15 September 2009

Argentine tango as an entrance to Malmö

Photo: Joakim Lloyd Raboff

As some of you may have read, I wrote some introductory text on Argentine tango as a comment to Stine's music rhizome post yesterday. The development of tango from suburbia obscurities into a globally popular and accepted sub-culture is indeed a rhizomatic process, even when bound to be a historical one. As a continuation, I intend to dig deeper into what could be understood about Malmö and Öresund region through mapping and analyzing tango culture and everything around it there. Tango is a fast lane entrance to the city, enabling me to get direct information at the venues from the people engaged to it. It opens a channel to a variety of questions concerning urban life in Malmö: how, where and why did this sub-culture emerge, spread and survive here, maybe compared with another one; how do the sub-cultures relate to each other within a city (divisions), between cities, within a region and beyond the region in case (dynamics); what is the social mixture of people habiting the city like and how does this show in the dance communities; how does the activity show in the physical surroundings of the city or what kind of fluctuation it creates – can the emergence of tango in a certain place tell something about the place that otherwise was out of our reach?

Connecting to Christer Larssons answer on the 4th city space, it is possible to link tango to some of the issues he touched: attractiveness, lifestyle, urban and social capital, innovation, creativity, also the creative class of Richard Florida. Who are the people that get involved in this time consuming and demanding free-time activity, ending eventually up becoming tango-junkies, traveling around Europe in order to dance, re-organizing their lives, changing profession? Tango is in its extremity a lifestyle that has the power to shape ones identity and therefore affects the decisions of daily life such as where you actually want to live, what you wear, who you associate with and what you talk about. A distinctively urban and adult phenomenon, it provides a platform for discovering an alternative performance within the city that is not dominated by teenagers, families with children or young adults only, and still is cool, creative, fun, seductive and addictive.  

Would tango be the kind of activity that those Florida counts as the creative class of workers would be attracted to? The rate of PhDs and Masters level educated people within the Scandinavian dance communities is, although on a subjective, inaccurate estimation, high. Professions cover areas like engineering, law, medicine, academic studies, arts, architecture and design – those «fully engaged in the creative processes» or knowledge-based workers. This may have something to do with the determination and devotion required in order to proceed in the dance. Picked from Wikipedia, according to Florida the city attracts the creative class if it examplifies «the three T's»: Talent (have a highly talented/educated/skilled population), Tolerance (have a diverse community, which has a 'live and let live' ethos), and Technology (have the technological infrastructure necessary to fuel an entrepreneurial culture). Funnily enough, all these features also apply for any possible new breeding ground for a tango community to emerge. Florida's thinking has been criticized for the fact that enough statistical evidence showing the correlation between economic growth and high proportions of creative class workers hasn't been found.

Further on, what for me seems related to the spirit of a place is the way tango often appears in certain surroundings. Unlike many maybe would assume, it is not inside glorious dance halls with crystal lamps and spotless, tapestried walls that this dance seeks for outbursts, but rather the worn-out, cold, old and abandoned industrial locals in the nearly outskirts of the cities, where the route is difficult to find on your first attempt, even the second. Tango unveils itself in the places you would never otherwise seek to in the the evenings. You go along in the allies, searching, take the wrong turn, and at some point, just when you are about to loose your faith, you hear the music in the air, somewhere, unmistakably. And, some more steps in the growing darkness of an autumn night, entering a back door almost impossible to perceive, going up four or five stairs in corridors echoing of forgotten past everydays, you find a hall, sweat smelling, dimly lit, with couples leaning to each other, floor subbing with the motion of the feet and the music covering everything in the essence of tango. The contrast with the sky-high heels, glamorously elegant clothing of the dancers and the shabby areas to find this at, is striking. On the other hand, outdoor tango often seems to take place in central, accessible areas of the city, turning a plaza or a void into a scene for an activity where the participants are both the observers, experiencers and creators at the same time.

This being just a description of a generalized, imagined and somewhat exaggerated reality, it would be interesting to uncover where and how tango actually lives in Malmö. Who are the people dancing, and where do they live. Are there more than one communities in the city, and what defines where you actually find yourself dancing in – is it geographical reasons like where you live, the accessibility of the dancing venues or the social reasons, your taste, the atmosphere, personal values or history or economical reasons like money. This would result in a kind of socio-geographical mapping of the culture.

There is a certain dynamic with Copenhagen as dancers from Malmö and Lund frequently travel to dance there, and vice versa as far as I've understood. How has this picture changed after the bridge was built? Instead of a suction towards Copenhagen as the only tango hub in Öresund, the region has strong culture on the both sides of the bridge, meaning that you can practice and dance socially in milongas (dancing evenings or events) on a daily basis, on a high level, you have access to good teachers both for private and collective lessons and there are bigger events bringing dancevisitors from outside the region regularly (tangofestivals, tangomarathons and visiting teachers from Argentina and other countries). After a fast and rather narrow survey at a dance evening in Bergen tonight, the general impression is that Malmö has a more defined and distinguished tango profile than the bigger cities of Stockholm or Copenhagen – not even to mention Oslo or Helsinki.

Furthermore, are there features of «Malmö tango» if such exists, and how that reaches beyond the borders of the city. What are the links to other cities in Sweden (Göteborg and Stockholm) and Denmark (Århus, others), the rest of Europe (especially the Netherlands, Berlin, Paris and Istanbul) and Buenos Aires, the Mecca of tango – and how strong are they? This could be measured in the amount of people traveling and the frequency of such visits to and from the region. My hypothesis is, that the more the local community has active participants traveling and trying out their dancing in other communities, festivals or marathons with new people, the better for the level and survival of the home community. This in turn brings visitors to the home community who enliven the everyday and secure for new experiences within the accustomed surroundings. However, when the tango community grows big enough it supports itself and visitors from «outside» are not as relevant for the renewal or survival of the community anymore. This is true of Berlin or Paris or Istanbul to think of some examples. Quite likely this applies for Malmö as well. In Buenos Aires the culture of visitors has another dimension, that of tourism, in addition to that of abroaders seeking for a deeper understanding, knowledge or mastery of the dance.  

There is a portal for tango dancers generated in Sweden, Tangoportalen, used mainly by Scandinavian enthusiasts, where discussion ongoes on all possible aspects of this phenomenon.


Also, these clips from Youtube may cast some light on the reality of tango in Malmö, help to get an idea:

Seaside tango in Västra Hamnen, showing the context nicely (a bit bad sound):


Better sound, in the evening:


Dancing at the Malmö Tango Marathon 2008:


Not quite so young dancers on the Aktiv Ungdom Malmö, Dansens Dag:


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