Saturday, 30 October 2010

Subculture Afterlife: the Tango

by Mistress Justine Brown
If you, dear Reader, are anything like me, you spent your adolescence in louche nightclubs (or trying to gain entrance to them). You belonged to a thrilling subculture. The world revolved around music, and you collected records and mixed tapes fervently and danced with abandon. Bands and musicians generally occupied the pinnacle of an elaborately coded and mannered social world, the scene, one which was obscure to most people, people whose tastes you and your friends dismissed contemptuously as "mainstream." As you stalked down the street, studiously ignoring one and all, you examined telephone poles for posters which closely resembled kidnap notes: these let you know where you would be spending your Friday and Saturday nights.Your clothes-- mostly black-- hair, makeup and general deportment inspired passing members of the public to roll their eyes and insult you, sometimes yell, wave their fists and even issue threats. And more. Punk, goth, psychobilly, or something along those lines, you had a hell of a lot of fun.

The irresistible Robert Smith

Feeling nostalgic? If so, Mistress Brown has a prescription: take up Argentine tango. Tango has been enjoying an international revival since the early 1990s. A niggling difficulty with youth subculture is this: it's for youth. This doesn't mean you are forbidden to head out occasionally and see the latest local band or are banished from the Cure reunion gig. It doesn't mean you can't pull the blinds and drown yourself in Nick Cave murder ballads now and then. But do you really want to spend the rest of your days in the abject position of trying to recapture the feeling of being seventeen, and looking to teenagers (possibly-- ouch-- your own teenagers) for all the cues? Broaden your stylistic horizons and add some musical culture-- say jazz, blues, opera, or TANGO-- that ages well. As a flamboyant youngster, you may have relished the opportunity to dress like an undertaker, a vampire or a pirate. Once you enter the world of the tango, you can wear the best shoes in the world (the Comme Il Faut brand for instance makes Manolos look like Birkenstocks), sport your most dramatic dark clothing and makeup, flourish a fan, wave it, whisper behind it and generally behave like an eighteenth-century coquette. With impecunity.

What are those tangueras talking about behind their fluttering fans? I might as well tell you the worst up front. They're dissecting everyone else's dancing. If you can handle that, you can handle Argentine tango. The hierarchy-- and every subculture rests on some type of caste system-- is based on dancing. But since everybody was a beginner at some point, and a person never really finishes learning the tango, the playing field is reasonably level. In the world of tango, to say that a person dances like a 70-year-old is to pay a high compliment. Make the term "vintage" really stand for something! Devote your evenings to the melancholy pleasures of Argentine tango.

Once you do so, you will find yourself, oddly enough, frequenting some of the venues of yesteryear. Dance enthusiasts rent the same sorts of places-- the Latvian Friendship Centre, say, or an old dine-and-dance joint that's been languishing since 1974-- as punk rock bands used to do. There you can usually find a class or two, followed by a dance that seems part Weimar Berlin, part cartoon (remember when Bugs Bunny used to dress as a girl and go dancing?). No look, no gesture is too extravagant. Just make sure to wear leather or suede soles, otherwise you'll stick to the floor. Men, when dressing, use black as your basenote and work from there. Women! Raccoon eyes, oiled chignon, sequins, clingy gowns; do what you do best. Just make sure you can stride in it.
Betty Boop prepares to tango

Many of us rue the day that men and women stopped cutting a rug together. Tango affords a welcome respite from the lonely and robotic "individualism" of today's average dancefloor. Nothing is neutral in the tango world. There are leaders (mostly men) and followers (mostly women), but one quickly learns that there is nothing inherently passive in following. The first time I attended a milonga (a formal dance, as opposed to a practica), we were entertained by a pair of men in snazzy gray suits. Their excellent performance somehow fused the Marx Brothers with karate. The average tango couple aims at something more subtle, though-- a wordless conversation. People wax mystical about the tango connection at its best. Suffice to say it is intimate. However, this is not an intimacy that leads automatically to the bedroom. It usually stays on the dancefloor: the tango world is not a meat market.

That said, you may very well meet your heart's desire at the milonga. At the very least, you can star in your own movie. The striking cast of characters, ranging in age from 18 to 80, is laid on. So too is the ravishing soundtrack, featuring everything from Astor Piazzolla to the Gotan Project, and assorted points in between. (Sometimes there is live music as well).You are in charge of wardrobe. Need a few pointers? Here is an Argentine recipe. Put your hair up-- it gets hot in those places-- and powder your face as pale as you like. I favour a choice between dark, smoky eyes (check out Lauren Luke's eye makeup tutorials on YouTube, or go to and crimson lipstick, but you may want both. A lady cannot go wrong with a black wraparound dress and a pair of shoes that look good and stay on. Add a little perfume and a big, sparkly cocktail ring on your left hand, all the better to dangle over your partner's shoulder. A bracelet looks good on the right wrist, near where the hands clasp. Indulge the love of black, white, a dash of red and lots more black; return to those dark little haunts, join the clique and above all get swept away in gorgeous music. You are ready for subculture afterlife--just like heaven.

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