What's Wrong With Our Tango

by Linda Valentino from Los Angeles

Recently, in a tango discussion group on the internet, someone raised the question of why tango in the United States is so different from what is danced in the milongas of Buenos Aires, and what we can do to improve the quality of tango danced in the United States.

Having visited Buenos Aires nine times over the past eight years, it's painfully obvious to me that the level of tango dancing in general in the United States is not just inferior, but so far inferior that I don't know if we'll ever have much success in making tango anything other than a tiny dance sub-culture in our country. There are certain cities where the level of dancing is better than in others. I think this mainly has to do with the number of people in those communities who have taken the trouble to go to Buenos Aires and see --and learn-- how the dance is really done. However, my city, Los Angeles, is not one of those, despite the fact that our tango community dates back to 1986.

In examining why this has been the case, I came to some conclusions that probably apply to one degree or another to other tango communities in North America. First, almost everyone in Los Angeles formed their idea as to what tango is from seeing tango shows, primarily Tango Argentino and Forever Tango.  Of course, with this frame of reference as their only information, it was natural for people to think that what they saw on the stage was, in fact, what was done in Buenos Aires.

Also, the flamboyant style of stage dancing that most of us were exposed to via the aforementioned shows attracted many people who were primarily interested in performing for the applause of others.  This "show-off mentality" is completely at odds with the tango as "un baile popular," a social dance where the point is to dance for the music, one's partner and one's self, while respecting the dance space of the other couples in the milonga. (This is the true milonguero's mentality.) Unfortunately, this type of dancer still abounds in Los Angeles, despite the fact that a great many good teachers have come here from Buenos Aires and tried to correct this misunderstanding. You can find the show-offs at all of the milongas here, doing their  "schtick":  their multiple ganchos and high boleos on crowded floors; their show poses; their long, memorized show sequences that don't go line of dance and take up the entire dance floor; their verbal instruction of the women ("now you kick your leg up here, now do an ocho, now move my foot, etc., etc." because no one taught them to lead. They are usually totally oblivious to those around them, and if they happen to injure someone else while doing things that are inappropriate to the social floor, well, so be it. Just two months ago, a student of mine was injured when a man dancing near her decided to do a sudden, dramatic "stop and pose" with his elbow up in the air. He caught her on the upper part of her cheekbone, resulting in her having a black eye for two weeks! This is why there are many of us in Los Angeles at all levels of skill who do not go to most of the milongas here. We are very selective about where we go because we'd like to be able to dance without being kicked, crashed into, stepped on, etc.

Another root of the problem: a history of bad teaching which still affects the dance here. First, the people who taught here initially in 1986 and 1987 when the tango first came on the scene in L.A. were dancers from Tango Argentino. The Dinzels, Mayoral, etc., taught huge classes of hundreds of people in venues like the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Unfortunately, these teachers were not social dancers. (Has anyone ever seen Rodolfo Dinzel in a milonga in Buenos Aires? And if you did, did he actually dance?) Outside of the basic and ochos, they taught what they knew--steps that were appropriate on stage, but not on the social floor. What did they care--they were doing it because it was a good opportunity for them to make some extra money, and they knew that the Americans wanted all that "flash and trash." After Tango Argentino left town, we had one teacher here, an older Argentinean man from Rosario. Because they had never seen real social tango, everyone thought that what he was teaching was the real thing. However, his is not a social style of dancing. It is his own, eccentric form of exhibition tango that relies heavily on choreographed steps with names like the "alligator." Most of his material does not go line of dance. It either stays in one place or ricochets back and forth across the floor. He also did not teach anyone to dance to the music. Instead, they were told to dance "inside the music," or "within the music." And they were told that tango has no strict rhythm, that you "interpret the rhythm." As I have pointed out to numerous devotees of this particular teacher, one interprets the rhythm in any dance--swing, salsa, what have you. But first you have to be ON the rhythm to be able to interpret it. However, this teacher himself never danced on the rhythm. He danced only to slow music--Di Sarli or Pugliese—as s-l-o-w-l-y as possible and disconnected from the music.

