“Sin miedo, amigos!”
August 13, 2003: There is a movie that I like called Sweet and Lowdown. In it Sean Penn plays a nutty character named Emmet Ray, who is a jazz guitarist in the '30s. Ray was so overwhelmed by the talent of the great guitarist from Europe, Django Rinehardt, that he would faint dead away whenever he came near him. It's a very funny movie, and I instantly identified with Ray because he liked to drink a lot and take his dates to the railroad yard to watch freight trains.
Famous people don't normally have much affect on me one way or another, but I was very excited about my first encounter with Tete. He's by far the most interesting person in tango. Everybody knows him, everyone watches him, and everyone seems to have an opinion. Like the old compadritos, he lives on the edge of the edge. He is at the fringe of the tango world of Buenos Aires... which in a funny way puts him right at its center. Like a child, he does only what he wants to do and nothing else—which of course bothers some people. His technique is sometimes less than perfect, with twitches, kicks, and hip wiggles that traditional milongueros don’t like at all (and which also probably makes him a poor role model for tango students). I’m sure Tete knows this, but he doesn’t care- he doesn’t want to join the boys club of the milongueros, or play by their rules at all. When they say he's a dancer of rock, it’s not meant as a compliment. But, apparently it’s true. During the dormant years of tango he became a champion rock and roll dancer—whatever that means. What it means to me, though, is that when he returned to tango, he brought ways of feeling and moving to the music that the other milongueros can't match.
Alejandra says Tete is really a very nice man... but there are stories of workshop organizers trying to calm tearful women, mixed up schedules, and Michael Walker once told me there was a big problem at one of his events when Tete lost a suitcase with $8,000 in it. He had left it in the hallway and was planning to come back for it later, when it disappeared. The suitcase later turned up with all the money, but it reminded me of the last time Alejandra and I saw him. He rushed in and said a taxi driver had just driven off without giving him change from a $100 note. Tete knows more about the streets of BsAs than anyone alive. What could he have been thinking?
A friend once told me her husband gave up dancing after Tete whacked him on the back of the head during a class. I missed him in BsAs two years ago because he was in Europe, but this story must have been going through my mind when I finally made his class last year. I rushed in late, and by the time I got there I was already sweating. Like Emmet Ray in the movie, the mere proximity of such prodigious talent was enough to disrupt my internal wiring. Something about finally actually being live with Tete after studying him on video for so long just floored me. Maybe I was afraid he was going to hit me on the head or yell at me, but after a few minutes I was sweating so much that I could hardly concentrate. I think Tete was afraid I was going to have a heart attack or something, because he kept asking me if I needed to go outside for some air or a cigarette (right).
Toward the end of the class he had the women line up and select the men, and of course none of the women wanted to dance with me because I was so sweaty. They probably thought I was going through heroin withdrawal, and they didn't want anything to do with me. He was actually very nice though, telling me to relax, and kidding around and calling me “maestro”. Finally, at the low point when we were all sweating, and tied up in knots from trying to do some impossible Tete thing, he stopped us and said, in effect, forget about it. Then he yelled, “Biaggi! We play!” He put on the music, and shouted, “Sin miedo, amigos!”—“Without fear!” And away we went. Everybody began dancing around like crazy.
Later I took Alejandra to a couple of his classes, and because she is a friend of his, and one of only a handful of women he dances with regularly, I got to know him a little. I find his classes so difficult and so advanced that it's almost impossible for me to learn in them. For me, just watching him dance, and taking my time studying his film is enough. I suppose I would say that I measure my slow maturing in tango in terms of him. My first phase was being inspired by Tete in the first place—by being shown that there is a higher level of music and movement to aspire to than the steps I had seen in other videos and classes. For the first time I saw tango as something serious and deep. The second stage for me was the harsh realization, after about 2 years of trying, that I could never dance like Tete. It was hard to accept that a little old man who looks like the guy with the beer belly who might come by to fix your water heater had physical skills that I couldn't begin to approach. I thought he was the only real tango dancer, and I felt I would never dance tango until I could do what he does. Now I have reached a third, and I hope more mature stage. I have finally come to realize that I don't have to dance like Tete.
