Paradoxes of “Tradition” and How to Hold Them

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2010

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2010

As a community, we tango dancers devote a fair amount of time to the discussion of tradition; specifically, to questioning what is traditional and what is not. This discussion is alive and well in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the native home of the tango, but it is perhaps even more heated abroad, where foreign aficionados and professionals alike often use the term traditional to explain, justify, celebrate, and defend their choices in dancing style, teaching pedagogy, and social behavior.

Let me be clear from the outset: I believe a sense of tradition is vitally important. In my view, awareness of and participation in tradition shows respect for the contributions of the artists who came before us, and establishes an important human connection with those same artists through time. This is how community art forms survive, by living not in encyclopedias and databases, but rather in the very bodies of those of us who practice them.

The problem with the word tradition is that it is not a single template, but rather a whole set of constantly shifting ideas, aesthetics, and values, many of them contradictory. Merriam Webster offers these definitions of tradition: 

  1. the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction
  2. cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions
  3. characteristic manner, method, or style

Generally, we as a community are ok with a certain amount of shifting and shuffling among these various definitions. We study with different teachers, developing first in our home communities and then traveling to experience others. We dance in restaurants, libraries, and private homes, at airports, and on beaches. We dance fancy, and we dance casual. We enjoy discovering new ways of dancing and interpreting tango, and learn to tolerate and eventually welcome the inevitable contradictions we find along the way.

Sometimes, though, we focus on one facet of the tradition, holding it up as an absolute truth. In my observation, it is this holding up of one element of the tradition over others (regardless of what it is) that tends to exclude people and create negativity in our dancing spaces. Both exclusion and negativity shrink our numbers. In their wake, dancers drop out and fewer people are inspired to learn. In the long run, attempting to isolate any one aspect of the tradition doesn’t benefit any of us.

No study of tradition warns, “If this custom is changed, all hell will break loose.” No, instead, what research on cultural traditions consistently observes is ongoing change and adjustment. Art forms both reflect and influence (follow and lead) the belief systems and cultural norms of a society.

So rather than “Is [x] traditional,” I’m much more interested in the question “Do we want to keep [x] in our tradition?” Is any given aspect of the tradition (fedoras, chaperones, the ocho cortado) serving us as a community in the time and place that we are invoking it? Does it bring more people through our doors? Does it help us learn and develop our dancing? Does it make us feel welcome and connected? Does it make us feel creative and inspired? The answers to these questions may not be the same in every classroom, milonga, or community, but I feel that they are the relevant ones to be asking, nonetheless. Fedora hats are not items I consider essential for dancing, and chaperones are obsolete, but I wouldn’t ever want be without the ocho cortado.

What follows are my observations of some of our more familiar debates over what constitutes traditional tango, and proposals for how we might accept their paradoxical nature without one side eclipsing the other. We are, after all, leaders and followers. We know there are two sides of a coin, and we know how opposing forces harmonize to create transcendence. We have lived that in our embraces. Paradox is our signature cocktail.

Paradox 1: Social Tango and Performance Tango

If you primarily identify as a social dancer, you are likely familiar with the view that traditional tango is a social art form. Its inwardly focused, felt sense of connection between partners on the dance floor is the root and essence of the dance, rather than the outwardly focused display of virtuosity that connects audience to performer. Social tango is something that everyone can do; therefore, its movements are restricted to be comfortably executable in the small, shifting spaces of a fully occupied dance floor.

If you enjoy tango performance or are a performer yourself, though, you may relate to the idea that the artistic sophistication of tango is most evident and appreciable when viewed at a distance, in the center of a cleared dance floor, urban plaza, or theater stage. Traditionally, performers expand the boundaries of what is possible in the form and inspire others with the larger movements and creative innovations that are only possible in the open area of a performance space.

Clearly, both of these perspectives are traditional, even as they appear to contradict one another.

If you love social dancing are feel impatient with or critical of performance tango, consider that social tango, in a way, can already be seen as a performance of sorts, with the dance floor serving as a kind of stage for those of us seated around its perimeter. Perhaps the difference between this kind of social “performance” and one on a stage is simply a question of context and degree. Remember that informal “performances” were part of how tango was enjoyed as early as the turn of the century, and existed also, informally, in the men’s practices of the 1930s, probably as a competitive game of one-up-man-ship. Many social dancers joined tango orchestras on stage as they toured abroad through the 1950s and 1960s, driving the demand for social dancing around the world. This dynamic, of course, continues today.

If you love performing and feel less connected to your identity as as social dancer, it may help to acknowledge that the social experience of tango is indeed the predecessor of and therefore in some way inspiration for all tango performances. Without it, tango performance would not exist in the first place. Social dance can be a place to recharge your artistic batteries, reconnect with the seeds of your artistic practice, discover new elements to explore in the rehearsal studio or on the stage. Even your memories of social dance are rich mines for artistic inspiration. What is that feeling you have on the dance floor, and what is an embrace, really? What is the essence of leading, of following? What would tango be like without music, without a partner? These are questions we are permitted to explore in the realm of performance, but the social tango environment is where these questions are born. It is our eternal reference point.

 

Paradox 2: Preserve and Innovate

As older dancers pass on, it becomes more and more clear that whatever tango we know is carried in our own living bodies. If we have not absorbed certain details through dancing or learning or watching those elders, they will likely fade from the collectively held repertory of the tradition as a whole. For that reason, emulating and learning from those we name masters is an important part of our creative work, in the sense that the tango tradition includes the passing down of information from one generation to the next.

