Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Tango stories 3

I recently watched Ricardo Suarez dance milonga with Enriqueta Kleinman. I've watched him before, but now I'm mesmerised by how precisely he steps to the beat. I follow his feet; his steps are small and unostentatious, but effortless and absolutely precise. When my eyes follow other dancers I get the impression that none of them is quite so continuously exact, and some of the most experienced dancers in Buenos Aires are on the floor. Later I mention this to Enriqueta, and she laughs out loud.

'Ricardo! He's so amazing. He's incredibly precise, isn't he? & you know how old he is? 87! & he still works: he has a little store somewhere. He goes out dancing almost every night, and he's so popular he dances with all the best tangueras. & he doesn't even need glasses for the cabeceo! We women go for the older guys! The older the better!' & she laughs uproariously.

Momentarily I wonder if Tangocommuter can look forward to dancing with all the best tangueras in 30 or 40 years... but the wish dissolves pretty fast. She's not talking simply about older guys: she's talking about guys who for the most part grew up in families where everyone danced, and where tango meant so much that the kids would be outside practising, long ago. Sadly, not my background.

'The two things women appreciate above all else in a leader' continues Enriqueta, 'are the clarity of the 'marca' (lead), and a 'marca' that seems to be a part of the music.'

PS: Here's Ricardo dancing Tango Negro in Cachirulo earlier this year (sadly with wrong aspect ratio: he's thin but not that thin!). & Irene and Man Yung posted recently about Ricardo, with a video.

PPS: Here's the Practimilonguero video of Ricardo Suárez, interviewed by and dancing milonga with Mónica Paz.

Monday, 26 December 2011

29 in the shade with a fresh breeze...

Buenos Aires earlier this month.

Coming out of the hot subway into blazing midsummer sunshine to see... snowflakes adorning the front of the Abasto shopping mall. Bizarre!

Immigration from Europe to Argentina is starting up again, according to the Guardian. From Portugal to Brazil it's been a flood. There seems to be work in Argentina for young graduates from Spain and Italy in particular, where there's none in Europe. & on the streets I see many notices in restaurants and shop windows advertising work. I run into a young Italian woman who's in BsAs on holiday and looking for work: she'll be moving over next year. The climate is good, and the people welcoming. Argentina's history centres around welcoming immigrants and helping them to settle. Of course it's not immigration in the old, permanent sense, but as ever it's people going where the jobs are.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Tango stories 2

Enriqueta Kleinman tells me she went to a milonga in London. It'll remain nameless because she's not sure which night it was, but she says it was in a kind of side street or alley.

'You know, I've travelled regularly in the US and Europe, and I know cabeceo isn't practiced that much outside Buenos Aires, so I know what to expect. But a guy came up to me and just pointed to me and the floor! I couldn't believe it. Like I was his cow to be pushed around! He couldn't even say please!'

This is bad, this is very bad. It's uncivil and uncivilised. It's plain rude, it's really bad manners. It's shameful. It's definitely not cool. If you say 'please' you are in a sense begging, and accepting that you can be refused, although it's still hardly fair as you know that by being polite you are making it harder for a partner to refuse you. Perhaps it wouldn't matter too much if the dance was jive, without a lot of body contact, but tango is different.

Cabeceo is simple enough. A girl looks at you, or you catch her eye. You nod. If she nods back you go over and invite her onto the floor. If she doesn't nod back you look elsewhere. What's difficult about that? But ladies have to be part of it. If you spend all evening chatting with your friends, you might find yourself complaining next morning that you didn't get any dances. If you want to dance, it helps if you keep your eyes on and around the dance floor. Fact is, there are frequently more women than men, so I guess that refusing dances might might feel wrong, but if a guy finds he's regularly refused he's going to try and improve, or get out, so it's win-win.

I didn't think of asking Enriqueta how she responded to the boorish Englishman. (English? Surely not! Must have been a visitor...) But I know her slightly, and I know her English is good, so it's quite possible that a shamefaced would-be dancer sneaked out of a milonga that night. I hope so.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Distant music

I find this image fascinating. It's on Todotango here and I don't have permission to use it. I'll have to remove it if this is a problem with Todotango. I hope not.

The recording horn and the recording lens face each other across a small wooden room. The dark funnel of the recording horn is the focus, the central point. Down it the music will vanish to reappear now, or at any other point in time when we desire to listen to it. The image has disappeared into the unseen lens of a dark camera, invisibly onto film or a glass plate to be made visible chemically, and to reappear now and in the future. Another kind of record, a written score, is on the piano.

The horn dominates the layout. Some serious carpentry has gone into ensuring that the musicians are at the right height from the floor, and in the right place, for optimum balance of sound. Perhaps the producer would have run sound checks, listening through the horn (which appears to lead through a wood panel into an adjacent room) to get the right balance of sound. Three violins; two stand on little platforms and one on the floor, a little further from the horn. The fourth person at the middle of the central group and closest to the horn is probably the singer, although he could be holding, but not playing, a flute. Dominating the image, on the right, is Roberto Firpo at the piano, his left arm a strong diagonal into the central group of musicians. He's the leader, but I assume he's higher than the other musicians because the sound balance requires it, the back of the piano to the horn. Two bandoneons, perched on chairs with little footstools, complete the orquesta. The layout is neat and well-organised.

Presumably it's a small wood-panelled room, the photographer in the doorway, holding a magnesium flash at arm's length in his left hand. The other three sides of the room (there doesn't appear to be a corner behind the musicians) would help to retain and focus the sound into the horn. The horn means the date is probably pre-1928, when electrical recording became available. After that date there would be a familiar microphone on a stand, but the musicians would still have been arranged in relation to it for balance of sound.

It's odd and wonderful, this image of musicians at work, not only because this technology is so distant now. It's a photo of the musicians but it's also a photo of a process, the process of making a record, then a recent technology and industry. It's odd because it's relatively informal, in an age when photographs tended to be a formal record. You'd expect musicians to want to be seen in suits and bow ties on the bandstand. Here, instead, they seem proud to be seen at work in the recording studio, tieless, shirt sleeves rolled up, but looking clean and neat nevertheless, trousers neatly pressed, the gloss of brilliantined hair clearly visible.

Photo and film of the process of recording sound, two recording technologies together, have stayed with us. An obvious example is Jean Luc Godard's 1+1, a film of how the Rolling Stones developed and recorded Sympathy for the Devil, starting with just the words and an outline melody. The recording studio is immediately recognisable, with booths and baffles, microphones and cables everywhere.

The sound from Firpo's recording would have been relatively imperfect, but the image makes me want to know more: where was the studio, how did the musicians get there, what was the weather like? A day in Buenos Aires long ago, a tango recorded, and some sweet, slightly distant music we can still hear.

PS. I keep looking at the third violin, the one standing nearest the piano, who looks familiar. I wonder if it's Julio de Caro. I think he played with Firpo briefly in 1917; he would have been 17 or 18. Later he established his own orquesta.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Comment moderation

I've enabled comment moderation to give myself a pause when comments come in. If a comment is brief and terse, even if it's friendly and well-meant, it can sound a bit confrontational, and I might feel I need to reply immediately. (This can happen with emails too.) But comment moderation means I can sit on a comment for a while, thinking what it's really about before publishing, and then replying if necessary.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Tango stories 1

I can sit and watch the dancing in El Beso all night if I have to. I'm on the floor if I can be, but I'm under no illusions: no way can I lead like these guys. I can see what their partners expect, and I know I'm less than inferior by comparison. But I can sit happily all night and watch.

I've seen breathtaking fast complex phrases that are so clear and casually executed, that fit so neatly into the space, and also exist as part of the music. And simple things too, but things that are far too difficult to remember clearly, let alone to describe in words. If you want to see the best tango, and to be thoroughly humbled, as a leader, that is, sit in El Beso for a few hours.

But there's one thing I remember that I can describe: it'll have to stand for all the things I can't quite remember and could never describe. The tango had started to play but, as usual, the couples were still standing around chatting. When suddenly a couple emerges, just walking, step by step, walking, walking right round the room, casually threading it's way between the standing, talking couples. Kind of just walking but it was elegant, it looked wonderful, so it was a dance too. It was breathtaking in simplicity because it was only walking, a few pauses but no weight changes, no shifts from parallel to cross, it simply made a dance out of strolling round standing couples. How amazing is that? Pedro Sanchez and a partner. As he would say (in English): 'Beautiful!'

Friday, 16 December 2011

Paul's comment

Paul left an interesting comment to my post On Being a Tango Commuter which I thought was worth opening as a new post, rather than leaving it in the lost world of comments. I wrote about teaching outside London:

“TC wrote: a [teaching] couple with good intentions but who probably assumed that the time for close embrace social tango in rural UK still hadn't dawned

I wonder what the good intentions were specifically and how or why they got lost or diverted along the way.

This post also has me wondering about the conditions, ingredients or possible strategies that make it possible to re-create and maintain at least in part some of the traditions of close embrace social tango in some circumstances but not in others. Is it something that can be established by a set of top-down “rules of the house” promoted by some enlightened teacher or event organiser? Or does there need to be a critical core mass of close embrace social dancers who set the tone and establish the culture as faithfully transplanted from the milongas of central BsAs?”

