Argentine Tango for TV Viewers

TV viewers curious about tango, this is for you. Tango people know this already, but might have someone they want to share it with. 

Strictly Come Dancing is great TV and inspires a lot of people to go out and get some partner dancing in their lives. But what is presented as "Argentine tango" is an imitation, designed to score well and please the public. It's nothing like the real thing. I'd like to give you a really quick video introduction.

What do I mean by the 'real thing'?  The real thing is not about judges or an audience, and it's not about telling a story - it's about embracing your partner and dancing to music. It's not art. It's not sport. It's play. It looks completely different.

The real thing is improvised by the couple, and not choreographed in advance. That will be true of all the videos I'm going to show you, even though most of them are performances, and not social dancing. They're done for other dancers, not the public. I'll come back to social dancing in a moment, and show you that too. But it's easier to understand when you can watch just one couple at a time.

I've chosen this first video because it's top-quality dancing, in a real tango embrace, to real tango music. If this is all new to you, watch the way they hold each other, and listen as you watch their legs move. You can see clearly how they're dancing to the music, as though their bodies were making sounds. This particular couple are superstars at what they do, and very popular as teachers right now.

[Carlitos Espinoza and Noelia Hurtado in Marseille. Music: Porque Regresas Tú, Di Sarli/Florio]

In social dancing, which is what tango really is, the couples are not fixed. You dance with whoever you like, with friends and with complete strangers, and you all dance together on one floor, circulating anticlockwise. The music is played in sets of three or four songs and you dance a set with one person, then change or rest.

Tango doesn't have a 'basic step,' in any useful sense, beyond simply walking in an embrace. How the joint-improvisation-to-the-music process works takes a lot of explaining, and I will not attempt that here. It's a set of skills you have to learn. The point is that neither of you has to know at any time exactly what you're going to do next, you decide while you do it. Which, when you think about it, makes a lot of sense for dancing socially on a crowded floor with other couples.

The next video shows the same couple as above, but dancing socially, so you can get a mental picture of what this is like. Notice how absorbed in the dance they are, and watch them disappear at the end.

[Carlitos Espinoza and Noelia Hurtado in Amsterdam]

If any of what I've said so far has blown your mind, hold that thought, you're on the right track.

Now, you need to know that tango is a musical genre, the Golden Age of which was in the Thirties and Forties. It's very hard to understand the dance or the music separately, you have to consider them together.

On Strictly Come Dancing they don't use this kind of music, so, on many people's definition, they can't be "dancing tango".  They do sometimes use 'neo tango' music, but that's really a different (related) genre. There's a long, important story there about music and dance that I'm going to have to skip for now.

On the other hand, tango technique is very powerful, and you can use it to construct an improvised partner dance to practically anything. Contemporary dancers sometimes find it very interesting.

This next video uses a classic track called "Emancipación," recorded by the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese. Pugliese's music is very intense, taking time to build, and here you can see how tango is all about how it feels between the couple, and not how it looks. If you can't focus this powerful music inside the couple, and ride it, then you'll end up all over the place when you try to dance to Pugliese. If you can do it, it's an intense experience, which you have to be unafraid of. Notice how the music changes around 02:05 and 03:05, and listen and watch how Monica's feet - and whole body - move from around 02:35 to 03:00. We're going right back to the roots here, with a demo by two Argentinian regulars of the hard-core traditional dances in Buenos Aires.

[Antonio Martinez and Monica Paz in Buenos Aires]

See the audience? All those people will be dancing, in a minute.

For an entertaining and informative guide to tango music, read Mike Lavocah's excellent book "Tango Music Secrets" and listen to the Spotify playlist that comes with it. There's great stuff earlier and later than the Golden Age, and there is also tango being recorded and played live now. In my personal opinion, compared to the Golden Age music, it is less successful at balancing rhythm, emotion, form, and melody in the best way for dancing. But the gigs can be excellent.

Broadly speaking, there are three varieties of tango music with different rhythms. Tango has a walking rhythm. Milonga has a little skip to it, called habañera; and vals is a waltz rhythm, but [danced] slower than the Viennese kind. This next video has tango and milonga, in that order, and then a clip of social dancing at the end. This couple are not particularly well known, but they're superb social dancers and I love watching both of them in any context. See how perfectly calm, comfortable, and absorbed they are, and how they flow and pause with the music.

