Friday, June 23, 2017

Twenty tango lessons : Part One : Evolution

Roomy tango pants and big boleos have given way to curve-hugging skirts and close-embrace dancing.

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I took my very first tango class in 1997. It is now 2017, so that means I have been officially dancing tango for 20 years! And what a journey it has been.

So, has it all been worth it? Absolutely.

Has it been easy? Of course not.

Over the years I have learned many things. I have learned confidence and humility, I have learned to let go and to stand up for myself, to be both tougher and more understanding, to lead and to follow, to express myself and to listen, to be engaged and relaxed, to think ahead while living in the moment,  to follow the rules while thinking outside the box.

In no particular order, I have come up with 20 things I have learned in 20 years of tango. In an effort to keep my posts both shorter and more regular (it has been months since my last post!), my plan is to publish one "lesson" a week for the next 20 weeks.

Lesson No. 1: Tango evolves and so must we. Tango has changed in the 20 years since I was a beginner. The dance has changed, the trends and customs have changed, my city has changed and of course I have changed. Back then, tango learning was all about the steps. By the time I had finished Tango 2 I think I had learned ganchos and boleos, barridas and sacadas. Teachers were not really talking about following the line of dance, or the ronda -- beyond mentioning the fact that things moved in a generally counter-clockwise direction on the dance floor -- most local DJs did not play cortinas to separate the tandas and nobody used the cabeceo. The Broadway show Forever Tango was touring the world while Sally Potter's movie The Tango Lesson and Carlos Saura's Tango were just being released. All around us were showy moves and dramatic music. Pugliese instrumentals and show soundtracks were played everywhere. In a couple of years, this new group called Gotan Project would bring an entirely new, equally dramatic and thoroughly modern sound that would be a big sign of things to come. Meanwhile, tango shoes from Argentina were not yet readily available so we all danced in whatever kind of dance shoes we could find. Montreal was already a major player on the North American tango scene, and you could dance seven nights a week even then, but each night there was one milonga on offer, so the whole community knew where to go, came together and most events were a guaranteed success.

Ten years later, Gotan Project's brand of electronica-tango fusion music was all the rage and was being reinvented by Bajofondo, Narcotango and countless others. Along with the "nuevo" music came a limits-pushing style of dance most people also called tango nuevo, with its signature elastic embrace, experimental off-axis figures and big, huge boleos executed by flexible young tangueras in funky, comfy tango pants. Traffic on many dance floors was a bit of a nightmare. A couple of local studios were selling Comme Il Faut and Neo Tango shoes from Argentina, and all the best dancers' feet were decked out in colourful, glittery fabrics, open toes and stiletto heels. Paradoxically, cortinas were now being played in most milongas, but so was a huge dose of modern, experimental tango music, from Gotan and Otros Aires to alternative musical choices from The Beatles to Edith Piaf. Montreal's tango scene had begun to expand beyond the central Plateau and downtown areas further east, west and even out to an off-island suburb or two.

Soon after came a strong backlash against any form of "nuevo" tango music as well as dance styles that take up more than their share of space on the floor. The music of the Golden Age has made a quick and powerful comeback in the last decade, along with close-embrace, line-of-dance-friendly, milonguero-style dancing. Now, no DJ foregoes cortinas and just about all teachers and high-level dancers are pushing the use of the cabeceo and the respect of the ronda on the dance floor. Many brands of those high-end, limited-edition tango shoes imported from Argentina and Europe are sold in just about all tango studios everywhere. And tango-specific clothes are everywhere too, also made in limited edition by small designers. But roomy pants are out and curve-hugging, knee-length skirts are in. Because no one is kicking up their legs anymore anyway, at least not in the milongas. Montreal is still a great tango city (read the Quebec edition of Modern Tango World to find out more), but countless other cities in North America and around the world have caught on, caught up and even surpassed us. Tango has gone totally global, thanks in large part of course to YouTube, Facebook and other social media as well as the prevalence of global travel. Trends in music and dancing travel along with the dancers, so we are influenced more and more by the style and moves of maestros from Argentina, Europe and around the world. Here in Montreal, milongas have been sprouting up like mushrooms in recent years, within and well beyond the city limits. There can be up to five tango events on offer some nights, which means there's lots of choice for dancers, but organizers are by no means ensured success.

Some people who have been dancing for as long as I have or longer are nostalgic for the old days when things were supposedly simpler, friendlier and more carefree. But I believe that in tango as in life, many people view the past through rose-coloured glasses. Maybe nobody was cutting into our fun by nagging us about the line of dance, but careless navigation was rampant and there were plenty of collisions on the dance floor. Maybe nobody was pushing us to learn how to use the awkward cabeceo, but then there were all those awkward moments of rejections, embarrassing refusals and sorry excuses. Maybe the tango business was easier and it was a cinch to find your friends at that one event on Friday night, but there were fewer choices, and isn't variety the spice of life? In any case, the way it was is the way it was, and the way it is is the way it is … until the next evolution, which is, of course, in motion already.
What is next? Well, the trend among teachers continues to move away from complex sequences and impressive moves and toward posture, musicality, technique and embrace while enforcing respect for the line of dance and use of the cabeceo (Yay!). At the same time, in terms of the music, I have been witnessing a backlash against the backlash, with many dancers demanding DJs step ouside the box and think beyond the Golden Age once again. Beyond that, I can only wait and see like everybody else. And I look forward to it!

Next: Lesson No. 2: Embrace is everything


  1. Very interesting!

    Un point qu'Andrea soulève : la plus grande compétition qui existe maintenant sur le marché du tango à Montréal. Les organisateurs ne sont pas certains de remplir leur salles lorsqu'il y a plusieurs événements le même soir.

    Je suis porté à penser que ce phénomène de compétition a été positif pour élever la qualité des soirées et le positionnement des écoles sur le marché du tango montréalais : programmation musicale, publicité soignée, orchestres invités, décoration des milongas, qualité de l'accueil, etc.

    Cette compétition a peut-être aussi encouragé d'autres chantiers, des événements spéciaux et des festivals ainsi que la diversification des cours, entre autres, pour retenir l'attention des clientèles.

    Le tango vit sur un marché de l'offre et de la demande, comme les autres secteurs économiques :-)

    1. Tu as raison, André. Bien que l'énorme choix d'événements rend les choses difficile pour les organisateurs (parfois très difficile, crois moi!), ça nous force à améliorer la qualité de nos activités et à être bien à l'écoute de nos clients.

  2. très bonne article, j'aime beaucoup votre analyse, que je trouve équilibrée et honnête. Pour ce qui est de la discipline de marcher dans son corridor et de faire attention aux autres autour de nous, je crois personnellement qu'il y a de l'amélioration à faire, si je me fis à ma propre expérience, bien qu'elle soit limité.

    1. Merci. Et oui, tu as raison, il y a encore du travail à faire... mais je vois quand-même une amélioration en générale.