Thanks, Paul. I assumed their intentions were good: I think they enjoyed dance and music, and found other people who shared their interest. But I think their dance was superficial, based not so much on the dancing in the better milongas, but on what they learned from some BsAs teachers. They assumed, probably correctly, that close embrace social dancing in rural England could be a turn-off. But instead of building up simple things which people could enjoy immediately, like a good walk and simple improvisation to the music, they rushed off and taught a whole load of complex and difficult stuff. & to me, not organising or encouraging social dance was a big bad error.

I can't answer the remainder of your questions but I think it's worth rambling around some of the issues. Other people will probably have answers. The central issue is the close embrace, isn't it? This is carefully protected in BsAs by the cabeceo and by the separation of men and women in milongas. This structure gives women control over who they dance with, which allows them to be much more trusting and intimate in their dance, and a deeper emotional intensity can result, perhaps one of the main reasons people go dancing. Some European milongas have adopted cabeceo successfully, so it can work here, but it's not a format that's familiar to us. We go to a dance to socialise openly with each other. Maybe that will change with tango. Successful tango involves close embrace, and successful close embrace means a woman should not be obliged to dance with a guy just because he wants to dance with her. So tango needs cabeceo or some other convention that does the same job.

In a 'second-tier cabeceo' men mix with women, but asking for a dance is by eye contact only. This is becoming more normal in London. It works OK, but isn't quite so clear. My guess is we could manage without a formal cabeceo so long as everyone is quite clear that the most wonderfully intense tanda is just a wonderfully intense tanda, with no relation to what happens when the music ends. But my ideal for the UK would be dance floors where cabeceo is strict, with separate bar areas where people can socialise.

My experience of rural tango suggests that the close embrace itself isn't much of a problem, but there's a feeling that the social implications could be problematic. People just aren't used to it, but quickly come to realise they can enjoy a close dance and can separate at the end of it. After all, the fun in fooling around with double ganchos and pretending you're in Strictly Come Prancing isn't very substantial. People realise pretty fast there's more on offer than that.

Some BsAs milongas have rules written out but that's mainly for visitors, as everyone there understands the consensus. I think people are going to work their way to a consensus, which is preferable. It might not be an exact replica of anything in BsAs, but if it does the job, why worry? It doesn't matter what colour a cat is so long as it catches mice, as Chairman Deng Xiaoping remarked. & we're not going to develop a consensus quickly unless we discuss with each other what we want, and give constant feedback to organisers. The main thing is that everyone gets really great dances, and as the quality of dances improves it'll probably become clear that a more formal structure works best. But cabeceo doesn't work in dark rooms! Tango isn't danced in the dark, and the moody lighting might have go!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Milonga del Angel

A bit late now for this one, but it's still worth mentioning: the Milonga del Angel in Nimes has organised nightly milongas between December 23 and 31, 2011. A yearly event: I should have spotted it earlier.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Of men, women and corriditas

I made a passing reference to women teaching tango and suddenly there's a discussion, which is worth continuing.

Why do I value women teaching? Obviously, for most leads, to dance tango you need to embrace a woman and move with her, which you really can't practice effectively with a man. The older dancers practiced with each other as kids, yes, but in close embrace? I don't think so. Anyone know for sure? They practiced together but never danced together.

& then women experience the way men dance in a way that men almost never do. An example came my way recently. A corridita is a 'little run' of steps. Tete used to use it often after the cruzada, the 'cross', in vals; a quick left-right-left, one-two-three. But how is it led? You can't just plough ahead and hope your partner's going to get out of the way fast enough, or she's going to get out of your way pretty fast when she sees you looking for a dance! If you look closely at a video or if you watch a Buenos Aires dancer, you might notice that there's a slight right-left-right movement of the shoulders. If you look very closely you might even notice a slight apparent lift. If you ask the guy how he leads it, he'll probably tell you he's no idea: it's just something he's done since he was 12. He just does it, one-two-three.

But women who take an interest in the hows and the whys of close embrace dance notice the energy they get from that 75 year-old leader when he leads a corrida; they know precisely when the corridita is going to come – and they need to know! They notice that a young guy, who's got great musicality and energy can't quite deliver that kind of energy, and moreover they're never quite sure when he's about to lead it. They realise that the old dancer breathes in, a quick inbreath, before the corridita, the tiniest momentary pause, and breathes out as he makes the 'little run'. The woman feels this slight physical lift and relaxation and follows effortlessly. This is the kind of insight that women who have danced a lot with the more experienced dancers and thought about their experience, are better placed to give you. Of course a partner you dance with regularly will know when the corridita is coming, led clearly or not, but then it's become a choreography, not something that necessarily works straight away with any partner you dance with.

Learning how to co-ordinate this is another issue: personally I know when the corridita is there in the music when it happens, but predicting it in time get a breath in is another matter. But you need to be aware of the need for it before you can start getting it together.

(With thanks to Monica Paz and Practimilonguero.)

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

On being a tango commuter

It really isn't a lot of fun. When I moved out of London some years ago I was just beginning to get seriously involved in tango, but I knew there was local tango, and a train service, so I wasn't too concerned. But I was naïve. The local tango turned out to be classes only, taught by a couple with good intentions but who probably assumed that the time for close embrace social tango in rural UK still hadn't dawned. That assumption, and an unwillingness to create an opportunity for social dance, meant that tango there inadvertently remained something of an academic exercise. As for the trains, leaving a London milonga in full swing to catch the last train on a Friday night isn't a great end to an evening out.

So I started making a longer commute to Buenos Aires. Instead of at the most an hour or two of dance a week it's possible to go out daily, afternoon, evening and night. It's very easy to remember the advice from all the wonderful teachers I've met there. I can even write it down! But putting it into practice, creating new habits, changing muscle memories, takes time on the floor, there's no short cut. You can't really do this in a milonga. In the absence of a regular practice partner, private classes with women become intense practicas, with a lot of very welcome feedback, too. & sessions with teaching couples have been really inspiring.

Local tango remains uninspiring, although there's regular social dancing, organised with energy and good intentions. There's a vague feeling that tango ought to be danced close, but trying to practice the teachers' double ganchos is generally a lot more fun... As for London, as far as I can recall, the last great social teacher to visit was the late Ricardo Vidort, who died about five years ago. The unwillingness of organisers to invite good social dancers, even of a younger generation, and immigration policy*, haven't helped. London is a Mecca for extravagant choreography teachers, and tango there isn't great, although generally I think dancing close in London (if not exactly Buenos Aires-style close) is becoming more normal, more acceptable. I'm often reminded that tango outside London can be better, just, sadly, not where I live. But at least it's a good excuse to visit Buenos Aires.

(*There's a general complaint that short visits for any kind of teaching should not be treated as an immigration issue, but it takes years to change legislation, and it's such a sensitive issue.)

Monday, 12 December 2011

Una pena absoluta

'Es una pena absoluta...' (it's an absolute pain) '...ES UNA TORTURA!' (translation not needed). (Female) teacher to tango class, on what it's like dancing with guys who aren't precise about the beat. (I think I've quoted her Spanish correctly.)

Ricardo Viquiera and Fish

If you haven't already been there, check out Simba tango's latest post, 'Baldosa'. (Link on the right.) A dramatic demonstration by Ricardo Viquiera and Fish of just how little space you need for a good dance.

Fish is a wonderful dancer, and completely fearless too. I assume she's Fish Pez, and remember this video of her a few years ago dancing Candombe Milongon with Ruben Terbalca.

Thanks, Simba!

Saturday, 10 December 2011


The luxury of a morning in after a milonga, to enjoy a slow coffee in the sunshine and remember the partners you shared the previous evening with: the tall one who delighted in a fast vals tanda, the short round body that fitted itself so memorably and fluently into the slow grave music of some Tipica Victor, the older Italian who enjoyed so much the elegance of a tanda of De Angelis early when the floor was empty. I enjoyed dancing with her a few times: she spoke no English and very little Spanish, and I guess her conversations (with Pedro Sanchez among others) were in Italian of sorts, possible because it was the language of at least one of the parents of many living Argentines, and anyway Italian and Spanish are not so different.

And some local partners: the one with tattoos and tight jeans (I didn't notice the jeans until she stood up) seemed out of place in a traditional milonga, not so much because of the jeans (she looked elegant enough) but as she clearly preferred an open/close embrace and the kind of dance that goes with it. & then a wonderful lady who talked and laughed happily between dances and then simply melted into four tangos of D'Agostino (with Angel Vargas, as she reminded me): the floor just seemed to open up around us. Then that slender partner: at first we couldn't quite agree on the beat, then it began to settle down and by the fourth tango the shared warmth of the embrace was the only thing that existed, constant and unchanging, so much at one with partner that the music and the floor just fell into place around the embrace. Then we walked away from it; that, after all, is the agreement.

Dance and music: musicians leave hard evidence of what they've made, but dancers leave nothing but memories, and perhaps an unquantifiable change of consciousness created by the few moments' experience of intimacy with a partner, who may be a complete stranger.

