Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ricardo Vidort: Jantango's comment

Jantango sent a comment on my post Did Ricardo Vidort Teach? She knew him to dance with so I didn't want to hide her comment in the 'Comments', where it might not get read. Here it is:

'Ricardo danced the same way whether he was on a milonga floor or an empty one -- he used the space. His dance was his. He never performed for the audience, he danced for his partner and himself. There is no choreography in his tango, it's pure feeling from the music.

'Work began four years ago on a blog: Ricardo Vidort -- the unforgettable milonguero of Buenos Aires, which included his notes for his classes, a series of eight. Then Ricardo told his students to go and practice and discover their own tango. I helped create the Wordpress site, but I don't believe the owner will publish it. There were interviews with Ricardo's dance partners, photos, videos, personal letters, and his philosophy of tango.

'Ricardo Vidort once told me that he taught everything he knew in eight classes. Then he told his students he had no more to teach them. They had to go practice on their own and develop their own style. They didn’t need more classes. He was right. Those who stay in classes for years want approval from the teacher and won’t practice on their own.

'I have a DVD of an interview of Ricardo that was part of a film by a hospice in New Mexico. I viewed it again yesterday and share it with visitors in BsAs who are interested in learning from Ricardo. I posted a transcript of the interview on Tango Chamuyo.

'Ricardo lived in New York City for several years, but he wasn't appreciated for what he had to share. Perhaps his tango was considered too simple, too basic, for those who were interested in the flash they saw on stage.'

It's too bad that the Ricardo Vidort blog hasn't been published. I know he said that you needed only eight classes with him to learn to dance tango and it's great that he left notes on them: I had just one class, so I've always wondered about the other seven! I wonder if these notes can be published independently of the blog? I think I've met the 'owner of the site', and I wonder if there's any way we can get all this material put up on the web. It really should be available for us all. I know that he talked to the camera and was filmed for the hospice where he passed away, and I believe there's a copyright issue with that film, but the rest of the material shouldn't be restricted.

Jantango doesn't give a link to her transcript. I found three short 'talks' by Ricardo on Tango Chamuyo, all reprints from Paul and Michiko's excellent, but no longer published magazine, El Once Tango News; Ricardo Vidort in his own Words, Is Dance a Therapy? and His Last Interview.

As to 'interviews with Ricardo's dance partners' fortunately there is one on YouTube.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

'Did Ricardo Vidort teach?'

-- I'm asked. Yes, he was the best ever! He taught people to stand, to walk, to embrace, to move. He taught people to dance, to enjoy moving with a partner to the music. His cheerful energy and laughter made you feel you too could dance and enjoy it! He showed us in class with his own example, he encouraged. He'd teach a basic 'figura' for us to practice with, nothing difficult. He wasn't one of those teachers who make you feel useless because you can't manage a backwards sacada with a leg-wrap. Teaching a lot of dance steps isn't the same as getting people to dance.

Of course he taught what he danced. Here's a great example: sadly it's short and fragmentary, but it's still a great example. I can watch it over and over.

(Thanks for asking, uwe-tango.)

PS. The Lladro video: not sure which it was now. He's a marvelous dancer, and he learned in a very traditional way, but you can't dance in milongas the way he dances in demos. There just isn't room, is there?

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

To gently rock

I didn't intend to write more about Normarin1's videos but then I watched this one and I wanted to link to it so I can find it again. It reminds me so much of the tango of Buenos Aires. A young couple appears between 00:10 and 00:16 and I notice how he seems to gently rock with her, little movements of the torso. They are followed by an older couple, with a turn that floats, effortless and gentle as if they are suspended in mid-air; turns like this struck me immediately I first walked into a milonga in Buenos Aires. Very few London dancers, probably very few non-Argentine dancers move like that; we look stiffer, less alive in the torso, even less gentle. These videos are full of details like these: here a precise, elegant stepping, there a laid-back move to the beat, or just an amazing, whole-hearted embrace.

It also occurs to me that it just doesn't concern these dancers whether they are dancing in broad daylight, under fluorescent or mercury vapour lamps, or in the darkest milonga: they are dancing! -- and that's what matters. I've heard European milongas described as 'playing at tango'; a bit harsh, perhaps, but after sitting at milongas like these in Norma's videos it's not hard to see the reason for the description. Perhaps the dancing in her milongas isn't always technically flawless, but it's always for real, it always has real heart: tango isn't something they play with. It's 'about' human contact, there's a passion for it, it's a necessity. The dance and the music are still new to us: we love it but it's not our family background, not our history, not yet.

One other thing: I hate photographers at milongas! Photographers and people filming. It seems completely contrary to the private experience of the dance. But it's fairly obvious from Normarin1's videos that she's among friends who welcome her filming. & if her camera makes anyone uncomfortable, she's quick to turn away from faces to another couple, or the floor. I don't think her videos mean that anyone and everyone can turn up and start filming. In any case, it's been done for us! Thanks again!

Friday, 31 October 2014

Milonga problems

I wrote here about the kind of control organisers of Buenos Aires milonga have, which is rarely visible since the rules are by general agreement. Nevertheless, organisers can and do ask visitors to leave if the guidelines are breached, if they feel a guy has been disrespectful to a woman, if a couple dances without due care for other dancers, if a couple or an individual are upsetting people in other ways. London's 'secret milonga' has recreated the order this brings to a milonga by using the structure of a members' club. Only people who are generally courteous can join, and the result is a regular afternoon of relaxed dance. (Sorry to call it the 'secret milonga': of course it has a name, but I wouldn't want people turning up hoping to get in as they'd be disappointed, and the organiser would be obliged to turn them away.)

