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.