutic-expressive mode of dancing is distinctly somatic as it evidenced by the flexibility in the type of music that is potentially danced to. In other words, the music takes a back stage, merely being the background occasion for self-expression. This is not to say that traditional tango is not an expression of the music through movement, but rather that the new tango is far more somatic in orientation. It is a continuum and the two forms, over and above being merely different and niche, are wide apart on the Dionysian-Apollonic dichotomy.

So perhaps we need to look at music and specifically how our tastes in music have changed. A lot of the discussion about traditional vs. non-traditional tango seems to view music as one aspect among several that also include the style of dancing and the codigos. However, it might be argued that it is in fact music that determines everything else. While some might view traditional tango as serving the requirements of therapy, the fact ramains that expressive and Dionysian dance forms use simplified and less intellectual forms of music. By contrast, classical music is distinctly intellectual, orderly and Apollonian in character and serves more spiritual satisfaction rather than eliciting somatic self-expression.

The problem with the Freudian-Reichian expressivist-therapeutic point of view is precisely the problem of transience, namely, that feelings are transient and disorderly, and it has been the function first of religion and more recently of art to idealise and spiritualise feeling. But this process of idealisation and spiritualisation requires not expression but rather restraint, order and discipline. Here once again we return to the idea that people are drawn to self-expression because it is easy, accessible and exciting, but in being so it is also equally transient, whereas the alterantive is difficult and, for certain type of person, boring because it requires a lot of repetition and focus. However, the result is correspondingly more permanent.

Thus, whereas high culture has produced works which have cultural permanence, 20th century culture is a kaleidoscope of impermanent collages in which the contemporary ‘artist’ expresses himself only to become boring and passé soon after. Postmodern art and contemporary music is little more than an endless string of curiosities and distractions that occupies our attention only to move on to the next thing. This is in stark contrast to, say, the sense of deep quasi-religious involvement reported by Pablo Casals and his relationship with J.S. Bach’s Suites for the Solo Cello. The unfortunate reality is that contemporary art is an impoverished form that is simplified, expressive and impermanent, and that in stark contrast to high European culture, fails in the task of fufilling the human soul precisely because it rails against restraint and order, and in doing so deals with a series of transient, temporary, impermanent feelings and expressions that in the end never fail to bore, disappoint and exhaust.

I’m not saying that Somatics has no place in relation to tango dancing because it does. For if we look at the history of Somatics, before it became corrupted through its entaglement with expressivism, Reichian sex therapy and perhaps even the Feldenkrais Method, the discipline was birthed by the Alexander Technique which is now established in the training of classical musicians. Far from being a form of expressive therapy, or even a more ‘easy movement’ of the Feldenkrais Method, the Alexander Technique treats the body as an instrument that requires some focused, repetitive training. While Feldenkrais Method retained the focused practice aspect, it takes Somatics in the direction of ‘easy’ movement that is not always applicable and that on some interpretation encourages the sort of developmental movement practices that one sees in dance improvisation where all structure goes out the window as being too ‘rigid’ and ‘repressive’. I mean, if one wishes to engage in Japanese Butoh good for them, the problem is when this is presented as some sort of a norm for Western art and culture.

And this is really the source of the problem, namely, that the so-called artistic or intellectual elites in the West are tripping over themselves to reject and reconstruct Western values and to replace them with something else, like Reichian sex therapy, Japanese Butoh, Indian spiritualism, etc., the more exotic, libertine and self-expressive the better. They are following Nietzche’s call for the revaluation of all values, and so they do with everything. These ideas are by no means new, in that they’ve been around at least since the 19th century. The point is rather that they have now attained the status of mainstream creed such that Western culture, if it is to have any value at all, needs to be justified by neuroscience (see Roger Scruton on this). As it turns out, classical music is also great for growing your plants!

So we can view the issue in terms of the the choice: we can view tango as music as spiritualised or idealised feeling with a somatic element; or we can view tango as a somatic, expressive body in need of ‘therapy’, with a musical element. Music as spiritualised and idealised feeling both necessitates and provides structure and permanence because that is its basic function. Somatics, while they function to release certain organic, animalistic tension, fail in the task of providing spiritual transcendence, elevation and fulfilment. From this philosophical perspective we can see that certain types of traditional tango require restraint, order, focused practice, repetition and attention to music. On the other hand, certain other approaches to tango are more somatic and expressive in orientation and rather than internalising the spiritual aspects of the music view them as stimulus to impulsive self-expression.


2 thoughts on “A Critical History of Tango”

  1. This essay, while written in a sophisticated form, does capture well the difficulties of a tango student outside of BsAs. The essay also reflects a tragedy of a professional tango teacher.

    Here are some random observations, which might be part of solution for ‘sustainable tango’ culture:

    1. Beginner students must be encouraged to go and watch at milongas. Only to watch, not to dance. Even going to and spending an evening at a good milonga is a positive experience. Perhaps, local milonga should be the place for a student to select a teacher.

