17 January 2010

Seattle tango topographies

I have read (and heard) many say that tango is like a metaphor for life. In this case, tango in Seattle took some twists and turns and evolved into (what I think), is one of the best tango communities in the world.

In the late eighties, tango was introduced to Seattle by Sonny Newman. He was the one who first started teaching Argentine Tango. His classes would start a core group of people who would build, influence, and expand what the Seattle tango community is today. Inspirational, vibrant, elegant, and ever evolving, albeit small.

Growing pains
As in any art form, the initial introduction of this medium produced a cadre who had a common thread—Argentine tango. However, their preferences in tango varied from the intimately close to the full blown show stuff. Like rhizomes emanating from the central root node, they branched out and created nodes of their own. The foundations of Seattle tango had "taken root."

  • The styles

Imagine these tango rhizomes and nodes growing within the same root-barricaded plot. Imagine the network thriving and growing. There would be one inevitable result from this crowding... conflict.

The nuevo following flourished into a large group of dancers who emulated their heroes. They danced beautifully, showy, flashy, large, and with panáche. It was wonderful to watch.

The salon people, thanks to the very influential efforts of a small and dedicated caucus of purist, traditionalist, tango dancers, evolved into Seattle's milonguero crowd. Elegant, meditative, intimate, passionate was their hallmark.

Both of these disciplines deserve commendation as (1) it got people excited, and kept expanding the following; (2) it covered and catered to the Seattle tango demographic which spanned from teens to octogenarians. It made people happy.

  • Traffic and congestion
Seattle's tango evolution can be compared to it's road and hi-way system. The community quickly outgrew its capacity to manage its volume. It resulted in (tango) grid lock.

Both styles are beautiful. Both have their place in the world. However, as the numbers of both following grew, it forced tango dancers to dance in tighter and tighter spaces. This (just like a congested freeway) caused complications.

Collisions, lane disruptions, stiletto heel impaling and slashing, toe crushing, kicking, etc. became common place. Cliques abounded. Tensions within the milongas were high between the practitioners of the divergent tango styles.

  • Cultivating expertise
The burgeoning Seattle tango following provided impetus for inspired members of the tango community. They furthered the art of tango by importing big name and (quite a few) world renowned tango teachers. Not only was the Seattle tango community growing, but getting better—Much better.

It was inevitable for diversification to happen. Having fervent nuevo and milonguero styles dancing in close proximity was complicated. The ever tightening milongas were getting in the way of everyone's fun. Something was bound to happen... and it did.

  • Emergence of the nuevo (open-embrace) venue
The most common desire of the practitioners of the nuevo style tango was their need to express themselves. This necessitates space and freedom of movement. Having to dance in packed milonguero crowds caused challenges in navigation, and floor etiquette.

Dedicated nuevo organizers opened their own venues. These venues were dedicated to, managed by, and frequented by this specific crowed. It provided the appropriate space and consistency needed for this group to flourish, enjoy, and dance this energetic form of tango.

A side benefit was to provide organizers a better feel for the teachers they were importing. It also trained and developed a new crop of instructors more appropriate for this demographic. They got better.

  • Bolstering the milonguero

By the nuevo crowd having their own venue, elegant and intimate milonguero dancers now had the unimpeded freedom to move in close-quarters without the fear of contact nor collision. The push now was to improve the milonguero tango standard.

Milonguero specialist teachers were imported. Floor etiquette was stressed. The result was La Garua—One of the best places to dance tango in Seattle (my personal favorite). The organizers of this marvelous milonga (in no small part) are greatly responsible for influencing Seattle's development as (IMHO) one of the best close-embrace tango communities... anywhere.

One would think that this schism would result in a permanent rift between the open and close-embrace practitioners. On the contrary. When numbers of each crew congregate (e.g. Dance Underground, Seattle Tangomagic), each has learned to compensate for each other. This allows everyone space, etiquette, and the observance of the line of dance for everyone to enjoy. It's a peculiarly Seattle oddity.

allseattletango.com: A listing of all thing tango in Seattle


Tina said...

When I got back from Buenos Aires, I was so impressed by Seattle tango - and very proud. I love what the community has grown into.
Now I'm living in Perugia which has a tango community that is going through its own growing pains (and pleasures), I feel like I can reassure my friends here in Italy of what Seattle became after it went through similar periods.
I can't wait to come back to visit!

Tina said...

Actually, now that I think of it, it already has happened here in Perugia. There is now a specific nuevo venue, a specific anything-goes venue, and of course the venue I support the most, the traditional milonguero venue. Separation is good. With time these will grow stronger. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Ampster, this is a good analysis. Love the comparison to Seattle traffic. Having recently been to several milongas in Rome, I think I see a relationship there too.
Actually though, I think there are three embedded styles in Seattle. There is a small group of salon folks who are not really nuevo or close...more swoopy and open but sometimes switching to close or "v"
After dancing in several states, and in BA and Rome..I have to agree from my small experience, that Seattle rocks!

Nancy said...

My only experience with Seattle tango was SAturday night at Dance Underground. The tangueros can certainly hold their own with Portland, Denver,Miami,
St. Louis, Atlanta and Buenos Aires.

Sorry to have missed you Amopster.

AmpsterTango said...

@Tina & Elizabeth: We've been around Seattle long enough to see these evolutions happen. I'm happy to be tango-ing here.

@Nancy: I'm sorry I missed you Saturday. I hurt my back earlier that day, and I had a little trouble moving :-( I hope that someday, we can have the opportunity for a tanda or two, or three...

Anonymous said...

I've never been to Seattle, but if I had to live in the USA, that's where I would be. My hometown Chicago has a lot to learn from Seattle since there has always been animosity among the various tango groups.

Buenos Aires has more tango than anywhere in the world. Dancers can choose the places they feel comfortable.

Ron Weigel Urbana IL said...

We have had the same conflict in styles in Champaign-Urbana IL. We (the milonguero group) decided to break away from the much larger nuevo/stage crowd about a year ago. There were also differences in musical preferences (classic tango vs. neotango). We broke away basically by selective advertising. Now we have smaller but peaceful milongas with all classic tango music, but there is a lot of hostility by some towards us for what we have done. Nevertheless, there are a few of the nuevo/stage group who occasionally come to our milongas and they tone down their dancing, so that is good. Maybe over time people will realize that the events are different because of the style and not necessarily because of the people.

AmpsterTango said...

@ jantango: Coming from you, this is an honor. Thank you.

@ Ron Weigel: Big changes happen small, and by some dedicated people such as yourself. Build goodwill to all in the community and grow. It is my belief that (in time) as the group expands and matures, style and refinement will come. When that happens, then it becomes a beautiful thing.

Kristi said...

In Bellingham, the Tango Scene has followed a little different arc. (or maybe I just missed the primordial soup phase) Our current phase is "Getting to Know You All" as the groups are co-mingling, and "Growing the Community". Good stuff!

Are there different styles? Of course. Can we play well together? You bet.

We're lucky to live close to Seattle & Vancouver, able to visit & share some of the best Tango around