Sunday, 2 November 2008

The meaning of tango - a talk

Anyone who has done both to order knows that writing is denser than speech. It takes a lot less time to read and understand difficult ideas in written form than it does to explain them face to face, and if you write a speech or presentation as though you were writing an essay, you will grossly overrun your time.

Conversely, if you pace a book as though you were giving a lecture, it reads as though you think the reader is a halfwit. This, for me, is the stylistic flaw of The Meaning of Tango, the content of which is interesting but which I have still not managed to read right through. And I think the content deserves better printing and a less timewasting font. But I had a literary, academic education, and not everyone's expectations of books are the same as mine.

However, last week I went to a lecture by the author, and it struck me that it would be very nice if the book were revised for TV. The lecture was more or less a mixture of two chapters, and was mainly about the historical evolution of the music and the dance and their relationship to each other.

A crucial point was that the shortage of women at a certan time, and consequent intense competition among the men, created vigorous selection pressure towards a specific basic technique. This technique is difficult for the leader to learn, requiring a lot of effort and time, but is very hard to improve upon in how it feels for the woman. Ms Denniston distinguished between this universal "Golden Age" technique, and local variations of style, which she showed us with a partner. These, she argued, made no difference to getting dances, except perhaps as matters of local custom or personal preference. A thousand flowers might bloom. But if you did not master the technique, you would be toast.

Most of the rest of the lecture was a chronological survey of music, with some discussion of the Spanish and Italian influences, tango as art song, and the influence of music and dance on each other. This of course is far more interesting and useful with recordings and demonstrations than it is, or can be, written down. And I needn't assume that it's all correct to benefit and want to know more.

I don't know if it's possible to say how far any of the historical information about how people used to dance is actually true. But Ms Denniston has probably done the best that can be done in that direction, by talking to the oldest tango dancers she could find, asking them how it used to be done, and trying to make some sort of sense of what they said. What those people's motivations were in talking to her, how accurate their perceptions and memories, how strict their regard for truth, how wild their flights of fancy, and what they imagined she wanted to hear, are anybody's guess.

But these are things it's worthwhile to research and record, and I'm glad that she's done it. The book includes quite a few assertions I found surprising, some of them contradicting interesting people in interesting ways. For example, she emphatically contradicts what Jorge Dispari has to say about the man's right hand. It also has the usual amount of "Tango does X more than any other dance" which seem like platitudes unless you ask "how do you know?" But those are mere signals of friendship to the reader, and not meant to be literally or critically examined.

The book is still available at milongas around London, and at for, currently, £6.99. But I'd really recommend the lecture more.

The talk was followed by a really nice milonga. Some people had come further than usual for the event, so I met and danced with people I wouldn't normally. If I have inadvertently transmitted the office cold, which I suspect may be about to declare itself, to a new home on the Tyne, I apologise.


Game Cat said...

Ms H, nice review of the book/ lecture. Sounds interesting....especially like the Darwinian idea of "selection pressure" driving towards a basic technique that is difficult to lead and maximises satisfaction for the follower. Reminds me of Negracha on Fri/Sat from 1 AM onwards (and Yes I know what you think of the place).

However is it not possible to argue that what followers find "satisfying" is itself evolving/diversifying? E.g. tango nuevo, too many ganchos, boleos, calesitas? How many still enjoy a good walk that makes full use of the melody, phrasing, light & shadow of a piece of music?

Can't recall what Jorge said about the right hand (or arm?). I think the main point is that it has to communicate what the rest of the leader's body and soul is trying to do, rather than just be a lifeless back-rest for the follower. It should do no more or less.

And if you're presenting symptoms....hope you get well soon!

msHedgehog said...

Negracha is fine after 1am, apart from the expense and the dirt, both of which may be fixed one day. That's when it starts to get good.

What Jorge said is behind the link, and was more or less the same as what you said. What the book says is that that hand should not even touch the follower's back (page 127).

msHedgehog said...

As for the rest of what you said, yes, it makes sense. You have to experience something enough to enjoy it, and in most classes there is no route to learning what it's supposed to feel like.

Anonymous said...

MsHedgehog said "Negracha is fine after 1am, apart from the expense and the dirt, both of which may be fixed one day. That's when it starts to get good." AMEN. May I had: "and when somebody bothers to actually DJ".