Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Keeping the beat

I always considered that I kept to the beat until dancing with a portena who insisted I should be more careful: I made a note of this earlier. Today I found this quote from Kathryn Stott, pianist, who was introduced to Piazolla's music by Yoyo Ma, and who subsequently performed with members of Piazolla's quintet, including Pablo Aslan:

"After the release of the album, we toured the US and far east and my real tango lessons began. Our bass player, Pablo Aslan, was tough in insisting on my left hand playing in time with the notes of his bass ... if that four-note upbeat was not in sync, it simply sounded weak. I thought I knew how to play in time, but this was metronomic on a scale I had not encountered."

"...metronomic on a scale I had not encountered." That's from a trained classical musician, and my experience exactly. Keep the beat with the feet, and let the upper body be moved by the melody.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Something for a cold dark evening

I just found this on YouTube; birthday celebrations of Porteno y Bailarin 2006, with Carlos Stasi (who runs the milonga) as The Leader, and Jose Garofalo (who assists him) as The Follower. Something for a dark cold evening...

Monday, 29 December 2008

The last evening

A friend emailed that she returned from BsAs with five pairs of shoes. I'm returning with one – and 20 CDs, but that's 20 CD boxes, and a lot of the boxes contain double CDs, perhaps 12 pairs of CDs. &, well I did buy a pair of sneakers, as well as the shoes... Thanks to Darcos and Artesanal I have footwear that has been comfortable since day one.

I watched Dido and Aeneas from Les Arts Florissants on cable TV before I went to La Calesita last night, which was kind of amazing. Is cable TV that good in the UK? Probably, but here it's included in the rent. & the main theatre where contemporary dance is performed, Teatro San Martin, put on two evenings of mixed contemporary dance, including work by Merce Cunningham, just before Christmas, for free. Anyone could go along. Amazing.

Thinking back, what a long time it seems since I came here. Also a long time since I first went out to Nunez to visit ESMA. Passing by on the way in to La Calesita last night, it seems fanciful to say that even the trees there look tortured, the beautiful natural park of the campus looks dark and terrifying. Places where there have been horrific events regularly get demolished, and there was a plan in the 90s to flatten the whole campus. No doubt property developers would have been delighted, but the plan was opposed by human rights groups, and the site, or at least some buildings on the site, was turned over to the “nunca mas” organisation as a site of memory, including the building I visited, which was the officer's quarters. The officers inhabited three floors: the extensive loft was where they kept the prisoners. It is said that one of the prisoners' strategies for survival (though I guess it was more of a basic reaction) was laughter, laughter and kindness to each other. Few of them survived.

My last night at Porteno y Bailarin: I talk to Carlos Stasi who has invited Alberto Podesta to sing on Tuesday. "You must change your flight" he says. "People cry to hear him sing. He's the only one still alive from the old generation." I explain that I know him from Pedro Laurenz recordings, my favourite tangos, Recien and Paisaje -- and that I can't change my ticket. I'd have to buy another one...

Portenas seem in a minority as, quite by chance, I dance with French, Italian, and German partners. Sometimes there's a wonderful spontaneous connection, sometimes it just doesn't quite work, like this evening. I'm tired, I've had a cold all week. So why do I ask a tall woman sitting nearby, although the floor is crowded? Tall and strongly built, which I know isn't easy on a crowded floor. I have to stand very upright and lead strongly and positively. & it worked really well. She turns out to be portena (at last, a local partner!) and speaks only castellano. I sense that portena dancers (the few I've danced with) have a slightly challenging air: you ask me to dance, so make me dance, as it should be, no anticipation, no helpful moving around. Except that it wasn't quite like that: what evolved during the tanda was that I started everything, and perhaps suggested when a phrase should end, and she would take over the ending of the phrase and resolve it, with a step or steps that were never less than precisely on the beat. There was a playful element to it: sometimes, if it was in the music, she would prolong the phrase with foot movements that couldn't be called 'decorations', any more than the steps of a giro are decorations, they were part of the dance. Sometimes she'd cut short a phrase and leave me to find a continuation in the music. It was really a dialogue, wonderful. A different kind of tango.

It was the only dialogue we could have. I can usually get a rough idea of the sense of castellano, but not this evening. & if I can't get the gist I've been known to fake it and say 'Si, si' as if I understood, but I actually wanted to understand what she said and kept asking her to repeat, so it got a bit wearisome and I felt foolish. I just couldn't focus on the words. Without exception I've liked the sound of women's voices here: a rich flow of sound with a slight edge to it, even if I can hardly understand a word of it. A good reason to do some work on language.

When I leave there's a steady cold wind blowing. The weather is surprisingly changeable here: this afternoon it was very hot, heavy and windless. I have a cold, I'm sneezing and coughing and could do without a cold gale at 2pm after dancing indoors. I walk fast to try and keep warm.

I leave tomorrow, and here are two tangos from a band I love. They look young, and play a kind of Pugliese tango with wonderful intensity: not an easy kind of music to play. I admire them for playing out of doors without amplification: they are forced to work harder to make a noise, and I'm sure it will make them stronger players. They play every Sunday on the street in San Telmo (unless it's raining) and perform on Buenos Aires tango radio (La 2x4, available online) too. I've been very happy to sit and listen to them. Here's Ciudad Baigon Orquesta Tipica.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

La Calesita

La Calesita at dusk.

40% probability is less than 50%: despite dark skies and heavy humidity no rain fell, not even a rumble of thunder in the distance, so La Calesita was on. Silvia started the class on her own: Tete turned up later, Tete in serious mode. Silvia is a complete and experienced teacher on her own, leading and following. The only new thing is a lead to the cross in two steps (for me), but it was useful to go over what I've learned with them and have a dance or two with her, although I'm still very tentative when I lead her: without heels (which she seems to wear only for performance) she's quite a bit shorter than me, and that seems to make me tentative in stepping.

However, the floor is a lot better: it has rained a few times since last Saturday night, and the dust and grit have been washed away. It's still not a good floor, pivots aren't easy, but it is danceable. La Calesita isn't a great venue for dance; it's a picnic place with dancing, a lovely place to relax on a hot Saturday night, to eat barbecued meat (if you do, there's not much else), drink and have a bit of a dance too. Good dancers go there, but it's not Canning or Sin Rumbo. The dancing I saw in the transition between class and milonga was very light-weight: intended to look elegant but actually rather feeble and uninteresting. One couple were dancing some nuevo-ish saccadas, and Tete stepped in and said: “Do them like this”... and showed how much intensity and energy a tango dancer in his 70s can put into stepping and turning. Once you get used to his way of dancing, intense, powerful, grounded, overall with a hint of danger in it, and completely part of the music, nothing less really makes much sense. Moving without hesitation, 'sin mierdo'.

The cold I got last Sunday has dragged on all week, no worse, no better. A bit of a cough, nothing bad. I hope the journey tomorrow doesn't make it worse.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

A dance at Canning

In the milongas there are usually a few more women than men so it stands to reason that the women are going to be more assertive in getting the men's attention, and that it should be easier for the men to get a lot of dances. (In her interview with Tete, Silvia says that men used to fight over women, and now it's the other way round.) I don't put myself out to get a lot of dances when it's crowded because I don't really enjoy crowded floors. But last night I was sharing a table with a guy who danced every tanda: the moment the music started he was off, so some people are used to it.

There were also several tables of women around, and it was clear that some of the women danced most tandas and some of them hardly ever got a dance. Either they weren't trying, or they weren't confident of their dancing, or everyone knew they weren't that good. They weren't drinking so I presume they were there to dance, and I suspect that when a leader looked at them they hesitated: well, if you want to but I'm really not that good. So the guy walked on. A lot takes place in a brief glance.

The woman I danced with was among them, but despite not looking particularly striking – she wasn't wearing a red dress, like the woman she shared a table with, or striking Comme Il Fauts, like one of the others – she danced almost every tanda. & she got me to dance with her. Her eye caught mine as I was looking around a bit wearily, I looked away involuntarily (it's not done to stare at strange women) and then straight back, and we went off to dance. She told me what she wanted, as she told many leaders that evening, and somehow told me that she knew what she was doing. & I think it was a good dance; it was musical, it felt personal, we kept moving and we neither kicked nor were kicked, although we were jostled. “There's a dangerous man” she said, looking over my shoulder: meaning, I assume, a clumsy dancer. At least, I hope he's not following me around with a knife...

I thought a bit later of dancing with her companion in the red dress, who did get a few dances, but she was tall, at least my height, a bit on the heavy side, and I hadn't danced with her before, all of which isn't good on a crowded floor. & I'd just had a great dance with an interesting dancer and I was happy to leave it there. Unfortunately, I'm not likely to run into her again, at least for a while, so I'm glad to make a note of what happened.

Doesn't look good for the outdoor milonga this evening. It rained this morning, then the sun came out, but now the clouds are gathering and the air is heavy. "Probabilidad de precip. 40%" says the forecast for this evening.

Dancing at Canning

Christmas doesn't last long here. The party starts at midnight on the 24th, you sleep it off the night of the 25th and go back to work on the 26th. It's hard work getting by here, but there's a level of friendliness, openness and cheerfulness.