The 'encuentro movement' is the background to this. Encuentros must have started seven or eight years ago on long holiday weekends in Europe, promising five or six separate milongas on a good floor with good DJs. New events rapidly sprang up all over, events that are role-balanced, with advance booking, where there's agreement about codigos, with the use of mirada and cabeceo, and respect for the floor and the line of dance. Websites like tangofestivals list events: next month, November, seven events are listed, in Istanbul, Italy, Switzerland, Germany (two events), Slovenia, and Lebanon. Of course there's a local base, but there are people from all over, the 'encuentro set', who can afford the time and cost of travel and accommodation to spend regular weekends dancing in a variety of destinations. London's 'secret milonga' offers a similar experience in terms of quality of environment, but monthly and always in the same hall.

One reason why the 'encuentro movement' and the 'secret milonga' have been so successful is that they are highly organised events. You know you will enjoy excellent music and uniformly courteous behaviour. Some of our regular milongas have made a point of presenting good music, and they are agreeably lively events, but the floor can still be confused and difficult, despite suggestions from some of the organisers. From a Buenos Aires perspective our milongas might be poorly organised, as the organisers have little control over what happens in them, and sometimes even little interest in controlling what happens in them, but they are regular sociable events, they really are 'encuentros', meeting places open to all.

Organisers here won't object much to how you behave and how you dance, even if they aren't happy, because they need the admission money, and in any case they don't have the traditional authority of the 'organisador'. The number of tango events seems to increase faster than interest in the dance, and hiring spaces in London is expensive. You might not notice that milongas can struggle to make ends meet. The number of events across Europe has increased the competition, and it's noticeable how quiet weekend milongas (even the 'secret milonga') can be if there's a popular event elsewhere. Of course, every quiet milonga means a reduction in takings, which is probably going to hurt the organisers. This is beginning to create a real problem for London milongas, and there's no easy solution.

So, a highly organised encuentro, or an encuentro that's open to all-comers? Or both? I enjoy the organisation at least once a month although I wouldn't want it all the time. & I look at Normarin1's videos and really hope that London milongas will look like this in a not-too-distant future, busy, cheerful, affectionate, orderly, and with good dancing. Her videos are an invaluable guide to social tango. There's much to learn from them, whether you prefer your 'encuentros' highly or lightly organised.

But if I were asked to choose I'd say: reduce your carbon footprint! Support your local milongas! It might take time, but they will change if enough of us want change.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


Norma Marin has a YouTube channel, Normarin1, to which she uploads films of Buenos Aires milongas. Most evenings she goes out dancing and takes her little camera with her. Often she records complete tandas. Performances of live music and dance get uploaded too, although mostly she films social dancing, the social dancing of her friends to judge by the number of people who wave and smile at the camera. In the past week alone she has uploaded 30 videos, 30 tangos. The channel has been there since July 2011 so now it's an archive of thousands of tangos.

The milongas she goes to aren't the big beasts of the Buenos Aires tango world, the ones we've seen over and over in clips, Lujos, Cachirulo, Lo de Celia and the like, where the 'old masters' enjoy themselves night after night. The fascinating thing about her films is that the milongas she films seem to be attended by 'ordinary' people, and I get a sense of a cross-section of society from her films. These really are social events people attend to enjoy themselves, meet, chat and dance. The atmosphere seems a lot less formal than the better-known milongas, and I find the milongas she films very likeable, milongas like Aló Lola y La Yumba de Dorita (Sunday nights at El Obelisco), Milonga de Los Gomias, Febril y Amante held in Gricel on Wednesdays, Matiné de Lunes Tango, Rivadavia Club Tango and so on. Likeable to watch, but perhaps not to visit to dance unless you speak good Spanish, as these milongas seem to be social events as much as dance events. Some perhaps more so than others.

I only discovered all this recently and I was instantly hooked. I find it easy to sit and relax and watch a few tandas, as if I was sitting there on the edge of the floor. So many stories! That young couple, perhaps at their first milonga, her shoes borrowed maybe from an older sister. That older guy who dances so smoothly and leads with such easy grace. The couple who've obviously practised their intricate footwork together. Occasionally a couple who look as if they're practicing for the 'campeonato'. Ladies (and guys) whose feet seem to move precisely and neatly, others who are a lot less tidy. The experienced and the inexperienced of all ages. I came across one extraordinary clip in which a woman starts to laugh loudly at the beginning of a tango and dances through it, whoops of audible laughter throughout, and is still laughing at the end! What did he say to her? Unrestrained laughter: you don't often hear it. & nobody seemed bothered: amused perhaps, but not disapproving. It seems to be a very tolerant, relaxed crowd. I get a sense of real society: these are people who know each other, or at least know who the others are. Perhaps not a barrio milonga in the old sense, but a sense of shared identity. A lot more shared identity than you'd expect in London, I think. People who have probably lived through a lot of difficulty together, supported each other through the years of the 'dictadura' and the aftermath, as well as, most likely, the disappearance of their savings in 2002.

I enjoy watching the dancing. It's easy, relaxed, uncomplicated. I've never noticed anyone rushing through the beat in these clips, no stepping early, which is common enough in London. Nothing complicated – but it's generally done well, good basics, which is always a pleasure to watch. A slower dance, perhaps the sensuality is more overt, there's no straining for effect, nothing forced, just people relaxed and enjoying the dancing. The floors are mostly crowded – and the lighting is excellent! It makes leading a lot easier when you can get an idea of who is around you from a quick glance.

As to the variety of people, I remember a friend who's visited many times and stayed for months telling me: you get to dance with all kinds of people in the milongas there. In London it's more limited. You certainly meet interesting people in London milongas, but it's very far from being a cross-section of London society. Up till now, anyway! But then in Buenos Aires everyone shares the background of the music; even if they don't dance they know the music.

Normarin1 has a sort of mission statement on her channel: 'The aim is to show milongas from the inside, to see tango in its full expression, the dancers in the milongas, the professionals, the orquestas, the singers, and much more, and all for free'.

Thank you, Norma Marin!

