THE GOALS OR “WHAT IS GOOD TANGO”?
"Art is the making of things well."
- Ananda Coomaraswami
"There are two kinds of music - good and bad."
- Louis Armstrong
"There is no such thing as new tango. Some just play it better than others."
- Anibal Troilo
"El tango es uno."
Is there such a thing as good tango? Or does each dancer decide which is good for him- or herself? Is there such a thing as bad tango? Or is all tango good? Most people would say that some people do it better than others. Some people are just more fun to dance with, and some also seem to have more fun with it than others. The next question is: how do they do it? Do some people just "have it", and others just "don't"? Does it get better automatically with practice? Or is it possible to work on it and make it better? It seems to me that the difference between tango as entertainment and tango as an art form is largely in what the dancers are looking for. It only becomes a serious art form if a practitioner has a vision of what constitutes good art and is actively working on moving his or her practice in that direction. It is even better if a number of practitioners share a common vision and are moving towards it together. Otherwise, tango easily becomes hedonistic - just milking it for all the enjoyment that it can easily provide - or narcissistic - using it to create and support some kind of outward image of oneself.
Among the tango old-timers - dancers who caught the golden age of the tango in the 1940's and 1950's - there existed a somewhat coherent understanding of good tango. Some insightful remarks which I have heard from them over the years are presented in the Old-Timers Speak section. But their vision was never very well articulated. It was more of an intuitive sense, where people knew good dancing from bad dancing, good music from bad music, but could not explain very well why it was good. Nowadays, even such intuitive sense is greatly diminished. We become easily lost in the sea of information and choices, easily swayed by external flash, commercialism, and often arbitrary public opinion. Many people are also under the influence of modern "relativism", believing that, especially in art, what is good for one person is bad for another, so we might as well drop the question. Such philosophy has let a lot of low quality art flourish. It is now more important than ever to have a clear vision in one's practice of an art form. For an art form to grow and persevere through generations, a common understanding of what constitutes good art is necessary. Otherwise, it may be rapidly degenerating - for who is making sure it is not? It took years for me to be able to somehow define for myself a vision of what generally constitutes good tango dancing. With this website, I hope to help others with clarity on this issue.
What is "good" tango? Is it the one that looks the best? Sells the best? Does the most? Is it the tango that is most Argentine? Good art in general, in my opinion, is primarily about an ecstatic experience of the artist, a more evolved interaction than what is commonly available. As Leo Tolstoy put it, good art is a “contagion”. Non-practitioners are usually inspired by it because they perceive in it a metaphor of how ecstatic their own interactions can potentially become, or it reminds them of the best experiences which they have had or long for. (Even an idea that is transmitted art, is an inner experience of a kind.) In some cases, on-lookers are moved to take up the practice of an art immediately upon seeing it, so clearly it is an ecstatic activity in itself (this is what happened to me when I saw tango). In addition to all this, the purest art is evolutionary art. It is such an art in which achieving more ecstatic states is dependent on a more general self-improvement of the artist, his personal evolution. This is when art attains its highest meaning for the practitioner, not just for the audience. Such approach can be used in many different arts, and tango is particularly suited for it, as I explain in the Tango And Conscious Evolution section.
What makes for an ecstatic experience? What are the aspects of a more evolved interaction? We may never find a definite and final answer to such questions. Nevertheless, we can find an answer to them at any given point in history. A perfect consensus may be impossible, but some common vision is necessary. Without it, there is no overall progress, neither in art, nor in ourselves as human beings. A good starting point is to acknowledge what anyone would want to experience in the practice of an art form, if he or she only could. To agree on such things is to begin piecing together a common artistic vision. The following are some examples of what I believe most people would want to experience in tango dancing:
- Freedom. Freedom of "what" - the variety of choreographic possibilities and the ability to use them at will; freedom of "when" - the ability to vary the tempo of one's movement in accordance with the music; freedom of "how" - the energy, the tone of movement.
- Integrity. The dissolution of boundaries, the merging of parts into an integral whole, the unity with the partner, the music, the space, the ground. The integrity of the body, when it moves as one, from the center, according to its natural design; the integrity of partner connection, when the couple feels like a joint psycho-physical being; the musical integrity - when one's dancing seems to unfold as though by itself, in harmony with the music; the integrity of choreography - when each move seems to flow out naturally, without manipulation or artificiality.
- Spontaneity. Improvised, unpremeditated dancing, when neither of the partners knows or plans what happens next, yet dancing that is not arbitrary, but spontaneously appropriate to the music and the surrounding space.
