After eleven years living, dancing, teaching tango, and writing in Buenos Aires, I came home to L.A. in 2014, where I'm reconstructing my life.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Festival Flack: Plea for Honest PR to Know Before You Go

When I still lived in the U.S., the phenomenon of tango festivals was relatively new. I attended a few--the first three Denver festivals, Norah's Week, Tango Magia in Amsterdam, but mainly I saved my money to come to Buenos Aires for a couple of weeks whenever I could.

Lately I've heard from lots of disillusioned people about festivals in the U.S. that they used to attend but will no more because they are now over-run with nuevoists who make traditional dancers fear for their lives on the floor.

Recently a good friend of ours, Tony Parkes, attended an event of the Berlin Tango Festival, and was so disappointed that he wrote the following letter to the organizers. Because this is not an isolated case, and because there has been much discussion of late on "festivals unexpectedly turning nuevo," I'm printing it here with his permission.

I think a lot of work has to be done if we want to preserve tango as we know it. I recently attended the Friday night tango festival ball in Berlin and felt compelled to send the following email to the organisers....

My name is Tony Parkes, an Australian dancing tango for 7 years. I have lived the last one and a half years in Buenos Aires, dancing on average 5 nights a weeks. because I am visiting friends here I registered for the 2010 Berlin Tango Festival. The purpose of this email is to convey to you my immense disappointment at the ball last Friday night. Tango friends here in Berlin advised me not to go Thursday night because they expected that it would most likely be an indulgence in nuevo tango, and some who went confirmed this. But we all expected the Saturday ball to be more conventional tango. Three of our group of six have danced in Buenos Aires, and all 6 of us as I said above, were immensely disappointed.
Apart from the music played by the dj, there was nothing else at the ball that anyone who dances traditional tango could enjoy. And that includes the "Buenos Aires Tango Orchestra" who played nuevo music.

Of the several hundred people on the dance floor, 99% were dancing nuevo with no knowledge of the line of dance nor respect for the space of others. There was no tango energy, just couples dancing mindlessly, selfishly, arrogantly - and no dancing with the music. The music could have been jingle bells or happy birthday and they still would have performed their same extravagant, exhibitional gyrations. There were but so few people attempting to dance with feeling, connection with their partner and love for the music.

I am aware that the nuevo phenomenon is happening in North America and in other places in Europe which saddens me. In Buenos Aires I have enjoyed many dances with both north and south American women, and of course European women too, and I expected something similar here in berlin. so now to attend what you have labeled a tango festival hurts me. please answer me can you use the word tango ?

The reality for me is that you have falsely labeled your festival (I have been told that in past years it was traditional tango) so people like myself and my friends who enjoy tango pay money to you in expectation of another enjoyable tango experience. There was no chance of that on saturday night. and for the first time in my 7 years of dancing I walked off the pista during a tanda - to Carlos di Sarli no less. I am not asking for my money to be returned, I just ask that you look at yourselves and have the honesty and dignity to remove the word tango from your marketing.

Yes, once again, we have to face up to the importance of marketing. People should know what to expect when they make expensive travel plans to dance tango. Which only means that festival organizers have to publicize the event correctly--if it's milonguero, if it's nuevo, or if it's let's wait and see who shows up and pays and then the majority rules, which I think is the usual case. Cold cash is hard to turn away--in the same way that milonga organizers here often let anyone in who pays the entrance fee. Ruben says that when he started to dance tango long ago, a man couldn't enter a milonga without a coat and tie, and with his shoes shined! Can you imagine that happening today?

It would take guts and fearlessness and integrity to market a festival as milonguero or nuevo or anything goes, and then stick to it. If it's nuevo, make sure there is plenty of room; if it's milonguero, require that dancers follow the line of dance and don't do large moves. Information should be given out in the publicity for the event as to what style will be danced, on the registration forms, in emails, in handouts, and in oral announcements at the event. Let dancers know what to expect and then follow through.

It will take courage. What if you throw a festival and nobody comes?


ModernTanguera said...

The funniest bit is that good marketing is always targeted at a specific audience. The worst business model is to try to cater to everyone! It would make infinitely more sense for all festival organizers to pick their audience and make a great event -- for those people. Everyone wins. (Except those of us who are tired of the festivals themselves, but what can you do?)

NYC Tango Pilgrim said...

haha... I think I saw your friend at the festival. Well, Friday night milonga was quite a mess. It was a shame because the locale was beautiful and grand: the ballroom of city hall of Berlin. As a matter of fact, all the main festival milongas, with the exception of Monday night, were a disappointment for me in terms of quality of dancing. But I did enjoy the afterhour milongas that went on at a cafe at the central train station after 4:00am.

All in all, I had a very good time at BTF, very good tandas and met a few new friends.

Andreas said...

Hi Cherie,
I think it is quite ... optimistic to expect proper social tango at one of *those* festivals. Dozens of shows, loads of workshops etc.
It's not about the dancing, really, it's about the superstar couples and the glitz.
Plus, Berlin is not really the place to go to in Europe for traditional tango.
There are so-called "milonguero" festivals in Europe (clearly labeled), and there indeed you find proper music and proper dancing, and usually few or no workshops.

tangocherie said...

MT, perhaps organizers forget that "you can't please all the people all the time!"

TP, someone sent me this video of the Monday night milonga when the orchestra was playing:

I've never seen so many side-steps and lapices in one place in my life outside of a class in lapices!! Perhaps the dancers just finished such a class! :)

Andreas, I had a fantastic time years ago at the milonga marathon in Nijmegen!

Thanks to everyone who feels moved to make comments; I really appreciate them.

NYC Tango Pilgrim said...

As I said, the after hour milonga was where the fun was :-)

Elizabeth Brinton said...