Oscar's last class, my last class with Oscar, that is. It's been useful, but I won't make a bee-line for them when I come back. I'll probably go, but I've learned of other possibilities that seem more useful. Oscar's created a tango world that appeals to visitors: he teaches in English and most of his students are English speakers, but I don't see many of them dancing in milongas. & I've realised there are good classes before milongas at El Beso, that Ricardo Vidort's ex-partner Myriam Pincen teaches at Canning on Wednesday afternoon, and of course Ana Maria Schapira is always great. What is taught in these is more likely to be useful in milongas than much of Oscar's teaching. Still, his insistence on basic things like the lifting and lowering of the follower, differing the length of steps, and different styles for different orchestras, has been useful. These other classes aren't in English, but I can get by.

Something that works against dancing all night: your partner is almost certainly for the tanda only, which means that every ten minutes or so you have to find a new partner if you want to continue dancing, unlike in London where you might dance a whole evening with 4 or 5 partners. But at least you're never going to bore anyone by repeating the same steps.

Canning, Friday night, Ana Maria's class. I enjoy these more and more, in particular the dances I get with Argentinian women, some beginners, some very practiced. Predictably, it's a version of ocho cortado. One partner tells me I'm not exactly on the beat, and to my surprise I notice she's right: her idea of 'on the beat' is incredibly precise. Another that she can't quite get my lead. All this in castellano, so I assume this is what they say to each other. Tete turns up, as usual, halfway through the class, makes a few joking comments from his table, tries to help a struggling couple, grabs a woman standing without a partner and leads her through a powerful performance in the middle of the class. 'Muscular' is the word that comes to mind when thinking of his leading: it would be forceful if it wasn't so clear. This is another side of Tete: rather different from the total involvement with the music you see when dancing with Silvia. Tango and the milonga seem to be his whole world. Sylvie isn't there: she has a life outside the milonga.

Some excellent dances after the class and before the floor got crowded, and then one when it was busy, which feels good when you manage to make good use of the available space and the music. I tell my partner I can't speak much castellano, but she's lived in London, tells me she's danced tango for six years, and danced flamenco for ten years before that. The problem with 'the system' is that that's all there's time for on the floor, and it's not the done thing to sit down together and continue talking. "The done thing", defined by the codigo is protective.

I'll really miss Canning, and Porteno y Bailarin also. Canning gets crowded and too busy, and there's some clumsy dancing there, but I always liked the room, and feel very at home there. It's also big enough to wander round in (unlike El Beso and Maipu 444), which is how you go looking for dances, and meeting partners with whole stories to tell. This is the real thing and it could easily become a way of life, if I spoke castellano with any fluency.

Thursday, 25 December 2008


Christmas in Buenos Aires starts lunchtime on xmas eve, as in Europe, but the similarities probably end there. I planned to walk with a hot late-afternoon sun on my back round the perimeter of the Parque Natural y Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, having walked the length of it a few weeks back. The perimeter is the banks of the Rio Plate but I never got that far as the park is closed for the holidays. It's not open like Hampstead Heath: if the staff are on holiday it closes. But I took a good walk along the edge of the city and back through Defensa. Found this brilliant weird stencil in a doorway:

As in Europe Christmas is a friends and family affair, and not having either here I kept a low profile. From TV I get the impression that the main church services are early evening on the 24th. Then midnight fireworks celebrate the beginning of an all-night party which lasts into the next morning. At least that's what it sounded like. I got engrossed in a film of Barenboim (again) and his East West Divan Orchestra, climaxing with the concert in Ramallah, the Israeli contingent of the orchestra being driven in in a bullet-proof fleet. After rehearsing all day and a major concert in the evening, there's Barenboim in the car park, seeing all the Israeli contingent back into their vehicles, hugging them all, closing the car doors for them. As a performer he would be memorable, but he's a conductor and music director, and has also done more to bring peace to the mideast than anyone alive. The great human being of the late 20th century. 'Barenboim again'? Well he was born here, and in fact in this area I'm staying in. And tango was his parent's pop music when they weren't teaching classical music, the songs they sang, the music they danced to.

Late morning 25th, a walk planned through Recoleta, Barrio Norte and Once, then back via Corrientes. Soon after I arrived here I took a Sunday walk and found old cobbled streets with trees and vegetation, and smaller houses, but the walk today was dreary city blocks. The shops are bigger or smaller, otherwise it was all the same. I look up at the sky and wish I was out of here in the open.

There are a couple of milongas tonight, and I'd like to go back to El Beso again. But I've had a bit of a cold since last Sunday, and Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights will be busy. & I leave Monday morning.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Eve

Tuesday night is Porteno y Bailarin. Ana Maria Schapira's class has been taught by Silvia, a friend of hers, while she was teaching in Italy. Ana Maria also teaches at Canning on Friday night. I find her an excellent teacher of the best basic tango, someone I'll go straight back to next time I'm here. She speaks enough English, and she's friendly, welcoming, observant and very helpful. I think she's taught all over the continent, but sadly not yet in England. The class was yet another variant on the ocho cortado... But I find all this useful. It's technically not so demanding, and leaves space for good, simple dances where I can think of things like posture and axis. An added bonus was that several of her Italian students had arrived with her, so for a change there were plenty of women at the class who also stayed on for the milonga, and who were great to dance with.

You can tell it's nearly Christmas: the milongas are noisy. More alcohol than usual, people turn up just to eat and drink, lots of hugging and kissing and laughter. You could hardly hear the music.

Returning at 2am, it's a football night outside. Lots of flag waving, yoofs waving their shirts around, dancing in the late-night eateries. A huge noisy party around the Obelisk, flag-waving, fire crackers, chanting. But there doesn't seem to be crazy drinking going on. Lots of police dozing off in cars, chatting on their radios.

Life in BsAs

Before I left a friend told me someone she knew had moved to BsAs 'because the girls there are more beautiful'. I've been wondering about that, looking around in the streets, shopping malls, milongas. Yes, there are stunning teenagers as there always are. Women in their 20s can look great too, but on the whole I think the pressures of time and money don't always mean that nurture is added to nature: the swimming, gym, pilates, massage, the concern with health and weight, the leisure and the work that help keep European women looking great, may not be as common here. & after 30, this becomes more obvious. I don't notice women in their 30s and 40s looking stunning to the same extent. I suspect the national diet doesn't help, and slimness may not be pursued as aggressively here. Food tends to be solid and in big portions, and I suspect a lot of meat fat, probably lard, goes into pastries and cakes. Getting by looks like hard work. I remember being uncomfortable at first, walking into a tango lesson at 1pm, past a queue of tired-looking people at a bus stop. (But I soon got over that.)

So I hope my friend's friend hasn't been disappointed.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Tete and Silvia again

Watch Tete turn: like all the good local dancers he turns as smoothly as a figure hanging on a string, but with an energy, an impulse, often an acceleration, derived from the music. The music comes first: this is emphasised in their classes. Their classes are costly but the attention and affection they give is worth it. The Monday class wasn't great, a bit of an anticlimax as I was tired and a bit tense. The “bounce” from Saturday is taken further with a saccada on the right, and then repeated on the left. Emphasis on axis. There's a tendency, often noticeable in visiting dancers, to 'wobble' the vertical axis, to bend sideways at the waist so one or other shoulder rises. Maybe it's accidental or intended to look dramatic or full of feeling or something. Oscar condemns it in his usual dramatic style: “You kill your partner if you do that!” It pulls the follower out of axis.

Tete says to be very careful to maintain the upright axis, which also means being upright and leading chest first. There's a lot of twist at the waist, but the axis stays upright. This really stood out, for me, the moment I walked into the first milonga I went to, at El Beso, the sight of couples rotating as smoothly as whirling Sufi dancers. & walking. “Come on, just walk!” says Sylvie. Walk with energy and purpose, take bigger steps.

I get to lead Tete, as Silvia is tired. "You need to work much harder around your axis when you lead him" she warns. It's true: leading a man means moving more strongly. & Tete relaxes right into being a follower and following exactly what I lead, which is unintentionally hilarious as he's very supple and his legs fly out in unexpected directions as he follows my rather imprecise lead.

Tete and Silvia's classes are as much about musicality as about 'steps' and 'moves'; when to use double time, when to pause, how to finish, the feel of the music. I've got to be more careful to maintain the completely frontal contact, and to turn from the waist without trying to use the left hand to lead. One more class with them at La Calesita on Saturday. I'm confident I'll get a lot more then. A valuable trip.

Tete and Silvia are performing at Canning. I get there at 11, too tired to want to dance, and of course an hour later, want to jump up and start cruising the aisles to see who catches my eye, but by then the floor is densely packed, and dancing with someone you've never danced with before on a floor that busy isn't very enjoyable. But Tete's out there, rotating smoothly through the crowd with one partner after another. Their performance later has everyone on their feet to watch.

Two more common misapprehensions about tango dancers in Buenos Aires:
Tango dancers in Buenos Aires never change their shoes in the milonga – nor their socks, neither.
Tango dancers in Buenos Aires have the most amazing upright, chest-out posture. (I was watching a good dancer dancing really well with poor posture the other evening. It's possible, but it's not a great idea. & if you aren't a good dancer it doesn't look good.)

