Outside the Lines

The problem with learning tango isn't that there aren't enough classes. The problem is that there are too many—and most of them are bad. A serious student of tango is forced to sort through a lot of garbage to find something valuable. In the end, the real challenge becomes not so much figuring out what tango is, but what it isn't.

When I began, there was no lack of learning opportunities. Although the Great Tango Boom was in it's early stages, dozens of workshops and videos were already available. Argentines were traveling and performing in shows, and although most of them were barely competent to dance in a milonga, they were more than willing to give classes. Some students took a few lessons, caught tango fever, and decided to teach as well. They simply picked up things they liked, put their own spin on them, and began to teach tango. Classes taught by local enthusiasts began to appear everywhere. Many of this first generation of local teachers are still at it today... and as tango continues to grow, some of their students pick up a few things, mix in their own ideas, and start to teach also. It's a process that has taken on a life of it's own—a constant reinvention of tango by people who don't understand its subtleties or its culture. The result is a weird mix that's that's unlike any tango that ever existed in Buenos Aires .

It all began with the poses, pauses, and ganchos of the earliest stage dancers, moved on through the spins, sacadas, and kicks that were marketed as nuevo, and currently seems to be passing through a phase of volcada mania. None of this ever had anything to do with the milongas, but almost like a payback for the fire ants and Africanized honeybees that invaded the U.S. from South America, some tango tourists from the North are starting to bring it with them when they visit.

In this section, we'll go back and look at a couple of the performers who were influential in the early tango for export movement. Before anyone jumps all over me, let me say this: They are all skilled and talented dancers, and they are an inspiration to watch. Like a lot of other people, I tried to copy them—but although what they did was very good, a lot of it didn't work well as social tango. We'll try to show both why it's good, and also why most of it doesn't work in a milonga.

The King of the Bent Knee

After I gave up on classes, I decided to find the very best tango in the world and try to copy it. My reasoning was this: There is only one big budget tango movie in existence, so it must have the best dancers—and they must be dancing the very best tango. The movie was Carlos Saura's Tango, and the film's high point is Carlos Copes dancing to Recuerdo in front of a live orchestra. The best dancer, in the best part, of the best movie. How could I go wrong? Here it is, first without the music:


Carlos Copes using a very stylized leg bend.


Interesting, isn't it?  I spent a lot of time practicing it, but today, it seems like tango from another planet. Notice how Copes and his partner stand tall, and then slowly bend their knees and drop down so they're almost a full head shorter. Then they rise again, and then sink back, so they can tiptoe along down low. It's a very stylized way of moving with no connection to natural stepping. Their heads look like balloons being carried along by the wind; sometimes they descend like they're being blown under a low bridge, and then they gently rise again with the air currents. And there's the smoldering stare... where did that come from?  It must have started with that notorious old movie clip of Rudolph Valentino in a gaucho outfit, seducing his partner with his eyes while dancing "tango".

This is probably the most choreographed three minutes of dancing in the history of tango. I mean that literally. It's the centerpiece of the only big budget tango movie ever made (Saura is the Spanish director who also did Carmen). Every twitch, move, and facial expression of both partners has certainly been rehearsed and rehearsed, and shot and re-shot. The scene is supposed to take place in a milonga, where Copes selects his dance partner at random, but it's obvious from the very beginning that it lacks the most basic elements of social tango. The first two steps, where they look at each other, and then extend their legs out to the side at exactly the same time have no more spontaneous leading and following than a synchronized swimming routine. But for some reason, I kept thinking I could use the video to learn social dancing. Looking back on it, it's obvious that it was a only a made up scene in a movie. Movies are supposed to be fantasies. Who would be dumb enough to actually use it as a model for dancing with different partners at a milonga?

Well, apparently I was. I kept at it for a while, but of course it never worked. So I eventually began to get tired of it. Then, I actually began to despise it. I didn't like it at all for a long time, and yet... there's something about it...

Here it is with music:


Copes follows the orchestra by continually flexing and straightening his legs.


