Fighting The Tangorrista
“I am, uh, shy, but I am, uh…willing.”
–Pepé Le Pew
It has been a week of Tango lessons. We meet at six in a small studio for an hour lesson. It is about a thirty minute walk from my Spanish school. It is good to take the walk because it clears my head after struggling through a one-on-one Spanish lesson for two hours.
We have a cute and small young profesora, Guadalupe, who teaches the class with great confidence. Coincidentally, she will be performing in the same tango show I described in my recent post “Watching The Tango”. There is a lot to learn and a lot to remember, the basic seven-step box–or is it eight?– the backwards and forwards Ocho, the “sandwich,” the “rebound”, and there is simply walking.
“You must walk with confidence and lead the woman with a soft, yet firm EM-brace,” Guadalupe says, putting the emphasis on the first syllable, and when I dance with her it seems much easier. There is a woman from Winston-Salem who is on an extended holiday with her husband, and I find it quite easy and natural to do the steps with her as well. There is a young woman from Sweden who is quite nice but she is very large and clumsy in her high-heeled Tango shoes, and either I don’t lead well or she has trouble following me, because she often gets a little off balance and because she is on the big side, begins to topple over. There is a tall young woman from Aspen who obviously hates having me as a partner (we switch every song) and then there is Francie, a tall woman, a little bit on the big side, dressed in black with rose tattoos crawling up her legs. She has ice blue eyes and she particularly hates dancing with me. There is an Swiss man named Emilio who is at her level and she expects to dance with him and him alone.
On my second day of my lessons, she announced “Emilio better come today, because I am not doing box steps all day.” She could see that I was taken aback and she focused on me and said: “Well, I paid for this after all.” I do not usually come back with a quick retort, as in “you didn’t pay for a private lesson,” and I wasn’t clever at that moment, either.
I avoided her the entire lesson and danced with Winston-Salem, Sweden, and Guadalupe that day. From then on, I dubbed her “Tangorrista:” n.f.: a woman who only dances the angry Tango. I am thankful that she has now taken her last class.
From now on, I pledge to fight the Tangorristas here so that we never have to fight the Tangorristas back home.
Watching the Tango
“I like to watch.”
–Chance (Peter Sellers) in BEING THERE
When you are a writer or a photographer, you tend to remove yourself from the actual scene, even as you are in it. That is the way you gain enough perspective to record what is happening and the ability to see and relate details and impressions.
At least, that is what is true for me. I think I was drawn to these disciplines by my innate shyness and introversion. My introspection is useful at times, but sometimes also makes me feel alienated and not fully in the moment. I often have a sense of dèjá vu even as I am seeing something in real time.
My friend Ray, gregarious and extraverted, camps out in a cafe or bar wherever he goes in the world and finds it easy to make friends. I am shyer and more aloof and have never been good at this. I sit in the back and observe and I am intimidated. Since I am talkative with close friends, some may think this is hogwash, but I have always felt like a bit of an outsider. I can be in a gathering and step out of myself and observe in the third person.
One of the reasons this project is such a departure is that I am making myself work through my inhibitions. I will have to fully participate in Tango and try to get along in a foreign country with a foreign language. Mistakes will happen, but I must Tango On. It is the charm and anxiety of the naif, the greenhorn, the amateur that creates a bit of comedy, and I hope interest.
Since I often second-guess myself (another personality feature of the introvert), I wonder if the anticipation of what will be and the observation of the event itself will make it different, similar to the observer effect in physics, where the observation of a phenomenon subtly changes the phenomenon itself.
Last evening, I went to a show at a tango dinner club called “Piazzolla Tango.” It was my first live exposure to Tango and I had decided to go because it is within easy walking distance of my apartment and my guidebook highly recommended it.
I dressed in a suit and a black shirt and ventured out into the evening. Florida Street, generally jammed with tourists, was dark and deserted. A few vendors had mats with unsalable items spread out on the street and there were people huddled in doorways. The shops were closed and the security gates had been rolled down and locked.
I entered a well-lit and pleasant arcade and went to the theatre’s entrance. I had elected only to attend the show, not to have dinner, which made my ticket saleswoman frown. I may have been the only one in the hall of several hundred people who had not dined there, but I get tired of the looks one gets when one dines alone in a fancy place, and I just wanted to see the show.
Descending two flights of stairs and having given my name twice, the lobby was so quiet and empty that I was worried that I had come at the wrong time. I was escorted through a double door into a music hall, festooned with gold accents and covered throughout with late nineteenth-century dark red whorehouse velvet. Laughter and warm conversation bounced around the hall and was absorbed by the fabric, the well-dressed people, the plush carpet.
The lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and dancers twirled on stage, the men costumed in fedoras and suits, the women in tight dresses with frilled skirts and slits to show the legs as they moved. While the men led, the women seemed to show the most expression, kicking their legs high as they turned and snapping their heads back and forth in rhythm with the piano and accordians.
The couples stomped their feet as an accent, the men would twirl the women or catch them in a mock fall, the dance would end with the signature pose of the woman in a low backward crouch and with the man in a pose as if he were a sprinter preparing to start a race. The dancers teased and flirted over a rose, the man offering, the woman pretending not to show interest, and then accepting the rose and circling the stage with her partner in a tug of romance and seduction, rejection and acceptance.
A beautiful brunette singer, sparkling with costume jewelry and luminescent in a white dress, delivered an impassioned song. Between choruses, she gave the audience coquettish looks and swayed her hips, confident in her voice, her beauty, and her sexuality. The performance alternated between the female singer, single couple and multiple couple performances, and a talented and emotional dark-suited male singer. I was moved to give the performance a standing ovation, yet there were not many of us who were standing. Could this be an American habit, giving standing ovations for every performance and expecting the ovation to spread across the entire room like a fungus?
After the performance, I walked back to the apartment, passing a famous milonga (Tango hall), Confiteria Ideal. The hall has been featured in the films EVITA and THE TANGO LESSON. To watch a dance filmed last year at Confiteria Ideal clink on this link. I stopped in and looked at the board. The dances and classes were listed and I blanched a bit. There are dances tonight, which I will probably sit in the back and observe. Tomorrow afternoon, though, there is a class with instruction in both Italian and English. Will I throw myself into the moment, or will I continue to hold back, an observer but not a participant?
You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences.
–John Travolta in PULP FICTION
It is a very odd sensation walking back into the Tango studio today after writing about it Friday. I feel very ironic and bemused. Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) kiss each other when they meet, brushing their cheeks and kissing the air. I became aware of this when I first arrived at the airport. Behind the car service counter, a stout man in his forties said goodbye to his co-workers. He kissed each one, two men and a woman, as he said “chau.”
Today, I bump cheeks and air-kiss Guadalupe and shake hands with and air-kiss her partner Emiliano. A doctor from Winston-Salem greets them the same way, looks at me and rubs his cheek as he indicates Emiliano with a tilt of the head. ”Pelo,” he says (Spanish for “hair”).
Friday, I danced with Emiliano, a thin man who stands in perfect balance, as he showed me the proper form on one of the steps. He was the woman, in case you’re interested, and dancing is all I do on the first date.
My Swedish friend who was having trouble with her balance last week finishes her last lesson today. She moves much better, although she is still quite a handful. I find out that her Tango shoes had been too small for her and that today she has a new pair of shoes that keep her on a more even keel. Even so, when we do the more complicated steps, such as the forward ocho (a turn step for the woman, like a figure eight), or the gancho (translated as “hook”), a move when the woman kicks her leg in a hooked fashion between her partners legs, I use so much effort to handle her that my eyes fill with perspiration and I lose count of the step.
Tonight Emiliano and Guadalupe begin their performances at the Tango show. I find out that show folk in Argentina say “mucha mierda” or “lots of shit” to wish each other luck. Emiliano says it is from the days when people used horses to go to the theatre. “Mucha mierda” meant there were a lot of fans.
I arrive at my Tango lesson and the ranks have dwindled quite a bit. There is an Aussie couple, me, and our instructor Guadalupe. I have been alternating between my glasses, and contact lenses augmented by reading glasses. Today is bright and sunny and I wear my contacts, sunglasses, and carry my reading glasses.
I place my sunglasses and reading glasses on a shelf and Guadalupe says, “ah, two pairs of glasses for you today. The sunglasses are for Bad Sam?”
“Si, si,” I respond. “I have to wear the sunglasses because I am a Man of Mystery, un Hombre Mysterioso.”
She replies, “I know. You are a man of mystery and you just tango on.”
I am embarrassed because I forgot that I have a signature line for my e-mail that includes that information.
“I am impressed by this, this way you make your living,” she says.
I am a little flustered by her reference and it takes me a moment to remember my steps, but finally I begin to walk leading Guadalupe. Guadalupe is trying to prepare us for the pressures of the milonga, the dance hall. “The man has a hard job, because he must lead. The woman can close her eyes and dance, but the man must also watch the traffic and not get too close to the persons in front or of the persons in the back.” She attempts to get the men in the room to lead and not have our partners know the next step or variation we will try. This is quite hard for me at this early stage.
