Tango. The real tango. What is it? Is it the spectacularly acrobatic movements seen in a stage show, is it a parody of patriarchal gender roles carried out in dance, is it a mysteriously sensual and sexy, yet sexless, encounter on the dance floor?
Or is it an embrace?
Beatriz Dujovne’s new book, In Strangers’ Arms. The Magic of the Tango seeks to answer these questions, and does so with immense skill. Her first person narrative carries the reader on a very personal and accessible journey into the world of tango as it is danced socially today.
While I may choose to quibble with her over the extent of tango’s real or mythologized underworld connections, this doesn’t belie the fact that her work is very well researched; after all, good research should engender further inquiry. I have found her work to be invaluable to my own doctoral studies on tango lyrics, particularly her assessment of thematic shifts in tango poetry, which parallel the development of Argentine society. (But I’ll save that discussion for my thesis!) There is plenty of fresh material in this book for the researcher, the tango aficionado, and the simply curious alike.
Outside of Argentine culture, tango can be quite a mystery even to those of us who have been under its spell for a long time. And we often find it difficult to articulate to the uninitiated why we feel about it as we do. I was particularly struck by what I can only say is the best explanation I have ever read of what those of us who dance tango call “connection.” As a bit of a tease, here is a part of Beatriz’s description:
“We wallow in the pleasure of making art with a stranger. Without thinking or talking, two collaborators experience the hurts and joys within, and may at times rise above all this and reach something above and beyond the self. I can only define as ‘transcendent’ the moment when the dance becomes a connection of two strangers in a feeling of oneness.”
As she reveals the soul of tango, Beatriz is not afraid to bare her own and share profoundly personal experiences with us. She speaks eloquently of the reparative nature of tango in view of tragic world events by sharing her personal account of this spiritually and physically healing dance:
“Tango dancing, in the wake of these events, took on a different dimension of meaning for me. It became an activity where I celebrate our common humanity. It became my act of dissent against the facelessness and heartlessness in this world that has to yet figure out how to stop terrorizing itself.”
Tango, as much as it is an activity, can also be said to be a space, epitomized by the great Rioplatense metropolis itself. For Beatriz, Buenos Aires is a tangible, palatable entity, and her description of the city is like a textual version of Piazzolla’s music; as I read her description of her taxi rides and excursions throughout the city, I could feel its pulse, its rhythm. Piazzolla’s “Buenos Aires Hora Cero” was dancing to her words in my head.
She succinctly captures the essence of the porteño, the Buenos Aires native, revealing wisdom in the profound chit-chat of introspective taxi drivers and poetic creativity in an idly dropped “piropo,” or coquettish compliment, from a passerby. She brings the reader with her as she enters each milonga—dance space—fully explaining the “codes” in an accessible way through her narrative. It’s not so much a list of “how to’s”—she allows the reader to extract exactly what s/he needs to understand the milonga and its culture, drawing us into its space and allowing us to mingle with its people.
Reading her book is like reading a tango: it engages the senses, evokes nostalgia, it embraces you with a sensuality of words that transports you from the coldness of a stranger to the warmth of a dancer’s arms.
University of Edinburgh
October 29, 2016