Called by La Ideal in the hopes of being able to photograph the cupola/dome in the roof. Unfortunately they don't allow photography, maybe because a class was on, as cameras are out in force at the milongas in the evening. Too bad. What I took to be ceramic is stained, or more probably painted glass, and there's a clear glass roof above. I still couldn't look more closely because the class was using the floor. The upstairs now seems to be regularly open for classes and milongas, and the rather dingy downstairs is back to being a cafe.

Argentina, a society as up-to-date as it can be. Ads urging the recycling of batteries, the use of energy-efficient light bulbs, saving water. Brown bread in all the little local supermarkets, and most restaurants offer brown and white bread. Shopping: an excellent health food shop, Suipacha and Viamonte. However, if you like dark chocolate, bring it with you. And a strange arcade off Esmeralda, like the Parisian one Aragon wrote about: odd little shops full of paintings and antiques, of toy cars, old jewellery and watches, of bizarre cigarette lighters and hip flasks. Nobody ever seems to go down there, although there's a cafe at the end. There's an astonishing quantity of late 19 to early 20th century antiques in town, shipped over in the pre-Great Depression boom days.

The Centro Cultural Borges has new exhibitions: more painting. Art here and now seems to mean painting. But the centre hosts theatre, music and cinema. A huge space is given to visual arts on the top floor of one of the main shopping malls in BsAs, and people wander up there after browsing their Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana. I photograph xmas shopping from on high.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Porteno y Bailarin again

Milonga class at Porteno y Bailarin: in the month I've been here I can remember just one class with more women than men and a few with equal numbers. These are very clear milonga classes, Gabriela Elias is a methodic teacher, and Eduardo Perez partners her and speaks some English, but if you miss out a dance or two because there's no partner you fall behind, and my milonga skills were never great. Anyway, the class was mainly couples who wanted to stay together, plus a few extra men so I gave up after getting an idea of most of the material.

Sat and watched the dancing but left early: tired after getting cold this morning, I guess. Sort of depressing, but I know that, from a leader's point of view, it's not a problem to get dances here. You just ask, particularly at small, friendly venues like this one, where 'the look' isn't always used. Nobody's likely to refuse you part of a tanda, and anyway, so what? When I first arrived I had a bit of luck and some energy to make use of it, then I started to question my own dancing, and started to watch how it's done here. It takes attention to lead someone you've never danced with before, especially when your partner is from Buenos Aires! You've got to get it right. All the partners I've danced with have been friendly, but they do comment: 'I don't quite get your lead ('marca')' being a common one. It's not good enough to give vague indications of what you are leading, and expect your partner to fill in for you: you are expected to be precise, which has meant some re-learning. I've watched other Europeans/Americans lead, and seen a kind of floppy, enthusiastic but rather careless leading, which doesn't look good alongside the fluent and precise local dancing. Attention to detail is important. It's important to keep going to the local milonguero classes to build up experience in the dance that is taught here, even if it means 20 ocho cortado classes, as that is where and how your partner will have learned. In effect you have to start again. Of course, if you want to learn a more complex stage tango that's a different matter, but it won't help you much to dance in local milongas.

Rain, and a dance in the street

Last night it was warm and humid, Sunday morning there's a bit of rain. I walk over to San Telmo as planned, but it's cold, and the rain is getting heavier with a bit of thunder. The orquesta tipica is there, the young musicians sheltering with their instruments, a sheet of plastic over the piano. I go into the square to look through the tango lithos, original sheet music piano scores from the 20s and 30s, with artwork covers of the time. The vendor looks approvingly at what I buy: it's a score by Firpo, with a dedication to Pedro Maffia. He's interested I know something about the music, and friendly. With a bit more Castellano I could have some interesting conversations here. I understand, but too slowly

I'm cold and it's pouring down. The nearby restaurants are all packed. Searching wider I come across the San Telmo market, a covered marketplace with fruit and veg stalls. At last! The local mini-supermarkets don't have much. Good peaches and cherries. The vendors are short, round, dark, S. American Indian, friendly: I haven't met anyone here who isn't. Next door is a restaurant without aircon, and even the fans are turned off so I warm up and eat heavy ravioli. The alternative, BsAs style, is heavy meat. Outside the rain has eased off, but the orquesta typica has disappeared, along with their precious piano. But further down the road is this lively group dance. I'm fascinated by the speed and energy of it, and wonder what its origin could be. Is it Andean? European? The music sounds early European, but European music was probably absorbed into local traditions. In a dark moment I thought it looked a lot more fun than tango. Circular dances seem to be world-wide; people everywhere join hands and dance around in circles but this one is really elaborate, with changes between facing inwards and outwards, quick hopping, and backsteps. If anyone watching this knows anything I'd love to know more.

It was live, in the street. I couldn't shout: "Clear the set! Silence please!"

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Tete and Silvia at La Calesita

Out to Nunez again for La Calesita, an outdoor milonga. 'Nunez again' because La Calesita is held in a municipal park right next door to the notorious ESMA. Tete and Silvia teach beforehand, and seem to organise the evening: he gives a speech to welcome everyone, as it's the first Saturday evening of the milonga this summer. It's a magic venue and attracts good dancers, as it's a great evening out, with food and drink, and space to dance, but a bit of a shock to be dancing on stone slabs, which takes a bit of getting used to after the polished hardwood floors in town. I meet a woman from London whose new tango shoes need repair after just two weeks of Buenos Aires, and the floor here doesn't help. She's having problems with the turn, so Tete simply holds her and dances it, and she follows perfectly. "You didn't have much option there, did you!" I comment. She agrees. "& I've never been led by the stomach before." Which is probably a good place to lead/be led by, as it's a much lower centre of gravity than the shoulders.

The class adds a 'bounce' movement to the turn I've already learned with them, and Tete confuses me by calling out instructions, as he hears the music: 'Pausa!', then 'Tata TA' when he hears a double time. It's warm and humid, and a few dances leave you sweating, although it cools down later. I leave around 1.30 and get a taxi back into town. I've not taken a lot of taxis here but I'm impressed how unfailingly courteous and straightforward the drivers have been. It's trip half-way across town and the driver rounds down the cost from A$25.75 to A$25, which is about £5. The streets in town are still busy, alive with late diners sitting outside, parties of kids simply hanging out or going to clubs. It's a relaxed, happy way of life that seems very natural. Nobody seems drunk in public: Saturday nights in London are never this relaxed.


I decide Saturday is gallery day. I head for Malba, as it's recommended by the guide book; a fine modern building with a well-displayed private collection of 20th century South American art. The prize piece is a Frida Kahlo self-portrait with monkey, but more recent work stood out too, particularly several by Helio Oiticica. Looking around reminds me a bit of visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in New Delhi: the influences of European modernism are strong. Some small watercolours by Alejandro Xul Solar caught my eye, suggesting a language of dreams, preceding rational structures, and he turns out to have spent some years in Europe in the early 20th century and to have been a friend of Borges. His house in Buenos Aires is now a museum.

I discover that the Museo de Arte Decorativo, the V&A of BsAs, is a short walk away, an extraordinary mansion of huge decorated rooms housing a collection that varies from Louis XV inlaid cabinets to a stunning Manet and a Rodin maquette in bronze.

While there I overhear a conversation and realise that the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is another short walk away. The ground floor is Argentina's National Gallery, with at least one piece by more or less everyone. A wonderful El Greco, and a surprising room of Goya paintings, with a small collection of the etchings too. The modern collection is eclectic; Van Gogh, Gaugin, a Cezanne watercolour, Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, even a Dor Maar, who of course grew up here. Always good to see Picasso's 1937 etching Sueño y mentira de Franco, a corrosively funny and bitter take on military dictatorships everywhere. The collection is mainly interesting but not well-known pieces. Didn't notice a Matisse. Upstairs is the BsAs Tate: a big collection of 20th century Latin American art, including, side-by-side, Dora Carrington, Leonora Fini and Remedios Vara. & Diego Revera, of course. So I found a big smile on my face as I left.

All this in the open park where Palermo heads towards the river, big trees, public sculpture, football being played in the noon sun, while I calculate the shortest distance from one patch of shade to the next.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Class at Canning

This too should follow on from the previous posting: the release of the 14 officers has been overturned after a public outcry on the grounds that they might flee. The events of 20 - 30 years ago are still very much alive here.

I made a joke on a friend's blog the other day about getting a grant to spend time dancing tango in Buenos Aires: a while back I'd found a book by an American who had got a six-month research grant to write a thesis on The Sociology of The Milonga, something like that. Then at Oscar's class yesterday I found myself dancing with a very attractive Asian woman who spoke with the melodious and (to me, very familiar) accent of educated north India, who told me she was Nepalese. (You dance with all the world in tango.) We chatted for a while, and slowly the truth came out: after finishing her Masters in the US she'd applied to the Rockefeller Foundation for a grant to spend a year dancing tango in Buenos Aires. Yes, you heard right. She doesn't even have to write a thesis, just give a presentation, a few photos, some video, a short talk, at the end of it. I was so happy for her I just didn't know what to say. How wonderful! Nice people, those Rockefellers.

