Monday, 28 December 2009

Some milongas: Confiteria Ideal

Confiteria Ideal should be one of the truly wonderful milongas of Buenos Aires. You can practically scrape tango off the old mirrors and hardwood panelling. Everything about it (even the waiters!) seems to predate the golden age. And yet...

The BBC did a marvellous job in creating the image of Ideal as a place where all the great milongeros and milongueras hang out, where people from all walks of life turn up just to dance. I guess it might have been like that six or seven years ago, although I doubt it, and it's definitely not like that these days. It's very sad for this wonderful old building to have suffered such a terminal tango decline. At El Arranque the ordinary people, good dancers and OK dancers, go to dance tango. It's a serious milonga. Relatively few people turn up at the daytime milongas at Ideal, and to judge by a recent afternoon, very few of them are serious dancers. The night-time milongas may well be better, as I remember from last year. In particular, Friday night is when Unitango play, so at least there's live music.

But the sparsely attended daytime milongas have their uses. Go with a partner, and you've got plenty of room. You can just walk! Something hardly possible in the downtown milongas. You just have to avoid the occasional couple drifting round the floor the wrong way. & in particular, we had to avoid the 'pareja' doing high boleos in platforms. It was that eccentric. But if your partner happens to enjoy people-watching, then you have some innocent entertainment in front of you too. & the music is OK, although they didn't play a single vals in over two hours. The floor is hard and slightly uneven, but tiled floors aren't unusual here. & if you are very lucky you might catch a waiter's eye and be able to order a coffee or a bottle of water. All in all, what a strange place!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Some Buildings

Downtown architecture: I lived just up the road. Too bad the beautiful ornate pink minaret on the roof gets lost in the view of the whole.

You never know what you're going to see next. This bit of Art Nouveau Plus reminded me of Khajuraho, with celestial nymphs hanging off the facade.

The marvelous opera house. Finished at the start of the 20th century, where Caruso performed. One of the biggest and most beautiful in the world, with one of the best accoustics. Soon to re-open. Sorry, the sun doesn't shine every day here.

The Ministry of Justice? The Foreign Office? The local equivalent of the V&A? Actually, the municipal waterworks. & it's vast: this is just the entrance. The building takes a whole block, with never a dull moment. I can only guess that it houses a turbine room that makes Tate Modern look like a toy, as it must pump water from the ground, filter it and pump it throughout the city under pressure, as there's no high ground in pancake land to feed water by gravity. Built in the 1880s. If you've read Tomás Eloy Martínez' novel The Tango Singer, you'll remember a description of the interior. I think it's possible to visit... But that will have to wait.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

With feet on the ground

This image always astonishes me, not only for what it shows, but because of where it is. It shows a female figure, well over life-size, her hands tied behind her back, her pants/skirt around her ankles, serving as the support for a giant pair of feet, presumably male, bearing down on her shoulders. It's called 'Con los pies en la tierra', ('With feet on the ground'). It is very prominent, permanently installed in an arch in the centre of the big opulent downtown shopping mall, the Gallerias Pacifico, surrounded by Tiffany's, Polo Ralph Lauren, Christian Dior, Lacoste, Hugo Boss... The Gallerias, which also houses the four extensive galleries of the Jorge Borges Cultural Centre, also has a basement, part of which was used by the military as a detention and torture centre in the late 1970s.

The painting is by Carlos Alonso, one of the most respected Argentine artists. He was in London in the early 1960s, and his drawings and paintings remind me a bit of the work of the late R.B. Kitaj. In 1976, at the beginning of the 'proceseo', his daughter was among the 'disappeared', and he fled into exile in Europe for some years.

It's a very powerful image, with the intensity and imagination of a vision by William Blake. It doesn't describe a moment, or an event, or a temporary, superficial appearance: rather, it sums up a lot of history, experience, psychology, in a terrifying and very moving image. The message is direct: it's a warning to all who see it. & it's beautifully, vigorously painted, very solid. I don't know the history of how it came to be there: I assume there's an explicit link with the missing daughter and the previous use of the building.

& it occurs to me that there's probably not a shopping shopping mall in the UK that would tolerate an image like this under any circumstances. The traders and the local council would see to that. Perhaps the fact that it is so prominent here suggests the extent to which Argentina still sees itself as a European country with an enlightened, liberal attitude to creativity, and a respect for the European tradition, it's own tradition, of the arts. Perhaps it's a country perpetually in exile. & it worries me that this liberal attitude is threatened in the UK, if not elsewhere. We need warnings, and we have to trust creative minds to deliver them.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Some milongas: Salon Canning

Salon Canning is one enormous room. I don't know why it feels like a room: normally a room this big would be a hall. Perhaps because it's square, and halls tend to be rectangular, but probably because it really looks like a room scaled up at least 10 times: it has room-like proportions.

In the centre of this vast room is a beautiful polished hardwood parquet floor. Considering the size of the room it's not that big; I'd guess it's at most six metres square, surrounded by tables and chairs. Walking into Canning feels great because of the space, and standing on that dance floor in the middle of that room is an experience in itself.

As usual with these venues there's a different milonga every night of the week with a different name and run by different organisers, but it would be hard to differentiate between them. I've always visited on Friday nights. The pre-milonga class on Friday is taught by Ana Maria Schapira, and if she's away teaching in Europe, Alicia Pons takes over. They teach really useful, basic 'milonguero' close-hold tango. Both speak some English and have teaching assistants who will help.

Seating is by tables: men and women who don't know each other won't be sat at the same table, although they might be seated at adjacent tables. (You are always shown to a table in this part of the world, although if you arrive early for the class you can choose between the tables that aren't booked.) Since the effective cabeceo area is less than a quarter of the entire space, it's normal for guys to wander around, looking for friends or for glances in their direction. This occasionally (I'm told) does get a bit intrusive, and because of the size of the venue it's harder to pick out and contact the really good dancers. Once again, visiting guys might find it hard to make eye-contact, although visiting ladies might not find it in short supply. &, I'm told, they might find the quality of dancing variable. Best to go with a group of friends.

It's a real treat when you do get onto that floor. The dancing is generally good. You can usually assume that you can take a step, perhaps rather a small one, in any direction without encountering any obstacle, which means you can dance quite freely, albeit on a small scale. Once again, the 'second lane' is elusive: there's the line of dance and then there's everyone else inside it. The line of dance gets crowded and slow-moving, but it's worth persevering with a 'lap of honour': it's a test of skill to keep turning on the spot and inching forwards. At the start of a tanda one evening I turned and was startled to find, hardly a foot behind us, an old couple, Pocho and Nelly. There was another couple hardly a foot in front of us. His eye caught mine: it seemed to say 'You're doing fine! Just don't come any closer.' Here they are, the whole beautiful floor at Canning to themselves.

There's a good article and some excellent photos here. But I'm not sure when Natalie Laruccia found it this empty.

Video thanks to 2xtango.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Cacho Dante

Cacho teaches 'milonguero' tango. He's easily accessible at his group classes, which are normally three nights a week, shrinking to a single class every week in December, because of the holidays. He has a website. Under 'Recently' there are several interviews/pieces of writing, most with an English translation.

Cacho's classes feel more like supervised practicas, but they are still serous hard work. They start with a good period of social dancing, then various kinds of walking. He watches carefully, suggests corrections. He immediately came over to me and said: 'No, when you step forwards you must step with a straight leg. & don't turn your foot out when you walk straight. It will turn your balance out as if you are leading a turn.' He came back a few moments later and repeated: no, you must step with a straight leg.

It was news to me that I wasn't stepping forwards with a straight leg, but I found it awkward to do, so there was an obvious change. Watching myself over the next few days I realised that what he said was absolutely true, that I habitually walk with slightly bent knees, that this is in effect a slouching walk that throws forwards my shoulders. In tango, that means I lead not from the heart, the centre of the chest, but more from the shoulders, whereas hitting the ground with a straight leg pushes you upright. There's something really useful there: if people keep telling you your posture isn't right, simply straightening your back might not do the trick. You might need to look at how you are walking. Teachers often say: 'Walk as you walk in the street'. But some of us walk badly, so that advice isn't much use. Dancing since that class, I've found that the straight leg makes the dance feel a lot more confident. Of course, knees need to be soft a lot of the time, particularly in turns, but walking needs to be firm.

After the walking, more social dancing, then he teaches a few steps, and there's dancing concentrated on these. To end with, the last two or three tandas are free dance. It's as low key as it sounds, relaxed and useful. & he keeps a careful eye on it all, and makes suggestions when required. Interestingly, his classes seem to attract younger local dancers, much younger than at other tango classes, and it's a friendly group. Of course the classes are in castellano. & be prepared for the embrace: it's instant, trusting and whole-hearted. There's nothing hesitant or uncertain about it, and it feels really comfortable. If you want to know how it looks, try 0:00 to 0:02 of this video. Go for it!

