The Argentinean Dance Ethic v. A More Social Concept

A conversation with Eduardo and Gloria Arquimba

Editorial Comment: That which strikes me about Tango dancers in Argentina is that they are highly selective about whom they choose to dance with during a milonga or dance social: great dancers want to dance with other great dancers, which means that they overlook the presence of beginners.Those who, as a result of much hard work, can be described as "competent" dancers who may find themselves snubbed as well. The Argentinean dance ethic can be summed up as "Always dance with those who are better dancers than you are." Personally, I feel that this "dance ethic" is not helpful in American milongas. Beginners are going to dance with other beginners but they also need to be mentored by those who have been dancing longer; competent dancers become "great" when they experience and can adjust to a range of partners --beginners included.

If you are an experienced dancer, dancing with a new dancer forces you to be well versed in the basics and technique issues rather than merely knowing steps. So-called good dancers supposedly find it difficult to dance with new dancers because of the beginner's lack of skills. If you only seem to dance well with a good or better dancer, it would be an indication that your skill level is not quite what it should be, even if you consider yourself "a good dancer".

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A really good dancer can lead and follow well, with someone at any level, not just with experts. A strong leader dancing with a new dancer can take a mis-step or hesitation by a follower and turn the mis-step into a new dance move and turn the hesitation into a poetic pause; as a result, the follower will never be aware of her mistakes and will always have fun.

If a strong follower dances with a weak leader, she will always land or position herself in just the right place on the floor, perfectly balanced, adjusting her gait or timing to fit the inadequacy of the poor leader, smiling and having fun even while having no clue as to what he is going to do next. Even though a great follower knows how to stay on the beat of the music, she will step off the music to stay with her partner who then thinks he is dancing much more competently than he really is.

Dancing with a better dancer, then, doesn't necessarily help you learn because the better partner is constantly compensating for your lack of skill, either leading you to do something that you never knew or following your lead while decorating each step to make you look much better than you actually are. It is certainly easier and more pleasurable to dance with those who are already dancing well, but if this means ignoring beginners or dancers who are less skilled than oneself, then serious consequences will continue to keep the Tango community smaller than Salsa, Swing and other dance forms that are thriving in Chicago.

In a city of 6-10 million people, there might be only 200 people who dance Tango in Chicago, during any week. Without a welcoming atmosphere, our community will only minimally grow, nor will beginners ever move into competency or competent dancers ever become "great." Snubbing those who may be at the same level or lower is never helpful to a dance community; for every one new person who comes into Tango, we lose two experienced dancers who feel ignored and discouraged and who no longer has fun.

Before we adopt a dance ethic which seems to be the greener grass on the other side of the continent, we might consider that in Buenos Aires, a city of 10 million people, in a place where this style of Tango was born and has been danced for over 100 years still only approx. 4,000-5,000 local natives danceTango regularly in the milongas; if a more social and welcoming attitude prevailed perhaps Tango in Argentina and foreign tourism would be booming to offset some economic issues and perhaps Tango would be the national craze in Argentina instead of Rock & Roll. ( It could happen right?)

In my humble opinion here in the U.S., most dances have survived because of the willingness of it's participants to share the beauty and artistry of their dance art with all who seek to learn it. Tango is no different for all those who love it. In order for it to grow, it requires the same ingredients that are used when a town tries to grow its tourism business. It needs publicity, helpful friendly towns people at every level, and easy access. Our visitors to Tango should never want to leave to get into some other dance because everyone here in Chicago should be that supportive and friendly. With each other's help, all of us can help to build their confidence and mastery of new skills. It is the socializing and encouragement which compels people to stay in Tango, not the ego.



The following interview reflects two viewpoints: that of Al of TangoChicago and the opposing viewpoint of one of the best known figures in Argentinean history, Eduardo Arquimba, who has been dancing Tango more than 40 years.

Al: What I want to know is this --why in Argentina are there such unsocial codes? For instance, they won't dance with a person unless he or she is already great at the dance. Is the ego more important than enjoying other people and socializing? Take for instance, Graciela Gonzales -- no one would dance with her for her first two years in the milonga.

Eduardo: That would be the ways things used to be. Now there are more dancers, newer ones, and many more tourists. Now people come from other countries; they go to the tourist milongas and they dance without difficulty. Also, think about this: every place has a certain set of customs --when you go to the place you have to accept the customs of that place. If I go to dance in milongas in Switzerland, there will be customs there different than other places. Before things used to be in Argentina as you described, but now these customs are changing because there are so many tourists coming in and altering codes because they don't know them.

Al: But when Ruben Terbelca came into town, he said only 5,000 people were doing Tango in Argentina at that time. He said it was a small community, where many people know one another. I think it would be even bigger there in Argentina if the community in Buenos Aires were more accepting and encouraging. Is that figure of 5,000 accurate?

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Eduardo: I have no idea! This is just not true. Who knows how many people are currently dancing in Argentina!

Al: But Ruben came up with this figure after doing research.

Eduardo: Ruben only knows the places where the tourists go-- around five places. His numbers would reflect such places, especially in the city center. There are many other places where tourists don't tend to show up.

Since we had reached a stalemate in terms of the numbers of dancers in Argentina, I returned to the issue of the unsocial dance code; to call attention to the cultural attitudes towards women in Argentinean Milongas as reflected in Eduardo's answers.

