In November 2001 I flew down to Argentina for a five-week vacation. The following stories were posted on several Internet groups during that trip. They describe my adventures and struggles while trying to learn tango in the old dance halls and clubs of Buenos Aires. Those of you who make the long scroll through these pages will see that, as often happens in life, I got much more than I bargained for when that beautiful city began to unravel. Those who want to jump directly to the dramatic events of December 19 that changed Argentina, click here. Everything that follows is true, except for the name “Malena”, which is made up to protect a friend’s privacy.
A Report From the Heart of Tango
Sat Dec 8, 2001 3:36 pm - I am in Buenos Aires accompanied by the loyal Malik, who is in charge of security on this dangerous trip. Malik and I have endured the close embrace of hundreds of Argentine women, as well as the rigors of the Latin American banking system, and our extensive research has resulted in the following rules of survival for any who wish to follow in our footsteps: 1. Listen to the music. 2. Less is more. 3. Don't forget your PIN number. That’s it for now.
Mon Dec 10, 2001 12:43 pm - We’re going to Patagonia next week to see the penguins. I will be back in Tucson around Christmas, and I’m looking forward to seeing you all at Steve and Mimi’s big New Year's party!
Mon Dec 10, 2001 12:43 pm - We had to leave so early to catch our flight to Patagonia this morning that we decided to stay up all night and dance, and then leave for the airport at 5am. This was not a good idea. We went all the way out to the airport and missed the flight. So, I’m back at the apartment with some time to write.
The economy is sinking fast here. There was a run on the banks two weeks ago, and last week the government unexpectedly restricted the amount of money that people can withdraw from their accounts to $250 per week. Everyone is a little frightened. The peso is officially linked to the dollar at one to one, but it will probably be devalued, and that could be a disaster for anyone holding pesos (including gringo tourists). Obtaining cash is a problem here. Banks and credit card offices are jammed with people. I tried to get a cash advance on my Visa, and found that all cash advances in Argentina were stopped over the weekend. Traveler's checks, which I mistakenly brought, are no longer payable in dollars, and there is only one very jammed location where you can cash them at all.
The first few nights I was here I chose to walk home alone from the milongas at 4am, but I’ve stopped doing it after all of the stories I heard about recent increases in street crime. The subways here are great. You can get almost anywhere fast for 75 cents, but they stop running at 10pm, so taxis or buses are really the only option late at night. There was a well publicized incident where the husband of the country's most famous television news lady was stabbed 7 times by a cab driver who was robbing him, so everyone is warning us about the cabs also. We try to take only cabs that say "Radio Taxi" on them, and I try for additional security by looking for old drivers. I figure if Malik (who looks like he plays power forward for the Lakers) and I get mugged by a 70-year-old man, we probably deserve it.
At first the milongas were so crowded that it was a real challenge to dance. Practice tip: Stand in one of the endless lines at the bank with a partner. Dance until you reach the front of the line. The amount of space you have and the speed at which you move will approximate about one hour of tango at the most popular milongas. That was the case up until last weekend, anyway. The economic crisis cut the attendance at the milongas dramatically, so there’s now more room to dance. Unfortunately, everyone is so nervous that they seem to be smoking twice as much, so the second hand smoke factor remains about the same.
It’s easy to fall into a degenerate lifestyle down here. We’re usually out all night and sleeping most of the day. There are five of us in the apartment, and everyone sleeps late, so it seems normal. Malik and I, and Renee Linnell from San Diego are the three tango tourists sharing an old time 3d-floor apartment with a local girl named Malena, and a student from Colombia. Picture some of the coolest old places in "The Tango Lesson" movie, and you'll have an idea of what it looks like. Luckily we've all become great friends. Malena, the porteña (local) is the rebellious daughter of a prominent local family that survived the "dirty war" in the 70´s by leaving the city, and having private soldiers guarding the family home. She takes us around in an old beat up car, and I’m afraid my name is going to get on some bad list by hanging out with her. She knows it’s a little dangerous even now to walk around wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, but she doesn't seem to care. That’s all for now. I’m getting a little sleepy. After re-reading this, I think I’ve painted a pretty bleak picture. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Actually, I’ve never been to a place I like as much as BA. Quiero Buenos Aires! When I get time, I will write some more and tell why.
