July 30, 2003: I posted the two following sentences before, but it doesn't hurt to repeat them: Celia Blanco is one of those blunt, tough talking, sweet, hard working women that I find irresistible. But how could you not love a woman who has publicly called many of the well-known performers and instructors who tour in the U.S. “A bunch of clowns”? She is a chain-smoking teacher of classical dance, whose look is, how should I say it, not the lean athletic look of the classical ballet dancer. But she has an electric kind of energy. You immediately sense that you are in the presence of someone formidable.
I will digress: My Spanish sucks. I speak at about the level of a five-year-old Mexican boy from Sonora On my first couple of trips down here, my ability to dance tango would always tank. I'd get a bad case of rookie's nerves, and it would take me a week or so to relax and catch my stride. This is no longer much of a problem with dancing, but as far as the language, whatever small factory in my brain that thinks and speaks in castellano, closes its doors as soon as I arrive. I find myself looking blankly at people who are saying things I understand completely, but it seems to be coming out as gibberish. They could be speaking English and I wouldn't understand. It's situational. I can speak in castellano all day with Alejandra, and not even know I'm doing it, but a taxi or bus driver will say something to me, and it sounds like "mmvbfft sovvla". So you would think a formidable personality like Celia would cause permanent brain lock. But just the opposite. I was able to converse quite well in castellano with her.
Celia's tango credentials are impressive. She has a degree as a profesora de danzas clasicas y folkloricas, and she used to dance with both Pepito Avellaneda and Antonio Todaro. She's a well known choreographer of tango for the theater, (including a production of Forever Tango), and she has been teaching tango for a long time—20 years ago she partnered with Eduardo Arquimbau to teach when his wife was having a child. She is very highly regarded in Buenos Aires, but she's not known in the U.S. because she has never taught there (although she does teach in Europe). She is also the “Maestra de Tango” in Teatro San Martin. This is the big theater on Corrientes Street, and it's also the cultural center of Argentina for theater, folklorico, contemporary dance, music, and tango (Teatro Colon is the center for ballet, opera, and concerts). It takes up almost a city block, and the back part of the building is a huge place with many floors and rehearsal halls. FM tango radio station is on the 9th floor of this building. Alejandra and I were allowed to attend one of the classes she gives there for serious students of performance tango, but first I want to write about a class she gave at her club, that was for social dancers.
The first thing that surprised me about her is that she uses the eight-count basic to teach tango! I'm not sure why I assumed this wasn't used much by good teachers. I suppose it is because I associate it with my first experience with tango classes.
My first instructor knew absolutely nothing about music or tango dancing, but he knew the eight-count basic, and he used it as the first step in a long, endless series of classes that consisted of memorizing patterns. He was a nice fellow, though, and he seemed to be able to keep students coming back, with a mix of good humor and lots of flattery. And he had a subtle way of discouraging people from attending any other type of tango related activities—which tended to keep everyone clueless and isolated in his personal tango world. But you really didn't have to go anywhere else, because he and his wife ran a full service operation. They entertained the students with a lot of performances, and he held his own unusual versions of practicas and “milongas”, often held in spacious, empty rooms. I guess his students enjoyed it, because many stayed with him for quite some time. You left each class with a sense of real progress, because after each one you had learned a couple of new and complex ways of dancing tango. Sadly, there was no instruction on posture, musical connection, or walking. And you weren't really leading anything, because all of the followers had memorized their parts as well. He would teach the men on one side of the room, and his wife would teach the mirror image to the women on the other. The only technical detail that was ever taught in the class was an absolute rule enforced by his wife: she hated any type of bodily contact, and the leader's right hand must be positioned exactly on the woman's left shoulder blade, with the tip of the middle finger one inch from the middle of the back. Exactly one inch. Violate this rule, and you would hear about it fast. It took me a while to figure out that this was not far and away the most important rule in Argentine tango.