I have an insight that I share with my Aussie colleagues about trying to Tango. ”You’re studying Spanish, right? It is like learning a language. It seems okay in the classroom when you are speaking slowly, but get out on the street and you freeze.”
Guadalupe shows us that you don’t even have to make a step. ”If the floor is crowded, sometimes you can keep your partner in the em-brace and shift your weight from side to side. Dancing is not about making steps, it is about making connections with your partners.”
My Frankenstein choreography now feels cheap and silly.
At the end of the lesson, Guadalupe claps her hands and announces: “OK, chicos, is time to end.” She must hurry to get ready for her performance tonight.
I feel a bit humbled by the session, the “pingback” or reference to my blog, and by the process I have undertaken. Guadalupe speaks two languages that I cannot: Spanish and Tango.
Music in the Late Afternoon
It is 7 o’clock on a beautiful spring afternoon. The sun casts long shadows over the lavender-budded trees and commuters wait in long queues for buses. Shoppers crowd the avenues, gathering ingredients for their evening meals, and lovers kiss with varying degrees of passion.
I run through the crowds on my way to the park. I have loaded a Tango mix on my iPod so I have a soundtrack for the film unfolding in front of me. “La Cumparsita” plays its familiar beginning: Be BUH DA da da be buh Da da da da da da… My step quickens and I feel content.
The second song is a plaintive wail, a cry of loss and regret, sung by a woman with a voice colored by whiskey, cigarettes and life’s reversals. So many Tango songs were written and performed in the middle third of the twentieth century and the older sounds add to their romance and glamour. Somehow the sadness makes me feel good.
The next song is Novelle Vague’s cover of The Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck,” a New Wave classic, and I realize that I have forgotten to delete my old library from the Tango mix. I have to listen because the woman’s voice is too sexy to ignore. I think this is a perfect example of the conflicts of mid-age. Nouvelle Vague does Jazz and Bossa Nova covers of New Wave songs by my favorite nihilist bands from the 70s and 80s. The song makes me feel au courant by covering an old song in a style from my parents’ era. Nouvelle Vague references two past eras by performing an ironic arrangement of an even more ironic song. In Buenos Aires, I am learning an old dance that is practiced to music perfected before I was born. This is in my attempt to see if I can learn something that is best learned by someone younger. Yes, I am turning fifty.
I forward through all the music in English, with the exception of U2′s “Vertigo,” which I deem kosher because of Bono’s beginning count unos…dos…tres…quatorce. Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” also makes the cut because of its Spanish title. I listen to additional sad and evocative Tangos (is it the accordion that makes them so sad?) and then the iPod shuffles to a new song, a melody from my past that awakens a powerful emotion and slows me to a walk. I walk through the happy, chattering crowds in the advancing twilight. The song evokes memories of romance and exquisite happiness that were followed by pain and loss. I feel the mixture of past ecstasy and eventual melancholy, an internal Tango that is mine alone.
Standing Up for Myself
Saturday night there was a grand celebration of Tango on the Av. de Mayo, the beautiful boulevard that connects the Plaza de Mayo and Congreso. There were stage performances by Tango show artists and performances by Tango orchestras and singers on three stages.
It was a valuable occasion for me to see the language of Tango interpreted by the acrobatic Tango show artists and, more importantly, witness the best of the milongueros. A Chicago transplant to Buenos Aires who has been active in the milongas for ten years told me that a significant part of my Tango education is living with the music and feeling the soul of the dance by watching. She said:
“Get to know the music and your tango will come out of you. You can’t think steps and improvise in the moment at the same time. Tango is a feeling which is danced.” –Jantango
I have a great deal to learn and I was inspired by the rhythms and emotion in the night air and seeing the best dancers that frequent the milongas. The show dancers are always amazing, but to see people interpret the more authentic Tango in combination with the music inspires me.
It is intimidating to think of the long road ahead for me to begin to feel comfortable with Tango and with Spanish. At this event, people of all ages watched performances by Tango artists young and old. The younger musicians and singers bring new energy to the art, while respecting the tradition and guidance from the golden age. People of all ages watched the music, the couples dancing in the street, and the milongueros on the stages in front of the orchestras.
What I hadn’t fully grasped before I came to Buenos Aires is that Tango is not just a dance, it is music, it is emotion, it is a whole culture of its own, deeply woven into the history of this city. I purposely conceived and planned this journey without very much research because I wanted to be surprised and to have to adapt. Like Spanish, Tango has me intimidated and I have been shy to practice my baby steps in public.
