Three years ago, Blas and Graciela decided to start a new milonga downtown, and as organizers in BsAs often do, they initiated it by dancing La Cumparsita. It's not exactly a performance, but it is customary for other dancers to stay off the floor, and maybe to applaud for luck at the end. Their lucky dance must have worked, because the milonga has since become very popular—although you might not have expected it in the beginning. I think Alej and I (and a tango band that was packing up from an earlier event) were almost the only people there. Here are Blas and Graciela dancing to D'Arienzo's Cumparsita:
Let’s compare this video to the one on the previous page. Clearly, there are differences. Blas seems to move around more than Ismael, and he also does more “steps” (I never know what to call the individual elements of tango. Are they steps? Or figures? Or patterns?) In one sense you might say Blas’ tango in this video is more “complex” than Ismael’s. And if it is (a big if), then why? Is it because of differences in the music, or in the situation, or does Blas just like to include more things in his dancing than Ismael?
I think it’s a little of all three. The music is certainly different—but we have to be careful here. I was going to say that Cumparsita is a more complex piece of music than Extraña—but I’m not sure. First of all, Laurenz’s Extraña is a direct descendant of De Caro’s newer and more sophisticated style, while Blas is dancing to an ancient piece of music played by El Rey del compás, Juan D’Arienzo... and D'Arienzo's style was sometimes ridiculed as being too “simple”. So I think you run into trouble by saying Blas’ music is more complicated. But D'Arienzo's Cumparsita does seem to have more variations in it than the music Ismael is dancing to. It has different segments, where the music stops and then begins again in a different way. And also, I think it may be more “disjunctive”—that is, there seems to be more of a range between high notes and low notes than in Extraña. Extraña's melody moves up and down the scale smoothly (“conjunctive” music), while the range of notes in Cumparsita’s melody tend to take larger jumps between high and low.
What does this mean for dancing? Well, a segmented piece of music, with a driving compás, and a disjunctive melody just seems to call for larger and more varied movements on the dance floor. This is an important thing to be aware of, and we’ll return to it when we look more closely at the way different parts of the tangos require different ways of dancing.
How about the environment? Ismael is dancing quietly on a Tuesday afternoon, while Blas and Graciela are opening their new milonga. They aren’t really performing—they’re dancing in virtually the same way they dance in a crowded milonga. Well…okay, they are adding a little more energy, and tricking it up just a little more than normal. They know a few people are watching, and they occasionally enter concursos. (I think they may have actually won the world championship a few years ago—although neither I, nor Alej, nor a couple of milongueros we asked, could actually remember... which, in itself, says something about our priorities down here). So because Blas and Graciela occasionally perform, they know how to throw in a few extra things for the onlookers, but they aren’t doing anything out of the ordinary for regular dancing in a milonga. And it doesn’t mean Ismael couldn’t do it if he wanted to. Ismael is doing the job with the smallest number of tools he needs, and he doesn’t have any reason to dust off anything else and use it.
In the end, it really boils down to a difference of style. Although I’ve never been able to identify any of the “styles” that teachers sometimes use to categorize tango, I’ve always felt that the most fascinating thing about the milongueros is the great variety in their dancing. Each one is unique. People sometimes say performance tango is more interesting because it has more difficult figures and bigger movements, but for me it's a little boring. I think there is as much complexity in the first 20 seconds of Ismael's dance as in any stage performance I've ever seen. Tango performers are all the same in the sense that just like Olympic ice skaters, they're all trying to do the same basic things in the same way. Everyone's trying to make the same painting. Some do it better than others, but basically they are all just inferior versions of Miguel Zotto, or Javier, or Pablo Veron. And I hope that the videos we present over the next few months will help to dispel the myth that milongueros dance in some simple, identifiable way.
As far as Blas and Ismael, the way they approach the music is quite different—but the similarities between them are also striking. Each one steps solidly and crisply into the floor and each plays very precisely with the compás. They stand and move the way tango dancers should. We won’t review the basics of technique again, but you can see that they are doing all of the things we’ve covered many times. They're like two great artists painting a picture. It's irrelevant whether they're painting different subjects, or whether one uses more colors, and the other less. The important thing is that like all the great milongueros, they have an almost supernatural ability to "become" the music they're dancing to. They're so skillful and creative that we can use them to inspire us. Just watching them can make us better dancers.