What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

xxxAnd you may find yourself in another part of the world...
 xxxAnd you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile.
 xxxYou may ask yourself, well…how did I get here?”

-David Byrne, Talking Heads


Sonoran Desert, February 18, 2005: When you think about it, we are all traveling together through time. We live in the present moment, with our pasts spreading out behind us like the wake of a ship. We can look back and watch it slowly fade into the distance, until it disappears over the horizon... but the future is less clear. Every second of the day we move forward into a thick fog filled with countless paths and a million choices… and each path branches, and leads to a million more. Some choices are clear and easy, with predictable results—but others aren’t so obvious. And a few choices can lead to big changes. Choose school A instead of school B, or move to the East Coast instead of the West Coast, and you are selecting a path that will change you forever. Meet your alternate self five years later, and you may not even know each other. The East Coast Rick will have a different house, job, friends… even different thoughts, than the West Coast Rick. In fact, you will be different people.

So you sign a tuition check, or you decide to take a part time job, and you enter a new world. A life opens, and another is thrown away. Sometimes it’s done with a bit of planning, sometimes on a whim, and sometimes (the scary and exciting part), we don’t even see it coming. Every time I walk by the funky old Greyhound bus station in Tucson, I think about the author, Carlos Castenada. I look in at the shabby plastic chairs and think of him sitting there 40 years ago, waiting for his bus. Next thing, he happens to strike up a conversation with the little Yaqui Indian sitting next to him… and he's gone. Instead of catching the bus to begin a sedate professorship, he's off on his famous odyssey of adventure and mind altering drugs in the mountains of Mexico. He never knew what hit him.

In the spring of 1998 I found myself with some extra time on my hands. The sweet girl I had been spending my days and nights with for several years had moved on to other things. Or maybe I had moved on. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but suddenly my nights and weekends were free. Then one day I noticed a story in the newspaper. A reporter had taken classes at some different dance studios town, and written an article about it. At the end of the article, it said, why don’t you give it a try?  It listed the places, and explained that they all offered packages of introductory dance lessons for about $20. So I picked up the phone and signed up at a couple of different places near my house.  My reasoning was fourfold: 1) I can meet women. 2) Learning to dance will give me something to do in clubs besides sitting on a barstool, and talking like a damn fool. 3) It will be exercise, and 4) ...I can meet women.

So I began to make the rounds of the studios… and my nights were no longer free. And I quickly found out several things. First of all, these dance places I had been driving past for years were indeed full of beautiful women. Why hadn’t I figured that out twenty years ago? Second, the studios were very competitive. They didn’t like it at all if they found out you were taking classes at another studio. It was actually kind of funny to listen to them diss each other, and come up with reasons why it would ruin your dancing to go down the street to the “Arizona Ballroom”, instead of staying with them exclusively at the “Desert Terrace”.

After awhile, I began to get the picture.  In the beginning I thought they were like trade schools where you would learn a skill (say, dancing waltz or foxtrot) and then go out in the world and practice it.  But it really wasn’t like that.  They wanted to teach you all sorts of dances, and then have you stay with them, and practice them forever.  They had a full schedule of private classes, group classes, practices, evening dances, and these exhibitions that everyone prepared for.  There were endless levels, and you were awarded small trophies for performing.  Every so often, the studios would declare a truce and come together to hold conferences for everyone to perform and compete.  I saw funny and sad things.  Lonely old ladies searching for attention and spending a lot of money, practicing along side large construction guys sweating and trembling, trying to learn to dance to country-western music.  There were dignified professional men who were god-like figures in their hospitals and courtrooms, stumbling stiffly around, trying not to look silly.  (Here’s a hint: you cannot dance with a stick up your butt). The beautiful women instructors worked the customers, and the small gay men instructors pranced.  It was quite a show—and it was fun.  But I really wasn’t getting anywhere.  In the end, I learned that I looked like a doof trying to wiggle my hips and dance the Cha-Cha or Rumba or whatever, and that there is probably no club anywhere in town, at least that I’ve ever seen, where you can actually dance like that without getting hit.  Or maybe hit on by another guy.  

But just when I was about to quit...  I was walking out of my last class one evening, when I noticed a group of people in a separate part of the room. So I walked over to listen for a moment. The guy said, “This is Argentine tango, it’s not the ballroom tango you learn in the regular classes.  We’re not with the studio, this is a community college course, and it’s different.”  I checked my watch, and almost walked on. But then I made eye contact with a beautiful girl in the group who was almost twenty years younger. I decided to listen a bit more. The next thing I knew, the girl and I were hanging out and practicing tango together. After about six months we split up, but at that point I didn’t care. It wasn’t really the dancing that grabbed me. The man who gave the course actually turned out to be one of the worst instructors in the history of tango, but for some reason the music pulled me in. Music has never been a big part of my life—more or less just something in the background. But for some reason this strange hundred-year-old music reached up from the bottom of the world and took over my life. And I’ve been living with its cadences, and its poetic lyrics ever since. 

