Tango DJ Polaco

Cabeceo Club Hong Kong & Shenzhen

Losing “No” and Its Consequences

March 2, 2018
DJ Polaco

I started learning tango in Australia when ‘tango for export’, ie., tango outside of Argentina, was in its infancy. Internet was Web 1.0, used only by the more astute organisers to promote themselves. If things went wrong, or didn’t work, there was no Youtube videos to consult, or websites discussing the Codigos. When Web 2.0 came I was expecting that all of the problems would be solved simply by the fact that information will be flowing and people will be made aware of the pitfalls and problems through global online communication.

Alas, it was a false promise. All that global communication seems to bring is anonymous blogs reporting weekly milonga sorrow and lamenting the very same things that plagued us in the prehistoric era of Web 1.0. How is that possible, I started asking myself. There must be deeper reasons for the incessant frictions of what ought to be weekly Dionysian festivals yet often amount to little more than drab tangotainment limbo. My suspicions were confirmed by the fact that in most places people ‘know’ about the cabeceo and the codigos and yet it makes little difference.

Thus, Robin, my favourite source of introspective tango blues, writes about her experience of people ignoring her refusal of an invitation:

I am aware men experience their own version of this as well. Usually men who are experienced dancers lament that they have a hard time saying no to aggressive women. They can spend an entire night trying to get a dance in with women they choose. I am not attacking men. I am frustrated with myself for not knowing how to be efficent and respectful in getting out of this awkward situation when it happens. Even writing this last paragraph here to make sure I don’t offend anyone… guilt.  A premptive — I’m sorry.

keep-calm-and-just-say-noThis elicited a thought process that goes something like “What happens when we lose “No”?”. For what is “No”? “No” means a limitation: I want something but it is denied. When do we learn what “No” means? Well, we learn it when a rule is enforced, starting in childhood. Yet our society wants to eradicate the enforcement of rules, and hence the meaning of “No”, eg., on the grounds that we don’t want children to ‘feel bad’. Culture based on clear morality and meanings has been replaced by a ‘postmodern’ insistence on personal preference and flexible categories. The idea that rules should be enforced (other than through ‘social justice tribunals’ I guess) is increasingly associated with an oppressive and repressive ‘patriarchy’.

My thought process is that this creates a conceptual problem (a contradiction), namely, that you cannot really have a meaningful “No” without some sort of a hierarchy. For example, I accept the view that men exert control over each other in a way in which women cannot due to the fact that there is the possibility of physical violence. Traditionally men sorted out their differences, at least sometimes, by fighting. Men need to, at some stage, face the risk of physical violence from other men in order to have a palpable understanding of their boundaries. Also, men need to organise into hierarchies. So what that means is that if you project the idea that male aggression is essentially toxic, and that hierarchies are essentially bad, and also that women can compete with men, what seems to happen is that you invert the prior (I hesitate to say ‘normal’ or ‘natural’) order of things.

So I would argue that “No” intrinsically implies a hierarchy or a set of hierarchies. In a ‘patriarchal’ social system a man who harrasses women would be noticed by the other men and brought into line (by ‘patriarchal’ I mean the Western society prior to its current incarnation). In other words, ‘patriarchal’ men would keep track of things and feel a sense of responsibility for the women. There would be norms that are more or less actively enforced by these ‘toxic’ men. But if society decides that hierarchies are oppressive and everyone is equal, and should look after themselves, and that aggression and enforcement of rules is ‘toxic’ (unless its by social justice tribunals), and furthermore that women are competitive and independent, then it seems to me that the behaviour of both men and women will change in rather fundamental ways.

1344367645788_2313910‘Liberalism’ in the American sense means, if anything, a dislike of social limits, ie., of a firm “No”, so that fewer and fewer children get a chance to hear from their parents or teachers. Why then would we be surprised that “No” has no meaning in our society? Women tend to me more agreeable than men, and a firm “No” is inherently disagreeable. It is thus not a typically feminine or motherly trait.  Men and some women are aggressive, typically due to testosterone, and when social control is removed what you would expect is that the people who are most aggressive will actively pursue what they desire, now without any internalised sense of morality, ethics or an inner “No”. That is, there will always be people who are less agreeable, but now they face the much more flexible boundaries which are set by the public ideology of niceness and agreeableness, ie., the dominant ‘matriarchy’. I’m not saying that agreeableness is somehow a bad thing in itself, but rather, whether it can work as a dominant ideology.

