Sunday, November 29, 2009

Compas


Man Yung was delighted when he came across this interesting tidbit in the newspaper. "It says here that the top five Thai Boxers in Thailand have extended an open challenge to the monks of the Shaolin temple. It is going to be a no-holds-barred fight in the ring where anything goes. The Thai Boxers even offered a handicap. They are willing to admit that they've lost if they are unable to knock down their opponent within sixty seconds."

"They have to knock down the Shaolin monk within sixty seconds to win?" I giggled at the thought of it. "You know what, I think that they can do it!"

We agreed on this point. Shaolin fighting has evolved into something that is entirely commercial and not at all practical. Recently "Shaolin Temples" have sprung up everywhere in China, intent on doing business and making money. The "monks" are not monks at all but graduates from the national and regional Wushu schools, and "Shaolin Martial Arts" have become solely about attracting more students and more business with flashy aerial gymnastics and good advertising.

I think that the last straw for us was seeing a supposed "Shaolin Troupe" participating in the tv show "Superstars of Dance". Aren't the martial arts supposed to be about fighting and not about tightly choreographed formations passing for "dancing"? What's a "Shaolin Buddhist Monk" doing on the judges panel announcing (with lots of put-on gravity - the faker!) the points he has awarded to the performances on the show? What about the Buddhist and Zen precepts against commercial self-promotion, and indeed, against participating in this kind of freak show?

Thai Boxing, on the other hand, is still about fighting - and knocking down your opponent in the most efficient and ruthless way possible. "Shaolin Fighting" is now merely window dressing: it looks good in the movies and in the hundreds of stage shows touring the world, but matched against a seasoned Thai Boxer in the ring, forget it.

This led us to ponder. What are the "martial arts" all about when you strip away all the frills? What is its core? What is the truth behind the martial arts?

Is it about good old fashioned fighting in a Thai Boxing way? Or perhaps in the Ultimate Fighting Championship way? Is it about street fighting? Is it about war? Is it about cavemen beating each other to death with sticks and stones?

We've concluded that it's about "survival of the fittest". You can dress it up or philosophize as much as you want, but it's really about about one force destroying another. The dinosaurs were into it. And the amoebas. Even the pre-cell atomic particles. And it's been this way since the beginning of time.

So what about tango? Lots of people claim to be the authority of the "truth" of tango. Can we believe them? What is tango really all about when you trace it back, way back to the beginning?

Is it about "Salon Tango" as opposed to "Show Tango" or "Nuevo Tango"?

Nope.

Is it about "Villa Urquiza style" or "Milonguero style"?

I don't think so.

Is the dancing of "Fino Rivera" or "Portalea" or "Lampazo" or even "Antonio Todaro" the truth of tango?

I doubt it.

Then could it be the dancing of "El Cachafaz" and Carmencita Calderon? Is it Canyengue?

Sorry to say, that's not it either.

Is it the music of Eduardo Arolas? Of Gardel? Or could it be Candombe? Or the spontaneous movements of the African slaves to drum beats mixed with European immigrant music?

I don't think we are going back far enough.

We were scratching our heads about this question when we suddenly thought about Manolo.

During our classes with Martha and Manolo in Toronto in 2006, we started to realize that Manolo is not only an incredible dancer and teacher but also a Zen-master*. A lot of things Manolo has said to us seemed simple and straightforward at the time (Manolo is not pretentious and he doesn't put on airs of being very wise or profound) we realized later on had incredible resonance and significance for tango, as well as life.

Manolo is one of those rare gifted and sincere teachers who has the ability to open his students' minds. He knows the material he is teaching. He knows the key to every tango problem we have and he imparts his knowledge without hesitation. But what makes him stand out for us is that he has never imposed any "truth" of tango on us. He would never admit to being the "truth" of tango - he has seen too much of tango's history and has too much humility to think that his style is the best style or the most "authentic" style. It's just "his" style, and he likes it, that's all - it's not better or worse than any tango style."Who am I anyway, I'm just a dancer," he would say. He doesn't want to be put on any pedestal.

As the Zen Masters used to say: "Copying me is the way to death". The most faithful copy can not be anything but a copy, and it will never surpass the original. It's a dead end. Manolo knows this - and he doesn't even have any background in Zen philosophy. In contrast, some teachers will throw tantrums and accuse their students of betrayal if they didn't follow exactly what they have taught. Manolo has never stopped us from thinking about and analyzing the material he has taught and being creative with it. Indeed, he even applauds us when we think of something new that works!

Two things that are important to Manolo in tango, however, are "Compas" and "Being a good person"**.

