Bailarines del tango

 

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Fri Dec 21, 2001 12.44 pm: I hadn't planned to write anything today, but after I took a walk I felt like it. I walked south, with no map and no plan, through typical BA neighborhoods. There were tree-lined streets with old buildings. I like the upstairs corner apartments. They are old with rounded corners, high ceilings and windows. I donít know if you call it colonial style. There are thousands and thousands of them all over the city, with high doors at the corner, and rounded balconies with flowers, looking out on the street. Many of them are at tree height, so the balconies seem to be among the leaves. I'd like to have one. I came to a large open space, several acres at least, which is unusual in BA. It seemed wild, and there was a large neighborhood vegetable garden where someone had made a strange looking Santa Claus (Papa Noel) out of red trash bags, and hung pretend presents on a bush. They were blowing in the southeast breeze that has come off the Atlantic and finally cooled down the city. There won't be much Christmas down here. Last night was the quietest Iíve seen. I sat outside on the corner beneath our apartment at a small confiteria. It was one in the morning, there was a cool light rain, and there were no cars at all on the usually busy Independencia. I suspect that all the gas stations were closed, and the city is dirty, because they haven't been picking up the trash because of the troubles.

I keep walking south, and see a very large building which looks pockmarked. It turns out to be a hospital, and I wonder if the holes were made by artillery fire. Iíve heard that doctors were the enemy in the "dirty war". Itís probably not the case at all, but Iím too lazy to ask anyone. The edge has gone off the trip. Iím not a PorteŮo, but I feel very at home among them and they donít seem to pay any special attention to me. I must look at home, because as I was walking a delivery truck driver pulled up and asked directions. I say the usual thing I say when Iím not sure down here, which is "No hablo castellano." He nods and drives off, and as soon as he leaves I realize that I not only understood him completely, but I knew exactly where the street was he was asking about.

I hadn't planned to write nearly as much, but the words just keep coming as I walk. I enjoy being alone. I think of our desperate group in the burning gas, and how each person spent only a few seconds at the water, and then immediately scrambled out of the way to make room for the next one. I remember the young policemen I saw facing their neighbors who were hurling rocks. They looked more confused than threatening, as if they couldn't figure out why the people they were talking to and laughing with in the neighborhood a week ago were now facing them across the plaza throwing stones. What were they supposed to do? What could they do about some economic crisis that no one understands? Iím sure the last thing they wanted was to kill anyone.

Before all this trouble began, I wrote a note about one of the milongueras who asked me out to dance. Iíll paste it in here, and then tomorrow Iíll have one last word about tango. After that, I donít plan to write anything more.

The Milongueras

I have talked about some of the older dancers who dance here in Buenos Aires that are know as "milongueros"- which is a term of respect in the milongas. They are not stupid, and they often use their status to dance with the beautiful young tourists who come to BA, and also attractive young local women who may be new to tango. There is also a group of women here who dance well, and are accepted by the milongueros, and dance with them on a regular basis.†If I have found a niche for myself in the huge tango scene here, it is with these women. Some of them know me from the classes, and from going to some of the clubs where the old†milongueros go. Tango is huge here, but itís also surprisingly small, and just like Tucson, everyone talks about everyone else. While I am a tourist and a rookie, Iíve learned that some of these women like to dance with me because they say I feel the music- and they like that. This is good for me, and Iíve found lately that I donít have to hunt for dances as much. The biggest advantage for men who dance close embrace is that your partner is too close to you to see your dancing. You may look like crap, you may not know many steps, but if you feel the music, she will feel it also. She will like it, and she will tell her friends. One night at El Beso, they paired me up with an elegant looking woman who was a great dancer. She seemed to be a friend of most of the instructors, but she was new to close embrace tango, so they decided I would be the perfect partner for her, and we both had a fun time.

Something more unusual happened when one of the best dancers somehow found out where I lived (I hadn't given out my phone number!), and called me and asked me out to dance! She would have never done that with a real milonguero, but my low status made it possible. It wasn't a real "date"... it was done only to dance. I accepted, and we went out early at 630pm. She took me to a small neighborhood milonga that I never would have found in a million years. It was empty when we arrived, but it began to fill rapidly. It was down a little hall behind a small gym, and when you danced, you could see people lifting weights through an open door in the front. There were drinks and good food. It was exactly the kind of place Iíve been looking for in BA - a small version of Sunderland with an indoor wooden floor, and an outdoor waxed tile floor. We moved outside to dance under the dark sky as it cooled off. It was very casual, and nice. I have begun to feel that the big high-powered milongas are not always for me. They can be fantastic and exciting, but they're very crowded, and the see-and-be-seen, hunt- for-eye-contact, trophy-dance atmosphere is too much on a regular basis. If I were a much better dancer, Iím sure I would feel differently, but I never felt completely relaxed at them. This little neighborhood place was beautiful, with very high quality dancing, and the DJ was a maestro. Every song inspired me.

