Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Les Cigales 2010

(I've renamed this...)

I also hear that the monthly Nijmigen milonga might appeal to some and not to others, particularly if the others prefer things a bit more formal, and if a massive tango love-in isn't your kind of thing...

Les Cigales happens from time to time in my favourite part of France. In fact it's happening this year in late May in Toulon: Les Cigales 2010.

Here's a quick translation of the website.

"In the foyer of the Marin of Toulon, this year, during the four days of the Pentecost weekend, our 'milonguero' get together will happen on a real and huge parquet. It's in a residence that is a hotel and a restaurant just a couple of steps from the centre of Toulon. The prices are ranged to make it accessible to as many of us as possible. Near the shore, easy to get to, and with all commodities on site or nearby, what more could you ask for than to find yourself in the sweet Provencal springtime of the Varois shores? The programme ensures meetings, partaking, respect and the best music, with care to offer you always the best quality. And even if you do become exhausted, a massage space will allow you to restore your feet. One of those rare yearly opportunities to meet with friends coming from afar. In short, what happiness!!!


Friday 21 May: Milonga from 21.30 to 2h: DJ melina Sedo
Saturday 22 May: 20 to 21.30h: dinner together. Milonga from 22h to 4h.
Sunday 23: 9.30 to 4am milonga
Monday 24: 15h to 20h: farewell milonga."

There's also an 'apero' for two hours before each milonga: I don't know the word, but I'd guess it's an introductory class, although a DJ is announced for each 'apero'.

All of this can be enjoyed with a four-day pass for €60, or €16 a night for the apero and milonga. Booking online ('Reserver en ligne') essential. It says that a 2 – 3 person room can be booked for around €30 a night, which is very reasonable: €30 a head I'd imagine.

A quick YouTube check for 'Les Cigales' came up with this from last year. Just to get an idea of it.

Looks familiar. Now haven't I posted that before?

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Gardel in 1917

I have to confess: I've never listened much to Gardel. I used to avoid vocal tracks, and you don't dance to Gardel or hear him in milongas. The Argentine veneration of Don Carlos passed me by, and I had no idea why Gardel was so important to tango until recently when I connected a few events in 1917 because the information just came together. A friend in Buenos Aires read the post and sent me a link to a radio-on-demand station with a wonderful interview with singer and tango researcher José María (Pepe) Kokubu. & that's when I realised the real significance of 1917. (Thanks, Ali!)

First, I found out more about the song, Mi Noche Triste, Gardel's first great success in 1917. Pascual Contursi (1888 – 1932) was a poet, lyricist, playwrite and amateur singer. Around 1914 he started to write lyrics to pre-existing music, lyrics that introduced sorrow, melancholy, the failure of love, ambition, decadence and injustice. In some cases he even narrated a complete story in a few verses – and so he recreated tango as the sentimental song of Buenos Aires. (Todotango)

The tune of Mi Noche Triste had been published as a piano solo called Lita. Contursi took this melody and renamed it, adding words that define in intense verse the heartbreak for a lost love. I can't find an old version of Lita, but this is a typical tango from 1912 by Juan 'Pacho' Maglio, on YouTube. The rhythm, as of most the old music, is what we'd recognise as milonga. There are quite a few Maglio recordings, and they all sound much like this, jolly music (despite the title!), bandoneon, violin and guitar, I think. & a great photo too.

Pacual Contursi's son, José María Contursi, was asked what he knew about his father and Gardel. He replied: 'Some months after my father's death, I met Gardel at the tearoom Las Violetas on Rivadavia and Medrano, and he told me: "For some years I hadn't seen Pascual because he loved Montevideo, but one day he turned up here, borrowed my guitar and asked me to listen to a tango. I was struck; a tango? He said it belonged to an Uruguayan boy who passed it to him at the Royal. I liked it so much that I quickly learned it. I sang it for my friends who enjoyed it, but I didn't dare sing it in public, until one day, a bit afraid, I sang it at the Esmeralda (now the Teatro Maipo). It was a hit, and then I discovered that Pascual was the author..."' (Todotango)

So on April 9 1917 Gardel made his very first recording, Mi Noche Triste, for the Nacional-Odeon label. Thanks again to YouTube we can listen to it here. The rhythm is still milonga, but the singing is something else altogether. How few musical reputations have been made from something as simple as that first ascending minor chord? & what a fabulous voice! Gardel was either 27 or 30 at the time (depending on where he might have been born) and had worked backstage in theatre and opera most of his life, learning directly from opera singers and from listening. It's recognisably 'bel canto', with the singer assuming freedom with the rhythm, hanging onto notes and running notes together. Mi Noche Triste, a cross between the habanera and the European operatic tradition, with a perfect match between nostalgic lyrics and music, heralded a new era for tango. The lyrics, with a translation, are here. (The 'English version' is much better than the 'singing version'.)(Todotango)