A photo of the Obelisco
during tango's Golden Age.
Tue Dec 11, 2001 7:05 am - I got a couple of emails asking for more reports from Buenos Aires (thanks Homer), so here are some notes I made on the flight down, and after the first day. I wasn't going to post it because it ain't so good and most of it ain't tango, but after reading some of the recent stuff posted on the group, I guess it doesn't matter.
BsAs report- Day 1 - Traveling in style - I can’t lose the thought that I’ve forgotten to do something or bring something, and that I’ll return in a month to financial ruin and a burned out house covered with graffiti. I’m not a very good traveler anymore - just the thought of packing and driving to a crowded airport for a 16-hour plane ride causes me to lose half a night’s sleep. And it didn't help that my ride showed up late and said the brakes were bad on his car and it wouldn't make it to the airport. I was forced to call someone else at the last minute, and I had one of those run through the airport and squeeze onto the plane just as they close the door experiences. I could feel the pulse in my temple pounding as I settled into my seat, and the airport anxiety didn't fade until after we finally took off.
But at least I am traveling in style! I decided to clean out my frequent flyer account with American Airlines and get a first class ticket. It took almost all of my miles, but the cost of the ticket would have been almost $10,000 if I had purchased it with cash! The first leg is Tucson to DFW, where I checked out the Flagship Lounge, which has an open bar and a buffet with caviar and sushi and everything else imaginable. Then, on to Miami for the overnight flight to Buenos Aires. American uses a brand new Boeing 777 ("Triple-Seven") from Dallas to Buenos Aires, and the first class cabin is unbelievable. Each seat is actually a small private cubicle, with a desk, and television monitor. Each has a table with enough space for two people to eat, and when the seat is turned to face the desk, it faces a row of windows that look out on the world below. The service is good, too. There are only three people going to BA in the large first class section, attended by a crew of five. They keep coming by and stuffing gourmet food and drink into me. This huge airplane fascinates me, and after the terrorist attacks I was surprised when they let me go up to the cockpit before takeoff to talk to the captain about what it’s like to fly it. He was a great guy. He has to be one of their senior pilots to get a Triple-Seven, but he didn't look very old. We talked about our military flying experiences, and I could tell he loved his airplane.
It’s now night and my seat, which transforms itself into every possible position, has become a large, comfortable bed in a private space. I have eyeshades, feather pillows, a set of noise suppression earphones, plenty of room, and I’m ready to try to get some sleep. I’m pretty excited, though. I just peeked out the window and saw the moon reflecting off of a winding river, surrounded by what I assume is dense black rainforest. We’re cruising along 7 miles high, over huge snakes and alligators and jungles and drug lords, down over the equator, for my first time to the bottom half of the world, and the heart of Tango!
Morning -Despite the comfortable bed on the airplane, I couldn't sleep much. I checked my wristwatch all night, and finally dozed off a couple of hours before arrival. I just raised the shades on the windows, and we’re flying low through puffy scattered clouds, with the city off to the east in the haze, across miles of green, tropical looking Argentine farmland. There is light turbulence and the giant wing is flexing up and down about 10 feet at the tip. I can also see the monstrous port engine moving around and bouncing. Weird.
Day 2 - The eagle has landed - The airport is mostly international modern, but at its core is a large spooky stained concrete structure that has an old time third-world feel to it. I couldn't help but remember that this was the sight of a notorious massacre where troops with automatic weapons killed hundreds of young protestors in the not very distant past. I wondered if there were any bullet craters in the walls. South American politics- what a nightmare. The thought sobered me up for the trip through customs, but it was simple and uneventful. I was first off the plane, first bags off the carousel, first through immigration, and first through customs (they have a little stop light just like Mexico - I got a green). After the first class treatment on the airplane, I was hoping my advance man Malik would have a bulletproof limo and motorcycle escort so I could cruise Nixon-like into town... but no. I was forced to catch a noisy shuttle bus, which circled all over the city and then transfer to another that did the same. I was dropped off disoriented on a busy city street. Look at the Yankee tourist! It’s hard not to feel self-conscious dragging heavy luggage down the sidewalk in a foreign city.
