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Diego Gonzalez Mastrangelo

 

Fidelity to historical truth or novelty ?

The case of Argentine tango.

Mastrangelo, Diego Gonzalez: "Fidelity to historical truth or novelty?The case of Argentine tango", 17th International Congress on Dance Research, Naxos, 22-26/10, 2003.

1. Introduction - Reasons to focus on Argentine Tango

On reading about the dilemma presented by the 17th Annual Congress on Dance Research, Argentine tango immediately came to my mind [1]. Approximately twenty years ago tango started to change. It had remained almost the same since its origins, around 1890.

Two main currents can be distinguished in Argentine Tango today: the “old school” with its many variants, and the “new school”, which counts less than 20 years of existence and not so many variants yet [2]. Argentine Tango teachers of “the old” as well as “the new school” can be found today. Therefore, there is an old and traditional way of dancing Tango, along with a new and upcoming current defying “the old” system.

The purpose of the present paper is to examine the main differences between the two currents, as well as to demonstrate that through novelty (daring to challenge the “historical truth”) something new has emerged making us all richer, because now we have a wider spectrum to choose from.

2. Comparison between “the old” and “the new” styles of Argentine Tango.

2.1. Embrace

A feature that is often easily observed as a difference between the two schools is the distance separating the couple. In “the old” school the couple would remain in full contact with each other most of the time, one dancer’s upper body entirely against the other dancer’s upper body. In “the new school”, on the other hand, distance is only one more factor to be controlled by the one who leads. I once witnessed the expression of horror on the faces of an old couple of teachers of “the old” style, while watching a figure of “the new” style performed with a considerable distance separating the couple. Since distance is a factor in the new style, the couple can either dance in full contact as in “the old” style, or not. A greater distance separating the couple enhances the dancers’ possibilities of movement. Balance can also be considered as a notable difference between the two schools.

A couple dancing according to the "old" style will only have one center of gravity [4], as the partner’s upper bodies will be in constant contact and therefore working as a single unit. In the couple dancing according to the "new” style two centers of gravity can be found, one for each dancer, even when we dance closely.

2.2. Structure of the dance

The dance structure of the "old school” is similar to that of other dances, such as Rhumba, Cha cha cha, Mambo, etc. The dance is comprised of a collection of figures (3), each one containing 6, 8, or more steps. The dancer performes them in any order, generating in that way a unique “choreography” to each song. The “new school” has renounced figures as the structure of the dance, in order to focus on positions (in some way as those of classical ballet).

2.3. Connection between the couple’s movement and the music, or between the leader and the music

While dancing Tango each step falls into a single beat of the music or in between two beats. Hence a classic figure [3] containing 8 steps requires a time of at least 4 beats to perform it. A dancer of the "old school” identifies in a complicated way with the music. He has a group of figures in store, so his intention is to fit them into the song. Since those figures are made of 6, 8, or more steps each, the dancer needs to know the song in advance so as to find the right moment for each figure to take place. When he initiates a figure, he cannot be certain that the end of that figure will fit the music in the next 5 or 6 beats. The dancer of “the new school” is not attached to a series of 6, 8 or more “obligatory” movements. Thus it is easier for him to connect with the song at the time. He doesn’t have figures, but positions in store, and his intention is to fit them into the music. Each position is made up of one step. therefore the dancer has to be just one beat ahead of the song in order to connect the movement with it.

2.4. The role of leading

The debate as to whether the man, woman or both should be the leader lies beyond the objectives of the present paper. I will analyze the case of the man being the leader, for both “the old and the new schools”, as this is the case in which I am most experienced. When performing a figure the dancer of the "old school” is supposed to direct each of the woman’s movements, composing the figure from the beginning to the end. However, in practice, the man usually initiates the figure. The woman recognizes it and performs it by heart, or because she “feels it” or “understands it”. The result might be that men are not always quite capable of directing them.

The dancer of the "new school” actually leads each position each time, and the woman receives these messages practically an instant before they perform the movement. To learn how to lead the positions is usually harder at the beginning than to learn how to lead complete figures. Nevertheless, my experience has shown me that in the long run the liberty of expression together with the connection with the music achieved by those practicing the system of “the new school” is far superior to that accomplished by those practicing the system of “the old school”. Given the complexity of putting into words how this system works, a live performance will take place to complete this presentation.

