Cats and Horses
I’m not a good photographer. In fact, before I bought a video camera to shoot the milongueros, I never even owned a camera. But when I began to capture still pictures from the video, I think I started to develop an eye for photographs. I first saw Tom’s picture, “The Cabeceo” [Page 6 of this chapter] on the internet. It was posted with a couple of dozen other pictures that had been entered in a tango photography contest. Most of the entries were the usual dreary stuff—fishnet stockings, high heels, blurred legs, and performers gazing into each other's eyes as they wrapped themselves around each other to display the raging sexual passion of tango. But for me Tom’s picture was different. It had scale and balance. The milonguero’s shoulder and head is in the foreground, taking up the right third of the picture, and setting off the row of milongueras across the floor. And there is the preoccupied bartender going about his business in the background. Like the best photographs, it brings into focus a bit of the world that you might otherwise miss.
Look at the "pinta" of the milonguero in Tom's picture—his elegant air and his alert posture. The picture is taken in one of the most beautiful buildings in Buenos Aires (Club Español), but in this image it doesn’t appear very glamorous. There is a cheap ashtray, some wrinkled tablecloths, and an air of faded glory. And the women aren’t especially fashionable either. They are everyday women who are there to dance, and the one on the right has an almost predatory stare. This is a woman who is obviously addicted to tango, and she is making no secret of the fact that she needs to dance. Hovering above it all is the ductwork—an unattractive, piece of equipment—but of course, necessary to bring air into the room. So this is a real picture… but what’s it about? Why are these people sitting around on a weekday afternoon all dressed up? Well, of course, the answer is that they are dreamers. Despite the ductwork, the bored bartender, and the less than perfect faces and bodies, they are all looking for something sublime. And the great thing is that with a little luck—with the right music, and the right partner—they will find it. Tom’s picture didn’t win by the way. I think a posed shot of some tango performers got first prize.
For me, the composition and relationships in a picture like The Cabeceo raise it into the realm of art. I don't claim anything like that for any of the pictures I have posted here… but sometimes, buried in the 100 or so hours of video, a pearl drops out. Among the almost infinite number of potential still captures, an image occasionally appears that gives a peek inside. Here’s one I just found in the video of Myriam Pincen and Roberto Calaza in Region Leonesa:
What can we say about this picture? Well, as usual, the quality is poor… but I think it shows something about the way the best dancers express themselves. Tango, like life, is sometimes defined by the tension between two competing elements—good and evil, heaven and earth, yin and yang, things like that. One of the first concepts of English common law was the right to recover damages for trespass. Early on, they divided things into two parts, and decided that animals with soft feet (cats for instance) were not subjected to trespass laws, while animals with hard feet (sheep for instance) were, because their hard hooves damaged fields and gardens. Where was I going with this? Oh yeah, hard versus soft. A milonguero steps hard, like a horse or a bull, and a milonguera steps softly, like a cat.
In the above picture, Myriam is balanced and ready; waiting to reach back with her left leg. Her step will have many of the characteristics of the leg of a cat, as it reaches forward, and places its paw firmly on the ground. Like Graciela back on page 16, Myriam will roll smoothly and firmly onto the front of her foot, just as her leg reaches its fullest extension:
Fred demonstrates proper walking technique for milongueras by extending his leg
and placing his paw firmly on the ground.
El Gallego, on the other hand, is leaning into the step, preparing to come down into the floor with his full weight,
just like the heavy step of the horses of the Granaderos de San Martin.
This expression of two different elements in tango is based on the physics of good technique. Because both partners generally maintain a weight forward posture, the man steps forward with his weight directly over his foot, while the woman steps backwards, away from her center of gravity. Hence, the softer, cat like look of the woman’s step as she reaches away from her weight, and the more solid chunk of the man’s step as he steps into his weight.
When we look for good dancers to film, the first thing we notice is whether they are in the compás—that is, whether they are in the cadence of the music, and whether they are using the cadence creatively to move in a way that really expresses the feeling of the music. Then we look at the posture and the connection between the partners. Finally, we look for the element we have been discussing here. We look for the differences in the way the feet contact the floor. If the man is tentative with his foot, or if he steps softly, or if the woman’s step is “clunky”, it is an indication that there are other technical problems with their dancing, and we don’t film them. With practice, we’ve found that using this checklist will quickly eliminate almost all of the dancers on the floor of the milonga… but the ones who are left are always worth filming. And it’s the same checklist the milongueros use, because they're masters at watching tango. They only watch the dancers who are en “el compás”, “bien parado”, and who “pisa bien”. The others become invisible.
Of course the most important reason to look for the yin and yang of the best milongueros and milongueras is this one: If you can’t see it you can’t dance it. Cadence with the feet and melody with the bodies. The man is a bull, quick and hard into the floor, while the woman flows and glides like a cat. The man is a blatant trespasser, moving chest forward, claiming his piece of the floor; the woman floats. You won’t find it in the androgynous acrobatics of the stage performers, and no one is going to show it to you in a workshop—but it’s the essence of tango. Well, it’s not exactly the essence of tango. “Entrega” is the essence of tango. We’ll write about that on the next page.
The dual nature of tango. This is a picture worth studying.