So how does Cacho walk? It's a pity there's only one video of him on the whole of YouTube, thanks to altangobonn. I hope I can post two brief extracts. I wanted to slow down the first one, but don't have my usual editing software. Anyway, it's just a slow walk. &, yes, his legs and his back are straight.

The second extract shows Cacho in movement. His footwork seems astonishingly precise and clear.

I've watched him in milongas, and there's a kind of pared-down neatness about his lead. I keep wanting to use the word 'honest' about the tango I like: there's no pretense about it, no superfluous gesture. It feels like that in his class. It feels as if anything over-elaborate, showy, would be out of place. The dance in his classes is precise and simple, and very musical. From these classes, there must be a stream of wonderful new dancers in the milongas.

I was hoping to have a chance to film him, but time is short. I hope someone else will add to that single video.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Some milongas: Porteño y Bailarin

Porteño y Bailarin was a great favourite last time I visited the city of cool breezes. The place was heaving with excellent dancers: it was party time twice a week, the two floors were both packed, and dancers like 'El Flaco' Dany and his brother were regulars. Unfortunately it seems to have quietened down a bit, although the brothers are still often there, but it does mean that there's more room to dance. It always has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, and there are usually more than a few extranjeros there, many of them excellent dancers. Carlos Stasi, the organizador is as friendly and welcoming as ever. It's good to watch him on the floor, he teaches, and he speaks English well.

I arrived with a friend I'd met at a class, and we weren't certain whether to sit together: it wouldn't have been right if she'd had to dance with me all evening! In the end there wasn't much choice, and we sat together, and danced a tanda, but after that she had no problem in getting dances with some of the older local men. She was very appreciative of the dances, and it goes without saying that she was treated with real courtesy, and was delighted to meet some of those older guys who just sit quietly at the side of the floor, waiting for the music they like and a partner to dance to it with. Sadly, I didn't get the same opportunity with porteñas, but there weren't a huge number of people there in the first place: it was a lot easier last year when it was crowded. I don't think it's ever easy for visiting males to get dances, except with other visitors, but it's a privilege and a learning opportunity to sit and watch how some some of the older generation dance, how they move with the music and use the available space.

All in all, a good night out, and I always look forward to going back there.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Mariano 'Chicho' Frumboli 'fesses up...

There's a fascinating interview with the great icon of what gets called the 'nuevo movement' in the most recent issue of El Tanguata. I can't link the article itself, but it's easy to go to the site, create a login and then download ('descargar') the .pdf: look for Edición Nro 182. He's talking to Milena Plebs, and there's an English translation.

He says that we are at the beginning of a powerful era of tango because so many people are now involved, but that something has been lost. He studied with 'the last great milongueros', but was crazy about creating and as a result he says he missed something, that he '...lost the way to be able to pass on the tango essence'. Consequently, '...there are a lot of people who don't understand or know what the real essence of this dance is', the way it expresses the entire body, the weight, density and importance of the dance. He said that there used to be a respect for the floor, that he himself didn't dare take to the floor for the first five months: he just watched. Now he finds that people dance to be seen from the outside, and he takes total responsibility for this, and says that other colleagues should as well. He wishes that 'the shared intensity, in the soul' of tango should return, that it should be felt inside. 'The essence of tango is the embrace and the person you are dancing with.'

I don't know who his masters were, but I'd guess there are still a good many dancers of Chicho's age and older who would have known them too, and who wouldn't have been distracted by same urge to be creative. If there are, they might not teach, aren't household names around the world, probably live quietly, and just turn up and dance at milongas as much as they can. They may not teach, but I believe you can learn a great deal by watching, and by meeting them socially, even briefly, if you get the chance. ('Rubbing shoulders' with them is what you try not to do, at least on the dance floor!) &, yes, it might take at least five months...


A kind friend drew my attention to this video recently.

The lead dancer is Ruben Terbalca, '...a former professor at the Tango University of Buenos Aires (1993-1996), tango historian, milonguero, and performer. He started dancing in 1956, and he has performed and lectured about tango for over 30 years. He has taught all over over the world, and his knowledge and skills have been internationally acclaimed'. True, he seems to have taught in every corner of the world, from Latvia to Seoul to San Francisco to Sweden, to Germany... and London? Well, I'm not sure that we've heard of him in London.

I'm curious where he got his candombe from: it's certainly a very entertaining performance. The music is hard to hear properly: the video says it's the Firpo Orquesta and the title is Tamboriles. I've got three Firpo CDs and it doesn't feature on any of them, so it's just going to remain hard to hear. I'm told he teaches in Buenos Aires, so I must look out for him if I'm ever there.

Video thanks to Ysikwon.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Werner Bischof at the centro cultural ;Borges

An unexpected opportunity to see an exhibition of the Swiss photographer, who was 23 when WW2 broke out. His early images are tender and lyrical, which changes as soon as the war ended and he was commissioned to travel and photograph. He managed to continue to make extraordinary images of dreadful devastation; the ruins of the Reichstag, refugee children staring out into an uncertain future, Red Cross labels round their necks, the aftermath of Hiroshima. Later he joined Magnum and continued to travel. He photographed the Bihar famine in 1951: his image of a starving mother and her child has always summed up that colossal natural disaster for me. He traveled extensively, particularly in the Andes: his photos of the people of Cuzco are extraordinary. & it was in the Andes that he died in a car crash in 1954. A brief and and amazingly creative life.

Photography does people especially well, and particularly when someone has an eye for images that can speak to us. Ten years of world history will always remain present in his images. A lot of the pictures are in black and white, which makes them particularly beautiful simply because gelatin silver prints are amazing to look at, and mono intensifies, focuses, the image too. Colour prints are dye-based, which makes a 'thin' surface by contrast with the rich blacks and silvery whites of gelatin silver prints. Too bad the technology, which is admittedly messy and time-consuming, is being forgotten now that dye-based inkjet prints are so quick and easy to make. But it's always the human eye that makes photos, not the technology.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


A blog from the city of gentle winds wouldn't be complete without a post on the cabeceo. Tango and Chaos has a page devoted to it, and Irene and Man Yung have recently posted a long and amusing guide. What I say may differ in details, but we come from different viewpoints. For instance, the Tango and Chaos guide is written from a portena viewpoint, which might not be so helpful to a visiting male.

I guess my experience of cabeceo is coloured by the fact that the first time I really became aware of it was when a local woman turned and made eye contact with me at a milonga, so I've retained the idea that women ask men to dance. I know it works both ways, but I'm inclined to approach it from that direction. Cabeceo certainly gives women a lot of control. If they don't choose to return your glance, you don't get to dance with them, and that's that.

A couple of times recently, women I didn't know have spoken to me in milongas. The first time I was so surprised that this beautiful apparition stopped on her way to the 'banos' and whispered (in castellano): 'Didn't I see you in the class yesterday?' that all I could say was 'Duhhh?', or something similar. Then a few nights ago two women were sitting in front of me. They got up, one turned to me and said something I couldn't follow. I thought they were leaving and tried to say 'Sorry I didn't get to dance with you', with a smile. She nodded, repeated that they were going out for a cigarette and would I mind watching their table for them. (I got it that time around.) The first tanda after they returned, she turned to me and we danced. I wonder if both women needed assurance that I was friendly. The first woman didn't get any assurance and walked off into history, while the second got the assurance she needed, and so we danced. This suggests that greeting and smiling at a possible partner, if you have some excuse to do it, isn't by any means taboo, so long as there is no pressure on the woman to dance. I've noticed local guys making discrete (and sometimes not so discrete) comments to ladies who walk past them, to show (hopefully) that they are good company for a tanda, but you really can't go wrong by smiling.

I'd never stare at a woman: it's not comfortable for me, and probably not for her. It seems to be about glances, not stares. A woman might well have a dance card filled out for most of the evening: a vals tanda with x, D'Agostino with x or y, milonga with z. They don't know me, so I don't enter into it. But x,y, and z might not come through for them, so they'll glance around, perhaps a bit timidly, to see if there's anyone else who will do instead. That's when I'm keeping my peripheral vision as open as possible, so if I sense someone glancing in my direction, I'm ready to respond. It often seems to work in two stages: there's an initial, passing eye contact, and then a moment, or even a tanda later, or even perhaps the next evening, a more positive invitation/acceptance. The unknown is always a problem: what will my friends say if they see me dancing with a complete idiot? Guys have to accept that women need to be able to trust them.

If your distance vision isn't good, get a discrete pair of glasses. In addition to showing you the detail you need, they also convey the message that you are actively looking for someone to dance with. Contact lenses don't have the same effect.

Problems arise when ladies are seated in a row in front of the guys. I haven't found a solution to that one, apart from walking round to where I can make eye contact. But if the guys are seated in front of the ladies, I've noticed that the ladies have developed a simple strategy, which consists of making little balls of paper and throwing them at the necks of the guys to get them to turn round... It's OK among friends!