José María Kokubu comments that Gardel's innovation in this recording was to take the words seriously, and to sing them in a 'bel canto' style. A song about heartbreak couldn't be sung as a cheerful ditty. By respecting the emotional content of Contursi's lyrics, Gardel gave birth, according to Kokubu, to the kind of tango we now recognise. As the music had to catch up with the new emotional intensity in the song, the habanera rhythm we call milonga began to settle into the more lyric sound we recognise as tango. & Kokubu comments further that the new sound suggested a new way of walking, of moving, as the rhythm and the emotional charge developed. Milonga might suggest regular movements, but music like this demands the attention of your whole body. So tango as we know it, both in music and in dance, began with Gardel and this recording – and with Contursi's genius for words and music.

Kokubu's book, Mozart y Gardel – La Musica de las Palabras suggests that Mozart was the first European composer to make an expressive whole of music and words, and he elaborates this convincingly in the interview, singing all his musical examples with a clear musical voice. His English is excellent. The interview is here.

Pascual Contursi wrote around 33 tango lyrics, including Cumparsita. He lived the life of the old tango, and is said to have died mad. Succeeding lyricists turned to more sentimental themes. His son, José María Contursi, was a prolific lyricist, known for the words to Milonga de Mis Amores, Gricel, Bajo de un cielo de estrellas and many others. He died in 1972. (Todotango)

And Las Violetas... Las Violetas, where Gardel and Contursi met, probably in 1916, is still there on the corner of Rivadavia and Medrano. It was opened on September 21st 1884 as a coffee house, with gilded chandeliers and Italian marble, and extraordinary French painted-glass windows. (There are photos on the website.) Not only is it an amazing place to visit, but the chocolate mousse there is world-class. With a pot of best Oolong tea. (Thanks again!)

Videos thanks to HAranguiz and el gardeliano.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010


A good friend, who has danced all over Europe and Buenos Aires, and London too, and whose judgment I'd trust, has assured me that the best milonga is El Corte in Nijmegen. I checked out the El Corte website a while back, but didn't find it entirely clear, so I went back and studied it more closely. The following paragraphs, I hope, are an accurate summary of what's going on there over the next few months. I hope it will be corrected if I've got something wrong.

On the 1st Saturday of the month people from all over the world come for a lot of dancing and social contacts. The 1st Saturday salon runs from 15.00 till midnight. Than, after a 30 minute break we will continue in the big hall until 3am! Then on Sunday there's a brunch salon in the big hall from 12 till 15.00. (Brunch is served only for people staying overnight in El Corte). Afterwards you can still go to one of the TANtango salons in the region of Arnhem/Nijmegen. Every bead of the 'chain' has its own atmosphere.

This is held monthly until April 2010, and will resume in the autumn.

It is possible to sleep in El Corte if you reserve in advance. If you bring your own bedding, it costs €12.50. Dormitory beds and a room can also be reserved.

April 30 and May 1st

The Orange Salon will be held on Friday April 30, 2010, with a milonga from 20.00 until 02.00. Come dressed in 50% orange and earn 1, 2 or 3 drinks by doing so. This way you can earn back part of your entrance fee. Reservations ONLY through direct sale from El Corte. Availability only for couples or single men at present.

Saturday May 1st 2010: 12:00-19:00 workshops, afternoon snack. 19:30-21:00 dinner, 21:00-01:30 salon with DJ Andreas. €80 (cash presale: €75) includes 1 practica, 2 workshops, snack, dinner, all drinks & salon included. If you want to come to the salon ONLY (limited to 50 persons) it is €15 (all drinks included). Reservations through direct presale in El Corte. Availability for couples or single men only at present.