I remember once when I got a little more advanced, trying to change direction in the course of one of the patterns they were teaching. I was doing the steps with his wife, when someone got in the way and I tried to lead her in another, unexpected direction. She made a big show of stumbling, and falling backwards, and lectured me very loudly for making a big mistake. I wasn't a complete fool though, and after that incident I began to suspect that something wasn't right. After about four months I ended up throwing everything out, and I began to try to learn tango from videos. Those early classes I took were marketed aggressively as “genuine Argentine tango”, and this fellow’s students are probably still marching around in those big rooms with tango music playing softly in the background like the soothing elevator music played in the day rooms of mental hospitals. Actually, they are both nice people, and all of his students love the praise he lavishes on them, but today I approach every tango class and everyone who says they are a tango “instructor” with healthy skepticism. It was the road to tango hell, and to this day I am still a little angry about it (Does it show?).
Wow, that just came out of nowhere! I really feel better now, so let's take a deep breath, and continue. If this man's classes were like a “nice stroll in Palermo Park”, the classes Celia gives at her club are something else. I'm searching for an analogy. The words Iwo Jima, Normandy, and Bosnia come to mind. Maybe some place with land mines.
Celia's club, Lo de Celia's, is pretty much acknowledged as the place where much of the best dancing in the city takes place. She teaches classes both in Teatro San Martin, and also in her club, and the other night we went to her club and sat in on one. She's a great person, but don't mess with her. Although Alejandra says she has mellowed in recent years, a friend of Alejandra's, who was really more interested in meeting a man than dancing tango recently insisted on going to Celia's classes. Alejandra tried to discourage her without success. By the second class Celia was on to her, and told her to hit the road. The woman was furious.
Here is my experience watching one of Celia's classes: She and I have met before, and she greets us warmly, with a lot of interest in me, the gringo who is dancing with Alejandra. We sit in her club on the far side of the room because Celia smokes constantly. Much of the time she is seated, talking to two older milongueras who are friends of Alejandra's from the milongas, and who help Celia with the classes. The students dance, and the music is so good that it's all I can do to hold myself back from getting up and dancing. But I'm a little intimidated by Celia. She seems to be talking to her friends and smoking, but it's obvious she sees everything. I hear her bark out something and Alejandra laughs. “Did you forget how to count?” Celia yells. Most of the students are young, but a man about my age sneaks over behind her and sits. She pounces on him. “The class is for working. If you want to sit, go home, and don't come back.” He shakes his head and grins to himself, but after a minute he gets back on the floor. Apparently he's not that scared of her. Alejandra says she has actually seen Celia speaking on the phone, with her back apparently turned away from the class, and then suddenly turn and yell at a student who was making a mistake. Spooky. A minute later, someone else takes a hit. “What's the matter with you? Can't you hear the music?” she yells from her table. But no one seems very intimidated. They must be used to it. I should say here that her “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” reputation might be a little exaggerated. While people who have been stung by her sharp tongue sometimes dislike her (which is understandable), all of her employees really seem to love her, and the only milonguero I know who doesn’t like her is a man who is a bit tarambana. This is a word that describes a person who has a good heart, but is full of hot air- and of course Celia is not someone who would put up with his BS stories.
During the class she sometimes gets up to demonstrate or correct something, and she often leads the women. The milongueros say she is the best woman in BsAs at leading tango. Alejandra says Celia uses the eight count basic because it contains all the elements you need to walk tango. But the major part of her beginner classes, which I haven't seen yet, involves hand clapping and working with the cadences of the music. There are rumors that some of the older men around town who claim milonguero status (learning tango in the streets in the 1950's and all that) were actually taught to dance by Celia. But if they really did learn from Celia, it couldn't have been in the 1950s… unless she was giving lessons on the street corner outside of her kindergarten class.
Another friend of Alejandra's would have been a perfect student for my first tango instructor. She was a very nice, sincere woman, who had the most important thing you need for learning tango: She desperately wanted to learn it. But... she had absolutely no aptitude for tango. And worse, she knew it. My first tango instructor would have loved her. He would have taken her under his wing, showered her with praise and attention, and kept her happily in his tango dream world forever. This woman got it into her head that Celia was the only one who could teach her tango, and asked Alejandra to help her get into the class. After a week the verdict was in from Celia: “I am a tango teacher, not a miracle worker.” She was very nice to the woman, and the woman kept trying in the classes, but Celia didn't blow smoke up her tango dress. Celia respected her enough to gently say that she could keep coming, but the prospects for stardom were not good.
