Wednesday, December 24, 2008

History, politics, despair and tango... Greece

While travelling in Greece by train you realize a lot of things… There are those places where the landscape is so diverse and unpredictable that pores into the people’s minds and souls intense feelings and attitudes. For example, standing at the statue of Christo Retendor in Rio de Janeiro and gazing at the steep rocky formations blending with the wide sandy beaches, you realize that Rio would never be a boring place. Similarly, Greece is a country stretching along pieces of lands scattered all over from intense volcanic and tectonic action. Thousands of islands, uneven, steep landscapes, such an intense mix of sea and mountains, dry land and alpine forests all in such a small small territory. No surprise that Greek people are totally unpredictable, extrovert, impulsive and emotional.

Being Greek myself and visiting my country after a year, it is impossible to write a ‘tango post’ like for example I did for France or Geneva. Especially now that the country is ‘on fire’... Going around by bus you read the messages on the walls: ‘3 bullets for one Alexi[1]’, ‘Watch out for the blood spilled on your couches..’. You see several businesses shut down, burned shops or cars. The economy is receding and the people are sank into pessimism and discontent. The two dominant parties are deep into corruption and there is no hope for a new political movement, neither any ‘space’ for new ideas or approaches. The country is sinking and is slowly killing itself.

Under this ambience dancing tango is not straightforward with all this negative energy everywhere, with the people being blocked by their problems and feeling limited, bonded in a reality that leads nowhere. I strongly believe that inside tango you can find everything, as tango is life! And by going to the milongas these days I felt exactly all this negative ambience, I could tell that things are by far not ok. So this post may be one of the most ‘loaded’ ones, as I have to write (my thoughts) about Greece and then link with tango, in the meantime trying to avoid reaching 200 pages... The present situation is the following of a series of historical events and most of the present problems have their roots in the past and are deeply ingrained in the Greek society. As a result, it is impossible to avoid reference to political and historical beliefs that other people will not share, even though I try to be as pragmatist as possible and take distance from the events.

The Greeks comprise an historical nation with the roots coming from the ancient times, followed by the Hellenistic and Roman periods. These great civilizations were followed by the Byzantine Empire, which erased a lot of cultural elements of the ‘Golden’ ancient era, to establish the more mystic and ‘Eastern’ Orthodox Christian religion (meaning that they closed libraries, stopped the Olympic Games, etc). After 400 years of Othoman dominance the progressive spirit of ancient Greece had almost disappeared and what remained was the beautiful and extremely rich Greek language, the identity of an old nation (even though in terms of blood there has been a lot of mixing since the ancient times) and still a progressive spirit, however judging on the standards of the ‘troubled’ Balkan area. The Greek people were always open, travellers, merchants, trying to find ways of prosperity, even though they found themselves in an area with huge political problems and constant military conflicts which are still impeding progress. This concludes the first part of my ‘fast forward historical overview’…

The modern Greek country was established in 1829 after the Greek revolution against the 400 years Ottoman rule. After that first recognition there was constant war for the independence of the remaining territories with Greek majority and the map of Greece was constantly changing until the 1940s. The revolution was followed by the Balkan wars (1912-1913), the First World War (1914-1918), leading to the Greco-Turkish wars (1919-1922) and finally the Second World War (1939-1945). Through all these hard times, the Greek nation became very mixed as Italian, French, Turks, Slabs, and in general people from several ethnic groups started to use the Greek language and practice the Orthodox Christian religion, which now defined the modern Greek identity. Even though the Orthodox church was much more discrete and didn’t intervene to the political life as the Vatican did, Greek people still sympathize the church, as it united the people during all those difficult times.

During the Nazi occupation in the 40s living conditions were really harsh with famine, diseases and massive deaths taking place everywhere, while in the meantime some people made enormous profits and lived comfortable lives by collaborating with the Germans. The above resulted in the creation of military units with such Greek people (along with others desperate from starvation) to fight against the resistance and in general support the Nazi regime. The Greek resistance on the other hand was mostly organized around left sympathizing groups, creating fertile ground for communist regimes like the ones in Bulgaria, Albania, etc.

In the meantime, the country was under the sphere of British influence which would never allow a communist government, a fact that finally lead to a civil war: on one side was the left-sympathizing Greeks (independent groups which continued to fight against the British after the Germans), fighting against the right wing Greeks, aided by the well organized British army, with the latter winning of the conflict. Most of the leaders of the left were forced to migrate to the Soviet Union, with some being eradicated after by the Stalin purges and others finding shelter to Europe.

The above events constitute the darkest pages of modern Greek history with a lot of violence, hatred, segregation, and have deeply hurt the country’s integrity. Both sides indulged in very harsh atrocities and most families lost members often without knowing in which side they were fighting. (people fighting on the ‘official’ Greek army were favouring the left guerrillas and were either secretly helping them, or even joined them). The most negative outcome of the above is that several traitors and people of lower ethics found themselves in positions of power, while several patriots lost their lives. All the above resulted in a poor, exhausted, deeply religious and not united post war Greece.

After the British, the Americans took over the situation, driving the country’s history, according to their (famous world wide) ‘strategic plans’ and they would always find helping hands in this corrupt and exhausted country. The results are known; the military regime of 1967-1975[2], peaking at the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, started by the desperate junta who wanted to annex Cyprus to Greece, only in an effort to win some popularity, while the people were already on the streets.