Nijmegen is in the Netherlands, towards the German border. It could be approached through Amsterdam, but via Brussels is probably more direct. The El Corte website is here, and there is a TANtango page for other milongas in the area. Once again, any corrections, updates, additional information will be welcome.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Tango practice in small spaces

I wasn't sure whether to link this video, not least because partners might start turning up at milongas with sticks, and not need leaders at all, but it might be useful. Note that it can be practised even if you have extremely minimal floor space, but please try it out on a floor somewhere before practising it on your walls.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Wayward children: 2

So after the warm friendly rush of being in a London milonga again, my first real doubts creep in on the floor. I tend to keep to the line of dance, but that's no protection against being charged by a couple, or rather by a leader pushing his partner ahead of him, intent, I guess, on finishing an impressive move, a short choreography they've learned in a class. It means you can never quite relax. The enthusiasm is wonderful, and it's great that so many people enjoy the music so much, but we go to class and are taught 'moves', so we try and perform them. & since moves are taught in open embrace, dancers aren't looking where they're going: they are watching their feet. Unfortunately 'moves' convince people that their teachers are teaching them something. Walking, and getting the very simplest steps right, and musical, isn't always regarded here with the same kind of respect as in Buenos Aires, where people seem to start off by looking for simple ways of dancing well in milongas.

I'd be very content in a London milonga if the floorcraft was better, and fortunately there's more awareness of it now. But I don't think the problems have much to do with failing to learn 'floorcraft': I think the problems are the result of inappropriate teaching, with teaching stage moves and style to people who are going to dance in milongas. Dancing might be a lot more pleasurable and harmonious for everyone if there was more emphasis on simple basics.

Socially, London milongas are enjoyable. The only question I have is whether the freedom of interaction doesn't distract from the dancing. What do we want? Some of my most focussed and intense tandas have been with partners I don't know, and who I wasn't able to sit down and chat with. Intense feelings thrive on barriers, and perhaps it's possible to enjoy more intense, emotionally rich dances if you know that the barriers protect you. We'd probably not be comfortable lining up on opposite sides of the room, but we might get more tandas at that kind of level if we cooled down the social side a bit.

So I still think it would be interesting to experiment with a milonga which is more dance-focussed. Socially it might seem a bit dull, but the quality of the dance might make up for that. (Of course, there's a Friday night event once a month that has made a start in this direction.) & size has a lot of impact on social events. A lot of people means a great deal more activity: a small milonga with just a few dozen people could be a simple way to a quieter and more dance-focussed event, which would be easier and more relaxing to dance in.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Wayward children

Blog postings are sometimes like wayward children: you have a direction in mind for them, and off they go and do something else. I blog to keep track of myself. Writing is that wonderful memory tool that keeps the accounts, records impressions, thoughts, events. Memory rewrites, so a memory may be nothing like the original. A record written at the time can be fallible too, but at least it's of the time.

I'd planned a series of 'debrief' posts to remember my impressions when I got back to London tango from Buenos Aires, about milongas, what it's like dancing again in London, social customs, classes. The second of these, dancing in London, turned into a record of everything I could remember about the instruction I'd received about walking. Not walks, but walking; not cross system, parallel system, with and without the cruzada, but walking, the act of moving a leg and putting a foot to the floor, the sort of thing we all assume we know, but which is actually slightly different when we dance tango because it's not done just to get a solo individual from one place to another. So, it's different.

Milongas, I'll just have to let this wander where it will. London milongas are a real relief after the more rigid conventions of BsAs; no doubt about that. It's a relief to be able to go to the table of a friend who happens not to be the same sex as you, and sit and talk. The strict division of male and female, the segregation, seems archaic and unnecessary, and the lack of ordinary conversation seems to restrict the humour and enjoyment of the event. The London atmosphere seems a lot warmer, friendlier, more open, tolerant. But BsAs milongas are a lot more varied than London milongas, so generalising is a bit pointless. What interested me was the extent to which the 'set and setting' affected the general feel and experience of an evening.

Take the two 'milonguero' venues I know best. Maipu 444 is smallish, and a line of women faces a line of men across the floor. The lighting is excellent: you can clearly see every detail of the dance, and of the faces of people as they face each other during the cortinas. Socially, for me, that's about as intimidating as can be. Nevertheless, when I got dances there (almost always with other visitors, only a couple of times with local partners) I felt very at home on that small, relatively crowded floor. It ought to be intimidating to dance close to so many other couples, many of them older and excellent dancers, but you quickly realise that a) no one is going to make a sudden unexpected move straight at you, or very close to you and b) you always have a little space on each side. And you can see where everyone is! As a result, dancing there is actually relaxing and enjoyable, and the only real problem is getting a partner. Women go there to get dances with the very best male dancers, and the long line of them suggests Chinese whispers passing up and down about the best and the worst on offer. In dark moments they seemed like harpies ready to rend with exquisitely manicured talons any would-be tanguero whose dancing didn't quite meet the highest standards. (But I'm sure they're really very friendly.)