I feel bad that people come to the festival and never experience Seattle's best dancing. It is fun, lots of show, but not milonguero. Also, it's depressing how many women travel, dress up, and then....sit.
So I hope dancers will come around during ordinary nights. They will have different view.
Glad you wrote this Cherie.

Chris said...

> There are so-called "milonguero"
> festivals in Europe (clearly
> labeled), and there indeed you
> find proper music and proper
> dancing, and usually few or no
> workshops.

Pleas Andreas do give your recommendations for workshop-free festivals in Europe.

Andreas said...

There are a couple of organizers on the continent who set up traditional festivals (and milongas, of course) where people care about the embrace. Some events also include a handful of workshops, but they can be easily ignored. They usually have a good setup, proper music with tandas & cortinas, proper dancing of often very good quality, and a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. You need to start somewhere, and soon you will know where to go.
Next up is Detlef & Melina's Open Air in St Wendel, Germany. For a review see Ms Hedgehog's blog. In August I DJ at a weekend in Wiesbaden run by the Milonga Orillera guys. Both have some workshops on offer, but they are about the dancing, not the guest teachers. Coming soon (July, I think) is the Guingette in France, Open Air dancing. In October there is the Festivalito con Amigos in Saarbruecken (Germany), which I am involved in via the Tangokombinat. Again, some classes in the afternoon, but the main thing is a whole bunch of milongas with 150 or more dancers from Europe, BsAs and the USA. Also in October the Milonguero weekend in Florence. No classes I believe.
Also coming up is the Milonguero/ weekend in Slowenia. Check out Ms Hedgehog's recent review of Les Cigales (Cote D'Azur), and look at for information about their annual Encuentro Milonguero. That one is recommended only if you can dance on a tile, and enjoy doing so. I love it. There are more, usually promoted relatively low-key, and mostly in the south of France or in Italy, which I think are the best places to dance in Europe anyway.
If you need any details, feel free to e-mail me.

Chris said...

> Because this is not an isolated
> case, and because there has been
> much discussion of late on
> "festivals unexpectedly turning nuevo,"

To be fair Cherie, this is not such a case. The dancing was equally poor in previous years. I am sorry that Tony was disappointed but had he asked any good dancers from the city, he would have surely been warned. Just the titles of the workshops surely shows what standard of dacning to expect.

And I think it is unfair of you to imply dishonest PR. Nothing I saw in the organisers' PR suggested a high standard of dancing.

tangocherie said...

Chris, all I know about the Berlin festival this year is what Tony wrote and what I saw on the video above.

I didn't mean to imply that the Berlin event was marketed dishonestly, as I have no idea.

But I do know for a fact that several festivals in the U.S. were labeled and promoted as "milonguero," or "close embrace" and that those expecting a line of dance and small steps were many times run over by nuevoists, with no festival police to control the dance floor. Many dancers who signed up and paid for a traditional experience left disappointed and angry, several vowing never to return to any festival again. This can't be a good thing.

I believe that if folks know from the getgo what to expect, meaning that the organizers advertise, promote and enforce the theme of the event, everyone is better off.

Now the level of dancing is another ball of wax entirely. I don't think anyone is suggesting festivals only for beginners or advanced or whatever, mainly because it wouldn't work. EVERYONE would sign up for "advanced," just like in the festival classes, no?

However "style" is different; why should milonguero-style dancers attend a festival that promotes and teaches jumps, lifts, and choreography? They wouldn't want to, and neither would the stage dancers want to attend a festival (or milonga) if they could not do what they like to do. Or tango nuevo dancers who weren't permitted to dance outside of a "baldosa."

In the case of tango tradicional, teachers can teach the line of dance, respect for the codigos on the pista, how many people can dance as one on the floor--and then the organizers need to enforce and try to control what happens.

I don't think that is too much to ask, do you?

The general impression out there is that organizers promote a festival with a fear of turning anyone away for financial reasons--pay the fee and you are welcome, no matter how you dance (and I'm not talking "level of expertise" here), or whose space you are violating.

As in most things, even in the arts, it can be all about money.

Anonymous said...

I haven't been at the friday milonga, but on saturday and sunday. It was quite crowded, as I experienced on any other festival I visited up to now. I regularly dance in Berlin and I've been to quite some Milongas where the behavior was much worse... In my opinion: It was my first time at the berlin festival, I had my doubts about it and they become more or less true, but I had a nice time anyway. If you don't like it, just dont go there, but spare the pseodo moralistic rambling:

I realy HATE people who think they are the official "Tango Police" and want to go around and tell people how to dance. These jerks are realy a pain in the a.. A (female) friend ob my was once asked for a dance, but she didn't like the music, so the declined the offer: Then one of these "Policemen" came over and was asking her, how she could not dance with that guy and why she (!) is arrogant...? My friend was everything else than amused...

And by the way: I realy like, that I can wear any clothes I like and don't have to bow to any dresscode forced upon me by somebody who things that he or she knows the "true" Tango and that everybody else should stop using that name in vain and - probably even worse!!! - dance tango without shining shoes... And I don't like all people who come to a milonga, but I like that everybody can come.

Sincerely yours
Julian from Berlin

tangocherie said...

Julian, from your comments it seems you are a very lucky man to live and dance in Berlin!

Chris said...

> Many dancers who signed up and
> paid for a traditional experience
> left disappointed and angry,
> several vowing never to return to
> any festival again. This can't be
> a good thing.

If it puts people like Tom Stermitz out of business, it will surely give honest organisers a chance to deliver events that will get those dancers back.

Chris said...

> Some events also include a handful of
> workshops but they can be easily ignored.

I find the people who don't ignore them less easy to ignore!

Thanks for that list Andreas. Along with one workshop-free festival, I found there a couple of nice-looking alternatives new to me.