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Many paths.

One way.

There is the path of tango, the way of moving.

Then there is the path of Chinese calligraphy, shūfă, “the way of writing.” It's exactly the same thing, and some lovely samples of it are on view now at the Asian Art Museum in a exhibit called “Out of Character.”

Imagine what would happen if tangueros dipped their feet in ink, and that's it. Every adjective we use to describe tango is exactly right for describing this calligraphy, so just insert all your favourites here. And all that stuff I say about technique and freedom and owning your dance, that's all right there too. And all that sorting-out-the-universe stuff we do when we dance is exactly what the actual words of those poems address. Mis amigos! I love your dance! And I love that I can look at a four-hundred-year-old calligraphy scroll and it looks as fresh, immediate, and human as if the ink were still wet. It's also a lot more exciting than any “modern art.” —As evidenced by the latter part of this exhibit, where the salon tangueros give way to the nuevo tangueros and instead of these breathtaking, hard-punching barings of the soul right on the wall, there's all this abstract modern-arty non-calligraphy mess. And it loses almost everything, just as a lot of nuevo does.

There's only so much I could see, with my impatient kid, but one concept in particular arrested me: that of the yayi. An information obelisk told me that calligraphers were generally the “intellectual elite” and they'd hold regular social gatherings, called yayi, in which they all calligraphed together. Sounds exactly like a milonga. I was dying to know what a milonga would look like on paper. Fortunately the exhibit has one example of one of these collaborative yayi efforts. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. Each milonguero has mastered his dance, each is fully free and expressive and himself, each dance is beautiful on its own, and yet they're all dancing on the same paper, and together, the dances become a sublime whole.