PS: I suggested rashly that the better-known dancers aren't at these milongas, then opened a very recent clip from the Matiné de Lunes Tango with Roberto Segarra who has just turned 94 in the foreground. (The link is to a birthday vals with Adela Galeazzi.) & there must be others I wouldn't recognise.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Between tangos: shaving

Someone told me this story recently:

'I hadn't met her before; we made eye contact, and agreed to dance. As we embraced, I noticed that her cheeks were naturally well-coloured, but in particular the right. We danced: at first we made contact cheek-to-cheek, and then she shifted her head awkwardly, and couldn't quite find a place she found comfortable.

'I'm sorry about that' she said between tangos, 'but I've just danced with two guys who hadn't shaved, and I dance close, and it's really made my skin sore.' She pointed to her right cheek: not only was it redder than the left, but also it was slightly swollen. She touched my cheek. 'You're fairly smooth' she said. 'Normally that wouldn't bother me, but my cheek is really sore.' I was astonished: to my knowledge I've never danced with anyone whose skin is that sensitive. Anyway, she settled on a position with her ear close to mine, and we enjoyed the rest of the tanda. Perhaps the position wasn't ideal, but it gave us a stable head contact.'

There you go, guys. Not everyone will appreciate that designer stubble when you go dancing.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

London milongas

Jantango left a comment on my post At Last:

'Are you keeping the venue a secret so those who prefer verbal invitations won't attend? By all means, publish the name, place, and the organizers who deserve the credit.'

It's not that I'm keeping anything secret, and I didn't intend to give that impression: it's just that as I said, this particular milonga is for members only so I've avoided names. Since only members are admitted, it might waste people's time and money if I publicised it, and told everyone how bookings are made; non-members won't be admitted even if they've bought tickets. My aim is to suggest that there is another way milongas can be organised here, and as places for women in particular tend to sell out within minutes of booking opening it's clear that this model is successful. I should have made the general idea clearer. In any case, if tickets sell out that fast, it doesn't need publicity.

'Tickets? You mean you have to book in advance?' I don't know why that's so extraordinary, but it does shock some people. You have to make a commitment in advance to go there? Yes, just like going to a concert or a theatre. Why not?

This isn't a model that makes much sense from a BsAs perspective, not at first anyway. But when you think about it, the 'organizador' there isn't just the person who books the hall and a DJ, and does some advertising. There's also a strong social connection between the organizador and the people who come to dance. They expect the organizador to guarantee and maintain standards of behaviour, on and off the dance floor: the organizador has a responsibility to the people who pay to come to the milonga to maintain standards of behaviour, and consequently has the authority to enforce standards. Here, if you pay to enter a milonga, you have the right to do more or less as you please. But if you transfer the whole transaction to a club level, with membership, then the organiser has authority. The fact that reminding people of codes of behaviour can be done via emails makes it easier.

So, if you are fed up with poor standards of dance and behaviour in your local milongas, it's worth looking at this possibility. It's an informal club, and membership is by recommendation by two existing members. Members agree that dancing is close embrace, with courtesy to your partner and to the rest of the floor. There's a limited number of places, which ensures that the floor doesn't become unreasonably crowded, and that lead and follow numbers are approximately equal. The rules recommend a certain degree of good dressing. It certainly works in terms of guaranteeing a calm, enjoyable afternoon of dance, and I think it's sent a message to London tango, that there needs to be a certain level of agreement on general behaviour. For instance, it's more likely now in other milongas that if you enter the line of dance with a partner you check that the lead approaching in the line of dance is aware that you are there. Before, it was normal that couples simply blundered into the line of dance regardless. (When people danced 'open' they could be aware of newcomers to the line of dance, but if you dance close the lead's view to the right is usually blocked by his/her partner's head, so this has become a problem.)

The limitation of this club arrangement is that there's only a small variation in the people who are there, and I think we all enjoy the random nature of the regular, 'open' milonga, where you dance with and meet new people, as well as old friends. But for any social event to be enjoyable to everyone there needs to be a certain level of acceptable practice. Perhaps we need to work out just how what is acceptable is made known and how it is 'enforced'. (That word is too strong, but I can't think of another one.) One of our regular 'open' milongas has now drawn up a code of behaviour, and the organiser draws attention to it. Since it is all quite basic stuff, perhaps if all London milongas adopted it, even using exactly the same wording, it could very quickly become normal.

Friday, 26 September 2014

It is happening here now

Well, well, well.

A comment posted yesterday by P&O:

'Since two weeks ago Giraldo and Mina are teaching Tango Technique, Tuesdays 7.30 - 9.30, Acland Burghley School, Burghley Road, London NW5 1UJ. (Opposite The Dome.)

'Covering the basic elements of tango: walking, the embrace, connection with your partner etc. More experienced dancers will find it will help strengthen techniques that they need at a higher level. I recommend this class.'

I didn't know about it until I read this comment, and it is recent. I'm usually wary of 'technique' classes, which rarely seem to have concentrated on basics, but if this functions as described it could be very useful. My only experience of these teachers was about seven years ago: I felt despair at the complexity of what they taught, and the seemingly cold feeling of the class, but times have changed. Perhaps I should add that P&O has visited Buenos Aires for dancing a number of times, and has some experience.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

It can't happen here?

Since 'It can't happen here' turns out to be such a good predictor of what is actually going to happen I can't resist putting forward an 'It can't happen here' of my own.

'A regular workshop/guided practica concentrating on posture, walking and embrace. No way! It can't happen here!'

When I started we were taught something called 'the tango basic'. Later we were told, well, it's not really the tango basic, it just combines all the possibilities of stepping, and anyway it gets you on the floor right away. (It did that: I remember getting onto the floor right away after my first class, with a brave partner, trying to practice our 'tango basic'. & we're still on speaking and dancing terms!)

