On Ballroom Tango

Every year, I dread the Strictly Come Dancing season. Not because I watch it and get excited. But because every single year, someone will tag me in whatever “Tango Argentino” horror happens to be presented to the public. If I manage to avoid the tags, it will invariably be in the news as some sort of groundbreaking art event.

Except that it isn’t.

I am Argentinean. I lived there until nearly 30. My father was an avid tango dancer; my brother teaches it professionally. I don’t dance tango regularly, but I take classes and attend milongas whenever I visit. I am nowhere near a “tanguera”, but it’s also not something I have no acquaintance with. And about 99% of the “Ballroom Tango Argentino” I see sets my teeth on edge.

I don’t claim to speak for all of the Argentineans, or all tango dancers. This is just my own analysis of my own lack of comfort with what I see portrayed. I have engaged in this analysis over the years, as a way of helping me explore my relationship with my own culture as a migrant. The reasons for my dislike are complex, and something I am still exploring myself, something I expect I will continue to explore and maybe even change my point of view. But so far I can point to a few major offenders:

  • oversexualisation: incredibly often, when we see Ballroom Tango, it’s presented with this idea of overworked sexuality inherent into it. It’s talked of as “sexy”, “passionate”, and it leads to an exotization of the country and culture, which in reality is miles away from what you see when attending any social dance in Argentina. It seems the history stopped at the point where it reads “this dance might have started in the brothels” and never went past there.
  • there is very often an underlying narrative of domination/submission between the male and female (I am stating male and female as I have not seen this played with same gender couples). The man is a Manly Man™, who beats down (sometimes even literally) the sometimes reluctant, sometimes defiant, often “unfaithful”, but always “out of line” female who ultimately submits because… MACHO™. A clear example of this is El Tango de Roxanne on Moulin Rouge, which follows the ballroom aesthetic and this plot line nearly to the letter to the point of assault. Beautifully danced and filmed, and at least the music attempts to be a bit faithful to the original. But when that’s the only exposure that non Argentineans get to Tango, I don’t think I need to explain myself further on why I find this highly problematic.
  • there seems to be little of the intimacy between dancers that I’ve seen at milongas and tango presentations, even in stage tango shows. Borrowing Megha’s “painting the music” expression, it’s far less about “painting the music through an expression of the relationship of the dancers” and more about showing off flashy stuff in perfect posture and sync while looking the other way unless the choreography says so.
  • the music is often too removed from what tango music is. Don’t get me wrong, I love Metallica and New Order (the “casualties” of Strictly Wreck Tango from 2020 and 2021). But a pounding 4/4 is nowhere near the expressive music needed for it.

So, the music is not suitable, the steps are far removed from the origin, the dance aesthetic is completely different from the originating one, the dancing often follows a contrived problematic narrative … what is left? How is this “tango argentino” at all, and not some tango-inspired hybrid for the masses that cannot handle the sound of a bandoneon, or simply that prefer highly stylised couple dancing to music they know and appreciate, with some fantasy storyline thrown in for titilation? Is all Ballroom Tango like this? I don’t know, but pretty much every single one I’ve seen falls foul of one or more of the above.

Now, does this mean that I think only Argentineans should dance tango? Resounding NO. Turkey has such a strong tango culture that they write their own tangos. A few years ago I attended an event set up jointly by the Buenos Aires Secretary of Culture and the Turkish Consulate, to showcase some of their best work, and promoted on FM Tango, the official tango-only radio in the city. So obviously this view is shared by many. One of the best tango dancers in Europe right now is also Turkish (Murat, go look him up). Japan also has a strong tango culture, with orchestras and classes and milongas. The same can be said of a lot of other countries.

Does this mean that I think you can only dance tango to tango music? Again, resounding NO. One of my favourite pieces I saw my brother and his partner dancing to was Pink Floyd’s Maroon (link opens in new tab, go watch it!), and it was done at the request of the hosting milonga that wanted “something not tango”. But the movement kept the tango sensibility and musicality applied to the different piece of music. And above all, it kept what I can only describe as a sense of intimacy and fluidity between the partners.

Every successful tango-to-not-tango-music piece I’ve seen has kept that feel between the partners. And every successful not-tango-to-tango-music I’ve seen danced kept the fluidity and the strong sense of musicality. But I don’t think you can remove all of the above and still call it tango. It’s not necessarily bad dancing, it shouldn’t be canned, the dancers should not be pelted with rotten tomatoes. To me, it’s just not tango, and that’s ok. Dancing is a live art and it can go into different directions and change. But there is a point in the path of change where something is not what it was at the start. To me, this point is when it has lost all the elements that made the original, or if those elements are so badly translated that the essence of the original is lost.

I think this is the key of the issue: there is often a total mistranslation of the elements that result in a loss of the soul of the original style. That intimacy I was talking about, gets mistranslated as “sexual” by Hollywood or in popular imagination. The almost surrendering of the follower, whom you can often see dancing with eyes closed at milongas, is turned into “submission”. The drawn slow movements, originally to accommodate the long notes from violin, bandoneon or singer, used to express drawn deep feeling, are mistranslated as stiltedness. These are not the same.

I’ll leave you with two videos, and one reflection. The first video -embedded below- is from my brother and his partner’s final live presentation before the Pandemic hit the milongas in Buenos Aires. The second is the “tango” performance at Strictly 2020 , which I won’t embed here but you can access through this link. I cannot recognise anything from the former video into the later one, and I know which one I prefer.

My reflection: when picking up a social type of dance from a culture we are not familiar with, it might be a good exercise to figure out what makes it tick. It’s often not just a particular move or other, or clothing worn or a rhythm pattern. There’s a whole world and sensibility behind it, which we would do well to try to understand and respect when approaching it.

Just a thought. I don’t have all the answers, I am still grappling with some of the questions myself, but I know it is important that I keep questioning where I stand on these issues and why, because it helps me connect further with a strong element of my own culture and past, and helps me understand better how I connect with elements of the culture I now live in.

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