We can do all the innovative, interesting, mind-bogglingly intricate steps we want, but if we fail to dance to the "Compas", we are not dancing Tango. "Compas, compas, compas!" Manolo and Martha would frequently say to us, in unison. Superficially, compas means "the beat", but it is more. Compas is the "everything" of tango, and of the music. If you can get your steps to the beat, that's great. But if your whole being dances with and in the music, in fact, if you are one with the music - then you've got it. Many people think they've got it, but they haven't yet. You need more than talent and practice to get it. You need humility and you need to surrender your ego, your entire being to the music, to the dance. Most people are so self-involved they can't even conceive of it. "Compas, compas, compas!"

As for "Being a good person", that's even more important. Whenever we have conversations with Martha and Manolo about the dancers they admire, they wouldn't emphasize the dancing. What they would say is this: "Such and such was a good person - una muy buena persona." They never talked about how this dancer's steps were fascinating, how this other dancer's steps were precise, or how another dancer stood real straight or had the yummiest embrace. What was crucial was that the dancer was "una muy buena persona".

As for the biggest and most reknowned dancer we could think about, they had this to say: "He has his nose in the air - arrogante. No es una buena persona". It didn't matter how famous he is, how wonderful his movements or how awe-inspiring his shows. He isn't a good person, with an ego the size of Mount Rushmore - Tango is not in him.

Brenda Ueland, creative writing teacher and author, has said something similar about writing. As she has expressed in her book If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: "The only way to become a better writer is to become a better person."*** Likewise, Martha and Manolo's words suggest that the only way to become a better dancer of Tango is to become a better person.

So what is the truth of tango, if it doesn't reside in a certain dancer or a certain style? How far do we have to go back to get to the truth? To prehistoric man jumping up and down around a fire? To monkeys in frenzy upon hearing the rolling rumble of distant thunder?

Let's go back to the very beginning. To stardust. Remember what we said about particles set on destroying each other?

Well, there was also another force. We would like to believe that in the beginning, there was a positive, benevolent energy in the universe, sending off this frequency throughout space. The particles vibrated to it, it filled their being, it transformed them. They were no longer solitary or singular. Without ego, the particles were in harmony with themselves, each other, and the cosmos.***

It was the first rhythm. It was the first music. It was compas and goodness. It was the beginning of Love. It was the beginning of Life. This was where Tango began.

* The guy who actually promotes himself as the "Tango Zen Master" in Buenos Aires is actually quite far from it. We had the golden opportunity to observe him dance at Leonesa. Not only did he fail to navigate well in crowded conditions (obviously "Zen" has nothing to do with navigation), if there was anyone who was thinking about "Wal-Mart" when he was dancing, it would be him. Instead of being one with his partner and the music and dancing in the moment, here was a man who was preoccupied with self-image, self-interest, self-promotion - anything and everything.

"Hey, Man Yung, aren't you a Buddhist disciple and lay brother?" I remarked. "You know a lot about Zen. Perhaps you should start your own Tango Zen industry. With what you know and all your fancy steps, I bet you would be a runaway success!"

Right.


** Which Irene fails to be again and again as the horrible, universally hated snarky writer of this blog. Man Yung is on the other hand a saint - but only because he leaves the dirty work to Irene.


*** We talk (nonsensically!) about Tango as the manifestation of the free spirit of the original creative force, but this does not mean that people should just do what the hell they want in the milonga and hog as much space as possible in ego-gratifying death defying movements. Please guys, respect each other - more harmony and better navigation! Reserve your "appetite for destruction" for the Octagon!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Return of the "Living" Zhu Zhu

The Horror....The Horror....

The Toronto Star said last week that the “Zhu Zhu” is going to be the hottest toy of the season. They are supposed to be so hot that they have run out of them in the stores in the States and now people are selling them on eBay for like, millions of dollars (ok, I exaggerate, maybe fifty or sixty dollars – hey, that’s five to six times the retail price!).

Reading this piece of news, I had to convince Man Yung that we needed to get one. “Come on! This thing is going to be even bigger than the Tamagotchi!!”

Luckily Man Yung didn’t need to much convincing when I explained to him what a Zhu Zhu was. Zhu Zhus are the PERFECT pet hamster. They don’t poop, they don’t eat, they don’t throw temper tantrums or need psychotherapy, and they come in a variety of “Naturalistic” colours like white, beige, yellow and grey!

“We definitely have to get a Zhu Zhu for our cats,” Man Yung remarked. “It is a much better alternative than a real hamster.” Which would honestly be a total bloodbath.

“So,” you ask skeptically, “What’s the difference between these critters and a set of Hot Wheels wrapped in faux fur?”