    2. Tango teachers who do not dance at local milongas should have zero credibility with students. Students must be encouraged to go and watch at a milonga, if only for the purpose of assessing the skill of their teacher.

    3. Interestingly, some very fine BsAs milongueros are not very good teachers. They do not seem to comprehend the value of fundamental skill they posses and fall back to teaching steps.

    4. Is profession of a tango teacher viable? I can see how amateur tango teachers can exist, but professional? Not so sure. It appears that sustainable tango requires a lot of home work from student and only occasional checkups with a teacher.

    5. Milonga organizers are best positioned to promote ‘sustainable tango’.

    6. A central moderated resource similar to that of “Tango and Chaos in Buenos Aires” would be very valuable to any ‘sustainable tango’ student.

    Thank you for the insights!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. The critical project is ongoing and perhaps I should summarise the key points I make:

      (i) The advantage of traditional tango is avoding dancer burnout by carefully curating the music and simplifying the dance. Notice that in this analysis I’m not being prescriptive about how people dance or what music they dance to, but rather that pedagogically traditional approach to tango aims for simplicity, which basically means walking. This will be ‘boring’ and so unacceptable to most teachers and students. But the fact remains that it is the best way to approach tango on my analysis. But walking to the wrong music is not going to work, so the music needs to be appropriately curated.

      (ii) Whereas historically Western culture has aimed at spiritualisation through music, Western culture has become ‘somaticised’ through European body culture, Reichian therapy and Eastern practices such as yoga. So whereas the traditional Western culture would approach tango as ‘feeling spiritualised’ in music with a somatic element, contemporary Western culture views music as mere stimulus to somatic expression. The understanding of music has fundamentally changed in Western culture so that we have effectively lost the ability to listen and instead just want to move and express. This is even more extreme with Asians who somaticise all their problems.

      So now let me explain how my perspective affects your suggestions:

      1. Going to milongas would only be useful if the DJ plays a traditional tango set in order to listen to quality traditional tango music. The problem is: how is the student to know if the DJ set is correct, or that the sound quality is correct? It is not easy to find a milonga outside of Buenos Aires that plays a proper traditional tango set on a suitable system that is not too loud, distorted, etc. Moreover, if people are not walking and are instead doing dance-class moves this will give the student the wrong idea. Therefore, it is better to watch videos of traditional milongas in BAs, to select and purchase traditional tango music online from TangoTunes, and set up a decent hifi at home with studio monitor speakers.

      2. Students are unable to assess the dancing ability of their teachers because students don’t know what tango is supposed to look like. They will be impressed by the teacher with the best ‘moves’, but that is a mistake. Just as you have to learn to listen, you have to learn to see. It is better that a teacher starts off teaching for free and builds their reputation, and then gets students through word of mouth.

      3. Milongueros generally cannot automatically teach tango any more than English speakers can automatically teach English. Teaching is a separate set of skills.

      4. My analysis specifies that the function of a teacher of traditional tango is to curate the music and to simplify the steps, that is, to set up the program so that the student is comfortable just walking alone and with partner to the music. This will be ‘boring’ to the majority of people, but a good teacher should be able to show progress to a student who has the patience. I suggest that the teacher should get the student to read Thomas Sterner’s “The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life — Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process”. Also, apart from walking, the teacher should provide quality music set with a good sound system, ie., a studio monitor speaker rather than PA speakers normally used, to teach students to listen to quality Golden Era music.

      5. Sustainable tango means tango teaching and events that do not burn out the student by loading them with steps, techniques and playing music which is excessively demanding. Given that DJs at most milongas are clueless, a traditional approach to teaching and organising needs to be done from scratch and not rely on any existing organisers. The teacher should run his own practica so that the learner can practice for at least a year before attending any outside milongas, or better still, just teach at his practica where he plays a curated DJ set specifically for students that is not overly demanding on his own sound system. In other words, the focus should be on providing quality set, quality sound, walking and embrace.

      6. Tango and Chaos website is very useful for advanced dancers and teachers, but it is written from the point of view of the traditionalist paradigm that I critique as ‘insider’, that is, it talks about ‘what’ they do in Buenos Aires, but does not focus on ‘why’ they do it, and so it is not a good resource because most students would be confused and pepper the teacher with irrelevant questions. Instead, again, I would suggest that students start off by reading The Practicing Mind which will provide them with an accessible and easy to understand introduction to the proper mindset to learning anything, especially tango. Most people find mindful practice extremely challenging but a teacher who takes on such people will have to keep them entertained by piling on material. Students who have the patience should focus on walking, the embrace, and listening to proper music for at least a year. To reiterate, this will be boring for the majority of people and I don’t expect many people to follow such a program which is why I recommend working outside of the established tango scene in a typical Western city because most people on these scenes are too scattered and wll confuse your students.

      I suggest that you don’t have to be very advanced as a dancer to start teaching according to this system because if you are able learn to curate the music, get students who are willing to practice mindfully, and know the proper embrace, your dancing ‘skills’ are actually not that relevant. Since most people focus on dancing skills they’re going in the opposite direction.


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