So finally, the guilt one feels in complaining that rules are not followed is also a consequence of this. When there are no rules one is never sure whether one is doing something wrong. In a ‘liberal’ society everyone pursues their own individual goals and criticism and complaining is generally frowned upon and one is expected to ‘suck it up’ and ‘be happy’. My suggestion is that it is also pointless to complain unless one is willing to accept that ‘matriarchy’ doesn’t really work, and that contrary to the claims of some bogus anthropologists, there has never existed in human history a functioning matriarchal society, which is probably good evidence that it cannot in practice actually work. Sadly, all we can do is sit and watch this social experiment unfolding and see where it takes us, hoping that it’s not a total apocalyptic “Fall of Rome” style wipeout.

happy-birthday-sorry-its-so-close-to-the-impending-apocalypse-974bf-share-image-1484193801To summarise, (1) there really are no rules without enforcement (a priori, conceptual impossibility); (2) “No” has a meaning only in the context in which people believe that rules will be enforced; (3) traditionally men (ie., the ‘patriarchy’) have done the enforcing; and (4) without ‘patriarchy’ the meaning of the ‘matriarchal’ “No” becomes so vague as to be completely useless, as in, the child will be always pushing the boundaries and the mother will tend to yield. When the child is actually a grown adult only adults who are stronger or higher up in the hierarchy, and who are firm in their resolve, are in position to set a limit.

Finally, I would also argue that the aggressive people on the tango scene are self-selected, because except for young women and high status men (ie., the categories of people with a high sexual market value), people who are not aggressive don’t get dances and are more likely to drop out. High sexual market value people, ‘by definition’ as it were, don’t need to be aggressive to get dances. Again, one might argue that the fact that aggressiveness and sexual market value determine behaviour at tango events is a manifestation of cultural regress: we have substituted social control (‘toxic patriarchy’) for biological instinct (‘natural matriarchy’). Lets see where this takes us …


PS. An interesting discussion on the issue of patriarchy, ‘toxic musculinity’ and ‘playing by the rules’ by Jordan Peterson:

An Interactive Pedagogy for Tango

January 27, 2018
DJ Polaco

I have wanted to post and further elaborate on a comment I wrote on the blog Tango High and Low. This blog should be taken as advertised, ie., the reflective diary of a learner, which can bring up some interesting points for discussion. He writes:

How do we learn to dance tango? One approach, seemingly the most prevalent, relies on the use of group classes, where progress is arbitrarily defined by an instructor. Often, these classes begin with the so-called canonical elements of tango and move on to more complex movements. … Critically, what most of us lack are viable role models of social dancing. While we may follow the counsel of an instructor, that influence can be positive or negative. And outside of class, dancers often take their inspiration from performers. …

All of this—coupled with the inconsistency and narrow focus of the learning process, the lack of suitable role models, the absence of mentoring, the fact that learners are largely unguided, the presumed need for constant improvement—is compounded by the prevalence of the traveling show of performance and performers, with whom we are constantly encouraged to compare ourselves, even if implicitly. The result is a not-so-virtuous circle of perceived inadequacy, continuous study, and comparison with ideals that are not only impossible for most of us to achieve but not intended for the world of social dancing in the first place. Like the snake swallowing its tail, in the end, we consume ourselves as well as our desire.

This should give the flavor of the blog, ie., the typical attempts by an intermediate learner to try to make sense of it all, which is what a lot of these blogs amount to. You can feel the frustration, especially in the final sentence.

In education, especially my area of second or foreign language education, it is recognised that learning involves also learning to learn, ie., the ability to manage one’s own learning. Part of that includes learning to manage ones emotions, feelings and motivation, or broadly ‘affectivity’ in the learning process. Generally speaking, negative feeling or losing motivation is disastarous for learning and learners are deeply aware that their success or failure in the acquisition of a skill depends on keeping the spirits up and maintaining or increasing motivation levels.

This does not entail of course the sort of positive psychological approaches in which no one fails and everyone gets a trophy, because learners are also aware that lack of negative feedback is not a good thing, ie., that negative feedback is necessary if one is to make progress. Also, research consistently shows that if things are too easy and there is no challenge that is also bad for motivation. So being challenged and getting negative feedback about where one needs to improve is necessary for motivation and progress.

So in tango as in anything else role models provide a necessary way of providing or getting feedback, a point for comparison. The problem is to determing which role models are the right ones and the problem here is that the teachers fail in the task of providing appropriate role models. Now, this is a relative statement in which the key words are appropriate and fail. What is success or failure, appropriate or inappropriate depends on what your aims are.

