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I love tango. I love the movement, the connection, the conversation, the abandon and, of course, the music.
I am a dancer, so I, like many, discovered tango music through the dance. Throughout my first decade of tango dancing I always did my best to be on the dance floor, whether dancing socially, teaching or performing. But since opening my own school and milonga seven years ago I have discovered an unexpected passion for DJing. I was surprised to discover just how much fun I could have sitting behind the console keeping everyone else dancing.
I love DJing during the milonga itself, but I also love the preparation. I often lose myself in collecting, researching and sorting music – when I should be attending to other, more pressing business matters. I tell myself I’m just going to look up the dates of a couple of classic Donato recordings … and three hours later I’m still absorbed in downloading, compiling, rating, categorizing and planning new tandas for my next milonga. Then comes the payoff: the satisfaction I feel when every dancer in the room is on the dance floor for that beautiful waltz tanda, or when six different people come to ask about a particularly intriguing alternative tanda.
Yes, you read me right: alternative tanda. I play alternative music and I’m not ashamed to admit it! Though sometimes I feel like I should be.
In recent months I have seen at least a couple of online discussion threads around the topic of alternative music. Two threads were started by dancers who complained that local DJs don’t play a big enough variety of music. Well, after one or two initial posts by dancers who felt the same way he does, the attacks began. What surprised me were not the differences of taste or opinion between the “traditional only” and “more nuevo” camps; different tastes are healthy and totally expected. What shocked me was the disdain shown by those with a more “purist” bent for those with alternative tastes. And also the disdain shown by some DJs for the general tango-dancing public, especially the less experienced tango-dancing public.
I have thought a lot about why that attitude bothers me so much and also about why I personally enjoy thinking and dancing outside the box from time to time.
I once read a post by a tango DJ who proudly stated she had NEVER played a song requested by a dancer. Never. I was shocked, because I actually thought that as DJs we were there for the dancers: to educate them, yes; to expand their horizons, certainly; but also, quite simply, to please them. Should a DJ play everything everyone asks for? Of course not. In my case, I have to know and like a song and be able to fit it into a tanda as well as the overall flow of the milonga, so not every request makes the cut. But some do! Sometimes they even inspire me to do something new and different, to surprise the dancers and myself. And my entire playlist is certainly not set in stone before the milonga even begins. I have a format that I follow, but even the best-laid plans can change. Doesn’t a good DJ adapt to the mood and flow of a given milonga? Isn’t that precisely why we have living, breathing DJs?
If we dance tango, we must love – or at the very least like – tango music. I love tango music passionately, but as both a dancer and a DJ I enjoy experimenting now and then with alternative rhythms, from nuevo tango music in all its incarnations to blues, pop and other genres. The thing is, I don’t only love tango music, I also just love music. As a tango dancer who loves lots of kinds of music, I have a lot of fun seeing what other types of music I can dance to yet still feel I’m dancing tango. Whatever my tastes or moods, I feel every song differently and that is what I express when I am dancing. And judging by the milongas I DJ, I am not alone.
Just as I believe every type of dancer has a role to play on the tango scene, so every type of music serves a purpose. While strong technique is the foundation on which every expert dancer is built, the fun guy with the funny moves who makes sure every woman gets to dance at least one tanda contributes something of great importance to a milonga: he makes sure a large number of people are enjoying themselves and feeling good about themselves.
The same goes for music. While some of today’s orchestrations both lack the soul of a 1930s D’Arienzo-Echagüe classic and stretch the very definition of tango, if they please the crowd and get most of the room both dancing and smiling, do they not deserve some measure of respect, along with the dancers who dance them and the DJs who dare to play them?
Whether you hate it, tolerate it or love it, modern tango music serves one undeniably important purpose: It makes tango music more accessible to the general public. From the funky fusion of such groups as Gotan Project and Otros Aires to the modern orchestrations of well-loved classics by bands like Unitango and Sexteto Milonguero, the rich sounds of today’s orquestas more easily appeal to the untrained ear of novice tango dancers than do those scratchy old classics. After 18 years of dancing Argentine tango, I know full well that our tastes change and evolve over time and that our appreciation for the subtle complexities of the Golden Age music only deepens. But that doesn’t mean that anything orchestrated after 1960 is worthy of nothing but snobbish disdain, or that the tastes of new or intermediate dancers should be cast aside.
I only love those Golden Age classics more each day and never grow tired of discovering and rediscovering them. But I also believe that modern tango music deserves to get some play in the milongas, because it is the modern musicians who keep the music evolving. Just as the best and most fun tanguero for me has a strong technical foundation but throws in the occasional surprise to challenge and amuse his partners, the best and most fun milongas are solidly based in the classics, with an occasional surprise to challenge and amuse the dancers.
Throughout history, change and evolution have met with resistance for fear they would taint the purity of what people knew and were comfortable with. But in the end, if something cannot evolve it dies. I believe we can respect and preserve the rich and beautiful history of tango while allowing it room to evolve, breathe and live on.