Dancing Without Fear
Here’s a short clip of Pocho and Alej that shows some of the technical aspects of women’s tango we’ve been discussing. Pocho is a well-known milonguero who dances and teaches on Argentine television all the time—but you’ll notice that he isn’t trying to show what he can do. He waits for the music, and Alej waits with him. She has plenty of time to add decorations with her feet—but she doesn’t. It’s not really a conscious decision. She just doesn’t feel any impulse to do it. She does however, step in a very precise way. Her feet accelerate and decelerate smoothly, and they caress the floor with subtlety and control. The result is a beautiful combination of calmness and confidence. When someone like Pocho or Alej dances, people watch. They set a standard for other dancers:
Women might want to notice how patient Alej is. She stays over her feet, absorbs the music, and waits. Then, when it's time to go, she totally commits herself by reaching out fully and extending her leg at just the right moment.
I know that many foreigners are probably accustomed to a different style of tango. And I realize that it’s not easy to see what's going on here—but that's actually part of the point. Unlike much of the tango taught in the U.S. and Europe, you're not really supposed to see what's happening. Alej always says that the best milongueros “feel the music with their whole body”. They feel the music totally, in a profound way—and her goal in tango is to share that feeling. It's as simple (and as complex) as that. Adding decorations to entertain an audience is not part of the equation. [Note: We’ll analyze this video in more detail in Chapter Five, but for now, if you watch it a few times, you may begin to notice how closely the movement of Pocho and Alejandra's bodies matches the music and the unhurried cadences of Berón's voice. This is one of the very important keys to advanced tango, and we'll discuss it in a lot more detail later.]
The Art of Tango
It took all my paparazzi skills to get this shot. Here are three of the world’s best tango dancers
all together at one club: (L to R) Marta Fama, La Tana Fardella, and Elba Biscay.
I have a lot of respect for teachers and performers like Copes and the Dinzels because they were pioneers. They shined a light on tango by dragging it out of the hidden neighborhood clubs, and putting it onto stages and into classrooms where it would be accessible to the rest of the world.. But there was a big price to be paid. While they were able to identify many of the steps the milongueros were using, and polish them up so they were more attractive and easy to learn, they left the biggest part of tango behind. The complex simplicity of the tango of the arrabal has become buried under a step and figure oriented dance that’s performed with one eye on the mirror and the other eye on the audience. A tango designed to impress as many people as possible in a two- minute YouTube clip; a tango made up of little bits of eye candy strung together by traveling professionals to promote workshops.
Okay, I admit it. I put in a few years doing aerobic tango myself. Just like everyone else, I was trying to cram as many steps into my head as my neurons could handle. But today, after spending several years around the milongueros, I want more. When a milonguero or a milonguera in Buenos Aires gazes across the pista, they aren't looking for a gymnastics partner. What they're searching for is someone with all of the technical skills that we have been discussing… and for something else as well. What the people of the clubs are really looking for is entrega. In fact, you could say that “entrega” is the whole point of tango. It's the ghost lurking in the images of all the great dancers on these pages. It’s in the chapter showing Blas and Napoleon walking, in the pictures of Carlitos and Porota, and it’s in the feet of all the milongueras on the previous pages. Entrega is the spirit in the Church of Tango.
But what do the milongueros mean by entrega? The dictionary says “entregar” means to deliver, or to surrender, or to abandon oneself. So do they mean the woman delivers everything to the dance… or that she surrenders to the music? Or to her partner? Or maybe they mean that both become lost, and abandon themselves. I asked Alejandra if she could help me define it in a way that people who aren’t from the milongas could understand. But all she said was, “They can’t understand it. It’s a feeling. I can’t explain.” Thanks. No help there. (Actually, Alej didn’t mean to be rude. She was just expressing the common view of most people in the milongas that outsiders aren’t really able to “get” tango). Maybe she’s right, and maybe I can’t explain it very well—but if we are discussing something like “the whole point of tango”, we should at least give it a try. Here is a story.
