El Tenedor Libre
July 11, 2003: When I was young and poor I would sometimes go to all-you-can-eat restaurants that had names like the “Royal Smorgasbord”, and “Kings Table”. On the theory that I would be able to save money by skipping future meals, I would usually eat my way to the verge of nausea. Down here they call these restaurants “tenedor libres”. This means “free fork”, a place where your fork, freed of all social and financial restraints, can run wild like a gaucho on la pampa, across plates of endless food. Well, it's not just food. Buenos Aires is also a tenedor libre of tango... and I have over-eaten. I've been having too much fun, and now I need to pay the price. The fly in the ointment of this tango paradise, and it's a big one, has caught up with me. It is cigarette smoke. The cigarette smoke in the milongas down here is terrible, especially in winter when the windows are closed. Both Alejandra and I have had coughs and low-grade sore throats for about a week now, and mine is starting to get serious. I'm beginning to cough so much that I'm not sleeping well. The doctor says either stay out of the milongas until the irritation goes away and I start sleeping better, or risk a downward spiral that could end in the hospital.
I've been enjoying the dancing tremendously down here, more than ever before really, and it will be hard to stay away. But I have to, so this evening Alejandra and I rented a practice room on Entre Rios, and had a great smoke free dance. Then we had a nice meal at Hermann's, an old German restaurant in Palermo, and for the first time since we arrived we had time to really relax and talk about our tango marathon. Over the last two weeks we went out early, stayed late, and went to 18 different clubs all over the city (a quick count that may have missed a couple), without ever going into the 3 or 4 biggest ones downtown. Normally I would burn out dancing that much. There's only so much emotional energy, but every time I walk down the sidewalk toward one of those old doorways and hear the music, I perk up. We are like sled dogs that just want to run and run, and we probably would have kept running if I didn't get sick. I don't even know why we did it, because we're not pressed for time. We'll be here awhile. It was just a lot of fun.
I was feeling that with so much dancing and elbow bumping and dodging that our dancing might have suffered, but Alejandra said she didn't think so. Sometimes you set a high standard for dancing while practicing that is hard to maintain in the milongas. Enrosques and long corridas are great, but sometimes they don't work well when you're dancing shoulder to shoulder with the retired bus drivers of Avellaneda. Some of the milongueros have a bit of a sloppy technique, but most of them don't care too much, and of course they've got a couple of other things going for them—like about ten thousand hours of moving around crowded dance floors listening to tango music. They are the journeyman bricklayers of tango. What they do looks simple and easy, until you try to do it yourself. (Of course, they are also the royalty of tango as well).
I asked one of the milongueros about a problem I have sometimes where I lower my head when I dance. The answer was, “Do you want to be a dancer of the stage? It's not important.” But it's not good to be too sloppy, so we used the practice room to work on the walking and posture that we hadn't been paying much attention to in the milongas. It's a fine balance. Down here, if they say your dancing is 'elegante', that's good. If you hear the word 'academia' when they talk about you, that's bad.
Interview with a Dancer
I've been writing about tango, and talking to different people, but tonight I realized I had one of the best people to interview about tango sitting right across the table from me. Alejandra Todaro was born into tango, she has a lot of experience in the milongas, and she spent two years at the tango university here in BA. And I should say here what is probably obvious: Most of the smart stuff I am saying in these posts about tango comes either directly or indirectly from her. Here are some of her thoughts:
Q: How is tango here different than in the U.S.?
A: Well, I enjoy it more here, mainly because you dance better. You're more relaxed (this surprised me). In the U.S. you're always complaining about the music, or that someone else is getting in the way, or that someone is talking or not dancing right (I can't believe she said this! I am very patient and tolerant at all times).
Q: What are the best milongas?
A: If I am alone I dance mostly in the afternoons. I'm looking for good partners and good music. Right now the milongas at Lo de Celia in the afternoon, Natucci's “Un Monton de Tango” (El Beso), and Gricel on Friday are good. Most of the best dancers and the best music are at these, but it changes all the time. The places people go to be seen usually have a lot of bad dancers, and the music isn’t always good. If I am with you, I like the neighborhood clubs like Glorias Argentinas or Saraza (This is the place we went two years ago, the first time we went out dancing together. It has good music with an indoor and also a great outdoor summer dance floor that they polish before the milonga).
Q: You have danced with a lot of different good dancers; how do you follow?
A: I'm very sensitive to what's going on. I am surrounded by the music, and to what my partner is feeling. You can tell a lot about someone by dancing like this. The body doesn't lie.
Q: Who are the best dancers?
A: The best dancers are the ones who can answer to the music with the body. It's very difficult to explain, because it's a feeling, but the purpose is not the steps. People from your country really need to understand this. The feet always move with the compás so the body can answer to the music. The milongueros always say that if you are in the compás, you can do anything. (“In the compás” means being in time to the music.)
Q: But what about using the feet to show the music; isn't that style part of tango?
A: Well, if you are performing maybe, and in the milongas here there are sometimes adornments with the feet, but it is not a big part of our dancing.
Q: The milongueros all have a lot of different styles and ways of using the music. What are the differences you have noticed?
A: (A summary). She described older dancers who are sweet; who have seen and done everything. While some are losing physical skills, they are very nice to dance with and connect to. Their way with the music, and with life itself, makes a great connection. Then, there are some milongueros who really dance for the woman. You can tell that they are really paying attention, taking care, watching out for you. Some are very smooth. She says dancing with them to Calo is like a nice stroll in the park in Palermo. Some of the good dancers have a hard lead, which she doesn't care for, but she says some of the other women like it. And she says some of the men are “sometimes showing to the others.” “I can tell, and I don't like it as much when they do it, but some are very good dancers. Sometimes they need to get students, and showing is how they do it.” And others are selfish. “Like who?” I asked. She said, “Well XX is selfish (my favorite tango dancer). He is so strong in the music that sometimes he just goes. He can't control himself. It's okay, but you just have to hold on.” I asked “What about me? What kind am I?” She said, “You are a selfish dancer.” (I decided to leave it at that. A similarity of any kind at all with XX was good enough for me).
Q: What don't you like about the milongas?
A: Smoke. Sometimes I cannot dance. I have to stop going.
Q: Who are the good teachers?
A: My only teacher was Celia Blanco. She is very tough, she was trained as a Profesora de Danzas Clásicas, and she is tough. But she was very nice to me. I had sixteen lessons with her at Gallo Ciego (another great tango name) and then she said, “That's enough. Go out and dance.” (Note: We sat in on one of Celia's classes. She has never taught in the U.S., so I'll try to write about her later.)
Q: Why don't you teach?
A: I'm in tango only for dancing. I don't want to socialize or perform, or teach. Looking for students and competing with other teachers changes it. (Note: I know that Alejandra has taught in the past. She has sometimes helped milongueros give lessons as a favor, which is how I met her. Also, Argentina sent her to the U.S. last year to demonstrate tango, and once she reluctantly accepted the strangest tango job ever: the Argentine army hired her to try to teach tango to its generals, so they would be able to represent the country better at foreign diplomatic functions.)
Q: Isn't it true that my mastery of tango is unequaled by anyone in Buenos Aires? And what about those secret codes Sonia couldn't put in the book—the ones every Argentine has sworn not too reveal?
A: I was astounded by her answer! But I'm afraid it will have to wait. It's getting very late, and the doctor said if I don't get some sleep I will die so I will have to save those unbelievable answers for another time.