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Some milongas: El Arranque

El Arranque, held at La Argentina, is an afternoon milonga that starts while most people are still at work. Later it fills up, then people begin to leave to go home. It's one of the biggest floors I've come across in this city of stiff breezes, almost as big, I'd guess, as the floor at Carablanca in London.

The thing I like about it is that it's the milonga of ordinary people who dance tango. No one here is dressed up, the shoes are nondescript. The dance varies from the OK to the fairly basic. But why be critical? These are just ordinary people who like dancing, and I think that's great. It's a good place to go with a partner as you can practice all afternoon: I've never seen it really crowded. If you go alone it might be more difficult. Two women together will certainly get dances. It's harder for guys: as elsewhere, if you aren't known you have to work your way up. The women will be well aware that you are looking at them for a dance, and if they choose not to look back, you get nowhere. They want to dance with their friends and acquaintances, so it might take a while, but it isn't impossible. & my partner attracted dances with a couple of other leads, who brought her back to the table at the end of the tanda, gave me a slight bow and said what a good dancer she is. (She is.) Compare that with London, where I might be in a close conversation with a good friend when someone walks up, leans over her, ignoring me, demanding a dance, and then dumps her in the middle of the floor when the tanda ends. So just who is treating her as a human being?

It's also interesting to compare it to a London milonga in the pauses between tangos, because the spacing of couples is very regular. There might have been 50 or 60 couples on that floor, and there was no bunching, no vacant space. There seems in general an instinctive practice to give everyone else one step of space. You don't dance within one step of each other. You might take a chance on using that space for a quick moment, but be aware that someone else might be relying on it being there. This means that dancing in a crowd is relatively easy, because you have space. Of course the definition of 'a step' depends on how crowded the floor is, but it seems to be a fairly regular courtesy. It goes without saying that all the dancers here were dancing in close or fairly close embrace, and that none of them used wild, sudden or exaggerated moves. It's a modest, social dance.

As to the line of dance, this tends to be crowded and slow moving. Dancing in the line of dance is fairly restricted. 'A step' here seems to be much smaller than elsewhere on the floor. Consequently every now and again, dancers break away from the line if space opens up inside the floor, as there you have a much more varied and changing space: the apparently random moves of dancers might open up a space for a bit of a walk, which can be useful and enjoyable if you've been rather confined. Of course things do go wrong occasionally, but in general you can dance without being bumped, pushed or kicked even when it's crowded. It's nice.

As to a 'second lane' I've never been aware of it. One night I thought I was dancing in a second lane, and discovered abruptly that it was just a random opening.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Another good evening.

Another class with Mimí Santapá, and I need to clarify something. Yes, she says 'postura' a lot, but this doesn't seem to mean 'good posture' in the English sense of the straight and probably rather stiff back. When Mimí talks about 'postura' she's talking about where and how you place your feet, how your knees and hips relate to this in movement, how this affects the angle of the shoulders and the position of the head. 'Postura' means posture of the whole body in movement, not just the static straightness of the back, which is actually something she doesn't dwell on. & it's amazing how detailed her vision of 'postura' is. Her classes start with walking, and work from the way the feet are placed, and how the rest of body must follow, into 'un paso'. If you've got your feet in the right place to begin with and you walk correctly, the 'paso' will be natural for you and your partner, and consequently it will look elegant.

It's a meticulously detailed approach; it's work, and not a lot of fun, so it was great to go on to another of Martha and El Gallego Manolo's classes. It was canyengue to start with, and just when I was beginning to get a bit tired of the relentless slow canyengue beat they switched to milonga. It was a fun class. I'm really glad to be taking classes in castellano: it is an effort, and my understanding is partial at best, but it means a wide range of classes, and meeting and dancing with the endlessly welcoming people of the city, this city of billowing exhaust fumes. & just when we all sat down tired at the end of the class, Martha and Manolo put on more music and treated us to a ten-minute display of their milonga, which was simply stunning. Martha's light quickness of foot would put to shame a good many dancers one-third of her age. She laughs; dancing makes her happy, while Manolo leads complex moves with the calm effortlessness of someone strolling in the park. Another good evening.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Interlude: I don't get a class with Myriam Pincen

Myriam Pincen, who used to dance with Ricardo Vidort, (watch them here) and who was often his dance assistant, is advertised to give a class at Salon Canning before the afternoon milonga. I arrive early. While waiting outside I notice this tree growing out of someone's front window: perhaps there's a courtyard inside. It has forced its way through the metal grill, and just kept on growing, creating shade over the pavement. I guess the owner is satisfied that no one is going to break in through that window.

I wander off for a coffee, passing a petshop window, where there are a black and a white rabbit, and three tiny siamese kittens neatly curled up asleep together. I find a little restaurant and order a coffee, watching the traffic pollution billow up in the sunshine outside. No sweet breezes today. The white tiles on the walls have comments written on them with felt-tip pens. 'If you want a taste of nirvana, eat at Quique's for a week.' All in different hands, one with a crude drawing of three fat people, others with elaborate decorations, all commenting on how good the food is at Quique's. Above it all, high up on the ceiling, a quote: 'No time is more precious than the present', attributed to Goethe. Goethe? I lived just off a busy London road for years and never found a cafe with a quote from Goethe.

Sadly, Myriam Pincen isn't giving the class. She has two other classes a week advertised: they too are canceled. I leave, disappointed. December isn't a good month for classes: everyone is winding down for Christmas. She has a great reputation as a teacher, but I don't think she's traveled a lot.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Martha Antón and El Gallego Manolo

I heard about Martha Antón and 'El Gallego' Manolo quite a while ago. Manolo learned from some of the older dancers when he was growing up, so there's a connection there that goes right back to the early decades of the 20th century, while Martha came to tango after a childhood in ballet. It's wonderful that they still teach regular public classes in this city of sweet breezes, and it's been wonderful to meet them. They speak very little English, but are effortlessly encouraging. 'Very easy! No problem!' Their patience seems inexhaustible. The classes are small, so you spend most of the time dancing, and they 'visit' you every now and again to see how you are doing, and to add a few steps. They are like your favourite grandparents who still happen to be amazing dancers and teachers: if Argentina gave 'living treasure' status to dancers they should be at the top of the list. Irene and Man Yung, who got to know them better than I'm likely to, wrote a long and very interesting post about them (and a few other things!) recently.

I took a few candombe classes about three years ago in London, and enjoyed the dance and the music, without learning enough to be able to dance much: in any case, the music isn't often played. The rhythm and movements seem relatively straightforward after tango. Some of the steps turn up in tango and milonga, but the big difference is that in candombe the leader's left arm is used to change the follower's position. The right arm plays a part in this too, but the left is used in a way that isn't acceptable in tango. As my partner commented, it's a bit like steering a motorbike. There are some very good recent videos of their candombe here.

At the end of the class they treated us to a display of their tango salon: 'their' because it's different to the salon style current in milongas. This video seems to be identical to the dance they showed us at the class.

The current salon style is danced to a music which is much more lyrical than the straightforward 'marching' beat of canyengue: the music they dance to here is tango, but still has something of the slow, rhythmic pulse of canyengue. Compare this to the video of Ismael and his partner dancing to, is it De Angelis, or Fresedo? Ismael's dance uses turning movements to follow the cadences of the music, the phrases of violins and bandoneon. & it's danced close, torso to torso, which means that those smooth rhythmic turns can be led from the waist and feet, and followed effortlessly, which would be difficult in open embrace. Another difference is that Manolo dances with fairly bent knees. Knees are usually 'soft', but are a lot straighter than this in current styles. Martha and Manolo's dance resembles more the old film of El Cachafaz dancing, although they dance closer. (I notice that the film was made in 1933, when Ismael was just three.) When I watch Martha and 'El Gallego' I think I'm watching an earlier tango which would have grown up with an earlier music, of which there are now relatively few recordings.

When I say the 'current' salon style I mean the style common in most milongas now, a style that I think goes back at least to the 1940s. I assume it was a response to the more lyrical music of De Caro and musicians such as Pedro Laurenz and Miguel Calo, who followed in his footsteps (and in his orquesta). This dance uses a lot of rotation, it's less linear, which gives big advantages in social dancing. A dance that rotates a lot can be complex and interesting in a very confined space and, because of the frequent turning, couples remain aware of the space around them: big advantages on a crowded floor.

After two gentle and very happy two hours with Martha and Manolo, there's a sudden change of tempo. A new class rushes in, about 30 of them. Electrotango is suddenly blasting out, the new students rush in. I get pushed out of the way as I try to leave. Why? Why this lack of courtesy?

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Tango and the Tower of Babel

I believe in diversity – until it comes to languages, when I have some doubts. Nevertheless, the challenge can be a lot of fun.

