Most representations of “tango” show a woman clamping a rose in her teeth while she & her derring-do partner take giant steps across the floor, with abrupt changes of direction, fervent head snapping & cheesy dips. In almost every movie, sitcom and melodramatic performance, the misperception via misrepresentation is perpetuated through a distorted version that is completely absent of accuracy, even when the opportunity to be accurate is available. For example, during a network news cast, the commentator was taught the eight step basic and led to do it but couldn’t resist the proverbial shtick, throwing herself into the obligatory exaggerated dip.
When we mention that we dance tango, friends or acquaintances invariably say something like, “Oh, do you compete?” Or, “I just love watching that on TV.” Or, “Wow, you must be in really good shape.” We might try explaining “Tango on TV shows is very different from Argentine tango” and then find our self fumbling for words to define “different?’ should they hang around long enough to ask.
Tango is the only social dance I know of that warrants an explanation. Waltz, swing, fox trot, etc. are familiar and most people have a good idea what they look like. What does tango “look” like? Many enthusiasts have been drawn to tango after watching a stunning performance that included lightning fast leg work and incredible footwork. For example, would I have been as interested if I had seen a couple dancing quietly in close embrace? I’d like to think so. However, the razzle-dazzle captured my attention immediately and completely, and I knew within a brief moment that my dance life was about to take a dramatic turn. Did I know that what I’d seen was only one part of the complete tango picture and that two years later I’d be starting all over again in a different style? Would I have plunged in anyway? Nope, yep, in that order.
After two years of gleefully attempting giant forward ochos, and whirling molinetes from teachers who were also stage performers, our community was introduced to “close embrace” and “milonguero style” and words like “connection” and “axis.” This opened up a whole new world; we learned that “social” tango and “show” tango are completely different, that each has its unique pleasures, and that they can be deliciously combined.
The most common misperception seems to be the Valentino-esque version with stirring violins playing strictly cadenced strains to a SSQQS rhythm, complete with head-snapping, arched backs, heads turned away from each other, and deeply serious expressions as performed by The Three Stooges, Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin, The Addams Family, The Flintstones, in True Lies, and countless commercials. Totally misleading caricaturizations.
How appropriate that tango is as challenging to describe as it is to dance, and that its mystique is enhanced in part through its misrepresentations.