2.5. The memory problem

The tango of the "old school”, as many other dances, is structured on figures, each one containing a certain amount of steps. The figures can be linked together in different order, and this gives the dance a certain degree of freedom, that takes away the boredom of repeating the same movements, thus making the dance more enjoyable. Let us consider a standard figure consisting of four established steps. Then let us suppose that a typical song lasts three minutes. Consequently if each figure of four steps can be executed in an interval of time of three seconds (like a basic figure of cha-cha dance), this means that sixty figures fit in one song. Then, in one hour one could dance twenty songs lasting three minutes each, which makes one thousand and two hundred figures! (1200) of four steps each. So the problem is not just how many figures exist in a social dance, but also how to remember them!

In the "old” system, figures are related to each other, but not in a clear or completely logical way. As a result, to remember a great amount of figures becomes a matter of practice, discipline and, of course, good memory. The structure of the system of the "new school” is almost mathematical, far clearer than the old one. Remembering the combinations between positions is just following a logical path. However, mastering this system also requires a lot of practice and discipline.

So, where is the difference? One might ask. The significant difference is that the structure of “the new school” is easily comprehensible, even if one is not capable of putting it into practice. And this understanding takes away the mythical huge figure of the Tango teacher that comprehends the impossible to understand, and whose skills are incomparable.

2.6. The female dancer

Considering that man is the leader, the female dancer of the "old school” usually identifies the figure at its beginning, and performs it by herself, from memory. Therefore the most qualified female dancer is probably the one who is more experienced, who knows and has followed hundreds and hundreds of figures through the years. This fact always created a notable “rank” difference between female dancers with many years of experience and those with just a few. As a result, it is difficult even for skilled young dancers to equal the ones who have fifteen or twenty years of experience. The situation changed when “the new school” emerged. The best female dancer is not necessarily the most experienced one anymore (of course experience does count!), but the one who reacts faster, is open to unexpected movements, keeps herself better balanced, moves lightly, characteristics that were not so decisive before (in “the old school”).

2.7. The cross and parallel systems

Argentine tango is, in my opinion, the first dance whose creators have named and clarified the two ways a couple can move together. More specifically we say that the couple dances on the “parallel system” when the man and the woman have their weight on different legs before the movement starts, and on the “cross system” when the man and the woman have their weight on the same leg before the movement starts. In this way we can dance entirely in one system or the other, or mix them.

3. General analysis of the dilemma “Fidelity to historical truth or novelty”

If by “fidelity to historical truth” we mean to restrain or hinder innovative actions and keep emulating what was created in the past, I think we are making a mistake. Why should the artistic productions of the past be considered “the truth”? Isn’t it that any artistic production is valuable in itself because it is the expression of the artist? Should the artistic productions of the past be considered superior to the contemporary merely because they were created first? Aren’t they both, the artistic productions of the past and the contemporary ones, the expression of men?

I strongly believe that art is the expression of the artist, and that different historical periods and circumstances determine the artistic production of men. Art has been constantly evolving since humans started creating it, and I believe it changes because society changes, the surroundings change, and time passes. I consider that the rejection of new ideas is related to the difficulty of the learning process. It is common knowledge that learning takes effort. To acquire some skill in a particular field takes at least a couple of years. So, once one has learned something, if that something is changing, it means they should start learning it again. I am convinced that this idea together with some others such us “to be used to”, “to be comfortable with”, “to have an advantage over”, “to be in control of”, create rejection. To my mind, learning is a never-ending process that is sometimes misconceived by those who believe themselves to have reached the category of teachers, and left the one of students. We should always have in mind, in my opinion, the following phrase: “A teacher is just an advanced student”.

4. What does tango have to offer to men and women? - A few words about Argentine tango

I will refer again to the case of the man in the role of the leader, and to the case of “the new school”. In my view, those who practice Tango might benefit from it in two ways. Tango offers male dancers the opportunity to express themselves while listening to music, since they are creating the “choreography” instantaneously, a unique and probably in all likelihood unrepeatable “choreography” -   a single work of art. Each tango should be recorded, in the way one takes notes of a chess game, because each game/dance is unique. A combination of movements of singular great beauty might appear, and if you do not catch it, a long time might pass before, or even if ever, it appears again.