Later we were told: there's absolutely no such thing as any 'tango basic'! Well, I'd like to contradict that: there is. It's called 'walking' or 'THE WALK'. The tango walk isn't quite the same as the everyday walk. Slightly unusual, but absolutely fundamental. It should be taught from the first lesson, taught repeatedly thereafter, and practiced until it is second nature.

It's always said that the older dancers are completely individual, since they learned by dancing rather than by going to tango classes. That may be true, but only up to a point. You could never mistake Ricardo Vidort's dance for that of Osvaldo Cartery, even if they were identical in stature: it's said they grew up together and learned together, but their choice of 'steps', the way they use their energy, the way they dance, is different. But when you look at them closely you find that in many respects their dance is identical. The way they and their partners stand, walk and embrace is the same. Minor differences arise because people are slightly different in size, but basically the posture, the walk, the embrace are the same. If you want to dance like them, memorising the 'steps' they use is secondary: the priority is to learn to stand and walk like them.

I don't think this similarity has anything to do with some abstract concept of 'style'. The reason for the similarity is that when two people hold each other close and start to move around in a crowd and with music there's going to be an optimum posture and way of walking. (This doesn't apply if you dance Nuevo, since there's no continuous contact: walk and posture hardly matter in Nuevo.) People who teach 'milonguero style' are missing the point: Ricardo and Osvaldo, and many, many others, dance the way they do because it works so well that way. Close embrace tango will still work if you don't practice the optimum, but it doesn't work so well. For instance, if a lead is round-shouldered and stoops, that lead can still dance tango. However, it means that his/her contact with the partner is going to be relatively high up. If you stand straight, like the older dancers, then your lead is from the sternum, and most likely from the belly too, so it is much more effective and comfortable, partly because the centre of gravity is lower. It's more stable, so it's more comfortable.

It seems incredible that this 'tango basic', the walk, hasn't been taught here much, particularly now that close embrace is widely practiced. As a result we see, for instance, people dancing with constantly bent knees. This is particularly a problem with follows: if a follow doesn't reach back, his/her knees will be too far forwards and will be in the way of the lead. If a follow doesn't reach back, there's also no forwards pressure from his/her torso, and the dance lacks energy. It lacks energy and it just doesn't look good. The 'tango basic', the walk, looks elegant, and it has energy. It's efficient in terms of communication and energy, and it looks elegant too. Too many dancers slouch round the floor together, knees bent, which looks feeble and uncomfortable. It looks feeble and it feels feeble, so there's the temptation to spice it up with wild moves, to make it into a performance rather than an intimate dance between two people.

Trouble is, not many people are really qualified take a workshop in posture, walk and embrace, and almost all of them live in Buenos Aires. The trouble is, too, that when you start talking to someone about their posture and walk, it starts to sound personal, whereas little that might sound personal needs to be said in getting someone to perform mechanically a step or choreographic sequence. Moreover, old habits die hard. It's not difficult to change posture: many techniques, including Pilates, Yoga and Alexander are helpful. But it takes time, although it's beneficial not only to tango. Even in Buenos Aires, not many teachers will deal with posture and walk. Two I remember are Cacho Dante and Myriam Pincen. I danced whole tangos in private class, with Myriam continually glancing at me in the mirror: no! you must straighten the leg you step on to; do that turn again, and make sure you step onto a straight leg! Cacho pointed out the same problem but casually, as if it was something quite simple and basic, like pointing out that your shoelace is loose. But things like this can be part of a lifelong habit of posture, and not easy to change.

Jorge Dispari, another great teacher of 'the walk', has been here recently. See him here a few days ago with Claire Lowe. Of course, milongas rarely give us the luxury of simply walking, but at least we can watch this walk. It's easy and relaxed, but full of energy.

So I'd love to see Cacho or Myriam or anyone else as well qualified holding regular posture, walking and embrace workshop/guided practicas in London, something you could go to regularly, or pop into for a quick checkup. But it can't happen here!

Thursday, 18 September 2014

At last

So at last London has a regular 'cabeceo milonga'. It started late in August with an afternoon and evening session, and it was a big success. There were tables for men and tables for ladies, and also tables for people who wanted to sit together. Perhaps almost as important... everyone actually had a chair! (That exclamation mark explains what it's usually like here.)

Why is it a good idea for organisers to take this step? Well, think about it. These days, most men and women expect to agree at a distance on a dance, so we're almost there already except for the seating arrangements; it seems a simple step to organise the seating to optimise this new (to us) custom. And it's surprisingly good fun: you sit opposite partners most of whom you know at least by sight waiting for that magic moment when the cortina dies away and a new tanda starts. There are a few moments, a buzz of excitement and anticipation as eyes dart back and forth, then leads start to stand stand up and cross the floor to greet another partner, and the ronda begins again. Generally you wait for the music: ah! it's a vals, and I know who I'd like to dance a vals with right now! It's more or less what we already do, but it is so much clearer when it's organised like this. Of course it's helpful to have some kind of common space – a refreshments area or a bar – where conversations can be continued, or started. But the difference the cabeceo in good light makes is that the dance to the music becomes the real focus, the dance with different partners is what we focus on and enjoy, and the result is we enjoy a much better evening or afternoon.

'It can't happen here...' It's what people were saying about dancing in close embrace six years ago in London: how wrong they were! Suddenly we find there's nothing extraordinary about dancing close, even with partners we've never met before. I always hoped a 'cabeceo milonga' could happen here but I think I wrote that it seemed unlikely that it would ever happen. Of course, it now happens just within the context of recent 'tango clubs', rather than in the context of public milongas, but it's a great achievement, and thanks and congratulations to the organisers. Tango has moved on fast in London, and we have to thank the people who've created the foundation for this, and those who have made it happen.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Between tangos

'I really like the twiddly bits...'

