THE CURIOUS OBSESSION WITH TANGO HISTORY   2 comments

Like a meteor shower on a cloudy night, The History of Obsession, a self published, well written book by self proclaimed septuagenarian Virgina Gift, received warm endorsements from friends of the author in Oregon, California and New York but it failed to gain traction among the majority of subscribers to the tango lists from which a large amount of material was harvested. The book succeeds in chronicling in curious ways how a puritanical society built on individualism and self-reliance deals with the inherent intimacy that the Argentine tango demands from those that heed its call.

The author uses a tried and true method of collecting comments and answers to informal questionnaires circulated at tango events in the US, Europe and Buenos Aires. She candidly admits to scribbling quotes on scraps of notes while eavesdropping on other people’s conversations at milongas, classes, workshops and tango festivals. Thus, both credited and anonymous quotations add some degree of immediacy to what amounts to be the best pages of the book. Descriptions of people’s tango experiences make for good reading. Quotes from an Internet tango list server add a colorful potpourri of opinions about the meaning of tango in the midst of endless metaphors of the “tango is like…” variety. Whether the reader is just curious or someone who has actually been around the floor a few times, the body of information reflecting personal experiences is worth reading because it establishes a moment in time and the circumstances when the global expansion of the tango began to take off in the US and around the world.

The author offers a comprehensive description of different tango styles based on a collection of Internet subjective descriptions that attempt to quantify different ways to imitate the dancing of others. This is followed by the announcement that the seemingly unclear controversy about the actual existence or not of something called Tango Nuevo, Nuevo Tango, or Neuvo will be put to a rest by one of the alleged parents of the elusive style. “The New Tango has become so predominantly misunderstood that Gustavo Naveira offered to present his thoughts in his own words on the subject, written especially for this book.” What follows is eight pages written in italics where, under the heading New Tango, Gustavo Naveira suggests that it is wrong to define tango nuevo as a style. That it is “everything that has happened with the tango since the 1980’s” without actually describing what happened, and that “people dance to old music because there is nothing better, therefore the emphasis is really in dancing for the sake of dancing.”

Next Naveira launches into an indictment of “mediocre dancers, trapped in a crude and sentimentalized way of dancing who confronted with the logical impossibility of distinguishing themselves, seek prestige by calling their dancing traditional tango. When facing good dancers dedicated to the development of the dance and showing real ability (the casual reader may not be aware of the tall tale about a research group allegedly led by Naveira for the purpose of investigation, thus the reference to good dancers, development and real ability), these mediocre traditional tango dancers will pigeonhole them with the inane label of nuevo dancers.” The focus of the attack seems to be aimed to milongueros who have been dancing for four or five years but present themselves as old milongueros given their age.” For Naveira this situation is comical and only found in Buenos Aires, and in his opinion, around the world a tango is danced today “with no relation to Argentine culture, with no knowledge of the music, but most important without the presence of any milonguero authorities.”

An opportunity to acknowledge and accept an educated opinion from a recognized figure is missed because the manifesto comes across as slanted and tinted with resentment at not getting recognition by the “mediocre traditional tango dancers.” Instead, it is presented as the oracle with the ultimate declaration that tango nuevo is interesting in itself regardless of where it comes from, Argentina or anywhere else. That reasoning is supposed to back the concept of the existence of a new tango even when nowhere is there a definition as to what it really is.

Quite often the author resorts to platitudes such as “… tango has a specific goal…” “… the early tangos danced between men represented a sort of duel between male dancers…” or “… because of its powerful demands on the mind leave little room for unrelated thought or emotion, the tango offers a refreshing escape from the worrisome world beyond the dance floor,” in lieu of facts. In the section about The City: Buenos Aires she writes, “In Buenos Aires milongas, once a contract is made by ‘locked eyes,’ it is regarded as extremely rude for a woman to refuse the implicit invitation,” revealing a lack of understanding of the codes that apply to the locals who attend these functions on a regular basis. Locking eyes is not a contract or an implicit invitation. The statement is misleading because it implies that a woman is limited in her choices or actions. She may seem to lock eyes but unless she makes it clear with a nod, a bat of her eyelashes, a faint smile or any other clear sign of affirmation, there is no contract, and there is no obligation for the woman to dance just because she may have accidentally wandered into somebody’s gaze. Nowhere is it explained that the codes of the milongas are part of a tradition, originating in a time before there were tango tourists, and that they are part of a sociocultural behavior agreed to and accepted by men and women when attending the milonga.

Most conversations about the tango turn quickly into platitudes mostly because there is a lack of interest in real history but an abundance of, according to Melissa Fitch, editor of the journal Studies in Latin American Popular Culture and associate professor at the University of Arizona, travel writers, tourists traveling either physically or imaginatively into the universe of the tango whose narratives display a desire to escape, a desire to perform, to be different shedding one’s identity and becoming the “exotic” other. They display the neocolonialist impulse to “discover” the Other, and then share the discovery with other compatriots through writing about it in a book or on tango list servers. What is most interesting to Fitch is how each author places Argentine history and sociopolitical reality within their own grid of intelligibility, which is to say, they base it upon certain assumptions and presuppositions, some conscious, some perhaps not, to create texts that are, in turn, intelligible to their readers.