The following left governments didn’t have the virtue, talent or force, to exploit the people’s trust and to change this entire situation; after 20 years of government the country was again into economic recession and corruption. The current right government is expressing the regressive spirit of conservatism of the past decades, ruling without any serious political, economic or social plan and supporting populism, far right ideas, xenophobia, religion and even (secretely) monarchy and totalitarianism. In fact, the surnames of the members of the parliament are exactly the same like in the 60s, guarantying that the same failed and historically proved corrupted cast will be in power of this country. The political situation in Greece is a deadend situation with no signs of hope…

In the meantime, the people lack the spirit and mentality to change their fates. The 400 years Ottoman influence, made the Greek society miss all the developments in economy, politics and philosophy taking place in the west and instead brought eastern, more mystic and backward looking mentality and practices. People are very emotional and very easily manipulated, as they were at the same time poor and without social consciousness, from the constant lack of unity. Thus they let Greek politics taken over by people which in their majority are corrupt, pursuing only their own personal motifs for wealth and power, building the country on the same basis. The political parties only express different aesthetic approaches… Even though one would disagree with my historical beliefs, I think that few people wouldn’t share the opinion that the degree of corruption in Greece is higher compared the any other European country. The structures according to which people find jobs, gain access to wealth or power are absolutely unjust and are based on a ‘sick’ mentality of knowing the ‘right people’. All these exist everywhere, but even more in Greece

Making a pause to the historical analysis and going back to tango it is obvious that under these conditions, the Greek people feel weak, constrained and suspicious about the others. Nothing is simple and good motives are by far not the default. The situation cannot change easily and the result of all the above is that when you try to dance with somebody the first time it is very likely that the dance will be a ‘struggle to win your partner’s confidence’. Instead of saying ‘why not’ you may find people in the ‘why yes’ mode and it will need something from more you to ‘turn the tide’. On top of that due to the Orthodox conservatism (only on the surface though), women in general need more time to feel relaxed, comparing to the Northern countries. But after the first ‘adaptation period’ things improve radically!

All the above regime of corruption, suspiciousness and constant ‘deceleration’ of every human effort had a very interesting positive side effect on the people. Similarly to many of the ex-communist countries the luck of any solid legal structure, the difficulty to express thoughts, desires and in every aspect of life in general, has resulted in an elevated average intelligence and in intensified virtue by some. This is even stronger since ‘traditional’ lifestyles and attitudes (which often simplify roles) have been surpassed and society wears ‘modern clothes’, while on the other hand the help and support usually present in such western countries are absent. Without any ‘map’ for life, any ‘real’ laws, or social care and by the fact that history was so turbid, the people were forced to find the way on their own, they had to use their judgement every moment, just to achieve the basic things. And they got ‘better’ through that (learn-the-hard-way) training, something you can see in tango! Tango is communication and even amateur tangeras ‘feel’ a lot, understand and follow very well. Once the line is crossed you find yourself on the other side…

Going to back to my thoughts about Greece I have to refer to what Plato said: ‘the real moral principles of a person, are the ones he would follow if he was invisible..’. The conditions I describe are almost as close to invisibility as they can be, as Greek people are very impulsive and unconstrained; there is no ‘savoir vivre’ in this country! This means that you can directly spot the naturally polite people, or the ones with the open spirit; you can see talent where it exists, as education is weaker or at least less ‘elaborate’ compared to average western Europe countries. The people who have a drive for something will pursue it anyway, like nobody stopped Da Vinci open corpses or Jean d’Arc fight battles in the 15th century. But in a country ideal to disorientate its people only few may find the way, while the majority struggle in ignorance. What is encouraging is that the talent is there and that even without any practical motivation or reward a lot of people finally choose to do the ‘right thing’, the follow moral paths. The problem is that as majority they still vote for immoral leaders, which implies something about the ethics of the whole society.

Another historical aspect is that Greek people had traditionally dominated the commerce in the area, even under Ottoman dominance. They have this historical memory and pride of an old civilization, with the heritage of the sea and as a result the tendency to find solutions and ways of survival. As a result, they produced wealth enough to always have access to education and thus broaden their spirit, more than the living conditions favour. All the above mean that when you dance tango in Greece it may take a while to win the others confidence, but as soon as you do it you’ll find a lot of extra potential. There is broad spirit, talent, feeling and talking about women, I would say that they are very feminine, passionate, adaptable and flexible.

Another interesting characteristic of Greece is that while the country is poor, there is a lot of wealth concentrated in the hands of the people and exchanged in ‘corrupt’ ways which cannot be tracked by any economic indexes. Most people don’t pay the taxes they should, and this results in a country without incomplete and ‘spontaneous’ social care (only Greek people can understand this phrase!). In the meantime the past generations have deposited their small fortunes and they will do their best to support their children, by providing them everything. Cars, fancy clothes, education… But what they cannot do is find them jobs!

All the above have resulted in the Greek nightlife which is of unprecedented scale and intensity for any European country (even Spain is comparatively weak). I have been around a lot and I am sure that there is no other country where so much time, energy and money are devoted to going out and partying. Even in cities of 50000 people you can dine at midnight, party until minimum 3 o clock, find the streets flooded with people every day. The ample variety of bars and clubs makes selection of the ‘place’ and the dressing a form of expression which reaches levels of professionalism or even art. The people show who they are by choosing the place and their clothes and they are evaluated according to that. They will find (almost every night) the people with shared taste of music and even attitude for life in their favourite place.

This huge amount of young people on the streets, looking for ways of entertainment results in a very youth and dynamic ambience in the ‘tango world’, far more to most of the other places I’ve been. The average age is around 30 and there are many people around 20 starting to dance which makes Greek tango really fresh and pleasant. On the other hand, some of these ‘new entries’, just coming from the fancy clubs introduces a ‘show off’ approach on tango, leading to less modest and more demonstrative dancing styles. Tango in Greece is mostly Nuevo and not always good one… If you are a woman and you cannot lead the dance you may spend some time with guys pulling your arms to do the fancy soltada or ganco. If you are a man and you dance stylo milongero, you will encounter some more gancos, but anyway… it will not hurt!