[Alexis Quezada and Céline Giordano in Montpellier]

Most of these videos are demonstrations, for audiences of experienced social dancers, by professionals who teach the social-dancing skills I just mentioned. So, although they are performances for an audience, they still look totally different from stage dancing.

Now I'm going to show you part of the missing link between all this, and what you see on stage or on TV.  This is possibly the most famous professional tango couple (they no longer work together), dancing milonga and showing off a bit. These two would be idols for a lot of people who dance in tango stage shows.

[Geraldine Rojas and Javier Rodriguez in 2004, no idea where]

They dance in a more eye-catching way than the other videos (other people do more, usually less well). The audience is expecting a bit of flash. But they're not doing anything here that's completely alien to social dancing. You might notice they didn't let go of each other, or strike any poses. They walked up to each other and danced together, to the music, until it stopped.

They do the same thing in the next one, with some more elements the Strictly viewer might recognise. This is a very well-known and popular tango called "Poema". Their movements - even the sharper, bigger ones - are soft, flowing, graceful, balanced, self-contained, and motivated by the music. They're totally together. I'd draw your attention to 02:22-02:30, and 02:38 - this is what those things are supposed to look like.

[Javier Rodriguez and Geraldine Rojas in Taipei]

This recording of "Poema" is from the very successful orchestra of Fransisco Canaro, with their greatest singer, Roberto Maida. Notice that although it has a very regular and clear beat, the beat is not loud, sharp, relentless or dominant. It's energetic, but crunchy and elastic, like a breathing animal, not a machine.

Now I'll show you a couple I happen to know and like a lot. This is a vals, since I haven't used one yet. I want you to notice how she often closes her eyes, just like people do when dancing socially, and smiles a lot, but to herself rather than at the audience. She's having fun. This couple are not particularly  famous, but have a high reputation as teachers among those who do know they exist. They're aiming to show students and potential students something that's beautiful, pleasurable, practical for social dancing, and attainable (with work).

[Carole Beauxis and Bernard Casas-Reales in Devon]

I don't think it makes much sense to criticise the dancing on Strictly. I wouldn't criticise their tango technique, because they're not using any. It would be unrealistic to expect the ballroom-latin-competition professionals to learn a totally different and incompatible set of skills just for one week of the show, and they don't, they just use a slightly adapted ballroom hold (the tango specialists use some stage tango technique, but they still dance mostly apart so that you don't notice the difference).

As far as I can tell, they design the 'tango' choreographies to be danced and taught by a ballroom-latin professional who knows no tango technique, and would never improvise. They design them to show off whatever the amateur has to offer, and to look passably similar to stage-tango, provided that you don't know how tango actually works. They tell conventional stories that seem appropriate, provided that you don't know what's actually exciting about tango.

They choose the music and design the costumes in the same way, and that makes perfect sense.

The most striking thing to my eyes about tango clips from Strictly is how dilute they look. They hardly ever embrace each other for more than a few seconds, usually for a lift. They spend a lot of time nowhere near each other, or pretending to have an argument. There's no suggestion that the music makes anybody feel like dancing with another person, which is what tango music does and what tango people do. The 'passion' is restricted to a few conventional ideas.

On the other hand, they sometimes communicate something beautiful that brought you here.

Francesca Bertelli, who is married to Antonio Martinez (see the third video above) told me once about something they do in their beginners' class in Tuscany. They start by just getting the students to embrace each other, like you can see Antonio and Monica do in that video - and stand there for an entire track. Then they ask - how did you feel about that? If it was difficult for you, do you feel that is something you want to overcome, you can overcome, or do you feel this is just not for you?

Because overcoming that is step one, and you have to make a choice to do that. You get to walk in an embrace, all night long, to some really emotional music (lots of different emotions), with, if you wish, any number of friends or total strangers. You don't need to know them, fancy them, or have a spoken language in common. The only rule is that each of you wants to dance with the other. This is so much fun that we're never quite sure why we don't get arrested.

Here are a couple of hundred people, from about twenty countries, dancing tango on a very hot day in Paris. The lady with the computer is the DJ. I was there.