Memories, and now videos I guess. Actually I wonder if video could be misleading for intimate social tango as it emphasises watching and performance rather than direct experience. It's great that people learn from it, but learning from video is likely to be partial. You see only the obvious and you may really need someone with long experience to show you, physically or even in the video, things that might not be immediately obvious. Video tends to minimise the physicality and you might end up with the bare bones of a dance, without its seductive flesh. I hope video doesn't end up degrading the close embrace dance.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Women teaching tango 2

Ultimately it's women who have the most direct interest in men dancing well...

All of which is a preamble to saying that Monica Paz, in addition to building up an oral history of tango through the excellent Practimilongueros videos, leads a weekly 'practimilonga' at El Beso, run by herself and a couple of women friends, which concentrates on the details of lead, follow and embrace, with some simple but useful material, and which works through social dancing; even the choice of practice partners operates through the cabeceo. It seems to be a well thought-out and useful system. She's one of a number of women teaching (among them Enriqueta Kleinman, Ana Maria Schapira and to a large extent Myriam Pincen too) who learned by following and watching. Sadly, not many people go, so it's like a private dance session with some very experienced friends.

Monica says that one of her interviewees said that in the old days, if you wanted to know how good a dancer was you watched the shoulders, whereas these days people watch the feet. To me this is the clearest indication of the difference between the London and the Buenos Aires close dance. In Buenos Aires it's not only the rotation of the shoulders about the axis, essential for a comfortable close dance of course, but it's also the lateral movement of the shoulders and torso through space and up and down, as if following the lines of the melody, in much the way an opera singer might sway while singing an aria. That's what I've understood from Pedro, and what I've seen in milongas. It's a very complete physical response to the music.

The Cachirulo milonga follows immediately after practica, but if you need to go to the practimilonga as a lead you might not have too much success at the subsequent milonga, as you'll be measured against some of the most practiced tangueros there are. If you're a follow, you might just have to hang in there and wait your turn.

The most recent Practimilongueros video features interviews during Monica's recent visit to Europe, with four teachers and organisers in Europe who accept the practimilonga model. Elisabetta Cavallari of RovigoTango, Dobri Gjurkov in Hamburg and N. Germany of Tangonido, Jessica Bijvoet in Leiden of Libertango and Tina Riccardi of Tangoquerido in Brussels. All maintain close contact with the social tango of Buenos Aires, and their comments are very interesting.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Women teaching tango 1

Tangocommuter is regularly told that men should be taught tango by other men, and wonders if this is really so... (Unless, that is, they intend to dance in milongas only with men.)

True, 60 years ago men and boys practised together. It may have been a good system, but for them it was the only possibility, as women other than family members weren't available for casual dance outside formal milongas. In the first place, boys seem to have learned from mothers and aunts: women are likely to have placed a lot more emphasis than men on the need for boys to grow up dancing well. & it's true that the men who grew up practising with each other grew up dancing well, but I think the key may not be who they practised with, but the fact that they practised; whatever the obstacles they were enthusiastic to practice. It mattered to those 14 year-olds to dance well. Like most kids would have been kicking a ball, perhaps a ball of rags, around and dreaming of football clubs, they were dancing and dreaming of a different kind of club. If you're keen at that age you're likely to get good, and they put in the hours. (No TV, no video games to compete for their attention!)

So I wonder if the idea that you absolutely must learn to dance with other guys might be mistaken. The men I've learned from in Buenos Aires – four of them – all grew up practicing with other boys, but have chosen to teach with teaching partners, although they are clear that it's good to know both sides of the dance. That seems the important point, rather than who you learn it from. Anyway, I've never met a man who taught alone, I'm not aware of anyone who does it.

For a guy, taking private sessions from a couple is costly but very helpful. The man teaches what the leader needs to know, his partner checks out how the learner is getting on. After all, who has the most insight into how a leader dances, the partner he's dancing with or someone who is watching? There are so many details in the embrace, the walk, the lead, that a woman is going to notice but which might not be obvious even to someone watching from nearby. Added to which, if she's accustomed to dancing with the most practised dancers she'll be measuring you against them, and indirectly you'll be learning from all the guys she's danced with. & of course the same would work for a follow, but I'm not sure that learning as a couple would be likely to be as fruitful.

Ultimately it's women who have the most direct interest in men dancing well.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Martha and Manolo again

WARNING: THIS IS A PERFORMANCE! It is a DEMONSTRATION of class material! (Only joking...)

Martha Anton and 'El Gallego' Manolo really are among the most welcoming and genial teachers I know. Manolo seems to be a walking archive of canyengue: I hope someone's cross-indexed his memory, although video is likely to preserve a lot of it. & Martha will remember you from years ago, with a big smile.

The classes are relaxed and unstructured. As they are held in the Escuela Tango anyone may turn up for a taster (and maybe so they can add '...studied canyengue with Martha Anton and 'El Gallego' Manolo' to their CVs). Or, like this class, it might be just a few friends, some who've known them for years. Whatever happens, Martha will have the beginners dancing basic canyengue to that hypnotic beat by the end of the class, or Manolo will have dug out something totally unexpected even to his oldest friends. All with a smile and about three words of English, if you don't speak Spanish. If you do, you might catch Manolo complaining about the young dancers who flock in demanding a lot of new material, and forgetting it as they leave...

Of course canyengue itself helps. You can dance it with a grin on your face, and the music is a lot more simple and cheerful, and less emotional, than tango. It's fun, which you can't exactly say of tango, and at its best it's fascinating to watch. I love the effortless way Manolo weaves himself around Martha at the beginning of this clip. Manolo learned in the late 1940s with his childhood friend, Rudolfo Ciere, at a time when canyengue was regarded as at best old-fashioned if not actually primitive. If I remember Robert Farris Thompson ('The Art History of Love') correctly, the crouching stance was regarded as regrettably African at a time when civilised people stood up straight and danced tango. But what Manolo learned was a kind of proto-tango, from dancers who were already getting on in years when he was young. Proto-tango dance to proto-tango music: it fits early Canaro like a glove. A lot of what you learn can be transposed to tango without much problem. Just make sure you stand up straight, though.

The music is El Pensamiento, played by the Cuarteto Punta y Taco. It doesn't quite sound like old music, and the group may be a sort of revivalist group, perhaps from the 1950s. Martha and Manolo have their own series of CDs of music for canyengue, which you can buy from them, a mix of early Canaro, Donato, Carabelli, Lomuto, with a lot of almost unknown orquestas, some of them wonderful. Many of the recordings pre-date the introduction of electric recording in 1928, so the sound quality isn't great, and it has to be said that the tracks from Canaro and other well-known orquestas are probably available in better quality on other CDs. But if you really want CDs with recordings by Perez Pocholo, Alfredo Cordisco, D'Alessandro, and many others, they are here. You may be able to listen to them on Todotango too.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

December 3 2001

An article on the BBC website reminds that this was the day the Argentine banks, faced with a run, were closed down, allowing only a limited daily withdrawal. The peso was unlinked from the dollar, and inflation soared. The writer had been on the point of buying a flat, and when she got access to her money again it was worth only enough to buy a car. Someone else had dollars, and was able to pay off a mortgage because of an excellent exchange rate... There's been talk of an 'r' word – 'run' – by European economists recently. Of course it was a close call with Northern Rock a few years back, although economists also think of it in terms of the flow of money in and out of central banks.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the flourishing and well-organised short-let business in Buenos Aires. If you have money and don't trust the banks, you buy property and rent it. & I've been told that when you buy property it's usually cash: you have to turn up with a suitcase full of notes, adding another nerve-wracking twist to an already fraught business.

It's interesting to look out on a prospering South American city ten years later, with a largely untroubled cheerful surface, at ease with itself and doing well. Being an immigrant, like being a refugee, means having to cope without a safety net. It means self-reliance, taking nothing for granted, not having time for self-pity. Perhaps Argentina was well-equipped to survive and bounce back, and feels good about itself for doing so.

Tangoandchaos has a graphic account of Buenos Aires from December 3 2001 and the following weeks.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Es una pasión...

This might not be very fair... but I clicked on a video and this is what opened: I hadn't watched it in a while. For a few moments I thought it was the same music that Osvaldo and Enriqueta were dancing to, but it's Bajo de un cielo de estrellas, and a different orquesta (Miguel Calo): the two pieces are very similar, both in melody and feel. But the dance is worlds away: reminds me what's lost. Tete and Silvia at their very best, absolutely on fire with a favourite piece of music, and it's so good to remember them together like this. Tete, totally intent on the dance, and without that irritating arm-flapping or the very unconvincing change of roles (he always looked as if he was leading anyway), dancing here as if nothing else existed except each other and the music and the dance. (Forget the floor once in a while!) 'Sin miedo', be fearless, was his advice: go for it! Silvia, in brief glimpses (the video quality isn't great) looks as if she's laughing with joy. The conviction and energy, the sheer life force of it, the physicality of it, and at the same time the control and attention to the music, like almost nothing else and reminding me why I found tango so compelling, why I wanted to visit Buenos Aires in the first place. It blows almost everything else away, certainly the narcissistic elaboration of a lot of contemporary tango, always conscious how pretty its feet are... Not many dancers are so extrovert in their wholehearted passion for dance and music, and it's so good to be reminded.

