Notes on the Milonga: An essay in improvisational dance

The following is a poem or poems that my friend Carolyn and I wrote late last week. Carolyn’s contribution is in black, mine is in teal. The theme nestled, three-fold, is the following: how will women live today, how will men do so, and how will they (we) live radiantly together? You know that our inherited understandings of men and women are leaving us breathless. We know that something more is called for.

The Milonga–about which I know precious little–offers us a clue into how we might answer the question, since the Milonga is an art of everyday improvisation. Each partner learns, and learns well, a very small set of steps and moves. The rest they make up on the fly. Dancing quite closely, the couple, firm but flowing, must act in concert with each other, he responding to her steps, she attentive to his, each moving mindfully yet gracefully in step with the other. To give you a feel for the dance, I’ve included a short YouTube video of the Milonga at the bottom of the post. You may wish to view it while reading the poem or poems.

How might we read the poem or poems? In the first place, it (or they) has something of the air of a “form poem,” a poem in which the visual representation is supposed to mirror the content. My words, just insofar as they are close to hers, attentive to hers, following hers, mean to look and feel as dancerly as I am capable. I wrote my poem after she wrote hers, in hopes of following her lead. You judge my performance, yes?

In the second place, the poem or poems seem to give us a glimpse of love in time, of love’s embodiment in delicate, buoyant, easy movement, love not least during a time in which the rules on relationships have stopped working, having been chucked to the wind. Without a rulebook in hand, we go on.

In the third place, the poem or poems open up to quite a range of interesting interpretations. This is to say that the poem or poems below can be read in any number of ways, all in the spirit of Milonga improvisation. Here but a few approaches:

1. Side by side. First: His an invitation. / She takes it / unrehearsed. Second: Yes? / Yes, she says. / Then.

2. Left to Right. His an invitation. Yes? / She takes it Yes, she says. / unrehearsed. Then.

3. Call and Response. Call: His an invitation. Response: Yes? / Call: She takes it. Response: Yes, she says.

4. Rambling. His an invitation / Yes, she says. / unrehearsed / Then, his hand. / not forceful / on her rib. Her feet mark a flourish…

I circle back, coming back to the beginning, returning once more to the movement, to the theme. The substantive point urged by the poem or poems, by the he-she-we, by the firm holds and soft feet, is that our models of masculinity and femininity are not working, are breaking down. Most people have and will continue to cling to these outmoded models. The result will be strife, as social reality fails to match the concepts they’ve inherited.

In contradistinction, the brave few–you see I am delaying the dance in my preamble before the amble or rather I am dancing the dance, word by word–will take our cues from improvisation: especially from a dance like Milonga that requires attention, attending to the other, soft focus, discipline and litheness, supreme responsiveness. What holds us close to each other, keeps us committed, is the  idea of dancing, this style of the dance. What keeps us together is how we keep moving, keep responding to each other’s steps, in time with the music.

Here, as promised, the flourish. For lovers of the Milonga, the going won’t always be easy, but the going may also prove graceful, perhaps will be proved by its gracefulness. And truly, for those who insist on following dead patterns, the going will be, as it has been, a disaster.

Notes on a Milonga
His an invitation.  Yes?
She takes it  Yes, she says.
unrehearsed.  Then.
He’s sure and direct  Then, his hand
not forceful.  firm
She’s ready  on her rib.
at the right tempo  Her feet mark
a flourish here and there.  & awake!
5 steps  He a moving tree,
an opening.  & she a wonder.
He waits.  Breathing
She waits.  expressed,
Then enters.  breathing
The Milonga.  the Milonga.

2 thoughts on “Notes on the Milonga: An essay in improvisational dance

  1. I love this idea of writing as a duo. Dance is a lovely way to envisage life generally I think. I used to dance the Argentinian Tango and I was taken by the wonderful mix of genuinely clear and yet subtle expression, heartfelt leadership and play. At the heart of the dance is the music though, and so I’m curious how this translates in the writing experience – that is, what is the common chord that you are both responding to in concert with one another? You might also like this video of one of the masters of the milonga, ‘El Flaco’:

    1. Dear James (if I may),

      Thanks for writing this kind and thoughtful note. I’ve known Carolyn now for some time now. I wonder whether the “common chord” isn’t–in this kind of case–an attunement to the sound of her voice. But saying that isn’t quite right, though it is a start. I’ve learned to hear the changes in Carolyns’ voice, in her expressions, in her pauses, in her styles and moods.

      Carolyn wrote her poem first and then shared it with me. In lieu of writing a commentary, I wrote her a reply. As I wrote, it was as if I were she were inviting me, musically, to attend to the moves in her voice. The result: moving in step (we hope) with our musical voices.



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