Some Final Thoughts
Because there is no moving picture evidence, the tango dancing of the neighborhoods at the beginning of the last century is a black hole. We simply have no idea the way the people of the barrios danced tango at the time. And the small amount of film available through the rest of the century makes it difficult draw conclusions about the direction of tango during that period as well. But in spite of the lack of film, the previous pages have been a chance to take a closer look at three of the greatest tango dancers of the 20th century. Of the three, Todaro is the most well known. He was an accomplished teacher, and his students are everywhere in tango today. Petroleo and Fino are more obscure. They were basically milongueros who did little or no teaching or performing, so I would like to take one more look at both of them before moving on.
Alej and I decided review the Petroleo video one more time. I was looking for more evidence of my theory that he was moving tango from an older side-by-side embrace to a more modern style, but Alej was looking at something else. Social tango dancing is based on the expression of a specific piece of music, so obviously a video of social tango without a music track doesn’t show much. The problem is that the music in this old clip is suspect—it was probably added later, and it doesn’t match the dancing. So it’s one of the few videos we watch without sound. After we watched a minute Alej said, “Wow! Look at that. She can’t keep up!” I said, “I know, he’s too fast.” She said, “No, it’s the music. He has it inside so much. He’s trying to do so much with it that he’s almost crazy! She can’t feel his music.” I watched again, and she was right. Even without music, you can see that he is dancing to cadences, while her steps aren’t always in the compás. She falls behind.
This woman must have been a fine dancer if she was dancing for the camera with Petroleo, but she was literally in an impossible position. By staying on Petroleo’s right side, she couldn’t feel his lead, and she was forced to walk sideways about half the time. She was trying to follow one of the fastest dancers in tango who was so inspired by the music that he was practically lifting himself into the air. If she moved closer to his side where she could feel what he was doing she would have held him down. So her only choice was to follow him by watching from the side. We may be seeing the reason that this tango embrace had to be abandoned! It put the woman in an impossible position:
Woman on the edge: Petroleo is dancing like a wild man, while his partner is pulled off balance
because she is trying to follow him from the side. This embrace is not working for her.
In the remarkable images above, you can clearly see the man and woman described by Alejandra! Petroleo is flying. He’s lifting himself onto his toes, and doing amazing things with his feet. In the second picture in the top row his foot is turned so far on its side that you can see the entire bottom of his shoe, but his partner is in an impossible spot! Even without adding lines to these pictures, you can see that she's off balance. She’s trying to dance in a crabbed sideways position, and she’s being pulled over backwards and twisted sideways. Look at the pictures below.
Petroleo charges past his partner.
The modern embrace: Alej stays centered in front and walks a straight line.
The old style restricts both partners. In the two pictures at the top, Petroleo charges forward, but he runs past his partner and almost pulls her over with his arm—so he must stop and wait for her after one or two steps. The solution to the problem is a new embrace and good body mechanics for the woman. In the bottom row of pictures, three powerful milongueros with strong chest leads move directly into Alej, but she keeps her feet in line (first image with Carlos Rodriguez) and stays in front of them (second image with Ricardo Vidort). And look what happens in the last picture on the right. When Tete begins to run forward, Alej just leans in more, and lets his chest carry her along. He can’t run by her, and he can’t pull her off balance. Tete can charge across the room as many times as he wants, and she just floats in front of him without restricting his movement.
So at the very beginning of the last century, if people were dancing in a more side-to-side embrace, they probably didn’t have too much of a problem. They were stepping to the old music, facing in the same direction, and using small simple steps. But when the music began to change, more complex rhythms called for more movement, and problems arose. When Petroleo tries to let loose and create, the old embrace doesn’t work anymore. If his partner stays on his hip she weighs him down and he can’t dance, so she’s forced to separate a little. But she still remains at his side, so she's pulled off balance, and she can’t feel his lead. The only way for her to follow is to twist sideways and look over her right shoulder to see what his feet are doing. And of course, this is an almost impossible way to dance tango. So there was the need for a fundamental change in the embrace.
Alej and I discussed it some more, and then she said, “You know who Petroleo dances like? Remember that older couple we filmed in Mataderos last year? I think the man was Facundo’s uncle or something.” So, the next page is about “Facundo’s Uncle”.