Unfortunately, many, many people here were either taught directly by this teacher or by other teachers who were taught by him. And they maintain the same bad habits that were instilled in them early on. The men place the woman way over on their right side, so that the women look like they're crab-walking (constantly moving on a diagonal) and always being dragged behind the men. The men cannot walk correctly. They step first with the foot far out in front of the body, then follow with the pelvis, then finally with the torso. This necessitates the woman leaning on the man because she gets no intention from his upper body. She's essentially following his feet and being carried on his right hip. They also lead very much with the hands and fingers, not with the upper body. The folks who were trained that way usually can only dance with other people trained that way. Yet, the devotees of this teacher still insist on calling him "el maestro de maestros"!

I was trained in this style for the first two years that I danced. On my first trip to Buenos Aires, in 1992, imagine my surprise when I found out that first, nobody had even heard of this man there and second, no one in the milongas wanted to dance with me for more than one dance. This was terribly disturbing to me, as I was considered one of the better dancers in Los Angeles. I then took some classes in Buenos Aires and found out that virtually everything I had been taught previously in terms of posture, position and technique was wrong. (I do not wish to cast aspersions here on my first teachers, Michael Walker and Luren Bellucci. They are superb dancers and teachers. They were simply teaching what they had been taught, and they soon learned that it was not the standard form of social tango. They quickly changed their style of dancing and teaching when they were exposed to Danel and Maria Bastone from New York and many fine teachers from Buenos Aires.)

By the time of my second trip in 1993, I decided that the style in which I had been trained was something I no longer wished to do. I wanted to dance like the people in Buenos Aires, and I started all over again to unlearn my bad habits and learn correct technique. This took another year, but when I made my third next trip to Buenos Aires, I almost never sat down. I danced all night with very good dancers, both non-professional and professional. I was finally on the right track.

Almost all of the Americans who teach in Los Angeles have been trained by this one teacher or his protégés. They either have never been  to Buenos Aires, or they have gone once and never returned because they couldn't dance down there. They don't encourage their students to go because they know that their students will discover that what they're being taught here is a far cry from the real social dance. I am the only teacher here who takes a group of students to Buenos Aires every year. I consider it a responsibility of any credible teacher. These days, with so many reasonably priced opportunities to go to Buenos Aires, someone who teaches has little excuse for not going. And if you don't go and study there (both in classes and by watching in the milongas), you have no business teaching. It's like saying, "I've never been to medical school, but sure, I can operate on you!"

Beyond the problem of this one predominant teacher and style, Los Angeles, like many other cities, has been deluged with teachers from Argentina, many good, but also many bad. First, we have here a number of resident Argentineans who are living here for one reason only: they couldn't make a living in Buenos Aires dancing or teaching tango because they're not good enough to be on the "A-List," so to speak, of professionals. One man has lived here for at least the past seven years. He is a show dancer with a well known tango show that travels all over the world. But 90% of what he dances in the show is not tango. It is modern dance and adagio with a few tango steps thrown in. He never danced in the milongas when he lived in Buenos Aires because he cannot dance socially. Yet people have flocked to his classes for years. Needless to say, most of them are disasters on the social floor. Another couple has lived here for about three years, and they are among the worst dancers I have ever seen. They know absolutely nothing about social dancing, and their performance tango is so hideous it is embarrassing.  But because they are Argentinean and claim to be "internationally famous tango dancers and choreographers," the people who don't know any better go to their classes and learn absolutely nothing. (By the way, my numerous contacts in the professional tango world in Buenos Aires have never heard of these people. Big surprise.) Another couple has been here a couple of years. They are primarily folklore dancers and the tango they know and teach is the type that some of the folklore dancers learn in order to dance in some of the lesser Buenos Aires tourist shows. Lots of ganchos, lots of poses, lifts, jumps, etc. In other words, useless for the social floor. (Imagine wanting to learn swing, but the only thing being taught is "flying Lindy"!).

Second, people in L.A. are now bringing teachers from Buenos Aires with little or no knowledge as to who these people are and whether they're good teachers or not. Most of these organizers are deejays whose top priority is to promote their own milongas and make money, not to promote quality teaching and dancing. They will promote just about anybody who can claim to have danced in a show, regardless of whether the person knows anything about social tango. They exaggerate and misrepresent the stature of these people in the professional tango world. They present the most unknown person from Rosario or wanna-be from Buenos Aires with the same breathless adjectives one would use to promote a Miguel Zotto. They do it for profit and they mislead everyone.