However, in my experience, the elders are the first to remind us that innovating, creating your own steps and your own style and interpretation, is also one of the most enduring and characteristic traditions of the tango. As they did before us, we must also take up the challenge of making the tango our own.  

Yet again, we have two impulses that contradict one another while simultaneously functioning to make the tango the complex and enduring creature that it is. Often, preservationist efforts are named “traditional,” while innovative efforts are named “experimental.” In fact, both efforts are traditional; they simply represent two distinct aspects of the tango tradition.

Sometimes, we focus more on preservation, replicating postures, timings, figures from master teachers. On the other side of the city, or the dance floor even, others of us play with the opposite approach, creating variations of classic movements or dancing in unusual embraces. The shift from preservation toward innovation may mirror beginner through advanced stages of learning. It may, instead, reflect our chronological age or the position we hold in our home community.

Wherever we find ourselves individually, as a group we are looking in two directions at once, reinforcing the wisdom of the past while listening for the insights of the future. Because there are many of us, we don’t all have to occupy both ends of this timeline – we may choose to hover where we are most inspired, or periodically drift back and forth.

How to be a preserver: take classes, watch videos (especially old videos), listen to Golden Age music, read books about tango’s history, learn Spanish, visit Buenos Aires and Montevideo

How to be an innovator: find a practice buddy (or six), dance constantly, watch others dancing, study complementary movement forms (somatic disciplines, martial arts, other dances, theater), travel to tango festivals, see tango performances

 

Paradox 3: Fixed Roles and Flexible Roles

Regardless of how you feel about who leads and who follows, this last paradox is no doubt the most challenging one. For many dancers, there is a conviction that a milonga in which men exclusively lead and women exclusively follow is required for tango to be named traditional, or perhaps to be named tango at all. All milongas we hear about from the Golden Age, as well as the vast majority of them over the past thirty years of the tango’s revival, conform (more or less) to this structural model. The fixing of gender roles in this particular way, then, seems to be inseparable from the experience of tango itself.

On the other side of the traditional coin, however, lies the less visible legacy of flexible roles: neighborhood men’s groups that met to practice on a regular basis, and (far less commonly) mothers who taught their daughters to dance at home. From this perspective, tango is a language any two people can speak, one that we believe the majority of the Golden Age population was fluent in. From this perspective, it is the improvised nature of the partnership - not the gender of its participants, that makes tango what it is.

Both fixed and flexible gender roles, then, are part of tango’s history, and therefore part of its tradition. Like performance and social dancing, and like preservation and innovation, fixed and flexible are two sides of the same coin. Now, as then, we choose how to embody the tradition based on context. In the Golden Age, those choices were influenced by rigid social codes that enforced gender segregation between home and work. Men worked and circulated in public; women stayed home. They met at the milonga (and other social gatherings) under specific and enforced protocols. In learning environments (the home for women and the practica for men), flexible roles were normal. At social dance events, however, fixed roles were expected.

Today, thankfully, we enjoy more egalitarian social norms, and as a result, our role choices are based more on individual preference than collective convention. Fixed and flexible roles are both equally traditional, but today they are no longer separated into public and private realms, respectively, and neither are they dictated by strict gender segregation. Some of us, regardless of whether we are learning or dancing, prefer to stay in a conventionally fixed role, and others choose an unconventional one, or practice both.

Fixers: If you prefer dancing in a historically conventional gender role and are uncomfortable seeing others dance differently, try taking a broader societal view. As we now understand through decades of civil rights work, people are whom they are and love whom they love, and desire comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. Further, recognize that while desire is a beautiful thing to express through tango, it is not the only thing. In your life, you have many kinds of relationships that support and sustain you, including family, friends, lovers, and colleagues. For many, tango inspiration arises in all of these relationships, not only romantically charged ones. Just as you can respect your neighbor’s right to practice Christianity while you practice Buddhism, you can respect one couple’s preference for flexible or unconventional roles while you and your own partner have a fabulous time dancing conventionally fixed roles.

Flexers: If you experience stress due to others’ discomfort with your role choices, know that history (and tradition) is on your side. Social art forms simultaneously reflect and reconstruct themselves as cultural values shift over time. Both reflection and reconstruction are traditional, as is the tension between them. The tango is there for all of us as a creative resource. Know, too, that an enormous segment of the contemporary tango community was built by other flexers. Male and female teachers, organizers, and performers proficient in both roles are responsible for training a substantial percentage of the current tango dancing population. They host dozens of milongas and offer hundreds of tango classes around the world. They are there for you. Find them, and be courageous about expressing your choice.

 

So, what do we really mean when we name the tango (or anything else, really) traditional? Are we using that term to defend a personal worldview, or to prove we are right about some technical detail? Or, more productively, are we referencing a historical legacy that truly serves us today, choosing deliberately to carry forward practices from the past that foster empathy, equality, community, and artistry? There is not only one tango, but many tangos. Which ones do we want to maintain? Which ones do we want to re-imagine?

I know that these are difficult questions, but I believe they the ones worth asking. We can ask them about the tango tradition, but we can also ask them about, say, the American tradition, or the conservative or liberal tradition. What seems clear to me is that our un-examined usage of the term traditional leads to conflict. I propose that getting clearer on what tradition means to each of us may well encourage greater understanding, tolerance, and acceptance instead. It may even result in expansion of the tango population, to more frequent and more fulfilling dancing. I think those are things that all of us can get behind!

Please leave your thoughts in the comments.