A trip to the other side

July 8, 2003: In my part of the U.S. the Mexicans use the phrase “Es un hombre del otro lado” to refer to someone who lives on the 'other side' of the frontier, in Mexico. In BsAs they use a similar phrase, meaning the other side of the page. It means the down neighborhood, the “barrio, barrio”... the “arrabal”. Last night we headed south to Avellaneda, to the other side of the tango world. It is not in the city, but in La Provincia de Buenos Aires, across the Riachuelo River to the south of the city, where today there are few remaining tango clubs. When our taxi got near our destination, the driver locked the doors, and said, “It's dangerous. Don't walk here.” But this may have been a bit overstated. We know people who live here and they walk around all the time. A few minutes later we arrived at Club Leales y Pampeanos where “Un Cacho de Tango” milonga is held on Sunday nights. If El Beso, which is frequented by upscale professionals, is at one end of the tango world, this club is at the other. Not one in a million tourists has been to it, and few if any of the dancers from downtown or the neighborhoods know it either. 

Admission to Un Cacho is one peso (about 35 cents U.S.), and that's all that many of these people can afford to pay. But although they don't have much money, the have other things. Your peso gets you a seat at a table with bowls of free mate, sugar, and thermos jugs of hot water... and one of the best atmospheres in Argentina for dancing tango. It has a different feel from any of the other places we've been. The name of the club is a play on words, meaning “a piece of tango”, and it also refers to Cacho, the organizer of the milonga, who used to be a stage tango performer (you can see Cacho sitting at Copes’ table in the club scene in Saura’s movie Tango). Like some of the other clubs away from El Centro, it is also a social and sports club, with banners of fútbol teams like Boca Jr., Independiente, and River Plate on the walls. We met our friend Nestor Serra, a milonguero from the neighborhood, and his partner Cristina there. Nestor is a retired dockworker, with the heart of a poet. One of his handwritten poems is framed in Alejandra's house, and it was Nestor who had picked us up at the airport when Alejandra's children (a busy doctor, and a busy lawyer) couldn't get away from work to meet us.

Cacho´s is a barrio milonga where some rock and salsa tandas are mixed in with the tango. I did some filming of the dancers, and of the walls, where there were pictures of old time dancers and musicians, including, it seemed to me, a lot of pictures of Carlos Gardel (It turns out there was a reason for this). And, as if to confirm my suspicion that life is really nothing more than a comic opera, there was also a full color picture of “the Worm”, Dennis Rodman, in his Chicago Bulls uniform, conspicuously on display.

We sat, and I got a chance to impress the locals. Someone asked what orchestra was beginning to play at the start of the tanda. Almost without thinking I said , “Es Biaggi?” The milongueros at the table, with the combined experience of about 150 years in tango, looked surprised, and said “Si, es Biaggi!” This was a lucky guess, because I have a lot of trouble identifying orchestras, and it was really too early to tell who was playing. And none of them would have risked being wrong by guessing too early. A discussion ensued about the different uses of piano and violin by Biaggi v. D'Arienzo, which was way over my head. But then about half an hour later, I hit the jackpot. Someone again asked about the music at the start of the tanda. The music had one of those wandering introductions that is hard to identify, but suddenly I picked up the melody of Corazon de Oro, and blurted it out. A few seconds later, the identifiable part of the music began, and I was right again! One of the milongueros looked shocked, and the other, Nestor, a very serious and sincere man, who I had never seen smile before, yelled, and jumped up and insisted on giving me high-fives. My reputation was made. After that I was the best dancer they ever saw, and I could do no wrong. The lesson here is that these people place a very high importance on the music- maybe even more than on dancing. A person who doesn't know the music, who doesn't dance “en el compás”, is invisible to them.