Hmm. Well, I've written about why I don't, but perhaps in negative terms. To try and say something positive for a change: a little earlier I'd been watching a couple dance, marveling at the smooth energy of two people moving, totally  involved with the energy of the music, two individuals totally absorbed like one with the music. There's something really heart-felt in that. Nothing elaborate, nothing to disrupt the energy and flow of it, even in the confined space of the dance floor. It was entirely personal, without the slightest element of display. I try to dance tango because when that connection happens it leaves me really fulfilled, like almost nothing else.

Of course it's not what you do, it's the way you do it. Learning to dance like that takes time and devotion, but spending time learning to walk well and to stand well is time well spent. Dance like that shows how seriously people have taken it; if you put that much into it, you get so much out of it. Dance like that is really beautiful to watch -- and there are a few dancers in London who can dance like that, mostly people who've been to Buenos Aires, listened to what they've been told, watched, and managed to bring it back with them. But only a few.

That simple elegance of doing something really well, with energy and without the slightest ostentation, took my breath away. Needless to say, it was pretty much a twiddly bit-free zone. At worst, twiddly bits are vanity and a distraction, a displacement activity, perhaps a way of doing something other than opening your heart to your partner and the music. It's hard to dance like that if you have to carry vanity with you. 

(PS: Tango Addiction's musings on Legwrap Land, also published today.)

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Bienvenido a Mónica Paz!

Excellent news that Mónica Paz is to visit the UK early next month. She's been a regular visitor teaching in Europe and the US for quite a while now, so a visit to London is long overdue. 

There's a long list of Buenos Aires women who have danced in the milongas for many years and have learned their tango in the arms of the older dancers whose tango goes back to the end of the Golden Age, Muma and Myriam Pincen with Ricardo Vidort, Silvia Ceriani with Tete, Susanna Miller with Cacho Dante, María Plazaola with Gavito (these are the partners they are most associated with, but their dancing goes much wider). Then of course, Ana María Schapira, Alicia Pons... There are many more, and all are teaching, many, like Mónica Paz, sessions before milongas. I say 'sessions' rather than classes, because 'tango classes' have come to suggest learning tango steps rather than learning to dance tango. 

Women who go out regularly to dance always have an interest in men who dance well, and thus an interest in getting men to dance better. Nothing new here: a good many of the veteran tangueros recall being taught by their mothers and aunts, even before they practiced with their friends.

These pre-milonga sessions in Buenos Aires typically focus first on posture, the walk and the embrace. Mónica, like Susanna, María and Alicia, usually works with several 'assistentes', so men and women both get a chance to work with experienced dancers on getting the best posture, embrace and walk. When these have been practiced there will probably be a sequence of some kind, and practice in extending it in different ways, but these are classes in dancing, not classes in tango steps, and they are useful. Mónica's take on this, the 'practilonga', is to bring a bit of the formality of the Buenos Aires milonga into the practica, which is helpful to visitors who want to get the most out of their time there. 

Mónica currently seems to have just two dates in the UK, Tango West in Bristol on September 7, and Corrientes in London on September 13. I hope more can be arranged: here is someone who can convey the feel of the tango of the milongas of Buenos Aires, and the way people dance there. 

Her website is here, and this is her YouTube channel. All her interviews with the older dancers are on her Practimilongueros YouTube channel.

Finally, here she is dancing with a great dancer and a regular partner, Chiche Ruberto: lively stuff, and great energy. He's one of her interviewees on the Practimilongueros YouTube channel.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Between tangos

'This milonga is so dark. Don't you find it dark in here?'

I do.

'It shouldn't be so dark, should it? The organisers encourage us to use cabeceo, but they keep the lighting so low it's difficult to see people clearly. & we're supposed to be aware of other dancers on the floor, and be courteous to them, but even on the floor the lighting is poor.'

It definitely is.

'& it's not only you and me. Everyone I've asked says it would be better if the lighting was improved. It's really poor.'

Poor lighting makes an evening of dance more difficult: at least, that's what I think, and I'm not alone. Our organisers struggle around with lights and ladders and colour filters with the aim of giving us a better evening out – and much of it may be wasted effort. It's normal enough in Buenos Aires just to turn on the lights and play some music to get the milonga going. A few venues have some areas where lighting isn't good, but it's rarely at a seriously low level. It's normal to use the existing lighting, just as it is. Club Sunderland, also used as a basketball court, has bright, possibly mercury vapour overhead lights. In some venues, the lighting might be subdued, but it's never at a low level. 

One of the best London milongas is an afternoon milonga in daylight, and I've never felt that it's inferior to a dimly-lit evening milonga in any way: the dancing is usually better, there's no loss of intimacy, it's more comfortable. It's an old-fashioned idea that we can't enjoy an evening dancing unless the lights are dim. It's really not practical to run a milonga in semi darkness.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Los Anarquistas

While rooting around for early tango recordings I came across Socrates Figoli, the 'payador anarquista', the anarchist folksinger, a recording said to be from 1906. It didn't strike me at the time that it was extraordinary that his voice ever made it onto disc. I'm not sure when recording started in Argentina, but his must have been one of the very first Argentine recordings, and indeed one of the very first recordings ever, if the date is correct, as mass-produced recording anywhere hardly went back ten years then. & he was presumably a political and social outsider.

I also came across a modern recording of a 'tango anarquista', 'Guerra a la Burguesía', written in 1901. It didn't sound much like a tango to me, and I assumed 'tango' might also be used in a Spanish (flamenco) sense, as a kind of song. If you search YouTube for 'tango 1909' you come across several versions of the opus 165 n° 2, Tango, by the Spanish composer Albéniz (1860-1909), who had been encouraged by his teacher to draw on Spanish folk and dance music. There's also a 'tango' written by Joaquín Durán, a close contemporary of Albéniz. I've read that there's not much connection between the flamenco tango and Argentine tango – but I'm not sure that holds if you go back to around 1900.