In the opening paragraph of the Introduction, the author states that “few outside Argentina are aware that the tango had its origins over 150 years ago in the slums of Buenos Aires as a partnered dance between men.” That is followed by exotic and forbidden tales of poverty stricken male immigrants dancing a forbidden dance they invented outside the slums of Buenos Aires. Few outside Argentina, including the author, are aware of the existence of an enlightened, wealthy and cultured porteño society in the nineteenth century.  There is no explanation as to why after a half a century of men and women being criticized for touching fingers and even holding each other in an open embrace while dancing waltzes, polkas, mazurkas and habaneras, a group of destitute and disenfranchised foreign men decided to “invent” a dance and only danced it among each other. The History of Homosexuality in Argentina by Osvaldo Bazan offers a plausible and accurate explanation of the conundrum of same sex dancing in a logical and historical way.

After a compact section describing technicalities about the dance where the author’s dancing experience comes in handy, the chapter on The City: Buenos Aires that closes Part 1 starts with a wealth of good information of interest for the tourist but turns into an incomprehensible attempt to stereotype the inhabitants of Buenos Aires. Not just what one may expect to read about tango aficionados, but the entire population and their identity crisis. In trying to explain the cosmopolitan nature of the city, and the influence that Spaniards, Italians and other European immigrants have exerted in the manners and customs of the people of Buenos Aires, the author resorts to offensive characterizations, ethnic jokes and cheap shots at things she obviously doesn’t understand.

“What is an Argentine?” she asks. “An Italian, who speaks Spanish, acts French, and wishes he was English.”
“Argentines don’t know who they really are,” an unnamed psychiatrist allegedly said to a visitor.
“The resurgence of interest in the tango,” he adds, “arose because the tango is one of the few things undisputed as being one hundred percent Argentine… a national icon.” Never mind that there are countless instances of a totally opposite point of view emanating from the ruling class as well as the blue collar ranks. The poor tango has been the target by association of every racist and intolerant figure of authority since the end of the nineteenth century. At the onset of the 21st century, the tango is a magnet for tourist money and as such the city government has taken it over and made it a brand.

“How do you make money off an Argentine man?” she asks, as she continues with her essay on the people of Argentina. “By buying him for what he’s worth and selling him for what he thinks he’s worth.”
“Argentine men like to look good and there is no possible way to look good when learning the tango. Argentine men are too macho to appear in public trying to do something new. If they do try to learn the tango, but don’t immediately ‘get it’, they quit dancing.” Rodolfo Dinzel, a teacher who eventually is revealed as the subject of the author’s infatuation and to whom she dedicates almost an entire chapter, is quoted as indicating that “poor people have pride and like to groom themselves and leave the house clean and well coiffed.” Another doctor from California is quoted as saying that “younger men and women deny themselves food to look the best on the dance floor.”

For Ms. Gift Argentines apparently are mostly concerned with appearance. “Argentine men have always dressed up for milongas, partly to conceal their lower class origins.” Many men also deliberately “don’t color their hair in the hope of being taken for a milonguero,” the author continues without giving due credit to the clueless women who judge a milonguero by the color of his hair.

Stereotypes are at times trumped by misconceptions and the use of a tourist lens to explain something with a subjective slant. Take for example the explanation of the cortina. This is a term borrowed from the old radio days where a distinctive musical interlude served to separate segments of a program. In the dance halls of Buenos Aires, a distinctive musical interlude is played between sets of tango music. This is done  to clear the floor so the waiters can take orders and serve people at their tables. Also people use the break to go to the bathrooms, or to walk to the bar to get a drink and get a better vantage point. The author offers the following explanation, “The end of a tanda is marked with a cortina which is a minute or two of non-dance music that cues dancers to leave the floor… to await a change of partners for the next tanda.” Changing partners is a foreign concept in the adult settings of a tango dance hall in Buenos Aires. As with many instances in the book, the author confuses her personal experiences or those of list servers contributors, all foreigners as far as Argentina is concerned, with facts she presents as part of a history lesson to further confuse curious readers.

As the book progresses into the actual “history” chapters, the inaccuracies, prejudices and at times glaring lack of fact checking, are so many that their listing in a critical review might end up looking like a revisionist book in itself. Let’s review a few to make sure readers understand the futility of filling pages with alleged tango history with personal prejudices projected into an improbable period from where there is absolutely no evidence of what was called tango, how it was danced and why. Only those who were alive at the time knew.