The thing about it is... it's good! It took me a long time to come full circle, but I finally began to see how well it's done. Try the "block out the lower body test". If you hold up your hand, or a piece of paper so that you only see the upper bodies, I think you'll find that the way Copes and his partner flow with the orchestra is spectacular. It's creative, and it shows that Copes really loves and understands Pugliese's great tango. But social tango, it ain't.

Imagine trying to dance in a milonga this way. Most of us BsAs tango addicts go out 3 or 4 times a week. Let's see... 3 milongas a week, about 10 tandas per milonga, that's around 120 tangos a week. Copes and his partner stand up tall and sink down about 25 times in this single tango, so that's like... 100 knee bends per tanda! Even assuming couples could somehow figure out how to stand a foot apart and follow each other up and down all the time, it would still be 1,000 knee bends every time you go out dancing! Or maybe they're more like half squats—but either way, walking along for half of every tango in a semi-crouch would be a workout.

Not to mention the weirdness of staring intently into someone else's face while you dance. Do the arithmetic, and you'll find it would mean 10 minutes of staring for every tanda. That's about an hour and half per night, or... six hours every week! Yikes! Six hours a week of putting your face up close to someone else, and staring into their eyes. Imagine, friends, strangers, tourists, ugly women, beautiful women... staring hard into their faces for hours, and trying not to blink. And imagine what it must be like to teach it... having to gaze into your students eyes all the time.

But still, Copes and his partner nail it. They move well, and their posture is perfect. Even the dueling ganchos at the end aren't bad—although I suspect it may have been the inspiration for an instructor I knew who eventually turned into a gancho specialist. One time I actually saw him stake out a spot in a milonga, and continuously exchange ganchos with his partner for over a minute. Almost half the tango.

I probably shouldn't do this, but as I worked on the page, I began to recall filming another Recuerdo dance somewhere. It's from an evening six years ago when Alej and I went early to El Beso. I had the camera along, and Osvaldo Buglione was still arranging tables and setting things up. On a whim, I asked if I could film his dancing. He stopped moving chairs, grabbed Alej, and they went out on the floor. Recuerdo came on, and they danced. Not only was their Recuerdo unrehearsed, but they had never danced together before, so it's a little uneven. Comparing them with a choreographed scene from a movie isn't really fair. It's sort of like demonstrating a Toyota Corolla after a Lexus... but that's okay. A Toyota's a good car, and we're not trying to sell anything here:


Osvaldo Buglione and Alej from 2002.


The term “old milonguero” has become something of a cliché, but whenever I hear it, I think of Osvaldo. There’s nothing flashy about his dancing, and he’s certainly not trying to prove anything. This is just an example of a man who put in thousands of miles in the milongas at a time when tango was unknown outside of the arrabal—one of the small handful of people who helped to keep tango from dying out completely. I knew him for some time without even realizing he danced. He was Natu’s partner in Monton de Tango, the milonga that became so popular in El Beso about 10 years ago. At first, all I ever saw him doing was walking around smoking cigarettes and running things while Natu played the music. Then, one time I heard Natu say, “Osvaldo is like Rip Van Winkle. He and tango went to sleep for 20 years, and then when tango came back, he woke up!”

The music was difficult, Osvaldo had been away from tango for twenty years, and Alej isn't dancing very well. But all in all, it’s a good example of the kind of efficient posture and movement that comes from years of dancing every night in the milongas. It's almost like a man from the past appearing to dance with a member of the current generation. If you try the "lower body block-out" method, you should see that Alej and Osvaldo's connection to the music is pretty good. And if you watch Osvaldo's feet, you can see that he knows the music cold—he's aware of every note, every run, and every pause. First time ever dancing together, no warm up, tough music—but the feeling is there. The music is inside. (Note: I think Pugliese wrote this amazing piece of music when he was a teenager! He grew up in Villa Crespo, and I've been by his old house.) (Another good thing about this video is that there's a glimpse of my old friend Eladia Cordoba looking hot as she walks by at the beginning.)