In general I would say that you can dance very good tango in Greece, but you have to be ready to adapt to some strange attitudes! I believe that people are hot in general and they can emit a lot of emotions. There is emotional intelligence, feeling and understanding, as well as drive for passion and for adaptation of the leader-follower roles, necessary for good tango. Anyway, it’s a fact that almost everywhere I’ve been in Europe there are Greek people deeply involved in the community, organizing milongas, djs, good dancers, etc, which implies something.

I have just got in the train on my way to Athens. A young man (around 18) is sitting next to me, looking quite cool and ‘free’, dressed in modern clothes and smelling tobacco. His mother is sitting outside, in front of the window nodding at him. It’s the first time he is travelling and she is afraid. He has 2 motorbikes and he wants to buy a third one to do enduro. He goes to the football game every Sunday and sometimes he likes to get into fights with the hooligans. Still his mother will wait for him until the train will leave, nodding, protecting and showing her love and affection. Greece is a country who always wanted to be in the west, but has been educated in eastern schools… The spirit of innovation and progress lives strongly in the minds of some people, but most of the Greeks are confined in just wearing Calvin Klein and Prada and cannot support true change or innovation (like in everywhere but here contrasts are maybe more intense). At least, the hearts are beating hard and they are still flooded with emotions, good or bad, while the minds work hard to find solutions in an almost chaotic and desperate reality. In the meantime, they go out almost every night trying to find themselves, love, friendship, but most of all ways to forget and release the tension. The same huge amount of tension that became visible with the long wave of violence of the last weeks. I don’t think this is a good image of a society, but at least could be a good background to dance tango….


Thessaloniki is known in the country for the very beautiful women, dressed in fancy clothes even during daytime and the city is known for having a mentality of show off. So it is not surprising that tango is full of people who try to do fancy stuff without having the necessary basis in terms of technique. Unfortunately the people who started teaching in this place didn’t do a good job. Women are really interesting to dance with though; after having sorted out the things I describe above.

Athens is the capital of the country a big metropolis of 5 million people, famous for the professionalism, but also for the fast pace of life and the overall inhuman living conditions. As a result, the people who dance there (and they are many) usually dance well. In general the average dancers are more open and spontaneous (in such a big city you don’t have time for questions…) and you will feel a more free and dynamic ambience. However, you may find some people really tense, or even snob, especially some of the very good dancers, something which is common for big cities (I believe that Paris is the capital of tango snob elite..)

Small tango groups exist in other places as well and some of them are really worth to try. For example in Lesbos there are few dancers that I consider good for any place.

[1] Alexis was the name of the 15 old kid killed by a policeman this December, triggering all the extreme violence and demonstrations all over the country

[2] The recently open CIA files proved that the regime was supported and organized by the American government.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Airports-windows to the future?

In the Greek language the word for ‘man’ is άνθρωπος, which is the product of the combination of the words ‘άνω’ (up) and ‘θρώσκω’ (to look). This means that the name man gave to himself was ‘one who looks up’, with the latter referring to god (who was expected to live in the skies…), but as well as to anything divine and superior in the broader sense. Man is ingrained with the ambition and desire to understand what is around him and ‘above’ him, this magic power that, at least the way we perceive the Universe, separates us from the other forms of life. Then, through the years we have learned to use the expressions ‘high technology’, ‘haute couture’, ‘high standards’ for the best and the ‘sky’ was always linked to excellence…

There are some places that can express this spirit, that can be considered as ‘temples’ of the mankind’s drive for progress and innovation; for sure some of them are airports. Back in the end of the 19th century, the pioneers of aviation were doing passionate efforts to conquer the skies and most of them were so dangerous resulting even in loss of lives. Such was the passion and the desire of these people to achieve what was regarded as impossible and through these efforts mankind was again ‘looking up’, but this time in the absolute sense… Hopefully all these efforts, driven by full devotion of mind and soul, succeeded and aviation is nowadays part of everyday life.
This fact has changed not only our way of life, but also the way we think, as flying with a plane is a new and unforgettable experience. Man is not made to stay kilometres above the Earth (or is he?), but he does it; even if landing may be scary sometimes, or presence the air cabin may bring some inconvenience. Nobody can say no to airplanes and in that way we are convincing ourselves that we can do achieve even more, that we may have limitations personally but not as a species.
In the meantime, while life may change, several aspects on mankind remain the same. Wars, prejudices, attitudes, weakness and in general social, personal and any other sort of human problems persist. And most probably that’s because we, as groups, societies, or as a whole, we don’t want to change! Many of us live lives ‘flying low’, convinced of our limitations and driven by our fears and weaknesses and most of all… we are ok with this! If there was a referendum, people would probably say no to airplanes, among several other things, like heart transplantation operations, submarines, lasers, etc. But, hopefully it doesn’t work that way and innovation springs from the minds and gets established through practice and following our needs.
For that reason there are not so many places which express this spirit of excellence, the tendency ‘to stare up’; even in many universities the attitudes are dominated by small hearted feelings, politics, or any other negative aspect of our existence. But airports cannot be like that, as in aviation there is no space for mistakes. Everything has to be and to look perfect, radiating a feeling of security and confidence; in an airport man has to and wants to be perfect. So, thanks also to some gifted architects, many airports can be called ‘temples of innovative spirit’, generating an ambience not so common in the real world.
Sitting in an airport lounge, watching the planes land and take off, takes you to the ‘future’, at least the one we would wish to have. I am not a ‘technology radical’ and I am deeply aware that several technological products have brought serious problems to people and the environment. But I cannot avoid being overwhelmed by the magic ambience of airports and everything that this may imply. Because by taking a moment to observe things after making a step backwards, I realise that I am in the situation in which man achieves things that I would just dare to imagine… And not only that, but he can also bring it to a level of functional perfection, proving that we have more potential than what we think. Even though this ‘other reality’ is restricted in few thousands of square meters and outside there is the ‘real world’ with the many problems… At least when you are in an airport you feel that you have to ‘look up’ and you can do the world better. And hopefully we will in the future…

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Discover the world through tango-My manifesto...