I was the first person in Los Angeles to bring teachers from Buenos Aires on a regular basis, starting in 1992, and I have a strict policy of only bringing people here if I have previously taken classes with them, or in rare instances, if they are recommended to me by more than one of my sources in Buenos Aires whose judgment I know and trust.  It's called "Quality Control". I could make a lot of money bringing show dancers who teach a lot of "flash and trash," or people who teach the latest fad. I prefer to bring teachers who respect the codigos and the essence of the dance, teach correct technique and actually leave something positive behind.

I know some people will take great issue with my use of the words "wrong" and "correct," and will prefer to explain away the differences as simply a difference in "style." I believe this is a mistake. Every dance has certain fundamental characteristics that define it as that dance. Inside those parameters there can be many different styles, but the fundamental techniques are the same. When one operates so far outside those fundamental techniques, it is not a difference in style. It's bad dancing. When someone is never is on the music when they dance swing or salsa, that's not style. That's bad dancing. I think that the arguments about tango in North America should not be about whether one is dancing milonguero style or salon style. Both are authentic (although much of what is presented as salon tango here is heavily imbued with fantasia/show tango). You will see both styles in Buenos Aires, depending on where you go, how crowded the floor is, and what music is playing. The people who dance salon tango there dance it in close embrace, with some occasional separations, depending on what type of figure is being led.

Instead, the argument should be about whether one is dancing within the parameters of good tango or not. For example: are both partners on their own axis? Can they maintain their own balance throughout the dance and not disturb their partner's? Can the man lead (wordlessly, thank you) any woman who knows how to follow, and can the woman follow any man who knows how to lead? Does the man lead with his torso, or does he push the woman around with his hands and poke his fingers in her spine? Does the woman WAIT for each lead before making a movement, or does she "baila sola"? Does she know NEVER to change her weight arbitrarily? (I'm not talking about a momentary traspie-type of weight change.) Does the man dance with an awareness of what's going on around him on the floor, and does he choose his movements according to the available space, the speed at which other couples are dancing, etc.?  Do both the man and woman dance TO THE MUSIC?   If this is not what people are being taught by either North American or Argentinean teachers, we are destined to remain a tiny group. We may continue to attract the show-offs and clowns, but we will frustrate and turn off the majority of normal, common sense folks who want to be able to dance without memorizing a bunch of complicated patterns and making fools of themselves trying to do show steps which are best suited to professional dancers whose bodies are prepared to dance this material on the stage.

So what do we do to improve the quality of tango dancing in North America?

First, educate people that tango is, first and foremost, "un baile popular"--a social dance. Yes, almost everyone I know enjoys a good tango show. So do I. I've seen Tango X 2 twenty-five times and could see it another twenty-five times. But there is a time and a place for everything. And the social floor is not the time or place for show tango.

Second, it is the responsibility of tango organizers to insure the quality of the teachers they invite to teach in their cities. Merely being a show dancer does not necessarily mean that the person in question can dance socially or teach someone else to dance socially. It is especially important that the teachers we bring do not focus primarily on teaching patterns. They must focus also focus on teaching the techniques listed above.

Third, we have to take positive steps to increase the number of people dancing tango. Sadly, even though the Los Angeles tango community has existed for over 14 years, there has never been a time when the number of active dancers has totaled more than three or four hundred. This in a metropolitan area of about three million people, where the salsa and swing communities have become huge in just a few short years.  How do we do this? We must ensure that there is a place in the tango community for those people who cannot devote all of their spare time to tango. Many people with demanding jobs and family responsibilities cannot take two or three classes a week, practice several hours and go out to dance a few times each week. They simply don't have the time. But many of them still want to dance tango. We need to teach them a simpler form of the dance than we fanatics may prefer. That doesn't mean that I think we should change the essential character of the dance, or--God forbid--"dumb it down" to something like American Tango.  Instead, I think we should encourage people that it's perfectly okay to improvise with a few simple elements, whether in salon or milonguero style, and try to focus on the connection between the partners and dancing to the music. We need to reassure these people that they don't have to learn a lot of fancy or complicated steps to dance well on the social floor. Indeed, the really great milongueros--as those of us who have been to Buenos Aires know--are frequently the people who do the fewest steps.

If we take these steps, we just may see some significant growth of tango in North America. And isn't that what we all want?

© 2000 Linda Valentino