That morning I had a lesson with Guadalupe. At first we tried some close embrace walking and then a couple of ocho cortados. I had problems leading her. We determined that not only it is my inherent shyness, but that I also have a posture problem. We spent about twenty minutes discussing the proper way for me to align my posture and to take the tension out of my shoulders. I was pushing my head forward and my hips back. I had to work on using my lower abs to realign my hips and to feel an invisible string pull the top of my head upwards.
Guadalupe explained: “This is important not just for your dance but also for your life.” My neck has been a disaster for years and part of learning to dance is for me to learn to hold my head up. My sister, who was a sales manager for an assisted living community, had seen the deterioration of the aging exacerbated from years of poor posture. She watched me walk down the street and told me to “stand up straight.” As a younger brother who felt a lot of pain every day I resented the martial quality of her instruction, but part of my irritation was that I knew she was right. With the scar tissue of neck surgery and severe arthritis, it was particularly difficult on that winter day to raise myself up. However, I have to stand up straight, not because someone tells me or because it is proper for dance. I have to stand up for myself.
Tango, like anything worth doing, is a difficult code for the casual practitioner to unlock and I am still at the beginning of my journey.
Some milongueros complain that the milongas are not what they used to be. They are filled with showy youths who do not understand the traditions, and tourists who do not understand the etiquette or have the dancing skills. Perhaps this is true, but I was also inspired that evening by the younger musical artists’ energy and respect for tradition.
That evening, I marveled at Buenos Aires, nocturnal city of music and dance, overflowing with the crowd’s energy and the music’s passions. I strolled up the broad Avenida 9 de Julio and smiled at the giant anachronistic white illuminated Christmas tree that had appeared in the last day. I was filled with instant nostalgia caused by my imminent departure and the often sad and lonely longings of the music itself.
It is a Saturday morning and my third private Tango lesson of the week. My instructor Guadalupe has been working with me on a different style of Tango, a “close embrace” rather than the “open embrace” that people learn in group lessons. She says, “It would not be possible to teach close embrace in group class. There is too much for me to watch. This is the dance for the milongas.”
She shows me how to introduce myself to my dancing partner by standing with straight posture and holding up my left arm for my partner to clasp my hand “like you are shaking hands, not too hard, not too soft.” She then shows me how to place my arm behind my partner, drawing her closer by sliding my right arm across my partner’s shoulder blade and eventually to her far left side.
At first I am a bit cautious, I lean back. She shows me how vital it is for the man to lead with confidence and how I must hold my head erect (in some cases so I can watch milonga traffic) and also to lean in with my chest to balance the weight my partner is placing against me.
“You are one with the woman and you must lean against her and she you.” She shows me how the dancers are joined at the woman’s left breast and how in an open embrace you exaggerate the leading to communicate to your partner, while in close embrace the pecho (chest) communicates the dance.
She smiles as she pushes my arm back out to the side. “You are shy. In time, Tango shows you how you are.” She is right, of course. Guadalupe, Tango Analyst.
After some practice, it becomes apparent that this is a very graceful dance. It is very fluid and the communication is exquisite. We learn a new step, the cross step, that is usually used in the milongas, unlike the box step that is taught to the beginning classes.
When I hold her correctly or when my leading is more assured she rewards me with “eso” (as in “that’s right”). She is easy to lead and she helps me gain more and more confidence as I continue.
An earlier lesson in the week was conducted entirely in Spanish. Dance lessons in Spanish are easier for me to follow than other things in Spanish because I already spend so much of my time miming and reading body language.
Today we need some English so that we can discuss the complicated etiquette in the milongas. “The man looks at the woman and he makes the eye contact,” Guadalupe says. “If the woman gives a nod, he walks over. One time I was in a milonga and I made eye contact with someone. When he walked over I stood up and two girls behind me also stood up. He danced with one and came back later and danced with me. He said that he had meant to ask me, but the woman behind me thought he had asked her, so he was polite.”
The last dance of the lesson was longer. We did a number of steps that we had learned that week. When the music stopped, we stopped dancing and Guadalupe was happy at how much I had learned. “I danced with my eyes closed.” She meant that I was able to communicate everything through my movements rather than through counting or words and she had been able to trust me. I took it as a perfect compliment.
Earlier in the morning, Guadalupe had become self-conscious about her English, worrying that she had said “don’t” when she should have said “doesn’t.” I told her it didn’t matter. “But you are a writer and I worry.” I reminded her what I had written in my post “Pingback:” “Guadalupe speaks two languages that I cannot: Spanish and Tango.” She said that she remembered that and she added: “but now you speak Tango.”