Well, any idiot can make a battery powered engine, slap on some wheels and have it run around the room. In contrast, a whole battalion of scientists have spent years working on the awe-inspiring technology behind the Zhu Zhu. A whole conglomerate of marketing people have worked night and day to launch the marketing blitz that has blanketed North America. The Zhu Zhu is, all in all, no mere “toy” but a Perfect Marvel of Modern Technology and Ingenious Marketing.

I felt compelled to do my bit to boost the economy so there I was, just 4 minutes after the doors opened at the local Toys “R” Us on Saturday morning, fighting tooth and nail to get my hands on a Zhu Zhu. I may have clambered over a couple of pregnant woman and shoved aside an ancient crone with a walker in the process, but don’t tell anyone! I got my greedy little hands on one of the boxes. Triumph!

I took it home, unboxed it, and sure enough, our Zhu Zhu was pretty darn marvelous. It’s cute. It runs backwards and forward and spins. It goes around obstacles. It has a vast repertoire of barnyard noises – cars honking, cows mooing, toilets flushing, monkeys chattering. And it does all of this at random – just like it was alive! It walks and walk, it talks the talk – it’s PERFECT.

Except that our cats weren’t the slightest bit fooled. Ms. Z took one bite of its butt and – PFFFFFFFFFTOOEY! She couldn’t spit out fast enough in disgust.

Hmmmm.... there's more life in this cardboard box than in a Zhu Zhu.
Yes, we can tell when something's alive and when something is merely undead.
Which only confirms: Cats are smart. Humans are stupid.

There's must be some deep and profound significance in this tale about "Mass Production", "Jumping on the Trendy Bandwagon", "Scary Commercial Perfection", "Cookie-Cutter Tango Competition style dancing" and "Rabid Tango Ambitions". Unfortunately, I think the Zhu Zhu ate my brain.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Breaking News!!! Alberto Dassieu at 2010 Chicago Mini Tango Festival

We called Alberto and Paulina a few days ago and guess what, they confirmed that have been invited to be part of the 2010 Chicago Mini Tango Festival! It's going to be held from April 8 to 11, 2010.

You can find out more about the instructors and djs invited to participate at this festival at the festival's website here:

http://www.chicagotangofestival.com

Alberto is very excited to be part of this festival. He also mentioned that he has been invited to San Francisco and San Diego in January, 2010, so keep your eyes peeled and don't miss the opportunity to learn from Alberto and Paulina if you happen to be in that area at that time.

Janis Kenyon was the first to mention Alberto's participation in the Chicago festival to us - and she just left a comment that Jorge Uzunian of Milonguisimo should also be traveling to the States next year:

Jorge Uzunian will be teaching in New York City and Washington, DC in February 2010, if all goes well as planned.

Don't miss the chance to learn from these incredible dancers!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Buenos Aires 2008 - Part 5

La Feria de la Plaza Francia (2009)

Sunday (Day)

Finally! A day that was not so horrendously hectic! After staying up until 5 am last night sending emails to Toronto about all our adventures, I actually got to sleep in - until 11:30 a.m. today (What's that, a whole 5 1/2 hours of sleep?) Immediately after I woke up I tried to call M., a tango friend from Toronto who was in Buenos Aires at the same time. Didn't get her - got her landlady instead, who told me that M. was still asleep.

The morning sun was brilliant and warm, the skies were clear, the streets were not congested with cars spewing black smoke, and everyone was smiling and enjoying the weather. A beautiful morning. We went for lunch at Babieca, a restaurant close by the hotel that takes pride in its pasta and baked goods. Soccer was playing on the overhead tvs, and not many people were in the restaurant having lunch yet. Why the rush anyway? We parked ourselves on a table next to the window overlooking Riobamba.

We had lunch on numerous occasions in this restaurant last year. Babieca's pastas are rich and we never tired of our favourites which always came covered with mouth-watering sauces, gooey toasted cheese and savoury bits of ham, bacon, chicken, sausage or ground beef. This time, we ordered a tortilla espanol (egg, sausages and potato cake) and a linguini parisienne (cheese and ham with a cream sauce). We recognized the waiter serving us from last year! I told the waiter that we were at that restaurant just one year ago and that he had served us then. I only understood about half of what he said in our conversation, sometimes it's not the words, but the good will that counts, so we established a great rapport. But what really impressed the waiter was when Man Yung told me to tell him that he was "muy guapo" (very handsome)!

Now, one of our Toronto tango friends went into ecstatic convulsions throughout her first trip to Buenos Aires because every Argentinian man was incredibly handsome to her. But when we went in 2007, we were shocked that we weren't able to find even a single Argentinian man who could put us into convulsive ecstasies. They must have had all gone abroad to teach Tango! But seriously, this waiter was not bad, he actually strongly reminded us of Madonna's ex boy-toy Tony Ward ("And not like a disheveled unshaven Fabio in a ratty t-shirt and cargo pants!" exclaimed Man Yung). Our waiter thoroughly enjoyed the fact that we considered him as handsome (or even more handsome than) a bona fide Italian model and we got extra special service that day (Flattery! It works!)

