Do the Argentines have it in their blood?

2010 February 18
by Simba
African Tribal Dance, Togo by themanwithsalthair, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by  themanwithsalthair

–You have to realize, Simba, that there are great non-Argentine teachers, too! This argument came up in a heated debate, and while I agree in principle, the teachers she had in mind were mediocre at best, so it didn’t really change my opinion much. In an online debate along similar lines, I once noticed an attempt to ridicule the ones pointing out the Argentines’ comparative advantage in tango by comparing them to people holding the view that the ‘negroes had it in their blood’ (when talking about rhythm, obviously).

Easy to agree in principle, but is it supported by evidence? Anyone who has seen African dance performed by Africans alongside their Northern European caucasian imitators would be tempted to conclude otherwise. As in the case with the Argentines and tango, mind you.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying they actually have it in their blood, that it is something genetical. Still, there is a difference, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I think it is cultural. Getting cultural impulses since birth makes quite a difference. It is  tango by osmosis. Hearing the music, knowing the places, the language, the way they walk… It goes on and on. Seeing dancers in the milongas that actually know what they are doing, and being able to take lessons with great teachers regularly over time.

While in the U.S. I once witnessed a mother of African heritage and her son just a few years old. The son suddenly burst out into a spontaneous dance. The mother cheered with joy: –Yeah baby, do your dance!

So if not in their blood, possibly in their mother’s milk?

Which led me to think: Then, when will we see someone that grew up with tango fanatics outside of Argentina? Admittedly, it would still not be quite the same as growing up in Argentina, but growing up with tango parents would reduce the gap considerably, being exposed to music and dance from an early age.

The resurgence of tango started in the early eighties, and they would have needed some time to learn tango confidently themselves, so say babies born in the late eighties or early nineties… should be around twenty by now. It wouldn’t surprise me if a hot shot couple from the old world entered the scene soon.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. 2010 February 18

    I think the osmosis argument is a good one while the blood argument is a weak one. The same debate comes up in the salsa world when it comes to the idea of “Latin blood.” Some non-Latinos even emphasize this dichotomy when they say the dance brings out another side of them that they either don’t or can’t usually express. However, there are many Latinos who hear and feel the music but just can’t dance at all and lack the coordination and fluidity that mark great dancers. Does early exposure make a difference? Absolutely. Does a sense of cultural identification make a difference? Absolutely. Does genetics make a difference? Probably not as much. Sorry to use the salsa analogy again, but it works well in this instance… Many Latinos ask me where I’m from when they dance with me, and some of them just don’t seem to believe me when I tell them I have no Latin blood in me because I dance like they do. Sometimes they ask if I’m Russian because for some reason they think even a different culture other than American would better explain the way I dance. I don’t get this inquiry quite as often when I dance Argentine tango, probably for the simple fact that there are more Latinos dancing salsa than Argentines (or even other Latinos) dancing tango in my community. It’s an interesting debate, not because of what the answer might be so much but in looking at our perceptions of whether innate dance abilities and affinities really are very consistent with our cultural backgrounds. It’s helpful to point out too that Argentine tango is not danced by a majority of the Argentine (or even Buenos Aires) population.

    But I definitely agree with the idea of early exposure and just creating an open atmosphere for “playing” with the dance. It should be something that just is, a natural response to the music. I think in our culture it oftentimes becomes about competition and performance. If people can’t be the best, they don’t want to participate. There will always be those who are better than most, but in African culture as discussed in this article there is greater participation by the masses instead of only by specialized groups. Studies on this correlation (inverse between specialization and participation) show that the more we develop skill in a certain area, the fewer people are naturally “selected” for participation. This is a very interesting topic… (My apologies for such a long “comment.”) 🙂

  2. 2010 March 21
    Davide Baroncelli permalink

    Hi, of course there is no such thing as tango, or art, that flows in blood, but the cultural argument might stand: if only Argentina hadn’t almost entirely lost contact with tango as a dance at some point of his history! I’ve met a lot of people that keep repeating “I’m from Argentina, and I have tango in my blood: my grandfather used to sing tango while he was shaving”.

    I find it interesting that in order to describe their link with tango they have to jump one generation: what about their parents? What about their own experience? The reality is that tango as a social dance was almost completely lost at a particular time, and it’s only thanks to the passion of a very small minority that it survived (and it came back improved, refined, elevated).

    If tango is thriving today, it’s thanks to that minority, but also thanks to all the people in the rest of the world that from the early nineties on got interested in the dance, and started learning it.

    About the “argentininans do it better”, thing, I’m Italian and I mostly learned to dance while living in Milan, frantically following for almost five years all the classes I could from a wonderful teacher whose name is Mariachiara Michieli. She used to dance with Alejandro Aquino (whom, if you don’t know him, you can see dance in a rare youtube movie – and in an… interesting setting here: ), and they formed a tango company that organized a number of shows for all the nineties that got rave reviews.

    She is from Venice, but she learned to dance at the end of the eighties in Buenos Aires, with teachers such as Todaro, Miguel Balmaceda, and Pepito Avellaneda (who was part of the company and toured with them for a number of years right before he died).

    She is absolutely Italian in the way she thinks, and teaches, and still she consider herself (rightly) as one of the few bearers of a pure tango tradition. You can sense this in her classes, which are HARD, sometimes frustrating, maybe “slow moving” from the perspective of the modern (and eager) tango learners, but having a long-lasting effect in how one thinks about and performs tango.

    I’ve been now living in London for the last 3 years, and I’ve had a number of different teachers, both on regular classes and sporadical stages (in this case very big names of international tango were involved): they were generally at least decent dancers, but from none of them I have been able to learn even 1/100 of what Mariachiara can give in a month of lessons.

    They all teach a much looser style, these days, which brings their pupils to never really feel comfortable and confident, and they normally overlook completely aspects like the tension, the interaction, density of the movement, approach of the feet to the floor or even the correct position of the bodies. They only concentrate on “interesting” steps (and still, they are mostly unable to convey the same refinement and polish of Mariachiara steps).

    And, yet, they’re all Argentinians. So, where’s the “culture”, or the “blood”? The difference, here, is learning from a master that has 25 years of experience not only as a dancer but most of all as a choreographer and a teacher, as opposed to learning from people that might be good dancers, but lack the same depth of culture and experience.

    You can see another example of this in the London milongas every week. Most of the teachers are Argentinian, and as a matter of fact most of the Argentinians that dance around in London end up giving lessons, nowadays (regardless of how they dance or how much experience they have): still when I see most of them dancing I can’t keep myself from thinking that they must have approached tango while living abroad, because I can’t see a trace of that uprightness and culture that I’ve been taught.

    On the contrary, a lot of them dance a loose style of tango that looks either uninspired or very sloppy to me: and while the native londoners try to blatantly mimic that style, a few dancers coming from abroad and visiting often show a better style (or even a more beautiful interpretation of that same loose style).

    And most of the London milongas, because of this, are sad places where there’s no trace of the intensity, social harmony and elegance that I experienced frequently in Milan ones: and still, in London there are lots and lots more Argentinians than in Milan.

  3. 2010 March 24

    Thanks for the long and interesting comment, Davide. I heard from reputable (Argentine 😉 sources that the tango in Milano is excellent! In a sense that should come as no surprise as Italy has tight cultural ties with Argentina.

    Of course, not all Argentines dance well or are connected deeply with tango culture, but from what I have seen, all the very best are indeed Argentine. I don’t like the sloppy way of dancing either, but as an old man said better than me, we get what we deserve.

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