Oscar's class: a mild colgada. He points out that spins have always been with tango, and that the colgada as we know it is an exaggerated form. So we go back to the roots. It's simple, fits the music well, and takes very little room.

On to Canning for what would have been the class of Alicia Pons, and she was there but didn't teach. Ana Maria Schapira taught. The best-advertised milonguero classes here are taught by six or seven women. According to some, the word 'milonguero' started to be used quite recently to mean basic, old-style tango in close hold. Maria Schapira taught, and Alicia Pons followed, and it was fascinating to watch how her classical training resulted in the swiftest ankles in the business. Her feet are constantly active, reaching, turning, moving, a redefinition of “womens' technique” but I suspect not something to copy wholesale, even if you come from the same dance background. She teaches in the US, and I wish she and Ana Maria, as well as Tete and Silvia, could visit the UK. It just might give us a whole new perspective on tango.

It was a good class: yet another ocho cortado class, but the second half to vals. Ana Maria watched me and commented that the dancing was fine, but a bit hurried. Bearing in mind my reputation of dancing like 'a hant' I found I could slow it right down and still keep the beat, which resulted in a vals that seemed to be both energetic and smooth. I was dancing with an older woman who clearly knew her dance, and she seemed to approve. My Nepalese friend of the morning was there and we danced a good vals in the class, but she was kept very busy in the milonga. She's very attractive.

Tete arrived at the end of the class, and it was a good chance to watch him dance socially, first with Alicia. I get the impression of two people from very different dance, and probably social and educational backgrounds moving very easily together. His style of movement seems to change from dance to dance: like an actor he can seem jaunty, lyrical, even heavy, depending on the music. & he changes constantly the degree of lift, being low or high depending on what he's leading.

The idea that people dance strictly in highways around the floor here is rubbish. They dance like we dance in London, around the perimeter and making use of whatever space is available. Available space varies from venue to venue, but often there isn't much. Canning from midnight onwards is as crowded as London's tango al fresco: you rarely have room for walking steps, and you need to work on your gyros on the spot, as that's all you're likely to have room for. Tete always seems to have room, but I guess that if you see him bearing down on you you get out of the way. It doesn't work for me, though.

Friday, 19 December 2008


“Dance to express, not to impress.” I guess that sums it up. (This should follow on from the end of the previous posting. The blog order isn't properly sequential.)

I planned an out-of-city day yesterday: either to Colonia or Tigre. Colonia is a colonial-style town in Uruguay, a 50-minute trip across the estuary; Tigre is a 50-minute rail trip on the Argentinian side, the point at which the many islets and waterways of the delta end, and the river estuary begins. There were no boats to Colonia until the evening, and Tigre costs .48p for the return journey. Anyway, the delta sounded fascinating, and very South American.

I'd hoped to see countryside from the train but it's all built up, although the city high-rises give way to suburbs, little houses with courtyards. From Tigre you can take the local boat into the delta. Most of the islets are inhabited, small bungalows with neat gardens, trees and lawns, classical statuary, inevitably flowers everywhere. The boat is the local bus, stopping off at jetties along the way to pick up and drop off people. The locals travel out from Tigre with 10-litre plastic containers of water: the river is clean enough for washing, and people swim on the banks, but there must be a lack of drinking water, although there's electricity. You can stop off at, and walk round, one of the larger islets, most of which seems inhabited, and canoe the preferred mode of transport. Not sure what people here do: in any case you don't feel like doing a great deal in this heat and humidity. Could well be weekend homes for the wealthier city dwellers. It's quiet, with a lot of birdsong. Back in Tigre I walk to the Fruit Port, disappointed to find no fruit, fruit and wood being the main produce of the area. Plenty of wood, tho', and small stores selling things made of wood. Too much sunshine and humidity and I decide to curtail my sight-seeing. In the city the buildings are tall and there's usually shadow: here there's less protection at midday in midsummer. Enough is enough, I take the train back to the activity of the city. The estuary landscape is flat and you don't see beyond the trees, but huge clouds are building up far in the distance.

When I arrived in Buenos Aires I wondered why there was no fruit in this mediterranean climate, except for manky oranges, supermarket apples and hard pears. Then the strawberries arrived, then some nectarines, then apricots and finally grapes. Then it dawned: there isn't any fruit in early summer unless you import it. The nectarines, apricots and grapes are barely ripe but still fruit.

Late evening a long programme about ESMA and human rights on TV. I can't work out what it's about. This morning the BBC website informs me that the courts have just released on bail 14 officers accused of torture and murder in ESMA, as they've been in jail for two years without trial. "Today is a day of shame for Argentines, humanity and our justice system," said President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in a speech at ESMA. The pardons handed out in the 1990s have been ruled unconstitutional over the past few years but there have still been few trials. The accused are protected by democracy, but some of their victims were held for years without trial. True, Argentina was a mess mid-20th century, and cold war era politics played havoc with Latin America in general. & Che Guevara was Argentinian. Perhaps the military can be excused for attempting to bring order, but brutal sadism and murder are another matter.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Quatro causas: Tete

No Oscar class today. I get to El Beso and find Mary Ann outside. We have no electricity. An enthusiastic Danish woman asks if we have Oscar. “Oscar's the class, the music, the coffee bar...' 'Yes,' observes Mary Ann drily, 'but he's not the air conditioning'.

'Quatro causas' says Tete of what he's taught me. Four patterns of movement. A long turn that develops out of a walk, a back-and-side step by both dancers that leads to a cruz, a step on from the cruz that becomes an anti-clockwise turn with an enrosque, which leads into a circular walk on the follower's left. All of which fit together or can be used separately. Two fairly intense sessions. On film he looks as if he must be unhealthy, and true he has a paunch, but in person he gives the impression of being tough and muscular. There's nothing loose and floppy about his weight, he's incredibly quick on his feet. He's a dancer.

& he really is an extraordinary teacher. I think he's great teacher because he believes, with a lifetime of experience, in what he teaches. He believes dance is important and his concentration on teaching is total. There's something of a professor in his manner, but the seriousness breaks easily into laughter. There are the quick jokes in castellano; they laugh, she laughs easily. He says I should think of dancing more like a tortoise. As it is I'm dancing like 'un hormiga'. They laugh. 'A hant?' she asks me. 'An ant!' We all laugh. They are patient and good-humoured; if I'm a bit slow to pick up something they help me get it at my own speed, if I get something right they are really pleased and encouraging.

When they demonstrate a step, they dance it with the same intensity it would receive if they were dancing together in a milonga. The music and the dance require and receive whole-hearted attention. There's never anything in the least casual or inattentive about their dancing, and that's a whole lesson in itself, how seriously they take what they do, and also I see real tango, rather than a display of tango or tango steps, and that's just beautiful to watch.

One more class with them on Monday, and two public classes the next two Saturdays at La Calesita. I've learned a lot; I certainly couldn't have learned more in a couple of hours. He sees me out at the end. 'Suerte.'

I've never taken private classes before. You are very exposed, but it forces me to concentrate, and I'm really learning. There was a group class at Porteno y Bailarin last night: too many men, again. So I didn't get as much practice as I needed, and the partners weren't too sure of what they were doing. It was a beautiful little step, but I didn't get it right, and still can't work it out. Such a shame. But that can happen too easily in public lessons. Later in the evening I was in a good position to watch guys getting dances, and I got one tanda before I left. The floor was very crowded. I've talked over this problem of getting dances with an American woman who is a good dancer and we agreed that being at the same place at the same time week after week is the best strategy. If you are persistent you aren't a passing stranger or a tourist. If you're there a lot you're interested in dancing. My problem is that I can't catch a waiter's eye in an empty restaurant, let alone the eye of an attractive young tango dancer. I've always liked a bit of invisibility.

TV (cable, 70 channels): on the Argentine cultural channel I come across a programme about the Mexican photographer Carlos Jurado who has worked with pinhole cameras all his life, and with gum bichromate colour prints on paper.

“Carlos Jurado considera la fotografía como el producto de un acto mágico. Trabaja principalmente con cámaras estenopeicas (pinhole). Con este sistema trata de obtener anbientes y atmósferas sugerentes poco comunes.
a realizado también obras utilizando sistemas antiguos como la goma bicromatada, la cianotipia, papel sepia ,etc. Carlos Jurado construye sus propias cámaras, así como algunos equipos necesarios para su producción.”

Gustavo and Giselle were performing at Ideal tonight... and I didn't go. I didn't go to watch the great superstars of tango. There are actually a few dimensions to this. Without doubt it was going to be a big tourist event, an event put on for tourists. Ecstatic applause for the great dancing skills of this couple, and why not? That put me off, but actually I just didn't want to go. I'd had such a good hour this afternoon, strongly rooted in the directness and intimacy of tango, that a public display just didn't appeal, however skillful. But even the skills don't really appeal. Pina Bausch invited Tete to appear with her in public performances, and I'd go a long way to see that! A whole different sense of emotional directness and honesty. So instead I watched Carlos Jurado, the end of Bunuel's Diary of a Chambermaid, the end of Coppola's The Conversation and the beginning of a Barenboim masterclass. TV is pretty good here.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Tete and Silvia.

