- “Tracing the Argentine tango in India.” Forbes India, Jun 30 2015. From Buenos Aires to Auroville, from Turin to Mumbai, strangers find common ground in a century-old dance of human displacement.
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Chasing perfection through Argentine tango: from Buenos Aires to Bangalore
Auroville in March bakes in the heat. Colours feel magnified on the Tamil Nadu coast: red dirt that hangs in the air with the passage of motorbikes, green leaves parched with thirst. A clarity of blue sky that I almost forget exists while I’m in the city. Around me, sweat-drenched faces hail from every corner of the earth – complexions equalize in the sunlight, all of us baked to brown and red. I leave the multi-national village of Auroville each year with a little more Tamil, French and Italian in my head, and the knowledge that I have still not understood this place. Auroville eludes me, year after year, but not as much as the thing I’m chasing here. I come to learn Argentine tango, along with a growing crowd that converges here every year from all over India and the world. Five years of tango in Bangalore and Auroville, and still the dance addicts me – still I know I’ve barely learned anything at all. I am left with the feeling of standing with head upraised, having reached the foothills of something beautiful.
Tonight the fourth annual Auroville tango festival is starting, and I am watching a girl with a feather in her hair. She springs up and down the side of a building through metal bars that look unreachable to me – in her hands, the bars become a ladder. The girl with the feather in her hair is hanging floodlights; occasionally I pass her electric cables. The sun is beginning to set, and in the coolness of that half-light the building becomes a tree and this girl a wood nymph. I cannot place her features – her accent has the French-Indian softness of everyone who has lived here for long. She tests the lights, adjusts the intensity of red and orange on the open-air floor to illuminate dancers to the best effect. Two designers arrive to check sound, and the mournful sound of an Argentinian bandoneon fills the quiet air of dusk – a cracked voice sings in Spanish, separated from us by oceans and decades. I only catch the occasional word, but emotion still carries through. Yearning for something lost, for a thing beyond words that the singer still searches for. Dance translates through movement what the mind is not large enough to carry.
The type that gets attracted to Argentine tango is hard to pinpoint. In India, tango dancers necessarily belong to that rarified but growing economic class that can afford classes – which vary in cost depending on the teacher. Beyond that, what dancers do as their day jobs spans from sculpting to ecology to programming to design. The commonality between those that stick with the dance through the years: scratch the surface, and each is a little bit restless with their daily pursuits. Each is creative, and searching for a thing in life that exists beyond words – a half-imagined beauty perhaps; a global aesthetic which tango seems to contain.
Tango has had pockets of interest in India for years, but its current growth in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and Bangalore is a product of the last half decade. Partly this is thanks to tango instructors from Europe and the Americas who have begun regular visits to India, and rarer cases where instructors have moved to India – an Ecuadorian man in Auroville, a French-Italian teacher in Bangalore. These people have made it possible for the dance to grow, but that alone does not explain its pull.
Ask tango dancers why they dance, and words begin to fail. Tango is an obsession, tango is like love – tango finds us, we don’t find it. “It’s a feeling that once you get hooked onto – you just can’t go away from it,” says Kruti Sarda, who has been dancing Argentine tango since it began to grow in popularity in Mumbai three years ago. Likewise for Deb Sanyal, who started out when a trickle of interest in Argentine tango began five years ago in Bangalore, and continued to dance after shifting to Mumbai. “I just can’t find any other dance form as appealing or addictive,” he says. “Tango really came at a time when I needed it most,” says Roopa Math, a programmer who has been dancing in Bangalore for the past three years.
The dance involves two people, one who leads the movements (typically male) and another that “follows” (typically female). In that way, it resembles other ballroom dances such as waltz or salsa. What sets Argentine tango apart is that the prescribed steps are very simple: one can walk, or one can pivot. Complexity grows only with the music, and the minds of the dancers. The focus in Argentine tango (unlike the more cinematic American tango) is not on style but rather on connection – non-verbal communication of intention and emotion between partners, who may be complete strangers. By listening to subtleties of touch and movement, each dancer acts as a conduit for their own and the other’s interpretation of the music.
Tango is cerebral only to a point. It takes focus to learn technique in the beginning, as with any language, but too much thought can tangle the tongue. After a while you have to let the body take over. “The mind switche[s] off and motor and music and other senses come into play,” says Kavya Murthy, a sociologist who dances tango in Bangalore.
If this sounds difficult, add the challenge of not bumping into other couples on a crowded dance floor and the dangers of being kicked by razor-sharp stilettos (or the pain of simply wearing them, for a follower), and you’re halfway to the experience of a milonga or tango social. Once people are seduced by tango, however, I have never seen another dance that inspired so many words of adulation, or so much philosophising. Metaphors build upon metaphors as dancers seek words to express the wordless.