There should be a sign: “Caution. Stop! Think! The next few moments of your life will change everything!”  But of course the signs aren’t there, and you take your chances. You drive home on 5th street and nothing at all happens, or you decide to take Broadway—and you may find death waiting. You notice an article in the paper about dance lessons, you stop for a second and make eye contact with someone, and then find yourself on the other side of the world with a new life and a new family.  Born again in Argentina.  What are the odds? 

If You Can't See It, You Can't Dance It.

“It took several years to get past being fascinated with the steps, which were my first draw to the dance. The dancers who were doing less footwork were uninteresting to me and I just didn't see them. Then, years of advice from the milongueros to feel the dance, not just learn steps, began to take effect. I started to notice the dancers for how they stood, embraced and felt the music. It isn't like I didn't know about these things before, I just didn't see them… even though they were right in front of me.”

-Daniel Trenner

Tucson, February 20, 2005 - I’ve come a long way in tango.  In the beginning, I took hundreds of classes and workshops, and bought a ton of videos.  Later, I began to spend a lot of time in the milongas in Buenos Aires.  But tango is very slippery, and the big questions I had when I first started remained:  Exactly what is good tango?  And how the hell do you do it?  What should I practice?   How do I even know if I’m getting better?   Maybe, I thought, if tango is infinitely perfectible, then no one ever really figures it out.  Or, then again, maybe no one ever figures it out… but no one is ever really lost either.  Wow, heavy!  But as time passed, I began to realize that the first step toward dancing well is to be able to identify what’s good and what isn’t.  Without exception, the best dancers recognize other good dancers instantly.      

So, I got busy.  Over the last four years Alejandra and I have spent about a zillion hours dancing and filming in every corner of Buenos Aires.  The result, at this point, (besides having a lot of fun and meeting people) is about thirty hours of digital film.  It may not sound like a lot—but I think it’s pretty good film.  We’ve captured more than 100 of the best dancers in BsAs in their natural environment.  These are not the performers and well known teachers, most of whom are already on film.  These are the hard-core milongueros and tango addicts who have been in the clubs forever—some for more than sixty years!  We look for three types of dancers.  First, of course, we film the milongueros and the milongueras.  Milonguero and milonguera are terms that are commonly used in the clubs to describe the older men and women who learned to dance in the streets and in the milongas in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and who have been at it for a very, very long time.  I used to hear that there were about 15 or 20 of them still alive.  Then, after some time in BsAs, I realized there were about 30or 40 of them.  Now, after spending more time, and looking in the suburbs, I know that there are at least 100 of them who are still dancing tango.  And, we hope, quite a few more. 

We’ve also filmed a few of the best younger dancers, (younger here, means under sixty).  They aren’t milongueros, and some may have even begun in classes, but if Alej and I think they’re good, we film them.  These people are sometimes referred to as “bailarines de confiteria”, which means, more or less, ‘café dancers’.  The final category worth filming for us could best be described as “different”.  This small group includes people who do something so unique and idiosyncratic, that they are elevated above the crowd.  After all, one of the definitions of good tango is to find your own way; your own music.

Why is it important to film the best social dancers important?  Well, because this is the core of tango.  It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating:  Everything we have ever seen in a class, or on a stage, or in a movie, is tango that these people did first in the milongas.  They, or their parents, invented it, or copied it, and maybe changed it a little.  Everything that tango is today was created by them, and is continuing to be perfected by them.  You might say, “Yeah, but it doesn’t look the same.  I saw Geraldine and Javier in a theatre on Corrientes Street”, or “I saw Miguel Angel Zotto and Milena Plebes in New York, and they didn’t look like that couple moving around in a few square feet of crowded floor in Sin Rumbo.”  But the fact is that everything they do on stage comes from the milongas, although it may be cleaned up and tricked up a bit.  I know this is true because I’ve heard them say so.

How did this film project start?  Earlier I wrote a somewhat long-winded paragraph that could be summed up as, “You just fall into things”.  And that’s how it happened.  Like everyone, I began tango with a hunger to learn.  When I finally realized that I wasn't going to find what I wanted in classes or instructional videos, I decided to look at how the good dancers do it in the clubs in Buenos Aires.  If the best dancers in the world learned to dance by watching and absorbing the walks and the rhythms in the neighborhood milongas, why couldn’t I do the same?  But I quickly found out that almost nothing exists on film. Throughout the hundreds plus years of tango, the great dancing in the milongas has been virtually ignored. So, I got a camera, took it to Buenos Aires, and started shooting.  And, like tango itself, the filming has been a great learning experience. Over time, with a lot of help from Alejandra, I’ve gotten some really good stuff.  

