Saturday, 29 November 2008

Tango and the city

The city seems to function well, in need of repair but operational. Pavements often need mending, but the roads are OK. Priorities. Guide books make jokes about the traffic, which is hectic but actually pretty orderly, and no worse-behaved than city traffic in Europe, although pollution is a problem. A ban on smoking in public places was introduced recently, and seems to be working well. Taxi drivers -- taxis here are saloon cars -- all seem to wear seat belts: perhaps a better record than minicab drivers in the UK...

I've been glad of every minute I spent listening to Spanish language tapes: people often know a bit of English, but some basic Spanish including numbers is really helpful, and once you have a bit you can build on it. But pronunciation isn't quite as in the language tapes. I knew that 'll' is pronounced somewhere between 'zh' and 'j' (you'll hear 'Cazhe Corrientes', Corrientes Street, in tango songs), but an odd one is 's' pronounced 'k': 'dos', two, sounds like 'dok'. '(Turn) left at the corner' sounds like 'ikkierda al ekkina'. I learnt 'esquina' for corner. 'Jo soy del barrio de tres ekkinas' you hear in the D'Agostino/Vargas song, 'I'm from the three-cornered barrio', well, triangular, I suppose. But he doesn't sing 'trek ekkinak', so I remain puzzled. Why 'dok' and not 'trek'?

Confiteria Ideal is the famous old cafe and milonga, familiar to anyone who saw Tango Salon on the BBC a few years ago, with Geraldine and Javier, and some older dancers and denizens of the milonga. The upstairs, where the programme was filmed, no longer seems open. Downstairs is much the same, but is rather a tango tourist trap than a place where you see milongueros. But it's just down the road and Unitango was playing there last night, so I went around 11pm. I'm beginning to like the timetable. It makes sense: if you work you have time to eat and nap and go out for a few hours too.

'In need of repair but operational' also applies to the Ideal, a cavernous, dingy place, built when the city was one of the wealthiest in the world, the walls all mirrors and dark wood, teak I'd imagine, the floor slabs of marble. Four central marble pillars define the dance area, the rest is tables. Unlike El Beso there's no separation of men and women, not last night, anyway. Whole families at the tables. A few obvious tourists, but generally it seemed local, but more of a family party than a serious club. The disrepair is sad, actually a bit shocking: at some stage fluorescent strip lighting was screwed into the stucco mouldings on the ceiling, and then later ripped out, leaving holes in the ceiling and the dark traces left by the lights, and the ceiling is dull with decades of grime.

But the party at ground level was pretty lively. The dancing was hardly up to the level of the dancing at El Beso, but less intimidating too. There was the old porteno who drags young tourists onto the floor and gives them a taste of tango with his large midriff -- watch out, ladies, you wouldn't want to be tangoed: a couple who I assumed were visiting tango teachers working on their ganchos, boleyos, barridas: dancers with various strange attitudes and complicated moves: three or four guys in their 30s, serious dancers, who moved very smoothly, a kind of dance I've heard described as 'nuevo milonguero', observing musicality and the close hold, but trying to extend the style and the range of steps: then there were some kids from a tango school who gave a demonstration and who later danced around pushing people out of the way. All in all much like a quiet night at Negracha.

& at last I got a dance. A young Argentinian woman at Oscar's class had kindly and patiently tried to help me get my milonga lead going, and she turned up at the Ideal. We got onto the floor, and after the first dance she laughed and laughed and said something like: 'How come you're such an idiot at milonga when you can dance tango like that?', and laughed some more. It really was a good dance. I'd watched her dancing earlier with one of the serious dancers, and seen how much straightforward walking they did, and how expressive it could be, so I stole that one and found it very useful. Apart from that I kept it simple, nothing I can't lead easily, as you do in another country, in public, and with someone you've not danced with before. & it seemed right.

An interesting thing: teachers often say that you dance in your own axis, which can't be true, because if you are in close-hold your feet would be too close together. If your feet are the usual foot's-length apart and your upper chests are together, there is a slight lean out of axis. The effect of this leaning together is a slight pressure, a tension, between the two bodies. I've experienced this in London, but hardly ever for the duration of a whole dance. We learn complicated figures in open-hold, rather than how to maintain connection in close-hold. But here that pressure is maintained – and it's equal. Her pressure on me is the same as mine on her. Leandro and Romina go on about 'holding your partner tight', but perhaps it isn't a tight hold, which could be inflexible and uncomfortable, it's a pressure from leaning, a weight that I suspect the follower even more than the leader has learnt to maintain. In an odd sort of way it is her control, too. In one way she's leading her partner on: go on, push me! But she could also use it to signal, to warn if she isn't comfortable. I've found a lot of partners dance close but without that pressure, and it's just not the same, tho' of course height is always a factor.

We think of dance as leaping, gravity-defying. Nureyev was said to hang in the air a little longer than seemed plausible, and I saw something like that in a dance in William Forsythe's Impressing the Czar at Sadler's Wells recently. But tango, traditional tango, seems to accept and work around gravity and weight.

So I left around 1.30, feeling good. By chance I'd got my first dance, four tangos with a good Buenos Aires partner, and to D'Agostino, music I know and like. It's a good beginning: I'm sure we'll dance again, and I've been seen dancing there, which could lead to more dances. But the 'cabeza', the eye-contact that leads to the nod that leads to the dance, is still a problem. The Ideal is big and the lighting isn't bright, so it's actually difficult to see where someone across the room is looking. But it's an interesting custom that has stood the test of time: it allows dancers to say no to each other, ever so discretely, just by avoiding eye-contact.

I walked home at 1.30am; the streets are narrow and not well lit, but there are people around, and traffic. In the wider streets people are sitting out finishing a coffee after eating, so it all feels perfectly safe.

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