It's often struck me that I've never heard Argentines describe tango as an addiction: when asked how they see tango they nearly always say it's a passion, ' una pasión!' Videos like this give us an idea what 'una pasión' can mean...

Sunday, 27 November 2011


Candombe is said to be the origin of tango, but I think you have to go back 150 years and make a few big leaps too. There's really no resemblance now. In Uruguay I believe it has always been much more mainstream and public, but I've read that into the 1940s there were still late-night sessions in Buenos Aires when no whites were present, when the candombe drums induced trance. Public fiestas like this one seem to have started relatively recently in Argentina.

I doubt that much of the energy of this music will survive YouTube compression. The 'original soundtrack' is CD quality, and even then it'll need some big speakers. The sound is astonishing, not only because it is intensely physical, but also because it is both very organised and at the same time seems very close to dis-organisation, taken to the brink of chaos; both highly rhythmic and intensely complex. This website explains that the three sizes of drum play different rhythms simultaneously, hence the complexity of sound. Emotionally it's surprisingly overwhelming. A heavily overcast, humid afternoon.

Something that struck me about this event was the complete absence of a police presence. Yes, people were trusted to run their own street party, play loud drums, light fires in the street, dance, drink. Then the procession marched off along the streets, stopping traffic in all directions, without any apparent police presence. It was all very relaxed and good-natured too. Current UK policing gives the impression of being increasingly restrictive and confrontational: perhaps that's necessary in the UK.

'Intense performances can cause damage to red blood cells, which manifests as rust-colored urine immediately after drumming.' - Wikipedia.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Jorge Manganelli

The latest PractiMilongueros interviewee is Jorge Manganelli. 'Tango has an evolutionary process that keeps it alive' he says, '... but inside the evolutionary process the essence and the roots should be present... The dance should preserve the essence and the roots.'

His advice: 'Enjoy those three minutes that a tango lasts, the simple fact of enjoying the embrace, of listening to the music, and respecting the couple ahead of you, making sure you don't hurt them'. Once again, those three essential things: the embrace, the music and the floor.

His name led me to YouTube channel Rondadeases ('Ronda of aces'?), which started recently and has some archival video.

This is a 20-minute video from Rondadeases of an evening at Sin Rumbo in April 1989, organised by Manganelli I think, as a presentation to 'Petroleo'. I think that's Portalea and his partner at the beginning. There's a certain amount of Petroleo-influenced dance in it, but also some marvelous salon. The cigarette smoke is visible!

I haven't had time to watch the videos on Rondadeases but they seem to be mostly undated, although some of them certainly date back: the video of Geraldine Rojas, then perhaps 13 or 14, certainly isn't recent (or particularly memorable). & there are some useful videos of Manganelli teaching, in one case a very large workshop in Buenos Aires. His walk is awesome: unhurried, smooth, completely assured, like an entirely benevolent big cat, completely at ease with gravity.

Manganelli also has a website with a page of video links. These include this from the 1988 film Tango, Bayle Nuestro, also I think in Sin Rumbo, with Finito, Portalea, Balmaceda, and others. Once again, that walk...

Interesting that video from that era seems to show much more of a mix of styles than you'd see currently. Perhaps there was more room on the floor in those days. Continuous close embrace is now the predominant dance of Buenos Aires.

P.S. I forgot to add that if you follow the Tango, Bayle Nuestro clip back to YouTube you'll find annotations by Ney Melo, which give the names of individual dancers on a timeline.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Tango in small places

Tango is urban. It came to maturity in a city on floors that often weren't that big, and on which a lot of dancers gathered. Perhaps it's the most social of social dances. It occurred to me recently that there's a critical mass for a good milonga. I think you need twenty or more couples: when there are only ten or fifteen couples in one of the smallest London milongas that tango energy, the buzz of a good evening, starts to falter, and of course there's the additional problem of having insufficient partners to choose. When I mentioned this to a friend recently she added that too many people can also have a dulling effect: for a start you begin to have problems actually finding the people you want to dance with.

This doesn't make life easy for people who love tango and dislike cities. At the extreme there's blogger Reality Pivots who has built a tango floor, 8ft by 24ft, into his smallholding: 'It's a magnificent obsession!' a musician friend watching tango dancing recently exclaimed. Tango happens week in and week out in church and village halls up and down the UK, and it's wonderful that the music and the dance continue to draw people even in circumstances that seem adverse if you're used to city milongas. I've become aware of a couple of examples of church hall tango recently, and I have to admire people who put in the time and energy to keep tango alive with six, ten or maybe fifteen dancers locally. Of course a lot depends on who is teaching: friends of Ricardo Vidort have ended up living and teaching far from urban centres, people who spent weeks in Buenos Aires just walking. On the other hand students of show dancers also teach locally, and watching people who've not learned to walk well trying to manage double ganchos at their weekly dance is no less excruciating in a church hall than in a London milonga. Excruciating, and desperately sad too.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Osvaldo Natucci and Enriqueta Kleinman

'They dance close in London, yes, but it's not milonguero' said Enriqueta, and I think I'm beginning to get an idea of what she means. Just dancing close embrace doesn't make it milonguero. Perhaps these videos make that clearer.

Enriqueta was in London in August and there were workshops. Another porteña who speaks her mind in clear English, and has a long and close connection with tango, a lot of valuable, available experience. (Apparently porteñas have a reputation for plain speaking.)

Friday, 11 November 2011

Dancing Dreams

I recently discovered that a second Pina Bausch film was released this year. The big one, of course, is the all-dancing 3D film by Wim Wenders, Pina, which is truly spectacular but lacks one thing, the living presence of Pina, except for a brief moment. In Dancing Dreams Pina is still alive.

About 30 years ago she choreographed a piece called Kontakthof, 'courtyard of contact', about a dance hall and the people who gather there. The music is varied but there's quite a bit of German tango from the 1930s. Later she revised the piece using non-dancers, ordinary people over the age of 65. Dancing Dreams is a record of the making of a third version with high school students from Wuppertal. It's a straightforward TV 'making of' film, talking to the students about themselves, to the teachers, watching how, over a year, once a week, the teenagers put together a public performance. They grow visibly in the course of the year, and it's wonderful to see how one person's vision can change lives. The performance was premiered shortly before Pina's death, and came to the Barbican in London.

Dancing Dreams is my favourite of the two films, less spectacular and more intimate, and moreover Pina is at the heart of it. There are extracts on YouTube. This is the only version of the trailer with English subtitles, but sadly the aspect ratio is wrong. The film with English subtitles is available from Amazon and is available to rent on LOVEFILM.

The company is putting on 12 full-length pieces in London next June, but it's already late if you want tickets. I booked in September, and if the theatre plans are accurate I got the last seats for the two performances I booked.

The variety of her work is extraordinary.

If you happen to watch the trailer for Dancing Dreams, you might spot that the serious teacher who instructs the teenagers is the much younger dancer in the second of these clips...

Friday, 4 November 2011


An Encuentro Milonguero is being organised in the South of France from Friday 24 February to Sunday 26 2012. It's called 'mirame', 'look at me'(?). Close embrace is promised, with cabeceo and codigos, a maximum of 200 people, and male/female parity. We are promised everything in one place, 'warm as a cocoon'; residence, restaurant and dance hall. It's outside Castres, off the road from Montpellier to Nimes. Nothing is said about the floor.

The website is mainly in French. As far as I can make out there are some 30 4-room villas on site with kitchen included free, if kept clean. If all four 2-person rooms are occupied, a villa will cost €20.50 per person per night + €1.50 tax. A three-day pass to the milongas, including food, is €100 per person.

The organisers are Lalie and Pierre of the Association Access Tango, and the Djs are David Alvarez, Lalie Marion, Luigi Grieco and Myriam Alarcon. I've never heard of any of these, but I guess that's my ignorance. Better translations and more info welcomed.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Areas of darkness

So a few of the most notorious of Argentine murderers have finally been found guilty, more than thirty years after their crimes. (BBC)

The dark past is only slowly receding. A recent story in a UK newspaper: police burst in on an Argentine man in his early 30s in Buenos Aires. They had come to take his DNA. Not that he was suspected of anything criminal, but he had been adopted in the late 1970s, and the Argentine state now has power to take DNA to establish the real identity of anyone adopted during 'the Process'. His worst fears were confirmed: his parents had been murdered in the ESMA centre after his birth there, and he had been adopted, to be brought up in a true Christian and catholic tradition, rather than the socialist tradition of his birth parents. (Irony wasn't a stong point of the military.) He was told his birth name, but he's currently going through the courts to be allowed to retain his adopted name as he believes his adoptive parents acted in good faith. Adoption can be difficult in the best of circumstances, and these must be the worst.

I read this story about the same time as Tangocherie posted about Dark Tangos by American author Lewis Shiner. He's made it available for free (link on Tangocherie). (In fact he's made all his novels available for free: I wonder what his publishers think of that.) I was immediately gripped when I read his description of a demonstration over the 'disappearance' of Jorge López just hours before he was due to give his final testimony against a former police chief accused of running one of the detention centres. This must have happened about a year before my first visit to the city. I heard the story of López when I took the tour of the ESMA centre in 2008. I was shocked: I thought people 'disappearing' was all in the past. Later, I found everywhere a little spray graffiti, a blank facial area beneath a cloth cap: López, a bricklayer by trade, had worn such a cap. Like other old political graffiti it's a simple and haunting image.