And this is where I disagree with the idea that the progress is “arbitrarily defined by the instructor” in the above quote. Dancing teachers, and actually teachers in any other discipline, define their aims in terms of being able to effectively carry out a course of lessons. They do not generally define their aims in terms of so-called ‘outcomes’, and if they do this is little more than window dressing. This is because despite supposedly enormous advances in psychology and neuroscience no one, regardless of what you may have heard in the media, has figured out how learning actually happens or, more to the point, how to bring about learning.

Instead, what we have is the rule of thumb idea that learners are either required or want to learn X and that they have a set of beliefs about what the X subject consists in and that therefore it is best to teach what learners are expecting to learn. I was once a teaching assistant in a course which was advertised as “Informal Reasoning” which received an unexpected number of enrolments. I have never encountered a bigger number of disappointed students when they discovered by week 8 of the course that we’re not going much beyond boring Venn diagrams. Clearly, the majority of these students expected something else.

So teachers learn soon enough that it is best to provide what the students expect, and if the students eventually came to regret what they proverbially wished for, by that time the course is long gone and hopefully they have moved on and are too preoccupied to come back and take vengeance. This also tells us that people who become teachers are selected by the fact that they’re not so invested in the ultimate success of the students as to preclude them from teaching regardless whether the material is of use of not.

The working assumption in education is that the majority of the students will move onto something else, whereas those who persist will be so motivated as to ultimately figure it out for themselves. Some teachers try to provide some useful material that will aid on the path of those who are likely to pursue the interest, but actually it is so difficult to figure out who these students are, and the incentives for the teacher are so low that these teachers are relatively rare, and those who try to be ‘good teachers’ risk getting burned out.

So in the end, the truth of the matter is that while you might get something from some teachers you cannot rely on teachers for your learning and you need to take control of your learning yourself. But that does not mean that you don’t need role models, for you do, and this is where the difficulty arises, for learners by themselved get easily confused about what’s what. The problem is not lack of teachers but more a lack of reliable information. More to the point, the problem would not be teachers if learners could easily find reliable information on the internet. But they cannot, because the internet is littered with unreliable and confusing information, or information that is incomprehensible or just not useful from the point of view of learning. This is something that I am hoping to remedy.

Traditional and Non-traditional Methods of Teaching

The author of the blog writes:

In the past things were different. Young men (and it was largely restricted to men), often teenagers, were assisted by experienced dancers at prácticas and learned to follow before they were taught to lead. Christine Denniston provides a useful summary of this history in an article entitled “The Traditional Way to Learn to Dance Tango.” According to Denniston, beginners could learn to follow in about nine months and were not taught to lead until they had done so. The entire process (following and leading) took a minimum of three years, at which point they were allowed, under strict supervision, to dance with a woman at a milonga. What this afforded young dancers was (at least potentially) a role model or a mentor, a personal guide who could introduce the neophyte into the ways and manners of the dance, not just individual steps or movements but its music, customs, and codes.

In this context, I’ll define a role model as someone whose dancing and behavior we strive to emulate. This person could be a friend, a teacher, or simply a dancer at a local milonga. Ideally, they are someone we can look to for guidance or assistance. In terms of the history Denniston describes, it’s easy to see how a young man, as a fledgling dancer, might find a role model through his interaction with more experienced dancers in his community.

A mentor is someone quite different. Here, the relationship is direct, personal, and relatively long-term, and is focused on the practical application or refinement of previously acquired knowledge. Mentoring is common in education and business, where an experienced person works with a student or protégé to help develop a set of tools that will benefit them in the real world. It is not designed to provide theoretical knowledge but to build upon that knowledge by helping the student develop the means to solve real-world problems: how to interact with clients, how to become more efficient, how to refine the skills they have, and so on.

In contemporary tango, social tango, we lack both functional role models and mentoring. Neither of these is quite the same as working with a teacher during a series of private lessons, which is primarily a business relationship. So how, then, do we learn to dance in a way that allows us to integrate the inherited knowledge of the tribe in some meaningful way, and how do we continue to deepen and refine that knowledge over time?

It’s been said that we learn by doing, so, presumably, we learn to dance by dancing—in other words, through practice and repetition. While accurate in its broader implications, this truism overlooks the fact that we begin (most of us) from zero and need to acquire a minimum set of skills before we even hit the dance floor (whether such a precept is universally followed is a matter of dispute). Once those basic skills are acquired, we can begin to dance and even improve. Once we acquire them—which begs the question of how we get them in the first place.

There are several issues being raised here and I cannot address all of them here. The attainment of expertise in any area requires that one gets started in some way and then is given some instructions as to what to practice and how to response. The problem is that if those instructions are of the wrong sort then the lack of progress and failure will lead to negative feeling and ultimately to collapse of motivation. It is then an issue of pedagogy as to what sort of instruction facilitates progress and promotes moving to the next level and increase in motivation.

