Friday, 17 July 2009


I remembered reading this interview with Maria Nievas a while ago, and dug it out again last night. Maria Nievas, lying about her age, first went to milongas when she was 12, and when she was 14 she started to dance with a young Juan Carlos Copes, who she danced with for many years, in Paris and on Broadway, and around the world. Here she is, interviewed by Silvia Rojas:

“I learned by watching, girl, nobody taught me,” she starts to tell, this living legend of the milonga and stage tango…
- So, what do you think of the schools?
- I’m against the schools. Absolutely! It’s a con. Nobody’s the owner of the truth in tango. I always tell them when I give a lesson: there’s no better teacher than to go to the milonga! Wear out shoes, get kicked and have your feet stepped on, and do the same yourself. It’s true, girl!”

I listened to a recent programme on jazz trumpeter Booker Little, who died aged 23 in 1961. He was one of the first generation to learn to play jazz in school, whereas his peers had learned on the job. I was struck by his observation that learning jazz in school led to an over-reliance on technique, a tendency he had to struggle against. & I wonder about the tango academies of present-day Buenos Aires. I can't help imagining a syllabus: third semester, major in Estilo Milonguero with a minor in Villa Urquiza... (PS. I hope I'm being unfairly cynical.)


londontango said...

I read this same interview about the time someone mentioned to me that I should just go to the milongas and dance. Coincidence? Nah! Fate! ;-)

Flor de lino said...

I notice that this is a female teacher giving advice to another female. I wonder whether she would say the same thing to a man. I think the learning experience for men and women is very different in tango. It was also different historically - women just went to dance after a few 'private' lessons at home. But men spent many years in the practicas before being allowed in a milonga. To dance well the leader's feet need to be very neat and precise, and that can only come with a lot of effort and conscious practice which cannot be done in a milonga.

jantango said...

@Flor de lino
Maria Nieves was offering her advice to all dancers, men and women alike. She is correct. The best way to learn is by observing and doing.

Nieves, like many young girls of her time, went to the clubes de barrio. The girls learned by dancing with a family member at home parties and then with the boys in the neighborhood clubs.

The boys practiced among themselves and with a relative in order to dance well enough in public. They had to be 18 years old to dance in one of the confiterias bailable in downtown Buenos Aires. By the time they entered, they were ready.

True jazz musicians were the creators and innovators. They played what they felt. Their on-the-job training was better than the school of technique.

Musicians during the 1940s had the same opportunity in Buenos Aires. If they got the chance to play with an orchestra, they had on-the-job training in learning that orchestra's style. That's why some of these musicians are training young musicians today. It has to be passed musician to musician. Dozens of tango orchestras no longer exist as they did decades ago.

I find it interesting that young musicians are eager to learn tango from the old ones, but young dancers aren't as eager to learn tango from the milongueros before they are all gone.

Tango commuter said...

That's a fascinating observation, Jantango, that young musicians make a bee-line for older tango musicians, whereas young dancers tend to ignore the milongueros. I hope there is some interest in the older dancers in Buenos Aires, and I wonder why it's like that.

@Flor de lino, I think it's correct to say that tango classes are quite recent in the history of tango, and I'd guess that if there were classes when Maria Nievas grew up they would have been for the well-off. Copes learned by watching, and by hanging out with skilled male dancers who would teach him, and Maria Nievas probably followed much the same route before they met on the dance floor.

The whole structure of learning has changed. I think going to class and learning with a partner can encourage a rather shallow technical excellence: we all know that it's relatively easy to pick something up in class and dance it well with partners who know their part. & we probably all know that when we try it out with a different partner in a milonga it's not so easy.

Game Cat said...

I agree that one should spend a lot of time in a milonga to get better, because that's the whole point of learning the dance.

I am also mindful of the risks of learning ONLY in classes and applying it without consideration to the demands of a milonga.

However, time spent in a well thought out class, and choosing to learn from people who can offer something that adds value in whole or in part, can help tremendously. Especially for those who lack the opportunity to spend so much time in good milongas in a different country.

The challenge is for the student (that means all of us at some point) to determine what one needs in a milonga and what one can get out of a particular teacher in a particular class. Pick up what works and discard the rest. Keep an open mind.

I suspect it is understandable for those brought up in a milonga to have a nautral pride in and therefore bias towards learning on the floor. But it wouldn't help others who don't have this opportunity.

Also, I think it's not right to think that the dance cannot change. The music has always been improved on with external influences. Classically trained musicians in the Golden Age and before have added much to it. I'm sure the same can apply to the dance in a milonga.

Inevitably, no matter how much we try, some things we will lose from the older generation (and that is sad). But we should add on to what we have saved with our own OUR legacy to the next generation.

Tango commuter said...

@ Game Cat: well, nobody learns 'on the floor'. We all learn elsewhere, whether with friends or in classes. But if we want to dance 'on the floor' that's where we've got to learn to put it together.

But I don't think the dance has changed, has it? Nice to think that we might have a legacy to leave, but the young teachers of today are exploiting the developments of dancers like Todaro and Petroleo, which go back to the middle of the last century, and probably a few generations earlier, which is hardly recent, even if they call it 'Tango Nuevo'. Perhaps the only development is that they are taught and used more widely now: good material for classrooms. And I don't think the analogy with music is very useful. Music has endless freedom compared to two human bodies holding each other on a dance floor. There are limits there, and we just have to accept them.