Alicia Pons
teaches classes in the big room on a Friday night. (Technically it's Ana Maria Schapira's class, but she's away on tour: she visits Europe to teach at least once every year but, sadly, has never been invited to the UK.) Alicia Pons is lively and energetic, quick on her feet. The classes are a lot of fun, and if you understand castellano well, you'd find them even more fun, because she enjoys banter, word-play, repartee. It's a lively atmosphere. She begins either with walking exercises, or with what Tete Rusconi calls (if I remember right) 'un poco de boogie-woogie': she came to tango via Tete from classical dance, and slow jive is a good warm-up to tango. & you don't have to understand the intermittent banter to enjoy it.

Taking tango classes in the language it grew up in is a challenge. Of course I'd never claim that classes in English are less effective. It's just that English alone never gives you the experience of being on a dance floor in a big room in a far-off country in the company of the descendants of the people who developed the music and the dance in the first place. & there's a lot of warmth and friendship, and a lot of dancing, in these classes.

It's not difficult to take tango classes in Spanish, but obviously you need basic language skills, and a bit of specialist vocabulary, like the names of body parts: shoulders, chest, knees, feet, as well as obvious words like forwards, back, to the side, turn. But mainly you need to watch very carefully. Dance is body language, and moreover the Spanish/Italian culture uses gestures a lot, so you can get more than the gist just by looking. Understanding is always easier than speaking, but when it comes to social dancing you need to be capable of brief conversations.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Mimí Santapá 2

'Postura, postura, postura'. She picks on me for a 20-minute private class while everyone is arriving. 'Come, show me how you dance'. Then comes the feedback. A lot of it is beginners' class stuff, but with reasons thrown in. Two people dancing close: Mimi teaches how each must move so that neither disturbs the others' axis. If you are both to dance comfortably close together there are certain practical necessities.

It doesn't seem to be a very instinctive way to learn, in fact it's surprisingly detailed, mechanical, even academic. I'm just fascinated that so much thought has gone into the details, the dynamics of two people walking close together and not upsetting each others' balance. 'Postura, postura, postura!' She says that with correct posture and torso position the steps follow automatically. What matters is the torso, where it is and how it's used. It's a very functional approach, which I like. 'I don't teach steps, I teach posture'. She says it over and over again. If you thinks about steps, your attention is towards your feet, not your torsos. &: 'This is my father's teaching. This is what I got from him'.

Late evening, a small hall, door open to the street to bring in some air, and the odd mosquito. It's warm, and there's a downpour halfway through the evening. A dozen or so people, not the beautiful downtown milonga crowd, just ordinary people, some beginners, the weariness of a day in the city in their faces, the faces you pass daily in the streets, coming together for a dance class. It was a real treat. A non-stop, 2½-hour class: we walk a lot, then use the walking positions in turns and saccadas. I step out of it feeling I've met strangers and been welcomed, that I'm walking differently, more upright, more confident. That feeling is still there next morning.

She says she was in London earlier this year. This surprises me, but I only came across her name a few months back. More to the point, she's been invited by London teachers to visit again next year. I linked a video of her dancing a while back.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Taxi driver

As the taxi set off, the driver turned up the volume, glancing back to ask me if I minded. It was a reassuring human voice with acoustic guitars, human and not mechanical music. It was a bit loud, but I was in a hurry and just wanted the driver to get me there. So, no, it was OK.

After a while he asked: 'What country are you from?' 'England' I replied. 'And you?' 'I'm from here!' he laughed. '& the music; where's that from?' It was beginning to get into me, that powerful, emotional voice, and the crisp sound of guitars. 'It's OURS!' he said emphatically. He said a bit more about it, but I couldn't catch it: my head was between the two speakers. I was beginning to get interested. I guess it was gaucho music, and very good, too. The voice was strong, expressive and tuneful, the guitars played beautifully clear, good sound, confident rhythms. No doubt a professional recording. He whistled and sang a bit, absolutely clearly in tune, his whistling following exactly a phrase in the guitars I might not have noticed. This was getting interesting: in my experience only musicians can do stuff like that.

'So what's the name of the singer?' Once again I couldn't catch what he said, but the next bit was unmistakeable. 'It's me', he said, pointing emphatically and proudly at his chest. 'Me and my friends. Here we are.' He pulled over. I paid him and got out, thinking I still hadn't caught his name, or asked if he had a CD of his songs. By then he was half a block away in the night, speakers blasting.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Monica Lerner

I just came across this work by Monica Lerner, an Argentine ceramic sculptor, and really liked it.

Art based around tango is usually dire; excessive and caricatured, well into hats-and-split-skirts land, with exaggerated gestures and expressions, an illustrative art that doesn't aim to find out anything about tango, the music, the embrace, the interaction between the dancers. Since it just aims to present a sort of enhanced snapshot it's sterile, like, often enough, the kind of tango it's illustrating. On the other hand, really intense tango might not look particularly wild and visually interesting: there are layers of feelings and awareness, but they aren't visible. Moreover, dance unfolds in time, and art -- drawing, painting, sculpture -- is three- and not four-dimensional. So it isn't easy.

But if an artist looks at tango and gets interested in what is going on when a couple is dancing, in how people relate to each other and the music, how can she or he proceed? Monica Lerner's work doesn't aim to illustrate exterior appearances, doesn't even aim to show a sort of Hogarth-type caricature, although perhaps there's an element of that in some of it. It seems to show a reaction to the human feelings and frailties involved, to the messiness and ambiguity of human interactions; it seems to tear open appearances. So it isn't 'tango art' at all: it's art that's aware of human sexuality and the interactions involved in tango. Another theme in her work is 'Putavesti', looking at the power of money, the falsity of conventions, and the victims of human trafficing. It's intense and beautifully made; the surfaces, the colour, the drawing that underpins it, clearly showing the vision behind it.

I recently saw the Anish Kapoor show at the Royal Academy which I found mind-numbingly boring and senseless. I really liked the early work he made with pigments, but it's got crass and bombastic. Why can't they give a showing to someone like Monica Lerner? Well, perhaps the answer is the power of money. Kapoor is a name in the UK, he's good box office and Monica Lerner, sadly, isn't.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Watching and hearing

Watching Ismael Heljalil dance, I find I'm immediately listening to the music with a new clarity, especially the melodic lines of the violins and bandoneon, as if my ears are suddenly opened. I guess he's been listening to this music, and dancing to it, for over 60 years, and his dance makes the music very clear, as if he shows, with a few quite simple steps, how it all fits together, how it works. Watching Alberto Dassieu, by contrast, I become aware of the rhythm too, especially the rhythm, and of the pauses in between the strong beats. He waits for the strong beats, and moves to them. Sometimes there are long spaces between the strong beats, sometimes there is a cluster of them.

Interesting. It's as if these dancers can make me hear what they are listening to: that's how it seems. Most dancers, teachers even, keep perfectly to the beat and use their steps to follow the patterns in the music, but somehow it's as if their dance gets in the way of the music, distracts from it, even. I guess from a dance point of view there's nothing wrong with that, but I could watch Ismael all night, I'd look forward to watching that undemonstrative and unassuming dance that makes me listen very clearly as I watch, and is effortlessly graceful.

PS: I should add that this apparently undemonstrative dance also attracts many of the best partners of all ages...

PPS: Apologies! I forgot to link in the clip. Now you too can watch!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

All in a dream

I dreamed I met up with Pedro Sanchez in a city where everyone greets with a kiss, right cheek to right cheek. We climbed stairs to a large room with a parquet floor, which appears to have experienced no treatment apart from a nightly rubbing by leather-soled shoes. Music blasted out to fill everyone with dance. 'Tranquilo' said Pedro, 'Just walk'. How can you walk with another couple 20cm away on each side? You have to stand up very straight just to have a bit of room. But all went well, and it felt really good. Later the room filled up, and I seemed to recognise many people. 'El Flaco' Dany, Cacho Dante, Pocho and Nelly, Oscar Casas and Mary Ann. I thought I caught a glimpse of 'El Cachafaz' with Carmencita Calderon, and 'El Fino' too, and there were many others I couldn't recognise.

& before I went out that evening, it seemed that Alberto Dassieu called and invited me to meet up in that same room the next night. When I woke up, it was raining shovels and horses.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Beyond the Clouds

In 1995, Antonioni made a film called Beyond the Clouds in which a beautiful young girl approaches a stranger in a cafe with a story she had read. 'In a scientific expedition in the Andes, the porters sat down and refused to go further that day. When asked why, they said that they needed time for their souls to catch up with them.' She and the stranger, who is in love with his wife, become lovers, and a tangled story ensues. The four short films comprising Beyond the Clouds are all about relationships: in the first, the relationship is affectionate, romantic and unconsummated, in the second it is instant and transitory, in the third, the story of the young girl and the stranger, ultimately violent, and in the fourth, also unconsummated, it turns out that the girl is entering a convent the next day.