ESMA, where around 5,000 people were killed, is now one of the centres for researching and remembering every last detail of what took place during the 'dirty war' in the hope that, by remembering, such events can never recur. We were also told that no one from the armed forces has ever broken ranks to testify in court. The will and the money are still there to intimidate witnesses – and to make them disappear.

It's a reminder that despite the very normal appearance of the city and the wonderful milongas, just below the surface there are areas of darkness. Many people suffered terrible loss, and if you've been there you might well have danced with them. I believe that only a few of the oppressors – among them torturers and murderers – have ever appeared in court: the human rights movement has identified them, but they remain free, if now ageing. Unlikely, but you might have met them too, or passed by them in the streets.

Friday, 28 October 2011

It's only a dance...

Melina Sedo said it of tango, but I wonder...

'Only a dance': isn't dance important? At some point in time humans found they could make marks that resembled things they saw around them, and they also found they could communicate with movement, playful movement without the urgency of fleeing rabid wolves, and we've done these things ever since. Birds, bees and some mammals dance to communicate. Dance brings order and regularity and mindfulness into the chaos of movement, and we value it for that.

A good friend I dance with whenever I can works in a bank, of which she says that anyone who works in a bank, herself excepted of course, must be either stupid or crazy. 'I read an article that said there are many psychopaths working in the City: it's true! My office is full of them! I told them all one day, 'You should all learn to dance tango!' and they looked at me as if I was crazy!' I'd guess she's not the only tanguero out there to think their office would be better off if everyone went out to milongas in the evenings. (Not sure the milongas would be better, but give it time.) & that quote from Moliere: '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'. Maybe spoken by a dance teacher and intended as a comic exaggeration, but there's a kind of exasperated truth about it. The world certainly wouldn't be worse if everyone danced more. Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozi after a day's heated debate on the Euro... Yes! Give it a whirl: why not?

But tango adds the embrace to the great enjoyment of moving to music. People pay to go to hugging workshops because enjoying the touch of other humans makes them feel better. Hugs lower blood pressure and reduce stress, while oxytocin, a hormone that triggers caring and bonding responses in men and women, is released. It's why some think of tango as healing. And of course Ricardo Vidort said that 'Tango is a therapy for the soul', a grand statement, but he'd lived with tango much longer than any of us are likely to.

This apparently chance discovery by the good citizens of Buenos Aires, partly as a result of dance floors that were too small, and driven by an irresistible music, still has plenty in it to make us all feel good and more human. Did their 20-year tango fiesta/party help them? Politically things fell apart badly after 1955, but I think the problem was just that not enough people were dancing.

It's not that dance is unimportant; the problem is that not enough people think that dance is important.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Tango Your Life

Chan Park ('Practimilongueros') writes:

I submitted the film Tango Your Life along with its trailer to ArcLight Documentary Film Festival. The selection will be made based on how many 'likes' the trailer receives from the YouTube audience. Please go to this page and give your support by clicking on 'like'.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Beware gilded suitcases...

I've just watched the BBC film about the Rostropovitch, which gives a great sense of the passionate physicality of the person and his musically extraordinary playing: well worth watching. I remembered the one occasion I heard him live, in 1988, immediately after the Armenian earthquake that killed up to 45,000. He was from neighbouring Azerbaijan, and organised a concert literally overnight in central London in support of the relief efforts, and to commemorate the suffering. He played the Bach unaccompanied cello concertos and insisted that there should be no applause. It was an incredibly sombre, moving concert.

He also taught in Moscow before being driven into exile. Two English ex-students noted that he seldom talked about technique in his classes: he preferred to concentrate on the music itself. They told how there was a technically gifted student who took their breath away with the skill of his playing. But Rostropovitch wasn't impressed. After the student finished he said, 'I want you to imagine the most beautiful suitcase in the world... You can't imagine how beautiful it is. It's got incredible gold buckles on it … Now, take it! Take it! Put your hands out! Take it!' The student was bewildered but put out his hands and took the imaginary suitcase. 'Now, open it!' said Rostropovitch. '& what's inside of it? Nothing! That's you. You can do everything on the surface: it's all brilliant, but you haven't got any ideas inside you.' As the students said, it was a devastating analogy.

Rostropovitch also said that you don't play music for the audience: you play it for yourself. Sadly, the film is no longer available for viewing, but it's a great treasure if you ever get a chance to see it.

(A while back, Tangocommuter was taken to task for saying that musicality is more important than technique, and there were complaints about my objection to classes in stage tango being advertised as 'tango technique' classes. So I'd better be careful here and point out that the above stories have nothing whatsoever to do with tango. Obviously.)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Un montón de milongas

I was just about to post this when I noticed Elizabeth's posting.

There's a huge cache of clips, about an hour of film, of BsAs milongas on Muller Patricia's YouTube channel, posted five months ago and labelled as 'Viejos Milongueros'. Apparently they date back to the 90s. I dashed in, hoping to find Ricardo Vidort, Muma, Portalea, Gavito, Tete, Elba Biscay... and was sadly disappointed. They show BsAs milongas all right, but the dance is the dance of people who enjoy social tango, although from what little I've seen perhaps it's not the tango of Lo de Celia or El Beso, or of what I think of as the 'old milongueros'. However, every now and again a couple slips past the camera with such easy grace that you think, 'Who was that?' Lively, good-natured social milongas – and good lighting too!

If anyone watches Osvaldo Natucci on Practimilongueros, be warned: there's a slight mistranslation. He divides dancers into artisans and aficionados, but the subtitles translate 'aficionados' as 'amateurs', which is misleading as it can suggest people who aren't very good at something. I think he'd call dancers like the social dancers in Muller Patricia's clips 'aficionados', rather than artisans, who are a bit more obsessive about their dance.

If anyone watches through all that film and comes across any of the 'greats', do let me know. I recognise one venue, La Ideal, and possibly one or two others, but I think there's film from several more. Patricia asks for any information anyone might have about the milongas and the people.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Osvaldo Natucci, part 2

The second part of Osvaldo Natucci's Practimilongueros interview is here.

I wondered why his name was familiar, and then realised I read about him in Tango and Chaos a few years back: he spent some years working as an industrial engineer in Spain – the dangerous years one would assume. (That page has a very interesting account not only of Natucci teaching, but also of Celia Blanco teaching, Celia of the Lo de Celia milonga.)

Natucci confirms that the way of learning these days must be different to how it was when he learned. In the years of the 'tango fiesta', the tango party years between 1935 and 1955, there was such a tango saturation that going to formal classes was truly redundant. There are still people like him around, who heard the music from before birth since it was always on the radio, and learned the dance as they learned to walk, but these days, he says, we need classes: the question is, what needs to be taught, and how. & what shouldn't be taught!

I think there's a subtle problem with classes: the idea of a class suggests a topic that can be learned within a finite timespan, whereas I don't think tango can be acquired like that. You can't do a course of ten or 20 classes and 'learn tango'. I enjoyed the long BsAs classes because they are as much practica as class, because there was an emphasis on basics like walking, and because there was a lot of dancing. & material was taught, which might or might not be new. I noticed even proficient dancers came regularly to these classes, relaxed and enjoyable classes, and always useful. But never the suggestion that this is the cure to tango ignorance, just an aid to the endless improvement of the craft. Natucci distinguishes the tango amateurs from the tango artisans, and becoming a tango artisan means work to improve the craft, rather than mastering a syllabus.

Here's a brief guide to what shouldn't be taught!

Animation by Yatango.

Friday, 23 September 2011

A golden-age milonga

We may have our own images of milongas of the golden age. There are a few scraps of film versions on YouTube which may or may not be true to life, and the popular view is of some elegance and plenty of champagne, of well-dressed men in suits, and fashionable ladies. But to judge by the accounts of those who danced at the time there was quite a bit of variation, and recently I came across a short story, The Gates of Heaven, by the Argentine author Julio Cortázar describing a milonga from the 1940s. I can't find a date, but Cortázar left Buenos Aires for Paris in 1951, where he died in 1984.

The wife of a friend has died, and he takes his friend out to a dancehall for the evening. He describes it as '...just plain chaos, confusion dissolving itself into a false order; hell and its circles.' There are three covered patios; in the first is a regular tango 'orquesta', in the second a group playing country music and in the third a folk group from the north; as you enter you hear all three. It's hot. The women are mainly taxi-dancers, 50 centavos a tanda. He describes the smell: barely-washed bodies plastered with lotions, hairspray, powder, brilliantine. He describes one partner, '...the sweat oozing from the roots of her hair and running down the back of her neck where a roll of fat made a tiny whiter rivulet'. Added to all this, there's an asado (charcoal grill) outside, and everyone's smoking. 'The smoke was so thick that the faces on the other half of the floor were blurred...' They drink spirits. Suddenly, in this confusion, both men see a woman who looks exactly like the dead woman, dancing '...her face enraptured and stupid in her paradise finally gained'. At the end of the tanda the husband drunkenly goes looking for her; but the author knows he'll come back '...not having found the gates of heaven among all that smoke and all those people'. Cortázar mentions Dante's inferno, but the story of Orpheus and Euridyce seems to be in there too.