Tete is an instinctive being whose oversized talent seems to have displaced some of the more normal personality traits. Since I'm referring to movies I might as well throw in Cobb, a film about the brilliant and violent baseball player, and Pollock, about the tortured painter. I see them, like Tete, and even the fictional Emmet Ray, as a different class of human being. These are people whose obsessions seem to have placed them somewhere beyond the limits, unblocked by the normal goals and constraints of society. In that sense, what they do isn't so much about ego, because deep down they don't really care what an audience thinks—or probably if one even exists. Put them alone on a desert island, and Cobb would still be running at palm trees with his spikes up, Pollock would find colors to splash, and Tete would be doing some strange dance to his own internal music.
Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) I don't really know the man—but I probably know his dancing as well as anyone. I have bought, begged, or shot every inch of video I could acquire, and I watch them all the time. The best known are the two Trenner instructional videos—but they aren't the best, and Tete doesn't like them at all. They are sometimes confusing, and it takes work to get much out of them—but they contain pure gold if you look hard. Some of the dancing in them is not his best either, but even an occasionally uninspired Tete, is still in a different universe than most other milongueros, and every so often he loosens up. I am, however, the lucky owner of two bits of film that really stand out. One shows a younger Tete dancing at a large workshop somewhere in the U.S. It is less than a full dance, only about 2 minutes, and I don't even know who his partner is (but she is good). Tete sails around the floor of the college gym with the grace of Joe DiMaggio, or of Michael Jordan, practicing his art with no apparent effort. There are worlds of knowledge in every step he takes, and a large part of what I have learned in tango comes from this 2 minutes of film. He's in a practica, and there are about 20 students in the background. They are practicing ochos and ganchos, or sitting and looking at class schedules. 100 years from now he is the tango dancer that everyone will remember… but no one watches. No one pays attention. They continue to memorize their steps—they don’t even look up.
The other bit of video I have is transcendent. An older Tete is with Sylvia before an audience somewhere in Europe. The music is the intense and complex Pugliese version of Gallo Ciego (not to be confused with the easy one by Tanturi), and he spends the first minute of the performance stalking the floor nervously, with the body control only he has... as if hunting for inspiration. Then, after about a minute, he finds it. During the very, very difficult middle part of the Pugliese piece, Tete seems to actually become the music. It's the only way I can describe two minutes of tango that go beyond anything either Alejandra or I have ever seen. We've had the tape for about a month, and each time we see it, we sit quietly when it's over. The last time we watched it was late at night after coming in from a milonga, and again, we just sat for a moment. Finally, Alejandra, who is not prone to overstatement, said, “It's too much...it's just too much to watch.”
I talked about the start, and the middle, but I didn't talk about the very end. You have to remember this is Tete. After performing the most brilliant two minutes of tango I have ever seen, he loses interest. He starts fooling around, and throws the rest away.
Chau! Hasta luego! We're flying north tonight, so that's it for the reports. There won't be much time to write when we get home, but that's probably good. I've monopolized things more than anyone in the history of tango L lately, and I would like to thank the list members for putting up with my daily spewing forth of almost every thought that's passed through my mind over the last two months. And I would especially like to again thank all of the people who took the time to send nice personal messages.
If I have time later I'll try to clean up the reports and put them on the Tango and Chaos website. I'll put a note on the list when I do it, so if anyone wants to look for information on some of the milongas I've talked about, it will be there.
Alejandra Todaro y Rick McGarrey
I found out about Pedro "Tete" Rusconi on your site, and enjoyed watching videos of him dancing. Seeing him in person in Austin Texas was a remarkable experience. A man of his age and built moving as he does (as if his feet are not touching the ground) had us all stand in silent admiration as if we were afraid to move, lest we destroy the magic lingering in the air after the master had taken his last step. Now I KNOW how I want to dance Tango. This is what I had been looking for.
Thank you again for your dissection of Tango, everything you say is spot on, Tete confirmed it in his teaching and dancing with Silvia Ceriani. Because of the information that you are making available, I was able to see what was going on, and get the value of what he was talking about. Anyone who can, should try and see/experience any of these "old" masters while they are still around. Thank you for sharing your passion,