Antonioni is wonderful at filming things, and people sometimes seem superfluous. There's a sequence of a deserted mediterranean holiday beach at midwinter which is full of thoughts and stories – until John Malkovitch walks in. Of course Antonioni is notorious for painting his scenes. He had all the leaves repainted in one shot in Blowup because they were the wrong green: perhaps that mediterranean beach was rather less striking before he arrived. (Digital technology might have saved him a lot of work.) He makes the bodies of his actresses look amazing too, which hasn't passed without comment. As it happens, the most memorable scene in the film is an encounter, fully clothed, between Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau that lasts all of four minutes. Their warmth and affection doesn't even have to be scripted. Her face is the most wonderful mix of humour, wisdom and affection. They were the life and soul of La Notte, 34 years earlier, which comes over as Antonioni's best film.

In the end, despite the beautiful young actresses, what stays in mind is Mastroianni the Sunday painter, painting Cezanne's mountain together with the cement factory that has appeared in the next valley, and Moreau looking at his painting with an amused shake of her head. That and the porters waiting for their souls to catch up with them, the feeling you get after a long journey, the worrying feeling that your soul might be getting a bit slow at keeping up.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The smoothness of tango

Back to the roots of Geraldin and Ezequiel, salon tango. It should be our 'default' dance, what we do on busy floors, but we hardly know what it looks like. It's OK to film performances in Buenos Aires, but filming the dancing in milongas, especially if you are a visitor, really isn't acceptable. So there's a lack of video of ordinary social tango, which is a pity because I think we can all learn a lot from it. There are good videos on Tango and Chaos, and I've just noticed that Jantango, who has lived there a long while, has recently been filming, and has uploaded several videos of two milongas. This one is at Maipu 444, one of the heavenly realms of tango, in effect no more than a large, well-lit room, with a parquet floor which appears to have experienced no treatment apart from a nightly rubbing by leather-soled shoes, leaving it smooth and soft like velvet. Don't your feet twitch in anticipation when you look at it?

But watch the dancing. How gentle, relaxed and effortless it appears, and with all the energy of the music. Couples dancing for the best reason in the world – each other. Nothing to prove to the world, just enjoyment of the music and of moving in the moment. It's fascinating to watch how they use available space, and how they give each other room: of course, the floor isn't crowded, and the music is slow. It's hard to think of anything else that looks this civilised: little can compare with the smooth, unhurried precision of social tango this good. 'Asi se baila el tango' as the song says: this is how you dance tango.

Of course people who learn 'steps' will say, oh, that's all easy stuff! We know all that! But learning 'steps' isn't hard; learning to dance with the music, your partner and the rest of the floor takes just a little bit longer. Thank you, Jantango.

Monday, 23 November 2009


'All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all the political blunders, all the failures of the great leaders have arisen merely from a lack of skill at dancing.'

I'd be inclined to say amen to that, but it's a quote from Moliere. The BBC website quotes the words but not the context: more than likely it wasn't intended seriously. It could almost be a dance teacher talking up his importance...

But I'd still say amen to it.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Geraldin Rojas and Ezequiel Paludi at Carablanca Milonga, London 20/11/09

Here's the third of the set of four dances. There's also one, two and four.

Outside videos, I'd never seen Geraldin and Ezekiel, and I've tended to watch her from her days with Javier. But of course I wanted to video the event, which meant ignoring it and juggling tiny figures on a tiny screen. Watching the results a day later, I'm really impressed. They dance a display tango, a kind of stage tango, but they bring to it a lot of what I think of as defining characteristics of Argentine social tango. First, the smoothness. There's always a mismatch: from the waist down all is activity, which you'd never suspect if you just watched from the waist up. (Read into that what you like, but that's how it looks.) There also seemed to be a very real emotional content. It wasn't fireworks just for effect, or to show that they can do fireworks: it seemed to be a tender and passionate dialogue. Moreover, dancing close embrace seemed very much their default position: it looked very comfortable for them. In other words, for all the high kicks and elaborate turns, it didn't look as if salon tango was far away.

Before their performance the floor was crowded with what looked like would-be stage dancers; after the performance the dancing looked unusually calm, and rather good, for a short while. Perhaps that summed up their impact: nobody wants to try to imitate dance that good.

& I enjoyed their choice of music: contemporary versions of classics, except for the milonga, which was chosen by the DJ, and thus improvised. I'm sure the first two of the set of four are the Color Tango orchestra.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Returning from the Salon Room at Tango @ 33...

...I got a sneak preview of a new exhibition in Trafalgar Square. “A 'ghost rainforest' of huge tree stumps from the jungles of Africa is to form a dramatic artwork in London's Trafalgar Square” reads the press release. Huge stumps of naturally-fallen tropical trees were being put in place. One aim is to highlight deforestation, but bringing these huge natural things into that very organised square seems a reminder of a vaster reality. Conceivably trees like this once forested London: in ruins they resemble the aftermath of a global catastrophe, man-made or otherwise. & at midwinter, a strange time to do it. How might they look under snow? & what strange contrast will they make with the inevitable Christmas tree?

At least they will draw attention away from the fourth plinth, currently occupied by a bizarre-looking sculpture of a very brave WW2 pilot. Why it looks bizarre, I'm not quite sure. It's over seven feet tall, but that shouldn't be a problem. It's made out of fibreglass rather than bronze. Somehow, sadly, it looks terribly trivial.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Old and new

This came my way a few days ago and has danced in my head ever since. Call it an eyeworm, perhaps. I'm just wondering why.

It looks like a restaurant-bar where you'd get a set lunch. They wouldn't serve in the evenings, so family and friends, I'd guess, are hanging out there under the strip lights in the evening. Perhaps a few local friends might drop by for a drink and to chat on the way home from work. The usual tile floor, a piano, a few pictures on the wall, traffic passing outside in the dark. A few bored teenagers hanging around: they look as if they're putting off going upstairs to finish their homework. Or the restaurant might be their front room. General Las Heras is a town about 40 miles from Buenos Aires.

Someone's put on a track that was a hit nearly 70 years ago, and it fills the bare space with an extraordinary resonance. A couple at the back try to dance to it, a friend pointing out where he thinks their feet should go. They make a good attempt at the hold, but they don't really know what they're doing with their feet. Unlike the couple the camera focuses on. How old is she? Eight or nine? He's a few years older, and leads with a lot of flourish, but perhaps not altogether clearly. She's amazingly neat on her feet; she knows when to keep her ankles together, and her back cross/ocho/step, whatever we call it this week, is a swift, balanced swivel.

They both look at the floor, watching their feet, and their dance has a slightly tentative feel to it, but in a year or two they'll be very assured. It's magical that the camera has caught this brief glimpse of tango in action, tango in the community, tango in everyday life; kids responding with such musicality, energy, intensity, tenderness even, to the old music of Troilo's violins and bandoneon.

Thanks to Tordolh

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Friday, 13 November 2009

Nostalgia upon nostalgia

Sadly, I hesitate to invite women I don't know and haven't watched dancing. I have to hesitate: at worst I've had attempts at a close-ish embrace (even without actual body contact) repulsed, as if I were an unwelcome pest; at best there's merely a sense of condescending boredom at my lack of wild stage moves. So if I do invite a woman I don't know and haven't seen dancing, and it turns out that she not only follows close embrace but obviously enjoys it... what a bonus!

I met her again recently as I was leaving a rather dark milonga, lit only by coloured flood-lights: I hadn't noticed her inside. She was fuming about the pathetic wannabe stage-performer attempts of dancers. I had to ask where she herself had learned to dance... but the answer was pretty obvious by now. 'In the Buenos Aires milongas, sometimes the leaders just walk! Don't people here realise what a pleasure it can be just to walk? & they turn so smoothly...' Nostalgia upon nostalgia!

At least there are dancers in London who are sympathetic. London doesn't exactly have a name for excellence in tango, but good salon dancing is beginning to be welcomed, and 'specialist' milongas, like the salon room at '33' on Sunday night, are becoming popular. I can only hope that more people will start to realise how good considerate, elegant and musical dancing can be.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Sub-category errors

Technically, a category error means putting something in the wrong category or, according to Wikepidia, '...a semantic or ontological error by which a property is ascribed to a thing that could not possibly have that property.' But there might be a slightly greyer kind of category error. For instance, 'dance' (as a category): we all know what this means... but what we know might not be true of both, say, tango and ballet. Similarly, within 'tango' (as a category) there can be mistaken assumptions, so perhaps this is a sub-category error.

Last night I was talking to a friend who'd just taken a workshop with a couple of well-liked local teachers, who said she was puzzled that an Argentine teacher had told her to keep her shoulders steady, while the local couple asked why everyone kept their shoulders so rigid. & I remembered a class with Oscar Casas, who descended on me with true Latin hyperbole one afternoon: 'Nonono! You KEEL your parrrtner like that!' He then reverted to his (usual) Anglo Saxon mode and explained: if you bend from side to side, so that your shoulders go up and down alternately, you throw your partner off balance, as you affect her axis. (I was probably trying to lead traspie: instead I was taught to breath in slightly to lift my partner slightly onto her toes. Surprisingly, I found this takes concentration.)

