Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Buenos Aires 2008 - Part 8


After the class we dashed to La Confiteria Ideal with Ms. X from Toronto in tow to see Milonguisimo. Ms. X is a veteran repeat visitor to Buenos Aires and she must have watched every single big production "Forever Tango" type show available in the city, but we were determined to see the Milonguisimo, so we dragged her along with us. We didn't know how Ms. X would like it, given her taste for big sparkly vegas-style tango extravaganzas!

Ms. X is also a regular at Confiteria Ideal, as it is one of her favourite milonga venues. Many people we have talked to in Toronto, especially the older social dance couples who eventually took up tango, love going to La Confiteria Ideal and indeed, try to book hotels not far from its steps. It was only our second time there - we were there for the Camicando closing milonga in 2007 - but it is easy to see the appeal. With its turn-of-the-century european architecture, creamy marble/tile floor, glowing belle-epoque light fixtures, glimmering lights reflected from every mirror, and something in the air whispering (or hissing) "Hey man! Tango History!", La Confiteria Ideal is something out of a tango dream. Just step onto its premises and many will imagine being transformed into a part of "The" Tango Fantasy. Just watch Carlos Saura's "Tango" or Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson" and you (may) know what we mean.

Insert your favourite tango fantasy here

We thought that we were going to be late for the show but in fact, the show didn't start until an hour after we got there. It was expensive! The burly doorman/bouncer with the handlebar moustache stated quite sternly that tickets were 100 pesos for the show, and 150 pesos for show and dinner (per person). We paid much less, maybe 15 pesos for the milonga entrada including tickets to Milonguisimo at Glorias Argentinas in 2007, so the price of the ticket was a little bit of a shock. Was there a premium for the location? We just paid for the ticket to the show, and sat ourselves at a table right in front of the stage.

This is an interesting documentary on La Confiteria Ideal - shows a bit of its architecture, decor, history, and you can even see the stage on which tango shows like Milonguisimo were performed. With regards to the trays of delectable pastries that are shown enticingly throughout the video - watch out!
They will cost you an arm and a leg!

It was a quiet night at La Confiteria Ideal. There were only a few spectators for Milonguisimo on the first floor, a space that is the doppelganger twin of the second floor where rather touristy (And expensive! No surprise there) milongas are held. For the longest time it was just the sound of us talking amongst ourselves at our table, waiting. I was sweating, but there was a mighty breeze from the wall fans which made it chilly. Looking at the menu and seeing that the prices of the drinks and snacks were at least three times more expensive than anywhere we had been - I couldn't decide whether I was hot or cold or just fainting at the prices.

When the performers arrived, it was without fanfare. The stage was a platform propped up one side of the room, so there was no backstage or frontstage - just a stage. First Oscar Hector arrived, walking past the stage in the area in front of our table - and naturally we said hello. Then Haydee, Oscar's sister, arrived and we greeted her as well. She reminded us about some special event that she will be participating in that was going to be held at Glorias Argentinas, but unfortunately, it was going to be held a week after our departure from Toronto, so we had to let her know we will have to miss it. Susy Tilbe arrived shortly afterwards. We had been exchanging emails with her since we met her at Glorias Argentinas the previous year, so it was delightful to see her again.

Ms. X was surprised that we knew so many of the performers. Was Ms. X also surprised at how down-to-earth the whole Milonguisimo production was? Before the show started, the performers were walking up and down in front of our table in their street clothes. The change room was no glamourous inner sanctum but a rather dodgy washroom behind the bar. The core Milonguisimo dancers - whom we utterly idolize - were not slinky bright young things in feathers, sequins and pinstripe suits, but people (even old people!) from the milonga, dressed for the milonga. Did Ms. X ever entertain the thought that Irene and Man Yung may not be maximizing their tango dollars (which could even conceivably be better spent on tickets to "Tanguera"?)

I'm not sure we will ever be certain about the doubts that crossed Ms. X's mind while we were sitting waiting for the show to start, but I think at the end of day, the wonderful music and the incredible dancing in Milonguisimo won Ms. X over. Once the lights went down, it was all about Tango: Miguel Angel Balbi's heartfelt and passionate singing; the superfast staccato footwork of Jorge Uzunian and Haydee Malagrino; the elegant walk of Juan Esquivel with Susy Tilbe; the playful choreography and musicality of Oscar Hector and Teresita Brandon; the quirky figures of Horacio Prestamo and the exquisite adornments of his partner. The show presented the life of the milongas - a little bit of history, a little bit of swing (the cast are amazing swing and rock and roll dancers too - there's nothing like watching the Portenos letting it all hang loose to "Blue Suede Shoes" at a milonga), a little bit of heartbreak, a little bit of mischief. There was even the obligatory young show dance couple (they looked like they were still in their teens!) with such athleticism and fire they would put any other show couple on the biggest stage in Buenos Aires to shame.