Strange how much people can differ from their photo or video images. Oscar, for example turns out to be almost a head taller than me. & 'Tete' Rusconi, who looks outsized in video, turns out to be surprisingly trim and not particularly tall.

Tete and Silvia. One of my reasons for being here is to meet them. My first tango classes nearly four years ago were a revelation; that music made me move. Then I found myself in classes in an industrially-named tango school in north London, forced into ever increasing contortions and told that the music really didn't matter. “In tango we walk right through the beat” -- as if the music was incidental. A single class with Ricardo Vidort at the Dome reminded me that tango was enjoyable – very sadly he died the following spring – but it wasn't until almost a year later that I found three videos of Tete and Silvia on YouTube, filmed dancing in Porteno y Bailarin. These were a revelation. It was the first real Buenos Aires tango I'd seen. I could recognise bits, 'steps', in what they did, but the bits were all run together, and the whole dance was inseparably part of the music. It wasn't a smooth choreographed performance, and it had the fierce energy, enthusiasm and musicality of people to whom it really mattered. I watched those videos over and over again. To me that was tango, it was the way I'd felt about the music from the start.

So I found myself outside an unremarkable door in tree-lined Avenida Belgrano yesterday afternoon, wondering what was behind it. Tete and Silvia have toured and been filmed a lot over the last two years, but have no website and don't seem to advertise any grand teaching schedule. I tracked them down through Sylvia's website (don't jump, it plays music): she's an artist, and the website is part of her work. She emailed that they teach mainly privately, and offered to partner me if I couldn't find a partner. I didn't try to.

There's an interview with them online, and the 'prensa' link on her website leads to a .pdf of the interview. Online there's an interview with them with basic information, and an interview/statement of her work. There's also an article by a trained classical/contemporary dancer about the experience of a class with them.

The class was an intense hour, with a lot of laughter too, but serious and clear teaching. There's a turn they dance frequently which I've never been able to lead, which is what I learn, plus some alternative endings. I'd asked for vals classes. Vals is different from tango, explains Tete; tango stays low, vals wants to fly. I must lead more directly with my chest, and the contact with the partner must be very frontal: it shouldn't be shoulder to shoulder. I must take longer steps. Silvia astonishes me by leading me: when they dance they switch roles, and everyone laughs, but it's for real. I've hardly ever been led and don't find it easy to follow, but when Silvia picks you up and moves you around it's totally natural; she seems to have such a clear intuitive sense of axis and balance. We dance: “You're starting to think!” he says. “Don't think: dance! Con musica! Sin miedo (fear)! Otra vez (again)!” They seem to be naturally very gentle in their teaching, it doesn't feel like a teaching strategy they've learnt: if something's wrong they stop and start again, if something's good they say so, they are very encouraging. (I remember Ricardo Sarandi's class in London: “NON NON NON NON NON NON NON!”, very loud.) It's clear from some of the videos that Tete loves to fool around, and can be very funny, and they laugh a lot, but he's very serious and intense in teaching. “Sin miedo! Con musica! Bueno!”

Watching them dance together was totally magical. Their connection is extraordinary: their capacity, instantly, to become one single entity with the music. The gentleness, precision, energy, vitality of their dance is very far from anything I've seen before. It's such a good model: they don't give 'a demonstration' of 'a move' in 'a class', they just dance together, perfectly. & their affection for each other is always apparent. It was a wonderful hour.

It was their last lesson of the day and as we walk out into the street, Silvia says: “Come to Canning tonight. It's a good evening, lots of nice people. & I'm deejay.” Her English is excellent.

I've got another class with them tomorrow, and they are teaching at the outdoor milonga, La Calesita, in Nunez on Saturdays. I'll be here for two of those evenings.

I went out to Canning, but didn't dance. I'd had a good afternoon, and it's not always easy to lead someone you don't know and have never danced with before, in public. It was good just to sit and enjoy the music, particularly the cortinas. Silvia not only played a lot of really good tandas but also found interesting music to go between them, everything from flamenco song to some unusual rock and salsa: sort of tango meets Late Junction. & above it all there's always the great photo collage to look at: despite the shiny plastic surface it has the colour and scale of a huge Venetian painting by Tintoretto. Right in the centre is Ricardo Vidort in a shaft of light, talking to a pretty girl, while in the foreground a hand reaches out with a plate of empanadas. A wonderful piece of work.

A rough idea of what Canning looks like during class.

I'm just going to have to apologise to Carlos Stasi for missing his class again.

This is one of the three Portenyo y Bailarin dances from three years ago: the turn is between .21 .25.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Reserva Ecologica and Plaza Doriego

Sunday begins with light showers. Early summer weather here is changeable: it gets too hot, it rains, it's cool, then it heats up again. The city is actually on the estuary, but the nearby ocean keeps the air fresh despite city pollution. Three main species of birds: believe it or not, pigeons, sparrows and swifts, a larger and noisier species than those in London, but they look much the same bird. Pigeons and sparrows could well have arrived by boat: perhaps the swifts are native.

This city has (almost) everything, including a nature reserve 15 minutes walk from downtown, the Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, on partly-reclaimed riverside land. A complete walk around it, taking in the banks of the Rio Plate and three or four lagoons, takes several hours, and apparently there are around 200 species of birds to look out for and listen to. I also glimpsed the arse of a coypu, scuttling into the foliage, but that's nothing more exotic than a large rat. A wonderfully refreshing walk, a fresh breeze, foliage and birdsong. I'll try and insert some birdsong here later.

Just as I left for the walk an email arrived insisting I should visit the Plaza Dorrego and Defensa antiques market (thanks again, Francesca!) so I rejoined the city in San Telmo, the old quarter, with its little houses and the cobbled streets with old railway lines running along them, the Buenos Aires of tango myth. I've been meaning to visit for weeks.

Un arrabal con casas
que reflejan su dolor de lata...
Un arrabal humano
con leyendas que se cantan como tangos...
Y allá un reloj que lejos da
las dos de la mañana...
Un arrabal obrero,
una esquina de recuerdos y un farol...

Farol Homero Exposito, 1943.

The antiques market is friendly and full of fascinating stuff, and of course I made some photos. Bought an enameled house number plate: 58 for my address. Leaving the market, I came across an orquesta tipica of young people busking, music students I guess, playing good tango, in the street, unplugged. I'll be back and video them some more: and they have a CD too.

Then up Defensa to the Plaza de Mayo, the city centre, and thence back home. Home. It was hard at first but I'm really beginning to feel too much at home here.

Sunday evening at Porteno y Bailarin, as usual. An excellent milonga class from Gabriela Elias and Eduardo Perez. It was a really well-structured class and got me dancing milonga and enjoying it, which doesn't always happen. They're a really friendly couple and he speaks enough English. There has been an English couple or two in most classes I've been to, and most teachers try to speak a bit of English, although I can usually get the gist of the Castellano if I listen carefully. Otherwise it was a very strange quiet night and I left early. Carlos Stasi, who organises the milonga, saw me leaving, and we talked. His daughter is in London so I asked if she danced tango: maybe I'd met her. “No, she's a ballet dancer. She hates tango!” The mixture of pride and disappointment was almost comic. “I tell her: when you are 30 – she's 28 – you must think again!” &, as before: “You didn't come to my class Monday night. You must come. Milonguero style, no?” So I promise I will.

Saturday, 13 December 2008


Finally got over to Salon Canning, Friday night milonguero class by Alicia Pons, classically trained, who started dancing milonguero with Tete Rusconi. Her dance training gives precision and elegance to her footwork, but she wasn't dancing. The lesson was another ocho cortado class, preceded by walking and leading exercises. A big class, Argentinian, but I think she speaks good English.

Canning is a wonderfully spacious, big room with a parquet floor, worn by generations of dancers but still in good shape, surrounded on all sides by tables, designed for nights of dancing. Some life-sized prints on the walls, great photos, and an amazing photo collage of Canning and the people there, printed onto fabric, must be more than 2x8 metres. & all the cortinas were Beatles songs. From Eleanor Rigby to I am the Walrus.

Once again it was an evening of people who knew each other well, and danced together. I recognised two women from the Porteno y Bailarin classes, and noticed they weren't dancing and probably would have welcomed an invitation, but I know from experience that they haven't learned to reach back, which makes their toes vulnerable, and I'm not going to risk getting on a crowded floor with a woman who hasn't learned that much. If you notice women sitting out and not getting dances there's usually a reason.

A well-dressed occasion, a real social occasion, and pleasantly informal. But watching gets boring, so after a coffee I decided to take a taxi (the Subte closes early) to Ideal to see what was going on. To my great delight the milonga has moved upstairs, and I climbed the white marble staircase for the first time. Even more wonderful, upstairs looks recently decorated, which perhaps is why it's been closed. & it's a fabulous, beautiful room, with huge mirrors and deep rose-coloured hardwood panelling. This was where the BBC's Tango Salon was filmed. I must watch it again when I get back because I don't think they showed the best feature of the room, a great oval cupola or dome in the ceiling over the dance floor, an art deco masterpiece of gilded iron or brass trellis and ceramic. Perhaps because of this the acoustic (Unitango plays Friday nights) is excellent, clear and spacious, unlike the muffled sound downstairs. & there's a little balcony out over the street where you can stand and gaze at the full moon.

