UKATA feature in Dancing Times

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A wordless language, March 2021

Nicola Rayner hears from the chairman of the new UK Argentine Tango Association, March 2021

The International Day of Tango last year – December 11 – saw the launch of the UK Argentine Tango Association and the beginning of a campaign to support, promote and develop Argentine tango in the UK.

The new group represents the interests of Argentine tango teachers, organisers, DJs, musicians, and dancers throughout the country and was formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been catastrophic for the Argentine tango community.

Physical contact and connection are integral to the Argentine tango – not just for individual partnerships but for the all-important milongas, or social dances – and since March 2020, most in-person activities have been curtailed in the UK. However, it is this space in the timetables of tango’s leading practitioners that has allowed them to come together and create the association and a platform for the growth of tango post-pandemic.

A new national voice for Argentine Tango

“The original idea was to provide a voice for tango in the UK,” explains Bruno V Abeele, the association’s chairman. “However, very quickly we found that COVID-19 was a problem that the association needed to address, as it was affecting everyone. We developed a two-tier system for professionals on one hand and social dancers on the other, to help them face the pandemic and we also wanted to look ahead at developing the community of social dancers after COVID and to become the voice of tango in the UK.”

There are around 20 permanent members of the association, “committee members”, Abeele explains. “We have a Facebook group and we’ve been holding regular Zoom meetings and communicating through WhatsApp.” The association was around nine months in the planning and now, for a subscription of £20 a year, welcomes professional members, who can access advice on best practice and knowledge on all aspects of teaching Argentine tango and running events, from dealing with COVID-19 challenges to insurance, licences and other legalities. The second tier, for social dancers, will be introduced later this year. [note: it has been introduced in April 2021]

The Pandemic profoundly changed Tango

How has Abeele found the pandemic? “For me as a professional it has been really amazing,” he begins, surprisingly positive. “The support we have received through donations and words of encouragement has been incredible. Of course, we’re waiting for the situation to improve and so many of my students are eager to start dancing again. There is a certain amount of frustration, but the community is so strong and it’s still a place where you can meet your friends and acquire new skills.”

When asked about his personal experience through Tanguito, he explains: “One of the benefits of the pandemic has been the advancement of virtual lessons. Most schools have started teaching online now,” he notes. “In my experience, before the pandemic, online lessons would be relatively rare – it’s something people might do, for example, if they couldn’t travel to London, but now there are so many to choose from. Of course, it’s not as exciting as going to a milonga but you can still learn a lot from an online session. People feel safer too in their own homes – they don’t feel so exposed; it’s less intimidating when you’re learning by yourself.”

As we all know, it takes two to tango – doesn’t that present problems for those on their own at home? “It’s only temporary,” Abeele muses. “Eventually you’ll be able to apply what you’ve learned at home. It’s a good opportunity to improve your technique and some people find it more comfortable learning that way, as I say. We’ve also adapted new ways of teaching – for example, our classes for solo dancers and tango workouts, which we’d never done before. We started to look at things differently, to explore the mechanics of teaching, such as looking in detail at musicality, or your feet, or the embrace, or the hip position.” He sounds pretty positive. “Yes,” he concedes, “but it’s easier now the vaccine is being delivered.”

Originally a computer engineer, Abeele first came across Argentine tango in 1999 in Japan, where the dance is very popular. After his first trip to Buenos Aires, he was bitten by the bug and went on to train in the city with teachers including the 2008 tango world champions Daniel Nacucchio and Cristina Sosa, Lorena Ermocida, triple champion Fernando Carrasco and tango legends such as Los Perez or Chiche and Marta, amongst others. “Very quickly, I wanted to find out more about how it developed as an art form,” he remembers. “I wasn’t just interested in the dance, but in the music, history and culture too. If you learn tango, it’s not just about the dance, but so much more.”

Towards wider national recognition

Gaining wider recognition for Argentine tango as a distinctive art form with a rich cultural identity is one of the main objectives of the new association. “Tango is quite developed in the UK, but there’s not a unified voice to make it better known and accessible to everyone,” notes Abeele. “There’s been some misrepresentation in the media and cinema, and confusion caused by popular dance shows mixing Argentine and ballroom tango, or portraying Argentine tango as acrobatic, challenging or racy. 

“We thought it was important for people to know the difference between ballroom and Argentine tango – in the hold, the music and the social situation – and we’ve also found that some people were shy of Argentine tango, because of shows in which it seemed very acrobatic. Social tango, which is tango salon, is an improvised dance that’s all about communication: one dancer leads and the other follows, whereas the tango you see in shows is entirely choreographed – there’s not as much need for lead and follow – so it’s a matter of an improvised dance versus a choreographed one. In a milonga, you won’t tend to see acrobatics like you do on television – a milonga is a very busy place, with usually 100 or so dancers, so there’s simply not the space. Tango salon is more about communication: for me it’s a wordless language.”

A brief history of Tango

The Argentine tango originates from the Rio de la Plata districts of Bueno Aires and Uruguay and dates from the late 19th century. “Argentina was welcoming immigrants from Europe,” says Abeele. “They came in the hope of finding gold or silver. Lots of men arrived in Buenos Aires and found they didn’t even have a language in common, so music became the international language that connected them. People played music in the street – folk music and so on – and they started to dance.” By the 1900s, tango was danced in the conventillas, or tenement buildings, in the poorer districts of Argentina’s capital. Later, it spread to the dance halls of the city and was embraced by the middle classes who flocked to the milongas.

In the early years of the 20th century, the tango was danced among Argentinian émigrés in France and spotted by Camille De Rhynal, the influential teacher, choreographer and competition organiser, who was among those who “tamed” the dance for British ballrooms. There followed, in October 1922, the Informal Conference called by Dancing Times to discuss the tango and the ballroom world adopted it into its repertoire as a standardised dance. Victor Silvester wrote: “From this moment, the tango may be said to have been stabilised in this country.”

The Argentine tango remained quite different – an improvised dance in which the art is for two people to connect in an embrace, even though they might never have met before, and to be able to dance together. While it has been adapted for the stage and travelled the world in shows choreographed by pioneers such as Juan Carlos Copes (see page 61), it has never been codified, unlike the ballroom dances. “There’s no formal structure,” muses Abeele. “The degree of connection and musicality are important and, as a leader, you need to lead clearly, but there’s no official diploma from one central body. It’s evolving and it’s possible that in the future it might be regulated, but the truth is there might be resistance.

“At its heart, it’s a social dance and milongas take place in most cities in the UK – in fact, in many cities all over the world. It’s somewhere you can go and meet lots of people with whom you’ll already have something in common. The first thing I do when I go to a new place is to find out where there is a milonga that night.”

To find out more about the UK Argentine Tango Association, go to argentinetango.co.uk.

REPRODUCED AND PUBLISHED WITH AGREEMENT OF DANCING TIMES

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