The apartment is through a small door, and up a long flight of winding marble steps. It’s very old, with high ceilings, small rooms, chandeliers, and a couple of small balconies that look onto the busy street that will become my neighborhood over the next month. It also has a long atrium like airshaft, some winding metal stairs to access the roof, and a view of the BA skyline. When I arrive it’s noisy, with cigarette smoke and tango music blasting while the owner and her partner practice for some demo. It’s full of people, and I’m not feeling too sociable. Oh well.
First night - Get me out of here! My confidence has crashed. I’m sitting with Malik in El Beso. Well, actually I'm not sitting with Malik because he's out dancing. Everyone out there is really GOOD! I tried two different dances, and it just wasn't working. I was getting bumped around, I was tripping over my own feet, and I couldn't connect with the music or my partner. I’m tired, and I wish I were home. We are the only Norte Americanos in the place, and they are speaking some type of Spanish that I can’t even understand. 5 weeks of this will be intolerable. Maybe I can get an early flight home. To be continued...
I Bounce Back... Sort of
Thu Dec 13, 2001 3:58 pm - The Argentines know that in tango, as in life, attitude is everything. This of course isn't always true (as they found out very quickly in the Falklands War), but it works most of the time. Malik has pointed out to me that many of the Argentine men aren't really that good, but that they think they are, and that such an attitude adjustment would benefit my dancing. And just like that, it happened. In my last post I was sitting dejected and exhausted in El Beso on my first night in BA. But things always seem to get better, don’t they? A good nights sleep was the main thing, and then a little ego boost from being placed in the advanced class the next evening did the trick. So, every dog has his day, no?
We were back at El Beso on my second night for classes, and it's all locals. Clarin, the daily paper here, has said that more porteños have learned to dance tango in these classes than anywhere else (you probably know this already, but BsAs is a port city, and the people who live here are port people—hence, "porteño"). The club, and the school, are run by Susana Miller (who teaches and tours in the U.S.), and most of the women instructors are tough and blunt like she is. But they're also competent, and they know the old-time milongueros, and the way they dance. Unfortunately no one speaks English, and their rapid-fire castellano/Lunfardo instruction is very hard to understand. Since Malik and I are the only gringos in the large classes, there is no translation furnished. The classes are large, and everyone starts out in one big group. There was a break after an hour and a half (cigarettes everywhere), and then the class was divided. To my surprise they placed me in the advanced group, which Anna Maria (who runs the school) teaches. And to make it better, they happened to be teaching some stuff that I was familiar with from all of my Tete video watching. In fact I had practiced these things many times at my house, which made me appear better than I really am.
At 1130pm, right after the class, the milonga starts—and it’s a good one. Everyone paired up to dance, and I sat down by myself. Anna Maria caught my eye, and called me over. "Salimos?" she said. She was asking me to dance, which is very unusual down here. But maybe if you're one of the best milongueras in BsAs you do what you want. I would like to tell you that she was so taken by my skill that she couldn't help herself, but I know the truth. She was essentially the hostess, and I was the only Americano (other than Malik), as well as a paying customer, and I was a newcomer sitting by myself. I said, "Lo siento, pero tengo miedo". It did me no good. Afraid or not, I was dragged onto the dance floor. It didn't help that Carlos Gavito had been watching the classes, and was now sitting at the edge of the dance floor watching us. We danced three or four dances, and I won’t pretend it was good. I was barely able to stay with the music. But, Anna Maria Shapira is a maestra of close-embrace tango, and she is so incredibly easy to dance with that I survived it. It broke the ice for me, and gave me a little confidence.
Now, I know that performing is a big part of tango, and that many of the best tango dancers in the world perform. I love to watch them. My own personal passion, however, is for a more internal experience. It’s why I have been struggling for so long with the close embrace style. It’s not as pretty to watch as performance tango, and it looks simple. But it’s deceptive. It’s very close to the music. Subtle feelings can pass between the partners that may be lost in a more open and demonstrative style. It’s not understood or taught at all in my part of the country, and the best thing about this trip is that I think I am finally beginning to understand some things about it. All of the tango clichés, "feel the music", "learn to walk", "take care of the woman", are starting to have real meaning for me.
