Friday, December 01, 2017

Twenty Tango Lessons: Part 16: Business meets community

Isn't it more fun when more dancers come together?

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To mark my 20th year in tango, I have come up with 20 lessons I have learned through dancing this dance, teaching this art and running this business.

Lesson No. 16. The tango business and the tango community don't always coexist seamlessly.

I have been considering writing this one for a while now, and it's going to be tricky.

As a business owner, I have many thoughts and feelings on this matter, which are obviously not completely unbiased. I want to address this issue because I think the general community could use some awareness of it. And maybe it's time to have an open conversation about it.

As I mentioned in my first post in this series, 20 years ago when I was a beginner in tango you could already dance seven nights a week in Montreal. The thing is, most nights there was only one place to dance, so people knew where their friends would be and most of the community came together at most milongas.

Also, all the milongas were run by tango schools. Which meant, among other things, that the hardworking school owners could count on a decent supplement to their teaching income to help pay their rent.

This all started to change about a decade ago. First, it was around that time that Montreal's tango scene started to spread beyond the city's central core. While all the milongas were once in or near the Plateau-to-Downtown area, new schools – including mine – started to sprout up in less central neighbourhoods and suburbs. This meant that those who lived outside the city centre suddenly had more choices. The rationale was that we wouldn't have much effect on the existing schools and milongas because we were geographically distant from them, but the reality was that of course we had an effect on them. At the same time, since we were bringing tango classes into new neighbourhoods, we were also creating new interest in tango and bringing new dancers into the community, thus helping it to grow.

Then began the "neutral" events: milongas not connected to any particular school. Many dancers loved this new concept, because it meant that people from all the different schools and milongas could come together in one place, meeting new people and discovering new dancers. But business-wise it was not so positive for the schools. Since all the nights were already taken by school-run milongas, these events run by independent organizers had a serious impact on whomever's regular events fell on those nights.

Then came the propagation of festivals and marathons, which is by no means a Montreal-specific phenomenon. A couple of years ago there were three major festivals in Montreal as well as a handful of smaller ones, plus at least three marathons. That's a lot of competition for the regular events and a lot of big spending expected of the community. It was clearly more than our city could support, as many events folded after one year or a few, and this year there were just two major festivals and one full weekend marathon.

Many of the independent organizers are not teachers and are not running schools, so they are not growing the tango-dancing population the way the schools are. And for those of us whose milongas support our schools, both socially and financially, it is frustrating to work for years teaching and training dancers and sending them out into the tango world only to have someone launch a milonga the same night as ours and do everything they can to entice our students and clients to go to their event.

Not to mention the fact that commercial rents are exorbitant (you would be shocked) and Montreal was recently declared the worst city in Canada in which to run a small business.

Just this fall a well-known tango school closed its doors after a decade in business, and while there has been all kinds of speculation as to what precisely caused its downfall, the exponentially multiplying number of milongas and events was no doubt a major factor. Milongas and special events can come and go, but if the schools are forced to close their doors that will not be a good thing for the community. One of Montreal's greatest strengths, I believe, is the quality and experience of its teachers. As my partner recently said to me, social dance events are about the dancers' pleasure right now, which is important, but the schools train future dancers, ensuring the survival of the dance and the community in the long term.

With all of the extra events popping up, attendance at the schools' regular weekly milongas has suffered, becoming uneven at best. So now many of the schools have started opening new prácticas and milongas on new nights (and afternoons), some hosting as many as five dance activities per week. This means they compete more and more with each other's events and dilute the community further still. My school has been holding a weekly Friday milonga for a decade now. Usually there have been one or two other regular Friday events in town, which is not crazy on a weekend night in a top tango town. But lately I have sometimes counted as many as five events happening on a single Friday. Of course this hits me personally and financially, so from my perspective it is clearly too much, but the part of me that tries hard to be objective and to see things from the public's perspective still sees a problem. Is it really beneficial to have to choose among so many options, and to have your friends and dance partners having to make the same choices? Wouldn't it be more fun for more dancers to come together?