Anyway, a 'tango anarquista' written in 1901. Perhaps it's no surprise that there were 'anarquistas' in Argentina: they were fleeing Russia, eastern Europe and the rest of Europe too, and where else for refugees, political or otherwise to go than to Argentina? It was an idealist movement: maybe in the new world workers could establish ideal societies. The recent recording of the tango anarquista on YouTube is illustrated by some fine black-and-white drawings by an Italian anarquista refugee of the time. There are a number of studies on the internet of the anarchist movement in Argentina, in Spanish. It's plausible that the barrios from which tango emerged were those where the anarquistas had settled. It's also plausible that 'tango' was less clearly defined at the end of the 19th century. 1903, and the first performance of an arrangement of El Choclo by a society orquesta in Buenos Aires seems to mark the emergence of tango into wider society, where its growth was pushed along by the development of the recording industry.

& I remembered I'd read about another 'anarquista' recently: Andrés Cepeda (1869-1910). It's here – scroll down to 'The divine poet of the jailhouse'. A fascinating story of a petty criminal, anarchist and poet who wrote most of his poems in jail, songs which were set to music and recorded by his friends Gardel and his accompanist, José Razzano. 'Of the first fourteen recordings made by Gardel in 1912, five were authored by Cepeda.' But his songs are love songs rather than political, and in Cepeda's case this might be a complicated story.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Ángel Villoldo, Paris and early tango

Tango is full of legends and stories, so it's it's fascinating to have access to actual artefacts, especially old shellac discs and old photos and drawings. I've been scouring YouTube for the earliest tango material.

The oldest recording of a tango I've come across is the first recording of El Choclo, which is dated to 1908, recorded in Paris by a (probably French) band called the Orquestra Tzigan de la Restaurant du Rat Mort, the 'Gypsy Orquestra of Dead Rat Restaurant'. Great name! ('Dated 1908': but I have to rely on the information given by whoever uploaded the tracks, as the actual disc label isn't shown. I can only assume they've got it right. & the fact that this is the oldest recording on YouTube doesn't mean that it's the oldest recording -- although it's not far off!)

El Choclo, the tango, was so successful that the date and place of its first performance in Buenos Aires is known: November 1903 at the upmarket restaurant El Americano, Cangallo 966 (today Teniente General Perón 966), by the orchestra led by José Luis Roncallo. Roncallo could not announce El Choclo as a tango because the proprietor of the Americano forbad tango in his establishment, but the tune caught on and the band continued to play it because it was requested.

Not long after its Buenos Aires premiere, El Choclo was sung onstage at the Parisien Varitè Show, and subsequently recorded in Paris by the Orquestra Tzigan de la Restaurant du Rat Mort.

El Choclo was written in 1903 by Ángel Villoldo (1861 – 1919). 
He's been described as part Hemingway and part Bob Dylan: curiously, he played guitar and harmonica and so invented a harness that would allow him to play both together. In 1903 Villodo also wrote El Porteñito, and in 1905 La Morocha, as well as a number of other tangos. La Morocha became very widely-known, and is said to have begun the European fascination with tango.

The April 1908 recording of El Choclo by the orquestra Tzigan de la Restaurant du Rat Mort doesn't really sound like any tango group I've heard. It sounds closer to a string quartet than a tango band: the violinist could be a classical musician moonlighting as a gypsy musician. But it's certainly very lively for its 110 years.

There are two other early recordings of Villodo tangos. This may be Villoldo himself singing and playing his song El Negro Alegre: the Victor discography lists the recording Villoldo made, 'Male vocal solo, with guitar', of the song on 12/26/1907. The laughter indeed sounds like Dylan... 1907, so it's actually a year before the recording of El Choclo, but I'm not sure if El Negro Alegre is really a tango, although it seems to be about dancing.

Finally, there's a recording of Ángel Villoldo's El esquinazo recorded in March the following year. Like the two other recordings it sounds incredibly sharp, clear and lively. A milonga from 1910. Three of the earliest tango recordings, three amazing recordings.

The Victor discography lists several recordings of El porteñito and El Choclo in  1906, and a variety of other recordings by Villoldo and by other orquestas of his music from 1906 onwards.

Since tango became so popular in Paris, Villodo travelled there, as did other Argentine musicians of the time. He was there in 1912, working with Alfredo Gobbi's parents, 'Los Gobbis', who were a hit in Paris: Flora de Gobbi had sung on some of the earlier recordings of Villoldo's music. Gobbi himself was born in Paris in 1912, and Villodo was his godfather. This was recorded by Gobbi 'père' in 1912, so presumably in Paris.

Along the way I came across another early gem, not a tango but a 'canción Proletaria', from Socrates Figoli, a 1906 recording. He's described as 'Payador Anarquista', a singer who traded verses with other singers in competition, which was widely popular in South America. Presumably Figoli and others expressed extreme political views in their verses. I like the melody with its strange move from major to minor: it sounds like a modal scale. Very melodic. 

There's a slideshow of photos of tango embrace around 1900. One of the sources for this is El Tango en la sociedad porteña 1880 – 1920, the book by Hugo Lamas and Enrique Binda on early tango, which attempts a history based on contemporary sources (rather than on later embellishments), but the source of this particular photo (and its dating 'before 1900') isn't made clear in the slideshow. 

It's often said that close embrace dance grew up because the confiterias and dance floors in the city centre were small and crowded, but this photo suggests close embrace much earlier, on a dance floor that isn't at all crowded, and with a prosperous-looking clientele in an elegant dance-hall, people apparently enjoying the music much as we do today, perhaps 114 years ago.