The first class we sat in on at the club was for social dancers. Then last week we went to one of her classes for students who want to perform on stage, and I expected her to be really rough on them—but she wasn't. We were in a large rehearsal room at Teatro San Martin, and I was hiding in the corner. I just wanted to watch, because I was actually pretty sick from coughing and not sleeping, and she knew it, but... “Amor! Amor! Vamos! Vamos a trabajar!” She was laughing, but she wouldn't start the class until I got up with the other 35 or 40 young students. She didn't smoke during the class, which must have been hard for her, and it shows how nice she really is, but she worked me over! I will never complain again about a lack of basic technique drills in tango classes. Back and forth we went, doing the hardest balance and step drills, frontward and backward across the big room, always to the beat of loud tango, Celia clapping if the class began to falter. I was feeling terrible, and soaked in sweat, but I actually loved it! It's easy to get a sort of ‘I'm a milonguero’ attitude that can be punctured pretty quickly in a place like this. The drills were similar to the ones Milena Plebs does in her classes, really a little more stage oriented, but any drill for balance and control is a good one.
She was relaxed and kidding around with the students in this class. Argentina is a country that takes the arts seriously, and Teatro San Martin is supported by the government, and it’s at the center of the action. Every year they put on a big show and competition between all the departments—drama, modern dance, music, etc., and it is Celia's mission to win it for tango every year. And she does. One of the students got a big laugh by asking if she was going to make everyone cry again this year in the intense preparation for the show, and she said, “Of course!” After the drills, she taught us a step, and I liked it. It actually was the bread and butter step Cacho Dante does, that ends with a boleo. I wonder if he learned it from her. I'm not good at boleos, but I learned a lot, and I really figured out how to do them, if the time ever comes. Maybe I'll start using them a little after I try it out. She came over and led me—and the milongueros are right. She is a great leader, and she laughed and applauded when I did a couple of boleos. She said that her goal as a teacher is to make her woman students better than she is, and that this has only clearly happened twice. One is a woman who is now a known performer in BsAs, Alejandra Arrue. I saw her and her husband Sergio at a performance in Nino Bien last year. She says the other one is a woman I spend a lot of time dancing with.
I said that I have a healthy skepticism about tango instructors. Buyer beware. And I have the same skepticism about ski instructors. They can mess you up. I know, because I used to be one. When I was learning to ski I went from one bad class to another, until one good instructor finally pointed me in the direction of a well-known racing coach named Olle Larson. I got to know him, we became friends, and I learned to ski mostly by going to races with him and his team, and skiing around socially with him between the races. Here is how he taught me. Every few days he would tell me to try one, small, simple thing. To do something very simple like thinking only about keeping shin pressure on the front of the boot at a certain part of the turn, or keeping a certain part of the body still. I would always say, "Yeah, but what about...” He'd say, don't worry about it. Then, maybe a week later, he'd tell me another small, simple thing. Over time, I became a good skier without even knowing it. The important point is that although he would tell me only one thing, he knew so much, and his eye was so good, that it was always the right thing. And then he would wait. When he saw I had it down, he would add something else.
This kind of sneaky teaching isn't common in tango. The first person I saw use it was Osvaldo Natucci, and his partner Eladia Cordoba at El Beso. Natu is a smart guy. He worked in Spain as an industrial engineer, and he is a serious student of the milongueros, and of tango technique. His classes seem very casual. Music plays, and you dance. Occasionally he will wander over and tell you to switch partners. Sometimes, but not often, he will demonstrate something. But you find that every class or two he corrects one small thing, hand position, a small thing about posture or stepping. And you start to improve. Normally he is very quiet, but sometimes something interesting happens. When he is inspired, he will suddenly go off on a wild monologue about tango, like a preacher who has seen the light. Sometimes it starts quietly, and people will begin to notice that he is sort of talking quietly, almost to himself. Then it gets louder, and people start to notice, and gather around. I have seen large rooms of people held breathless in rapt attention as he testifies in the Church of Tango for 10 or 15 minutes. He's very knowledgeable, and my Spanish is so bad that when he's on a roll like that, I don't get most of it. The few English speakers in the classes used to see me straining for the words, and offered to help by writing them down. I can still remember him yelling, “Tango es bajo y sucio! No es academia! No es academia!” Later Alejandra went to the classes with me and helped me understand what he was saying better, and Natu seemed very excited that she was coming to his classes.