Not that all golden age milongas were like that: I can't imagine milongas at La Ideal or La Molina being quite as chaotic.

The story is from a book of Cortázar's short stories, called Blow Up after the title of Antonioni's film which was adapted from one of the stories. According to Wikipedia, the story is called Las Babas del Diablo in Spanish, literally, 'The Droolings of the Devil', ' Argentine expression for the long threads some spiders and insects leave hanging between the trees'. There's no real or imagined murder in Cortázar's story; just an observed encounter between an adolescent and a rather older woman which the author interrupts with his camera, to the annoyance of the woman and her accomplice, a man sitting watching in a car, as the youth is startled into leaving. The author enlarges and enlarges his image and looks and looks at it. As always, the story is in the telling.

(Blow-up and other stories by Julio Cortázar, tr. Paul Blackburn, publ. Pantheon Books, New York, 1985.)

Excuse me...?

'More than 22,000 marine animals a year are caught and killed to check species are not being harmed by discharges from the nuclear site in Caithness.'

(News from the BBC website a few days ago.)

Saturday, 10 September 2011

¡Felices 100 años!

I never realised that Nelly Omar was still alive, and today, September 10, El Tanguata is wishing her Happy Birthday for her 100th birthday! Amazing, and wonderful. Even more amazing and wonderful that she's worked until recently: here is the El Tangauta article, with a track by her from her 2007 album, La Criolla, great music and a voice that is still very strong and clear. It was followed by albums in 2008 and 2009 too (which are on Spotify). She first met Gardel in 1918 when his career was just beginning, and as a teenager went to Gardel gigs in cinemas... I thought Alberto Podestá was the great old survivor, but he's only 87. Here's a biography.

Here's her Desde el Alma recording from 2008. What a voice! (I've just noticed that Jantango has a post on her with a video recording of the same track.)

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

& finally...

Sunny last morning packing and cleaning out the apartment. Sunday; I walk out through the park, past 40 people taking a ta'i chi class from an elderly Chinese gentleman, past the stall where volunteers offer hot drinks to rough sleepers, to the bottle bank. Like any European city. & a last coffee with a glass of sparkling water and a couple of heart-shaped biscuits. BsAs might not top my list of cities I'd choose to live in, but it's a great city with heart, and a lot of affection. I hand back the keys, drag my bag into the street and hail a cab to the airport...

Pedro 3

Time for one last session with Pedro at Alesandro's guest house. For this session he finds me a partner, who he introduces as a very fine milonguera, with a lot of experience of the milongas here. I recognise her from El Beso where I'd never be likely to get a dance with her, so to dance with her today is like a gift from Pedro. Essentially, I get a class with the two of them: I get feedback from her, and she reinforces what Pedro says. She's observant and offers advice too; she knows when it's going well, and is encouraging.

Like Ana Maria last night, Pedro talks about the flexing of the knee, the leader lifting the leg slightly from the knee before stepping. I've received so much similar advice from different people that it's as if they've been in touch by phone: Ana Maria said this last night, and Silvia talked about the feet making straightforward contact with the floor. &, like Cacho Dante, Pedro insists that the foot must point forwards if you are walking forwards: turn your foot to the left or the right and your partner can feel this as a lead to change direction.

But they shake their heads: Oh dear, in the UK he learned to dance with his feet instead of with his body. Relax! Listen to the music! Always the same refrain. It's what I've been realising over the past couple of years, but still have bad habits to get rid of: 'listening to the music' means dancing every single step with complete, relaxed attention to the partner and to the music and to the other dancers around in a milonga. One reason why London tango doesn't look like Buenos Aires tango, and doesn't feel like it either, is the lack of this kind of attention.

& 'tango is a feeling' – that mysterious porteño phrase, which Monica repeats, as if it is the closest she can get to expressing what tango is for her. To me it suggests a concentrated feeling of tenderness: something I've felt in every milonga I've been to in BsAs, but really never in London. I'm going to miss that tenderness.

I film them dancing in the studio:

As we part in the street, Pedro tells me to go back to the UK and dance like this. 'No need to be a teacher' he says (never my ambition). 'Just go back and dance like this: your partners will know the difference. They'll learn from dancing what BsAs tango is like'. But as I walk back I wonder: I can dance like this with Monica under Pedro's eye, but London is a different place. For a start, in London it's rare to feel an embrace quite as immediate and trusting as the 'abrazo' of Buenos Aires. Then partners in BsAs understand from experience where this kind of dancing is coming from: by and large they're much more familiar with the music and the kind of phrasing in the music. & without the support of a room full of people dancing like this, the feel of tango starts to get lost. Going back suddenly becomes an unwelcome prospect.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Canning once again

Ana Maria's class at Canning; I always enjoy these classes. Two hours with a break, it's relaxed, nothing difficult. There's a lot of initial emphasis on walking, and it's valuable practice, as it's easier to notice and correct bad habits in class than while dancing in a milonga. Part class, part practica. In particular, this evening I pick up on what Ana Maria says about flexing the knee before stepping, a slight lift of the flexed knee which results in the foot coming down firmly without the hardness of the heel hitting the floor as in normal walking. I think this is clearly visible in any clip of Ricardo Vidort's walk, and I think also in El Flaco's walk in the video of Muma above. Like stamping, but a lot more gentle; putting the foot down firmly perhaps. I think it's something all the older dancers do, and to some extent the younger ones too. I've been aware of it for a long time and I find that in walking it results in a clearer lead, but the problem is getting it to feed through into social dancing, making a new habit. It completely eradicates that old bad habit of stepping forward with a bent knee; something Cacho Dante pointed out to me last time I was here.

My last evening at Canning; and it's a really good evening when the castellano, the cabeceo and the tango all work well, good memories of meeting a succession of friendly local partners on the floor. There's no experience quite like this: the moment of agreement in a look at a distance, the embrace between strangers, the dance, the brief conversations. In general, I've never found the people of any city quite as welcoming as BsAs, and these brief encounters, and the embrace, and the dance make evenings that are worth coming back here for. But it's taken a few weeks to get this far.

I know Canning only from Mondays and Fridays and both evenings are a good mix of young and old, mainly local people and some visitors as well. It feels like a powerhouse of meeting. Unfortunately it's also turned into a bit of a photo opportunity, and on Fridays there's at least some poor dancing. But most evenings at El Beso can feel just a bit unforgiving by comparison.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Lujos 4

My last night out at Lujos in El Beso for a while. Lucia and Oskar who run it are very friendly. Alberto and Paulina are always at their milongas, and Alberto always makes a point of telling them to give his friend, me, a good seat, but I've no doubt they would anyway. Alberto says it's a great night here tonight, making that characteristic little porteño gesture with the right hand twisting to the side of the mouth, combined with a clicking of the tongue; I've never seen it anywhere else.

& the atmosphere is especially warm and good-natured. I enjoy the mix of ages at the El Beso milongas. Some milongas seem to be exclusively for older-generation dancers, but in all the El Beso milongas I've been to I've seen a great mix of ages. I know some people don't like this but I've no problem with it. There are wonderful young dancers enjoying themselves, dancing with each other and with the great older generation too, and all in the best close-embrace tango. There are young women here, perhaps hardly into their twenties, dancing as enthusiastically with old tangueros like Chiche Ruberto, and with Ricardo Suarez too (who might even be old enough to be their great-grandfather) as with young guys of their own generation, who themselves are dancing with women who have their own tango histories. I think this is great because within a decade or so what they are experiencing here, night after night, will remain a living link to the tango of the past. This is the future of tango, this is how the past will continue into the future. If young people don't get to dance with the older generation in milongas, the continuity of tango is broken. & the presence of young people brings a lively energy to the evening, too. However, I think there are many more older men than older women here.

& the older generation strikes me as a bit special: they had to be tough and smart to survive a difficult period of Argentine history, and they lived through it together. They grew up to the great 1945-1955 tango party, and now tango, the love of their childhood and youth, has come back to them in their old age, as strong and clear as ever, with friends all over the world. These kids who grew up practicing as teenagers on the street corners in the barrios can now afford to dress up and go out dancing night after night with young women, as well as with older friends, and some of them can enjoy champagne with it, too. Sure they're happy and enjoying themselves! In the end, life has been kind to them.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Osvaldo Natucci at Practimilongueros

Practimilongueros continues with an interview with Osvaldo Natucci, who has plenty to say about tango history. He describes 1945 to 1955 in Buenos Aires as a big party, the only party Argentina's ever had, and a party like no other city has ever had: the dance and the music was the city's passion. He also says that at that time there were just two kinds of dancer; the amateurs, and then the artisans, who took the trouble to dance a tango of quality. He sees a third kind of dancer emerging in the late 80s: the artists. He admires the skill of the few artists who are really good, but points out that few of their followers realise that dance at this level is beyond them. Social tango is what matters: the survival of tango depends on the continuation of social tango, on the artisans. This is only Part 1, so there's more to look forward too.