But I'm inclined to think that Oscar and the local couple were both right. Oscar was talking about tango in close embrace, the local couple about tango in open embrace. In open embrace you are free to be 'expressive' with your shoulders, but if you do that in close embrace, you create problems for your partner, and she'll find you uncomfortable to dance with. Close embrace tango is incredibly smooth from the waist up, which can be very difficult to achieve. I'd watched tango for four years, but I was still taken aback the first evening I went to El Beso in BsAs to see, over the heads of people sitting down, male-female torsos gliding round, and rotating as smoothly as if they were suspended on pieces of string. Nothing I'd seen in London prepared me for that...

(I also remember a London workshop with Pablo Pugliese, who complained about what he called the 'chicken-wing-flapping' style of some dancers: in this, both shoulders go up and down together.)

Perhaps the category 'tango' contains two sub-categories, 'close' and 'not-close'. 'Close' is a specific art form involving a quality of movement that could be described as 'quasi-feline': 'not-close', on the other hand, seems pretty varied. But problems arise if one assumes that, since they are in the same category, 'tango', what goes for one is good for the other. In other words, 'close' is not necessarily 'not-close' danced close.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Two period films.

The Weeping Meadow (aka Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow).

This is the first film of a trilogy by Theodoros Angelopoulos. Reflecting on the death of his mother, whose life almost spanned the 20th century, he started a script based round the idea of a woman's experience of the century. It grew so long that he had to split it into a trilogy; even so, it's still nearly three hours. It's the first Angelopoulos film I've seen, and it looks unlike anything I've seen before. There's no fast, sharp storytelling; single takes can be long, long zooms and tracking shots. But the visual quality of what you see is so effortlessly breathtaking that the film dictates its own pace and time. I regretted seeing it on DVD and splitting it over two nights.

It was written by Angelopoulos with Tonino Guerra, the legendary 20th century scriptwriter who has written over 100 films, including most of Antonioni's, and many of Fellini's. Everybody's Fine, his most recent, will be released in December. Weeping Meadow is a fascinating script: much of the story is omitted, as if: 'Well, we could think of an extra bit of plot and a few more scenes here to explain this, but why bother? What happens is what matters'.

What happens? Elena is an orphan, rescued from the ruins of Odessa after the Russian revolution and brought back to Greece by a Greek refugee family. The refugee Greeks are given land in Thessalonika where they build a village. Years later, a teenager, she has given birth to twins after becoming pregnant by her teenage stepbrother: the children are hidden away in adoption. Her foster father is widowed and she is forced into marriage with him, but runs away after the ceremony to join her stepbrother, a talented accordion player. They are adopted by musicians, and ostrasised by their village. The father dies. After a storm, the village is flooded, an astonishing scene and totally natural: miles and miles of water, and not a trace of CGI or studio photography. He leaves to tour America in 1939. Unable to return to Greece and Elena, he joins the American Forces and is killed in action. The two children die fighting on opposite sides of the Greek civil war that followed WW2.

Tragedy must be part of the Greek imagination in the same way that Shakespeare is part of us: we like our tragedy with history, politics, comedy and romance mixed in. With Angelopoulos it's tragedy pure and simple, unreasonable, inexplicable, inevitable, overpowering. One example of his scripting: Elena stands on the quay, a piece of unfinished red knitting in her hands, as he is about to take the liner to the USA. 'I made this for you but didn't finish it'. A red thread of wool inadvertently gets caught in his clothing, and as he's rowed to the liner, all she has made unravels in her hands. It's visual, and incredibly expressive.

There are a number of other films by him, including Ulysses' Gaze. They are planned for DVD release, but it seems a sadly slow process.

La Reine Margot

I first saw this when it was released eight or nine years ago, and got swept along with it, so I was curious to see how well it has lasted, especially the first 30 minutes. The first 30 minutes survive as strong as ever. An edgy, vicious world, so close up you imagine you can smell it, the days leading up to the massacre of 30,000 protestants in France, sweaty with fear. (The French seem good at making films so close up you imagine you can smell them: the recent TV police/judiciary series Engrenages, 'Spiral' in English, is a bit like that.)

But although La Reine Margot looks good throughout, the plot machinations of the rest of the film look increasingly unrealistic. The Queen Mother has married her catholic daughter to the protestant Henry of Navarre in order to end inter-faith struggles in France, but the wedding becomes the occasion of the St Bartholemew's Day massacre at which the protestant wedding guests are massacred. Henry becomes a prisoner at the French court, and his mother-in-law and brothers-in-law spend the rest of the film trying to assassinate him. In the end, the king is accidentally killed by his own mother in another failed attempt to assassinate Henry. This is Dumas, not history or even common sense. In fact, the king died of TB, and Henry survived to become Henry IV, 'le bon roi Henri', tolerant in religion, and one of the most popular of French monarchs.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Tango past and tango present

Dance is strange. Unlike an artefact, it exists only in the moment it is made, then it vanishes out of time and into memory, leaving, hopefully, a sense of order, of happiness. Its forms might be judged old-fashioned at one time, then a bit later as 'contemporary' again, but the dance itself is never older or newer than the moment we create it in, and we create it out of old forms, with our contemporary sensibilities.

It's too easy to assume that 'estilo milonguero' is old, and it would be tedious to try and preserve something exactly just because it's old. We don't learn to do something as it was done 70 years ago because it's old but because there's a good reason to do it that way, and that reason is almost always a technical reason - and because we enjoy doing it that way. If we want to bake bread, play an instrument or print an etching we need to learn techniques, and there are good practical reasons for the techniques; they work, they get results. It's always interesting to break the rules, but you have to know the techniques, the craft, to begin with. In classes, we can learn what generations of dancers have discovered and refined, we can learn about the possible movements of two bodies close together, the requirements of improvisation to the music, dancing on crowded floors. & on YouTube, we can watch video, like youngsters at milongas more than half a century ago watching the great dancers, getting the feel of it. Then we go out and make it for ourselves, and become part of the present and the history.

We're fortunate that some of the older dancers continue to travel and teach, and are welcomed wherever they are invited. I've no doubt money is important to them. State pensions can't amount to much in Argentina; people who might have spent a lot of their lives dancing might not have extensive savings and if they had savings in Argentina they might well have lost them in 2002. But I'm sure they travel primarily because they love what they do, and they enjoy the company of other people who love it too. Tango has given them more than pleasure, and they wish that for us. They love tango and want it to continue. Thanks to all of them!

(This was prompted by a recent, rather thoughtful post by Elizabeth Brinton, Muma. Apologies if I seem to disagree on one or two things.)

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

In the Spirit of Diaghilev

Sadler's Wells offered four choreographers, Wayne McGregor, Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier de Frutos, the challenge Diaghilev offered choreographers: 'Surprise me!' Four short works resulted, four world premieres in an evening.

The one that remains vividly in mind is Russell Maliphant's AfterLight, suggested by the geometric drawings of Nijinsky. The sparseness of it focused attention totally on the one dancer. Casually dressed, he stretches and turns within a pool of flickering light. There's nothing to distract from the dance; there's just music, light and a moving body. It was extraordinary.

Sidi Larbi used two dancers and a painted backdrop, a dance suggesting the discovery of eroticism, and its intoxication. I wonder if a dance performance isn't something of a ritual; we gather for a journey out of verbal reality. A dance is a dance, but when it tries to tell a story, when the stage setting tries to describe a place, there's too much superfluous information and something doesn't quite work. It becomes more of an entertainment, the focus is lost.

Judith Mackerell's review is here. And here there is an article about research by cognitive scientists into dance, how it is created, developed, remembered, with dancer and choreographer Wayne McGregor and his company. & here is a short video about that research taking place during creative rehearsals. Not like any dance class I've been to.

PS. It was on my mind while writing this that it was an all-male list of choreographers, and yet I've seen exciting work from female choreographers: Cathy Marston, Siobhan Davies and Shobana Jeyasingh to name contemporary women just in the UK. Diaghilev himself encouraged and commissioned Bronislava Nijinska, Nijinsky's sister. Then I saw an article reporting on a recent symposium on the low visibility of female choreographers.

My guess is that the four males have a higher box office appeal and they have international reputations. Not that their work is necessarily any more interesting.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Mimi Santapa

Someone kindly mentioned Mimi Santapa a while back: this seems to be the only YouTube vid of her dancing, and I'm linking it so I don't forget the name. She seems to have a great reputation as a teacher in BsAs, and it's said she hardly needs to travel to make a living from tango. She has, however, toured N. America and visited north England before.

