Saturday, July 9, 2011

Argentine Tango - The Bottom Up Dance

What do I mean by "bottom up" dance?  The world of dance is divided into two different camps as I see it; bottom up and top down.
The top down dances are the majority of dances, where there is a group of educated, "experts" who dictate to the masses how they should dance.  When you dance ballroom, there is a specified, codified way to do every step.  "Experts" tell you how you have to look, move and smile.  Every couple must strive to look like the standard that the experts have decreed as being correct. If you execute your steps correctly you can win a trophy, and if you are very good, you become the standard on how everyone else is supposed to look and dance.  For many people this is great thing, and gives them something to work towards, as well as the satisfaction of accomplishment.  And whatever gets people out dancing is a good thing.  It just does not work for me.
The reason I fell in love with the Argentine Tango is that of all the social dances it is the most creative and personal dance.  While there are certain elements that are necessary for the effective movement of two bodies together, the Argentine Tango is the dance that allows individual couples to develop their own unique dance that suits their personalities and bodies.  Lets' take body styles.
I have taken classes with some teachers who are young,short and powerful and they move with great speed and precision that takes my breath away.  As much as I like their dancing, it does not work for my body, training and personality.   As I am taller, I am more comfortable dancing a smooth, lyrical style of dance that is more flowing and relaxed.  Even when I do dance in a style that is counter to my preferred style, I do not feel at home with it, and therefore do not enjoy it as much.  Also along the lines of body types, there is no one tango embrace.  How can a tall slender couple with long limbs have the same embrace as a short, stocky couple?  They cannot and should not try, and that does not mean that they cannot have a fulfilling and enjoyable dance experience. Tango is a dance where the dancers find their satisfaction in connecting with another person and the music, and when it comes together they find "tango moments" which keep them coming back for more.  It is not about winning awards or defeating other competitors or applause, but about finding a connection with another person and sharing a physical, musical experience.  More of a Zen type experience. 
Many years ago I taught for some Fred Astaire studios and learned much of their syllabus.  I worked at another Fred Astaire studio for a short time a couple of years ago and noticed the syllabus had made many changes.  Apparently the experts had decided to update steps and add patterns so all the students would have new things to work on.  That is how things change in the ballroom world.  Top down.
In the world of Argentine tango, the change comes from the dancers themselves.  You think you know Argentine tango, and then you go to a show or milonga and see people doing something you have never seen before.  They are doing similar steps, but have taken them in a whole new direction.  In fact, the history of tango is pretty much one of a constantly evolving dance and music.  From the early period of rhythmic street dancing in the barrios that evolved into the salon style of dance that has evolved into "Nuevo" style tango.  The changes come from the dancers to suit changing music and fashions.  This is what makes Argentine Tango an art form; it is always changing, evolving and morphing into something new.  The traditional does not go away, it is simply added to.  Any art must allow the artist the freedom to create what they feel and let the public decide if it is good.  Unfortunately, there are always those who want to stifle creativity and become the arbiters of what is good and  "correct".  People who want to be those at the "Top" to make the decisions (and money) on how we should dance tango.  It was done once to tango, and now there are those trying to do it again.
In the early twentieth century some Argentine dancers found their way to Europe and their dance was embraced in the salons of the fashionable.  It was made even more popular when Rudolf Valentino danced it in a couple of his movies.  It was then hijacked by "experts" who codified it, turned it into a competition event and decided how everyone should dance it, and it is now the ballroom tango that we see in the competitions.
We have the same thing going on in the Argentine tango world now.  Some people have come out with videos for bronze, silver and gold syllabus' so that we now can memorize steps and compete for trophies and acclaim for being the best tango dancer, as ordained by the experts.  It seems to me that this is anathema to what Argentine tango is about.  When someone tells me how I have to dance, what I cannot do, or what music is acceptable or not, I just shake my head.  And trust me, you will have people telling these things. Beware the tango police!
My advice; learn the basics from someone who understands the fundamentals of balance, posture, axis, and not just a teacher who doles out steps and patterns.  All those steps and patterns will do you no good in a crowded milonga anyway. Take classes from a variety of people, use what you like from different teachers, find a partner, and go invent your own dance.  Who knows, you might just start the new "nuevo tango" and at the very least, you might discover your own tango moments.
Bottom up, that is the gift of the Argentine Tango.