Beginnings and Endings
La Cumparsita has been played so much that it’s almost a cliché. It’s the one tango that even the most remote non-tango foreigner will recognize. There must be more versions of it than almost any other piece of music, and many people probably associate it with funny movie images of strutting tango dancers like Rudolf Valentino, or Laurel and Hardy.
But for the people in the clubs, La Cumparsita is a very powerful and important tango. Sometimes they use it to open the milonga, but it's almost never played during the normal dancing. They save it for the end. It's the last tango they put on, and when you hear it late in the evening, it means the party's over. That’s all there is. This has become so much a part of La Cumparsita for me, that I can no longer hear it without getting a bitter-sweet feeling that something is about to end. The first time this really hit home was in 2001 when everything changed in Argentina. Ricardo Vidort, Alejandra, and I were in Celia’s early in the evening when Enrique "El Gordo" suddenly got on the microphone and said that martial law had been declared in the Republic, and we all needed to go home. Then they put on De Angelis' Cumparsita, everyone danced—and that was it. We went out the door into a world of barricaded buildings and uncertainty. As it turns out, it was both a beginning and an ending—for me, as well as for Argentina. Looking back, I think that was the moment when my emotional connection to the people of Buenos Aires began. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but without the events that followed over the next few days, I may never have returned to live here, and be a part of this fascinating country.
So for me, La Cumparsita means something. Late at night, when the first notes come over the speakers, everyone gets up for one last surge of physical and emotional energy. The best milongas often develop an ebb and flow. Sometimes they are heavy and serious, and then, for no apparent reason, an hour of joking and socializing takes over. People relax for a while and play around a bit… but at the end, everyone is focused for La Cumparsita. The nervous energy has burned itself out, and only the purest tango is left. There is no playing, no pretense, and no posing. No one is watching because everyone is dancing. And then it’s over. There is a burst of applause, a few hugs and kisses, and we're all out into the Buenos Aires night.
Our new granddaughter Martina, who entered the world
on May 5, 2006, Barrio Palermo, Buenos Aires.
Alejandra and I spend about half the year in Argentina, and the night before we leave, we try to stay to the end for La Cumparsita. The last tango of our last milonga. It seems especially meaningful then. Of course, we know we will always be back to dance more… won’t we? One theme of these stories is the dual nature of tango. Practice and discipline on one side, passion and freedom on the other. Short steps, long steps. Dance in place, and then move. Cadence with the feet, melody with the bodies. Lead and follow. So now we have beginnings and endings. An ending means the beginning of something new, and a beginning is the end of something old. For young people, life is usually about beginnings. You may leave, but you can always come back. Your friends will always be there. There will always be another trip, or another lover, because there's always time. But you get older. You see more, and you realize that sometimes things just end. That’s it. They’re gone. And no one knows that better than the Argentines. So when you dance La Cumparsita it’s best to dance it like you mean it.
In memory of Ricardo Vidort who passed away on May 21, 2006.
He was a great milonguero and a friend. We will miss him.