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New “Nuevo Tango” Sacrifices Tradition and Grace

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Tango is back, the kids are dancing it in Buenos Aires and worldwide, and this is a good thing. It was relegated for many years — especially in Argentina, where it was born — to the status of an old dance done by old people in a rickety sort of way. There were several reasons for this.

Rock and roll came to Argentina in the 1960’s with the same force with which it went everywhere. An entire generation of Argentines was raised on the music of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all those bands that followed after them. Tango became a kind of relic.

Politics also played a roll. When the Argentine military overthrew Isabel Perón’s government in 1976, tango encountered the disfavor of the ruling generals and the oligarchy that for the most part supported them. Tango dance and music was a product of the by far more populous lower classes, definitely a blue-collar phenomenon.

If all those syndicalists were getting together to dance tango in those huge music halls, they must surely be plotting against the junta as well. Many of the dance halls were closed. Tango was labeled as a smutty undertaking beneath the notice of a properly respectful society, and it wilted as a popular art form.

It was by no means obliterated, though, and musicians and dancers continued developing the form in many important ways. Astor Piazzolla’s revolutionary ascendancy, after all, to world fame as a composer and performer was well under way by the mid-seventies.

Superb dancers like Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves who, ten years later, brought their great stage shows to Paris and then the United States — thus re-energizing the world’s awareness of tango — were then working on their dance in little Buenos Aires clubs and practice rooms and kitchens, honing the art that would eventually bring them such fame.

Tango suffered nonetheless for many years, ignored by the large masses of people that had once worshipped it – an erotic, mournful antique. Now it is center stage once again, in every major city on every continent. Classes, shows, videos, film, writing, and the graphic arts all celebrate tango now, and there seems to be no end in sight. The best part about this is that people under 30-years-old are dancing and teaching tango.

Under the tutelage of such as Gustavo Naveira, Fabian Salas, Geraldine Rojas, Eziquiel Paludi, Federico and Ariadne Naveira, Mariela Franganillo, Pablo Pugliese, and their advanced students — youthful maestros who well understand and respect the traditions of old tango and are adding to those traditions new dance sequences of breath-taking innovation and beauty — the new Argentine tango is a thing to behold. This is terrific, but there is also a broad sweep of unintended hilarity accompanying a lot of the tango being danced now. I had at first thought this was taking place only outside of Argentina.

There is a kind of (for lack of a better term) tribal European dance that many people believe is tango, which is indeed called tango, in which the basic precepts of Argentine tango dance are being ignored, things like a proper lead, following the music, knowing the history of the dance and the music, respecting your partner, dressing well. These are concepts one would think would be the bread and butter of tango, which has traditionally been the most difficult social dance in the world, and one of the most beautiful.

The complications of the dance, as with tango music, have been codified over the years to a remarkable degree, and the proper doing of the dance requires the things mentioned above, especially if you plan to innovate within the form. You must pay attention to these things and master them, so your innovations will have the profound intensity found in the historical dance.

Without this knowledge and attention to detail, the dance becomes a bit of bullet-headed clumsiness, of airy nothing. It is a lot of pointless fooling around, something not Mediterranean, something that looks like it came from a northern German rite of spring or some such.

I call it Playground Tango.

There is a great deal of this in North America and Europe, and it is all quite self-congratulatory. It represents a break from the old. Indeed it looks down its nose at the old as “revolutionary,” “alternative,” and “organic.”

You can see it at DNI Tango at Corrientes 2140 in Buenos Aires. A studio where classes in tango are offered and practices are held, DNI is the current venue of choice in Buenos Aires among the dancers of this, well, new “nuevo tango.” The studio is a wonderful place, a series of high-ceilinged rooms with original appointments in a late 19th century building at one end of the Buenos Aires theater district. Avenida Corrientes is very frequently mentioned in tango lyrics, and there is strong evidence on this street of artistic adventure, show-biz pizazz, and the working theater arts.

The average age of DNI’s clientele appears to be under thirty. The women — many of them — dance pretty well. A lot of them have obviously been trained in dance since childhood and so have the basics for the intent, graceful movement, exquisite balance, sense, and sophistication that tango requires.

The men, however, missed out on all this. In Europe and North America, there are countless young men who dance Playground. It features a lot of muscular, quick movement that is graceless – like eight-year-olds in a game of Tag. The fundamentals of fine tango movement are treated as though they are of no consequence. There is a complicated attempt to do variations on many of the older tango dance steps and sequences (sacadas, molinetes, boleos, volcadas), all of great age and developed with intense finesse by superb dancers over a century and a half.

The trouble is, these new fellows don’t know how to do those steps. Their efforts at innovating new variations are comic and dunderheaded. They stumble. They trip. They make aggressively mean-spirited moves that appear, in the end, purposeless. Skateboarding seems more important here than tango.

All this would simply be funny-looking if what they were doing were not so clearly indifferent to the safety of and respect for their partners. These men look like they’re wrestling with the women or perhaps boxing with them. Although it’s obvious to me that a lot of the women want to appear hip and current and on the cutting edge, they are also clearly hurting when it comes to what their partners are doing to them.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. The women with whom these fellows dance appear to be of no importance to them. If you can make your partner — who has at least some chops as a tango dancer — look bad, then you’ve failed.