When Natucci first started his milonga, “Un Monton de Tango”, about the only people sitting around the empty room were Natu and his partner Osvaldo Buglione, Gerard Gellé, and Alejandra. It later became one of the most popular milongas in BsAs, and Alejandra quit going when the tourists began to crowd in. I think Natu’s feeling were a little hurt, but everything is fine now, and Natu and I have become friends. We are on the same wavelength, and he's another one I seem to be able to have flowing, broad ranging discussions with in castellano. He's well educated, intense, and he seems to know everything there is to know about tango, its history, and the people in it. Especially the music.
Natu’s way of teaching, and I realized Celia's as well, was similar to that of my friend Olle, the ski coach. Teach the important basics, and then let people dance. They don't try to create clones of themselves, but every so often they come around and say one small important thing that will work for you… and maybe only for you. A smart experienced instructor with a good eye can work wonders this way. And the classes are so cheap right now in BA, that even if they don't say anything to you, it's still be worth it just for the dance floor and the music.
So we sit and watch Celia work her students. I notice one young guy, and I realize I'm starting to see tango like the Argentines. He's a bit awkward, like a puppy, with a funny way of rocking, and reaching out with his toes—but Celia doesn't say anything to him. As I look closer, I realize that he is really into the music. His cadences are very advanced, sharp quick stabs added during the giros and the walking. They seem unconscious, and I almost visualize them being pulled from the center of his chest. He's actually being jerked around like a puppet by the music! A natural talent. Sooner or later Celia will walk by and adjust one thing, and then later another, and then one day she will say, “Enough! Go out and dance.” And if he stays with it, he will be able to do whatever he wants in tango. He doesn't know it, but he's very lucky. But, I think to myself, what if that kid had started in those first tango classes I wandered into? He wouldn't have had a chance.
"It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood...”
August 2, 2003: A fantastic day in Buenos Aires! The cold and damp has lifted, and it's clear and warm. It feels like spring, and all of the cold damp pollution that has been hanging around the streets seems to have blown away. My movie has gone from black and white to Technicolor. I get off the subte (subway) at Tribunales and walk past the big old courthouse building, and past the confiteria on the corner where the lawyers hang out. Every town seems to have a courthouse square and a coffee shop for the lawyers, and BsAs is no exception. Then I head down the street behind Teatro Colon, one the world's great opera houses, and out onto the broad expanse of 9 de Julio. A glorious sight. There is no other way to put it. The Obelisco glowing in the sun, the wide avenue lined with stately old buildings. I walk south toward Congreso, soaking in the sights and sounds of the street. I have awakened from my long coughing winter's nap. There are people in cow suits and a mouse hopping around for the kids, and all sorts of jugglers running into the avenue to work for tips in front of the cars. I see a car rush by honking with a white cloth being held out of the window. I used to think this was some kind of celebration, until Alejandra told me this was what people did in an emergency to get to the hospital fast.
I'm headed to Parana street, just off Plaza Congreso to see Oscar, in search of some rare music. I'm looking for Anselmo Aieta, a name that I first encountered on the back wall at Club Sin Rumbo. But we can talk about that later. For now, the day is too nice to stay inside of Oscars cramped office. So I wander around Congreso, looking at the interesting buildings with their tall towers and clocks. There is even an ornate Dutch windmill on the Confiteria El Molino. I've thought about living in this part of town, but it has a few problems. Almost every political demonstration seems to end up either here or in Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada, so it can be an inconvenient and noisy place at times. But today it is beautiful. The tall Obelisco on 9 de Julio seems like it should be the center of the country, but actually the central survey point of Argentina is a monolith across from the old Teatro Liceo in the Plaza. Just like the tower in Plaza Cagancha in Montevideo, which is kilometer zero at the center of Uruguay, this block of white marble is the center of everything in Argentina. It is the point from which everything is measured. Kilometro Cero, a place to begin the journey to every other place. A “zero point”. I've been thinking about the “zero point” in tango lately as well. It is a point of perfect balance. The place to look for at the heel-to-heel position, the place where every single tango step must begin and end. And every dance as well. I'm convinced that finding posture and equilibrium at this point is the technical key to dancing tango. Late one night after the milonga at Club Español, and dinner and champagne at the Museum of Ham (no kidding!), I actually scrambled up to the top of the 7 ft. high monolito to try out my balance. I stood right on top in the exact middle of the column in Plaza Congreso at 1am. in the dark, dead center at the start and finish of Argentina, while Alejandra kept an eye out for the cops.