Again, I was lucky. Corazon is a vals that is very familiar to me, although the version I know well is a different one by Quinteto Pirincho (Canaro's orchestra). I know it because of something from last year. I was filming in Celia's, and commented to Alejandra that I didn't have video of a good vals on film. She said, well the best dancer of vals (other than Tete) is here right now, across the room. She was referring to Gerard, from France, who is possibly the only foreigner in the world accepted by the milongueros as one of their own. He can be a bit difficult, and refuses to be filmed. But she did something amazing. First, she went to the DJ booth and said something to Dany, and then she went across the floor to Gerard. I saw them gesturing, and he was shaking his head. She laughed, pointed her finger at him, and came back across the room. A vals tanda immediately began, and Gerard came across to Alejandra’s table. I then filmed them dancing three of the most beautiful valses I have ever seen. The second was Quinteto Pirincho's Corazon, and the third was Desde el Alma. As far as anyone knows, it's the only time he has been filmed dancing. I've watched this piece of tape a hundred times and learned a tremendous amount from it, so the music, and the picture of Gerard and Alejandra dancing is burned in my memory. When we saw him last week, I told him that although I don't know him, I feel like I know him well because I have watched the film so many times, and he seemed pleased. I'm getting a little gun-shy about people on the list misreading things about the codes. People need to understand that the rules are important, but they are not always carved in stone. While Alejandra's requesting a dance at the milonga was very unorthodox, the highest code for these milongueros is to be a gentleman. For Gerard to grant this unusual request was very gallant. It was early in the afternoon and un-crowded, so he bent the rules of the milonga, and his own personal rules as well, to do a favor for a friend. The Argentines sometimes use the word “gaucho” for an especially nice act like this, done for someone else with no thought or expectation of anything in return.


So, last night we sat in Cacho's milonga, and I found I was getting up to dance the same tandas as Nestor. We both like tango picado and vals, although he also danced the milongas, which I never do. I'm enjoying the music and dancing so much on this trip that the only time I've had to film is during the milonga tandas, and I'm getting too many of them on film. I told Nestor he was a good dancer because he danced like me, which he thought was funny. His tango story is similar to most old milongueros. He learned to dance with the other young men in the neighborhoods in the fifties, and then quit during the years of the military repression and the rock & roll years of the sixties and seventies. He began to dance tango again in the eighties, and since his retirement from the docks, he dances more. He says that in the fifties in his neighborhood there were two types of tango. The first was simple tango, called “tango sencillo” or “tango liso”. This tango was done mostly walking forward, without steps, and it was danced with the couple close together. The second, more advanced style, was called “tango cruzado” or “tango con cortes”In this tango, you would stop, separate a bit, and do patterns and adornments, and then return to a close embrace walk. Before dancing with a woman you would ask which type she knew how to dance. He said that as people learned more in the eighties, they often began to stay separate so they would have room to do more steps. Now, he says, people have moved back to dancing very close together. He's not sure why, but he thinks crowded conditions may be a factor, and also better dancing in general. He says people now move to the music better, and can do steps in close embrace that weren't done before. His style is now the classic rhythmical close tango of most of the milongueros. He thinks tango is of a better quality now than in the past, which is very interesting.

I will note that when I came down here with Alejandra on this trip, I thought the clubs would not be crowded, since it is the winter off season, the economy is still bad, and we are going to places off the beaten track. I am happy to report that the opposite is true. Every place we have been has been very well attended, with many actually too crowded for comfortable dancing. Tango is alive and thriving.

After a couple of hours, Un Cacho de Tango began to really fill with people, and Cacho, who is a character and a showman, took the microphone and worked the crowd into a frenzy, with a rant about River Plate being better than Boca. Then in the midst of this bedlam, he did something embarrassing for me. He called Alejandra and me up to the microphone, and introduced us. He is a big jokester, and I was introduced as the great professional photographer (I know nothing about cameras) and a famous tango dancer from Arizona. He talked about Alejandra for a while, and about what amazing dancers we are. Of course, the crowd began to chant “Que bailen! Que bailen! Que bailen!” While this may be the dream of some people, for me it was a nightmare. You may guess from my posts that tango is a very private, internal thing for me. Last year I had a bad experience when Natucci, who is an engineer, and a true professor of tango, apparently had a glass of champagne and got it into his head that my way of feeling the music was unique. Because I learned tango almost solely by watching videos of old tango dancers while living in the western U.S., he wanted to record my style on film. He insisted that I be interviewed, and then be filmed dancing in front of a crowd at El Beso with his partner, Eladia Cordoba. I tried to get out of it, but I couldn't. This was not a good experience for me, and I didn't dance well at all. I have a copy of the film, and I have never looked at it. And while I have performed tango a few times (mostly as a favor to friends at things like weddings and benefits and such), I really feel that performing is a slippery slope that leads in a tango direction I don't want to take. So anyway, here I am standing in a club in el arrabal de Avellaneda with several hundred Porteños chanting “Que bailen!”. What should I do?.


