One of my occasional predicaments here in Buenos Aires – finding someone to go out dancing with… tango, that is! Not everyone likes the dance and I get it. It is at times precariously close, extremely difficult and it can be really sad. Take, for instance the first few lines of Carlos Gardel’s classic “una noche triste” or “my sad night: “Lover, who abandonded me in the best of my life, leaving a wounded soul and a thorn in the heart, knowing that I wanted you, that you were my happiness and my burning desire. There is no solace, and so now I drink, to forget your love.” Not everyone’s idea of fun!
I am, however, captivated by the tango and I feel lucky to live in Buenos Aires, the uncontentious heart of the dance. Any night of the week the many milongueros of the city sneak out at midnight to the lively milongas (La Viruta, Salon Canning and El Beso to name a few) to grace the floors until the early hours of the morning. Or, frequent one of the classic bars like El Boliche de Roberto to enjoy live tango duos over a Quilmes.
The dance originated from the complications of love and society at the end of the 19th century. Jorge Lanata in his book “Argentinos” locates the origins of the dance in a social setting where women were largely excluded, after the migration of a largely male group produced class and gender divisions. Migrants with plans to return to their home countries feared their families would be separated and opposed their children marrying “local women.” Over time, relations between the sexes were heavily sensored and prohibited in public places, extending to singing and dancing.
As a consequence of all this, Men often found themselves dancing tango with the other men who frequented the lively caberets and brothels of the time. These men transformed their societal fears into a joke, further serving to define masculine social codes, role-plays that were also played out through the dance. The man interested in a girl was a “baboso” (a man who dotes excessively on women) and the man in love was seen as “soft.” Sources suggest that for this reason and to this day, Argentine err away from “estoy enamorado” (I am in love) in favor of “estoy metido” or “estoy enganchado”- literally meaning I am in a “deep hole,” a “mess” or ” somewhere extremely difficult to escape.” Very interesting!
“Scandalous” and “sexy” the tango still has quite the reputation, but to me it is this. Souls sitting waiting resting in a big room, living on the cadences of the sequences of sound, at rest to the tempo. Souls curious, glancing from time to time into the windows of other souls, daringly inviting them to venture beyond the safe walls of their homes and to dance, to live, to experience a segment of another life. Souls that unite in a moment and grace the air in what is experienced as a single breath, that then reluctantly depart, richer for the union. The departure heralds a knowledge of something special, and the knowledge heralds a pain and understanding, to dance is better than not at all.
The tango is built on love’s most extroverted and magnetic qualities and finds expression accordingly. The more you dance the more you need to, but more than passion, it is perseverance and commitment that keeps one dancing. The Catholic caught onto the allure of the embrace and banned the dance at various points down history.
Psychologists will also commend the tango as a therapy, improving health, self-awareness and lowering stress! A creative outlet inviting one to connect with oneself in a new way, asking for permission to unpeel some of the life-learned layers that separate us from others, the complexities and cautions of experience. It can be difficult to dance tango, when it demands a connection transcending the physical. Then again, what a beautiful way to expand one’s horizons and one’s understanding of the other; other cultures, other minds and other worlds in a darting yet intimate connection, a dialogue.
And best not forget too quickly the cautions of life! My fears have been renovated a good many times after accepting an invitation to dance with someone who, in fact, could not dance, dragging me to the middle of the dance floor proceeding with personal questions and unseemly invitations. Or someone who can dance, but wants to throw in a kiss with every turn! This goes well against tango etiquette. In these instances, there is no connection or dialogue because there is no respect, and above all the dances demands respect and understanding – “it takes two to tango.”
In recent years, the tango has been recognised by UNESCO as a Universal Patrimony of Humanity, formative to the promotion of peace as a non-violent language, strengthening ties within our culturally diverse society, and promoting cross-cultural dialogue and sustainable development – a “Naranjo en Flor.”
By Sarah Wattie. Sarah works for The Argentine Experience.