But now it's midday, and after my visit with Oscar I have two ways to head home from Congreso. One is my favorite way to travel, the old 'A' line subte with its wood paneled cars, and hanging lamps. The other is colectivo 12. I decide to catch bus 12 right in front of the Congreso building, and three doces show up at the same time. They seem to bunch up sometimes, and being a wily commuter, I jump on the last one to avoid the crowd. Riding home I keep thinking, “What a glorious day!” The sights are endless. I see lots of businessmen in their sharp suits, and beautiful women walking down the sidewalk. On one street a line of about 20 workmen stretch halfway down the block, walking slowly and hauling on a rope. They bend forward, walking in a line with the rope over their shoulders, grinning self-consciously. They seem to be aware of the primal nature of their task, although instead of pulling a barge on the Volga, they are probably pulling a quarter mile of fiber optics cable under the street. I feel so good I want to jump out and help them pull. Tonight Alejandra and I are headed out to the ornate Club Español, which may be the most beautiful place in BsAs for a milonga. It may be even nicer than La Ideal, and certainly the dancing is better. I just talked to my friend Olle the ski coach last night, and his summer racing camps are finished on Mt. Hood. He wants to get a place in Hood River to catch the last of the windsurfing season in the Gorge, and we are ready! What could be better than ripping on the river in September, with the best tango dancing in the USA just down the road in Portland? A large skinhead with a goatee and piercings is sitting next to me on the bus, and I notice he's making a funny movement with his finger in front of his chest. I look out the window, and see we are passing a Catholic church, and I realize he has just crossed himself.
I am constantly reminded that Argentina is a different country. We were in the electronics department of a large discount warehouse type of store down here, a cutting edge 21st century kind of place where everyone in the U.S. would immediately feel at home. I was talking to the young salesman about buying a notebook computer, when he apologized and said he was leaving. The other young man who was taking over came up, and they exchanged a hug and a kiss to signify the shift change at work. Argentines and Uruguayos are always walking up to each other on the street and asking questions, discussing things. In the U.S. I may go out on a day of running errands in public and remain in my own world, talking only to people in banks, stores, or offices that are necessary to take care of business. Without realizing it, I have walls up, avoiding physical, emotional, and even eye contact with strangers. There is a subconscious feeling that strangers are a bit annoying, intrusive, and possibly even dangerous. Take a walk around BsAs and these walls start to crumble. Someone will open the door to your private portable little shelter, and walk right in. They may walk up to ask for the time, or for directions, and then tell you what they are doing and where they have been. Someone in the car next to you will roll down the window and start talking to you. A pretty young woman may stop you on the street for something. Casually meet an attractive woman, either socially or professionally, and she may walk right over to give you a hug and a kiss. The walls come down in a very shocking and nice way. I learned that if you think of Argentina as a huge family, one that is more affectionate and expressive than many real families in the U.S., things begin to make sense. The young sales boys are not making a public gay statement. The young woman is not trying to proposition you. The guy in the car who just cut you off is not rolling down the window to shoot you. He is just another member of your family who wants to talk about something. They are all members of the Argentine family, acting in a way that is very natural for them. And if they really like you, watch out. On this trip I sat next to an older milonguero in Lo de Celia’s who I feel real affection for, and the fact that Alejandra and I had appeared unexpectedly from the U.S. was almost too much for him. For five minutes he kept looking at me and laughing, giving me hugs, and pinching my cheeks. I don't want to be a spokesman for the tourist bureau down here, but this experience alone makes it worth the price of the airfare.
What is their opinion of us Norte Americanos? The word “refrigerator” is sometimes used, meaning “cold”. I didn't think this was fair, until I thought about it. I tried to see myself through their eyes. I have several very good friends, that I have known for more than 20 years, and I am barely comfortable shaking their hands. I'm not just a refrigerator, I'm a freezer.
