Tango is a language. If you don’t have time, just read that first sentence and leave this article – but if you decide to read the whole blog post you will find out why. I promise you, some of the reasons might challenge some of the widespread beliefs about tango. Some may even change the way you think about your dancing.
I first started comparing tango to language to help my students understand what and, more important, why they do what they do. I believe that the best way to teach is to explain unknown things with something the student already understands.
“Ivica, it is so strong. I think about men I’ve danced with for weeks. I imagine them! I feel them! It is not right, I love my husband,” she said.
I could not figure out the expression on her face. Was she afraid of these emotions? Was she overwhelmed? Or was it just intellectual wondering?
Check my post about The dark side of tango
Anyway, I knew what she was thinking about. I have had this conversation with students many times before. Some people see tango as a threat to their marriage or relationship, but this is because they don’t understand the real nature of tango. Tango is a form – the same as the language is! What content we put in to it depends on us. It is a reflection of us!
In this article I am going to explain a few ways in which tango and language are basically the same phenomenon. All these are comparisons I use when I teach people to dance tango – and, believe me, they help people understand how tango actually works.
1. Language is just a form – It’s been said many things about tango over the years. Many are correct, many are wrong and the majority can be considered somewhere in between. It is one of those things where everyone considers they have a right to hold an opinion. But opinions should be challenged and only considered valid if the one who holds them provides valid reasons and some evidence.
One of those opinions is that tango is dirty and connected to sex. Tango is a language. The language is a form – it is just a shape of the topics we talk about. The form could not, and should not be blamed for the content.
Let me give you one more analogy. We can talk about love and God, virtues of some admired people and our innocent childhood – but we can use the same language to talk about suicide attacks and rape, about cheating and murder, about manipulating people and scam. With the same language you can inspire great adventures or disgusting crimes. It is the same language – but it is us who add meaning to it.
The same goes for tango: we can use it to express warmth and friendship, happiness and connection, joy and understanding, but at the same time love and excitement, passion and sexual desire, enjoyment and intense sensuality.
It is the speaker who defines the content of his language – it is the dancer who defines the content of his/her tango. They are mirrors!
2. Language is not an art – One of the most popular myths about tango is that it is an art form. In my opinion this is completely wrong. Of course, some people dance so well that it can be considered an art (in a loose sense of the meaning of that word) – but to consider tango as an art form is delusional. Here is why I think that, using the language analogy.
When people talk to each other they use informal language which by no means can be considered an art form. But there are situations where the language can become an art form – I am talking about poetry, literature etc. There are many differences between the informal language and the artistic forms of language, but the most important for our comparison with tango is the context and the purpose.
If the language is used in social context – to communicate with a fellow human being, it is an informal use. The purpose is to transmit meaning. It is the same with tango – if we use tango to communicate in social context (a milonga) – to communicate with a fellow human being, it is an informal use. The purpose of this tango is to transmit meaning.
On the other hand, if the language is used on stage (theater, poetry readings, oratorical use) – to communicate with the viewers, with auditorium, it is artistic use. The purpose is to entertain or to express original and innovative approach or emotion. If we use tango on stage (show dancing) – to communicate with the viewers, with auditorium, it is an artistic use. The purpose is to entertain or to express original and innovative approaches or emotions.
Don’t forget that you can still say wonderful things with the informal language – people do that in their everyday life more than they do with poetry. In fact, if someone started using artistic language to talk to people – could be considered fake and people might not take him/her seriously.
So, what can we conclude? Language can be informal talking or poetry: the same as tango can be social or show dancing.
3. Learn the grammar – Probably the best comparison of tango and language is what I call “the grammar and vocabulary comparison.” As you probably already guessed, the technique can be considered the grammar and the steps and moves as the vocabulary of the dance. But this comparison goes even beyond that.
When I teach my students how to walk I always mention the famous quote:
“A good dancer you recognize by the way he walks, not by acrobatic figures.” – Pablo Veron
I don’t know the exact context of what Veron said, but I use it as a base to compare tango with the language. You see, when you meet a stranger, you don’t recognize that he is not a native speaker by his vocabulary, by how many words he knows – but, by his accent. The walk in tango is like the accent – if you know HOW to do that, then even without knowing too many complicated sequences – you can be considered a good dancer. On the other hand, when I notice a dancer who has a wide repertoire of steps and good musicality, but has a bad walk or bad technique – it often looks like a stranger with heavy accent. Sometimes it becomes hard even to watch (if you dance with him it is probably hard to dance) – the same way it is to talk with or understand someone with a heavy accent.
Learn the grammar and perfect the accent – the words will come in time. Learn just few steps – as few as needed for you to be able to practice your technique – and the rest will come in time.
4. Your personal language – I hate to see different people dancing in the same way. That standardization is sometimes so aggressive that it makes tango very poor. That is one of the reasons why I am against competition style events like the Tango Mundial. I mean if you dance for judges (a group of people) who decide what is good and what is bad tango – then you make a standard of their opinion. Whenever there is someone who says what is a good and bad – there is standardization.
But, you might say, there is bad tango, isn’t it? Yes, you are right. But that should be not decided by someone’s taste: there is no good or a bad way to dance tango – there is only appropriate or inappropriate, effective and ineffective. If you do a movement and your partner can read your lead – this means you are doing it right, no matter if your teacher doesn’t like the way you are doing it.
The thing is that your partner must like it also – she is the ultimate judge. If it works and your partner likes it – than it is good.
It doesn’t finish there. If it works and your partner likes it – you have to be sure it works with the music as well – and also – it has to work with the crowded milonga. What if you like it, your partner likes it and it works with music – but the move is throwing your partner around in a lindy hop way? It is inappropriate for a crowded milonga, since there are other people who wants to dance on the same dance floor. Tango was created as a social activity and should be constrained by some social rules.
If your dancing meets those requirements, than you can dance in whatever way you want. It is the same as the language. All of us have our own language and our own style of speaking. A world where everyone speaks the same way would be a poor world in terms of ideas and language. There is no a wrong way of talking – if your language is understandable and if doesn’t hurt other people (respecting the social constraints) – it is acceptable.
I think we should do more to protect the personalized styles of dancers: there is too much influence of the show dancers and celebrities. It is like everyone is trying to imitate or plagiarize the public speakers and writers.
Do you have any words on this article? What is your opinion? I would love to hear what people have to tell about the comparison of the tango and the language.
Do you agree with me? Do you think others should express their opinion on this topic? If so, please, share this article so your friends might benefit from the ideas I shared with you.