After a leisurely lunch we strolled back to the hotel and tried calling M. again. Still asleep! I told her landlady (jokingly) that M. must be somewhat "perezosa" (lazy) and the little old lady agreed rather apologetically. What do the Argentinians really think of us crazy tango tourists, staying out all night and sleeping well past noon?

If we had been able to contact M., we would have gone to Confiteria Ideal (one of her favourite venues) with her - alas, that was not to be. Off we went to the Museo de Bellas Artes instead.

The Museum of Art is one of those grand buildings in Buenos Aires on that stretch of land reserved for monumental public works along the Av. Libertador along the river. All around are wide avenues, clear lines of sight and "inspiring" and forceful architecture - like those vistas you find in De Chirico paintings, or in the grand building projects of politically repressive regimes. However, the scene was also uniquely Buenos Aires by the profuse tropical foliage all around - palm trees and big low bulbous trees heavy with glossy dark leaves and fleshy purple-pink flowers (no, I don't remember what these trees are called). Quite pretty really.

Except that the building itself was sadly decrepit. Up close, we could see whole sections of plaster on the exterior wall peeling. Inside, the entrance hall was under serious renovation and no-one had bothered to hide it. Debris and exposed work was everywhere. There was selective air-conditioning - some rooms would be normal and others stifling hot. Oddly enough it was the rooms with the "old" art that were hot. Don't old artworks melt if they didn't have climate control? The wonderful Modigliani looked like it was sweating. Perhaps lack of funding meant that nothing could be done.

The second floor was devoted to Argentine Art - at least that part of the museum had air conditioning. The art was depressing - full of poverty, repression and nightmarish images like chickens with human faces and forks sticking out of their backs.

Plaza Francia was next door to the Museum of Art, so we spent some time walking around in the fair. The weather had become hot and humid mid-afternoon, so even though the stalls were interesting - filled with colourful and cute arts and crafts that we were just dying to buy as souvenirs for the folks back home - we found it to be unbearably hot under the canvas tents. Some vendor was selling a head massager consisting of a thing made of wire that looked like a long-legged spider, and since I was half hallucinating with the heat, I was wondering - "Would massaging my head with wire make me feel cooler"?

Sitting at Freddo's outdoor patio next to the fair, I felt much much better. There was a slight breeze and a nice broad shade under the big umbrellas. Man Yung's coffee came with a glass of gassy mineral water and a tiny scoop of cappucino ice cream. I was drinking a chocolate banana smoothy and I still got a scoop of cappucino ice cream! In fact, the waitress was going around with a huge tray filled with tiny dishes with tiny scoops of cappucino ice cream and passing them out willy nilly to the people lounging in the patio. There were tables of darkly tanned but wrinkly rich ladies with their designer handbags, groups of fresh-faced young people chatting and laughing, and families with noisy children enjoying their Sunday afternoon. Cappucino ice cream (and if you are really hot, a head freezing chocolate banana smoothy) was the perfect way to cool down after a very sticky and sweaty walk around the fair.

Surprisingly, the hotel was only a half hour walk from Plaza Francia - I was expecting that it would take longer being at least eight blocks. We passed by a Christian Dior store - really pricey and upscale in Canada and possibly only available at the swanky Holt Renfrew but here in Buenos Aires, it's just like "Strada". Man Yung was at it with the clothes again - three more polo shirts! Seems like a lot but you can bet he'll sweat through them in three hours of dancing (ewww).

We called M. again when we were back at the hotel. This time she was out. Our phone was flashing so it was possible that she had called back to leave a message, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out how to retrieve messages on the hotel phone. The hotel computer was occupied again! And typing emails with a stylus on my HTC phone with a virtual keyboard the size of ladybird was just stupidly eye-crossing and time-consuming. I was having such severe tech issues on this trip...

We had plans to meet with Alberto and Paulina on Sunday night for the milonga at El Beso. We were filled with wonder that they aren't completely sick of us already!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Milonguera


We were at a milonga over the weekend and were surprised to see what can be termed in Toronto as an anachronism – a couple who danced a style of dancing that we hadn’t seen in about two years.

We won’t go into lengthy descriptive details, but let’s just say it involved some “choreography” and a lot of back linear boleos (For those who have been personally “touched” by this kind of dynamic movement in a crowded milonga – you know what we mean when we say “Ouch!”) Luckily there was plenty of space and at least the couple looked like they were really enjoying themselves.