Phenomenological philosophers (eg., Maurice Merleau-Ponty) tell us that we are always striving to get a grip on things, and the fact is that if we are unable to do so we lose confidence and quit. Below is my reply to the blog post in which I outline what I consider to be an effective pedagogy based on traditional methods and how it differs from contemporary ‘studio’ approaches to dance pedagogy.

An Interactive Pedagogy for Tango

It is true that there are old and tried methods, and also that pedagogy evolves. The problem is that an analysis of what learners need to learn in order to progress efficiently is typically lacking in favour of providing what will keep them entertained and coming to class: choreography and technique. There is an overemphasis on movement, style and patterns at the expense of understanding the pragmatics of social dancing. In particular, it is rarely recognised that unlike choreographed dancing, social dancing is interactive. Recent analysis of the pragmatics of spoken conversation—two-way, interactive, synchronous—has shown that it is fundamentally different from the complex grammar and structure of composed language—typically written, asynchronous, one-directional. I think that’s a really good way to think about the problems with group lessons: students are copying role-models, composed choreography, visual style, etc. Learning and copying choreography and style is very much like the structured grammar of written, composed language.

Composed language has its advantages in that the grammar is more complex. However, in the context of language learning it can interfere with the development of interactive conversation skills which have pragmatic components that are absent in the composed language of the grammar or reading class. While choreography and practiced movement can lead to more complex, sophisticated, and enjoyable dancing, people who have no experience in the basic skills of social dancing end up unable to go beyond practicing choreography and technique. Therefore, I would suggest that it is important, from the start, to spend some time on practicing ‘conversation’.

This is the essence of the traditional tango pedagogy which we need to return to, that is, an interactive, synchronous, unchoreographed, immediate response to the music. When I say ‘unchoreographed’ I mean that the steps are minimal, say, walking and crossing. Having some interactive skills is essential to moving on to more complex tango ‘grammar’. Progressing on to more complex ‘patterns’ and ‘techniques’ is, however, complicated by tango demonstrations that supposedly provide a model, as it is not clear whether the choreography is applicable to social dancing, and typically it is not.

More complex dancing with ‘technique’, like more complex grammar, is generally good when it allows us to express a greater range of ideas or feelings, and as such requires ongoing improvement and study. However, the question is at what point does the dancing become merely ‘academico’ choreography or technique for its own sake, devoid of real feeling or meaning? I think everyone has, at some point, come across people whose conversation is really a sort of a lecture, ie., it’s not really a conversation. The product of most group dance lessons is this kind of weird non-interactive dancing.

I think that what needs to be communicated to the student is that the priority is interaction and communication of feeling, and technique should not be pursued for its own sake. But the reality is that most teachers are only ever really comfortable in the dancing studio and typically lack a way of teaching interactive dancing because they typically don’t practice it themselves, eg., they rarely if ever dance interactively with their students without focusing on technique or choreography. They don’t know how to teach through ‘pedagogical conversation’ because of the assumption that all teaching is the teaching of ‘grammar’, ie., choreography and technique. The question whether we should aim to be more skilled at complex dancing is a question of values, like the question whether reading literature is desirable. Generally speaking, the goal of teaching is getting better at something, so one can hardly blame teachers for promoting that. The problem, seems to me, is rather the bad ‘academico’ teaching that focuses on idealised, two-dimensional models.

Proposal: Pay Taxi Dancers, Not Teachers

An interactive pedagogy requires that you have someone interacting with you. Typically, learners practice with another student, but at some stage they discover that they want to dance with someone who is actually a competent dancer. This would typically require a ‘private lesson’. On this issue Bonnono writes:

Neither of these is quite the same as working with a teacher during a series of private lessons, which is primarily a business relationship.

I don’t see any problem with this being a business relationship, because I believe that if we want to have teachers basic principles of economics tell us that we need to provide incentives and that people ought to be rewarded for their effort. The problem is not that this is a business relationship but rather that learners do not know how to choose the teachers that provide what they feel would be value for money. In other words, the teachers who are rewarded and paid the most are not the ‘interactive’ teachers but rather the performers. So if people are uninformed and succumb to such obvious marketing techniques and fail to reward interactive teachers they have only themselves to blame.

975d34003eba38f391bff69ae132327eI think that to supplement the formal lessons there should be a market for taxi dancers, ie., people who are experienced dancers who are rewarded at a price acceptable to both parties for dancing with learners, or practicing with them at practicas. I saw something like this at a ballroom dancing studio in my city,  where paid partners were good dancers who ran through the moves. Also, there is a milonga in Manila, Philippines where all the men are taxi dancers. Interestingly I’ve never seen female taxi dancers, but I have seen a movie from the 1940s in which a woman was a taxi dancer (I think the first time I’ve been introduced to the concept).

