Sunday, 7 March 2010

Wayward children

Blog postings are sometimes like wayward children: you have a direction in mind for them, and off they go and do something else. I blog to keep track of myself. Writing is that wonderful memory tool that keeps the accounts, records impressions, thoughts, events. Memory rewrites, so a memory may be nothing like the original. A record written at the time can be fallible too, but at least it's of the time.

I'd planned a series of 'debrief' posts to remember my impressions when I got back to London tango from Buenos Aires, about milongas, what it's like dancing again in London, social customs, classes. The second of these, dancing in London, turned into a record of everything I could remember about the instruction I'd received about walking. Not walks, but walking; not cross system, parallel system, with and without the cruzada, but walking, the act of moving a leg and putting a foot to the floor, the sort of thing we all assume we know, but which is actually slightly different when we dance tango because it's not done just to get a solo individual from one place to another. So, it's different.

Milongas, I'll just have to let this wander where it will. London milongas are a real relief after the more rigid conventions of BsAs; no doubt about that. It's a relief to be able to go to the table of a friend who happens not to be the same sex as you, and sit and talk. The strict division of male and female, the segregation, seems archaic and unnecessary, and the lack of ordinary conversation seems to restrict the humour and enjoyment of the event. The London atmosphere seems a lot warmer, friendlier, more open, tolerant. But BsAs milongas are a lot more varied than London milongas, so generalising is a bit pointless. What interested me was the extent to which the 'set and setting' affected the general feel and experience of an evening.

Take the two 'milonguero' venues I know best. Maipu 444 is smallish, and a line of women faces a line of men across the floor. The lighting is excellent: you can clearly see every detail of the dance, and of the faces of people as they face each other during the cortinas. Socially, for me, that's about as intimidating as can be. Nevertheless, when I got dances there (almost always with other visitors, only a couple of times with local partners) I felt very at home on that small, relatively crowded floor. It ought to be intimidating to dance close to so many other couples, many of them older and excellent dancers, but you quickly realise that a) no one is going to make a sudden unexpected move straight at you, or very close to you and b) you always have a little space on each side. And you can see where everyone is! As a result, dancing there is actually relaxing and enjoyable, and the only real problem is getting a partner. Women go there to get dances with the very best male dancers, and the long line of them suggests Chinese whispers passing up and down about the best and the worst on offer. In dark moments they seemed like harpies ready to rend with exquisitely manicured talons any would-be tanguero whose dancing didn't quite meet the highest standards. (But I'm sure they're really very friendly.)

You see visiting women in the line but I don't think they look entirely at ease. They welcome the possibility of some excellent tandas, but the social situation isn't comfortable. A friend, a European woman who's an excellent dancer, emailed me about the 'big-egoed tangueros', and about the gossip and permanent judging among the women of other dancers, which she found unkind and depressingly trivial. (Perhaps we all have our dark moments.)

Salon Canning is very different; huge, rather dull lighting, tables spread around. As usual you get shown to a table, and a woman would never be expected to sit at a table with men she didn't know, although she might well sit at a table about one foot from a table of men she didn't know. Men tend to circulate, looking for partners they know, looking for partners generally. But it's quite discrete and courteous: pressure is never put on a woman to dance. It's still a form of cabeceo, so a woman who's talking to a friend won't have her conversation interrupted by a request or demand for a dance. There's little of the feeling of group scrutiny that I found oppressive at Maipu, because the place is so big. There's a kind of careless anonymity about it, which is very comfortable. The dance floor isn't that big, and gets very crowded, but it still feels like a real privilege to step onto it. Once again, it's enjoyable to dance there because you can be fairly sure there won't be any big, barely controlled movements suddenly close to you. Fairly sure, but not so sure as at Maipu 444. After all, no one can really see what's going on at Canning, and some dancers there aren't particularly good. But it's mostly close embrace, and movements tend to be small.


jantango said...


At first I was surprised by your comment about the milongas in BsAs having "rigid conventions," but then you are more accustomed to London ways where the focus is socializing with dancing. We women don't want the men to hear what we are saying about their dancing and vice versa, hence segregated seating arrangements are comfortable for all in BsAs. There is by no means any less enjoyment in the milongas of BsAs because of less conversation. People go primarily to dance. Most of the conversation takes place between dances, rather than at tables; unfortunately it has been getting longer and louder in recent years on the dance floor.

Maipu 444 has milongas almost every day, but you may have been there for Cachirulo on Saturday. The regulars go to dance with one another, not with foreigners. Monday evening is the same way. Portenos/as look for foreigners who feel the music rather than just doing steps.

Talking about men circulating around Salon Canning suggests that you were there for a Parakultural night with lots of tourists rather than A Puro Tango (Wed/Sun)when seasoned dancers go. They are two different worlds in the same venue.

Dancers aren't going to find things in BsAs the way they are at home. The tango culture is unique to Buenos Aires. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Tangocommuter said...

@ jantango: I did not say that BsAs milongas have 'rigid conventions', just that they are 'more rigid' than elsewhere, with which you may agree.

My post is about the difference that set and setting can make to the overall experience of a milonga, from a visitor's viewpoint. & I think your comments show that 'doing as the Argentines do' is not possible, and is indeed probably undesirable, for most visitors.