“So tangos and letters collapsed into ‘paper tangos.’ Like letters in an Argentina scarred not only by censorship but by attrition of public services, tangos are coded messages between two people with the acute awareness that this message may—even probably will—be read by a third. Like tangos, then, letters are a repository of an intimacy difficult to express elsewhere, but paradoxically an intimacy that is expected to be mediated, if not violated.”
-Julie Taylor, Paper Tangos
Julie Taylor’s book, Paper Tangos, aims to give a glimpse of the Argentine tango, and details how, throughout Taylor’s time in Argentina, it came to describe her as much as she tried to describe it. Through the tango, she says, “I recuperated ways of knowing, ways of knowing art, ways of knowing violence, ways of knowing fear—ways of knowing them to be bound up together in a body to which I could lay a tentative claim” (20). As I read the book, I thought about how a dance could so perfectly be born out of and evoke a culture, and so impossibly encapsulate both the violence of revolution and the first spark of physical attraction in its very essence.
I began to think about my own physical heritage; my father, whom I have never met, is Argentinian. Is there some vestige of the spirit of the tango in me because I have Argentinian blood? Is culture entirely assumed, or perhaps in some way inherent? Julie Taylor was able to find her body again in a culture that was not her native one, and through the tango found herself assuming that culture. Paper Tangos made me wonder if our bodies have cultures that may or may not have to do with our native ones, and we each must seek our own ways of moving in the world in order to unlock them. Taylor writes, “Argentines channel their characteristic combination of inhibitions and introspection into a particular form of brooding that amounts to a national institution: el mufarse. The mood relates closely to the tango. Mufarse involves bitter introspection, but Argentines add to this emotion a clear sense of self-indulgence . . . It is a depression, but with a cynicism about the depression itself . . .” (4). The violence just under the surface, the flirtation with danger, are just part of what makes the tango Argentinian. Europeans, for their love of the tango, she says, “never got the violence quite right” (66). Taylor has to learn to flirt with violence, confront her own dealings with violence, and becomeArgentinian in order to dance the tango.
It is this teasing with violence in tango that causes Taylor to recall her body, slowly and painfully. Her corporeal being remembers the experience of being raped as a very young child, though she herself does not, and the tango’s ability to inhabit that thin space between passion and violence causes the memory to resurface and manifest as a disconnect and fear of giving control over to her physicality. As she says, “The problem wasn’t handing myself over to the man: It was handing myself over to my own body” (113).
The power dynamic between male and female, authority and submission, passion and violence, and ego and depression in tango become a metaphor for Argentina in the wake of the Dirty War, when people had to come to terms in some way with sudden kidnappings, censorship, and mass disappearances under a military dictatorship. So, too, Taylor comes to terms with her own self-inflicted oppression as she uses the tango to process emotions that her rational mind refuses to recognize. She remembers how to breathe into fear, violence, and intimacy, making them lose some of their menace, as she speaks of finally being able to recuperate ways of knowing her own body through the tango’s tightrope of contradictions.