This might be the only viable solution for learners in my view as I have found that it is almost impossible to find suitable practicing partners for learners and experienced dancers as well as teachers are usually unwilling to practice/dance (enough) with low level dancers, which leads to the demand for more classes, and I must agree with Bonnono that piling on more material without consolidating the basics through regular practice and dancing is actually a recipe for bad dancing and ultimately burnout, ie., loss of motivation.

I think advanced dancers feel that they are in effect providing practice to the learners who throw money at teachers, which leads the latter to use the former as practice horses for the newly acquired moves, and so on ad infinitum (or perhaps rather ad burnout). On the other hand, I believe that many tango teachers find that a lot of their time is spent being practice partners for their students, which eventually wears thin as it is not necessarily that enjoyable and can become a chore, and is not really covered by the lesson fee. Any economic exchange is a matter of the subjective value on the part of the buyer and the seller, and the problem is that those who purchase dance training do not factor in the cost of the practice, ie., the subjective value of providing practice on the part of the experienced dancer. So my suggestion is that if you are going to spend money on a workshop teaching, say adornments, perhaps a better investment of that money is to pay for a partner you think is a ‘good dancer’ to dance/practice with you.

Yes, this would be primarily a business relationship, but business is how things get provided and there is no reason why it should not be so utilised to deal with this problem. It would really be no different than paying a Spanish person to help you practice your Spanish conversation. If you care enough about is and find that it provides value then you will pay for it. Given how many times I hear or read about people trying to get dances and finding that it’s a Catch 22, ie., they need to be good to get dances but you need to dance to get good, I’d say that it should be seriously considered as an option.

Is Feeling Subjective and Can it be Learned?

November 5, 2017
DJ Polaco

One regularly comes across exhortations by Argentine traditionalists to heed the feeling in tango, as though some people have feeling and others don’t. But this raises several questions which seem to make the issue intractable for the typical tango student, namely:

  1. Are the feelings in tango objective or subjective? That is, are the feelings that one has in tango something that is personal, individual and unique to me, or is there an objective fact of the matter what I should feel, how I should respond? If feelings are merely subjective then you may feel something different from me, and there is no fact of the matter whether either of us has the right feeling. So, for example, you may find the flowers beautiful and I might find them repulsive, and in the end “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”;
  2. Are feelings learned? The question is whether feelings are spontenous, something that you simply have, or whether they can and should be taught? And then the question is, if they can and should be taught, how should they be learned/taught?

For the exhortation about feeling in Tango to be meaningful we must accept that

  1. There are objective feelings which are correct, that is, they are objective and universal, and not merely subjective or relative; and
  2. These feelings can and should be learned/taught, that is, people do not naturally or spontaneously feel the right way, otherwise exhortations about feelings would be unnecessary.

These positions go quite contrary to the contemporary Zeitgeist which prefers the idea that

  1. Feelings are personal and subjective such that what I feel is neither right nor wrong; and
  2. Feelings neither can nor should be learned/taught because feelings are spontaneous, something that you simply have naturally without any training, that you might at most either express or repress.

In other words, for the exhortation about feelings to make sense we have to assume that feelings are objective and in some way universal, but that nonetheless feelings do not emerge spontaneously but are a product of education or training. By contrast, contemporary Zeitgeist sees feelings as spontaneous but relative to the individual who has them and not subject to formative training of any sort.

In my research I have found two authors who hold the first position, namely, that feelings are in some way objective, and that they can and ought to be learned/taught.

C.S. Lewis on Sentiment and Debunking in Education

In The Abolition of Man C.S. Lewis offers a critique of a modern approach to English education in which the authors promote to debunking or critiquing traditional sentiments and feelings expressed in literature. He argues that such an approach leads to what he calls “Men without Chests”. Wikipedia summarises Lewis’s view thus:

Lewis begins with a critical response to “The Green Book”, by “Gaius and Titius”, i.e. The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, published in 1939 by Alexander (“Alec”) King and Martin Ketley. The Green Book was used as a text for upper form students in British schools.

Lewis criticizes the authors for subverting student values. He claims that they teach that all statements of value (such as “this waterfall is sublime”) are merely statements about the speaker’s feelings and say nothing about the object. Such a view, Lewis argues, makes nonsense of value talk. It implies, for example, that when a speaker condemns some act as contemptible, he or she is really saying: “I have contemptible feelings.” By denying that values are real or that sentiments can be reasonable, subjectivism saps moral motivation and robs people of the ability to respond emotionally to experiences of real goodness and real beauty in literature and in the world. Moreover, it is impossible, Lewis claims, to be a consistent moral subjectivist. Even the authors of The Green Book clearly believe that some things (such as improved student learning) are really good and desirable.