We have been back in the clubs and enjoying the dancing this week. Because we've been trying to avoid the smoke we go early to avoid the big crowds, and we've also been looking for places with larger rooms and higher ceilings. Last Saturday night we went to Circulo Trovador. This was our first night out at a genuine BsAs milonga for couple of weeks. Circulo Trovador is a relatively new milonga. While the big Saturday night crowds are at Sunderland in the suburbs, and at Celia's and Canning downtown, Circulo Trovador has become popular with couples who are looking primarily for a good place to dance with a little extra space. It's held in a very large room with a glass wall facing the street that makes it look like a large modern car dealership. The milonga location is new, but the rest of the club is very old, dating from the 1800s. I like it because the large room, plus another adjoining one, makes it possible to avoid the smoke. The music was excellent, and while there were a lot of people, there was also a lot of floor space and skilled navigation by most couples. It doesn't have the ambiance of the old clubs, but the floor is less crowded (a bit slippery- use water or resin on the shoes) and the air is reasonably healthy. By the way, Cacho's milonga in Avellaneda on Sunday night (the one I wrote about at Leales y Pampeanos with the picture of Carlos Gardel) has a non-smoking area separated from the main floor by clear plastic curtains, which has made it our favorite spot. It's part of the bar area, it's visible from the main floor, and it has good sound. It's close enough to the action to feel like part of the milonga, but the air is separate. The last time we went, 7 or 8 couples joined us dancing there, and several others came over to watch.
There may be signs of change. Last week there was a letter in La Nacion written by the most prominent cardio pulmonary specialist in the country saying that two-thirds of the Argentine population doesn't smoke, and that many of them are having respiratory problems from all the smoke in the air. He is calling for some restrictions on public smoking.
My cough has been so persistent that a friend brought some tea for me that contained a mix of manzanilla tea, anise, and also some coca leaves. My first experience with coca leaves was when we were in La Puna last year, the otherworldly valley in the Argentine Andes, in La Provincia de Salta, near Bolivia. The place reminds me of Northern Nevada where I grew up, but instead of being at an altitude of 5,000 feet, it's at an incredible 15,000 feet... and the mountains go up from there! The Indians that work there at the mines and salt flats chew big gobs of the leaves, along with a strange mix of ashes somehow molded together with eggs to look like small ashtrays made of pumice. They cram the leaves in, and take a small bite of the “ashtray” to go along with it, to help cut the power of the leaves. The green coca leaves are sold in large bags everywhere for a few pesos, and we made tea out of them to prevent altitude sickness. I also drank some of it before we went to a milonga nearby in Salta, and it will positively get you up dancin'. This was the strangest and funniest milonga I've ever been to, and it was so much fun we stayed over to hit it again the next Saturday night. I had a bag of the leaves left over when we flew back to the U.S., and I almost stuck them in my suitcase, until I came to my senses and gave them away.
Alejandra and I have been renting practice rooms, as well as dancing out. You can get them for about 5 pesos an hour, which is less than two dollars. They usually have nice wooden floors, mirrors, and a CD player for your music. Sometimes we just relax and have a private milonga, really enjoying the music, but my obsessive side also comes out, so we often end up working a lot on posture, equilibrium, and walking. For me tango walking is an almost impossibly difficult endeavor, and sometimes I work on it to the point where Alejandra gets tired and needs a break. She says she has danced for years with the best in BsAs, so sometimes she gets a little tired of a gringo telling her she doesn't know how to walk. But she does admit I have changed her style, and she thinks it is a better and more musical way to move—although a more difficult one. Our recent practicing prompted me to write a report on what I have learned about equilibrium and walking from all of my filming in the clubs, and watching tapes of the old time dancers, but after reading it through I'm not sure it's appropriate for the list.
There is always a lot of talk and interest by new people in tango about learning more steps. I'm very reluctant to pile on new steps, but we found something interesting in our practices. Without intentionally adding anything, we are doing new “steps” anyway. That is, we are stepping in new directions, to new cadences that we are apparently just absorbing from our time in all of the different clubs. One of the nice things about dancing down here is that while there are all levels of dancing, almost everyone stays in the compás, and everyone moves in a way that supports your own feel of the music. They step on the beat, and then let the heels brush with a 'tic', exactly on the half-beat. Step-tic-Step-tic-Step-tic. Everyone in the compás. There are rarely any couples on the floor dancing jarringly out of tune.