- Refinement of Effort. Ease, relaxation, when dancing does not take much more effort than standing or walking, but also a refinement of effort in one's standing and walking in themselves. As cellist Pablo Casals told his students, "There is no limit to how relaxed you can be". The more effortless the dancing, the less physical, the more magical it feels.
- Precision. An accurate perception of the position and movement of the partner's body, and a precise direction of one's own.
- Simplicity. Nothing unnecessary. A minimum of manipulation, artificiality, contrivance. Zero technique. Just good natural walking. In the words of painter Henri Matisse, "The maximum variety of sensations with a minimum of means".
- Unlimited potential for improvement. The tango that keeps providing us with ecstatic experiences is the tango that keeps getting better all the time - ecstasy means transcending, "standing outside" of the old boundaries. Tango is an art form of unlimited potential, we just have to learn how to tap it.
- Cultural Metaphor. Tango is, at least potentially, a culturally significant art form. It is a rare psycho-physical interaction in which one's psychological and cultural attitudes inevitably find expression. It is a mirror of all one's problems and "issues", but also a great opportunity to work on them. Similarly to the best of martial arts, tango can be a way to train the body, the mind, and even strengthen the spirit, though so far ways to do that have not been clearly articulated (more on this in the Tango And Conscious Evolution section).
- Well-Functioning Practice. At its best, tango is a meaningful cultural ritual. It is a way for people to meet on the basis of a progressive activity, develop themselves, and share an experience. Many people I know flocked to tango because it provided them with a more meaningful way to come together with others. For a serious tango practitioner, a regular well-functioning group practice is essential to be able to work on all the above attributes. Tango is best developed in a group setting, where people are free to dance comfortably, watch each other and change partners if they wish to do so. The quality of the space, the floor, the music, and the adherence to certain codes which let this ritual function smoothly are all very important (more on this in The Practice section).
It is most important to view all the mentioned qualities not as separate pieces of the puzzle, but as aspects of one thing which could be called "good tango". Good tango is impossible to specify fully with words or concepts, especially because the ultimate goal of it keeps receding like the horizon, but it is nevertheless possible to move towards it. The right progress is the one that results in a harmonious improvement of all the desired qualities. If one is on the right track, one never has to sacrifice precision for the sake of freedom, or integrity for the sake of spontaneity. This is what is meant by the old saying "el tango es uno" - "there is only one tango". If one’s artistic practice is moving in the right direction, such qualities as freedom, integrity, spontaneity, effortlessness, precision, simplicity all develop at the same time.
One may ask: but what about the different styles of tango? Are some of them better than others? The answer is that the ultimate tango is no-style. The various existing styles are just different sets of priorities and compromises, if examined carefully. For example, the "close-embrace" style puts the top priority on the closeness and the constancy of the connection, while sacrificing many choreographic possibilities and freedom of individual body movement, while "tango nuevo" does the opposite, sacrificing the embrace for the sake of more choreographic and movement freedom. The ultimate tango is both close and free, both sensual and choreographically varied. The different styles can be seen as different paths or approaches to tango, but tango itself does not want to confine itself to any "style". The best tango is the one in which one is free to experience the most desirable qualities of this dance which we can imagine and generally agree upon.
THE FOUR ASPECTS
Tango is a multi-faceted interaction. The deepest aspect of it is the interaction with our own consciousness, as in any serious art form. This aspect permeates all others – it is by means of conscious approach that we are able to analyze the dance at all. That aside, I like to isolate four major aspects of this dance:
Tango is recognized most generally for its choreography, which is based on rhythmical walking in an embrace with the partner. It also has certain characteristic coordinations of the partners' lower bodies, for which this dance has been called "a dialogue of the feet". At its best, this dialogue is a spontaneous improvisation.
Tango has a particular rhythmical flavor, which can be distinguished by ear even if one is not watching anyone dance. Unlike most other styles of dance music, it is a "walking rhythm". In Buenos Aires, particularly in the 1940's this music reached very high levels of sophistication. The dance became accordingly refined. There developed a great freedom in pausing, slowing down, speeding up, and syncopating.
Tango is usually danced very close with the partner. The hands are usually calm, maintaining an embrace, the bodies are either in contact or very close to each other. At best, the partners form an organic whole which can feel as a common body with four legs, while at the same time keeping the integrity and the freedom of individual movement.
One of the greatest features of this dance is that, ideally, it is based on good natural walking. Hence the known saying of the old-timers "Dancing tango is like walking in the street". No special technique, no special "skip, hop, or jump" is required, if one knows how to walk well. Learning how to develop proper natural movement is at once the hardest and the most liberating practice in this dance.