My date was one of the few of these milongueras who spoke English, and I was able to spend the evening dancing very comfortably with her, and discussing the dance styles, and personal styles, of all of my heroes. She dances with them all, and she was a regular partner of Teteís. This is where I learned some bad news. Tete has just been put in the hospital in Italy . Iíve heard he smokes too much, and probably does everything else too much also, and itís catching up with him. I found this very upsetting, since a big part of my reason for coming to BA was to see him while thereís still time.

Tete

I havenít seen much of Malik lately, but yesterday afternoon we finally got to spend some time together. We practiced a few steps, and watched some videos, and discussed what we have learned here. Malik commented that suddenly all of the great dancers in the videos didn't look quite as impressive after 5 weeks in Buenos Aires. I felt the same, and then I thought of something. I got one of my Tete videos and put it on. Malik was stunned. He had always loved Tete. It was my giving him a Tete video when he first started that really hooked him on the tango of the milongueros. Now, he said, he began to see more of what I have been seeing. After 5 weeks in BA other dancers had diminished a bit in our eyes, but Tete looked even better. Malik named maybe the most famous tango performer in the world, who we had recently watched perform, and said that he was great, but that there were a lot of guys from his neighborhood in Philly with the potential skill to dance like that. But Tete is different. Malik said it was his balance and feel for the music. I hadn't watched him for several months, and like Malik, I was also stunned. I usually have one of two reactions when I watch him on video. I am in either a state of awe and enjoyment, or of frustration and disappointment because he is unreachable to me. Iím like some kid in the mountains of Morocco trying to learn basketball from Michael Jordan videos. It just won't happen.

Last Tango in Buenos Aires

Sat Dec 22, 2001 7:12 am: It has been an amazing experience. The feeling of Buenos Aires will stay with me for a long time. The exotic street names... Jujuy, Pichincha, Pueyrredon, Riobamba. They are now as familiar to me as Speedway and Alvernon in Tucson , but they will eventually begin to fade. I certainly plan to return to BA, but you never know. People are saying that some of the milongas I’ve been attending will soon have to close, especially some of the smaller ones, because no one has any money. We "strut and fret" our brief hour on the stage, and you never know. For some reason deep down I think I will not be back. I’ve tried to describe this last month, but I really can’t. I feel like I’ve jammed a year of life into five weeks.

Rio de la Plata

 

It’s taken some time to write these notes, but it’s been fun. I’ve been short of cash a lot of the time, so it’s cheap entertainment. And truly a labor of love. After rereading a few of them I’m embarrassed about the number of typos. My only excuse is that I’ve been sleepy when I’ve written a lot of this. Malik says I look a lot different than in Tucson , more tired and drawn. It’s just a vacation, but the intensity of life down here can be draining. We've all been losing weight. Everything I’ve written is true, although some of it may have been posted out of sequence. Everyone I have talked about is real, but I’ve changed a couple of the names to protect privacy.

If anyone reading this is interested in the tango I’ve been trying to learn I’d be glad to refer you to people and places where you can learn about it. I’ve been working for almost two years, and I still can’t say I can walk across the floor competently. But I’ve seen what's happened in Portland when a lot of people embrace (pun) this style, and it would be nice if more people in Arizona would try it. I have learned a lot from talking to Ricardo Vidort about the early days of tango. If I had talked to him earlier in the trip some of the things I’ve said about tango down here would have been more complete and accurate. When I get time, I would like to write about a few of the interesting things I’ve learned from him.

My good friend Malena is a beautiful, passionate Argentine woman. She is a small window into the Porteño soul, if there is such a thing, but I’m afraid she feels things too deeply. What's happening down here is bad, and I worry about her. I feel sad about flying off and leaving her and the rest of her brothers and sisters to their fate. I came into town from the airport on a shuttle bus, knowing no one but Malik, and I will be taken to the airport by Malena and Ricardo Vidort, two new Argentine friends. That alone makes the trip worthwhile. I will also miss Alejandra Todaro, who has become my friend and dance partner over the last two weeks. She is one of the best tango dancers in BsAs, and I’m honored that she has chosen to dance with me. But I’m starting to miss the desert, and if Malena´s old car will make it out to Ezeiza Airport tonight, I will be back home tomorrow to deal with roof leaks from the summer monsoons, and to wonder how far Jason Gardner and Luke Walton can take the Cats this season.

Tango is what I came here for, but what I have seen in the last few days has changed me in ways that I didn't expect. I’m still thinking about them, and I may write about them sometime, but not now. I haven’t checked to see if any milongas have reopened, and the urge to dance tango which has been so strong over the last couple of years isn't there at the moment. But I’m sure it will return, and I want to finish with tango, so here it is. Hope you like it!