We had never seen this couple before, so we thought they were from out of town – but no, they were actually from Toronto! Perhaps they had been in hibernation, or perhaps they were frequenting milongas we weren’t going to - but thinking about it, the quality of Tango in Toronto has really improved a lot since their style of tango was last in vogue. Here on our blog we know we gripe and complain a lot – but the point is, we don’t see this kind of dancing anymore in Toronto. Toronto Leaders and Followers have improved since three years ago.

Especially the Followers.

Let us make a bold statement. In our humble opinion, Toronto has some of the best Followers in the world. Watching some of the Followers dance in Toronto, we are in total awe. Their aptitude has gone beyond mere “Following” – many Toronto Followers already have the skill to follow almost anything that is thrown their way – into something “more”.

Into the realm of the "Milonguera".

We use the term “Milonguera” for the purposes of this post in a very narrow sense. We are not talking about a lifestyle choice. We are not talking about a code of dress or a code of conduct, or a style of dance (as in "Milonguero Style"). We are not even talking about people knowing the music from front to back and back again or having the experience of dancing during the Golden Age. For all of that you will have to turn to the real Milongueras, the ones who are married to the milongas of Buenos Aires. Here in Toronto, we simply do not have the same culture, and therefore cannot make the same comparison on a cultural level.

However, what Toronto Followers could aspire to, and perhaps even achieve, is to “dance like a Milonguera”.

What is it like to be dancing like a "Milonguera"? Man Yung has danced with quite a few Milongueras in Buenos Aires, and has always expressed that they all had a quality in their dance that was quite beyond the average Tanguera. Man Yung and I discuss this topic incessantly. I confess that I would like to dance like a Milonguera, but I have yet to attain this. I still struggle day to day with just understanding the concept. What is the key?

From my discussions with Man Yung and my understanding to date, there seem to be some obvious things that cannot be considered "Milonguera":

1. A Follower who can't follow.

2. A Follower who does continuous unled ochos, ganchos, leans etc.

3. A Follower whose adornment addiction frequently disrupts the lead and results, in minor cases, in her “Not Following”, and in serious cases, in her using the Leader as an ahem, “Phallic Prop” with which she can pole dance to the fantasy of her adornment queendom.

4. A Follower whose “Will” to dominate the dance manifests itself physically, and leads her to be either

a) as heavy as a ton of bricks; and/or

b) as forceful as a braking train; and/or

c) as painful to dance with as a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu double pretzel joint lock

– all on purpose, to show that she knows "better" than the Leader and therefore the Leader should submit to her interpretation of the dance, the music etc. This kind of Follower may think she is a Milonguera but in fact she is just an arrogant, heavy and unpleasant dancer.

4. A Follower whose “Will” to dominate the dance manifests itself passive-aggressively, as revealed in

a) Deliberate absence of “frame” and firmness (and "frame" and "firmness" does not mean pushing forcefully, but a natural receptivity to the lead) in the right arm to feel any lead, mimicking a limpy strand of cooked spaghetti. The Follower may even drop her arm entirely to prove to the Leader "Ha ha! You CAN'T lead me!";

- which may or may not be accompanied by a case of

b) Interruption of the dance to “correct” or “belittle” and "blame" the leader for mistakes in following arising from the Follower’s own lack of ability or desire to follow.

This is especially common in Followers who became “Teachers” or “Maestras” or “Tango Professionals” too soon. Since these Follower's ability to follow has sadly not matched the elevated status claimed by such Followers in the tango hierarchy, such psychological tactics are required by such Followers to “Save Face", frankly, when they couldn't follow. Even if the Follower is on a higher level than the Leader in skill, experience, knowledge etc. - this kind of behavior is absolutely unacceptable on the dance floor during a milonga (and that goes for Leaders teaching Followers on the dance floor as well). If the "Maestra" doesn't want to dance with a particular Leader in the milonga, she should just refuse, and not play games.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be Argentinian or a Portena to dance like a Milonguera, and indeed, some Argentinians/Portenas do not dance like Milongueras.

Even more surprisingly, Man Yung has told me that "Milonguera" does not equate to "Perfect Following". Some Milongueras can follow perfectly. But Perfect Followers do not necessarily dance like "Milongueras". Indeed, Man Yung says that many Perfect Followers are too high-strung, nervous, tense, or precisely robotic and overall, too concerned about being Perfect Followers to be dancing "Milonguera". In addition, Man Yung has danced with Followers here in Toronto and in Buenos Aires who have not been Perfect Followers - but who have still conveyed to him a sense of being "Milonguera".

So how does a Milonguera dance like a Milonguera?

