Friday, 23 November 2012

The days when the music was live

Another week, another milonga... and a table with four young Argentine teachers who don't look at all bored, and who enjoy social dancing, with each other and with some of the local dancers too. I'm glad to be proved wrong, and wonder at how the thesis has provoked its own anti-thesis, its antithesis. 

Their social dance is good, but it's not altogether the social dance you see from the older dancers in Buenos Aires. It is lighter somehow, less grounded, and certainly more elaborate, more fun. It seems less firmly connected to the music too, as if the dance has become the focus, rather than the music.

I start to wonder if this is how the older dancers used to dance when they were young. It's easy when you watch them, and probably when you dance with them, to assume that they've always danced like this, but perhaps that's unlikely. I recall what Cacho Dante said about the dancers of his youth, 'When they didn’t really know how to dance, they did 20 steps; when they knew a bit more, they did 10; and when they really knew what they were doing, they danced five… but with real quality'. So the younger dancers in his day liked to be elaborate too, and as they've grown they've improved and simplified. & I wondered: in thirty years, will these young Buenos Aires teachers who dance good social tango today be dancing like the older dancers dance today? 

Only time will tell, but for what it's worth, I doubt it. Tango was and still is a passion, a passion for the music as much as for the dance, for that generation. They grew up with Troilo and Fiorentino, Pedro Laurenz, Pugliese, Los Dos Angeles, actually in front of their eyes and ears, the sound waves direct from the instruments to their ears and their skin. Imagine it: going to a milonga with no star DJ, no playlist on a laptop, but a full orquesta led by a musical giant, performing, making that music right there and then for you to dance to! Imagine the anticipation of going to a milonga knowing that Di Sarli would be there in person with his orquesta to make music for your dance! What a buzz, what an occasion it must have been, night after night, to go to a milonga! However poor or tough or sad your everyday life, for the price of a ticket you could have amazing music, even if you couldn't dance much! Nobody is ever going to grow up dancing with that again. Sadly. The CDs show us the commitment and single-mindedness that went into that wonderful musical tradition. It was serious stuff, something the musicians worked very hard for: for decades the competition was intense, driving ever better arrangements and performances.
We're lucky to have the CDs, but we've lost the intensity of live performance. It's all too easy for music on a CD to become mere background music in a way that the presence and intensity of live performers would never allow: in turn the dance becomes lighter and more trivial. That's why I'm convinced that those hard-earned visits to Buenos Aires are so important. In the milongas there you can still see and feel some of the excitement, some of the intensity of the days when the music was live. Those old guys, and the women too, aren't just dancing to the CD: they dance with the memory of hearing and dancing to that music live. The only way to get some idea of how it felt to be there when the music was live is to go to the milongas of Buenos Aires while that generation is still on its feet. I've heard people try to argue away the importance of the connection with Buenos Aires, but we all know what it's like to be in front of live music, how we anticipate it, how powerful it can be. 

Visiting Buenos Aires is a way of touching base, keeping your feet firmly planted by opening yourself to the remaining ripples in the space-time continuum of those days when the music was live. If you ignore that background radiation the dance very easily becomes trivial, as the music becomes mere wallpaper. & once that happens, tango dies. We live with entropy so it's doomed in any case: we're just lucky there's life in it yet.

(Homage and thanks to all those who've taken those long flights, sometimes repeatedly, to the city where there's still a living memory of great live tango. You've bought back an enthusiasm that transcends any mechanical teaching. I hope more people will be inspired to visit. It might not be easy, but do we really want to live with easy solutions?)

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