Tango

For me, Buenos Aires is tango. It’s in the old architecture and in the muddy river that slides past the city. I see it in the young women who walk downtown, along the sidewalks straight and tall, shoulders back, with a natural tango walk. From Plaza San Martin with its trees covered in purple flowers, along Santa Fe to Suipacha, down past Corrientes , Congreso, and San Telmo, to Caminito in La Boca. They walk smoothly and arrogantly, eyes straight ahead. Most of these beautiful porteñas don’t even know the tango, but they walk it every day because it’s in their blood. It is was created for them and it's in them. The lonely men who wrote and danced the first tangos were dreaming of them—wanting them. One hundred years or more of tango in their blood. A billion dances.

I take one last long walk through the old neighborhoods. Down through Palermo again. I stop at an herb shop to see about buying some yerba mate to take back. The clerk isn't especially friendly as I ask a lot of dumb questions. We stand at the counter, and then the sweet sound of tango music comes from his radio. Without thinking, I say to myself "Es tango...” His face softens, as if a small child has come into the shop. "Si...", he says. And he gives me a 20% discount on the purchase.

Epilogue

If you’ve been following the news, you know that the problems in Argentina are continuing. I just received the following email from Malena today. "Cacerolazo" means casserole, and it refers to the pot banging demonstrations. Malena is from an upper class upbringing, and it’s interesting that she has been warned away from the tango world by Copes’ old partner, Maria Nieves. Here is today’s email (including an insert from an earlier email):

12/30: Hola Rick. I’m sorry my last e-mail en Castellano, I know it must have been hard to understand. After watching the images of the riot on T.V (after cacerolazo) I come to realize you were in the middle of a big repression. that night at the place you were there were 29 people killed. Now I understand your pale face and expression when you came back. Casatango is quiet now. Only America [girl from LA] and me. The geisha left yesterday. She finally moved to the milonguero style. (Earlier email 12/25: The day after you left Casatango opened its doors to Alika, a young Geisha that’s why she ended up here. And guess where she’s staying? Of course, you guessed, she’s in your room. Are you sure you don’t have more extra mileage so you can come back? Bueno, seriously, Alika is in the same state you were: penniless, bankrupt. She wants to know were she can cash her travelers checks and where to get money with her visa card. Of course America and I loaned her for yesterday but well. If you remember more or less the place, please let me know.)

I realize the other night at La Nacional that Tango entails many things. I think that intelligence is important. You need intelligence to dance tango. It’s not just the steps, is doing the right steps in the right moment, is creativity, it’s good ear, it’s tempo and it’s musicality together with the steps, the listening, the attitude and the feeling. I know nothing of this is new to you. I know you know all this because you made me dance and I liked it. I enjoyed dancing with you. And this is not an easy thing. In your next trip I hope I already know some more things and I would really like to go out to a milonga with you sometime. If you come with Ann I will steal you from her to go dancing some milongas or tangos with you. Is it OK? OK.

I’ve been going to the river lately, I found some small clubs on the river where you don’t pay a cent and you can stay and swim in the River Plat. I also got an ear infection, which took me to hospital, Paco came with me and the doctor was there and he took good care. I’m ok now, but I can’t go swimming for 5 days. It’s terribly hot, today was 34 Celsius and humid. I talked to Susana the milonguera, my friend’s mother, Copes partner in the movie, they say the best milonguera Buenos Aires ever had [Maria Nieves!]. I didn't know. But she’s told me a lot about milongueros, about Alito, one of the best, who is her best friend and is also a friend of Ricardo. She told me Ricardo is a good milonguero, but he is a little "tarambana" (unreliable). She also told me it is better to stay out of the tango world as much as possible, but if I wanted to learn she’d guide me. I know she hasn’t been to milongas for more than 2 years now and that she feels her time has ended as for dancing. She’s 68 and I would like to see her dancing as they say she’s so good. We saw a lot of old milongueras at Sunderland, remember? It was one of the nicest outings for me in years, a shame I had to leave early because of the slaveness of my emotions... It was so so so lovely to see them gliding and interacting and joking and having such a great time among them. It’s as if time had stopped for these people and they’re still very young and having an incredible time. All of those people are so young at heart, younger than many youngs. Thank you again for your beautiful gifts, they are lovely and I would tell Renee you should buy this for you...What else? Paco and his girlfriend still want me to go to Bolivia and I’ll see cause I have 1 new English student (beginner of course) and one probable Chacarera student. But I’d really love to do a trip with them. Paco is my friend, and from what I saw today of Gisella she’s a sweet and nice girl.

Bueno, Rick next time I tell you about my impressions of your Buenos Aires tango report. I laughed a lot, but I also skipped the technical part and now I forgot a lot so I’ll read it again.

Un beso enorme,

          Malena

****

This is the end of the Tango and Chaos reports from 2001. In 2002 Alejandra Todaro became my dance partner, and returned with me to the U.S. The next section jumps forward to 2003 when Alej and I were forced go back to BsAs on short notice because of visa problems. If you want to read more about Buenos Aires, including visits to some out of the way clubs, and some very macho transvestite prostitutes, click ahead to the 2003 reports.