What can we usually find in the milongas where the gringos go? Some places are a big melting pot of tourists upon tourists dancing with yet other tourists. Some places have more of the older argentino dancers - but you are likely to find more or less homogeneous styles of dancing - either the ubiquitous downtown "close embrace" or "milonguero style", or something that looks loosely "tango salonish" in the Villa Urquiza/Campeonato sense.
Those who have not experienced anything other than the "downtown" or "Villa Urquiza" styles would be inclined to think that this, and only this was the "real deal". Maybe it's a gringo, north american/european thing, but there's this big urge for foreign tango dancers to put things into "categories". It's one way to understand and conceptualize this dance that we love, but it is also extremely restrictive. It breeds a certain kind of narrow thinking: If this dancer can fit into this category, he/she must be good; if that dancer doesn't belong to any category, one doesn't know what to think.
Many dancers therefore fail to appreciate what is distinctive and original anymore. A dancer can't be admired for his or her own style - you are only good according to how you well you conform to "A Style". Tango is a dance, but the way dancers are judged these days, the qualities of "dancing well" - musicality, musicality, musicality, and expression of that musicality with physical and emotive movement - are thrown by the wayside. Instead, dancers debate endlessly about who is the most "authentic", who has the best "apilado", who has the best "embrace", who is the most "elegant", etc. etc.
Let's take "Villa Urquiza" for example. What does it mean nowadays? I see "Elegant!!!!" young couples treading cautious and stork-like, in suits and bias cut dresses, campeonato style. Or "Social" "Villa Urquiza" dancers doing their best impression of Javier Rodriguez and Andrea Misse - butts sticking ever so rotundly, subtly out (guys and gals together now!), concentrating on making "LOOK MA!!!! AMAZZZZZING!!!! EMBRACESSSSS!!!!" and doing a-mile-a-minute adornments (guys and gals, oh-so-alike).
What would people think if I told them that these videos were taken in a milonga in Villa Urquiza?:
Social dancing (Vals) at Circulo Apolo: Ignore the chinese people and just enjoy the dancing!
Would people be upset that there is no-one dancing remotely like anyone's idea of Fino Rivera or Portalea*? Would they feel like rioting in the streets because there isn't anyone who could even qualify for the Campeonato in sight? Of course they would. "No, you must be joking, this can't possibly be "Villa Urquiza"", many may say.
Would anybody care that most of the local leaders of Circulo Apolo dance with amazing calm and musicality, and that the average local follower can follow better than any gringo professional/instructor? Probably not.
Alas, but can they even begin to understand? "Villa Urquiza", "Tango Salon", "Milonguero Style" etc. are just brands, conveniently slapped on and heavily marketed. If one is willing to dig deep and not follow the crowd, tango is more amazing than one can ever envision.
Martha and Manolo, Osvaldo and Coca, Alberto and Paulina - what a thrill it is for us to have these teachers, all of whom have their own distinctive style of dancing. They are all great - because they are all unique. And they have never, ever dictated conformity to their styles to us (even though we steal their steps all the time). That's because our teachers have lived in the golden age of tango and they have seen the best dancers, ever. Osvaldo has said somewhere, when he was young, EVERYONE he saw at the milonga were gods and goddesses of tango. And Manolo has said from his experience, "You better be really good before you stepped foot into a milonga those days!" Everyone was unique back then - and everyone was great. That's why our teachers are so humble. They teach us this: Musicality is King - and your personal expression is your own.
Sometimes you have to go to the barrio milongas to get a glimpse of what they were talking about. You have tiny old ladies in their nineties dancing like they used to dance in the days of Carmencita Calderon and El Cachafaz. You have mysterious couples dancing nonchalantly with steps and figures that you could only find in rare archival footage of tango decades past. You have Oscar Omar Denico, for example, dancing "Tango of the 40's". "Tango de la cuarenta?" an onlooker asked, to which he replied, "Si."
Oscar Omar Denico dances to Biagi at Glorias Argentinas
Oscar and his wife Ana have been sitting at the same, central table at Glorias Argentinas for longer than I have been alive (probably). They too have seen more than we can possibly imagine in the history of tango. But they have been friendly to us from the very start - from our very first visit to Buenos Aires, when my spanish was so bad I couldn't understand a thing they said! When we were too scared to dance because Martha and Manolo were at Glorias Argentinas with us, Oscar said, "Why should you be scared that Martha and Manolo are here? Who is Manolo anyway? I have known him for decades!" You know what, Manolo would say exactly the same kind of thing. Understand that we are all insignificant, but in the same breath, understand that we are all great. Dance, dance!
Maestro Carlos Anzuate dances his signature Candombe at Glorias Argentinas
Martha and Manolo pointed out Carlos Anzuate as someone to watch on the dance floor the first time we went to Glorias Argentinas with them. "He's an incredible dancer - muy pasito," Manolo said. Carlos dances everything - Tango, Vals, Milonga, Candombe, Canyengue, Jazz, Salsa, Cumbia, Rock n' Roll. When he takes the floor - with the ladies at his table or with his dear wife and partner Porota, everyone stops to watch.
We gradually learned over our many visits just how revered he is by the other argentinians of the older generation. Carlos and Porota have taught and performed for as long as anyone can remember, and their students include Facundo Posadas, now famous in his own right for his Candombe.
We are doubly lucky to have Martha and Manolo as our teachers - they are so respected, when we hang around them, people think we are ok too! So was the case with Carlos, who has offered us friendly advice every year. This year, I finally got the opportunity to dance with Carlos - he asked me to dance and agreed to let us film him. It's too bad that there isn't footage of his dancing with Porota available. Osvaldo and Coca whispered to us when we were at Glorias Argentinas with them this year, "Do you know who Carlos is? FIFTY YEARS AGO Carlos and his senora were already legends in tango - they gave astounding exhibitions!"
We are so very fortunate to have the opportunity to watch and meet with some very amazing and unique dancers on our trips, and to be able to show some of their dancing to you. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Who knows what other incredible dancers, what other incredible stories have been lost in time or hidden in the crowds on the dance floor?
To be continued....
* By the way, Fino Rivera and Gerardo Portalea were much more complex than any one thinks.