Comments on “Why Tango?”
“It is a happy talent to know how to play” Ralph Waldo Emerson
In her collection of essays Why Tango?, Veronica Toumanova explores the emotional journey one embarks upon when becoming a dancer. And although she addresses a wide range of tango topics, she writes less about specific maneuvers and more about dedication, drive, and desire. Her book is engaging and compels me to ask myself not only about my realationship to tango, but a broader question as well: what motivates us to learn art? What are the reasons children scribble with crayons? Why does someone (like me) sing in the car to a song on the radio? What really is behind the seriousness of the ad agent who must produce art for clients? Is it just about making money, or is there something more to it? Some people come to movement arts like yoga and tango for personal reasons, and others come to move artistically for very public reasons. For me, somewhere in between the personal and the public is a tango embrace. And although the motivations to create art, such as Argentine tango, can be various, it seems to me that most individuals are inclined either to play art or to display art.
There are certainly sincere artists who enjoy the playfulness of artistic expression and who simultaneously wish to share their gifts with others via performance. Yet I feel that there are many artists, like tango dancers, who obsess over the public display of art and, as a result, become fixated on their social status and rank. In the world of tango, this status (or lack thereof) may be found through association with a certain studio, a famous (or infamous) teacher, or a particular style. The display or presentation of skill then becomes less about the art we create and more about how we wish to appear to others. And when we find ourselves concerned with keeping up appearances, we run the risk of creating a tango caste system. This may reveal itself as a subtle tendency to compare, contrast, and criticize all of the people on the dance floor: who has the best embrace, the poorest posture, the strongest lead, the worst dress. If, while dancing, the display of art is made more important than art as play, we may become less concerned about our emotional connection as partners and more concerned with where we rank in the tango pecking order.
There are many artists who wish to flaunt; they want to be seen and applauded; their motivation to create derives from a need to be noticed. And in tango, an egoistic drive to display oneself on the social stage that is the dance floor may extend to the broader community as well. Dance studios may sell tango primarily as performance, as play or as some combination of both. And it is true that dedicated performance artists must have a sanctuary: a place where they can analyze, refine, and strive. Yet, if a dance studio loses its spirit of play, art becomes very serious. Art becomes hard work. If that becomes the case, tango dancers may find themselves dwelling on things that have nothing to do with ochos, sacadas, or boleos. Dancers who care deeply about what others think of them will spend their time pondering shifting allegiances, cliques, and all of the emotionally draining intrigue that draws us so far away from the joy that is tango. Without a doubt, the world of tango is an industry, and as such, dance studios must be competitive in order to remain successful as businesses. But dancers do not need to be preoccupied with toxic, rigid notions of rank and social status. There are enough places in the world with ingroups and outgroups – tango provides a great opportunity to erase these harsh lines which divide us.
My tango is play. For me, the joy of learning tango is snuffed out when the lesson becomes regimented. As a student, I definitely don’t mind being pruned and shaped artistically by a teacher. But I have found that some instructors are only interested in producing tango performance artists. They fail to nurture and cultivate the student who sees dance primarily as a rewarding recreation. They are simply too severe. A tango teacher must be able to recognize the specific motivation that each dancer brings to his or her practice. Does a person’s ego need affirmation through the performance and display of art? Then they might benefit from rigorous drill. Does the dancer want to play instead? Then maybe they should be encouraged to explore motion freely. Or does the individual need care for an emotional wound: a loss, a fear, or a disappointment? Then the teacher must be sensitive enough to notice that pain and offer gentle compassion.
Veronica Toumanova writes that Argentine tango is a dance that “in itself is just another way to come close to yourself.” And while I agree that tango is beautiful way to explore and understand oneself, for me, this art form allows us an even greater opportunity for insight into the psyche of another person. I live in my head all day long. What does my partner think? My heart often rides on an emotional roller coaster. What moves my partner’s feelings? And most significantly: how beautiful can my connection with my partner be if we have different motivations for being on the dance floor? If my partner sees dance as play, I feel a stronger connection, but if I sense that my partner dances to display, I feel that our bond weakens. Although I applaud Toumanova’s passion and drive, it sometimes seems that the urge to strive for a better partner, a superior teacher, and a higher performance level draws us away from the essence of Argentine tango: the play of two people sharing one joy.