Tucson, February 21, 2005 - So after our last trip, I had a bunch of film—about 30 digital cassettes—but it was difficult to do anything with it.  The cassettes only play in the little digital video camera, and the content is mixed up over 4 years, with dozens of locations, and hundreds of different people.  To find anything you have to search through the cassettes, put them into the camera, and wind through the tapes.  It takes forever.  And in the beginning I screwed up a lot, and recorded over things.  It’s almost impossible to find a certain person in a certain club, much less a certain turn, or way of stepping.  But technology has come to the rescue.  After some effort, I’ve succeeded in getting the whole thing transferred into a computer.  It’s on a giant—at least by today’s standards—500 gigabyte hard drive.  There are several hundred digital video clips, each from 30 seconds to 15 minutes.  It’s all organized alphabetically by name, and then by date and location.  And best of all, I can scroll down, click, and bring up anything on the screen in, literally, seconds!  It can be organized anyway I want, and, since it’s in a computer, it’s easy to add notes or bookmarks, and links to different things.  If I want to find a turn Pinocho and Graciela did in Avellaneda the second time I filmed them dancing vals, I can scroll down, and click on the file in seconds.  And there it is on the screen, in high quality digital video. 

Tango has been around for more than 100 years, but we know very little about it.  People always talk about its origin, and development, and different styles, but it’s just talk.  No one really has any information.  Some old movies, and such, but in reality the way tango was danced in the neighborhoods throughout its history is lost to us.  No one really knows how canyengue looked, or even how most people danced in Avellaneda or Villa Crespo in the 1950s.  There are some written descriptions, but words are almost totally inadequate to describe dancing.  We see the end result in the clubs today, but just like the details of early biological evolution, tango’s origins are murky, and the details of how we got to where we are today are probably lost forever.    

But, suddenly, I am looking at something very impressive!  I have instant access to the best tango dancers of this age, all sorted and ready to go. I can instantly access how they step, how they move to different music, how they navigate the floor. It’s all organized. I can find everything, and see everything instantly. I can break it down, examine and re-examine each movement in detail, or instantly compare the whole to some other dancer, or group of dancers.  Details and trends come into focus. Now I know what they mean when they say we are in the information age, the age when the transfer and acquisition of information are driving forces in society. I got a real jolt of energy when I saw the fruits of our labor all together in one place, organized and quickly accessible.  What an inspiration to dance! What an incredible variety of new things, and new ways of moving to the music.  There is a lifetime of tango to learn from even one or two of these great milongueros, and I can pick and choose from among dozens. I suspect no one has ever had this kind of information before. In a sense, I feel that I am seeing something in tango for the first time—an accurate snapshot of Buenos Aires tango dancing at the start of this century, linked by the old milongueros to the middle of the last one. 

One thing has become very apparent. That is, that it is impossible to understand what the milongueros are doing without watching them over and over on film. There are incredible combinations of stepping and moving that are not apparent at first glance… or even fourth or fifth glance. Generally speaking, they use the feet to express the cadences, and the movement of the bodies to express the melody. The end result is something so subtle and complex, that it takes many viewings to begin to see what the woman is feeling, and many more to even begin to see how the communication is being done. I sometimes hear people say that the social tango of the milongueros is “simple”, or that stage or academic tango is more complex or more interesting. This is simply not true.   

Please Note:  I need to say here that filming social tango is very tricky. Milongas have special meaning in the Argentine culture, and many people don’t want cameras intruding. It’s a matter of respect and privacy, and in the traditional milongas where the best dancers are, it can be viewed almost like taking pictures at a church service. People want to enjoy the music undisturbed, and some don’t want their presence noted for personal or professional reasons. Cameras are prohibited in several milongas, and frowned upon in many others, so before filming, we needed the permission of both the organizers, and of the people being filmed. The only reason it was possible at all is because Alejandra knows everyone so well—and even then, we occasionally had to deal with complaints from people who didn’t want the camera there. The result is that, unfortunately, we can’t distribute copies of the material—at least at this time. As a general policy, we promised everyone that the film wouldn’t be shown or distributed publicly. I do, however, have permission from some of the milongueros to post some still images captured from the video. The picture quality isn’t great, but it may give some idea of how the best dancers do it. 

So, check out the next page…it has pictures!!