I have written this post initially in Greek, but as this is the main intro of my blog, explaining my concept, I felt it should exist also in English....

As a person I generally prefer ‘tète-a-tète’… I like sharing a common goal with somebody, particularly when the latter is clear and when defined. I put emphasis on the latter phrase, since according to my opinion when many people gather, the purpose becomes less clear; population dynamics prevail, favoring the more socially charismatic and dominant personalities. On the other hand, when two people interact nobody can be overlooked and communication, as well as mutual understanding is necessary. On the other hand, entering in another person’s reality, you become familiar with his desires and perceptions about aesthetics and life, in other words you encounter new experiences and landscapes you …travel! And this way can offer numerous thrills, as each personality comprises a new planet to be explored.

Apparently, it is not a surprise that I love tango, as it fits perfectly to the above situation, while it carries many additional characteristics… Two people meet while the music starts, implying a mood, a set of emotions, a situation that the dancers have to adopt, live and create. Something like a theatrical play, but this time there is no rehearsal; you don’t know your role, you just have to discover it instantly, along with your partner. And just like a painting or a poem, each tango carries different meanings for each one of us. So, with the start of the dance begins a discussion, with the man saying the first phrase. After, the woman approves, inspires and amends, as both they exchange energy, feelings and ideas, they play, experiment, while they get more familiar to each other. That’s why each tango is potentially a profound acquaintance, a journey into another personality, based in a well defined but so rich and complicated common purpose…

The additional magic comes from the infinite combinations of body-types, moods, as well as perceptions about life, tango as a dance and the music currently playing. All these can transform each tango in a lyrical moment, a relaxing dialogue with a stranger on the street, or a moment of very intense feelings. And this always depends on how each one of us transmits, receives and reflects signals. The extent to which we express ourselves as clearly as possible, without offending or violating the ‘space’ of the others. The more balanced we are in our comportment the less likely becomes to experience negative moments in tango. Good tango dancers usually have class…

The other important property is that tango never lies… When you dance you cannot hide from the others, even if in life you have the habit of hiding from yourself. Tango will reveal hidden truths and desires, it will show you who you are; the more you let this out, the better your relationship is with yourself, the better dancer you’ll be. While in our everyday lives we have our eyes open, staring ‘on the road’, with so many rules and stereotypes ingrained in our minds; in the milonga we close them and we listen, feel and smell. We cannot cheat or be cheated. Tango shows the way… We just let the music dominate us, we open our soul, inviting our partner to join. Whether he (or she) will accept, in what sense and for how long is another issue. That’s why the first tango with a stranger is a test… The rest are as well!

Conclusion… Tango is magic, because it is holistic; tango dancing is a situation so rich that few others (if any) can match. So free and unpredictable, with constant flow and variation of moods. Rich and inexhaustible as it is related to so many varying factors like the music, the dancers, time, space and the interaction of all the above. In addition, while a popular dance, it is so elaborate that it gives you the possibility to share the pleasure of artistic creation with the musicians, rather than just follow. Tango is really creative and free and this characteristic along with the potential of such a direct and varied communication, makes you discover yourself and the others better.

I started dancing tango in 2006 in a small town of 40000 habitants, located in Lesbos Island, of Greece. The people who helped me do the first steps were members of a local tango association and from the first place they gave me the impression that they were subject to a kind of disease. They were giving free tango lessons, obviously motivated by their passion and desire to share it with others, with this being their only return; watching tango get bigger and bigger, spreading the disease... I deeply appreciated this devotion, with regard to those peoples’ character, as well as to the tango as a ‘germ’ itself… After a year I had exactly the same symptoms, dancing alone in the corridors and elevators, driving 100 km away just to get to the milonga and travelling around Europe, following my obsession… It was and always is tango, this way of getting together with people, of expression and communication, which I still consider the most profound and complete so far.

In the past years I was lucky to travel a lot, live in different countries and of course …dance in all of them! Living abroad may bring several hard times, but triggers a process that I personally find magical and very important… It dissolves the ‘myth’, the one we build growing up in a specific environment, comprising of specific codes of communication, attitudes and aesthetics that can usually be useful only in a certain place. Often our behaviour doesn’t express directly us, but is our position towards our environment; being mostly our response to given conditions. When the background changes, we encounter a different ‘myth’ for which we lack the answers and we often don’t have enough time to construct a new response. We have lost our mapAnd when you are lost, the fastest, simplest and only way is the truth. The fundamental truths and principles which are valid everywhere and make communication simpler and more efficient. The sediment… I consider this a very important step of improvement for any personality…

According to a Chinese saying ‘if you haven’t planted a tree, written a poem and been in love, you haven’t actually lived’… I would say that you have really experienced a place when there is a song to always remind you, a person that you’ll never forget and when you have danced tango… The addicts like me will agree that you can get more information in a milonga rather than in a hundred museums, bars and restaurants together. And this is what this blog is mostly all about and what wants to prove to the non believers! Travelling, discovering and experiencing the world through tango… I hope you enjoy my mission as much as I do!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tango on the ocean-Dancing in Gran Canarias

Even though where I current live the temperature is 20 oC during the day, it is true that this is not a season for dreaming of summer landscapes and leisure on the beach. However today as I was waking up, during this passage from the subconscious to the conscious, I had the vision of long and high dunes, coloured from white and gold sand, in various formations and spreading for several kilometres.. It was the magic scenery of Mas Palomas. Cliché, touristic, one might say, but always sensational… I visited Gran Canaria last February, in an effort to catch some sun and enjoy the beach and sea in the heart of the winter. Brilliant idea indeed… In the meantime I was lucky enough to have my visit coinciding with a tango festival taking place every year in Las Palmas. I wasn’t very optimistic about the experience, but I couldn’t miss it as well!