A Milonguera dances for herself and her partner, and not for the ulterior purposes of showing off, proving her style or her philosophy of dance is right, or for impressing onlookers, future partners and/or prospective students.

A Milonguera dances in the moment. She is not thinking of Wal-Mart.

A Milonguera dances because she enjoys dancing with the Leader. Which does not mean that she will dance with anyone who asks. Rather, she will reject Leaders who are dancing for ulterior motives - showing off, impressing onlookers, etc. etc. When a Milonguera is giving her all into the dance, the last thing she wants is to be nauseated by a Leader who is not dancing with her but who is using her in his own tango fantasy. She requires that she and the Leader dance - TOGETHER.

A Milonguera does not care if she is a Perfect Follower, and will not tense up and become as rigid as a board when she makes mistakes. Mistakes do not bother her. Dancing for her is not a contest of skill with the other Followers in the room, or with the ideal of what a Perfect Follower should be like. However, all Milongueras are Very Good to Perfect Followers - and not because they are trying to be, but because they are NOT trying to be.

A Milonguera can feel and show through her dancing the Leader's interpretation of the music. On a basic level, this means the Leader's choice of steps. On an advanced level, this means the Leader's emotional reaction and interpretation of the nuances in the music - whether the music is hard, soft, tender, fiery, peppy, tormented, joyous, etc. Just as the Leader must dance each different orchestra (and each different piece of music in each orchestra) differently, the Milonguera must feel, follow and convey this interpretation and not impose her own.

For the duration of the tanda, the Milonguera dances like she has given her entire being to her Leader and her Leader alone. But the Leader must also give his all to her, the Milonguera. This is the pact that they made, which they must not violate.

Just think, only two years ago many Toronto Followers had trouble doing more than one giro at a time! And one year ago we were contending with a plague of rabid adornistas. Now you can hardly count the number of Toronto Followers who are dancing beautifully - because so many of them are.

Man Yung is so lucky.*

*Except that Irene still drives him nuts by following every piece of music like she is dancing to Di Sarli.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Buenos Aires 2008 - Part 4

Saturday (Night)

When Alberto and Paulina came to pick us up in the evening to go to Glorias Argentinas, Alberto made a disapproving face when we mentioned El Arranque and scolded us about sneaking off to dance there on Saturday afternoon.

He cautioned: "You should stick to milongas that are good if you want to become good dancers!" I had a witty response - "No, precisely the opposite - we should go to sucky milongas because it would appear that Man Yung is a dancing genius by comparison!"

Glorias Argentinas is in the barrio of Mataderos - a long drive, about half an hour to forty-five minutes from downtown. Once you get close to the milonga, you have to navigate all these one-way streets in a very quiet, dark residential neighbourhood - one wrong turn and you will be a few blocks short, or a few blocks off, and you will have to drive right round again. The low square concrete houses lining the broken roads are so dark they look deserted, so we definitely wouldn't want to be on foot being strangers to the area. We've had taxi drivers get lost trying to take us there.

But once we arrive at the brilliantly neon lighted entrance, it has always been worth while. The people there are fantastic, super-friendly, and since foreign faces are rare, the regulars actually try to make strangers feel welcome. In the barrio milongas like Glorias Argentinas, the regulars are there because they enjoy going out, seeing their friends and having fun on Saturday night. They dance for themselves and not to impress anyone or to get students. The milonga doesn't have that slick sheen of commercialism that you find in the more popular, "instructor-frequented" milongas of downtown. It's refreshing.

Saturday nights at Glorias Argentinas are for couples, but this does not necessarily mean that you can't get dances if you are either single or part of a couple. We've always danced with the regulars at Glorias Argentinas, and this second trip was no exception.

So what were we doing at Glorias Argentinas this evening? Well, we had been invited to Elba Biscay's birthday party (time to have a Wayne's World moment: NO WAY! YES, WAY!). Elba is the beautiful, tall, elegant milonguera who partnered with Alberto in the Milonguisimo show for many years. You may recognize her from a popular Youtube video in which she performs a vals with Alberto to D'Arienzo's Valsecito Criollo - and where? At Glorias Argentinas, no less! In that video Elba wears an ice blue top and harem pants with dangerously high ice blue stilettos. Ice blue seems to be her favourite colour, perhaps to match her ice blond hair - and she was wearing this luminous colour at her birthday as well.

