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Change, Progress and Tango

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

A popular Tango blogger recently referred to the “development” of Tango in the modern world as progress. In an interview with Gustavo Navieira & Gisela (founders of Nuevo Tango with Fabian Salas and Chicho Frumboli), he referred to his method of teaching "a structure" as a natural development of Tango, or progress.

It got me thinking. What is progress? - different things to different people. Change and progress are often thought to be synonymous. But they are not.

Change, in any cultural context can be easily identified. Progress, or decline, can only be measured by looking back on the effect of change. The inability to predict the outcome of cultural or social change has long frustrated anthropologists. (J Bronowski, A Sense of the Future). Change can lead to progress, decline, death - even of a civilisation or a culture, or just to something different.

Tango has undergone shifts and changes in the music and dance since its birth in the Rio Plata in the late 19th century. These changes were partly driven by changes in instrumentation, with the introduction of the bandoneon, through to the standardisation of the Tango orchestra (bandoneon, piano, violin, contra-bass), the influence of southern European culture, with its love of opera and classical forms, and the influence of innovative musicians, from De Caro to Piazzolla.

The dance moved with the music and the culture, as people responded to the changes in the dance rhythms and the influences of crowded dance floors and many other cultural customs and markers.

Tango was exported from an early age. Although it always seems to have carried the idea of intense passion, this has never really translated at scale outside it’s roots in the Rio Plata. In the early part of the 20th century it was carried to Europe and America. Certain teachers (both Argentine expat and local) popularised the dance and attempted to codify it for teaching. Even though we know that popular musicians travelled to Europe at the time, the music morphed into a strong 4/4 rhythm with a distinct marching percussion. The dance quickly transformed into an entirely different codified, compertitive, ballroom dance.

In America, the music and dance went a similar way, driven more by Rudolf Valentino's parody of the gaucho and Tango.

In Argentina the dance developed in a completely different direction. Driven by its own cultural and social influences it developed into an internalised, meditative, conversational dance. This was the zenith of social Tango dance.

Tango’s resurgence in the world in the late 20th century was driven at first by a fascination with popular broadway shows. The dance demonstrated in these shows, performed by professional artists, is a visual expression of the intensity and passion of Tango and the culture in which it was born. It is an attempt to visualise unseen feelings.

This exposure created an interest amongst many dancers who wanted to see behind the curtain; to explore what Tango really is, by visiting Buenos Aires, the heart of Tango. This was a completely different experience. Attending the crowded milongas in Buenos Aires, with their codes and customs, and the dance, with its invisible subtlety and deep feeling.

For many people this dance was (and is) hard to grasp, and even harder to achieve.

To capitalise, quite reasonably, on this influx of tourists, many dancers and popular performers, including film actors, began teaching while travelling with stage shows, in Buenos Aires and then travelling to Europe, America, Australia / NZ, and Asia. People want to learn what they saw on stage. But what can be taught in a weekend workshop or on a 3 week holiday? A few combinations of steps.

Touring teachers turned into a flood of dancers, young and old, looking to earn better money. They were, and are, of necessity doing the same thing; teaching a minimum of technique and some combinations of steps and figures in order to leave something behind. Most will talk about the ‘feeling”, but even those who know don’t have the time to impart it.

This is the dance that has become popularised around the world, a hybrid performance-turned-social dance. Not only is the teaching method and dance "frame" more familiar with ballroom / social dancers in the rest of the world, but it can be imparted fairly quickly, in a codified curriculum, suitable for a dance studio. It has once again, transformed into a different dance.

This separation has become even more extreme with the advent of Neo and Nuevo Tango, a club dance developed first in Buenos Aires, then in Europe, that responds to experimentation initially with the music of Piszzolla (The Tango Lesson) and then with jazz / latin / tango fusion music of the late 2000’s.

The classic, understated, emotional, intense social dance, refined in the crowded Buenos Aires milongas of the 1940’s is, once again, less popular around the world. There are a number of reasons for this. This Tango is not “fast-food”. We often describe it as peeling an onion - when you peel off each layer, you find another one beneath. The technique takes time and patience. The subtlety of the silent conversation, like learning a language, may take years to get past a “phrase-book” conversation. It requires a giving and acceptance of energy in time and space. Intently listening to and interpreting the complex music is challenging. It is much more like learning a sport, than the typical understanding of learning a dance, where, once you have the technique, the game is an improvised response to your partner, the music and the people around you. By definition, it has no structure.

But once mastered, there is no going back. Other dances, including Latin, Rock & Roll & “modern” Tango can be fun and entertaining, but for those who persevere to find the classic Tango, other dances cannot compare with the power of the embrace and the unspoken, heart to heart conversation of classic social Tango.

This dance, perhaps inadvertently, tapped deeply into many other aspects of human communication and collaboration; another reason for its fascination and grasp on those who are lucky enough to find it.

So is change necessarily progress? Sometimes the loss is more than the gain.

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