Well, the truth is, no one can make you dance tango if you don't want to. So I just said sorry, but no. I can't do it. The crowd settled down, and Cacho took them on to other things, but then I began to feel bad. Especially when Nestor told me something later that touched me. I told him I didn't want to insult them by declining, but I know they were just trying to be polite. Nestor said, no, these people really did want me to dance. He said for you to come to this club from the U.S. and show such an interest in the club and to dance to their music is special for them. He said, “xxxx (a famous old dancer of the stage) could dance here, and no one would pay attention. But they are very interested in you.” 

Because of Cacho's joking, a shy old couple came up and ask me if I could take a picture of them dancing. Alejandra explained that my camera was different, and it didn't take photographs. Then I thought, since it was digital, there might be a way to get a photograph printed from it. They asked about the cost, and of course we told them we wouldn't charge them for it. During these negotiations I noticed something funny going on. They were both very sweet and smiling, but when the little man would start to speak, the lady would give him a secret poke in the ribs with her elbow, as if to say, “Be quiet, I know how to deal with these rich people. I don't want you opening your mouth to mess things up.”

This club is very old. A bit later, Nestor got the small aging custodian, and he found a key, unlocked a door, and took us up some cluttered stairs. In the room above, you could see words painted on the wall: “Pulperia Leales…1903”. It turns out that a hundred years ago this place was on the edge of town, and it was one of those places you see in old pictures where horses are tied up, gauchos are sitting around playing guitars, and women is serving drinks out of a window. There was an open window on the second floor, and outside on the wall was a boom with a hook on it that they used to haul up the cattle carcasses after they were slaughtered. The view out the window was of moonlight reflecting of tin roofs stretching out into the distance, but at the turn of the century the club was out in the country, with a circular track in front where the gauchos would race their horses. It later became a “Rancho” (I'm not sure what that is), and then later it became the neighborhood club it is today, after the city finally surrounded it.

Mounted high on the wall in this small upstairs room is something unique and special, and the old custodian is very proud of it. It's called, an “Escudo Nacional con la Bandera Argentina y Laureles” and it's not easy to describe. It is a huge, ornate picture frame with glass, and inside it is about a foot deep. It contains a work that is like a large intricate three-dimensional sculpture or emblem made of gold thread, and sewn white and pale blue silk fabric, that represents Argentina. I can't really describe it, but it is stunning and spectacular, and it literally took thousands of hours to make. A total of only three were made using a tremendous amount of tedious labor from hundreds of prison inmates in la prision de Villa Devoto.One of the two others is in a place of honor in the Casa Rosada, which is like the Argentine version of the White House in the U.S., and the other is in the Congreso building (which is like our combined Congress and Senate). In the U.S. something like this would be priceless, and guarded day and night, but here this masterpiece hangs, mostly ignored in this old room above the club. Then the custodian found a key to a very cluttered office with poor light, and we went in to look for something else. We rummaged around for a while, and I was the one to find it. I climbed over some old furniture, and on the back wall, among yellowing pictures of gauchos, and formations of soldiers, I found a picture of a group of some of the early club members, sitting sternly in their 1920's suits, in what looks like the very same office we are in. It's well known that the history and roots of tango are closely tied to working class people in clubs like this one, and here was something very interesting. Sitting among the early members of this very club is a young Carlos Gardel, smiling his entertainers' smile. Leales y Pampeanos was his club! And years later when he was killed in a plane crash in Colombia, his body would be returned to Argentina draped in a shroud made by its members. So I think for me to perform tango here, in this place, before these people, would have been almost impossible.