On page 221 it says, “A popular form of entertainment was to act out tales of men fighting over honor or a woman in a stylized combat performed as competition among neighborhood gangs.” There is no reference as to when this is supposed to have happened. Those who have seen shows like Tango Argentino, Forever Tango and West Side Story will recognize the choreography of men imitating a fight through a dance. “Bar and cafe owners watched the men dancing in the streets and decided it might be good for business if they danced inside their establishments and drank beverages when they became thirsty. They hired musicians to play tango music to lure the men inside. Waitresses were pressed into service as dance partners, many of whom became fascinated with the dance and turned into skilled partners.” It is obvious that the author ignores the nature of so called cafes, the clientele that patronized these places, and the reason why there were night clubs that featured live orchestras. The author makes use of certain assumptions and presuppositions to invent situations that may be intelligible to her readers, but denotes a total lack of veracity regarding Argentine history and its sociopolitical reality. For the author, dancing tango seems to be the main activity of men throughout the history of Argentina. Women are stereotyped as the contemporary females who look at tango from a complete different prism than Argentine women do. The idea of women as waitresses becoming fascinated with the dance of tango is so absurd except that modern American women do become fascinated by stilettos and choreographed passion on stage. Fascination doesn’t result in acquisition of skills. This is another projection of the author’s personal experiences into an alleged moment in history.

Tales of bordellos, prostitution, women working there as tango dancers when it is well known what the business of a bordello is, abound and for this reviewer eventually offend. The repetition of long debunked tales under the excuse of history is a disservice to anyone wanting to actually to dig a little deeper into what the tango is, where it comes from and what it represents. But nothing is more offensive that the reckless and inaccurate treatment of the period known as the Process of National Reorganization (1976-1983). “The military discouraged tango,” and “To listen to or to dance the tango became even more dangerous,” are just samples of what amounts to lies being repeated without an attempt to use the rigorous verification that history demands.

Journalist Sergio Pujol, author of the book Rock and Dictatorship, was a witness to those hard years and compiled history in the words of the protagonists. On the topic of the dictatorship attitude towards music, he writes, “In music generally, the dictatorship established a regime of tension and harassment favoring some genres over others. It had a cordial attitude towards the tango or some of its representative figures, and a violent rejection of folklore, especially with the so called representatives of the new song book like Cesar Isella or Mercedes Sosa. There was a line of political commitment and many representatives left the country”. The relationship was different with rock and roll. To be a rockero was synonymous of being a rebel. In 2009, the Comfer (Argentine’s FCC) unveiled for the first time a list of songs that were prohibited during the last military dictatorship. There appear works of national musicians like Leon Gieco, Charly García, Horacio Guarany, and of international figures like Eric Clapton or bands such as Pink Floyd and Queen. La bicicleta blanca, a ballad describing the coming of Jesus Christ riding on a bike, with lyrics by Horacio Ferrer and music by Astor Piazzolla is the only song that could remotely be associated with the tango, which is not, among hundreds of banned songs. One thing that was clear is that the dictators had a thing for young people and rock and roll. Something to do with progressive ideas being transmitted genetically from parents to children, which explain why they stole so many children and gave them away to military families for an ideological cleansing. It is a very complex history and the record needs to be set straight about the many lies about the tango during that period.

Enrique Binda and Hugo Lamas write in the first chapter of their book “El tango en la sociedad porteña 1880-1920,” that “the bibliography on tango history is not based in verifiable documentation. It describes improbable events which each writer repeats to their heart’s content thanks to the lack of rigorous and methodical investigation about the topic.”

In the world of tango books there has always been an obsession for advancing reasons and arguments to defend or to persuade what is false. Those who can write the most comprehensive collection of arguments that seem reasonable but are actually false and misleading, fall under two distinctive categories, the innocents and the deliberates.

The innocents deceive themselves, and their fault is logical but non-moral. The deliberates know that they are deceiving, not to themselves because they know the distinction between the truth and the false, but to others. They are not ignorant, they are manipulators. Their fault is not logical but moral.

The History of Obsession, definitely falls right under the innocent category, applying to the history of a foreign country, i.e Argentina, and a foreign cultural manifestation, i.e the Argentine tango, a seemingly similar methodology of collecting opinions, comments and answers to informal questionnaires, scribbling quotes on scraps of notes while eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. That worked very well in Part 1 titled Argentine Tango and divided into four chapters, The Obsession, The Attraction, The Dance, and The City: Buenos Aires.

The book lacks rigorous fact checking, however calling the Malvinas Islands the Maldives is not as bad as bringing them in the first place into a book about tango. As it seems to be the case with a surprising number of tango books that venture into so called history, events and circumstances are presented out of context without any temporal reference to establish when, if ever, they happened. For a historian, time is not only essential, but it is the umbilical cord that ties events to specific moments in time.

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2 responses to “THE CURIOUS OBSESSION WITH TANGO HISTORY

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  1. An excellent piece, Alberto! I’m not sure “review” covers it…as you discuss at least 4 separate books within your analysis of the Curious Obsession. So many significant themes are addressed, that I look forward to the possibility of at least some among them receiving separate treatment at a later date, as you have already done in your essay on The Process of Reorganization and the military dictatorship in power in Argentina from 1976 – 1983.

    I appreciate your appeal to, and insistence on, rigorous fact checking and the need for verifiable documentation in the consideration of tango history. As you say, the facts of history are what they are. And while there are elements of any story open to interpretation, it is refreshing to consider an adult discourse, rather than be subjected to another instance of the impassioned name calling that discussions of tango often degenerate into.

  2. very well written article

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