If you want to talk about surreal experiences, here's another one. At the party, we were seated right opposite Elba with her partner Antonio Juffre (they competed in the Metropolitano and I think also the Mundial that year) and Adela Galeazzi. On one end of the table was El Flaco Dany's brother Jorge Garcia and Jorge Uzunian from Milonguisimo. Right beside us was Alberto and Paulina. The whole table were special guests of Oscar Hector, the organizer of the milonga and of the show Milonguisimo. The party occupied a long table right at the front and there were many people that we didn't know or recognize - all of them superb dancers. And they all made us feel quite at home, even though it is quite bizarre for these two chinese people from Toronto, Canada (one not speaking a word of Spanish and the other barely managing) to be in the middle of this crowd, some of the creme de la creme of milongueros in Buenos Aires.

When you are hanging around some of the best dancers in Buenos Aires you cannot help watch the pros dance in utter awe. First up was Jorge Garcia. "Look at that fleet-footed man!" Man Yung whispered excitedly to me. His footwork was fast, precise and amazingly clear - with a grounded solidity in his tango walk that would be impossible to find at that speed outside of Buenos Aires. Then there was Jorge Uzunian, who also has beautiful, rapid and rhythmic footwork. Both the Jorges can dance circles around anyone we know. Adela of course, was every milonguero's favourite partner - and her adornments playful and lightning fast. To top it all off, Elba was competing in the vals competition that night with her partner Antonio Juffre - and we had a chance to see them dance a wonderful lyrical vals, filled with the entrega of tango. All of this would make any mere "tango mortal" (like ourselves) feel too intimidated to venture out on the dance floor, but we were continuously encouraged to dance - "You must dance, dance!" they said. The milonga is not just for sitting and gawking and chit-chatting, you are there to dance, and, as the milongueros said, you MUST dance.

We didn't just dance together, we danced with others too. A regular of the milonga (he always sits with his wife right in front of the mirrors - and that has been his reserved seat for the past thirty years) recognized us from the previous year and asked me to dance again. Man Yung even had a chance to dance with Elba!

And what did Man Yung say when I asked him what it was like to dance with Elba Biscay? Well, absolutely FANTASTIC. Your partner can be a world-famous show (or even salon) tango instructor, or the most skilled follower in the local tango community, but she would still not come close to what dancing with a milonguera like Elba (or Susy Tilbe - Man Yung had a chance to dance with her on the first day of our first visit to Buenos Aires) feels like. "Milonguera" seems to be a state of mind that could be transmitted to the leader when the milonguera follows. It is a deep feeling, which also feels like complete freedom. You don't have to worry about whether your partner can follow or not follow, or whether something would be "too tricky" or "too plain" or "too easy" or "too difficult". The milonguera dances to enjoy the dance, she is not anxious about being able to follow everything that the leader is trying to do (even though she can, and she does), nor does she care. It was as if Elba had given Man Yung the order to "dance, dance!" and that was all he needed to do - to dance.

We had an exhilarating time. There were the photos, the huge homemade birthday cakes with raging bright spitting sparklers on top, lots of dancing - and Man Yung even won the lucky draw of 100 pesos towards a pair of Artesanaal shoes!

Just as we were about to leave with Alberto and Paulina, one of the milongueros (probably requested by our hostess Elba) at our table asked me to dance the next tanda. I was surprised, because this particular gentleman had been very quiet all evening, sitting in his seat right at the edge of the dance floor - he seemed rather stern and disapproving, in fact. The next tanda happened to be a milonga. The milonguero looked at Alberto (he knew he was our teacher), and asked him whether it would be "all right" to get me to dance a tanda of milonga, and that he could always wait for the next tango tanda. I guess he didn't have much hope that the gringa could follow, especially in milonga! But Alberto was very confident in my abilities and said "Go ahead, it will be fine!" So off I went to dance milonga with the reluctant milonguero.

The first milonga the milonguero was puzzled - puzzled why no matter what he led, I could follow it. The second milonga he tried every trick he knew for milonga - and still, I followed. I was not in the slightest bit concerned. The third milonga, the milonguero felt completely and utterly free to dance however he wished. He became happier and happier as the tanda progressed, and by the time the tanda was finished, he was beaming and we walked arm in arm off the dance floor. He gave Man Yung the thumbs up as he led me back to my seat.

Man Yung was watching the entire tanda. "He was testing out everything he knew, and you surprised him when you passed the test," Man Yung remarked to me. Well, I'm lucky that I learned to follow from Alberto and Paulina, and how to dance milonga from Martha and Manolo!

It was truly quite late by the time we left the party. As Alberto and Paulina drove us back to our hotel, Paulina asked me, "So, how was it dancing with Ruben _____?" I wasn't able to catch the rest of his name.

"It was pretty good, " I replied. "What is his name again? Ruben? Who is he exactly?"

Paulina said, "Ruben de Pompeya."

"You mean THE Ruben de Pompeya?!!?!" I was totally shocked.