From what I'd already heard I suspected that there was a huge social change centred around tango in BsAs in the 1940s. Instead of meeting at birthdays, festivals or in church, young people had the independence to go out to dance together. Many thanks to Mónica Paz for continuing this wonderful exploration of tango and society in BsAs within living memory. She's asking the questions I wanted to ask, and the conversations are fascinating.

Incidentally, I couldn't help noticing how articulate and full of life Osvaldo Natucci's arms and shoulders are. This seems a good example of the body culture of the Mediterranean, part of the background of tango. & I can't help noticing, also, that Osvaldo has taught in France. I'm afraid UK tango is missing out on a lot.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Some I made earlier

It's always bewildered me that my sense of direction is so bad in BsAs, as it's usually pretty good in the UK. It was while making these pictures that I realised why. The sun shines in the deep canyons of central BsAs only between 12 and 2 at this time of year (in fact, probably throughout the year). &, of course, it moves from right to left, and its high point is north, in line with the grid of the centre of the city. As Coleridge wrote:

'The sun now rose upon the Right
Out of the sea came he,
Still hid in mist and on the left
Went down into the sea.' (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

To add to the confusion my street map shows the shoreline of the Río de la Plata at the bottom of the page, which I habitually read as south. All very confusing!

I'd normally avoid the midday sun when making pictures, but the light was very clear and luminous, so I couldn't resist. Since it was winter, even the midday sun didn't flatten out and bleach the pictures: moreover even at midday it still wasn't high in the sky, making dramatic shadows. I resolved to go out again for more the following day – but the clouds came over, and this wonderful light was never repeated.

Euro Records

A trip up Lavalle to no. 2039, Euro Records. A trip to a record store wouldn't usually be worth posting, but Euro Records is different. Come in! Sit down! What can we do for you? I dig out my list, and they start to get my CDs from the case, recommend a few more, comment on the sound quality of one or two. I ask if they have any specifically canyengue CDs (like the series Martha has, with a good deal of early Canaro and a number of largely forgotten orquestas that Martha tells me she loves). A long discussion in the office starts up as to what exactly canyengue music is: they tell me it used to be danced in the streets. They dig out a number of discs, but they are all later music (from the late 30s) and I assumed canyengue was earlier. However, their knowledge of this huge collection is seriously impressive. Then they're curious about my interest in the music. Is it for dancing? For dancing and listening, I reply. Ah, a double pleasure! We sit and chat amiably for a while.

Buying CDs isn't usually like that. I leave with seven CDs, which cost me the equivalent of £22. Just seven. I'm ashamed of myself.

Incidentally the 'catalogo' link on their website doesn't seem to work, but if you click on the black and gold 'Buenos Aires tango club' logo half-way down on the left-hand side you'll reach the online shop and complete catalogue. It's an extraordinary and constantly increasing collection.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

A lightbulb moment -- and Jorge Lladó at el Beso

Wednesday night class at El Beso, more walking, more good advice on walking, and another simple and useful figure. It must be from classes like these that present-day portenos learn their basic tango.

I stay on into the milonga: Wednesday night at El Beso is La Bruja. I suddenly realise that I've been getting it all wrong. I've been turning up later in the evening at a milonga in full swing, expecting the organisers to find me a seat (which they always do), and trying to get dances on a floor packed with dancers who have already been busy for hours; which is careless, a bit thoughtless and could even be seen as arrogant. The practical thing to do is to get there right at the beginning. At that time of the evening you can probably choose where you sit instead of being shown to a seat. The floor is fairly empty, and there are partners there looking for a warm-up: it makes sense to arrive then, and then perhaps to sit out and watch the busiest time later on. A bit late to think of this now, but something to remember for the future.

Jorge Lladó, the nephew of the late Tete, turns up early. I watched him last visit, a big guy but very soft and smooth on his feet. Here he is in El Beso.

I usually prefer to watch dancers in a milonga, fitting their dance round everyone else with smaller steps, but I do enjoy this demo from Jorge and his partner. I notice there are videos of him from Milan last autumn, so he's already visited Europe to teach: too much to hope that someone will bring him to London, I guess. & if I didn't manage to convey the sense of the 'ups and downs' of tango (someone thought it meant a bouncy dance) in this post, I think a good look at this clip shows how smoothly and energetically the music is followed by using a slight dipping and straightening from the knees. I think the turns around the 1.00 and the 1.30 marks show this. & I like the way the 'hanging' phrases in the music are marked with pauses. It seems effortlessly musical and fluent.

Video thanks to Gurisatanguera.

Another visitor

I run into a woman from Scandinavia I danced with a few times on my last visit. I'm surprised to see her again and wonder if she lives here now, but it turns out our visits have coincided. I remember she speaks surprisingly little English for a Scandinavian, but is fluent in Spanish, and I discover she's actually Latin American by birth, and grew up in Europe; part of the diaspora from the bad years, no doubt. Would she want to live here? Emphatically no: after over 40 years, she tells me, she considers herself European. & she asks if I live in BsAs since she finds me here again: emphatically no! If I lived here I'd be fluent in castellano, and I might even be a passable tanguero too. She's come here for just two weeks to dance a bit, and it's really sad to see how little she gets to dance. She's an excellent dancer and knows the music really well, but she's not young and attractive. She has a few friends here who enjoy dancing with her, but it's a real shame she doesn't get to spend more time on the floor.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

& for a change...

...something I definitely haven't seen in BsAs.

(From Ken Russell's Valentino, with Anthony Dowell as Nijinsky, and Nureyev as Valentino.)

Sylvia 4

Re-reading my earlier posts I realise I've made classes with Sylvia sound a bit grim. They are intense, but there's a lot of laughter too. But she takes tango seriously, as do many people who dance it in BsAs, and she takes teaching it seriously and gives a lot, as did Tete.

Some notes: she says I'm too bouncy on my feet, the feet should make straightforward contact with the floor. She talks about the importance of keeping the feet together ('collecting') so the point of balance is clear. Much more complicated: the weight should shift and the leg should move before the foot makes contact(?) This is such a fundamental change that it's not easy. & the close embrace is even closer than I ever imagined. 'Don't be nervous on crowded floors: a couple dancing close don't take up much more space than an individual. If you can walk through a space, a couple can get through too.' (So long as the people on each side of the space don't suddenly make big movements, I think to myself. Which of course they wouldn't - in BsAs.)

She insists on the same two things as Pedro: 'With the body!', and 'Listen to the music!' 'Every movement that you make you have to make with precision to the music'. But I always listen to the music! Not really: there's hearing the music, and there's really listening/responding to it. She pulls me up whenever I start leading in auto pilot. 'Listen to the music!' & she adds something like 'Tango is in the pauses'. And says that the lead should always finish with feet together; no dramatic, stagy, splayed-leg poses.

'That's better: now you are pausing. But you are thinking: I can hear your thoughts! It's your time. I know how much time you need; it's the time you need to put in order your body with the music, with your partner, going to the next movement. For every person it is different... But the most important thing is the way that you feel, you as a person. It's the way that you dance.'

'Walk... No! You are too much to the earth. The idea is; you are going over the earth, but your intention is to go to the sky!'

'Be calm. Enjoy the music. If you are thinking, you know, you lose the best part. The best is not for thinking; it's just to enjoy, you know. Feel your body free, be comfortable; especially be comfortable. If you are listening to the music, everything is fine.'

I get from her a full copy of Un vals para Tete, a short film made early in 2008. The makers put about half of it on YouTube a year or so ago. It's good to have the full version, with all the dance from La Calesita, the outdoor milonga in Nuñez that Tete and Sylvia used to run in the summers, 'bajo un cielo de estrellas'. & she also gives me a copy of a short film she's put together of Tete teaching tango to Pina Bausch and the Tanztheater Wuppertal company in 1996, which is rare and wonderful. It concludes with a few ecstatic moments of Tete improvising a dance with Pina herself. Play and laughter: how happy they look! She tells me she may release this film if the company agrees.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Martha and Manolo 2

Martha and Manolo always seem to start with a class mostly of beginners, and at the end everyone is dancing a bit of canyengue. Martha teaches the 'basic' to a group of women who've not danced canyegue before, then brings one of them over to me; 'Dance the basic with her!' So we dance the basic, and again, and again. She seems quite confident, so I sneak in ochos, canyengue-style and her face lights up. She dances tango, and ochos are familiar. More! More! Bit by bit I start remembering everything I've learned; walking turns, cunitas, rock steps, various walks... Not a huge amount, but enough to make life interesting, and we just keep dancing and dancing. Fantastic practice for me, listening to that steady rhythmic beat and remembering what I've been learning, and she's not complaining. We stop to ask Martha about the posture, Manolo intervenes to make some corrections, and has a dance with her, then we continue: she doesn't want to stop, and neither do I. Then, end of class; her boyfriend arrives and takes her away, and I walk slowly back to Barrio Norte, reflecting that I've had at least one memorable dance every day. Worth coming all the way from the UK for that..

