Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tango snobs

There are plenty of stories, fictitious or not, in which a character ends up becoming the person he despises at the start. Napoleon, the leading pig of Orwell's famed allegory novel Animal Farm, leads a revolt against the human masters, but by the end of the novel has become just like them, learning how to walk, sleeping on beds in rooms, and even socializing with humans. Lately, I feel a lot like Napoleon. Although I've always had a bit of snob in me (remarking to El Ingeniero at a milonga how watching a certain couple dance makes my eyes bleed - so he already knows I'm a snob, and Dr Agsol Rac probably does too...- and previously having had a reputation among beginning tangueras that I'm standoffish, hard to please, picky, arrogant, and thus difficult to dance with because they are concerned of whether I approve - none of which, I admit, is entirely false-), it's never been full blown out as it seems nowadays. My previous rather acidic and hateful post about milonga pet peeves only begins to scratch the surface.

I used to despise those people at the milonga, the ones who act as though they hold the mysterious, magical way to tango, and brush off all others not belonging to the 'clique of the illuminated' as being mere wannabes. I think there were two major turning points to my transformation to who, what I am today at a milonga. At the local festival a few months ago, I was assigned as an interpreter for Javier Rodriguez and Andrea Missé. My perception of the whole experience, from the dance, the music, the little details, and interacting in the community, was completely shaken up, and has been evolving since. The second major turning point was starting to DJ regularly at milongas. From then on I have become an incredibly judgmental asshole.

At milongas where I'm not DJing, I'm sitting there listening, looking, and only dance if and only if several conditions are met: I like the music at the beginning of the tanda (I am developing a taste for the non-rhythmic music... it is rare that I dance to Rodriguez or Biagi, let alone D'Arienzo... but don't worry, I will still play enough of it when I'm DJing), I feel the energy, I spot a suitable tanguera (considering all aspects: does she have her shoes on? have I danced with her before? does this Tanturi-Campos tanda seem to be in congruence with her personality as I know her and with her mood today? Yes, I'm a prick), and I achieve cabeceo with her. Otherwise, I watch and praise some dancers while I grimace in contempt of others. If I do get to dance, I am exceedingly irritated when somebody does not follow the line of dance, and I make it as clear as possible without actually explicitly telling him and proceeding to pick a fist fight (no, I haven't gotten to that point yet... I would probably get banned from the milonga venues). I often am judging far more experienced DJs for recycling tandas or having mediocre tandas where the mood is all over the place. Next thing I know, I'll be rejecting every tanguera that verbally asks me to dance, even if she's a close friend and a great dancer. This would be very Javier Rodriguez, but he can do it because he's THE Javier Rodriguez.

Why is this happening? Is this wrong? I don't know the answers to these questions. But I think the more one gets into a hobby, the more you get a (false?) sense of entitlement, and that's where the snobbishness comes from. I used to be a 'just do it' kind of person at milongas, regardless of Buenos Aires códigos or expectations to abide by the local community customs. Now I suddenly am much more difficult to deal with in a bizarre way. Maybe nowadays I think much more about tango than I did before now that I am more involved in it. The thought of taking a break from this hobby (because that's what it is for me... for now) has crossed my mind, but it's like an alcoholic in front of an open bar told not to drink. During the World Cup, I did take a 'break', but it was mostly because the game schedule conflicted with milonga schedule, as well as to circumvent some tanguera drama. Even then, I listened to tango music all day and practiced tango walking around the apartment, much to the confused amusement of my brother. So basically, once you're in deep enough, you start acting strange and you can't quit it... I remember I asked a tanguera about what the hell was up with that guy at a milonga who is a major snob and acts like a judgmental dick (who does this remind you of?... surprise--> nowadays I get along with him). She just shrugged her shoulders and said: "he loves tango too much". I love tango. Maybe that's why.


  1. I was thinking of starting my own "Tango Rants" blog, but then I found this ;)

    First off - great stuff. Loved the Ballroom Tango comparison to Porn.