You see visiting women in the line but I don't think they look entirely at ease. They welcome the possibility of some excellent tandas, but the social situation isn't comfortable. A friend, a European woman who's an excellent dancer, emailed me about the 'big-egoed tangueros', and about the gossip and permanent judging among the women of other dancers, which she found unkind and depressingly trivial. (Perhaps we all have our dark moments.)

Salon Canning is very different; huge, rather dull lighting, tables spread around. As usual you get shown to a table, and a woman would never be expected to sit at a table with men she didn't know, although she might well sit at a table about one foot from a table of men she didn't know. Men tend to circulate, looking for partners they know, looking for partners generally. But it's quite discrete and courteous: pressure is never put on a woman to dance. It's still a form of cabeceo, so a woman who's talking to a friend won't have her conversation interrupted by a request or demand for a dance. There's little of the feeling of group scrutiny that I found oppressive at Maipu, because the place is so big. There's a kind of careless anonymity about it, which is very comfortable. The dance floor isn't that big, and gets very crowded, but it still feels like a real privilege to step onto it. Once again, it's enjoyable to dance there because you can be fairly sure there won't be any big, barely controlled movements suddenly close to you. Fairly sure, but not so sure as at Maipu 444. After all, no one can really see what's going on at Canning, and some dancers there aren't particularly good. But it's mostly close embrace, and movements tend to be small.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Eduardo Arolas

An afterthought to the previous post. I knew that tango was recorded from 1910 onwards, and read names of recorded artists – Juan Maglio, Eduardo Arolas, Agustín Bardi, Genaro Expósito – but never thought I'd come across the recordings. But recently I did.

The career of Eduardo Arolas started around 1911. He played guitar and then bandoneon, and became known as the 'bandoneon tiger' at a time when the bandoneon was supplanting the guitar. Here's a (literally) old favourite he recorded in 1913, Lagrimas y sonrisas. 1913: just short of a century ago. It sounds like a quartet: guitar, bandoneon, violin and flute. I love the controlled accelerando. Perhaps these are the performers: that's Arolas with the bandoneon.

By 1917 he had his own orquesta and invited Julio de Caro to join him. He had a head full of tunes and arrangements: with incredible melodic creativity in a few years he wrote over 100 tangos, including Adios Buenos Aires. It's still wonderfully fresh.

[These links open .mp3 tracks in another site, but two of the best antivirus programmes both assure me there are no dangers in the site.]

But his great success didn't last. He was a 'troubled artist': she ran off with his elder brother, and he descended into drink. He died of TB, an alcoholic, in Paris, in 1924. He was just 32.

You have to be patient with the recording quality. Microphones didn't begin to be used until the mid-1920s, the technology that lead quickly to the talkies. Arolas and his band must have played in front of a big horn, as a needle transcribed his music onto a wax disk.

Thursday, 4 March 2010


July 1917: Caruso performed in the new Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the vast and beautiful opera house opened just nine years earlier to replace a 50 year-old building.

Gardel had his first big success with Mi noche triste that same year, a hit throughout Latin America, which sold a massive 10,000 copies. He also appeared in his first (silent!) film Flor de Durazno, 'Peach Blossom'. It is said that Caruso and Gardel met: if they did they must have sung together, but sadly there's no recording of the event. Four years later Caruso was dead, aged 48.

Also in 1917, prompted by his friends, an 18-year old Julio de Caro went on stage during a tango performance at the Palais de Glace, borrowed an instrument from one of Firpo's violinists, and was given a standing ovation for his performance. Eduardo Arolas, who led another prominent tango orquesta, offered him a permanent place.

Julio and his brother Francisco, an excellent pianist, had been frequenting tango performances for several years, despite the anger of their father, who had left his post as director of the Conservatory in La Scala, Milano, to emigrate to Buenos Aires, and who disdained popular music. So Julio had to resort to stealth to join Arolas' orchestra, for which he wrote his first tango, Mon beguin. Fortunately, perhaps, later that same year his father threw him out of the house. His brother joined him, and they went on the road with the Arolas orchestra in Argentina and Uruguay. After a US tour with Fresedo, Julio established a sextet with his brother in 1923, with Pedro Laurenz and Pedro Maffia on bandoneons. With this sextet he brought a lyrical sensitivity to tango, and musical sophistication, while retaining the rhythmic intensity. He also collaged whistling, strange groaning, meaningless (I believe) voices and laughter into tango, which still seems extraordinary. I read somewhere that he was a sickly child: I can imagine these were the sounds that represented the outside world to the house-bound child. His instrument was a Stroh violin, a sort of Dizzy Gillespie violin with a horn to project the sound.