Lewis cites ancient thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle and Augustine, who believed that the purpose of education was to train children in “ordinate affections,” that is, to train them to like and dislike what they ought; to love the good and hate the bad. He says that although these values are universal, they do not develop automatically or inevitably in children (and so are not “natural” in that sense of the word), but must be taught through education. Those who lack them lack the specifically human element, the trunk that unites intellectual man with visceral (animal) man, and may be called “men without chests”.

Now we can see that this goes against contemporary Zeitgeist because the modern education system is the product of the likes of Gaius and Titius who promote “critical literacy” if there is any literacy at all. In fact, it is possible that the contemporary product of the obligatory 12 years of schooling is only semi-literate having been trained to perform in a white-collar office job. Such training over-develops the cerebral-regurgitative capacities together with the ability to conform to a cycle of 8 X 60 minute intervals and regular performance assessments that determine their ability to progress in schooling and subsequently to get a promotion in employment. If that sort of an education and mode of living does not produce “Men without Chests” I don’t know what does. The typical semi-literate degree-holder is, perhaps contrary to what would be expected, arguably the least cultured, and hence the least educated, members of humanity. As C.S. Lewis puts it:

Where the old [education] initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.

It is to their credit that Gaius and Titius embrace the first alternative. Propaganda is their abomination: not because their own philosophy gives a ground for condemning it (or anything else) but because they are better than their principles. They probably have some vague notion that valour and good faith and justice could be sufficiently commended to the pupil on what they would call ‘rational’ or ‘biological’ or ‘modern’ grounds, if it should ever become necessary. In the meantime, they leave the matter alone and get on with the business of debunking.

But this course, though less inhuman, is not less disastrous than the opposite alternative of cynical propaganda. Let us suppose for a moment that the harder virtues could really be theoretically justifed with no appeal to objective value. It still remains true that no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism (such as Gaius and Titius would wince at) about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use. We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. Indeed it would be strange if they were: a persevering devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other. It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the state- ment that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (C.S. Lewis “The Abolition of Man”)

In questioning and critiquing all traditional values and sentiments, modern ‘critical’ education requires that values be justified, with the result that such values are held merely intellectually with no actual emotional commitment that would be required for us to be able to say that we really believe in them and are therefore able to act on them. This is the post-modern condition and Zeitgeist in which we have choices but no real Chest-level commitments.

Kristin Linklater on Actor’s Training

C.S. Lewis provides us with the idea that feelings are objective and universal, but that they nonetheless need to be learned/taught. We can see that the discussion concerned literature and thus we must assume that the training involves the reading of literature which takes the feelings and sentiments at face value and does not seek to obliterate such feelings with some sort of a critical reading which debunks.

An area in which feelings and emotions need to be cultivated so as to be able to perform effectively is acting, and we find that the topic is discussed in Kristin Linklater’s book on voice training for actors Freeing the Natural Voice: Imagery and Art in the Practice of Voice and Language. Linklater focuses on vocal training but points out that a balanced development of the actor must also include the balanced development of other parts of the organism:

Perfect communication demands from the actor a balanced quartet of emotion, intellect, body, and voice. No one part can compensate with its strength for the weakness of another. The actor who plays Hamlet with his emotional instrument dominant but his voice and intellect underdeveloped will only communicate the generalized tone of Hamlet’s pain and agony. The audience will think, “He’s suffering a lot — but why?” The emotionally available actress who plays Ophelia may tap a vein of madness that is authentic, but without the voice and textual understanding to shed light onto the situation she will be dismissed by the audience as incidental to the story. In contrast with these emotionally driven performances are those of two actors in whom the thought process dominates their work: a too-powerful intellect can also unbalance the actor’s quartet. These actors intelligently argue the case for Hamlet and for Ophelia but fail to move their audience. They are bound to fail in fully communicating their characters if their emotions are not involved. A very athletic actor might dominate the quartet with his physical instrument: playing Henry V he might choose to do a back flip off the battlements and breathlessly launch into, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more / Or close the wall up with your English dead…” The audience will be transfixed by his physical prowess but pay no attention to what he is saying. Without intellect, voice, and emotion, physical energy is mere flashiness. Communication is skewed because the quartet is again unbalanced.

