Guest Post: Lewis Shiner on “Tango: The Dance”

Shade_cropI first discovered Lewis Shiner's work years and years ago now, when a mutual friend gave me a copy of his short fiction collection Love in Vain. I immediately added him to my Favorite Writers list, and tracked down his novels. One of the things I love about Lew's work is that while everything he writes is immediately recognizable as his, I never know what to expect from the next novel or story. His latest novel, Dark Tangos, just out from Subterranean, is no exception. This tightly-strung thriller set in Buenos Aires sends recently-relocated techie Rob Cavanaugh on a journey filled with brutal political realities and undeniable romance, and it's highly recommended (and not just by me; Booklist gave it a starred review). I recently interviewed Lew about it, and today I'm thrilled to host his fascinating post about the dance in question.

Most people in the US have an idea of what tango looks like. That idea comes from Hollywood, and it looks a lot like this famous scene from Scent of a Woman:

I've just published a novel, Dark Tangos, that has tango at its heart, but it's nothing like what Pacino is doing in the video. My novel deals with tango the way it's danced in the nightclubs of Buenos Aires–arguably the most romantic dance in the world. Given Gwenda's ongoing interest in romance in literature, she was kind enough to give me space here to talk about dancing tango.

First, a few definitions. What you see in Scent of a Woman, True Lies, and Rudolph Valentino movies is variously known as American Tango (ignoring the fact that Argentina is part of America too), International Tango, or Ballroom Tango. Valentino basically invented it for the movies in the 1920s, and ballroom dancers codified a set of patterns for the sake of competitions–the head snaps, the cheek-to-cheek extended-arm promenades, the spins that yank the follower in and out like a yo-yo.

Argentine tango itself is divided into two schools: show tango and salon style. Show tango is generally performed in open embrace, to make room for lots of fancy footwork, including kicks and leg wraps. This is what is most commonly taught as Argentine tango in the US, again because there are defined moves to build a curriculum around ("This month: Ganchos!") and because the dance is so dramatic. Here's a great example, from Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson:


The skill level here is indisputable, but I have to ask, where is the romance? This looks more like a stylized kickboxing match than a makeout session. (You can also see Robert Duval pursuing this style in Assassination Tango.)

Finally, there is salon tango, more specifically, milonguero style tango. Milongueros are the old guys who hang out at the milongas, the tango dances in Buenos Aires, generally dressed in cheap suits with an open collared shirt. These guys have been dancing tango since they were kids; maybe they did the showy stuff when they were young, but now they have pared tango down to its essentials. They always dance in close embrace–one long, gentle, sensual hug.

My favorite teachers in the US are Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, who completely understand the milonguero style, based on many months in Buenos Aires, learning it from the masters.  Here's a video where they're performing for a small group of students to "Poema," one of the most beautiful of all tangos:

None of this is choreographed. Ney is leading all the steps, spontaneously, in the moment, and Jennifer is responding to his leads and embellishing in the spaces he leaves her–though, obviously, they both know the song really well. Notice the pauses, the changes in energy as the music changes, the way they never break their embrace, as if they can't bear to be away from each other for even a second.

Ney never leads with his arms–everything comes solely from his chest.  And all the steps must fit to the stringent rules of the dance. To say that this is harder than it looks is an understatement of epic proportions. My protagonist explains early in the novel:

"Tango, at some level, is simple. There are only three steps: forward, backward, and the so-called open step to the side. The lead comes from the torso. The arms, relaxed, merely extend the torso and add clarity. The hands are still.

"The steps come only at specific intervals in relation to the music. On the beat, or tiempo.  Double time, or doble tiempo, and half time, or medio tiempo. Then there is contratiempo, the skipping heartbeat of the habanera rhythm, the African ancestor who will not be denied, da-dum dum dum.

"Yet for every rule, tango finds a loophole. The leader can pivot the follower, or himself, before taking any of those three steps. Leader and follower do not have to step at the same time, or in the same direction, or take the same number of steps. The complexities multiply exponentially until hope of mastering even the bare essentials of the dance recedes into an improbable future."

Part of my protagonist's journey involves his experiencing the terrible violence that is part of Argentine history, especially the Dirty War of the 1970s (see post at Chasing Ray later this week). But part of it involves his growth as a dancer from someone who is just walking through a series of learned moves to someone who is actually interpreting the music. Given that tango music is so often about betrayal, loss, and doomed love, the two journeys are inextricably entwined.

In fact, writing Dark Tangos took me to a new level of understanding of tango–seeing it in light of Argentine history let me finally see both inevitable sadness in the music, and the triumph implicit in the very act of dancing to it.


Visit all the stops on Lew's blog tour this week:

Mon 9/5  "Big Idea: Justice"
  John Scalzi's Whatever
Tue 9/6  "Tango: The Dance"
  Gwenda Bond's Shaken and Stirred
Wed 9/7  "Tango: The Music"
  Ron Hogan's Beatrice
Thu 9/8  "The Bare Necessities: Inspirations"
  Rebecca Joines Schinsky's Book Lady's Blog
Fri 9/9  "Old Fears: A Short History of a Dirty War"
  Colleen Mondor's Chasing Ray
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