Al: Well, then, I would like to know whether you would advise your students to dance only with better dancers or to dance with every person no matter their level so that they can get better.

Eduardo: If a particular person tells another person that he or she is a good dancer, then most likely it is a man telling a woman this. And if it is the other way around, if it is a woman telling a man this, then she is out of line. No one can tell me, a man, whether I dance well. If I go out to dance and I have a lot of women wanting to dance with me because I dance well, then I am a good dancer. The same thing is true of a man or a woman. The men have to decide whether a woman is a good dancer -- and when you dance well everyone wants to dance with you.

Al: But again, the question is this, do you advise your students to dance only with the better dancers or to dance with everyone?

Eduardo: Well, my students always dance with everybody and when they go to the dance, the women will always ask: "Who is your teacher? How did you learn to dance so well?" This is the key moment, when a woman asks you a question like this. Sometimes they will come up to me and question me about the causes for why people are doing such bad things on the dance floor, just not doing things right. The woman always knows this about a man -- that he is not doing things right, simply by dancing with him. And then the man, on the other hand, always knows if a woman is not dancing well.

If I were to dance with a student, my dancing with her doesn't mean that she is a good dancer. Perhaps she has just asked me, "Teacher, would you mind dancing with me?" That's not what really matters here and what I said above is not meant to cover this sort of situation. What is of real value here is this: if I am sitting at a table and if some woman is sitting at another table, and I then give her a nod and a look --some indication that I would like to dance with her -- then that would be an indication she is a good dancer.

Al: But what I'm asking is if you prescribe to the theory that I've heard so many Argentinean teachers voice when they come here. They tell our people, "Don't dance with anyone unless they are good dancers and at your level."

Eduardo: My students all know how to lead; all my men know how to lead. Therefore they have no issues about asking women who are less experienced than they are.

Al: But even if they were bad dancers, wouldn't they benefit by the repetition of dancing with everybody? Then you could mentor those newcomers so they could become better dancers, rather than telling everyone else, "Don't dance with them; they're not ready?"

Eduardo: Look, there are three things. First, there is the class where the students have to listen to what the teachers say. If the students like what the teacher tells them, then they do it; if they don't like it, then they don't do it. The second thing is the practica and practice. At the practica, one has an opportunity to exchange ideas. Third, there is the milonga. The milonga is a ceremony where you dance with whomever you want to dance. There you don't have to dance with anyone you don't like.

Here we reach the heart of the matter, the philosophy of exclusiveness and exclusion that I hope doesn't become detrimental to Chicago's Tango community.

Al: But that's not very social, is it?

Eduardo: Of course it's social; at a milonga you are free to dance with whomever you like.

Al: But it's not social because it alienates people and certainly doesn't help to build up a dance community. It makes some people feel less than others.

Eduardo: In a milonga there is a known form of respect. No one ever comes up to someone out of the blue and asks them to dance, so this sort of thing is avoided. I have the head nod and the look of the eye -- no one simply comes up to a person to ask for a dance. There are codes because the milonga is a ceremony. If you want to go to a social place, like you are describing, then you need to go to a practica. There are practicas and milongas, and that is the difference. The milonga is a different sort of place. Consider these things: for a milonga, there is a special way of dressing, special music, everything is prepared. It is a ceremony. Thus at a milonga, I dance with whomever I want to dance; or I don't dance with them, and that's that.

A milonga is a ceremony that starts the minute you walk out of the house, the moment you see yourself in the mirror. That sort of thing doesn't happen here in the U.S. When I go to a milonga in Buenos Aires where there are no tourists, then everyone has a suit on. It's more than just the culture there. When I was younger I had a suit made for me just for the milonga; I then put on a blue shirt and a very fine tie. When I got there they told me that, with a blue shirt on, I couldn't come into the milonga."

Al: Do any of those people who are snubbed stop coming to dance? I mean, is it worth losing those people to protect the 'ceremonial' aspect of the milonga?

Eduardo: I have an American student who dances well and he goes to the milongas and sometimes he gives the women the look, asking for a dance, and he probably has a list as long as his arm of all the lines women have given him to say no. For instance, they say: "I have to go to the bathroom"; I need to stay here with my friend"; my feet are hurting" .... This American student of mine knows what I am saying.

Al: I would like to ask Gloria a question. The women here sometimes complain that they sit for three or four hours without a man asking them to dance. Do you think that's fair? Do you think women should be able to ask men to dance if they want to dance? They've spent $100 on a dress; they've taken the trouble to get nice pantyhose, shoes, perfume, hairstyle, but still they sit all night.

Eduardo: No! They should never ask!

Al: Wait! I want to hear it from her!

Gloria: In a practica --and only there with friends --would that be acceptable. But in a milonga, no.

Eduardo: In a milonga, there are nice women and those who aren't so nice. The nice ones will be asked out; those who aren't so nice will not. This is how it tends to work and, strangely enough, it has nothing to do with the codes I mentioned earlier. It has to do with your presence, your personality.

Gloria: They used to always ask me out even when I couldn't dance. I don't have any real interest in asking men to dance at a milonga. Before I might do it with a look, but now I don't even do this.