The first days of the festival were right on the peak of the carnival which is deep rooted in the local culture and combined with the working week days; it wasn’t big surprise that participation was rather weak,. In the weekend more people showed up, also from other islands, mostly speaking Tenerife. As a result things started to heat up, while in the meantime I started to become more familiar with the people and become part of the ‘group’. Anyway people were very hospitable and friendly and the ambience was cool… So it was the point of enjoyment with the festival peaking with classes and milongas…

The first thing that really stroked me was the devotion of the people to the classes, taking notes and videos, attending several lessons in a raw always focused, trying to understand every detail. Tango passionates exist everywhere, but I had never seen something like this before. It was obvious that the Canarians love tango and knowing that they don’t have a lot of chances for interaction with other dancers and teachers, they won’t definitely miss the few ones available. As a result, despite the fact that the tango groups in the Canary Islands are small, there are some very good dancers (mostly in Gran Canaria and Tenerife)…

Personally I also found my personal ‘tango guru’, Nacho, a local teacher that impressed me with his particular style. Nacho is teaching all the latin American and ballroom dances and he is very much into the dance and the music, while he has built his own hidden bridges, between different styles and dances. His tango is passionate, very musical and precise, while most important of all, even if he masters all the ‘fancy’ tango moves (soltadas, volcadas, etc), he prefers to transform every tango in his own ritual. He knows that he ca write his own lines in the tango book and he does it! And me, I finally skipped some classes of the festival take few private ones with him… Invaluable experience

The other thing that vividly remained from my visit is the contact with some of the people. The Canarians live simple, calm lives in a place which often resembles with paradise. Island people who have learned to take it easy, to appreciate the moment and the simple pleasures. So calm and polite, but on the other hand, present, respectful and technically correct, in the dance. So dancing tango with them brings a pleasant and mild warmth, but as well as something extra too difficult to express with words. Like the felling you have when you watch the see for hours, peace and serenity, but also something supernatural, bringing together aspiration and dreaming. Butterflies flying in your stomach… A feeling that persists every night after the milonga, during the walks on the beach next to the oceanic swell and the music from the swash. Another interpretation of tango and a very pleasant one indeed…

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Avant garde and cultural conflicts: Le tango en France...

Well… I am on my way to Geneva for the 3-day MuSaCa milonga, where I expect to have a really good time, but as I am about to leave France for good, I have to write few things about the tango in France. And this is really a tough task to undertake… I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to do it and where to start from and gradually I gravitated to begin with some words about the (famous) French culture…
And this really is another tough task to undertake! First, because I’ve spent only a year in this country; most likely a lifetime is not enough to understand the way the French people act! Second, because I was living in Marseille which is a city rather irrelevant to France, flooded by people of North African origin and is not at all representative. But I have been moving around a lot… And I feel I got some things correctly… And after all this is a blog and not a scientific publication on sociology.. So I will try!
So to start, the French culture really deserves to be called a culture and what is very important is that the French people …love it! They deeply feel that they have the privilege (and the good-heartiness) to offer to the world the best, the richest culture, guarantying among many others, high standards of living, equal rights and personal freedom, access to the world’s peak moments of artistic creation, literature and philosophy, a beautiful language, an excellent cuisine, etc. It is true that the French culture is very rich, as life in France is very pleasant as well and I wouldn’t say that the French are ignorant when they are so proud about their way of life. But, wanting to make a connection with tango inevitably I will critically refer to some points which affect the quality of the French tango, even though it is a country that I honestly love. So, just to start…
If you are French and you are reading this text I know that it really tears you apart to read negative things about your country. In fact France is the place where I found people more sensitive (and less tolerant) to criticism than anywhere else. (If you want to make a French your enemy, just say that you don’t like the wine, the cheese, the tango, or even just say that the French is a difficult language... That will do!) But, if I was saying that everything is great here it would be apparent that I am lying.
Back to the French, so… One thing to make clear is that the French are not latinos, they are…. FRENCH! Their culture and codes of behaviour don’t include a lot of physical contact, but it is mostly based on the formality and the respect on everybody’s personal space. Letting yourself loose with people you are not familiar will most probably lead to embarrassing situations, as people can be easily offended and demand to be carefully treated, as they also do to the others. In addition and in comparison to the latinos, they have their own perception of style and the role and balance of the sexes.
French women are very beautiful (they are famous for their looks and femininity anyway!) and interesting, but they are ‘classy’ and not ‘sexy’. Light make-up, elegant clothes, mild manners, as well as simple and practical aesthetics in general, respecting the time and the right of the women when they cannot afford to spend hours to look ‘pretty’ or ‘hot’… Nothing of the explosive and provocative sensuality of the latin woman, who tries to light a fire that will burn all men’s hearts. French women walk in low shoes, wearing comfortable clothes and they also count on their spirit, their ability to make an interesting discussion, during a walk or a dinner. In fact, they are not so much into the ‘prey and hunter game’, with several principles of the feminist movement being well ingrained in the French society.
Another important point is the drive for enjoying life as a priority, which is fundamental for the French way of life. The French want to eat well, do excursions in the weekend and enjoy nature, their hobbies and recreational activities and the prevailing mentality is try to discover, or even invent simple and affordable ways to enjoy all these in the most efficient way. A look on the number of holidays and the way they are distributed around the year is enough to understand that. A key factor in this way of life is the ‘post-modern’ French family, as these activities are mostly organised for couples or families…
The French make kids early, independently of their working conditions, as the system offers a lot of support to young parents. This results in a mentality of focus in a closed circle and they are used to spend time and energy only for their own sake and the one of their beloved ones. For the people outside this circle they have their education, their politeness, but honestly they don’t really care and abstain from any serious efforts for communication. (this is of course a generalisation, but I am sure that people who know France a little will get the point..). The mentality of tango on the other hand is the one of a popular dance, of a common social event, which in addition in Argentina is coupled with a series of rules, part of a ‘tango code of practice’. In France the world ‘popular’ almost doesn’t exist, as everybody is equal to the others and this is the first conflict between France and tango. And there are several others…
While tango is a simple and direct language which requires sharing and communication, in order to flourish; most French people feel that they carry a unique personality, which they try to make appear even more inaccessible and incompatible. The context of life in France cultivates this tendency to the people and makes this society so colourful and fun to live. On the other hand the fact that the French people alone draw a line between them and the others requires more time to make a connection and results in characters that I would personally call ‘tense’. It is a frequent impression on my contact with French people that they are always trying to generate, or identify something out of the norm, even when this doesn’t exist. This may be vital for cinema and the arts but it is in contrast to tango which is based in clearly showing intension, as communication should be instant.
This brings us to the issue of the leading and the following. Being a man I can talk mostly about the following… One year here in France, almost every time I had a serious discussion with somebody (mostly for work) I fell on the same situation: I was at the point of feeling that we’d covered the issue and that we should go ahead, while my interlocutor demonstrated his need to discuss further. The French love to talk and analyse things. Even if they have found the answer they would do it all over again, just for the pleasure of discussing and with the excuse that MAYBE something new will occur! So it is really difficult for them to act spontaneously. Same for tango... You listen to the music and you want to do a long step left. And you do it. You partner gets the message but she doesn’t move. She is having the same expression with your college saying ‘Hey wait! Why we should go left? I am not ready for that yet…’. Tango is slow in France…