The same kind of imbalance happens when an actor’s voice is his strongest instrument: the audience may be moved by the sound and rhythm of his speech, but without physical embodiment, clear thought, and emotional truth that voice, despite its strength and beauty, is counter-productive to perfect communication.

The causal conductor of the actor’s quartet is the creative imagination, and the actor’s training must deliver to that conductor a voice, a body, intellect, and emotions that can serve the creative impulse without being distorted by personal habit. (Linklater, Freeing the Natural Voice)

What we find here as in C.S. Lewis is the idea that the human being comprises of parts which require development such that proper training must aim at a proper balance among them. Excessively intellectual (‘cerebral-regurgitative’) training will leave the body and the emotions underdeveloped (sadly, a very common situation these days). Alternatively, one might respond emotionally in the right way and yet lack physical strength or intellectual understanding which are still required in dancing. Lack of physical strength in people coming to tango is evidenced in ‘spaghetti limbs’. On the other hand, one may have the physical prowess and yet lack the ability to intellectually understand or emotionally connect to the material. Sadly, an inability to either think or feel is the norm among the leg-flinging tango masses.

So when people find the exhortation to attend to feeling in tango somewhat puzzling this may well be due to the contemporary Zeitgeist in which feelings and emotions are a foreign language that we have no idea how to get started on. Having been subjected to the stupefying 12-years of schooling in being cool, distanced, rational and conformist we have no idea how to approach the language of affect, feeling and emotion. We do of course respond emotionally, but these responses are vague, disordered, unshaped and inarticulate. More often, people view tango as a physical activity that requires physical training with little intellectual or emotional engagement at all. Regardless what style they dance, whether it’s traditional ‘milonguero’, salon or nuevo, it amounts to a DanceSport-like activity in practice.

So how can we set about correcting this situation and get started on acquiring the language of feelings that are objectively there in tango, that yet have to be learned? My proposal is to develop a habit of collecting and listening proper tango music—at home, on a good quality sound system, and using high definition FLAC files [1]— from the Golden Era (roughly 1935-1950). Regular focused listening to high quality tango music, as with classical music, allows us to develop a sense of the feelings that are expressed in the music that goes beyond the experience of music at a milonga venue, but that will translate to our experience of the music at tango events (perhaps for the worse if we find that we become better judges of the music).

While as Nietzsche believed music is the language of affect, the other universal mode of affective expression is poetry. The  lyrics of tango are its literature, its poetry. The language of poetry has throughout human history been the language of affect, the objectification of feeling that resists critical reading or debunking, and that speaks universally to all. Perhaps then developing our Chests in tango might be a better investment than anything a technique workshop can provide!

Few Words (1941)

I won’t even try to clear away
the ashes from yesterday,
that unforgettable yesterday
I just want to make you see
that even if you want to deny it,
there are loves you can’t erase.

After so long I’ve found you again
and I feel this emotion when I look at you:
I feel a crazy thumping
in my old heart
and at the end I’ve found you again.

Few words, old friend,
few words are better.
As you see, the world still turns
without our romantic union.

Few words about what came before,
let’s not talk anymore of love
of that love that has already past
but that still, still has not died.

Pocas palabras

No pretendo remover
la cenizas del ayer,
de ese ayer inolvidable—
solo quiero hacerte ver
que aunque no lo quieras creer
hay amores imborrables.

Después de tanto vuelvo a hallarte
y esta emoción siento al mirarte:
siento un loco palpitar
en mi viejo corazón
y es que al fin te vuelvo a hallar.

Pocas palabras, vieja amiga
pocas palabras es mejor.
Ya ves, el mundo sigue igual
sin nuestra unión sentimental.

Pocas palabras de lo de antes,
no conversemos más de amor—
de aquel amor que ya pasó
pero que aún, aún no murió.

Source: www.poesiagotan.com


[1] A great source of Golden Era music is TangoTunes (no affiliation). I strongly suggest purchasing the music in FLAC format (definitely not either MP3, ACC or AIFF as tango music suffers severely from all lossy formats) and using a high fidelity FLAC player such as Audirvana and a good quality DAC (Digital to Audio Converter) and good studio monitor speakers (eg., KRK VXT4 or 6) or a good amp-speaker set up. PA systems and most bluetooth speakers are not recommended because they accentuate the low frequencies (deep bass) which distorts tango music. Tango requires speakers with either a flat response or a strong response in the mid-range. KRK VXT are the best budget priced speakers that I have found that satisfy this requirement. There’s the added benefit that a single VXT6 is powerful enough for a small venue such as a small cafe and is fairly sturdy and portable being designed for professional studios.

