Soul of the Tango

What do the rich people know?
What do they know about tango?
What do they know about the 'compás'?


July 14, 2003: Most of us know that tango dancing is about music and feelings. But here is something I believe strongly: It is not about just any music, and it is not just about any feelings. After my recent immersion in the old clubs of Buenos Aires, especially the ones in the poorer neighborhoods, I am more certain of this than ever before. Argentine tango dancing is about a very specific type of old music—music from a certain place, and a certain time, sung and played by certain artists. And it's about the feelings that listening to this music elicits. But not just any feelings! This is important. These feelings should be the ones a porteño has when dancing to this music. To understand this music, and to dance to it, you should try very hard to get as close as possible to those feelings.

.Norberto Frascone y Victoria

It is the job of any foreigner (or Porteño for that matter) who wants to dance tango well, to search for this experience. Not to feel the music in terms of his own culture, or to try to take some of the “steps” of tango and dance them to some other music. You are welcome to do this, of course. And it may be fun and creative... and maybe even beautiful. But you will not be dancing Argentine tango if you do.

Why? Because the people who wrote this music, and the poetic words that go with much of it, are from the world of the Buenos Aires milongas. The things they are saying come from that world, and were written for it. Their words have the smell of the old clubs, and of the arrabal where they were written. They went to the milongas, and hung out and danced with the people there. The words and music they wrote are about struggling with life and survival, and love and loneliness in old time Buenos Aires.  They affected the people in the milongas and the ways they danced, and more importantly the people and their dancing affected what they wrote and the way they played the music. These are the things you are supposed to feel when you dance tango.

How do I know the people affected the creators of the music, as much as the music affected the people? Here is one (of many) small clues. I just saw an interview of Pugliese's widow on TV Solo Tango. She said that if you watched closely when he played at milongas, you could see that he was always watching the feet of the dancers. He was talking to them with his music, but they were also talking back... and he was listening. Her point was that what he saw in the clubs became part of his music.

So tango is a special kind of music, with special feelings, and probably, to be complete, with feelings that are shared together within the atmosphere of the milongas of BsAs. Or at least in an atmosphere as much like them as possible. Take something away, or change it, or add something new, and there's a good chance you'll lose it.

If you accept the premise that a big part of dancing tango is to search for these feelings, then how do you do it? Not everyone can fly off to BsAs and spend months in the clubs, so here is one practical suggestion. I would suggest learning a little about some of the lyrics. This isn't easy because most of them are written in turn of the century BsAs street slang, with their meanings buried beneath metaphor and poetic construction. The words may refer to things within this inner world, some of which no longer even exist. It takes a little work, but sometimes the words pack as much beauty and emotional power as the music itself. Sometimes even more. The Argentines know that these words can stand alone on their own artistic merit, even apart from the music. So I suggest beginning by selecting one piece with lyrics, a piece that you especially like to dance to, but maybe don't understand. Then find out something about those lyrics. Not much, just the meaning of the title, and maybe the meaning of the first line or two. It's surprising how much feeling you will get from this small thing. The song should change a bit for you, but it will be an important change, and ultimately, the song will mean more. [Note—in 2007, I added a chapter with detailed discussions of the lyrics and music of some of the most popular tangos: Chapter 4: "Cracking the Code"]

So, some time you may really have it together, dancing in the music and knowing what the song is about. Maybe it's about some poor guy who got stabbed in a whorehouse in Floresta, or about the people, and the moonlight that reflects off of their cheap tin houses (“A working neighborhood, a human neighborhood.” –Farol). And if you know this, and dance it like you know it, not thinking about yourself, or how you look, just being out there with the music and your partner, some rough old guy may politely approach when you return to your table. And he may ask a question about your dancing. He won't ask who your teacher was, or what classes you took. He may simply ask in a strong arrabalero accent, “De que barrio sos?” “What neighborhood are you from?” If he uses those words, in that way, it is very likely that you have been dancing tango

One more thing. You may wonder what an arrabalero accent is. It is an accent of the “down” neighborhoods. An accent of the poor. The words I wrote at the beginning of this piece are spoken in the drawn out version of castellano called arrabalero. Actually, they were sung. It is the arrabalero accent of Alberto Castillo singing with Tanturi's orchestra. Most of us in tango have heard it many times. The words come from the people of the poor southern neighborhoods, from the heart of tango. They are talking about the rich people to the north, downtown. Today, they may apply as well to some even richer people, much farther to the north. This is not a precise scholarly translation, but you don't want one for tango dancing anyway. Here is the general idea:

What do the rich people know?
What do they know about tango?
What do they know about the pulse, the rhythm?
Here is how you dance the tango,
Painting pictures with your feet,
With the blood rising in your face to the music...
With your eyes closed to hear better...
All mixing in each partner’s breath.

