image courtesy of Kris Hotvedt and Vista Grande Design
by Stephen Brown
Many of us who begin to dance Argentine tango have no experience with the culture and begin to learn the dance in a cultural environment that is alien to the dance.  That places us at a disadvantage in learning to dance tango authentically—where authenticity might be defined by what would be accepted in Buenos Aires.

To some extent searching for authenticity as prescribed by a group of distant people may seem to be a pursuit for small returns.  How much better to ask, what qualities would make dancing tango a transcendent experience?  As my own experience with the dance has grown, however, I have found that tango has developed as it has in Buenos Aires precisely because many people found this form of the dance takes them to the inner tango where they find a transcendent and sublime experience.  The authentic forms of the dance consist of moving to the music, engaging in rhythmic play, developing a heart-to-heart connection with our partner, and spontaneously creating as the dance floor and our skills permit.

Finding Authenticity

In Buenos Aires, tango is so ingrained in the culture that even someone who doesn't like tango knows a lot about it.  Many porteños (citizens of Buenos Aires) grow up with an inner sense of tango—hearing the music on a daily basis, knowing the rhythm of the music, and implicitly understanding that the essential elements of the dance are improvisation, moving to the music, engaging in rhythmic play, and developing a heart-to-heart connection with one's partner.  Because these porteños come to the tango with an implicit knowledge of its essential elements, learning the steps and figures can be sufficient for them to develop the ability to dance tango authentically.

Those of us who learn outside this frame of reference are dependent upon our instructors to a degree that is unfathomable to most Argentines, including those Argentines who regularly teach tango to foreigners.  We must learn to hear the rhythm of the music before we move to it.  We must understand that tango is an improvisational dance that engages the intellect, but is expressed from the heart.  In short, we must understand the craft and the heart of tango before we create the art of dancing it.

Taken outside its original milieu, however, much of the available instruction in Argentine tango conveys only the craft.  It unintentionally conveys the view that the dominant style is salon executed in a relatively open embrace, perhaps with a few fantasia or nuevo elements, and that tango is largely danced through the execution of memorized figures that are based on an eight-count basic.  Only a few instructors and a few instructional videos try to convey the improvisational nature of tango.  Few instructors and no videos attempt to convey an inner sense of tango—that is, moving to the music, engaging in rhythmic play, and developing a heart-to-heart connection with one's partner.

For those of us outside tango's original cultural milieu, finding our way to the inner tango is largely a personal challenge.  Trips to milongas in Buenos Aires can be helpful, as can be working with an instructor who is capable of bridging aspects of the cultural gap that separates us from authenticity that makes tango transcendent and sublime.  Building a collection of tango music for social dancing, listening to it regularly, and learning to move to the music without a partner can also be helpful.  Perhaps the greatest help, however, is simply understanding what elements might be missing from our dancing and/or the instruction we are receiving and looking for them in our own hearts and experiences.