Unfortunately for me the unstoppable confidence roller coaster races on. One moment I’m the Baron of Buenos Aires, the next I’m afraid to get back on the floor—stumbling and clumsy. Shakespeare, brilliant and cynical: I “strut and fret” through tango. I strut and fret through a life "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". There are good dances, okay dances, and bad dances. And then there are the disasters where I actually break into a nervous flop sweat before they are over, struggling and claustrophobic on the crowded floor, smiling nervously at some disappointed Argentine woman as I slink away.
But I would like to finish this post with a triumph. Nothing major, but maybe something of significance. Perhaps a small step forward. It was a few days ago, and I was in a class, feeling a little bored and tired. They were teaching something difficult that I really didn't like, and I was trying to keep a low profile and do as little as possible. Uh oh! I was rotated to the last person I wanted as a partner. She’s, an older heavy instructor who’s probably danced tango for 30 years. She never smiles, or says anything, except for sharp and frequent corrections. The system in this class is to work on the technique, then play music while some instructors rotate dances with the students, and others wander and correct. After the music ends, there are more demo/corrections, and then another piece of music. So the music started. Posture, check. Shoulders down and back. Check. I made the embrace, forward with the chest, and leaned in slightly, waiting for the music, and then began. But I couldn't begin the practice step! I walked forward a little. Step, step, pause. Step, step, pause. Then the music began to get to me. I think it was Di Sarli. It happens sometimes, especially when I’m tired. Step and step - step, - step, pause. I couldn't bring myself to begin whatever we were supposed to be practicing, and the emotion in the music was really in me. I just began to walk, and the music was really, really there. More slow steps, maybe a rock, pause, step and step. Then a larger surging step. I was waiting for this woman to yank me back, and start impatiently putting me through the practice stuff. Nothing. The music was through me, into her, and we just walked. Simple. It seemed like a few seconds, but it was an entire song. The music stopped, and she said nothing, and did nothing for a moment. Then, she squeezed my left hand twice.
Next, there are demos. Students are doing something wrong, and they are trying to correct it, but I can’t pay attention. The music begins, Di Sarli again I think this time. Maybe Biaggi. It’s in me even more, and there is no way I can do what we are supposed to practice. I just begin to move. Occasionally in the packed milongas the crowd seems to be moving more or less together, a sort of pausing, playing or fussing, then a surging- swooping step, and a pause again. When it happens, late at night on a large dance floor, it’s amazing to watch. Everyone feels it. It looks like a flock of long legged shore birds - feeding in the water for a moment, then taking a long graceful step. Not exactly together, but kind of together. Pause and surge... and I am feeling this elegant movement. The music tugs you along, like a child with a wagon on a rope; the child pauses to play and then, giving his wagon a tug, moves again. The music tugs me around the floor… and this older heavier woman is with me completely. She seems to know each step before I take it. The music is through me, into her. Absolutely simple. Step, pause, a little weight change, swoop, a short step and a longer step. Maybe a quick, sharp milonguero step, or maybe a softer one. Pause, very still. Then slightly rocking, and a surge forward, moving among the struggling couples and the lurking instructors. Very, very simple. It was nothing. It was everything. Freed by the music. Then it ends, and again the two left hand squeezes, harder this time, and she says quietly to herself "Lindo, lindo", ...a comment that is not meant for me. Maybe for a moment there is no economic collapse in this sad and beautiful country. For a moment the students aren’t quite as annoying. She gives me a sidelong glance that says, okay, you got away with it this time. And I think to myself, you know, these old milongueros; these are not guys who just do what they are told all the time.
Malik's Big Adventure
The distinctions keep piling up for Malik. Not only is he the world’s tallest African American tango dancer, he may be the world’s tallest tango dancer, period. After we missed the Patagonia flight, I decided to stay in BA. He stubbornly insisted on catching a flight alone the next day, and now it looks like he is stranded. The economic crisis is now worse, and the airlines in Argentina are out of money and out of gas. They stopped all flights, and his last email says he is stuck somewhere far to the south. Maybe Tierra del Fuego. He may now have become the southern most African American on the American continent.