February 8, 2006

Prof Takes On the Tango

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Last night, the Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium got a little romantic. The lights were turned down, couples danced, and Prof. Robert Farris Thompson, African-American art history, Yale, gave a lecture based on his new book Tango: The Art History of Love. A Findley Distinguished Lecturer, Thompson educated the crowd about the many influences that compose the dance currently being celebrated during Ithaca’s Tango Week.

A major emphasis of the lecture was the often overlooked African contributions to modern tango. Although most people think of tango as having mainly Spanish and Latin American influences, Thompson said that the connection between tango and African dance is stronger than, “a survival, or a carryover. You need a coaxial cable to connect the two.”

But tango consists of more than just African style. Many steps come from Moorish influences and its embrace is taken from Polish polka. In effect, “she is white; she is black; she is the tango,” Thompson said.

He traced a certain hand-curl from African dance to 1920s dance and to a motion made by a Cornell undergraduate earlier in the day and explained the significance.

“Gesture is forever because it is culture, culture is forever,” he said. In tango, each motion signifies something. A crossing of the legs means “bring it on,” while “you raise your hand to receive the weight of God’s word,” Thompson said.

But not every part of the presentation was analysis. Thompson serenaded his audience to explain the different inflections in flamenco music and placed particular emphasis on “let[ting] the music roll over you.” He described the tango ideal where musicians, “aren’t just playing, they’re being danced.”

His presentation was followed by a demonstration by the famous tango dancers Kely and Facundo Posadas. Galen D’Amato ’06, a tango dancer herself, described the performance as “amazing.” The speed was really impressive,” he said.

Thompson covered rap dating to “before Kanye West’s and 50 Cent’s granddaddy’s were born.” But not everything in the lecture was about the past. Thompson explained that the reggaeton beats of Daddy Yankee are a sped up habanera rhythm, the same base used in the opera Carmen.

Dan Carroll ’07 enjoyed the lecture.

“[Thompson] was so knowledgeable about every aspect,” he said.

Sara Tan ’07 agreed, adding, “I thought it was great – his passion and the way he talked – he wasn’t a typical lecturer.”

Archived article by Laura Rice
Sun Staff Writer