I also came across this film of a dance dating from 1902. It's called 'Tango Apache' but probably has little to do with tango and certainly nothing at all to do with Native Americans. 'Apache' was the word journalists used to describe a brawl in the Paris slums, meaning 'savage', and the name was adopted by Paris street-gangs, who celebrated the brawl with a dance. Visually and dramatically it's lively stuff, but too extreme for a social dance, so this is a performance from 1902, while the rest of society went off to dance tango. Or that's the story. This dance may be an authentic Parisian 'Apache' dance, but the film is from an an American studio, with American performers: perhaps it was a deliberate travesty of the tango of the time.

After 1910, tango recordings proliferate. Here's Vincente Greco y su Orquesta Tipica Criolla playing Hotel Victoria in 1911. Another recording artist was Juan Maglio 'Pacho', here in a recording from 1912. The photo of Maglio and his orquesta show well-dressed and well-presented musicians, an image suggesting good professional status, ready to perform for well-off patrons. & finally, here's the first disc a young singer called Carlos Gardel recorded in 1912. 

Legends say that tango was marginalised, but it seems clear from the volume of surviving recordings, and from these images, that there was enough interest from people who could afford to buy a 'Victrola' and records to support the involvement of the music industry. Tango doesn't seem to have been hidden away in impoverished barrios.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Silvia Ceriani in London


Silvia Ceriani was the late 'Tete' Rusconi's dancing and teaching partner
for 15 years. Watch them here.

She is a regular DJ at Salon Canning and at La Catedral in Buenos Aires, and has taught and performed as DJ very widely in Europe and the USA. Her UK timetable is:

Friday 4 July, 8-12pm. DJ Silvia at Carablanca milonga, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL.

Monday 7 July evening: private class.

Wednesday 9 July: Tango West, Redland Club, Burlington Road, Redland, Bristol BS6 6TN. Programme:

7.30-8.00pm The expressive musicality of the legendary Tete: illustrated talk and film clips, including rare clips of Tete dancing with Pina Bausch.

8.00-9.00pm Musicality workshop with Silvia: dancing tango with expression and musicality.

9.00-11.00pm Practica with international DJ Silvia.

Thursday 10 July: Tangoynadamas, Morganstown Village Hall, Morganstown, Cardiff CF15 8LE. Programme is similar to Bristol.

Sunday 13 July: DJ Silvia at Juntos milonga, London.
Talk and workshop, 11.15 - 1.15. Milonga with DJ Silvia, 1.30 - 5.30. 

For more info, and if you are interested in organising additional events,
please contact this blog.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Geraldine and Gerardo

Four years ago I wrote something about this video. A number of videos of this show, Marisa Galindo's La Milonga in 1991, had been released, and this was one of many videos. Recently I re-discovered it.

When I first watched it I was struck by the complete seriousness of Portalea's attitude to his young partner. There's nothing in the least bit patronising in it: he takes her as seriously as his wife or any other partner he dances with. I found that level of respect very beautiful, and I believe it's typical of Argentine tango culture. Watching it again, I'm struck by how clearly this clip shows that basic, simple tango technique, done well, is very beautiful in itself. I watch the way they both move, change weight, step; the emphatic way they have of stepping and the energy that results, and the energy that comes from the swift act of 'collecting': moreover, it reassures your partner, it says 'this is where I am, my centre'. In a way it's a very simple dance, very basic, but the energy put into it makes it very striking. It's slow and unhurried, there's nothing at all elaborate, but it's not lacking in energy. There's a lot to be learned from this.

I showed it to a friend who saw Portalea many times over the years, and the reply came: '...he didn’t change one bit – either in his look or his dancing. Muy elegante!' As for Geraldine: 'However did she manage to 'get it' at 8 years of age, when so many don’t at many times that? I think this should be required viewing. How about when someone signs on for a beginners class, they have to sit in a corner and watch it first before they are taught anything at all? I met Gustavo Naveira at about that time, and Portalea, the dancer who hardly seemed to dance more than four steps, amazed him.'

As to how Geraldine 'got it' at eight, well, perhaps not surprising, considering her background. & considering that children can learn fast, and that you can drill them: they can't escape! They can't go off to another parent who gives them an easier time. If teachers start drilling adults and pulling them up every time they get careless, their students might seek out more compliant teachers, and never develop good habits. Adults will be impatient to dance something more elaborate – and consequently may never dance with this kind of intensity. Besides, 'Dance? It's about having fun, isn't it?' 'Playing at tango' is fun for many people, but there's more to it. Dance always seems the most relaxed art, but it has to be the most disciplined, too. We tend to be impatient of discipline, but the dance of Geraldine and Portalea is very disciplined. It's simple, beautiful to watch, and I'm sure it was beautiful for them too.

As to this video being required viewing... of course! What a great suggestion! Not just once, but many many times. Our bodies learn movement by watching, which is how we can mimic, whether it's Chaplin's walk, or a Madonna strut. We hardly need to practice or learn these things: we just watch and absorb. Who better to mimic than Geraldine and Portalea? I must put it on a loop! Once you can move like this you are already dancing great tango.

(HELP! I can no longer embed video. The embed code simply prints out in the blog, it doesn't link to the video. If anyone knows how to deal with this I'd be glad of help!)

Friday, 2 May 2014

El último aplauso

I really enjoyed El último aplauso (2009 dir. German Kral). It's in Spanish without subtitles, but subtitles don't matter so much as a lot of the film is music. It looks great throughout. Really a pity I didn't come across it earlier.

