< Tango Mugre >
In 2004, I saw the late great Carlos Gavito perform in Buenos Aires. I still cannot forget the emotion…
In 2004, I saw the late great Carlos Gavito perform in Buenos Aires. I still cannot forget the emotion I felt. At that time he was so weakened by illness and surgery that he needed assistance just to walk. There was no trace of the poise and elegance he once displayed as the star of Forever Tango. Perhaps he was able to perform because he danced the Apilado style, where he and his partner leaned on each other for support. Despite his frail physical condition, his dance deeply moved me.
Actually his performance was remarkably simple. There really wasn’t much to it. He embraced his partner, took a few steps, paused in his signature inverted-V pose, let a few bars of music flow by, ochoed a couple times, and paused once more… That was all.
But he was pouring his entire life into the dance. It felt as though all the life he had experienced was flowing from his body and saturating the hall that we were in. I couldn’t help but start crying. I was spellbound, dumbfounded as tears streamed down my face. The energy Gavito projected was immense and incredible. Unfortunately, we lost him a year later when he passed away.
When I visited Buenos Aires again in 2008, I had the fortune to hear Alberto Podestá sing. By then he was already more than 80 years old, and his best singing days were behind him. His voice had aged, making it difficult to hit the high notes, and he struggled to keep up with the guitar accompaniment. Yet, his singing deeply moved me, and I cried again. I thought to myself, “His energy is truly remarkable!” I could not put into words why I was so deeply affected. I could only attribute it to this vague notion of “energy”. A few years later, Podestá passed away too.
How did these two old masters move me to tears? What exactly was the “energy” they possessed? Saying their energy was “great” is too simple an explanation. It took me a long time to understand what this indescribable quality was.
There is a sentiment unique to us Koreans called “han.” In other countries it may be understood as anger, resentment, or revenge, but they are not the same (a similar word “恨” also exists in the Chinese language but it carries different nuances). “Han” is the quintessential Korean sentiment of sorrow. Throughout history, we have faced frequent invasions by more powerful neighbors, which has instilled a collective sense of insecurity and inferiority in our consciousness. Because of the pervasive influence of Confucian class mentality, and the continual exploitation by the noble class, the underprivileged in our country had led a hard and arduous life. Surely these kinds of harsh conditions exist in other places too. So what is unique about our “han,” this Korean sense of sorrow? How did “han”come about in our culture?
The difference lies in the distinct ways our people seeked to handle and overcome anger, resentment, and frustration. Instead of resigning ourselves to despair, or resorting to vengeful violence, we tried to sublimate our “han.” We channeled and expressed this emotion through folk songs, “pansori” (a Korean genre of musical storytelling), religion, humor, and comedy. Therefore, “han” encompasses not only the predicament of a difficult life but also the determination and resilience to overcome it.
On the other hand, in tango, there is “mugre.” When I first heard the word “mugre” I had no idea what it meant. Literally, “mugre” translates to “dirt.” It indicates something filthy and grimy. So, are we talking about dirty tango, like the movie Dirty Dancing? The word “dirty” initially evoked a sexual and inappropriate image, but after watching the movie, I realized it could have a different meaning. The same applies to “mugre” in tango. Just as it is difficult to explain the sentiment of “han” to foreigners, the concept of “mugre” is also difficult for us non-natives to understand. If I were to put it into words, it would be something like this:
“The unwavering determination to overcome and emerge from adversities and challenges“
Doesn’t this sound familiar? When I first visited Argentina I immediately felt a sense of familiarity and closeness to their culture. This is why. They have something similar to our “han”; it is their “mugre.”
Tango originated among the immigrants and lower class of Buenos Aires. Living on the fringes of society, they endured difficult and arduous lives. It was only natural for them to possess a sense of sorrow similar to “han,” and they happened to express and release their sorrow through tango. Their will to survive became the defining characteristic of this dance. Despite the tremendous popularity tango achieved in Europe and its subsequent return to Argentina as an enjoyment of the upper class, the essence of tango, rooted in the determination to survive, remained unchanged.
Shortly after the pandemic, when I visited the milongas in Buenos Aires again, I heard the word “mugre” frequently from the old milongueros. “That person doesn’t have mugre,” “that dance has mugre,” they would say. In their eyes the presence or absence of “mugre” makes all the difference.
Tango is inherently challenging. Two souls coming together and making an instant connection? Two bodies miraculously moving together in unison? Inevitably it will not work right away. It is only natural for the dance to be clumsy and choppy. However, what can make this situation beautiful is “mugre.” Tango is the determination and effort to connect with strangers despite the immense inherent difficulties to do so. That is why perfect tango is impossible. On the contrary, tango should be imperfect. The more imperfect and error-prone the dance, the more “mugre” there will be.
Lately, it seems the trend in tango is to strive for perfection. Once I saw a Russian couple dance an incredibly beautiful and flawless escenario performance. Their movements were elegant and breadth-taking, and their emotional expression was rich and powerful. But the Argentinian milongueros turned their heads and avoided watching, as if saying that that was not tango. Why? Because to them it was so perfect. There is no “mugre” in perfection, and without “mugre” there is no tango.
So, how can we dance tango with “mugre?” “Mugre” is the grit and determination to confront and triumph over challenges in the midst of difficulties, messiness, and chaos. To have “mugre” we must allow ourselves to make mistakes and errors first. In essence tango is improvised, and improvisation begets unpredictability and errors. Rather than masking our mistakes with a facade of perfection, we should allow the imperfections to reveal themselves. We must accept that the improvised dance between us and our partners is inherently unpredictable and never safe.
I finally understood why the performances of Gavito and Podestá moved me so deeply. Their performances were far from perfect, yet their unwavering commitment propelled them to give their all. Within them existed a profound abundance of “mugre” and tango. While perfection can be impressive, what truly moves us is “mugre.”