And for the following another issue is the pleasure one get’s from the contact… The French with their individualistic attitude cannot understand the principle and the pleasure of spending a night along with 200 other people hugging each other. They are used to pay attention to themselves and their very loved ones. The presence of somebody less intimate in a close distance is an issue, even for the average French ‘tangero’. You feel the nervousness, the luck of comfort and also the fact that a French woman will not leave the ‘control’ to anybody so easily, even if it’s in the context of the milonga. It’s very common to see couples that dance all night only with each other, as the ‘social’ perception of the event is weak. On the other hand, for many French tangeras I had the impression that they were dancing together, they were not allowing me to lead them…
For a good milonga (according always to my humble opinion..) there are some essential ‘ingredients’ and those are a) inspiring music; b) proper floor; c) good dancers and d) a correct ‘line of dance’ to enjoy all the above. The importance of the latter is huge and neglected by several people, as apart from dancing in couples, the whole milonga functions as a unity as well. If one couple is not following the milonga, then the line is breaking and the pace is lost; nobody can dance… The latter is a problem in several places but in France it’s absolutely a nightmare! If you stand above of the milonga and notice the trajectories of the couples, it looks more like random chaotic systems, or traffic in the centre of Delhi, rather than something following any rule. In addition, due to the attitude discussed in the previous paragraph, most of the French people dance more open as they prefer to ‘keep’ their intimateness. This creates even more chaos as each couple occupies more space.
I have mentioned in the beginning that the French consider their culture the best and it is true that when they have contact with other cultures they don’t make a real effort to ‘cross the line’. They rather feel that they can adopt everything to the ‘French way’, and even improve by adding ‘essential French touch’, instead of trying to get as closer possible to the ‘real thing’. And they usually won’t take seriously other cultures, music, habits. This results in a ‘sloppiness’ in the organisation of the milongas and the way of dancing as well. The French are attracted mostly by the idea, or the aesthetic hypostasis of tango, rather than the dance itself. Many of the DJs or the organisers of milongas are poor tango dancers… They devote their time and effort in a thing that attracts them in an academic manner, but they don’t actually know in depth. Like the sport casters, or the football club presidents who never played soccer, or the film or music critics who are not musicians. That’s why they don’t mind for the existence of milongas with non danceable music or non slippery floors. They cannot understand that there would be a problem in order to find solutions.
Another feature I felt very intensely is a ‘sloppily introduced feminism’ in tango. Experienced dancers know very well that the role of the woman in tango is extremely important and that she controls in a great extent the dance. But she has to know how to follow and when to ‘take over’ the situation. This requires skill, talent and experience on her behalf, but once she masters the game she can be the ‘real’ leader. Nevertheless she cannot lead and this is perceived falsely by many women as submissiveness. Always a discussion starts by somebody opening it and that doesn’t mean that he is the ruler.
A tango starts always by the man making the first step but still is not dominated by him. And from the male perspective, I adore (and prefer) tangeras who know how to take initiatives, as this makes the dance more challenging, alive and creative. On the other hand, it is extremely unpleasant to dance with somebody who doesn’t follow. My role is to introduce the musicality and primarily control the space in the milonga, respecting my partner and the other people. So dancing with a person who acts on its own is very tiring and transforms tango into a sequence of ‘unfulfilled intensions’ rather that a creative communication.
Back to studying and practicing tango, it was to my surprise that in France very few people really study tango, but rather feel that it’s ok to once in a while to the milonga, among their other activities and priorities. On of my explanations is that they have learned to put themselves above things, instead of letting the passion drive them. Another important feature is that French people are in general ‘sober’. They have their eyes open, they plan their lives carefully and to choose what’s best for them. The passion for tango and the blind thirst and devotion to its learning, so common for the tango addicts cannot grow easily in the French. They have ‘better or other things to do as well’ in general, an attitude which may be correct from one point of view, but on the other hand tango demands time and effort…
So what is the bottomline? The French don’t dance tango well because their culture is quite distant from the spirit of tango and because they don’t want to study and really live into it. And what is good in French tango? The idea of dancing your own ‘Tango in Paris’, where of course you can have some super tantas with some excellent partners. The live orchestras which in France I’ve found superior to every other place in Europe. But most of all, it’s the ‘avant garde’… It’s the French touch! It is true that by analysing everything, taking nothing for granted and trying to make the breakthrough all the time (without often having the necessary base), the French cannot offer you e.g. the consistency and the balanced quality of the Italian tangeros…
But they can generate magic moments! In France I’ve been to several medium to bad milongas, but certainly I have danced some super tangos, that broadened my perception of the dance and took me further ahead. That could be the ‘French touch’! And also there are some people who dance well and study tango a lot. And this is the moment when the free, open, creative spirit is combined with skills and talent that can reach perfection. Like some of the excellent dancers I met in the Milonga de 4 Saisons! Allez! On va danser!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Barcelona tango festival: Catalan pride?

