Mugre. Something you often hear professional or experienced tango dancers talking about.
You may hear them comment “they have great technique but their tango lacks a bit of mugre”.
And if you look up the dictionary definition of “mugre” (pronounced /mu:grei/) - you might be surprised to find that literally it translates as: “dirt”!
Yes, that’s right. Dirt!
But perhaps a better way to translate mugre in this particular context, would be “grime” or “grit”.
We’re all striving towards perfection, but sometimes what we really want to see is something that falls short of perfection.
Yes, tango technique is important, musicality, creativity and expression too. But to cap it all it’s great to see a tango dancer with just a touch of mugre.
It’s difficult to explain what “mugre” looks like to someone who is not deeply involved with tango. But rest assured it is nothing to do with the way someone dresses or their personal hygiene!
On the contrary, it is part of the traditional culture of tango that one should go to the milonga washed and well-dressed. It is a mark of respect for the partners you intend to dance with that night. And I would go so far as saying that that should apply to classes too.
It is your dance that should have mugre.
Because who cares about perfect technique when you can see soul, expression, connection? When what you can see makes you feel something.
It is partly because tango is an improvised that mugre is something to aspire to. Because a slick, polished choreography can be wonderful to watch but it doesn’t have that beautiful live quality that an improvisation has - despite its flaws. It’s kind of nice to see dancers smile wryly when something doesn’t quite go to plan. The odd misstep seems to be part and parcel of an improvisation.
So is it time to put a halt to our technique exercises? And our continued learning path in tango?
Unfortunately, mugre without technique just doesn’t cut it. It’s no excuse for poor dancing. You have to be a damn good dancer, with a bucket load of experience, to look good with mugre.
Maybe this seems likes an impossible goal then but for me the morale is this: continue to explore, strive always to better than yesterday. But relax if it isn’t perfect. It’s mugre! And you’ll enjoy tango all the more.
If there is one concern raised by the gentlemen in our classes time and time again, it is this:
“When I get on the dance floor, my mind goes blank. I can’t remember a single step I’ve learnt.”
They have come to us as their tango teachers for some words of advice. For a solution. And they do not expect our response:
“You know, forgetting all the steps you have ever learnt could in fact be a good thing!”
And they sometimes look at us exactly the way you might have just looked at your screen: like we've lost our minds! But hear me out on this. It actually does make sense.
Ask any experienced leader what it is they think about when they dance and most of them will answer this:
Because tango is not about thinking. Tango is about feeling. They are sensing where their partner is, they are listening to the music, they are allowing their movements - and inspiration - to flow.
On the whole, they do not have a mental checklist of the steps they will be executing next.
I always remember the story of one our Beginners many years back. It was his first trip to the milonga and he was a little nervous. So he made a plan. He was simply going to churn out the two or three figures he had learnt in class.
When he stepped out onto the dance floor for the first time, he attempted to execute the basic step, which is pretty much taught in every Beginners tango class around the world.
But at every step he was thwarted. In every moment there was someone in his way.
Your movements in the milonga will to a great extent be dictated by the ever-changing, unpredictable nature of the dance floor with couples all around you improvising their way through the music. You may step onto the dance floor with some kind of plan but it is inevitable that you are going to have to adapt it to the dance floor.
So why do we learn steps at all?
It is a typical feature of the majority of tango classes to learn a “figure” - a series of steps that fit together in a beautiful, fluid and interesting way. Why re-invent the wheel when "milongueros" of the past and professional dancers have already come up with such wonderful series of movements?
However it is never the intention of the teacher that these figures be reproduced by the student in exactly the same way each time. The intention is simply to give the student ideas and inspiration. The teacher should always guide the student as to how to improvise with any combination - cut it down, add to it, merge it with another movement and play with it.
Most teachers do not intend for you to you memorise every step sequence they cover. Rather the figure is a teaching tool through which important underlying skills are taught: how to lead your partner gently but with clarity, and so on. The figures will fall away but the skills underpinning will remain.
So if - like me - remembering long sequences is not your thing, take heart. Tango could well be the perfect dance for you!
On Saturday 10th June, BBC Radio 3 broadcast an hour-long programme on Argentine tango.
The programme was part of a longer series "the Sound of Dance" by Katie Derham, presenter of the BBC Proms and Strictly Come Dancing finalist, exploring the relationship between music and different dance genres.
Bandoneon player Julian Rowlands was interviewed to give a tango musician's perspective and David and I were interviewed to speak about the music from a dancer's point of view.
It was really interesting to talk about how we feel when we dance tango, how we interpret the music and how we improvise. There are not many programmes in the mainstream media that delve into the world and workings of traditional "tango salon" (or social tango dancing). It made a refreshing change!
We tried as much as possible to talk about the dance form as an improvised dance form, explaining that this is tango's most authentic form. For us this is one of the features that make the music so exciting to interpret. And it is one of the features of tango that many people are unaware of.
It is always a challenge to talk about dance without being able to demonstrate the movements. But the interview was expertly edited, overlaying the music so as to illustrate to the audience what we were trying to describe.
Here you can listen to us talking to Katie. We hope you find it interesting too!