But it needs to be reclaimed from the tourists by dancers. It needs just 15 or 20 couples to tip the balance: an intermediate class could have a great evening out here.

Two great venues, and no dances. Patience.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Jorge Julio Lopez

Plaque for Julio Jorge Lopez, Plaza de Mayo.

In the post on ESMA I wrote that one member of the military broke ranks and gave evidence. Apologies for getting that wrong: I hope the story of Jorge Julio Lopez from Wikipedia puts the story straight. He wasn't a member of the military: he was a bricklayer imprisoned and tortured in the 70s who stood up in court two years ago to testify against his oppressors, and then 'disappeared'.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Tango and the port

Having finished writing up ESMA, I decided I needed some tango, so I went to El Arranque, an afternoon milonga in central Buenos Aires. It's a big, slightly gloomy place, but it has a certain charm. For the most part it's for senior citizens: everyone else is working at 3pm. People go there to drink a coffee, read the papers, meet old friends and have a bit of a dance. There must have been more than twice as many men as women, and they don't have to face each other over the dance floor: there are a lot of tables, and you get shown to one, pretty much at random, I think. Very courteous, rather slow tango, and not great dancing, but a relaxing, gentle atmosphere. It would be a great place to go to with a partner for a practica as the floor was never crowded.

Having finished my coffee I decided I needed some daylight. It was around 5pm, and there was a cool fresh breeze, so I made my way down to the docks. The breeze was coming in off the sea, fresh and slightly humid and the light was fantastic, absolutely clear and fresh. Made photos, and on the way back came across a street conjurer, and photographed the faces watching him. A good day.

The visit to ESMA.

This is the difficult one. ESMA, Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada, the naval engineering school, became one of the main detention centres in Buenos Aires in the mid-70s, although only one building in an extensive campus was used for torture and detention. It has been turned into the Instituto Espacio Para La Memoria, a space for memory, for truth and justice, with the aim of researching abuses and state terrorism, making sure that the abuses are documented and remembered, and that the fight for justice continues. Tours are organised regularly in English and Spanish: contact I was directed to it by Francesca, a friend and human rights researcher, who visited earlier this year.

It's a very chilling visit, as if the experiences of the detainees continue to disturb the place, and the explanations of the guide amplify this. But one central fact is the pact of silence among the military. The survivors have testified, and their evidence has been tested and collected, but none of the many military personnel directly involved, or who knew what was going on, will speak, with few exceptions. We were told that just one or two have: during a trial two years ago, one member of the military broke ranks and gave evidence – and 'disappeared' shortly afterwards. &, after a few high-profile trials in the 1980s, there were several military uprisings, and the military received a complete amnesty.

Our guide obviously could have talked to us for hours and answered endless questions. The depth of research is impressive and convincing, but there remain many unanswerable questions: a military that was unaccountable, out of control, trained/indoctrinated by the School of the Americas, behaving as if it was in a self-justifying state of mind akin to mass hysteria, and supported by a Catholic Church. (We were told it was the Catholic Church that recommended the drugging of detainees before they were thrown out of aircraft into the ocean.) Possibly some 30,000 humans became 'desaparecidos' between 1976 and 1983, the majority young men, and most of them between 1976 and 1978. The 1984 government report, Nunca Mas, can be read in English here.

The surface of life in Buenos Aires is confident, relaxed, successful, but that era is a disquieting presence. The torturers and murderers still live free, the families still have to live with their losses and no justice. The military was predominant from 1930 until 1983, and even the Peron years of elected government were influenced by European fascism. Then the military, dressed in its fancy uniforms, saw itself as the salvation of the country by 'el Proceso', the process of national reorganisation, and left the country in social and economic turmoil, from which it is slowly recovering. But the will for justice and democracy has been strengthened by the memory of that past, by the work of the researchers who have done their best to ensure 'Nunca Mas', never again.


Mary Ann told me that 'lifting' is done by breathing in. Susana Miller talked of the body as like a bandoneon, the unwinding twist of the ocho cortado an inhalation, ending with collecting: the bandoneon, the great lung and voice, which resonates the body and voice of anyone near it. A Guardian article a while back, last September or earlier, gives three simple exercises used in sports training to increase lung capacity, and also suggested that a tendency to short sentences in spoken English is related to breathing patterns, and that the longer, more fluent sentences of, for instance, Italian, are related to different breathing habits. Breathing is obviously important in dancing but it had never occurred to me that phrasing of tango could be underlined with breathing. As if there wasn't enough to remember already! And of course if we sit slumped at a desk all day our natural posture and breathing are compromised.

Porteno y Bailarin, dance-watching

My late nights get later and later: 12.30, 1.30, and last night, 2.30. A good evening at Porteno y Bailarin, three tandas! Two with the 'diminutive Japanese woman' whose large partner got kicked last week. She tells me he was kicked four times, four times before he finally exploded. That's some tolerance. She's leaving, back to Australia, this week. Too bad: she has the kind of smile that just makes you want to smile, and everyone likes her, although few locals seem to dance with her. It's still not easy to get dances but it's like anywhere; you start at the bottom of the pile and have to work your way up. Porteno y Bailarin is friendly: the organiser is exceptionally friendly and welcomes everyone, has time for a word with everyone, including me and in good English, and everyone there seems friends, but people come to meet and dance with friends rather than with passing strangers who don't speak their language much. There was a huge crowd by 1.30, lots of talk, laughter, drinking and dancing, and it felt good to be there.

Since I don't spend so much time dancing I sit dance-watching. My couple of the evening: he looked rough and tough, with the loud harsh laugh of someone who's drunk far too much, but suddenly he was on the floor with one of the most gorgeous women there, incandescent in red and a great dancer. Their dance was fluid, sure and full of changes of direction and speed. & they were enjoying themselves: they made all the other couples look half asleep in a kind of bored bliss. He wasn't leading anything eye-grabbing or showy, it was straightforward close-hold milonguero. It was just done with such clarity and musicality: this is their music, they've danced it all their lives, they've made it their own, they inhabit it in a way few people ever will.

There was a performance too:

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Pablo Veron

Oops, got my Castellano wrong. I've been calling the code of communication in a milonga the 'cabeza' which means 'head'. Here's from the wonderful : 'Cabeza” means “head” in Spanish, and “cabeceo” is the castellano word that refers to the nod of the head that is used to signal the offer and acceptance of dances at a milonga.'

I should have written 'cabeceo'. If you need to know more about 'cabeceo' (and you won't get much dancing in BsAs unless you understand it) this contains a guide of conduct.

& for something quite different. Pablo Veron, beginning to look too much like Frank Zappa. This video been around for a year and seems to be something he made, choreographed and composed music just for the fun of it. & it is fun. He's a great mover: wish I had a few grams of his speed and suppleness, although I enjoy his hip hop more than his tango.

There's a very interesting interview in the current el tangauta (which you can download if you sign up) although the translation isn't always clear. He's returned to live in Buenos Aires because of the 'economic, political and social tension' in France. He's pretty scathing about the use of the term 'tango nuevo', about its commercial basis and about the implied cut-off from the past of tango, 'the most complex, deep and paradigmatic partner dance that exists'. Interesting reading.

He points out that there's nothing 'nuevo' about 'nuevo'. Here's Todaro and his daughter: Todaro was born in 1929, so this film must be early to mid 50s, and must show every supposedly 'nuevo' move in the book.

Oscar and Humberto Primo

Hit in the face by a hot wind, hot and heavy with humidity, as I came out of Oscar's El Beso class this afternoon. Not unbearable, but hardly pleasant. A week ago it was a cold wind and I had to wear a jacket! I cross the road to the small restaurant on the corner, no aircon, the windows open, fans whirring, and have a late lunch: a friendly place with good food. Grilled boned chicken and salad with bread and a glass of red, £4.

Oscar's an expressive talker who values the past of tango, and the improvised social dance that it is, a great teacher who can put words to concepts. He talked about how he and other contemporary teachers spent hours watching the older generation who'd had 60 years experience. & of the importance of learning to lift and lower the follower: 'If you can't get that right you'll never be more than a step collector, the kind of tango dancer no one wants to meet.'

The class was particularly useful, a milonga class that didn't aim to teach anything complicated, but to get across concepts of leading simple traspie. Invaluable both in tango and milonga. I had a few minutes with Mary Ann, who clarified that 'lifting' isn't done by hunching the shoulders, it's more like breathing in at the same time as collecting. Other teachers have mentioned 'lifting' in passing but it's never been so central or so clear. Don't learn to lift and lower as part of 'a step': learn first how to lift and how to lower, then learn where you need to use it, and why. & the reason there are often more men than women? Oscar's a great teacher of leading, of the mechanics of leading: he seems to teach basic principles, using steps as examples, rather than teaching steps. He and Mary Ann help both men and women, and the classes are of course useful to both, but essentially it's a class about leading.

