What is Traditional?

By Bonnie Gintis, Vermont Retreat 2016

The question of the value of tradition is often raised in tango communities, as well as in the culture at large. What is tradition? What is the value of tradition? How does it apply to the dance itself, the behavior and appearance of the dancers, the attachment to specific roles, the music, etc.? When do we preserve and perpetuate traditions and when are traditions open to interpretation and adaptation?

The most controversial aspect of tradition concerns the roles of men and women. Tango has allowed me to express one of the most radical political social acts - for a man or woman (or whatever gender-identity label one chooses to use) to dance with anyone else in either role of leader or follower. I like to call this “role fluidity.” Some call this “gender neutrality,” but there is nothing neutral in tango. The dance requires the duality of a leader and a follower. Role fluidity has more to do with the ability to participate in either role as leader or follower. It has nothing to do with gender. If everyone were willing to do this, to take another person in their arms, to listen, to feel their intention and the desire move together, not only would everyone be a better and more empathetic dancer, but also the world would be a better place!

The attachment some people have to playing out and perpetuating a romantic fantasy of a role-bound heterosexual relationship in this dance is a relic of the past that in my opinion is not worth perpetuating. I don’t mean to say that feeling romantic is in and of itself antiquated. It can be fun to indulge in romanticism. But there are those who guard what they think of as "traditional" male and female roles in Argentine Tango and apply this approach to all aspects of their dance life. This is what I am questioning, and I invite you to explore this with me and with your tango community.

In the skit above, which makes fun of the bullshit some women go through waiting and trying to get men to ask them to dance. The women discover they love dancing with each other - they all lead and follow. For those of you know the tango world there is some hilarious physical comedy (I find the cabeceo jokes very funny!)

A man who identified as being “traditional” in his philosophy and approach to tango asked me to dance at a milonga. He asked me verbally, not with the “traditional” mirada and cabeceo, a nod of the head with eye contact, and when I accepted his invitation, he swiftly let me know his point of view by verbally telling me that he is “traditional.” I’m not sure what exactly he was trying to tell me. There was an imperative in the way he informed me of this. What did he need to establish? Did he think I would try to steal his lead? Did he think I’d expect him to switch into following mid-dance? Or was it an ultimatum? If I wanted to dance with him he was informing me that we were going to do it his way. We had a nice dance and I said, “thank you.” I never figured out why he needed to tell me he was a traditionalist.

People who identify as traditional seem to think everyone else knows what that means and how to play along, but I have to admit that in this situation I was stumped. In some vague sense I assume he meant that he likes to ask women to dance and doesn’t want them asking him. He wants the gender roles defined on the dance floor. I get that, but I sense it frequently means something else that I just don’t understand.

In the spirit of breaking gender role boundedness and bringing comedy to tango, these dancers clearly show how the dance can be about enjoyment, connection, and communication, and not some romantic fantasy.

What we call traditional changes every 20 or 30 years. If you danced tango in 1890 in Buenos Aires, it would be traditional to be poor or working-class and dance in the courtyard of your tenement on cobblestones in work boots. If you danced tango after the mischievous rich sons of wealthy Argentinian industrialists sneaked off to learn it and took it to Paris, you might be dressed to the hilt in the latest Parisian styles with patent leather shoes on varnished floors. If you dance tango the way they did traditionally during the dark years of political oppression in Argentina, you’d either not be dancing at all or you’d be dancing in a dark basement on dirt or concrete floors fearing for your life. Throughout most of the history of tango men have learned by dancing with each other, but this 21st century traditionalist didn’t strike me as a man who would be comfortable dancing with another man.

I appreciate some of the things tradition offers, especially when it comes to music and food. I like the music from the Golden Age of tango. I appreciate the traditional arrangement of music into tandas at a milonga. It makes it easier to dance a particular style with one partner and then have a clearly defined break at a cortina to change partners. But when it comes to gender roles and rigid societal rules, I favor modern progressive ways.

I choose comfort over traditional footwear. I can dance longer in flats or dance sneakers than in heels. I like wearing pants. I like asking people to dance regardless of who leads and follows. I would never sit around waiting for a man to make me happy. I don’t expect men (or women, for that matter) to read my mind and do what I’m thinking. Learning how to lead is making me much more understanding and patient with other leaders. One of my many tango teachers, Karla Bourland describes the interaction between tango partners as “lead, follow, follow.” What this means is that the leader starts the conversation, the follower responds, and then the leader follows the follower. I like how this keeps both roles active, engaged, and constantly adapting to each other’s responses.

What is the role of tradition in your life? Where have you accepted a tradition without questioning its value? I invite you to explore and commit to the traditions that serve you and examine and revamp those that don’t.

Bonnie Gintis, DO, FCA is an Osteopathic Physician, Continuum Teacher, & Author of Engaging The Movement Of Life. Her upcoming workshop "Transformative Self-Care: An Exploration of Movement, Mindfulness, and Osteopathy” is open to all, and will be held at Kripalu in Stockbridge, MA from Jan 29 – Feb 3, 2017.

Learn more about Bonnie at www.bonniegintis.com