    But here comes me uncensored:

    My theory of why Tango has an abundance of assholes (unlike eg the Swing/Blues community) is that women put up with machismo shit because they want to dance with the better dancers, who can get away with machismo shit.

    Why the hell shouldn't women ask for dances as well - if they see someone they would like to dance with, go for it! There's no point in sitting around the entire evening watching the leaders prey on the young cute beginners.
    The cabeceo is overrated anyways: it is effective only when most dancers are quite advanced and have a good sense of whom they want to dance with next. It also prevents people from developing good social skills. If you do it nicely, there is no harm in turning down a request. The cabeceo itself isn't particularly useful in itself - it is only useful (and sadly: necessary) because most Tango dancers have little social skills and behave like major assholes on the dancefloor.

    Let's face it: most dance scenes (I speak here from experience about NYC, Montreal, Hamburg) suck big time, because dancers are selfish and try to get the best dances possible. Clearly, not everyone can dance with a better partner than themselves - even if that's what everybody wants. It is simply a logical impossibility.

    So you have the choice: either be that arrogant asshole who tries to get the best dances he/she can, scare away lots of nice people with your stuffy and political atmosphere and your stupid pecking orders at milongas , OR you think of yourself as a dancing community - where everyone tries to make sure that everybody in the room has a great time. Yes, that means from time to time dancing with someone you perhaps wouldn't necessarily want to dance with! But the only way you can build up the next generation of dancers (and in particular: leaders) is to be nice and friendly to everyone - and to be available to dance with, including people way below your own level.

    I am lucky to have many such people in my local scene - and whenever I see someone sitting out 4-5 tandas in a row, I'll ask them to dance. Because after all, the only reason why I have survived the tough beginning as a leader is because nice advanced follows were welcoming and asked me to dance when I sucked big time.

    I have been dancing for almost 5 years now, and I still can have fun with MOST followers (except for maybe the bottom 5% of people who have no body awareness). The better you get, the easier it is to have a great time dancing with a beginner. Most beginners will actually very quickly listen to you if you stick to simple steps and fit them to the music. If you must lead boleos, ganchos, colgadas etc to enjoy dancing, then you suck as a leader - yes, it's that simple, sorry to break it to you.
    Most Tangueras forget this very basic fact: whether I enjoy a dance depends as much on my follower's attitude as on her technique. I'd rather dance with a cheerful beginner than with an advanced follower who keeps bitching whenever she messes up a bit.

    So please, Tangueros y Tangueras: lay off that asshole attitude, and you will have so much more fun when you head out to dance.

  2. Hi Chris,
    Welcome to Milonga para tres. I am glad you have enjoyed some of our previous posts. Thanks for your remarkable insight - I agree on some aspects, and disagree on others. My biggest disagreement is about cabeceo... Cabeceo has its pros and cons, but I would actually say it's underrated and too underused outside of Buenos Aires. Granted, cabeceo is not feasible for some venues that are too dark and/or too spacious, but for me the pros far outweigh the cons so I do it whenever it is physically possible. And I disagree it has that much to do with people's social skills. For instance, no matter how greatly smooth your social skills, there's no really subtle way to approach someone you haven't danced with before all the way across the room. Sure, the be nice attitude of saying yes to everyone... but in the aforementioned scenario, it's hard for the woman to say no (assuming she was the one asked), and it's unfair to her because there's no guarantee that it will be an enjoyable dance. People, at least in my community, socialize outside milongas and make friends with their own and the opposite sex, but that doesn't mean they are obligated to dance with their friends. Some people do, but I think this mindset puts the kind of pressure that makes people not want to be friends with others.