If I had known that he was THE Ruben de Pompeya I'm pretty sure I would have been too nervous to follow the way that I did!*

* And that's why I am not a Milonguera.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Iron Chef


Before "Tango", Man Yung's favourite hobby was "Eating Chinese Food". In fact, despite becoming quite a "Tango Fiend", Man Yung never really gave up on his former hobby - only now he has to fit in his eating in between bouts of "Tango".

While indulging in his hobby, Man Yung quite naturally got to know many top Chinese Chefs - both here and in Hong Kong - and became quite friendly with some of them. When I first started dating Man Yung, I was always quite in awe whenever he took me out to eat - the head chef would actually stop what he was doing, come out of the kitchen and not only greet Man Yung but 1) Cook special dishes for him that were not on the menu and 2) sit at our table talking to Man Yung for hours and hours and hours until I was tired and grouchy and no longer in awe. Once we sat in a restaurant for more than SEVEN HOURS from early evening until the wee hours of the morning while a whole procession of chefs (from the restaurant we were eating at as well as ones from other restaurants who were dropping in to have a late dinner or late-night snack) took turns sitting at our table to talk to Man Yung.

Yes, it got to be incredibly boring. But I digress.

So, one time Man Yung was sitting with one particularly reknowned Toronto "Iron Chef" in one of his "sit, eat and talk" marathons, chatting about the usual things that one talks about when talking to a chinese chef - i.e. the secret techniques involved in the making sweet crystal sugar swallow's nest soup* or golden crispy deep-fried garlic oysters, what it was like learning the chef's trade in the vast kitchens of the top Hong Kong restaurants, the most memorable baccarat hand the chef ever had at Casinorama etc., etc.

The course of the conversation drifted to one of the Iron Chef's favourite topics - which was himself. At that time, everyone in the Toronto chinese restaurant industry knew about the "Top Ten Famous Chinese Chefs" of Toronto - and Man Yung's friend was considered one of them. Although making it on the list was some sort of honour, it also brought a goodly amount of bitterness and resentment. The art of cooking, being a highly subjective thing, meant that barring an official competition between the said chefs before an impartial jury (unlikely, impractical - and you'd be entirely naive to believe in the objectivity of such an experiment) - it would be impossible to determine who was first, or third, or seventh, and so on.

It was a thorn in the side of our Iron Chef friend, whose insecurities made him aching to be recognized as "The Best" (or, at the very least, Dear God, Top Five!). So at every opportunity, he would unload his resentment by launching into a long-winded tirade about how badly all his rivals cooked, and how well he cooked.

"Mr. A! Ha! He couldn't tell the difference between a squab and a chicken. And have you tasted Mr. B's "Supreme seafood shark's fin soup"? He is obviously putting strong chemicals like "pang-sa" to tenderize the shark's fin, it comes out as completely unpalatable mush! As for Mr. C, well, the hygienic standards in his kitchen are horrendous. It is rumoured that he doesn't even wash his hands after going to the bathroom! Last week I just served my special recipe "Shatin roasted pigeon" to the guests of the annual embassy banquet - I got unanimous praise from all the guests for the sweet, balanced succulence of my birds. They've promised me that they would stop at nothing to get me to cook for their next important banquet!"*

Man Yung, being ever the wet blanket (and knowing that Mr. A, B and C were really not as bad as the Iron Chef described), decided to rain on this particular parade.

"Iron Chef," said Man Yung, trying his best to be delicate, "I'm sorry to interrupt you - but as you know the old chinese Maxim: There is a sky beyond the sky, and man beyond man."**

Iron Chef stopped talking to Man Yung for years after that, very hurt that Man Yung was not in the least bit supportive in his efforts to promote himself as being "The Best" (or at least "One of the very Best in Toronto"). In fact, the last time we heard, Iron Chef has moved to a small village in south-western Ontario - where he can be "the Best" (and presumably the ONLY) Chinese Chef within a 200 km radius.


*Expensive, produced through animal cruelty and not even particularly tasty - unless eating bird spit is your type of thing
.

** Unfortunately, what the Iron Chef didn't know was that Irene couldn't stand his cooking. Iron Chef's dishes, especially the ones he made "special" for Irene and Man Yung, had all the virtues of being expertly prepared, delicately seasoned, elegantly presented - and widely acknowledged to be the pinnacle of deliciousness by the general populace. Unfortunately, to Irene, they were also blander than blancmange.


*** Which is something that crops up very often in the
Martial Arts and Chivalry movies and novels - the idea that no matter how good you think you are, there's always someone greater than you, and no matter how big you think you are in a particular situation, there's always a bigger situation in which your significance is reduced to nothingness. Famed martial artists have walked away from martial arts competitions that they have trained for since birth upon experiencing this epiphany.

Alberto Dassieu

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