There is no better place to write your blog than at the beach… So this is where I am! Citadella Olympica in Barcelona... I left yesterday France with tears in my eyes (indeed!) to start my road trip to Faro. So unfortunately, I had to say farewell to the country of the good life, delicious food and beautiful women, the land where holidays never stop! The country where all the people carry an artistic touch and they act so unpredictably that makes every moment a possible surprise. Once again I had to tear up my roots and leave. Just like that….

First stop of the trip is Barcelona for the 6th tango festival here. Two things were very intense on my first moments in Spain. One is the contact with what I call ‘normal people’ the facility to communicate and understand each other that exists between Spanish, Greek and Italians, which is not shared with the always ‘bizarre’ French. The Mediterranean touch! But this time there was something missing in the contact. It’s due to the fact that I got used to the ‘French touch’ and I was looking for this magic ingredient, even though it often makes life and communication more difficult. Second is that Barcelona is an amazing city…

Arriving here, feeling a little bit ‘blue’ for my so recent departure and separation from the people close to me, I needed some thing to tone me up. And in Barcelona this is very easy. Just walking around can be enough, but at the same time, if you want to offer yourself ‘special gifts’ there are so many options. So I started with nice lunch by the sea for example, watching the waves listening to the swell, enjoying the energy that the sea transmits.

Back to tango, on the other hand the festival was not a great thing. The place (Casino) was magnificent, but the people were rather ‘irrelevant’ to tango and while there were some dancers good enough, there was something missing. After long time I felt a ‘closed’ mentality and I don’t know where to attribute it. Catalan people are known to be more reserved and less easy to contact… From the first moment I met people telling me how they like their city, how every time they visit other places, they appreciate Barcelona even more and in general there was this intense feeling of pride and introversion, which could explain also my tango experience.

Tango is connection but if you keep the door shut you are just moving in vacuum space. However my stay was short and I cannot be sure, judging only on the festival. I have the impression that this is not the level of the city, but most likely local people didn’t support the festival and I have to come back to find out how Barcelona tango is…. Nevertheless people are everywhere and I had some delightful tantas, as well as I met some very nice people. So I am going to try again in the future. No matter what the city deserves one or more ‘second chances’!!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Profoundly civilized- La milonga MuSaCa in Geneva

Anybody would expect a Greek guy to be very interested in a milonga with the name of the most worldwide know Greek dish! So when people told me that it is also a nice place to dance, I took instantly the decision to catch a train and meet the MuSaCa tango tribe! Even though I had been in Geneva before…. And then I realized several things… Firstly the milonga is more of my taste rather than the dish! Secondly, even though I’ve spent 5 days in the city 3 years ago, I haven’t quite known it, a fact that highlights the great advantages of tango tourism. And last but not least, I loved the Swiss people, the way they are and they live.
When I visited the city as a non-French speaker and non-tango dancer, I found it too low key... Especially comparing with the vivid nightlife of Greece where I was living at that time, Geneva gave me a feeling of ‘vacuum’. Of course the politeness and simplicity (in a positive sense) of the Swiss cannot be overlooked, neither the human-friendly, clean and nicely organized city. But unfortunately I didn’t have the possibility to make contact or even chat to the local people. But this time, my tango visit was totally different!
Switzerland and Geneva in particular is extremely (and honestly) international. Apart from the mixing of 4 different language population groups the city is overwhelmed by the thousands of international organizations employees, as well as the tourists and the business visitors, from all over the world. As a result, it is a genuinely international society and what is most impressive is how simply and easily all this is taking place. The Swiss people live smooth and undisturbed lives in a well organized and wealthy country and as a result, their character has developed accordingly; being calm, polite, simple and honest And most important, their perception of the world and the others is similar, good-willed and trustful, an attitude that ‘purifies’ any interaction.

Contact with somebody who is honest and believes that you are honest as well, brings the best of you and this is an amazing feeling. It makes you relax, enjoy the moment in the first place and following generates the desire to ‘pay back’ the ‘treat’. It brings human interaction in a higher lever of quality. As far as tango is concerned, it is obvious that you dance better with somebody you feel well and you are familiar to. Of course an excellent tango can be more ‘aggressive’ or ‘esoterical’ driven either by seduction, or the coincidence of the special moment; but the most enjoyable dance (at least from my point of view) is when you are possessed by positive feelings, familiarity and respect for your partner. When you want to share with him another step, another tango, another tanta, when you want to stay in the abrazo and try to overwhelm him with all your positive energy and feelings. This is the magic of tango…. (or at least some of it!)
And in Milonga MuSaCa this happened to me several times. Almost all the people I’ve met were brilliant and after the first day the feeling was that I participated in a family celebration. Of a big family! And it is true that people who’ve been to MuSaCa will not miss it next time, they are so happy to meet and all this positive energy is in the air, adding something that it is impossible for a big festival to beat. Tango in Switzerland doesn’t have the scale or the dynamism of the Italian tango for example. But I have never been to a milonga with so many people that I was really pleased to meet and I would love to meet again. For that reason the MuSaCa family has now a new member!!
Just before finishing this blog I have to make two remarks… One is about the beautiful ‘Parfumerie’ space where the milonga takes place, with an elegant and simple ambience which I found very much in agreement with the one of the city. Second, about the perfect organization, including hospitality for the foreign tangeros like me, especially considering that this year it was an ‘one man show’ (Sarah’s show!)… A bientot a tous!

