Genuine Tango

26th September 2009

(More Next Steps articles.)

"My purpose ... is to examine Eastern martial art training practices and philosophies, consider their origins and appraise their relevance to the American student.In this examination, there are no sacred cows. No topic is taboo." ~ Bob Orlando

Why couldn't I hit people?

I remember about 10-15 years ago when air travel suddenly got a lot cheaper and the world became a lot smaller. Suddenly a lot more martial artists were able to travel to the orient to study at the original schools. The overwhelming feedback was how much better the natives of an equivalent rank were!

The Bugbear though, is that those westerners who actually used their martial arts in the real world kept finding the same thing. Every now and then they simply wouldn't work. They did what they'd been taught and yet everything went wrong somehow. Now at first you can put it down to simply being inexperienced, but after a while you have to start to wonder...

Other people can...

The problem is that clearly this stuff does work. It was developed for use in actual combat, with people often wielding remarkably sharp weapons, trying very hard to kill each other. If a technique didn't work, the people using it literally died, and it didn't get passed on. So if this stuff categorically works against trained warriors, why didn't it work on the drunken guy from my local pub?

Eventually a few guys figured it out. I'll particularly credit Bob Orlando, as he wrote "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts" and systematically dealt with the problem.

Simply put, Westerners have different social mores, grow up with different stories, see people acting differently and so on. So while your average Japanese guy will probably start a fight with a strong straight right punch, allowing your martial arts technique to defeat him, your average American is far more likely to start a fight with a left jab which unfortunately blows straight through your technique and leaves you wondering what happened?

Back to dancing...

So what does this mean for people studying Argentine Tango? Well if you are planning to move to BsAs permanently, then learning how to do it the way they do it there is a very good idea.

But what if you want to dance in America or the UK? Well there are a couple of cunning ways to only dance with Argentines (basically revolving around the ones that visit to teach). However if you want to dance with the natives, then the odds of converting them all to the BsAs way of doing things is not terribly high.

What you need is an interpreter. Someone who has been to BaAs but who also understands your local culture. Who can say "Although they do XYZ there, it just plain won't work here because of ABC. However the IJK they do will work fine. And the PQR only really works here if you tweak it like this."

Make no mistake, translating something like Argentine Tango to another culture is a truckload of work. It's not something you do by taking a 2 week trip out there and teaching a tango class once a week. Pretty much it's the primary thing they do in their life. Indeed it's probably a lifetime's work. So take care in finding your teacher.

What is reality?

Is what they're teaching genuine Argentine Tango and is it as good as Argentine Tango? This is actually pretty easy to answer. Quite simply "Why are you learning tango?"

Consider the martial artist who works as a bouncer. For him the bottom line is simply does what he's being taught work? Now he may very well get clobbered if he tried to use the techniques in Japan, but if he's not going to Japan then yes, the translation works very well indeed.

Is that genuine? Interestingly, yes - or the Heads of the various schools in the orient seem to think so. Many of them have actively encouraged a few select foreign students to translate the art to their specific culture. It's a fighting art after all. Interestingly the Japanese for school, "ryu", can also mean river. It's fluid and constantly changing, yet always flowing from the same place.

In the same way, if you're learning tango to dance it locally and what you learn lets you have lovely dances, then yes it is as good as Argentine Tango. It is a dancing art after all. Arguably better; as actual Argentine Tango probably wouldn't work as well where you are. For a start, trying to find a milonga where the sexes are segregated is going to be tricky unless you plan on trying your luck at local Synagogues.

If you want to go and dance in Argentina then, no. You'll need to learn to do it there way, along with all the social mores that go with it. And if you are, good luck to you. But let's face it 99.9% of people learning Argentine tango aren't going to do this.

Life is change

Is it genuine Argentine Tango?

On one hand, no. it's a translation. Clearly if you go to Argentina you'll run into problems.

On the other hand yes. Anyone who thinks that Argentine Tango is carved in stone is fooling themselves. The tango danced in BAs today is not the tango of the past. It's evolved. You might even say it's like a river, fluid and constantly changing, yet always flowing from the same place.

Thankfully the river now flows around the world and we can all enjoy it.

 - Christopher O'Shea, 26th September 2009

Related articles