El Malevo

El Malevo at xxxxx
dancing with xxxxx.

For me, the word “malevo” has sort of a funny connotation. I don’t know why it’s funny... it means, more or less, “bad guy”. If Alej asks me why I did something reckless, I say it’s because I’m a malevo, or if I don’t want to go somewhere, I say it’s because there are probably malevos there. I said on the last page that I loved the milongueros. For several years they have welcomed me, gently guided me through the minefield of the codigos, and taken a personal interest in improving my dancing. And they have all granted me the privilege of filming the way they dance. Given the intrusiveness of the camera, and the fact that many don’t want to publicize their attendance in milongas to family or employers, this is a very big favor. But for several years, there was one notable exception. There was a man who was a very good dancer, but he always made it clear that he didn’t’ want to be filmed. He was always very well dressed, and he had the air of a very important and powerful man. If I would ask to film him, or if the camera pointed anywhere near him, he would lower his head, give a hard stare, and shake his index finger back and forth. The meaning couldn’t have been clearer, and I began to think of him as some sort of powerful figure in organized crime. He was always in the milongas, and although Alej had danced with him a few times in the past, neither of us new him, so we began to call him “El Malevo”.

One of the fun things about tango is talking about the way everyone dances (codigo warning: you can talk among close friends, but milongueros don’t like to speak about the way other milongueros dance). Late one night after a milonga we were sitting with Julie talking, and I casually happened to mention something about El Malevo. Julie began to laugh, and said, “Who in the world is ‘El Malevo’?” After a few minutes of discussion about where El Malevo danced, and where he sat, Julie said, “Oh, you mean Osvaldo!” (Not his real name, but since about half the guys in tango are named Osvaldo, I’ll use it). Then she really began to laugh, and said why do you call him El Malevo? He’s a very sweet man, and he’s a respected professional man in BsAs! So after that, we introduced ourselves to him, and got to be friends. He also thought our name for him was hilarious, and he said his wife and daughters wouldn’t believe it if they found out he was a milonguero known as “El Malevo”. But because of his family and his profession, he wanted to be very careful about being on film dancing tango. He did however agree to dance for the camera if we never showed the film to anyone. (We’ve made this promise to quite a few dancers.)

So one afternoon in a milonga, I sat with Alej waiting to film him. She was watching him from across the room, and reading his body language. Several times she said, “He won’t dance this one.” And he didn’t. Then she said, “Okay, he’s ready. He'll dance the next one.” She watched for a moment and said, “He’s either going to dance with X or Y… I think it will be Y.” And sure enough, the next tango, he got up and danced with Y. I have seen her do this many times, and she always knows what the other milongueros and milongueras are going to do. I have asked her how she does it, and she says, well I can tell by the way they were sitting, or by the way they moved their head. I always look as carefully as I can, but I have never been able to see it. 


Even the codigos that cover people’s names and personal information are changing. By custom, and to protect privacy, people in the milongas often only go by first names or nicknames—and the list of “sobrenombres” (literally, “over-names”) is long and colorful. Here are some names from my list of video files (no kidding):

Pupi and Pichi,
Pocho, Pinocho…
Tito, and Cacho,
Alito and Tono.

Noño and Kiko,
Poroto, Tonino…
Natu, and Nene,
Pibe and Tete.

La Tana…
La Turca…
La Flaca…
La Rusa…

Kique, Rique,
Pepe and Chiche!

(I wanted Haiku, but I couldn’t make the words fit)

Sometimes the names refer to nationality. There are a lot of El Turco’s and La Turca’s—names given to anyone from the Middle East (a group that is strongly represented in the milongas). There is El Francais, El Boliviano, La Rusa (from Russia), there are two El Chino’s (although neither is Chinese), El Tano and La Tana (it means “the Italian”… I have no idea why they got the name, because almost everyone in the milongas is Italian), La Brasilera (Brazil), three El Gallego’s (referring to Gallicia in Spain), and also El Gringo (we won’t go into who that is). There is often the addition of “de…” , meaning from a certain barrio: de Avellaneda, de Sarandi, de Cuidadela, de Abasto. And also physical descriptions that are quite graphic. El Enano/La Enana means very small (midget, actually), El Ñoño (the “short and fat”) is a short fat man, El Oso (the bear) once gave me a bear hug, El Gordo/ La Gorda (self explanatory), El Rengo (one leg shorter than the other), El Manco (missing a hand), and El Chueco (bow-legged). Sometimes the woman partner takes on her husbands sobrenombre… for years our friend Gilda was also known as La Gallega because she danced with Jorge Garcia who is one of the three El Gallego’s in the milongas (to confuse things even more, he was sometimes also called “Fred Astaire”… and his brother Dany is called “El Flaco”-which means skinny).

If a persons work is known (which isn’t often), it sometimes becomes their sobrenombre. Graciela, who teaches Pilates, is called “Pilates”, and there is El Diariero (a man with a news stand), El Basurero who is a supervisor of the city garbage trucks (although the name is never used to his face). He covers our neighborhood, and we get good service from him. There is “Dos Mujeres” (a guy who is supposed to have two wives), and “Lavandina”, the name given to a black man in the milongas (it means “bleach”). Which brings up a final point about the codigos that encourage anonymity. Although I have always found the people in the milongas go be very open and friendly, a few of them are from rough backgrounds. Like all parts of society, there are a few bad guys, so people (especially women) like to keep personal information about where they live, and what they do outside the milongas to a minimum. 