What I'm telling you is that this is more interesting, more exciting, more meaningful and more beautiful, than what you've seen on TV.

If you have a friend who dances tango, they may worry that you think they dance, or dress, like the people on TV. If you're thinking of learning, teachers may worry that you will expect to learn faked kicks and flicks in a week, and insist on dancing in a crazy, stagey, antisocial way, and that you will be bored or upset by what they have to offer. Now, you won't make those mistakes.

There are very good, practical reasons why the real thing isn't on TV. It would be very nice if what is on TV could sometimes be more informed with knowledge of, and respect for, the real thing.

That's probably enough for now. This is long, and I've skipped over a lot of important things. I haven't said anything about how improvisation works, the learning process, the diversity of tango, or things people disagree about. I've just given you a picture of some fundamental ideas, and some top-quality dancing. There are lots of questions you might have. I hope you feel better informed.


More information
Beginners Questionnaire: how to decide whether the beginners class you've just taken was of acceptable quality.
Ent Tango with subtitles: an excellent walk-through of some basic technique.
Dance is not necessarily art: a short rant about limited concepts of dance in the media.
A post about styles: some teachers emphasise a particular 'style'. I advise the beginner to treat 'style' with caution. What you really want, as a beginner, is good general principles of technique. Style is something you make for yourself, once you're in a position to do so.
Balloons: a post about what good dances feel like.
For tango music, I recommend Mike Lavocah's book, Tango Music Secrets, and the playlist that goes with it. It's very entertaining as well as informative.

The other posts linked on the right hand side of this blog are a mixture of the most popular ones, and some of the ones that I think are interesting. I change the list occasionally.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I'd have included some clips of persons that are still within the Argentine tango fold but at the very fringes, to cover a wider spectrum of styles.

Just to show what 's still _just_ Argentine Tango, but still shares the traits described in the article.

Something like this, perhaps:

Preen and Ogle said...

Excellent post.

msHedgehog said...

@Anon - I actually considered including a different one of Chicho and Juana, and I absolutely agree that they have to be included in a proper overview, which this isn't, it's a brief introduction. Considering what Chicho himself has said about the relationship between his dance and teaching and tango in general, and my aim in this post (which is to stick strictly to the fundamentals), I decided this post wasn't the place for that. I'd quite like to do a future one about tango-nuevo, as it's been super important for the revival of tango (even if you think it's a complete flash in the pan).

MissB said...

Great piece of writing and inspirational choice of videos. Having danced Tango for so long was feeling slightly jaded. You reminded me why I LOVB Argentine Tango so much and why it will always be part of my life. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Lovely videos and a nice blog, but much too long for non tango dancers who don't watch Strictly either. Mention tango and the quickly yawn. Perhaps if it was 80% shorter my busy my non-dancing friend and family might spend the time to read what I do.

danceposa said...

Hi Any resson why you are keeping yourself anonymous? I cant see your TRUE ID anywhere. forgive me if its there somewhere. I like your post Would like to comment but hate talking to folk with a screen between them and me. rgds


msHedgehog said...

Hi Erico/danceposa: I am not anonymous, as anyone who really wants to find out who I am can do so with a little effort: for example, if they have a reason to want to know something in particular, they could email and ask me. But I have an old-fashioned sense of personal modesty and privacy which does not lead me to post irrelevant personal information about myself on the public internet. I do not earn any revenue from my blog, it is none of my employer's business, and I have no particular reason to impose association with it on my family, friends, or associates. The pressure to use "real" names everywhere (as though the pen-name everyone knows me by was in some sense not 'real', a ridiculous idea) is immature and antithetical to good manners, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful. I cannot explain tango adequately to my non-dancing friends, but this is perfect. Thank-you!

Terpsichoral said...

Superb. Thank you. Shared.

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this today and I couldn't agree with you more. Thank you so much for getting it all down. Especially the bit about spending an evening embracing and dancing with a host of friends, or strangers, having so much fun and wondering why we don't all get arrested. Often tango people think that this applies only to tango - but it can be equally true of rumba, or foxtrot of course. The main point is that real partner dance isn't choreographed, it's not done for the people watching but for the person you are dancing with. The dance has little to do with what each person has learned in a class and more to do with what those two people create on the floor at that moment.

Thank you again.