I've felt confused about not getting much social dancing: one of the reasons I came here was to spend time on the floor. In two weeks I've probably had only seven or eight tandas, hardly more than in a single evening in London. But a lot of social dancing can simply strengthen bad habits, so maybe it's a good thing. Classes that teach right practice, classes that point out wrong practice, and practica as a chance to put things right, are more important.

I swore I'd never go back to Oscar's Monday night milonga in Humberto Primo, which I guess made it inevitable that I would. I tried to get there for the practica but arrived late, and just danced two tangos with a couple of class friends, and then the practica was over. I get frozen by the formality of the event there, and anyway I'm never sure if anyone is looking at me or not, so it doesn't work well. Partly my eyesight, but the Humberto Primo hall is high and rather gloomy with diffused overhead lighting, so eyes aren't clear. You really need to see the whites of the eyes! It is the worst I've been to in that respect, a pity because the floor is really excellent. But actually I was tired and knew I wasn't up to dancing well for an evening and left early. It's too easy, and very unsatisfactory, to dance on autopilot, without enjoying the partner, the floor as a whole and the music. Grammar doesn't let me give those three equal billing: I don't want to suggest that the music comes last, or even that the partner comes first. Three in one: they co-exist.

Later, out on the balcony, a light shower and the rumble of thunder in the distance over the Rio Plate, cleared the air.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Christmas in Buenos Aires, the nuevo incident at Porteno y Bailarin

It's beginning to hot up again here. The rain was a week ago, and the 'aire aconicionado' was silent until yesterday afternoon, when it suddenly started to wake up again. & the days are still getting longer, tho' nearer the tropics it isn't so obvious as in the UK.

I walked in a park for the first time since I arrived and marvelled at the soft green stuff underfoot. Lots of birdsong: in the microcentre the chirping of sparrows is all you get. Of course the songs are all new and different. & the trees are huge.

At Porteno y Bailarin again for the Sunday evening. A friendly handshake from the organiser: this is a good-hearted and friendly city in general. A little incident occured: a couple had been dancing 'fantasia' – nuevo – on the crowded floor. Actually I'd admired their skill, his lead was clear and muscular, her responses supple and instant. It looked good – it was just on a crowded floor, and was tolerated until they ended up kicking someone badly. The kicked was either a very tall, heavily built porteno or his partner, a diminutive Japanese woman, and he started shouting. & the nuevo dancer started shouting back. It looked nasty for a few moments, but the incident happened near a table of 2 other heavily-built portenos, who are always there and have the air of self-made people who can sit back and enjoy themselves, which they do with champaign and various lady friends, after a lifetime of hardwork, who joined in, and the nuevo dancer slunked off dragging his partner behind him. There've been occasions when I've wanted something like that to happen... although I'm sorry it did. The nuevos had been stupid: there's a second dance floor at Porteno y Bailarin which isn't used so much and where they could have enjoyed themselves, and probably been enjoyed too, without inconveniencing anyone.

Another (much better) thing I enjoyed was another couple dancing very slow milonga, a very, very slow milonga lisse. It was danced in an exaggerated leaning position, with very bent knees, more of a canyengue position but without the rhythmic stepping. In fact there were long pauses, as you'd expect to see in a slow tango, when the beat was marked by little but stylish foot movements, but more of a tease than the emotional 'tango pause'. Interesting that this slow milonga was rather different to the slow milonga I enjoyed at Ideal on Friday: the two couples were of much the same generation, with a lifetime of dancing, but they'd obviously not learned 'the dance' in a class, but had watched, picked up things they liked and practised them on dance floors for half a century. Not a 'regulation' milonga, but the milonga they'd ended up with themselves. Wonderful, I loved it.

& later there was a performance, a singer who sang to a recorded band. Her voice was very powerful but melodious, a good tango voice.

I was given the December issue of el tangauta as I left, the main free tango listings mag, with articles and interviews, most of it in both Castellano and English, and also at . Leafing thru this back home I was gutted to find I'd missed, just that afternoon, December 6, La Gran Milonga Nacional, the great outdoor milonga, with three sound stages, in the streets not so far away. Oscar had gabbled an announcement at the end of Friday's class but it wasn't at all clear when the event was, and La Net assured me that the national tango day is 11 December (birthday of both Gardel and Julio de Caro).

Damm. What else can I say? El tangauta came out pretty much the same day, and there were no posters anywhere. Got to keep your ears peeled here.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Microcentro, Cachirula

Parking is impossible in the narrow, busy microcentre streets during the week, so anything requiring a stationary vehicle, such as moving house or using a skip, has to take place at the weekend. Elderly Dodge or Ford pickup trucks are loaded with mattresses, fridges, chairs and tables, an entire household is stacked up on the pavement awaiting transport. Further down the street a ground floor is being gutted, a diminutive dumper loading earth and rubble into a waiting truck. It's relaxed after the crowding and heavy traffic of the week. Most of the buildings are at least eight floors, so weekday pollution is dreadful. At the weekend the area returns to its inhabitants: you can stroll down the street, breathe, and feel safe, at home in it again.

Some common misapprehensions about milonga behavoir:

In Buenos Aires dancers never change their shoes in the milonga.
In Buenos Aires no one ever walks across the floor.
Dancers in Buenos Aires never collide.
Dancers in Buenos Aires dance in a line round the outside of the floor and never move out of that line.
Dress code is formal: no jeans or sneakers.

Back to Maipu 444 last night, Saturday night, for the Cachirulo milonga. Didn't get there till after 11, which I later realised was a mistake. It opens early, 6pm according to the listings, but by 11 the party is in full swing, and a lot of very accomplished dancers are busy. There's not much space, but everything is smooth and musical. Men and women are separated, but the club is small and intimate, so it's interesting but not that formal. Greeted with a warm handshake from the organiser, but arriving late means I get a back table in a corner of the room. Anyway, after a quick glance at the dancing, I decided not to attempt to join in, and avoid any eye-contact. I didn't feel comfortable enough to join in at that stage, but it would be a good place to arrive early, and probably not difficult to get in a few dances when there's more room, before it gets busy. But a lively, friendly atmosphere, and great music. Pedro Laurenz in full flow in 'No me extrana' as I arrive. You can't help feeling sorry for his singers: they're just a minor incident in a torrent of sound.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Susana Miller, milongueros at Ideal

La Ideal

Interesting the persistence of the Beatles here. I think you're more likely to hear them in public than tango. T-shirts, posters, they are still everyday culture here, while the tango in everyday view is aimed at tourists.

La Academia Tango Milonguero is run by Susana Miller and Maria Plazaola (who was Carlos Gavito's dance partner). Tango Milonguero in anything as formal as an Academy sounds a bit like doing a Masters in order to dance jive. The first part of the Friday night class at El Beso was warming up exercises, walking exercises, and then embrace. A big class, and more women than men for a change. I couldn't help seeing a symmetry between a male-taught class with more men, and a woman-taught class having more women. Anyway, there was nothing very striking about the first half. The second half divided absolute beginners from intermediates, who started work on the ocho cortado, with an emphasis on maintaining close-hold contact. The ocho cortado has followed me round the city: every class seems to look into different ways of beginning it, leading it, and exiting from it, all of which is extremely useful. Susana Miller (like Oscar and his son) taught the lead with a very tight backstep, so it is possible to sweep the partner around 180 degrees just by unwinding the body: the feet just turn on the spot. Treat the body as a bandoneon, follow the flow of sound. I begin to feel how positive a lead can be, short of being brutal. I'm told to relax my shoulders, and “Lejos! Lejos!” Distance! Distance! Look into the distance: keep your head up and don't look down. Advice that follows me around.

It was entirely an Argentinian evening, and also a class where people knew each other: the first 15 minutes seemed taken up with kissing, one kiss only and on the right cheek, Argentinian style. But I followed enough to get plenty out of it and the teaching was thorough, serious, no-nonsense. The evening ends with a practica, which I didn't stay for.

I'd decided to go on to the Ideal, as it's live music there, the Unitango orchestra, and it's an evening organised for dance rather than tourism. I didn't get a dance, didn't try, but watched with much interest an older guy dancing: undoubtedly local, milonguero, and individual: nothing elaborate, but his feet were dancing, constantly moving, shifting, turning, with little kicks and shifts, a loose and elastic movement in the hips and ankles, a slight bounce, and always with the music. Milonguero that wasn't learned in an Academy, milonguero as a lifetime of listening to the music, dancing and watching rather than learning a 'style' of dancing. I was particularly struck by his milonga, which I recognised immediately as the kind (tho' not the quality!) I dance when I can't avoid it: just simple milonga lisse, just a few moves, nothing elaborate, the feet moving constantly, rather than traspie, which he didn't use, simple, clear and with the beat, as ever, totally part of the music. Which encouraged me not to feel inferior about my milonga.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Oscar's classes

"Plant a tree, Bring up a child, Write a book, AUTOMATE YOUR CURTAINS: Systems for roller blinds in fabric, plastic and aluminium." Ad on the subte: the important things in life.