    Furthermore, people at milongas should have the right to decide who to dance with, for their own comfort and their physical safety, all this without a big fuss being made with an explicit invitation, for which a rejection would be awkward. Tango is inherently an intimate dance due to the nature of the embrace, and due to the sentimental lyrics and music. As such, one wouldn't feel comfortable going around and dancing with anyone and everyone just for the sake of being nice. The physical safety applies especially for tangueras, who go wherever they are led... some leaders have an uncomfortable embrace, some lead them to do things that break the laws of physics, some have terrible navigational skills, some have poor technique and posture, and some have very poor hygiene (see my previous post about milonga pet peeves). And tangueras have every right to say no if she even suspects of any of the above. Some followers have uncomfortable embraces, some have a stiff, unpleasant walk, some have poor technique, and some don't follow. I think tangueros should have the right to choose not to dance with these, and cabeceo saves the trouble of becoming the arrogant asshole who rejected an invitation. So far I've never rejected any invitation (except for when I can't stand the music... venues where electrotango is played... cough Chicago ;)), and while sometimes I have enjoyed the dance, at others I have wanted to die. The suggestion that I will start rejecting all invitations that are not cabeceo is just an extreme suggestion of what might become if I keep becoming more and more of an asshole.

  3. Maybe it is selfish that one seeks to have the best dances. But milongas are venues for enjoyment, not for community service, in my opinion. I agree that more advanced dancers have a role to play in developing the newcomers, but that is what classes and prácticas are for. If a newcomer is not willing to endure the hard work in prácticas and classes, as well as tolerating not getting as many dances in milongas, then maybe they don't deserve tango. Or maybe it's not right for them. Choose one.

    I agree with you that leading boleos, ganchos, colgadas, etc. is not necessarily a good dance. In fact, I never do any of these. And when I say I grimace in contempt of some dancers, I'm referring to those who do and those who cannot follow the line of dance, being a hazard to everyone. This brings me to a different point: maybe it is true that people might become assholes because they love tango too much and they want it to be done right. I want people to dance well.... there I go again with pretending to hold the secret mystical key to the real tango.
    But maybe it's just that I was always an asshole, in and outside of the milonga, but now I don't bother to hide it.

  4. Hi, I just stumbled across your blog and read your post on 'Tango Snobs'. I was curious about it as I had never read a blog anywhere about someone's experience (and/ or suspicion) of being one.

    You asked in your last paragraph "is this wrong?" - and I don't understand why having strong convictions, very specific views, a willingness to judge other people's actions as right/ wrong, decide who to/ not to dance with are wrong. I don't think it's wrong either to discuss these views with others (preferably in a thoughtful, measured way!). Just be prepared for a debate.

    I think however being unpleasant or deliberately hurtful to others is "asshole" behaviour. One doesn't have to be picky, self-righteous or judgemental to be an asshole, and not all assholes are picky, self-righteous or judemental either. Man or woman.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts in response to my comments.

    Just to clarify: I don't dispute anyone's right to turn down unpleasant dances (if they smell, if they crash you into others, ...). But I think that you learn to dance on the social dancefloor, not in classes (which are a very necessary, but not sufficient condition). So turning down nasty partners is fine. Forgetting that you got to become a good dancer because better dancers were willing to dance with you is not.
    And I deplore the fact that there are many tango communities where the better dancers have no sense of maintaining a balance between contributing to their local dancing community by mentoring newer dancers and maximizing their own fun.

    About the cabeceo: I simply think that teaching followers how to gracefully turn down an invitation is a much more effective way to foster a welcoming atmosphere around the dancefloor than insisting on the cabeceo.
    Hint 1: don't look the lead up and down and say bluntly "no" unless he's a total creep.
    Hint 2: How about a smile, "thanks for asking, but I'd like to take a break right now/I don't like the music" - and everyone is happy. And if you really only want to take a break, but would like to dance later, say "ask me again later".

    I'm fine with using the cabeceo optionally - like you do in almost every other social dance. Sometimes it just works out that you ask non-verbally, sometimes you ask verbally and no-one gives a shit either way as long as you are nice, polite and non-creepy. BUT to enforce the cabeceo as a generalized expectation (and to punish people who don't conform) makes the experience off the dancefloor unnecessarily unpleasant in my view.