Tango offers male dancers the rare possibility of making their female partners feel the way they understand and perform each song. One can perform a dance alone, reach an extremely deep affinity with the music, have strong feelings, and even let them reach the audience, and in that way share the art of dancing alone with the onlookers, thereby being able to share the joy that one experiences while performing.

In my opinion Argentine tango is sublime because you can make someone else directly experience your joy while dancing with her. It is like a present you give to someone. It is the most magical experience I have had while dancing, to connect with the music, and with your partner, and travel outside this world together. You can tell when it happens, because you feel gratitude towards her, towards the music, towards the universe.You can see the same feelings in her eyes, while you stand there on the dance floor waiting for the next tango, and you can have no words to express what you have just experienced.

While it is true that when men are leading, the women’s role lacks the creativity the men’s role has, it is also true that in this way women can enjoy and feel in their own bodies each man’s personal interpretation of the music. Perhaps they cannot dance exactly as they feel, but they can dance in many different ways, while men dance always just in their own way. That is, one of the advantages that Tango offers to women is that there is little possibility that they will ever get bored of their own style, because they never dance in the same way twice. Frequently I have heard many people (especially women, of course) say that when men are in full command of the role of leading (when the leading is not a shared activity) they cannot express themselves. I ask myself where is then the joy a dancer finds in executing a choreography created by someone else? Because this is tango - a choreographer performing together with the performer, a choreography that is created while being performed.

5. Conclusions

In the case of Argentine tango analyzed above, I don’t think that such a dilemma exists, because the "new” style can be thought of as an expansion of “the old” one. Novelty has widened the view, so “the new” tango contains the "old” one. The old figures can be led using the "new” system, but the opposite is hardly possible, given that the "new” Tango is too wide to be learned as a collection of figures. The "new” style is just a new form that preserves the old beauty, the old forbidden charm, the “sin” of two bodies moving as one. Argentine tango continues to evolve, and I reckon we shall see many dances evolve from it.

Notes

[1] In the present text “Argentine tango” or simply “tango” refers to the Argentine tango as a dance, to differentiate it from the Argentine tango as a musical style.

[2] I came across the new style when I first met Fabian Salas / Lucia Mazer. This couple together with Gustavo Naveira / Gisselle Anne have set the basis for this new style. You can see them both in the movie “The Tango Lesson”, in the choreography involving three men and a woman: Sally Potter, Fabian Salas, Gustavo Naveira and Pablo Veron.

I was shocked some years later at the possibilities of this new style when I first saw Mariano “Chicho” Frumboli / Lucia Mazer performing. Frumboli studied with them and together with Lucia Mazer had pushed the style even further, with unusual creativity, challenging most of the “historical truths” of Tango.

[3] I will borrow the term “figure” from ice skating to apply it to a pattern of movements performed on a dance floor.

[4] Center of gravity: It is a special point in a mechanical system (the mechanical system can be either a system of particles, such as a collection of atoms in a container, or an extended object, like a gymnast leaping through the air or a dancer moving over the dance floor) that moves as if all the mass of the system were concentrated at that point.

[5] The new style is also known as “Cosmotango”, in association with the CITA (Congreso Internacional de Tango Argentino) or Cosmotango Festival held yearly in Buenos Aires by Fabian Salas, where this new style meets its strongest presence.

References

Serway, Beichner, Physics. SaundersCollege Publishing, 2000.

Kenneth Laws, Physics and the art of dance. Oxford, 2002.

I would like to thank especially Papangiota Laskaridou for her correction of my sometimes frightening English, to Shazdeh Omari for her kind cooperation and to Kaith Foufouti for her final revision.

About the author

Diego Mastrangelo started dancing tango in 1994, first studying with Aurelio and Delma, dancers of the old school, full of passion and the spirit of tango. Then went on studying with Osvaldo Coelho, a perfectionist with an incredible well trained eye to whom he owes the fact that he has taken this dance seriously. He took lessons with many well know teachers of the old style, until he met Fabian Salas, Gustavo Naveira and “Chicho” Frumboli, with whom he took some group courses. He performed Argentine tango in Buenos Aires, at the University of Buenos Aires, and regularly in bars and cabarets. He worked as a teacher of tango for the Government of La Ciudad de Buenos Aires, and taught group and private lessons. Since 2001 he resides in Thessaloniki, Greece. He has performed all over the country and already given more than one thousand five hundred hours of private lessons.

Mr. Diego Gonzalez Mastrangelo

 

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