One of the difficult things at this stage of tango for me is to avoid falling into habits of repeating patterns, such as sometimes doing the same thing after a giro, or taking the same side step at a certain time. All of the different clubs and music seem to have rearranged and added things to our dancing. Even our giros are breaking apart. Sometimes we start a giro, block it, hesitate, back out, and start again. It's new and interesting... and for me it feels very musical. Start to wind up, unwind, and go again. It takes a good connection to do it, but we both feel like we are moving well together, and finding new cadences. Very comfortable. We seem to be feeling the music at a better level, and really just having a great time. It's very nice, like a gift that came without classes or without consciously working. We've both been in tango for quite awhile, but we're both enjoying it more than ever!
A Bad Boy
I like to watch him work. He slowly takes his turn around the ornate room, and as he dances by with the young girl from Brazil pressed close against his chest he gives us an impish grin. He looks like a happy child skipping school. I don't really know him, but I'm sure that he worked hard somewhere for 50 years, and now it's time for him to play. This slight rounding man, who I am fairly certain has not been fighting off women for most of his life, has, at the unlikely age of 75, become a ladies man. And a good one at that. He is always immaculately dressed, with a bottle of champagne chilling on the table, and every lady in the place knows she is invited to stop by for a complimentary glass. Beginning ladies from all countries are always welcome to take a tango lesson, and the rules of the milonga are always bent early in the afternoon to accommodate his gentle instruction on the un-crowded floor. His lessons seem a little heavy on the ganchos, and especially the deep sacadas, but the ladies never seem to mind. They get a badly needed tango class, and a glass of champagne, and he gets to have the time of his life. What could be better? The dance always ends with a nice compliment, and a kiss. A gentle man, and a gentleman. I am charmed. I have seen my future and it is not on the golf course.
“Ya' load sixteen tons and whatta' ya' get?
Another day older and deeper in debt!”
xxxxxxxxxxxxx-Tennessee Ernie Ford
August 3, 2003: Our cigarette smoke avoidance program involves a strategy of going very early to the milongas, and then leaving about half way through, when the air starts to get thick. It works well, and it gives us a different perspective on the whole scene, like going early to watch the circus set up. None of this “arrive fashionably late and kiss your way around the room” stuff for us. We are out there dancing while the janitor is still sweeping the floors and putting toilet paper in the bathrooms. We get to spend some quality time with the DJs and the organizers as well, because they are around and not very busy. We keep seeing Mario Orlando everywhere. He must be the busiest DJ in town because we see him at Nino Bien and Sunderland at night, and also at El Arranque, and Diego's milonga in La Ideal in the afternoons. And he may be at others. He's a good guy, and we've spent time talking to him this year before people arrive. He has a new clean look, with no goatee or ponytail, and he's lost weight. No more Star Trek geek- he looks good. The other day he got out and danced with us with a young lady friend of his before the show got going. His taste in music is not exactly like mine, but he does a good job. I noticed he uses Tie a Yellow Ribbon for his cortina at Sunderland , and he's using Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons at La Ideal. It's been about 25 years since I heard that one: “When ya' see me comin' better step aside! A lotta' men didn't and a lotta' men died!” It borders on the surrealistic watching dignified Porteños in coats and ties bopping their way back to the tables to this music in La Ideal. Desde el Alma followed immediately by Sixteen Tons.