The orquesta was invited to France in 1931, where they enjoyed success and high society, performing for the Rothschilds' galas and others. Julio was music director for Las luces de Buenos Aires, starring Gardel, and shot in the Paramount Studios in France. (Gardel had made 11 films in 1930.) Their success continued back in Buenos Aires, where the orquesta was invited to appear at the Teatro Colón in 1935. Gardel died in June that year.

In 1936, the de Caro orquesta presented Evolution of the Tango at the Teatro Opera on Corrientes, which traced tango from the 1880s. It must have been a tango concert, rather than a dance. A surprise visit by the brothers' aging parents to one of these performances led to a family reconciliation.

Julio had the same birthday (in different years) as Gardel, December 11, which is now National Tango Day. He died in 1980. Here he is, interviewed late in life, with his violin and some archival footage.

(Some of this is from Wikepedia: I don't know how accurate it is but I like the story. Someone should make a film of it.) (P.S. Oops, no romantic interest. That won't do at all.)

Image of Teatro Colón thanks to Kakashi. Video thanks to HAranguiz.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Walking 2

'Anonymous' left a comment asking where regular walking classes could be found in London, and I'm afraid I don't know. Walking can be a prelude to a main class: Adrian and Amanda Costa, and Los Ocampo work on it, as does Andreas Wichter, and others no doubt. It's not always a priority for dancers: Tango en el Cielo recalls classes disappearing to the bar during the walking part of a class.

I tried to describe Cacho Dante's walking exercise for a friend, and in some earlier posts I included what I remembered of his advice, so it occurred to me that I could put it all together here. Distance learning, especially at second-hand, isn't the best, but it might be useful, and perhaps better than nothing. It would also be interesting to hear from others with other experience.

Step forwards, right foot flat to the floor so the ball of the foot as much as the heel makes contact, foot pointing straight forwards, and keeping the right leg straight. If the foot points outwards, rather than forwards, it will make a slight change of balance, which might suggest a turn to a follower. If the leg isn't straight at the knee, the body tends to slouch forwards rather than be upright. & one foot should be in a line in front of the other.

Then rock the weight back onto the left foot, so the toes and ball of the right foot lift up, pivoting on the heel. Then transfer weight back to the right foot and do a back kick or two (depends on the music) with the left foot, up and down, and then a lapiz, drawing a quarter circle to the side and round to the back. Then bring the left foot alongside the right foot, ready to start again. As the left foot passes the right ankle there should be an impulse forwards, a push, a slight kick, which emphasises the beat.

(The lapiz is an ornate figure. I don't think Cacho would use it in dance, but it's excellent for balance and for stretching the upper leg, hip muscles and lower back. Useful for followers' back step, too.)

I find the slow weight transfer back and forwards, and the emphasis on the ball of the foot, makes it a good way to develop control and balance. It can be practised anywhere you can walk, really, but perhaps avoid crowded places...

Cacho Dante gets his classes to practice this walk for two or three tangos, and then dance a tango in couples to relax a bit. He treats it as a unisex exercise: I don't recall followers doing it backwards. It's something you can practice daily. As you do it with music (Tanturi is particularly good), it's a good way to learn to listen to the music: in a milonga your attention is divided. Remembering his classes, I like to practise it for two or three tangos, and then walk one freely, thinking how I could dance to it.

I've also been told that the torso should move first, before the feet. You lean forwards, back, or to the side and because this slightly upsets balance, a step will have more urgency. It also tells a follower what is going to happen.

We're lucky that we have tools for distance learning; we can watch Ricardo Vidort's posture, his way of stepping and walking on YouTube, for instance here . We can look at other dancers: Osvaldo and Coco, Tete Rusconi, Pedro Sanchez. They all move quite differently, but the basis of walking, the emphasis of the feet meeting the floor, and the posture, is much the same. Personally I don't see this as a 'style' to be learned. In dancing close embrace, improvised, on a crowded floor, walking in this way emphasises the beat and the leader's intention, so the follower can relax and enjoy dancing. I think it's functional and practical to walk like this. & it does look good.

& we can video ourselves walking, even solo, for comparison!

Mimí Santapá focuses even more closely on the walk and on how, if it's done properly, it leads naturally into figures such as saccadas. Her teaching is incredibly precise. She came to the UK last summer and taught in Sheffield: I'm still amazed that we didn't get to have workshops in London. She told me she has been invited to London this summer, and I very much hope that her visit will happen, and that we can all benefit from her knowledge and experience. Keep an eye open for that name!

PS. Someone else who's way of stepping is really worth looking at is Alberto Dassieu. Here he is with Paulina, his wife.