One evening we were sitting with some milongueros, and they began to tease Alej because she was always asking the names of the tango orchestras that were playing. She never seemed to pay much attention, or remember their answers, and finally they said, “That’s it! We’re not telling you the names of any more orchestras. You need to just be quiet and dance.” A tango called “El Nene del Abasto” was playing at the time. It's about a small-time criminal, and I was listening and trying to understand the words—which are very difficult. The tango has lots of slang and lunfardo lyrics, and I heard Echagüe sing, “me comí la ochenta y nueve”. It sounded really strange, and my translation seemed bizarre… what could he mean by “I ate myself 89”? So I asked. No one answered for a moment, and then Alej said, “Well, in the neighborhoods when the police would catch people, they would take them to the comisaria (precinct house) to charge them. Each charge has a number, so if he says, 'I ate number 89', he’s probably saying he got arrested and charged with a crime."
As we sat and talked at the table, I realized something. The reason Alej didn’t really didn’t pay to much attention to the orchestras or the singer’s names is because it didn’t matter very much to her. And it didn’t really matter to the milongueros whether she knew or not, either. But just because she didn’t care about who was playing or singing, didn’t meant that she didn’t get the music. In fact, most people in Buenos Aires probably would not have understood the meaning of Echagüe’s phrase, or even his pronunciation—because his rapid-fire lunfardo laced lyrics are so quick that they are difficult even for native speakers. But Alej and the milongueros understood it all. Lunfardo is basically a code. It’s a mix of Italian, street slang, and reversed syllables. “Gotan”, “zapi”, and “nami” are examples where the front part of a word is moved to the back.** This isn’t an academic exercise—you hear these words used in the milongas all the time. (Because I spend a lot of time there, I pick up some of these words without knowing it. Non-tango Argentines don’t use as much lunfardo, and it always cracks them up to hear a Norte Americano unknowingly throwing lunfardo words into polite conversation.) The original purpose of lunfardo was to prevent the police and the powerful from understanding what was being said in the streets, and today it still sometimes functions as a barrier to keep outsiders away from the center of tango.
So maybe one way to describe entrega is that it is an "informed passion" about tango. Tango music is "art"—but good art isn’t always easily accessible. It often takes some effort to really feel the message hidden inside. By learning the meanings of the lyrics, and also a bit about the basic structure of the Golden Age tangos, we can begin to develop the emotional foundation that’s necessary to express the music on the dance floor. Without this informed passion, we can’t really connect with the music or with our partners. Without this connection, tango is only a superficial cartoon.
The Trinity of Tango
Man, Woman... and Music
Recently a woman came up to me to discuss the web site. She said, “Thank you... the music section in Chapter 4 really made the tangos come alive! It’s changed my dancing, because tango seems much more profound… but now I have a problem. When I’m dancing with men in the U.S., I can tell by the way they dance that they don’t understand the words. I can actually feel it in their dancing! I find myself wanting to stop. I want to grab them and say, ‘Why are you dancing like that? Don’t you know what this is about? Can’t you feel it?’”
We may finally be beginning to nail this down. The Holy Grail of Tango is entrega... and entrega is a trinity. It has three parts: man, woman, and music. To attain it, a man and a woman must both have an informed passion for the music. They must understand and feel deeply together, and they must both be willing to put all the meat on the fire—to surrender themselves with no self-consciousness and no vanity. So when the milongueros say that women like Marta, La Tana, Elba, or Alejandra “look” like tango dancers, I think they mean that these are the women who understand tango. They feel every word and every note, and they aren't afraid to let go and express it. The milongueros don’t really care if one of them ignores a few codigos, or forgets the names of the orchestras. For them to reject or to disrespect one of these women would be to disrespect themselves.
Milongueros are called “milongueros” because they've spent their entire lives in the milongas looking for the “entrega” of tango. When they hear Echagüe begin to sing, they need a partner who can share their passion. When one of these women hears “me comí la ochenta y nueve”, or when Ernesto Fama sings “I was born a skull, and a skull I will die”, they don’t even need to think. They know exactly what it means… and everything it implies as well. Like the working class poets who wrote the songs, these women know how the arrabal sounds late at night, and how it smells in the morning. They feel it in their bones because it's part of them. So when a milonguero who has spent 50 years in the milongas searching for the entrega of tango hears the music he has been waiting for all evening, and begins to look around for a partner… where do you think he will look first?
Pocho y Nelli at Sunderland in 2003. Note the television and movie cameras on the left.
Only the oldest and best milongueros can bring entrega to an environment like this.
** The words are “tango”, “pizza”, and “mina”. “Mina” is impolite lunfardo slang for a woman—like saying “broad” or “chick” in English. There is a chain of pizza shops in BsAs called Zapi.