I enjoy watching this. The dance sings along with the music, it's relaxed, effortless dancing, it doesn't require any anatomical peculiarities, any lifelong training, even any daily workout apart from dancing; it's just great basic salon, graceful, fluent, musical. There's a whole list of teachers I want to meet.

And the milonga, El Arranque, at 1759 Bartolome Mitre. It starts around 3pm, and at that time it's a bit of an old folks' milonga, everyone else being at work, I guess. People stroll in, order a coffee, read the papers, chat, dance a bit. It's a very relaxed, easy atmosphere, very courteous. Later it gets busier. A good place to go if you have a partner and want to practice, as it's not crowded, or just for a leisurely coffee. & it's way off the tourist routes.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

When one good thing leads to another...

I wondered why Ricardo Viqueira (in the video in the previous post) looked familiar. Browsing YouTube, of course, I found why: the Exhibition at Los Consagrados, a celebration of 64 years of Ricardo Vidort dancing tango, features Ricardo Vidort with Myriam Pincen, Osvaldo and Coca Cartery, Oscar and Mary Ann Casas – and Ricardo Viqueira and Mariana Hernandez. Pretty much a who's who of what's now known as 'estilo milonguero', the dance once known as 'tango'.

Continuing the browse, I found quite a few videos with his name (there might be others where he's simply called 'Ricardo'), but the one in the previous post remains a favourite. There are quite a few from Italy, but most aren't good image quality. On some you could count the pixels, on some a wrong aspect ratio squeezes two slender dancers into a single beanpole, others flicker badly, in others the lighting is poor. Pity.

From Italy? Ricardo Viqueira is another in that long list of Argentine tango teachers who visit Europe regularly to teach, and are unknown in the UK. He usually visits Italy: of course, Spanish and Italian speakers can understand each other relatively easily, but he has also taught in France, Switzerland, Spain, Brazil and the United States. Italy is where he'll be from 4 November to 4 December, including the Ferrara tango festival. He also teaches regularly in Buenos Aires.

His website says: 'A native of Buenos Aires, Ricardo has always been connected to the tango: first as a child he studied music at the Conservatorio Delva then later he began organizing successful milongas, among them the well known Club Sin Rumbo in Villa Urquiza... He is especially known for dancing Milonga with Traspié, Canyengue and as the creator of a simple teaching method with which both students and teachers have benefited.'

Of his teaching he says: 'I try to teach what I like to dance. It’s a close embrace where the man as well as the woman dance in their own axis. This allows one to dance in a small or crowed room as the couple dances within their own space. One dances with feet on the floor without limiting the steps or figures. For this, it is indispensable to learn the technique. This is where I put my major emphasis when teaching. I believe teaching the technique gives the student the sufficient tools to later create his or her personal dance. Each step or figure requires a technique, a lead or mark, musicality, and direction. All of these are fundamental. For this reason, at the time of teaching each step, I emphasis each of these points.'

His lead looks incredibly clear and precise. I see he slightly lifts and lowers his partner, which clarifies the lead and expresses the music, and although his feet often dance in double time, the two heads and torsos move with perfect smoothness.

Since I spent a happy half hour browsing all the videos it would be a pity not to link one or two. These are both with Myrta Tiseyra, Argentine milonguera who now lives and teaches in Italy.

And, quite opposite in style and feeling, a version of Canaro's Poema, which I'd never thought of as canyengue before...

Videos thanks to Laretetanguera.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Biagi, again.

Tango en el Cielo has just added a comment to this post about awareness of space on the floor, as well as a reference to another Biagi video, which I enjoyed a lot. As the reference doesn't translate as a link in the Comments I thought I should add it as a new post.

Thanks to everyone who dug out videos of dance to Biagi. I found it very useful to think about his distinctive, sometimes disconcerting music, and I've enjoyed watching all the different responses to it in dance.

Video thanks to flopytango

Monday, 12 October 2009

Tigre viejo

Video thanks to Abretango

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Cristal Pite and Kidd Pivot

An extraordinary evening at Sadler's Wells. Cristal Pite has been a dancer and choreographer since she was very young, now working with her own company, Kidd Pivot. She worked for some years with the Forsythe company, therefore at the most cerebral, physical and imaginative edge of dance, so that's the tradition of her own company.

'Lost Action' is one piece that lasts nearly 90 minutes without a break, and it didn't seem over long. For a start she and her dancers are extraordinarily supple, and to watch human bodies with that degree of flexibility moving is wonderful. When we watch movement we are involved in it, we follow it in our own bodies. & the choreography was very inventive with movement.

& the 'sense' of the piece? I guess it would be 'death and the dancer', because it's 'about' a dancer and death. The death is relived, replayed, worked around, re-imagined in a variety of circumstances on a bare stage, just in dance. Finally it's as if the dancers just have to accept it. Finally, after an extraordinarily intense male/female pas-de-deux, there's a motionless (male) body that can be lifted, turned, held, carried, but remains motionless.

An amazing feat of memory by the dancers, too, given the complexities of the movements. The sound track is a sound collage, sometimes overlapping voices, beats, just sound, little to jog the memory. I guess there's a sequence to the movements, each phrase leading to the next. A 90-minute choreography. (I'd have problems learning a three-minute choreography, not that I've ever tried, needed or wanted to... But perhaps learning choreographies is a way to develop the memory for movement.)

I wished the lighting wasn't so low throughout. The moving bodies said so much I wanted to see them as clearly as possible.

She's here, talking about her work and rehearsing with the Nederlands Dans Theater. And the Sadler's Wells trailer for 'Lost Action' is here.

I think there's something here for the tango community too: the more supple you are the easier it is to move, and suppleness can be improved. The 'milonguero' community might not pay much attention to stretching exercises, but if you watch the older dancers it is surprising how supple they still are. Impossible to say whether that's because they've danced so much, or whether they've danced so much because they are naturally supple; a bit of both, probably. But if you're not naturally bendy, it's worth trying to do something about it, because bendy people are likely to dance a lot better and look a lot better than stiff people.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Biagi... and Miguel Balbi

When I was looking for Biagi in music and dance I forgot to look at Tango and Chaos, where most of the best videos are to be found. In a comment, Anon reminded me of this video. Those smooth energetic turns are so effortlessly on the beat; could it be better? One thing that strikes me: if you use a lot of turns you are constantly surveying the space around you: they use space quite freely because they know where all the other dancers are.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Tango gets UN cultural approval

'The Tango has been declared part of the world's Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations.' The full story is here. A tangible intangible?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


...also left the human race with one of the great recordings of 'Lagrimas y Sonrisas', 'tears and smiles', one of our all-time favourite valses, one of his greatest hits, and one that can be enjoyed without worrying about the legato and staccato of it. I love this improvisation by a young Argentine couple, on their way to church if I understand the caption correctly ('Improvisando un poco antes de salir para la capilla'). Why is it that I can watch this again, but I can't get beyond the first 20 seconds of those 'Campeones mundiales de tango salon' videos? Is that perverse? & she's not even dancing in CiFs!

Video thanks to Mecesarariet.

I might as well add this here: it seems to be part of the same 'session' as the above, a bit later perhaps, since she's had time to put on her dancing shoes. But the thing about it is that it's Biagi again, a tango, and one of his more complicated tangos, rhythmically, too. Their response to the urgent rhythms, with those odd misplaced beats, seems lots of short steps; but I think I prefer their vals, with a relatively straightforward Biagi. & it's great to see 'milonguero' danced and enjoyed by lively young people too. There's a lot of wit and enjoyment in it; there's clear, inventive leading and great following. 'Nuevo' hasn't conquered the world, not yet. I must find out where La Capilla is...

Again, video thanks to Mecesarariet.

Saturday, 3 October 2009


Recently I was trying to remember what entrega is. Literally it means 'handing over', 'surrender', but I know it has a particular meaning in tango. My usual research method turned up this page, dated two years ago; there are some interesting comments too. There were never many posts on the Chemin du Tango blog, and it hasn't been updated since last year, but the posts are interesting; come back soon, Chemin du Tango.

Chemin du Tango's writing about entrega is a great account of... well, of almost a non-event, but nevertheless of something wonderful, something really indescribable. But her non-description seems to be a good indication of what a leader should aim to give his partner. (So it's not an assault course of waved and waving limbs that they want, not a lively good time, not an aerobic session, not even a Q&A? Just...)

I must have read about entrega first on TangoandChaos where there's a whole page on it, including a great video and a wonderful photo of '...three of the world’s best tango dancers'. Tangoandchaos says that 'What the people of the clubs are really looking for is entrega. In fact, you could say that “entrega” is the whole point of tango'. He adds that this kind of tango '... has become buried under a step and figure oriented dance that’s performed with one eye on the mirror and the other eye on the audience. A tango designed to impress as many people as possible in a two-minute YouTube clip...'