    GameCat - I am actually also thinking a lot about right/wrong in Tango. I think people often mistakenly uses the categories of right/wrong in Tango.
    Take music for instance: someone plays a kind of music that doesn't appeal to you (alternative, or non-rhythmic late 40ies tango, or electrotango, or ...) - and people say: this is shit music, it is impossible to dance to (when in fact it is simply the case that THEIR musicality doesn't allow them to dance to this particular kind of music).
    Same with different embrace styles or leading/following styles. People from different teachers/styles are quick to say: my partner leads/follows wrongly - instead of thinking what can be done in the embrace or the lead-follow dynamics to make it work.

    Tango is communication - with the music, with your partner. To wall yourself into a tiny bubble of "this is what I determine to be right, and anyone who does/feels differently is wrong" deprives themselves of the essence of tango.
    Of course, it sucks if communication fails - in conversation, as well as in dance - but why have a conversation with people who only say what you already know? Why dance only with people who listen to the music the same way you do?
    Conversation and dancing means to accept that something unknown (and sometimes: hard to integrate into your own dancing/thinking) from your partner. Hard to do - and sometimes uncomfortable - so so worth it for the instances when it works ;)

  6. The tango arrogance comes straight out of Argentinian culture. Tango is an erotically violent dance form invented by bands of male outlaws in the Argenitine countryside, then introduced to bordellos where it was further developed in an atmosphere of exploitation and aggression. The sexiness of tango is the sexiness of a powerplay, not the deep love-sexiness of actual emotional intimacy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it can be helpful to understand the energy your are playing with.

    I think that the snobbery that arises in tango cultures relates to the profoundly submerged insecurity and lack of emotional availability of many of the dancers (at least when dancing, and in spite of all the outward sensuality), joined with a cultural history of trying to restore a sense of social ranking among people who were considered to be lower than the lowest class, combined with the unmistakeable irritability and arrogance of Argentine culture to begin with.

    That's my off-the-cuff, and certainly incomplete, assessment. But I think the topic is very interesting, and worth discussing. I think tango could be a much more beautiful and accessible experience if a lot of its dancers would float down off their high horses and remove the poles from their rear orifices.

    After all...they arent perfecting space exploration or curing cancer. It's only dancing.

    1. Good comment about what is attractive and repulsive about tango in terms of sexuality, powerplay, exploitation, aggression, and emotional distance. I like your analysis of how humiliation of poor proletarians led them to set up nasty hierarchies - such as that in tango - to gain a kind of respect at the expense of their impoverished neighbors.

      Probably, as in other romantic (or faux romantic) situations, you have to establish a baseline of kindness, and gentleness before going on to the harder edged aesthetics of powerplay, or more physical dance.

      I feel I ought to immediately abandon the power aesthetic at any moment that my partner becomes uncomfortable with it. And yet many ladies like the drama of powerplay.

      Seems to me one can play with power and sexuality as a performance, while still being compassionate and down to earth in "real" life, i.e. when the dance stops. You can do a powerplay in the dance and even compete in a sporting way with your companions, and yet build community, trying to make sure no one is left out.

  7. Do you guys even enjoy dancing? Do you really even enjoy all of this?

  8. We enjoy dancing very much. As to "all of this", I can only guess what you mean. If you're talking about the blogging, the last post was about 18 months ago, and the three of us are on 3 different continents now. Jaimito started another blog ( Go bug him there, Greyface.

  9. The reason I love tango is cabeceo. Although I'm a beginner (1.5 years) dancer, I highly value this aspect of tango culture. I like that it is such a non-pushy way of approaching someone. To me, if you don't cabeceo YOU are the arrogant one. If you expect that people you don't know who have put in years of their time into dancing will dance with you, YOU are the arrogant one. I do not even like it when advanced dancers ask me directly. There are other considerations besides dance skill which determine whether or not I will dance with someone. Respect is the most important.