Back early last November, here, I was delighted to post a three-part interview with Melina Sedo, who teaches tango along with her partner, Detlef Engel. Just last week, Chris UK left a comment on it, which has set me thinking. I hope Melina and Chris won't mind if I repeat the exchange, which is preceded by something Melina said in the interview:
"There are loads of mistakes that followers can make. If that wasn’t the case, they would hardly need lessons, would they?"
Chris replied: 'Melina, girls generally don't need lessons. Take a look at the great social dancers of the BA milongas, almost none of whom took a lesson in their life. Is their dancing full of "mistakes" that need your lessons to correct? Of course not. A typical girl having an affinity for the dance needs only a guy who can dance well. She can learn all she needs to know by dancing.' (As usual, the context matters: Cassiel said he believed that when things went wrong it was the leader's fault, and Melina is replying that it's not that simple.)
'Take a look at the great social dancers of the BA milongas, almost none of whom took a lesson in their life'? This seems manifestly untrue. True, they didn't go out to classes, pair up with men they didn't know and be dragged into leg-wraps and ganchos: that kind of class hardly existed when they were young, and their mothers wouldn't have allowed it. But all the accounts (listen to them on Practimilonguero) show that tango was THE popular dance of the 1940s; it was danced at family get-togethers, at parties, at neighbourhood festivals, as well as at local milongas. So where did everyone learn? The answer seems to be: from their mothers. Many accounts by dancers who grew up in the 1940s mention mothers as the source of their dance. The basics of tango were learned to the radio around the kitchen table, while the boys who'd already learned a thing or two (from the same mothers) would be out on the street corners swapping moves with each other, and perfecting their style. 'My dad didn't care much for dancing, but my mother really loved it' is a common sentiment.
The local milongas seem to have been very formal: the men stood in the middle of the floor trying to make eye-contact with the girls sitting with their mothers around the floor. I'm rather glad I've never found myself in that situation.
So, no, you can't really say that the girls never took lessons, that all their wonderful fluency came simply from the embrace of the right guy. Romantic, but unlikely. But at the same time, is it right to say that 'There are loads of mistakes that followers can make'? 'Mistakes'? By what canon of correctness? Perhaps something has gone amiss in translation here. I can think of more or less effective ways to lead or follow: of more or less comfortable, or pleasing, or even acceptable. But 'mistakes' suggest a rigid right-and-wrong reminiscent more of ballroom, where the judges mark you down for your 'mistakes'. (A system that's sadly creeping into tango via the 'mundiales'?)
And even if we think in terms of effective, comfortable, pleasing, acceptable lead-and-follow, we're likely to end up with identical dancing. Look at the YouTube videos of Ricardo Vidort, and compare them to videos of Osvaldo Cartery. Could their dance be more different? & yet they grew up as lads together, practicing with each other on street corners, but they found what worked for them, how best they each could follow the music with a partner; they found what their partners appreciated, what didn't go down well, what felt good, and that became their tango, and it was different from each others' tango. Or from anyone else's. Perhaps there's an anti-authoritarian streak to tango.
Osvaldo y Coca Cartery in their Practimilonguero interviews talk about the increasing similarity of the tango of young dancers, and they use the word 'clones'. Perhaps that's the result of too many classes, of too much tango correctness.