Some things are easier to define by saying what they aren't. I'd be grateful if anyone out there can tell us more. Is it really that important?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Los Ocampo

I've been meaning to get this finished for months. Omar Ocampo and Monica Romero, Los Ocampo, were at Carablanca milonga in late spring. It's just taken a while to process the material.

Los Ocampo are popular here, and their workshops and classes are always well attended. I found them very generous and helpful as teachers, and I like their emphasis on walking well and to the music. They also teach some straightforward material which is useful in dancing in a milonga.

Their shows are something else, often involving a variety of dance forms from Argentina. I don't have much information on the dance or the music: I seem to remember her introducing the first dance, 'Los Ocampo', as a form of Argentine Samba, although it looks a bit like Chacarera. 'Los Ocampo 1' is a milonga. '3' and '4' are closer to tango: '4' must be Piazzolla. They obviously love to dance, and love dancing together, and their shows are always enjoyed.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Dancing to Biagi

I have the impression that Biagi is difficult to dance to, and I wonder why. I found his music late: I could recognised D'Arienzo, Pugliese, Di Sarli, before I'd even heard of Biagi. I guess he's not played incessantly in milongas, so you don't get the practice. &, yes, his music is different.

Rodolfo Biagi was D'Arienzo's pianist for about three years, and became known as 'Manos Brujas' – 'magic hands'. In 1938 he left D'Arienzo, and formed his own orchestra. The story has it that D'Arienzo was irked by the applause his pianist was getting: 'I'm the star around here!' he's reported to have said. So Biagi came out of the tradition of playing very rhythmic music for dancing to.

There's a particular intensity in his compositions and arrangements, but also a serious kind of playfulness with rhythm, and with melodic lines. His rhythms are sharply staccato, perhaps the most staccato rhythm in all tango music, but his melodic lines can be extremely 'legato', very smooth and flowing. When you are dancing, and hear at the same time sharp forceful rhythms from the bandoneons and piano, and smooth flowing lines from the violin, you are faced with a dilemma: the rhythms make you want to move your feet in time, but the melodic line asks you to dance in a very flowing way.

But that's not all. The rhythms themselves aren't at all regular. Occasionally, the first or the third beat, which is normally accentuated, is either unexpectedly missed out, or played very quietly. Sometimes in a phrase of a few bars, the fourth beat in every bar is accentuated. This is syncopation, but for some reason it doesn't have the same effect as syncopation in jazz. Biagi plays around with the beat, so you have to keep your inner metronome sharp and clear. If you start to think the fourth beat is the first beat, sooner or later you're in for a big surprise.

This suggests that he abandoned the tradition of playing music for dancing to. But his music is great fun to dance to, but I really have to listen carefully, I can't take anything for granted. Above all, it's very powerful music, very intense, very energetic. To make a different kind of music, an individual music, is a great achievement.

I checked out YouTube to see if there were many videos of dance to Biagi, but rather few are identified. One of them is familiar because I uploaded it myself, and I've linked it before.

Tete isn't popular with everyone: he's never really elegant, smooth. Watching this video again, it's obvious that he uses his regular, perhaps relatively limited, repertoire of 'steps', even if they are combined in different ways.* But elegant or not, I don't think Tete and Silvia's dance to Biagi can be bettered in spirit and musicality. The intensity of the music is right there in the dance, and they relate perfectly to the legato phrasing, as well as to the crisp rhythms. There's a mixture of long and very short steps, which suits the phrasing and the rhythms well. The introduction is by Natalie Clouet, who invited Tete and Silvia to Paris in May: 'Tango is danced in a variety of ways, but above all one gets support from the floor because from the floor energy is found, and because it's on the floor that one dances the music.' (Tete.)

(*This led me to wonder about dancing differently to different music. Teachers do talk about this. To what extent do you use different steps and combinations of steps when you dance to, say, Di Sarli or D'Arienzo? My guess is that for most dancers it's not the steps themselves that change so much as a more general overall 'interpretation'. The style of dancing to Di Sarli might be longer steps, long smooth turns, while D'Arienzo would be a livelier use of the same steps and turns.)

Friday, 25 September 2009

Tango, but no more ripe peaches.

The last evening

A swim at sunrise is always the best, if you can get up in time. The sea seems incredibly fresh, completely new, the water as calm as a lake, just a slight swell that brings occasional wavelets on the shingle with a soft kissing sound; the sea is still sleeping, breathing calmly. The water feels warm, a little heavy in its fluidity, but the Mediterranean is packed with salt. & at sunrise and for about five minutes, the low sun brings the surface of the water alight with colour. You swim immersed in colour.

Then it's a 15-minute walk along the beach for a cup of coffee, and all the way back in fresh bright light. The bicycle is folded, the tent and sleeping bag thrown into a holdall, and a seat on the TGV claimed as the northward journey unfolds. Mte Ste. Victoire, then the towers of Avignon fall away into the past. No more sunrise swims this year. Nine hours later, it's a chilly London evening, after a few weeks wearing little more than shorts and a tee-shirt. Tango, but no more ripe peaches.

Thursday, 24 September 2009


If you arrive at your favourite beach on a hot sunny morning and see very few people in the water, everyone else anxiously scanning the water's edge, and grown men armed with their kids' buckets and spades resolutely wading into the water and picking something out of it, watch out. But off the Cote d'Azur jellyfish ('meduses') are usually small and infrequent, and the sting isn't that bad. Brainless floating nerve systems. Dire predictions that through overfishing and agricultural run-off the world will be left with dead oceans full of nothing more than jellyfish. 'Jellies' we're supposed to call them, since they aren't fish.

Tangocommuter, emerging from a long swim, is called over by two wildly attractive young women standing in the shallows. But the focus of their attention is what one holds in her cupped hands: 'Are those meduses?' she asks. At first sight I see only water and then realise that there are dozens of tiny jellyfish in the water she holds, each hardly more than 1mm long. Her friend points to the sea we are standing in: it is a cloud of minute jellyfish.

Azur, as in 'Cote d'Azur'

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

'Allez chercher des poissons dans les arbres!'

...said the fruit and veg shop manager, giving a loud and very public earful to her boss, who was apparently stocktaking, across several square metres of perfectly ripe peaches, €2.70 a kilo, about £1.50 per pound, obviously unconcerned about job security. Or maybe she'd already lost it.

I've been wondering about the English equivalent. It's a wonderfully derisive remark, and 'Go look for fish in the trees' hardly does it justice. Of course a lot depends on tone, and she gave it plenty, but I guess the translation just doesn't have the rhythmic directness of the French. Derisive, and a bit surreal, too. Remember it for your next visit to France, just in case you need to tell someone to get lost in expressive (but perfectly decent) French.

& a national newspaper reports on a chess tournament in Kolkata at which the French champion, Russian by birth but now French, nodded off at the board. & stayed nodded. His opponent must have grinned, and held his breath for fear of waking him, as the minutes ticked by. Finally, an hour or so later, his clock rang and he awoke, but the time he was allowed for the match had expired. & so he (and la France) lost.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Can it really be fun if we don't take it seriously?

Tony Walker circulated a link to an article about tango in Times Online: if you don't get his emails, the article is here. The article points to the emotional seriousness of tango, as of relationships in general. But isn't it fun? Yes... but can it really be fun if we don't take it seriously?

This relates to this ongoing discussion about cabaceo, but to me the discussion is about an approach to the milonga in general, even about how seriously we take each other, rather than about whether we should follow an arguably outdated piece of tango history.

Some time ago I went to ask an acquaintance to dance. She was busy chatting with a (girl) friend; I 'hovered' for a moment but she didn't look up, so I walked away. Later she asked me why I hadn't danced with her that evening. Well, it's impolite to interrupt a conversation and, although I was sure my interruption would have been welcome, in the back of my mind there was the feeling that she wasn't 'ready' to dance. Sure, she would have jumped up immediately to dance, but uppermost in her mind would have been another way of relating, another mindset, a lively verbal activity, and it would have felt a little uncomfortable because, for a moment, I wouldn't have trusted her sudden involvement in dancing.

Tango needs a degree of commitment to the partner you are dancing with. The importance of cabaceo doesn't seem to be as the traditional method you use to ask your partner to dance, but as to whether you are maintaining a receptive mood for a dance, and whether you want to dance at that moment with that partner; and cabaceo is still the best way to deal with all that. If you sit watching for a sign – which male or female can ignore or accept – you are ready and committed to your dance, and to your partner, in a way you aren't if you are enjoying some jolly socialising, and sort of fall into a dance casually. & if you start off in a receptive mood, you're going to enjoy your dance a lot more, and get a lot more out of it.

We might be able to think of more appropriate and contemporary ways of organising a milonga than the cabaceo, and if they work as well, fine. I think the principle to keep in mind is how we maintain a focus on a dance we think is important enough to focus on. We might treat tango as more than a recreational activity. We all know it's seriously good for us!