Bar El Chino in the Pompeya barrio of Buenos Aires was started by El Chino Garcia's father, an immigrant from Spain, as a bar and grocery. El Chino grew up passionate about tango, and a singer, so under his direction the groceries disappeared, and the bar became known as a restaurant bar, with music several nights a week. Kral began filming there in the late 1990s. El Chino died in 2001, but his vivacious, gregarious, open-hearted personality lives on in the early footage, included in the film. The first 25 minutes is the old footage from El Chino's day. Then it jumps to 2003 with the visit of one of the singers, Cristina De Los Angeles, to El Chino's grave in Chacarita. Recollections of El Chino follow. In the economic meltdown of 2001-2 the property owners needed to sell the bar, and the singers and musicians who had performed regularly alongside El Chino no longer had a place there: we see two of them busking in Calle Florida. Then Christina visits La Ideal and meets the young tango Orquesta Tipica Imperial. Rehearsals of the orquesta with the four surviving singers follow, and the film concludes with their performance together in the Bar El Chino. Some of the most memorable scenes for me are when the older performers meet up with the young musicians of the orquesta and start rehearsing, start putting their musical experience together. It's interesting: singers accustomed to sing with a guitar suddenly have an orquesta behind them – and they relish it! For one last evening, people come to the Bar El Chino to eat and drink and enjoy the music.

It seems that the bar was later gutted and relaunched as a tango theme bar. How is it that people can make such totally wrong decisions? 

The film shows another side of tango. It's not the tango of dance halls and recording studios, the tango we hear at milongas, the product of highly trained arrangers, band leaders and musicians, tango controlled by the music industry. This is live music made by a couple of performers for an audience, tango sung to a guitar – which I think is how most tangos began, as a guitar or piano score with lyrics. In a particularly magical scene, one of the singers sings with a guitar and violin while the others clap the beat, and it's astonishing how tango can suddenly sound Andalucian, although something similar could probably be found in Italian folk music, and in non-European folk music too. It's like seeing the folk roots of tango, but the songs are the same old favourites you hear in the milongas, Naranja en Flor, Por una cabeza, Cambalache, Ventarrón, Malena, Barrio de Tango, Romance de Barrio...

This isn't tango for dance halls, but it's tango at its most popular level since the music has always been more widely popular than the dance. When the dance lost popularity and the orquestas were no longer financially viable, I assume people still sang these songs, listened to them with a singer and guitar, whistled them in the streets. The dance, and to a lesser extent the music, has achieved world-wide popularity, but what I hear in this film is the basis of the music, outside the star system of singers and musicians.

Several of the performers passed away during the decade or so of filming, and subsequently. These were people who were around when the recordings were still new, when the songs we dance to were first heard, people who have sung them all their lives. It's wonderful that this film gives us the opportunity to share their enthusiasm and experience. It's a remarkably sympathetic and respectful presentation of this world, and of tango. Much credit and thanks to the director, German Kral, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1968, studied film in Germany and has worked both in Europe and Argentina: his Tango Berlin (1997) was made with Wim Wenders. The entire film is currently available on YouTube but without subtitles. There might be a German version on DVD, and it's really a pity it hasn't appeared on DVD with English subtitles. It would be great one day to watch it with the words of the songs in English for those of us who aren't fluent in Spanish. 

El último aplauso is not to be confused with Bar El Chino (2003, dir. Daniel Burek), which also has footage from the bar and of El Chino and the other performers, but sadly just as a background to a tedious story of film-makers meeting, falling in and out of love, all the while rushing around trying to complete a film about the bar against a background of the economic crisis... Something of a self-parody, and the music hardly gets a look in. It's also on YouTube, and well worth avoiding. 

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Gricel: un amor en tiempo de tango

Three films I've recently come across: this one is Argentine, with one Argentine and one German/Argentine to follow.

Contursi is a big name in tango lyrics: it was Pascual Contursi who met up with a young singer called Carlos Gardel in Violettas in 1917 in Buenos Aires, and sang him his latest song, Mi Noche Triste. Gardel recorded it, and it made him famous. It's regarded as as the first tango song. (These days you might not be allowed into Violettas with a guitar, and almost certainly you wouldn't be welcome to work through your latest song with a friend, but you can get the best chocolate mousse in town and a pot of green tea to go with it. & you can enjoy a wonderful Art Deco interior.)

Pascual Contursi's son, José María Contursi, was a prolific tango lyricist who wrote the song called Gricel. The lyrics and a translation are here, and this is probably the best-known version, Troilo with Fiorentino. It's a tortured song: the poet has seduced a woman, regrets it and can't forget her. According to his daughter and friends, Contursi always maintained that Gricel was a fictional character, and the story behind the song was imagined. But after his wife's death in the early 1960s Contursi asked his daughter's permission to bring someone into his house... and it was Gricel. The song quite definitely was not a fiction. Contursi had met Gricel when he was in his mid-twenties and she was a beautiful 16-year old on a visit to Buenos Aires, around 1936. There is a photo of them from around this time. She returned home to the hills around Córdoba, and he returned to his wife, but they kept in touch, and he visited Córdoba a few times. Then in 1942 he sent her the song, Gricel. It's a sad outpouring of love and regret, and as he titled it with the name of the woman herself it was personal, and also a message. She married in 1949 and had a daughter, but her husband abandoned her. In 1962 Contursi's wife passed away, and in 1967 he and Gricel married. He died just five years later.

The trailer for Gricel: un amor en tiempo de tango (2012: dir. Jorge Leandro Colás) is on YouTube, and it includes extracts from interviews with Contursi's daughter and with one of his friends. However, instead of being just a remarkable documentary of an era of tango history, the film uses a framing device: Pablo Basualdo, a lead singer with the Teatro Colon company, wants to make an opera around the story of Gricel, a story which might well have inspired a Puccini or a Busoni. The film follows him as he researches the story and interviews people who knew Contursi, and as he sings extracts of the opera. He's a great singer, but the music doesn't come from a tango background which I thought is a pity, as a tango opera on the story of Gricel could be a really interesting project. Perhaps the entire opera is in the full film: it's impossible to tell from the trailer. However, the cast list on IMDb  shows that a lot of people talked to camera, so I hope the film is more documentary than opera, and I certainly look forward to seeing it. It doesn't appear to have a DVD release yet.

Gricel herself passed away in 1994. This must be a photo of her late in life, as it's said the dog survived her.

(Information and photos from Todotango.)