I will discuss each of these in detail in the corresponding sections. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that this dance depends most fundamentally in good body conditioning, and after that in good partner connection. As those two improve, the freedom of musicality and choreography opens up as if by itself. The most effective work on one's tango can be likened to a tree, with the body conditioning as the roots, partner connection as the trunk, musicality as the branches and choreography as the leaves and the flowers. The strengthening of the root is what enables everything else to grow. In this web site, I will discuss the "tree" from the top down - this way when I get to "the roots", it will be clear how the more fundamental aspects enable everything "above" them. In practice, this dance grows from the bottom up:
THE CONSCIOUS AND THE UNCONSCIOUS. THE NO-THING.
The difficulty of the conscious approach is that good art is beyond all words, concepts, mental images. The ultimate artistic experience is largely intuitive, where something that was not originally part of our nature becomes second nature, or as though a new instinct. It is a result of "implanting", "appropriating" a new function deep enough into the subconscious. The dancing (or the singing, the painting, the writing) then comes out like a birdsong, a gust of wind, or the breath of an infant - free from artifice, "growing out of the Unconscious", in the words of Zen master D.T.Suzuki. This does not mean that consciousness is somehow eliminated or put to sleep - in fact, in such states one is often more alert than ever. But the activity becomes free from conscious deliberation, from any arbitrary choice; things begin to feel spontaneously appropriate - somehow perfectly fitting the situation, yet unpremeditated. It feels as though something bigger than the artist is acting through him or her. Psychologist Mihaliy Cszintsentmihaliy calls such states "flow" (see "Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience"). Eugen Herrigel's archery master said that the right shot is when "It" shoots, not the archer. In "spiritual" martial arts of the East such states were referred to as the states of "no-mind". Consciousness must learn how to get out of the way of instinct, spontaneity, the unconscious, so that the artistic process becomes as harmonious as the processes of nature. The main problem is that an untrained mind tends to become attached to fixed patterns. It can be a fixed idea of what the art is or should be, a fixed technique which is believed necessary, personal patterns by which an artist asserts his distinction from others, or a fixation on some circumstances which supposedly prevent one from making good art. All of those are obstacles to higher states of being which can potentially be achieved through an art form. The more of such fixed structures build up, the more they block the spontaneity, intuition, flow.
In order to keep one’s artistic development “unblocked”, the principle of “no-thing” is very useful. In thinking about the objectives - what tango is or strives to be - it is best to keep the ideas simple and general, leaving more room for a spontaneous discovery of it in the process of dancing. But the “no-thing” principle is even more essential in developing the right means of accomplishing all those objectives. The less “mechanism”, “technique”, “exact procedure”, the better. At its best, tango can feel amazingly natural, where both the communication and the dancing itself are accomplished simply through good natural movement. To get to that point is difficult, and most people at one point or another begin relying on some artificial techniques. The challenge is to then gradually dissolve those techniques, getting rid of all artificiality, primarily through developing proper natural body coordination (see Body Conditioning section). This task is very difficult also because we tend to adopt anti-natural patterns half-consciously or even altogether unconsciously. We must first become aware of this half-conscious artifice, of exactly how we have strayed away from natural grace, and then learn how to undo the damage. As the means become simpler and more natural, as the physical body is purified, it begins to feel more like nothing – no thing in particular. The same principle applies to other means of the art of tango, such as partner connection – in the end, it is no-thing in particular, nothing that the conscious mind should hold on to. It is through such purification and refinement of means that we become freer and freer in the expression of both our instinctive powers and our conscious artistic vision.
Good art is something that wants to happen, and all we have to do is get rid of the obstacles. Some of the biggest obstacles are the indirect means – techniques, mechanisms, adjustments, corruptions of good natural functioning. What feels as “nothing” is actually an opening of the way for a more spontaneous creativity, for there is always a wealth of “something” in our instincts on one side and our imagination on the other. The principle of “no-thing” is about the freedom from artificial means and rigid concepts. All the principles I talk about here are potential freedoms; not the fixed “should’s”, but rather the “should-not’s”. This is why it is said that out of the void arise true freedom, infinite possibilities, and spontaneously appropriate action.
"When you do not forget everything, when you go on thinking about performing with the hands and the feet well and dancing accurately, you cannot be said to be skillful. When the mind stops in the hands and the feet, none of your acts will be singular. If you do not completely discard the mind, everything you do will be done poorly."
- Zen Master Takuan Soho