PS. Just some additional ‘technical’ details for those who may be interested. For people who haven’t danced to places with very good tango (for me Italy from Rome and to the north is the reference in Europe) the level of the dancers and the quality of the ‘circle of dance’ will be more than satisfactory. Some criticism is that many people dance more open embrace, a style not so of my taste, which also makes couples occupy more space, a disadvantage for the crowded hours of the milonga. Also some dancers (among them several high level ones indeed), weren’t so respectful for the rest and moved in a rather ‘chaotic’ way, making co-existence quite difficult. But in general nothing reaches really disturbing levels and the milonga flows all the time…

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Heavy loaded history, the absolute beauty and the thirst for new experiences... Dancing tango in Moscow city!

Started 23/08/2008
It’s 4:30 in the morning and I am at Domodedovo, the main airport of Moscow ready to catch my flight back to France… Once again I had the opportunity to pretend that I live in Moscow, spending one month in this crazy place (if not the craziest so far!). One month sharing a flat Moscow downtown (in Chistie Prudi), along with the gentlest British accountant I have met so far, Tom… One month, following the same patterns every day: leaving home and being ready to get electro shocked by the views of the hundreds of thousands of astonishing girls living in this city! One month meeting the stoned faces of the Moscovites reading philosophy, history and literature in the metro and then watching them crawling dead-drunk in the parks.
Moscow is a rough place, where the people have been trained through the years to endure hard times. Situations and living conditions that could drive a Western European in despair or even death, within few weeks are every day reality for the Russian people. On the other hand this country offers one magic fix to its male citizens… Abundance of the most beautiful women in the world! Just watching them passing by the street is a reason (and a way) to stay alive (and kicking)!
If somebody hasn’t walked the center of Moscow 20:00-22:00 in the evening, unfortunately cannot understand what I am talking about. Because we are talking about the ‘grand fest’ of beautyThe most direct and natural interpretation of beauty, 100% focused on aesthetics, grace, sensuality, femininity, without ever losing the balance… Russian girls are beautiful in the most efficient and elaborate way. No ideologies, no styles, no perceptions about life and virtue, just the essence, the most pure interpretation of beauty and femininity.
Soviet people have been through several hard times during this century and the combined outcome of the wars, the purges and living in an Empire, which flourished through taking the maximum out of its citizens, had resulted in extreme scarcity of men during several periods. This ‘natural selection’ process left behind the strongest masculine genes, which on the other hand were offered increased possibility of choice regarding their potential mates. So one of the reasons that Russian women are so nice is that they are the ancestors of the most beautiful women of their time! Only they had the ‘privilege’ to find a partner and make families. And in addition, high aesthetic and femininity standards have in that way been implanted in the prevailing culture, with competition between women for male attention being still strong…
On the other hand, there is the sexist education of the Soviet regime, which still persists, according to which young Russian girls are taught that their role in a family is inferior to the one of the man. They are taught to cook and serve, to walk (like in the catwalk) and do their make-up with professional standards, while the boys learn to do the plumbing and the electricity things in the house… And still, when they date each other, the Russian girls expect that the man will pay all their expenses, confirming his superiority and his dominance. They, on the other hand, know very well to support, to animate and stimulate their man… On the other hand, women no matter how feminine and ‘fragile’ they may look, deep inside they carry a strong and well structured character, based on their good education, the hard times of every day life, without often the presence of man.
So, logically speaking, there are plenty of reasons that the Russian women dance tango very well… It’s because they are feminine, they are beautiful, they have the gift of slim silluetes with long legs, which adds an incredible torsion and dynamism in their dance; it’s because they have been educated to understand, follow and inspire the man and they totally surrender when they dance! And on top of that it’s because they are clever, well educated and they love to learn…
While in the west, education has been transformed into skill acquisition, directly related to the job market, the prevailing perception in Russia is still the classical one. Learning just for the pleasure of acquiring knowledge, no matter if it’s on history, philosophy, politics, or arts. Russian people love to train their minds and gain skills and it’s not an accident that they have been completely hooked, by the ‘trip’ of inheriting all these new movements and emotions, the voleos, the sacadas, planeos, the musicality of tango, the pauses and the climaxes. They adore the creativity it carries and they want to master it NOW! In the Moscow tango community there is a madness going on, with lots of (mostly rich) Moscovites attending numerous classes, special lessons, festivals; travelling around the world, curious to know how other people dance and inviting the cream of Argentinean dancers to teach them their secrets.
So the only negative aspect is that some people dance in a way too ‘loaded’ fashion, doing a lot of figures, without having the necessary the base and letting the passion and the ‘feeling’ as second priority. My interpretation of this attitude is that it’s driven by an ‘academic’ desire to explore tango, but it’s almost common in ‘colder’ places, where direct contact with strangers is not part of the prevailing culture. On the other hand the Russian tangeras, with their inherent tendency towards perfection, are so well skilled and devoted, that they will follow any partner and interpretation of the music. And for that reason Moscow tango, for a male dancer, is an awesome experience, it’s one among the high peaks of the worldwide Tango trip. So perfectly spiced with all those cultural gaps, the curiosity and the desire for acquaintance and interaction and the unique scenery of the unique Moscow city. Which no matter how dominant, it disappears after each cortina….
Finished 20/10/2008