But there's a perception, real or imagined, that serious Porteños believe that true tango can only be danced in Buenos Aires by people who know their pain – they say, “but you need to know what this song is about, and, invariably, it's about some sorry schmuck from the barrio who gets jilted and now he's feeling tortured and drinking to excess. Yeah, well, get in line pal. Been there. Done that. Or maybe the song is about a city or country in decline, and to that I say, don't get me started on Canada's own kind of crumbling as the country's reputation and values are unceremoniously dismantled by our current callous government...
So, on the subject of tango lyrics and Argentina's pain, that's cool, but those are common themes. Yeah, it is too bad we don't know the words, because, ultimately, they're easily metaphoric, and good poetry is universally true.
Some women have said to me that they really like it when the Argentines sing in their ear while dancing. It's true – knowing the lyrics of a song adds an extra layer, and it goes a long way toward motivating and animating you in a dance.
Which is why I, personally, love dancing tango to Tom Waits. That's some motherfuckin' pain right there. Know 'um sayin? And as much as I wish that Argentina had cornered the market on feelings unrequited, I fear that's not the case, and, once again, there's something that the rest of us...well, me anyway, can connect with. And that's tango. And it's also why I like dancing tango to non-tango music. A lot of it is just about understanding the lyrics. The language that you understand, describing the sadness, loss, loneliness or joy that you understand.
For some purists, if you say “I like dancing to alternative music” to them it feels like a betrayal of the true tango, or worse, it conjures images of repetitive electronica and people dancing with all the grace and aplomb of an epileptic Dervish, flailing around while petrified partners hang on for dear life. But I just mean music that isn't tango because it's great music that I understand, and dancing to it with the same dance vocabulary. And it's often more heartfelt because I understand the music and the lyrics. A personal favourite is Leonard Cohen's “Dance me to the end of Love”.
“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic til I'm safely gathered in”.
Bloody fucking hell, I'm already bawling over here.
I wrote the above passage, about liking Cohen to dance to, last Monday at a coffee shop near my apartment. I actually hadn't heard any song in English in a tanda at a milonga in what was at that point exactly 8 weeks here. That night at La Bicicleta there was a tanda (“three-song cycle” for the uninitiated) played live by a guy playing just a guitar, but excellently, with a beautiful voice and a head of hair that looked like at least three of the Jackson 5 standing together next to an electrical field.
He starts singing the first song, and I swear to freakin' gawd, it's “Dance me to the end of Love.” I just about fell off my chair. Well, actually, I did. But then I got up and danced.
Tango and the state of “estar”
When learning Spanish, one of the ways of explaining the difference between 'ser' and 'estar', two forms of the verb 'to be', is that 'ser' is for permanent states and 'estar' is for temporary states. In English, there's only one. “I'm a man” and “I'm happy”. One permanent, one temporary. But in Spanish, you say 'estoy feliz', and right there, before the words are even out of your mouth, the language is already reminding you “but don't get used to it.” Of course, the opposite is also true. “Estoy triste”, but that's okay. That, too, shall pass. I love this philosophical notion in the Spanish language: Whatever it is that you feel, its opposite is always lurking! Tango is that state of 'estar'. Shadows moving through; the fleeting and the flitting, as permanent as a plate of 'fiambres' after a night of dancing.
And so it goes. We come to another country and it's easy to feel superior and to naively want to 'get with the people and support them against their evil governments and meanwhile, my own country is being dismantled from the inside out while we passively allow it. Oh sure, people are signing shit, and there's a whole heap-a clicking and 'liking' going on, but where are the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets outraged as our country becomes a shadow of its former self?
I don't need to cry for Argentina. There's plenty to cry about at home...