You’ve probably seen what you believe to be Argentine tango on TV, lately in the UK’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or its US-manifestation, ‘Dancing with the Stars’. Perhaps even before that, in a stage show or a silent movie? (Remember the ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ where tango-dancing Rudolph Valentino is dressed like a gaucho – muy confusing.) Argentine cowboys did not dance the tango. This dance is urban, having developed in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Buenos Aires during the previous century.
You’ve probably ‘cor-blimeyed’ or ‘gee-whizzed’ at the intricacy of the footwork, at the high flying legs of the tanguera, at the dazzling lifts and drops. That is Fantasia, or show tango, and as the label implies, it is choreographed to be seen, to be admired, by an audience. However, it is not the social dance which less than one percent of the 14-million strong population of Buenos Aires devote themselves to perfecting.
This other tango, sometimes referred to as salon, is not choreographed, you will seldom see a lifted leg in it, and from an outsider’s point-of-view, there is little to applaud. Why then do people from all walks of life, from nations around the world give up their culture, career, home and sometimes even their non-tango dancing partners to move to Buenos Aires to immerse themselves in the restricted world of a milonguero, that is, someone whose life centres around attending milongas where this social form of tango is danced every night.
It’s not something easily explained in words, though there are many worthy books on the subject: Christine Denniston’s The Meaning of Tango , Beatriz Dujovne’s In a Stranger’s Arms, Julie Taylor’s Paper Tangos to name but a few. And then there are the tango movies you may have seen, Hollywood blockbusters like ‘Scent of a Woman’ in which Al Pacino makes a good stab at showing that tango is about feeling, not flashy moves.
Currently touring tango clubs around the UK, is a documentary called ‘Tango Your Life’, filmed, directed and produced by Chan Park, a tango devotee. In it he interviews milongueros, some of whom have been dancing for 70 years, about what it is they gain from the dance. They speak of embrace, of intimate emotional conversations with partners, sometimes complete strangers, which are eloquent but wordless. They relish sharing their emotions, accumulating satisfying moments while dancing. These will sustain them for the day or the week ahead. They say they leave the problems of daily living outside the room ‘on the other side of the curtain’. (Not for nothing a curtain, ‘cortina’, hangs across the threshold of traditional milonga venues in Buenos Aires.)
Without using Zen terminology they discuss the meditative state dancing tango can induce – an abdication of ego, a calmness in body and mind. Several times these dancers talk about tango making them feel better, or well, even ‘very, very well.’
For me, this takes tango into the realm of a healing ritual similar in some respects to those I’ve come to associate with aboriginal people like the San. I think that whenever a community comes together and individual members willingly surrender themselves to music, to a rhythm, a chant; when they are prepared to open themselves to an energy mutually generated and unstintingly shared, the result will be a feeling of well-being.
It is these echoes between tango and Zen, the latter a philosophy Korean-born Chan Park has been enthusiastic about for many years, which lead him to develop a methodology for teaching the feeling of tango.
He offers dancers of all levels, from absolute beginners to the more experienced, a suite of workshops designed to soothe, smooth and seduce them into surrendering to the power of this extraordinary dance. This seemingly simple counter-clockwise perambulation around a dance floor delivers human connection at an unobtrusive but profound level.
Again, I find an African echo here, this time in Ubuntu, an indigenous philosophy which Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, explains thus: ‘…Ubuntu speaks particularly about … our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity ….‘ (Ubuntu Women Institute USA. Retrieved 2011-04-20)
Recognising the precious but flawed humanity of one’s dance partner as being akin to one’s own, results in mutual respect and connectedness on the dance floor. This is the point of real tango. For me, it’s Ubuntu, meditation and healing ... in heels.