The title of the song is, “Asi se Baila el Tango”. A very direct and practical title. It means, “This is how you dance the tango.”

Losing It

Güemes Street, Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 15, 2003, 1:38 am: What I am writing tonight is unauthorized. My previous posts have been, for the most part, a team effort. Alejandra's contribution has been from beginning to end. She translates this maddening language for me, I pick her brain about tango, and then she reads everything I write and cleans it up. A voice of reason. But I hate reason. I am sitting here in my underwear in a very bad mood. She takes all the good stuff out of my writing. She emasculates it. Bowdlerizes it. Takes out everything interesting. You wouldn't believe how much trouble I would be in if my ego and bile were allowed to vent unchecked in public, on this list. I couldn't return to the U.S. I would be attacked the minute I walked into the milongas down here. But she reads, and says calmly, “You cannot say that. It is very aggressive.” Or, “When did that happen? It never happened.” Well in my mind, those things happened. So tonight, watch out. I am writing uncensored. And worse, with a couple of drinks under my belt. Or better. Down here they call them 'dstornridlooe'. Or something like that. It means 'screwdriver'. They don't drink much here, but beware of the mixed drinks. So I sat in Plaza Borges tonight, outside in the rain, and had two distorn. Very strong ones. But at least the air was finally clean. Each drink must have had at least 3 shots of vodka in a tall glass of fresh squeezed OJ. But I had to get out of the house. My cigarette induced cough has turned into some kind of strange immune system revolt that causes my lungs to cease up every time I smell almost anything. Perfume, cleaning products, car exhaust, food frying. And try to get around in this city of almost 20 million souls living stacked one on top of another and avoid those things. Walk down a sidewalk, and someone will be walking in front of you sucking on a cigarette like a drowning man gasping for air. The cars and buses, never more than a few feet away, will be spouting exhaust. The parrillas will be spewing wood smoke. And I am still not sleeping well.

Enough. What I want to talk about is Alejandra. We have been cooped up in this small eighth floor apartment in Palermo, waiting for the revolt taking place in my lungs to finally run its course. We can't go out, and I think she is beginning to fear me. I have nothing to do. Yesterday I threw a magazine across the room, and I notice she has hidden the kitchen knives. We are in a tiny boat, adrift. The kind they find drifting in the current, empty, thousands of miles off course, with no sign of the nice young family that set out for Tahiti 2 months earlier. I have cabin fever, but there is no cabin. No Yukon blizzard. No ocean. It is the buses, and the thousand smells of the city holding me prisoner. One tiny sniff, and my lungs seize up like a hamstring cramp in the 400-meter high hurdles. Like a heart attack in the lungs. For the first time in my life I have real sympathy for what it must feel like to suffer from asthma. I have never felt this before. My lungs actually ache! I am from the wild west, used to being outdoors on a bike or a windsurf board several hours each and every day. But here I am. So, I write obsessively. I tell her it's therapy, but she keeps coming in to check on me, checking the screen. I know what she is doing! I am unshaven, and very touchy. She has seen a lot of movies. I know what she is doing. She is checking to make sure I am still making sense. That I am not writing the same thing over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over, and over.... but all work, and no play makes Jack a dull boy. So now I will have some fun and write what I feel like writing before the active ingredient in the these distornallos wears off, and to hell with the consequences.

I am a little tired of these guys down here who have made it big in tango, and don't dance any more. They sit at their tables with their entourages and troll for tourists. And when someone with a little status comes in, they finally get enough energy to decide, well, maybe I'll get up and dance to show off. We were in Porteño y Bailarin last week (English translation: Wolf and Caribou) and a couple of them were sitting at tables next to the floor. I thought I kept noticing each of them watching us dance, but I just thought they were just transfixed by my expertise. My pinta. Taking notes, as it were. We sat, and Alejandra said, “Uh oh. They are looking.” I said, “Well they can't do that, right? We're a couple, and it's against the rules.” But they kept looking, and when she finally waved one of them off by returning the stare, and then deliberately looking away, this man was so mad he got up and left. I saw him shake his head angrily, and actually leave the room. Alej said, “Well, I'll never dance with him again. But it’s no big deal. He just wants to show off, and the last time I dance with him my back hurt the next day.” The other big shot, encouraged by his rival's defeat, began looking even harder. Now I know this is another country, right? But this is hypocrisy and disrespect. First of all, if I were a milonguero, they would never have tried it. And second, I have a friend from Prague who was new to the milongas last year and made the mistake of asking one of the women who was sitting at one of these men's table to dance, without even knowing she was with them. And these guys did their best to make his life miserable for the rest of the evening. And for some time thereafter. So I'm a little annoyed, but they seem to run the show down here, at least in the downtown show-off clubs at night, so what can you do? Except have a drink and write about it.

Here comes Alej now to check on my writing. Time to click the 'send' button, and shut down.