Orlando is very popular because he plays what people like, and that's his job. Musical taste is very personal, and while Alejandra loves Daniel at Celia's, my favorite is Natucci at El Beso. His Monton de Tango milonga is very popular with all the heavy hitter milongueros, but in the past people have sometimes had trouble understanding his music. He may be an example of being too smart to be a DJ. He told me he has identified over 700 danceable tangos, and his project is to find, classify, and play even more of them for the public. It doesn't seem to me like they are all good for dancing, but he says they are, and to prove it he sometimes sticks them on at El Beso to see what will happen—and usually what happens is that he gets complaints.. But he has an ear and a way with cadences that really does allow him to dance to them. I have filmed him doing it, and I have learned more about cadence from him than anyone else. Here's what he does: He stands perfectly still on the floor, and waits. He says it's like waiting for a streetcar. Then, when he picks up his rhythm, he grabs on and goes for a ride. Then, he hops off and waits again. I have filmed him doing it, and once you understand it, it is fascinating and beautiful... but a lot of people think it's strange. Of course Natu couldn't care less what anyone thinks, and he hangs out with some very high level guys like Tete and Gerard, who understand and respect him. These guys often dance in series of 7, 9, 11, 13, and even more, quicks. This means hitting beats and half beats in a series. I had trouble understanding it for a long time, because it is usually buried within things that are linked together in complicated ways. But after Natu demonstrated it, and I filmed it, it began to make sense. Now I do it also, but I don't pretend to be in their league. I love to dance this way, though, with long quick runs when the music calls for it. It's this kind of dancing that caused my big crash at Sunderland (coming up). It opens up new worlds, and it will definitely get you noticed. The old dancers often ask about it, and even Michael Walker likes it and has asked a lot about it. It's very different from his style, but he has asked us several times to come and show it in his classes.
The Saturday night milonga at Sunderland is supposed to start at 10pm, but we arrived so early last night that the big basketball gymnasium was empty and cold. No one was there, although there was some music on the sound system. It was so early and weird that without thinking I asked a waiter if we could get out and dance. Here's what he said: “Of course you can! This is your house. When you are here you do what ever you want to do, dance, eat, drink, anything. This is your home.” I loved Sunderland from the moment I walked in three years ago. I had wanted to go ever since I saw it in the movie Tango, Baile Nuestro. Maybe I'm just comfortable around sports, but the old court and sports club in front are my kind of place.
We haven't had any big collisions while dancing on this trip—until last night. You won't believe this one. Alejandra and I were the only ones on the floor, and there were maybe 5 people in the whole place. We were flying around pretty reckless, and we smashed right into Orlando who was walking across the floor. Neither of us saw the other, or slowed down at all, and we hit more or less head on, with our extended arms smashing right into his chest. I have no idea how that could have happened, like two cars driving across the Bonneville salt flats, and somehow finding each other and colliding in the middle of nowhere. No one was hurt, but we were so shocked that the three of us just stood there and laughed.
I did a bit of filming, but I find I'm doing less. It seems like I have almost everything I want at this point. By the way, it should go without saying that you can't just walk into a place and start filming. You need to okay it with the organizers, and you need to be discreet. A few weeks ago at Sunderland there was a professional crew with several cameras, and a couple of times when they went right up to the edge of the floor and began filming everyone's feet I didn't like it very much. Sunderland is the best place to film though, because it is wide open and it has basketball stands against the walls. You can get up on them and focus in on whatever you want.
I try to be objective with the camera, not judging anything, just looking for anything interesting. I was filming away last night when a couple of strange creatures came into my viewfinder. I stopped filming, and climbed down from the seats to point them out to Alejandra. It turned out they were the couple who were going to perform that evening (we left before the show). Don't get me started on tango performers. Well, okay, maybe for just a minute. Here goes. A short rant. They were dressed all in black, and moving with the catlike grace that is drilled into all of them, but... I have never seen such ominous joyless looking expressions in my life. They looked like they were in pain, or maybe going out to make a hit on somebody. And they were so blocked that they could barely move to the music, creeping eerily along, hitting about every third beat. I know tango is serious… but it’s not that serious. They looked like those waltz or foxtrot people who compete on TV, except those people have a smile plastered on their faces, with the veins popping out of their foreheads. And, they are all trying to dance EXACTLY the same as each other. Don't get me wrong. Tango performers can be beautiful to watch , but it seems to me that most of them try to dance exactly the same as all the others. And I have to say, once most of them get away from choreography, their feel for and understanding of the music is not as good as mine is... and I'm a Norte Americano. After almost two months of a steady diet of down and dirty grooving in the clubs, a fully trained stage dancer looks like a pretty strange creature.
That's it. You can probably tell, I know absolutely nothing about show tango, and a lot less about ballroom competitions, but I thought I'd stick that on anyway, just to see if anyone's still reading these things.