A young Brazilian woman, here to dance tango for a few weeks, probably for the milogueando. & I guessed she had classical dance training. She obviously enjoyed canyengue, and commented on how she liked the heavy, down-on-the-floor feel of it, and how it's a sort of proto-tango. True, and it's fun, too.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The city

The city's a struggle as ever, but I notice how it's being improved. There are new buses on the streets, new 'bendy buses' too. The 'subte' (underground) is being extended. Cycle lanes are being marked, and there's a bright yellow cycle hire system: maybe I just didn't notice this last time. I notice more vegetarian restaurants and take-aways too: apparently meat has got very expensive. Smartphones aren't as common here, but you do see them. The Teatro Colon, the huge opera house, has been renovated and is now back in use. & there seem to be more milongas than ever, and more people dancing.

When I first came here more than three years ago my impression was of a very run-down city, but it looks better now - or perhaps I'm just used to it. The pavements still need work, although I did see a pavement under repair. My impression is that there's a very extensive and reasonably well-off area of society that could be called 'middle class', perhaps not wealthy by European standards, but confident and self-assured. Shops are full of good-looking consumer goods. I've heard it said that Latin America in general has weathered the 'global' downturn much better than Europe and the US. I've heard that there's less personal debt here, and maybe the banks couldn't afford to scoop up 'toxic assets', or were just smart. It looks like a stable and reasonably prosperous capital city.

This trip was planned and carried out very fast. I wanted to return this year and it had to be summer or late October, then I found a good deal on a Lufthansa return flight which I couldn't resist, and six days later I was flying. Getting an apartment at such short notice wasn't so easy, but there was availability, and I took this one in Barrio Norte, a 12-minute walk into El Beso and the centre, and on the way out to Canning. The agency (Buenos Aires Travel Rent) were very helpful and got the deal sorted out fast. There's a good supermarket round the corner, with fresh vegetables and fruit too. The apartment is above an arcade and row of shops catering to the local goth/skateboard/tattoo community so there are usually some curiously-dressed kids around. The apartment is a bit more expensive than I'd like, but what the hell: I'm off to El Beso again tonight...


Just some notes: sadly, I'm not going to get to meet her this time around either. She has a website with videos and a biography, which says she learned in the traditional way, and that's how she teaches.

Sadly, again, there are few videos of her on YouTube. Jantango filmed her in Lo de Celia, but it's during a milonga, so not always clear. There are several demonstration milongas. I posted about her before here and Ampster, who was lucky enough to take classes with her, records her advice on posture here. The best milonga ever filmed (but perhaps not the best film of a milonga) is on Jantango's blog: there's a link to it in this post. Muma dancing with Ricardo Vidort... and Gavito also on the floor.

After Maria Plazaola teaching in boots, here's Muma teaching bare-foot in Vancouver... But I think the best is this video with 'El Flaco' Dany. Unfortunately, the pixelation is eye-watering. Despite El Flaco running all around her she seems completely unhurried, completely cool. I think it also shows the grounded quality of local dance, which continues to remind me of canyengue: the weight comes down firmly, it's a beautiful, down-to-earth dance, and yet her feet are wonderfully fast and accurate. There's something of a dream-like quality in her dance. Beautiful.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Lujos again

Thursday, Lujos again: Alberto and Paulina are there, and I'm seated with Pedro. I get some great dances. It's crowded, but there's still room to move a bit. The partners I meet at El Beso all speak some English, so we chat briefly in Spanish and English. One tells me she'll be in London for a wedding in November and I invite her to a London milonga: I tell her the London milongas are definitely the best, and we fall about laughing. (Apologies to all London milongas wherever you may be.)

It's great to watch Muma on the floor. I met her briefly in Maipu 444 last time, but never saw her dance. Here she dances occasionally with a few of the older guys, who lead her completely smoothly, with turns effortlessly changing direction. It's so quiet you'd hardly notice, but once I notice, I can't take my eyes off them, it's so intimate, effortless and musical. Muma has her own way of dancing which is quite distinctive: her movements can be quick, but with an emphatic weight on the pauses. It's very unhurried, very beautiful to watch. She teaches but doesn't seem to make much of a fuss of it, and seems content to sit quietly in the milonga. She gave me her card last time I was here but it was just a few days before I left, and I still haven't got in touch with her this time. More unfinished business...

Walking home from El Beso, thinking about style, and trying to remember what Picasso said about it. People thought he learned an African style from African sculpture. No, he said: African sculpture showed him a way of working from the heart, with emotional force, out of fear and love. Otherwise, he said, having a style just means having a cake tin and turning out identical cookies. (It's a reported conversation in La tête d'obsidienne by Malraux. There's an English translation, where I first read it, but I can't remember the title.)

Learning to dance like a porteño

Means what? I read it in a blog somewhere.(Apologies: I can't remember where.) Does it mean learning a style? & like which porteño? They aren't alike in the least, even if they are all recognisably tangueros. Even in a wire-frame animation you could tell Ricardo Vidort from Tete from Alberto Dassieu from Osvaldo Centano. They have distinctive ways of standing and moving, as well as characteristic preferences for certain steps, which must come from having learned in a less organised way, and from having danced so much longer. Younger local dancers are much more alike, and also much more like recent learners from the rest of the world, too. I wonder if they'll go on to become more individual.

But the more I thought about it the more sense it made, because the point of learning in BsAs isn't to copy an individual style but to absorb something much more fundamental. To me it makes sense to learn from those with the greatest experience, people who've been doing it since they were young and are still dancing; or, failing that, from people who have spent a lot of time dancing with those who learned when they were young. Who better to learn from?

'Learn' isn't the best word since it suggests school work, a one-off process: like a school task, you learn it and it's done. 'Absorb' is better, as it suggests something slower, more a kind of 'growing into'.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Sylvia 3

Sylvia's classes are tough. Having your tango picked apart, that dance you've so laboriously put together out of what you've learned, watched, struggled through, discovered, blundered into, misunderstood, isn't pretty. Of course it's the details, how and when you put your feet to the floor, just where you put your feet, all of which can mislead your partner and prevent her from relaxing totally, but it's also the bad habits, like the feet moving through a sequence, more or less in time to the music but without regard to the feel of the music... Here, I'm beginning to realise that anything less than total attention to the music isn't acceptable, it's faking it, and I wonder what I'm left with for real. Well, perhaps it's not that bad, although it might seem so after class on a dull, cold afternoon in BsAs, far outside my comfort zone.

You can know more 'moves', become more technically accomplished, be faster or able to make beautifully elegant gestures but at the end of the day (or the night!) perhaps it's harder to dance every moment with real heart, real feeling, total commitment to your partner and the music, and more satisfying too. That's the rough sense what I'm being made to realise.

Perhaps it's good to think of a tanda in terms of a brief relationship or conversation. Absorb yourself in the music and give your partner everything. 'When you dance, put everything into it', as both Ricardo Vidort and Alberto Dassieu said. I've always thought of this as physical, but I'm beginning to think it means emotionally too. If your whole heart and intention isn't in it, better not do it. In relationships, big gestures sometime reveal not only a lack of heart and commitment, but also the will to conceal that lack. But then, maybe involvement, even temporary, isn't what you're after when you go out dancing.

Tete said: 'Enough of lies. Don't buy repetitive forms. If you want to buy tango, buy tango. For the sake of tango, and for the sake of all of us and with my heart in my hand I say to you: Dance the music. Because the music is the tango.'

(I hope 'Dance the music' is a good translation. Not, 'dance to the music' but simply 'dance the music'.)

'Repetitive forms' I assume means patterns of steps that are learned and repeated. Sylvie tells me that Tete also used to say that he didn't care about the steps. 'The steps don't matter. What matters is how you walk, how you listen to the music, the way you embrace your partner: this is tango. Tango is not steps.'

How you walk, how you listen to the music, the way you embrace your partner...

(& it's somehow odd to write all this because in writing the body is obscured completely.)

Walking and dancing

After I'd worked in India for a while, someone told me they'd thought I was Indian, a Kashmiri from the north, and therefore paler-skinned; and besides, they said, 'You walk like an Indian', which really struck me. I hadn't realised that there might be national characteristics in walking, or that unconsciously I'd adopted the walking of another country. But walking isn't the same everywhere: for instance, there's a walk that is characteristic of many Jamaicans, and Juan Carlos Copes talks on film about the characteristic walk of BsAs. (Not that I've ever spotted it.)

A friend says she likes to dance with Argentines and Italians, and in general the English are way down her list. According to Wikipedia, 60% of Argentines are Italian in origin, so you can't really make a distinction. So what have the Italians got that we haven't? It's possible they walk differently, perhaps a walk with a bit more swagger, i.e., dissociation. & certainly they use their arms and shoulders more expressively in ordinary conversation, as part of ordinary dialogue, and this must be part of the background to tango. It's not an exaggerated movement, but all the classes I've taken on this visit stress how much the upper body needs to move, and it's what I've noticed in milongas, too, although it's not particularly obvious in videos, particularly on a small screen.

& climate doesn't help: human bodies stiffen up in the cold north. Even here, a cold wind has been blowing and I'm dreaming of a long summer holiday in the south of Italy, sitting at cafe tables watching people walking, strolling in the streets and feeling physically at home, relaxed and more sensual in movement...