“For me, tango is a container,” says Caterina Inglese, who has come from Italy with her teaching partner Pino Trozzola to teach at the Auroville tango festival for the last four years. “Whatever I have to give, I put it inside. Today, it can be hate. Tomorrow, surprise – the day after, joy. That is the richness.” Pino carries her metaphor forward: “Tango is a container in which you put everything inside, and that is where I manage to speak.”
Many add a spiritual component. “Tango is like meditation for two,” says Marianna Koutandou, who has flown from Greece to teach at the Auroville tango festival two years in a row with Vaggelis Hatzopoulos. “When you dance tango, and you communicate very well, you are able to feel the feelings of the other person. You are able to feel the breathing, the heart of the other person,” adds Vaggelis.
That meditative connection on the dance floor has a lasting effect for each: “I know that even if I’ve had a bad day, if I just can find three minutes of genuine connection with another human, I will feel better,” says Shreekant Deodhar, an ecologist in Bangalore. Some take that connection and let it feed the rest of their life. “[Tango] helps me work on some aspects of myself such as care, concern, respect and empathy,” says Joy Merwin Monteiro, an atmospheric scientist in Bangalore.
Like meditation, the dance only grows as you learn it. “Tango is beautiful because it’s infinite,” explains Pino Trozzola. “It never finishes. It’s like a horizon that’s always there.” There are no tango experts, assert Pino and Caterina. You can walk towards perfection, but you can never reach it.
The history of Argentine tango is fraught, rising out of decades of large-scale human displacement. The dance and its accompanying music borrow from the rhythms and improvisational styles brought to the Americas by African slaves and sailors, such as the candombe (still popular in Uruguay) and milonga. These forms mixed with indigenous traditions and the dances of working class European immigrants to form the precursors of modern-day Latin dance, from salsa to bachata. In the late nineteenth century port city of Buenos Aires, French, Italian, German and Spanish immigrants arrived in large numbers in search of better lives. People and cultures mingled, and out of that meeting came tango.
“Some of the best tangos were composed by people who couldn’t write them nor read them,” said Jorge Luis Borges, the iconic Argentinian writer and poet. These individuals who created the first tangos simply “had music in their souls,” he felt. The art form was intuitively built, translating across disparate cultural backgrounds. Waves of migration across the Atlantic only escalated with the economic shifts, war and political turmoil of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of the famous Argentine tango composers and lyricists of the last century belonged to immigrant families, many of them Italian in origin. The bandoneon or concertina – key to tango music – has its roots in Germany. As the dance, its music and culture have evolved, they have accrued influences as far ranging as American jazz and the Viennese Waltz.
And now we listen to Afro-Caribbean-Spanish-Italian rhythms under Indian skies. Tango changes us as we learn the dance, but we change tango as well.
This year’s tango festivities in India have travelled from Auroville back to Bangalore, where the two Italian teachers give us another weekend of lessons. From here they will travel to Mumbai and Pune to conduct more classes, and then at last back to Turin. Despite their constant activity in the last few weeks, these teachers show none of the exhaustion of their students.
I sit to the side of the dance floor, resting aching feet. I am not yet certain how to walk in high heels, but I am slowly learning to dance in them. Pino and Caterina pace the room, exhorting us to show more energy. (“Energia.” Little by little, we’re all learning Italian.) They tell us to feel the music as we dance, to focus on expression. And then the two teachers dance, and the world stops. They become the music’s notes as they move. This pathos seems larger than the room, larger than all the transfixed figures within it. Emotion escapes from the seams of the music and the dancers’ embrace; it finds life and breath in each of us.
Borges once wrote that the art of poetry is to “convert the outrage of the years into a music.” Tango is a raw dance, at its best. The dance was bred by the dispossessed of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as a vessel for their emotional tumult – pain and joy intertwined. There is no point seeking the perfect technique in this form.
And yet here we are, moths to the flame, chasing perfection. Chasing tango’s elusive beauty.
Bangalore in 2015 is far removed from the dusty alleyways of Buenos Aires, a century past. The venue for the evening of social dancing that ends the Bangalore festival is a futuristic glass-fronted restaurant on Indiranagar’s busy 100 Foot Road. The design of the space seems a mix of log cabin and Great Gatsby. On the menu, overpriced fusion: unidentified berries and dabs of avocado decorate our pani puri. Into this strange world come dancers in evening dress, and music recorded by singers and players long dead. Their songs are beyond translation. Still we dance, moving with the music’s distant sadness, and its defiant joy.
Bangalore is removed from Buenos Aires, and yet I see commonalities in these worlds. The inhabitants of both cities spoke dozens of languages, from all corners of the globe. To write about Bangalore today is to write about constant change: buildings torn down and remade, displaced peoples rebuilding their identities, experiments with hybridity. The city is a chaotic mess; the city is a hotbed of creative vitality. Some of the restless souls that populate this place unleash their creativity in music and theatre, others in poetry or design. A few find tango. For others, tango finds them.