This sobrenombre tradition is a codigo that reflects tango’s still sometimes unsavory reputation, and the desire to keep a life in the milongas separate from family and work. It’s still considered bad form to ask for last names, or personal information, and this is a problem I have dealt with from the beginning of my filming. Sometimes it’s a fine balancing act to bring a camera into the milongas and gather enough personal information for historical accuracy (full names, barrios where people grew up, things like that), and still maintain the traditions of privacy and anonymity. Things seem to be loosening up all the time however, and I suppose it's due to tangos recent respectability… and also to the fact that some milongueros are beginning to make a little money by teaching and traveling, and are more interested in publicity. In fact I’ve found in the last year or so that rather than hiding from the camera, some of the milongueros are subtly trying to get me to film them and put them on the web site.

Codes & Body Language

The uncanny ability of the milongueros and milongueras to read each others body language comes from years of practice, and nonverbal communication in the milongas can take many forms. Imagine being at a party where there is a sports team that has played together for years. It’s likely that they are communicating with each other around the room with glances, subtle gestures, or other movements, that you won’t even notice. Couples communicate like this with each other all the time. A quick glance between husband and wife often signals that one wants to leave, or doesn’t like something.

In the milongas this is happening as well. Signals are sometimes being passed among dozens of people almost instantaneously, but it takes time to become aware of it. Suppose there is someone who isn't dancing too well. Maybe they are stopping too long, or taking big back steps without looking, or leading their partner to kick her feet. The dancers following behind are usually pretty tolerant, but if someone gets fed up he may simply glance over at a friend sitting at a table and widen his eyes, or quickly turn his eyes upward. The signal is only with the eyes, it takes about a second, and it's almost invisible—but the message is very effective. It will probably be picked up by a lot of people, and if it happens even a few times, the offenders reputation will be affected.

The most obvious form of nonverbal communication is the greeting. It's customary to greet the people you know when you arrive, and the greeting depends on the situation and the relationship. The average greeting for a friend, male or female, is a hug and kiss on the cheek, and you will often see people walking between the tables, and bending over to kiss friends as they enter (it isn’t normally done when leaving, however). If it’s crowded, you can’t physically hug and kiss everyone, so there are other ways of doing it. It’s common for people who are dancing around the ronda to make eye contact with the people they know, and smile, nod, or maybe blow a kiss… a gesture of affection in the milongas that doesn’t necessarily have any sexual connotation.

Now, the codes say that in the milonga the music and the dance floor are sacrosanct… and if you treat both with respect you can’t get too far out of bounds. But depending on who you are, and what the situation is, the rules can be bent. Sometimes close friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time will come onto the dance floor to greet each other. It may even interrupt the dancing… and at times, it’s even done just to tease someone or to kid around! We don’t go to El Beso much anymore because it's so smoky, but one night about a year ago we ended up there (I think we went to film someone). For some reason I was dressed up and looking pretty sharp in a new suit. One of the milongueros, kept coming onto the floor and grabbing me when we were dancing. He would hold his arm, and point to his side, and say things… but I couldn’t understand him. Alej would run him off, but he would keep coming back, and I could see that Raul Poli and Buglione, and the other milongueros at the tables were laughing. After the tanda I asked Alej what was going on. She said, "Oh don’t pay any attention to them. They’ve never seen us here at night before, and they’ve never seen you dressed in a suit—so they’re saying that you look like a doctor. They think it’s a big joke for Chiche to keep coming out on the floor to pretend that he needs medical help.”

Alej and Ismael at Los Consegrados.

Ismael and Alej
at Consagrados.

Normally I don’t talk about my own dancing here, but this is a pretty interesting story, so here goes. They say there’s nothing really new in tango, but somehow I began to do a right giro that was different. It wasn’t especially good, it was just a way of stepping that was a little strange. I never really paid much attention to it or talked about it, and I’m sure Alej never even noticed it. Then one day Alej came up and said, “How do you do a right turn?” I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Well, Quique just came over and said the milongueros say you are doing a giro in a different way, and for a month they’ve been trying to figure it out. He said he thinks that one of the great things about tango is that sometimes people have something they can do, but know one else can. He thinks this might be one of those things.” Well, I was really surprised that they had noticed such a small thing. This happened in Celia’s, and then one day about a month later we were at Region Leonesa (people also call it Nino Bien). It was a traditional milonga called Los Consagrados, run by El Gordo Enrique and Ismael El Jalil—not a place where people normally kid around. So we were dancing, and I suddenly noticed that people seemed to be looking at us and laughing... which of course was upsetting. I did a turn, and I noticed someone down by our feet on his hands and knees!  It was Ismael, and he was crouching down behind us, pretending to watch my feet up close so he could figure out my turn! We were in the middle of a crowded milonga, and I was so shocked that I stopped, and he stood up and laughed, and punched my shoulder. Afterwards, I told Alej that maybe I should tell the milongueros if they wanted to learn the turn they would have to pay for lessons—but she shot down that idea pretty fast.

So, in the milongas everyone sees everything. At the time the attempted turn theft took place, the Celia’s milongueros and the Los Consagrados milongueros were somewhat separate, but both groups had noticed the same small difference in my giros. And I got to see one of the most respected milongueros get down on the floor of a “heavy” milonga while people were dancing just to make a joke. The tango of BsAs is not so easy to pin down. On one level, a milonga is a very serious place. And on another level, it isn’t at all. Lots of funny things happen in even the most serious milonga—and there is an upcoming story about that. But first, I’d like to examine the way three of the tango legends of the last century danced, and we’ll attempt to demonstrate how they may have influenced today’s milongueros.