I witnessed a couple of “advanced” lessons at DNI, and found this style of dance is actually being taught there – in Buenos Aires, of all places. It was obvious there was little learning in it, so it was difficult for me to tell what wisdom was being imparted, and I left.

Incidentally, with regard to dressing well, tango traditionally puts a premium on that, and there’s a strong artistic reason for doing so. When it is danced by people who know how to dance it, tango is a sensuous undertaking of direct erotic power and great feeling. Dressing well for it gives it even more of this power because the elegance of the dress enhances the fires rising from the soul and the heart.

The fires, as it were, hide themselves within the clothing. They smolder there. They’re fanned by suggestion and nuance. They begin to appear as the result of the erotic give-and-take between two very involved dancers, and when the flames finally break out, they are truly incendiary.

When you look like a skateboarder in your baggy cargo-pants or intentionally tattered tennis warm-up suit, when you have a beard that has not been trimmed since the day you began growing it a few weeks ago, when you’re wearing a sweat-band around your forehead that has a faded New York Knicks logo on it, and when you’re dancing in scuffed Wal-Mart athletic shoes, you’re not letting yourself shine.

Better to take the time — a few years, at least — to study the basics of tango with real masters so you can actually dance the thing. Applying yourself to it in this way puts you on the inside of a cultural revolution in which the greatest art form ever to come from South America is being revised and refined to its own great benefit. The fellows at DNI — and so many other places around the world — are not part of it.

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About Terence Clarke

  • Geoff

    The author seems to have visited a DNI in an alternate reality: what he describes is a travesty of a studio I know quite well.

    I have found them to be a remarkably consistent and effective set of teachers. Furthermore their tecnica is both self consistent and effective – and is a totally different matter from style.

    I am particularly surprised by the comment that in DNI they didn’t concentrate on the lead and the music. My experience has been quite different – in all the classes I have attended there these have been matters of particular concern!

    As to the question of dress – well, it’s a social dance and the mood is pretty casual now. As a friend, who is a well Tango Teacher put it a couple of years ago when he changed his style “I realised it’s not the 1940s any more.”

    I don’t find this article either accurate or helpful.

  • SSpar

    I don’t have a lot of experience in dancing, but what I realized after watching and dancing (leading as well as following) Tangos, Salsas, Forros and other latin dances, and watching some incredible Indian Classical dancers is that: One has to dance dance what he or she HEARs in the music. That is what makes a good dance. The styles, tradition are secondary. No matter what you just have to dance your personality, with honesty.

  • http://www.dancewithdanny.co.uk danny israel

    Let me get my apology in first. Sorry Terence, but you are wrong. My first point is that tango belongs to Argentines and they can do what they want with it. We, outside Argentina, are privileged to take part. We should keep quiet. My second is that tango, like everything else, must evolve or die. Bleating about a lost elegance, or something, helps nobody, even if it were true that it was lost. My third is that whatever damage tango nuevo might be doing to milonguero or salon tango, if any, it is nothing compared to the damage that we, outside Agentina, have done to tango with ballroom tango, allegedly elegant, but actually insincere, trite and pedestrian.
    Last night at Villa Malcolm, the home of tango nuevo in Buenos Aires, I would suggest, I saw some uninteresting and predictable milonguero performances by couples competing in the early rounds of the current BsAs tango competition, and then sat spell bound as nuevo dancers took the floor during the milonga itself. They completely blew me away, the speed, the energy, the elegance, the integrity, the creativity, the strength of connection. It’s the ability of nuevo dancers to extend orthodox boleos, ganchos, piernazos, the entire language of tango, into areas of creative expression which we never knew were there, which was so impressive and which left me reeling, and I speak as a veteran of ten years or so. Tango is a living breathing thing always in need of revitalization, and the nuevo dancers are providing the new vitality. I suspect that I will look back on Villa Malcolm with great satisfaction, and that I will be able to say to my grandchildren, I was there. Oh, and I, like Geoff, do not recognize your description of DNI, with which I am also familiar.

  • jantango

    Terrance,

    All I can say is BRAVO for accurately describing how this thing called new tango has no resemblance to the original.

    I have seen the gradual change taking place because I have lived in Buenos Aires for the past ten years. Schools teach what people will buy as tango. A simple dance by a milonguero may not impress an audience, but then the milonguero isn’t dancing for them–he is dancing for himself and his partner. This is missing in the tango of the younger generation who believe it’s all about speed, energy, and complicated moves to impress. Who cares about fancy voleos and ganchos? The marketing hype in tango is brain-washing dancers into believing that “nuevo” is the future of tango and it must evolve.

    Tango doesn’t need revitalizing. It is all it needs to be as a dance. That’s why it has lasted so long. The classics never go out of style. We still dance to music that was composed 100 years ago.

    I haven’t been to DNI but I accept your description of what goes on there. So many are confused about tango because they have never taken the time to learn its history. To do that we all need another lifetime.

    Thanks for writing what had to be said about “playground tango.” We can only hope that when the children grow up, they will become wiser and find tango’s true essence. We know they won’t be dancing tango the way they learned it at Villa Malcolm.