Obviously, a capitalist society and a free market mean the right and the freedom to do all of this. And then it boils down to survival of the fittest, and many would shrug their shoulders and say: "So be it" or "Suck it up." But does that make it right, or even good for the community, which is, again, increasingly diluted and even, some would argue, segregated.

An organizer recently justified to me the opening of his new milonga on an already saturated night by saying he was going after a "different crowd." Another organizer astutely pointed out that this was a euphemism for not just the elite-level dancers he's hoping to attract, but also the younger age group he's aiming for. Again, anyone is entitled to create a new event and to target a specific audience, but isn't tango supposed to be the dance of the people? Which to me means all the people – new and experienced, average and highly skilled, young and old.

I, personally, would like to see more young people in tango and attracting a younger crowd is a challenge many of us have been working on for years, but I don't want a segregated community where "young" dancers all stick together and everyone over 40 or 50 is seen as over the hill or undesirable. Though I was still in my 20s when I started dancing tango, one of the things that attracted me even back then was the fact that it was a dance for all ages and that I would not feel over the hill once I passed, 40, 50 or well beyond.

Part of this has to do with the size of the city as a whole and, of course, the size of the tango community itself. In a very small city with a very small tango population, the sense of community tends to be very strong and just about everyone works together in some way. In a very big city with a very large tango population – like Buenos Aires or Paris, for example – there are so many dancers that having several events on offer is inevitable, even necessary, and wouldn't have as much impact on the competition. Montreal falls somewhere in between. We're kind of big, and tango is pretty popular, but we are not a big European city with other cities and countries all around us to trade dancers with, and we are certainly not Buenos Aires. Anyway, I have heard that the proliferation of marathons and encuentros in Europe has forced some of the best-known ones to close and that even in Buenos Aires organizers are trying to find new ways to support each other in these difficult times.

One seemingly obvious solution, of course, is for the schools here to get together and come to some kind of agreement or even form some sort of association. This subject has come up in the past, and a few years ago a group of us did try to form an alliance of sorts, but it didn't work out in the long run, for all kinds of reasons.

I, personally, see the current milonga situation in Montreal as something of a free-for-all, and I'm not sure there is an easy solution. Then again, maybe it's a bigger problem from my perspective than from that of the public. I'm uncomfortable with the idea of the tango community becoming a dog-eat-dog world, because I feel the sense of community will then be lost and also, I must admit, because it makes my precious business more vulnerable. Then again, business is business, some would say, and it's up to each of us to fight for our own survival.

I would love to get your feedback on this issue. Do you even see this as a problem? And if so, do you have ideas for a solution?

Next: Lesson No. 17. Tango is not for everyone.

Previously: Lesson No. 15. Work hard, have fun.


  1. I have to say in this matter I have to make a comment.
    The Montréal tango community does not need another division it's already shrinking numbers and closing venues.
    I think it's very wrong for Someone that all of a sudden enters the Montréal tango community and takes people and $ away from the schools that are already existing for many years working very hard , offering outdoor summer dancing....... and who return to the community with schools that turn out new dancers and attendance at milongas and events.
    It would also be nice if organizers can work together and coordinate , instead of shooting one another in the foot, so that special events don't conflict with one another. This also just divides the community even more.
    We have a nice tango community in Montréal and we are so lucky, but we have to protect what exists and what we do have by working together to develop Montréal as a leading North American Tango city.
    "Buenos Aires du Nord "

  2. Yes, our community needs to be more united. But there are no easy solutions, unfortunately. Thank you for your thoughts and comments. ;)

  3. “One of the signs of life in a community is the creation of links with others. An inward-looking community will die of suffocation. Living communities are linked to others, making up a huge reservoir of love for the world… communities being born and reborn will be alike without ever even knowing each other… It is a sign of maturity for a community to bind itself in friendship with others; it knows its own identity, so doesn’t need to make comparisons. It loves even the differences which distinguish it, because each community has its own gift which must flourish. These communities are complementary; they need each other…” -Jean Vanier