The Trials of the Tango Addict

November 2, 2017
DJ Polaco

The modern Western tango addict is inevitably bound for frustration. Having uncovered an escape from the banality of contemporary technoculture he is now stuck, halfway as it were, unable to go over completely to the other side where he can dimly discern reliable relief from existential angst lying available. Suddenly he is thrown from emotionally deadening routine into the ecstacy of the embrace and passionate music, for which decades of stifled consumer existence have left him mentally unprepared. His mind is focused and he is more than willing to unload his wallet for which the local tango afficionado teacher is more than willing to oblige. Powering through obstacles of technique he firmly believes that relief is available just on the other side of the next workshop expertly conducted by the best couple from Buenos Aires. He tolerates the fact that so many best couples from Buenos Aires fly in with surprising regularity and that techniques offering total relief keep piling on with suprisingly very incremental benefits, but of course only for a time. Cynicism and trench mentality, though repressed so as not to offend, start creeping in, as the addict senses a depressing unreliability of satisfactory experiences which too often seem just out of reach. A variety of factors seem effective in blocking the desired spiritual highs: wrong music, lack of partners, skills, or manners, at which point the whole project appears to implode. If, at this point, the addict quits, he will have learned nothing about himself. For, unbeknowst to him, where he pursued the will-o’-the-wisp of exotic ecstacy, he has potentially embarked on a rather longer than expected, and probably also more arduous and less exciting, but nonetheless more fulfilling journey of self-discovery that has the possibility of yielding more enduring products.

A Critical History of Tango

October 25, 2017
DJ Polaco

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.

The Sound of Real Vintage Tango

August 25, 2017
DJ Polaco

Recently I’ve spent several weeks searching for the best tango sound. This meant many hours figuring out how to get high fidelity tango music. It took me back to the time when I was a young audiophile in my 20s. At that time people were moving from vinyl records to CDs. A budget priced audiophile hifi system comprised of a turntable, CD player, a tape deck, an amplifier (brands like Yamaha, NAD or Pioneer) and a pair of speakers (mine were Mordaunt Shorts).

These days you can find these items gathering dust in second hand hi-fi stores. The days of much of this equipment are well over because nowadays the primary source of music is the computer and this completely changes how we approach high fidelity music reproduction.


While some Tango audiophiles and DJs occasionally use records the simple fact is that most tango music is reproduced from a digital audio file.  So while we can still use a vintage amplifier and speakers on the output end, on the input end the source is the music player on your computer. That means that there are completely new sets of variables facing the tango DJ concerning the format of the music file, the software used to play the music, and the conversion of the music from digital to analogue form.

The first question concerns the format of the file. Computers play music differently from records or CDs because the equipment is different. Music in digital form has advantages in that it is possible to record more information than what is possible on record or CD. While CDs go up to 16bit/41kHz in resolution, computer audio files that can be 24bit/96kHz or more. So if the transfer from shellac or vinyl record is done properly then all of that information can be captured on a high resolution audio file.

The next decision concerns what music player software to use to reproduce the music in digital form. This includes the music player and additional filter software. The main problem with music reproduced on a computer is that, even when the audio player on the computer is ‘high fidelity’ the sound can be too ‘flat’ or lack some of the ‘warmth’ of music reproduced from records on analogue equipment such as tube amplifiers.


Original music reproduction equipment utilised tube amps which game the music a specific quality

The good news is that the digital format can actually help us to reproduce the beautiful vintage sound that would approximate the equipment at the time of the Golden Era of tango. EQ and Preamp filtering software actually allows us to reproduce the sound quality of vintage equipment such as tube amplifiers that were in use at the time when the music was originally recorded.

Once we have decided on the format of the music file, the audio player, and the EQ/Preamp filters that give us a desirable sound quality, the next stage is the digital-analogue converter. This turns the digital signal into an analogue form that can be received by the amplifier and then the speaker. Whereas two decades ago we had an assortment of input devices such as turntables, CD players and tape decks, this is now replaced by software on your computer and the DA converter.

So in terms of hardware, most of the investment then goes into the DA converter, amplifier and speakers. These can affect the quality of the sound significantly. However, if the source of the music in terms of the original audio file, the music player app and the filters does not deliver a quality sound, the output hardware is unlikely to improve it. Ideally, the great quality vintage sound is delivered to a capable amp/speaker combination that creates a beautiful vintage tango experience. Typically, the tango DJ has the most control over the early stages of the process, whereas the amplification and speaker part depends on the venue. However, it is rare that the venue equipment makes the most difference, whereas a poor source at the computer end is more often at fault.





August 4, 2017
DJ Polaco

Hard work being a Tango DJ … only the best Golden Era tango music!


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