The general level of courtesy here is high but erratic: when someone gets into the lift with me they invariably open the doors and invite me to leave at the ground floor. If I manage to invite them to leave first, they thank me. But all this goes out the window when it comes to getting onto a crowded subte carriage. The lift, incidentally has doors that have to be opened: I remember, half asleep the first few days, standing waiting for the lift doors to open.

Oscar: try using steps that are slow or quick, low or high, long or short, and you can make your dance so much more interesting without even learning anything new.

The problem with his classes is not that he teaches anything very difficult, although it's usually new and interesting, but that there have almost always been more men than women, and even if he asks everyone to change they are often dancing as couples and don't want to. Fair enough, but I tend to get less practice time. He does teach with Mary Ann and his daughter, who are very helpful, although they tend to be busy helping the dancing couples.

Centro Cultural Borges & Maipu 444

A milonga called Mi Milonga at the Ideal Wednesday night. MCd in English and Castellano, which gives away the game. A tourist evening: a tanda of dance, then a bit of show, another dance tanda, more show... But I hadn't been back since dancing there last Friday, so it was good to sit and think over the past week, and remember being on the floor there, very much on my best behaviour. The floor is more than three times as big as at Porteno y Bailarin, and not much more crowded. But Wednesday night is obviously an eating and watching night, not a dancing night.

Thursday evening: visiting Centro Cultural Borges and by chance it's the private view of Expo Artistas 2008. Lots of paint, lots of colour, and some print including etchings I'd love to have in a LOOP show. Artists from Argentina and Uruguay. A lot of very prominent public space given to local artists, very good to see. I had a good look, then as it got more crowded went around making photos of the people and the work. I find faces very interesting here.

Later there's a class at Maipu 444 taught by two young guys, Martin Maldonado and Maurizio Ghella. There are a few English speakers, including some first-timers, and they teach in Spanish and quite clear English, first emphasising principles, like connection, lifting and lowering movements, and then turning, and extending all these into more complex movements. Too bad I missed last Friday night here: according to the listings it was Javier Rodriguez and Andrea Misse.

Maipu 444 (Maipu is the street) is the best kept premises to date, very neat and clean, and with an excellent unpolished parquet floor. (El Beso is polished like a skating rink, and the other floors are tile, which is also quite slippery.) After the class on Thursday night is a milonga called Mano a Mano, which I think is run by La Vikinga, an Icelandic dancer, teacher, anthropologist, poet and journalist who now lives in the city. I stayed on after the class, trying to make conversation with an Argentinian woman I'd danced with in the class. She tells me she's been working all day, writing a book on Victorian England. She also says that Maipu 444 is different on other evenings, and that Thursday is rather a tourist evening. We have a bit of a dance, and I leave around midnight. A couple of tourists arrive as I leave, otherwise the place is deserted.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

El piso es tu amigo

Wednesday afternoon class with Oscar. La pisa es tu amiga (?the floor is your friend), stay down on it and stay firm. A simple sequence but the moves can be high or low, long or short, an expressive variety. He really emphasises the dynamics, the logic and geometry, of how moves are led, more than anyone else. The need to turn, to bend the knees or stand upright, in order to create the response in your partner. By and large I've always learned choreographies in class and from the internet: here it is necessary to learn body awareness and movement, and it's not easy. It's wearying and depressing, but I have a feeling that I just need to keep at it. I'm learning the dance from the inside: what I need to get right is actually not that complex, and learning like this makes complete sense.

Porteno y Bailarin: Ana Maria Schapira

Wednesday 03 December: improbable to write that date, wearing T shirt and shorts with the window open, sunshine and a fresh breeze. More internet problems but why intermittently?

Yesterday, class at El Beso with Oscar's son and daughter, who teach together on Tuesday and Thursday. Brother and sister, they are fun together, and teach a lot too. Very few people turned up so we got a lot of individual attention. Various possibilities with ocho cortado, firstly leading it well, and then three alternative ways to exit: the first is hard to describe, a sort of lift to the front, the second an americano and the third, leading the americano but using the right foot to sacada. & we go down when we step, and lift as we collect.

Bought more CDs again yesterday: a very welcome remastered double CD of Julio de Caro. I've only a few tracks, downloaded from Todotango, 500kb each track, so the quality was poor. The remastered CDs have loads more. Perhaps the sound is slightly 'engineered' but it's a pleasure to listen to, and musically a lot clearer. Including tracks as recent as 1952, which sound much better, and a photo of de Caro with an extraordinary violin with a built-in horn, obviously to enhance the noise before electric pick-ups became available. Likewise a very welcome remastered double CD of Pedro Laurenz. I must be close to wearing out my downloads of him. & Pugliese en el Colon, which I've wanted ever since I first heard about it, the live recording at the 1985 concert in the opera house soon after the end of the terror. £3.50 here: available in the UK as a download from LastFM for about double that I think.

Porteno y Bailarin in the evening. Coming out of the subway into Corrientes, the new moon in a clear sky. A good sign, I hope. Class with the same teacher, Ana Maria Schapira. I like her teaching, interesting, different. She's a good local teacher who doesn't have or seem to want an international reputation. She doesn't like my way of walking and tries to get me to be more grounded, heavier. I try to leap up too much, I don't walk heel first. As she teaches the use of double-time steps this is a serious difficulty as the followers are all relative beginners and don't always reach back well. I know I've always worried about this and led double-time by lifting up, which 'el Pibe' Sarandi objected to in London a few years back. I should push thru' the double time steps. Otherwise it was a very disappointing evening. I was hoping to get to dance with the partners at the class but their post-class interest was a meal and several bottles of wine, and not dancing. Had just one dance with a young American woman I'd met earlier, but she's a beginner and very uncertain. Got home wondering why it had been a flop, and realised I'd had four hours of class that day, but I like the club and will keep at it.

I'd like more classes with Ana Maria. It's disappointing that I don't get to dance more, but I have the feeling that I'm being taken apart, made to question everything, to get rid of a lot of habits, start again. I can only hope I'll be on the floor more later in my stay. There are good and poor evenings everywhere.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Sunday walk: Abasto and Palermo Viejo

The following was written on Sunday: the internet was out for several days, and I've uploaded bits in the wrong order. I finally plucked up courage and stuck a pin in the small orifice in the back of the modem: all the lights flashed on, then subsided, then, slowly, the Data Send/Receive lights started to flicker again. Relief. Contacting a computer helpline in Spanish didn't seem to be an option.

That was Friday night: I arrived Monday afternoon and everything so far was between Wednesday and Friday. So perhaps a day of rest was called for, and the weather enforced it. Saturday was cloudburst day: it poured, it thundered, it lightninged. It eased off towards evening and I thought of going out, but as soon as I started getting ready it poured again, so that was that.

Sunday dawned cool and fresh so I took off for a walk across town from Abasto to Palermo. The Abasto end: an art deco building originally the city's market and now a shopping Mall. A bit like the Galleria Pacifico downtown, the Abasto Mall is all upmarket shops, clothes, perfumes, expensive luxury stuff, boring. & you can't see the building for the shops. So I took off across the streets towards Palermo, or so I thought. After about 10 minutes I checked the map and realised I was going in quite the wrong direction. I puzzles me how often I've taken wrong directions here as my sense of direction is usually pretty good. One reason might be that city maps show the Rio Plate at the bottom of the map, which one assumes is south, whereas the Rio Plate is of course north of the city. Another might be that this is the southern hemisphere and I believe that means the sun travels north to midday, rather than south. Of course, in the narrow grid of downtown streets, currently 'mi barrio', the buildings are high, and the sun is far away. Anyway it's been cloudy a lot of the time, and I never seem to know which way I'm going.

So I retraced my steps and, now going in the right direction, treated myself to a 'cortado' in a pastisserie/coffee shop that looked clean and inviting. A cortado, (as in 'ocho cortado') is a coffee with a cut of milk, and I was offered a slice of panettone with it, with a friendly smile. I could hardly refuse, and noticed it wasn't in the bill. So that was A$5, £1, for coffee and cake. This city seems sympathetic and welcoming to visitors: but I guess arrival here is recent in most people's family memories. Yes, I tried to pay for the cake with a good tip.

It's a pleasant walk between Abasto and Palermo Viejo. The streets are wide and tree-lined, the side streets still cobbled, and it was a quiet Sunday morning after the rain, fresh and clear. I finally came out at Scalabrini Ortiz, one of the city's wide avenues, where I wanted to locate Canning as I plan to go to the milonga there tomorrow night, and try to think about how to get back. It's hardly walking distance.

Don't imagine BsAs oozes tango thru' every pore. Unless you're passing a tango CD store, or your taxi driver has unusual tastes, it's r&r and latin you'll hear, like anywhere else. In the taxi back from Canning: “She was just 17, you know what I mean, YOOO, I'll never dance with another...” Long time since I last heard that (fortunately).

After trees and wide streets, back in the downtown canyon. Still no internet: it seems to give up when it rains. Perhaps that's a downside of all that cabling between buildings.