It was an amazing show that filled our entire evening. Even though there were only a dozen spectators, it didn't matter, Milonguisimo gave its all.

After the show ended, the performers mixed with the audience and we had a chance to congratulate the dancers on their performances and Miguel Angel Balbi on his beautiful singing. Unfortunately, we couldn't stay long - Ms. X had to go and we had Camicando to look forward to the next day.

We said goodbye at the door and hopped into our taxis. Glancing backward, we saw some of the Milonguisimo dancers standing on the sidewalk. Some of the best dancers in Buenos Aires - waiting for the bus. No red carpet, no paparazzis. Often, Tango is humble - because Tango is life.

We waved goodbye to each other again and sped into the night.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Buenos Aires 2008 - Part 7


Camicando began today! Even though our first festival workshop didn’t start until 2:30 p.m., we still woke up nice and early at 9:30 a.m. I had scheduled some "kamikaze" shoe shopping for the morning, and I was eager to get going. Once the festival started, we would not have either time nor energy to do any shopping!

After breakfast, we went to the nearby Bank ATM for money. Big line up. Everything was busier today - the Portenos had just finished their summer break. At the machine, we found that there was a limit on withdrawals to 320 pesos per transaction [in 2009, the limit increased to about double - why, we don't know], so we had to make repeated withdrawals to get enough cash. It was a bummer, because that meant that we had to pay a substantial transaction fee per withdrawal.

Back to school, back to work - the traffic was more congested, there were more people on the street. Stinky black exhaust fumes filled the air. After getting our cash at the Bank, we took a swift taxi down Riobamba to buy Man Yung some shoes from Artesanal, located a few doors down from El Beso. Unfortunately, Artesanal wasn’t open yet - it was too early.

Double bummer! However, I am never easily thwarted. We hopped into a taxi and headed over to Darcos. It’s located on the “street of the infinite number of tango shoe stores” – the majority of which look rather tacky and touristy. Darcos was also marginally so.

Darcos is one of the official sponsors of the Campeonato, so every year we'd see the winners and runners-up photographed in the store with their Darcos prizes. If you have seen photos of Darco’s on the internet, they always focus on the glittering, slick displays of shoes, tangowear and CDs and the shiny happy campeones. From the photos, we thought that Darcos would look like a fine lacquer box - red, black and gold.

In reality, the store’s messy. Shoe boxes are stacked willy nilly; clothes and CDs are crammed in every conceivable corner. The décor is red, black and gold - but kind of worn out.

To their credit, Darcos has a lot of different models of women’s tango shoes, more than anywhere else we've seen so far. Unfortunately, some of them looked suspiciously like copies of CIF and NT, except without the same level of craftsmanship and with rather gaudy and jarring colour combinations. As for the men’s shoes, they were standard – you can get the same models everywhere.

The day was already heating up outside and to make it worse, the air conditioning was broken and the store was crammed with tourists. The two salespersons were polite and professional, but it was obvious that they were overwhelmed and couldn’t serve everybody in a prompt manner. We waited for about twenty minutes. I was starting to have an "existential crisis" in that mini heat wave, but Man Yung was fine – is he always fine just looking at tango stuff, or he was better at imagining that he was standing under cool cascading water in a waterfall? In any case, despite my discomfort and the wait, I was determined to get a pair of shoes for Man Yung. He needed comfortable shoes, and Darcos are reportedly comfortable.

A sleek, smiling but somewhat stocky young man served us. He had a kind of curt efficient professionalism, and he was very knowledgeable about his shoes. He knew right away what size Man Yung wore and gave quick recommendations as to style. We were quick to decide on a pair of black shoes with pinstripes. Seeing the customers pile up, the last thing we wanted to do was to inconvenience our sales clerk further, despite his smiles and cordiality.

There were many customers there but for some reason, one couple stood out. The woman tried on nearly every single pair of the ugliest shoes in the store – it seemed to us that the winning tactic that she was employing was that if it wasn’t ugly, she wasn’t going to try them on. Her salesperson had his hands full trying to accommodate her, and she still couldn’t decide what to buy. She wasn't unusual - it was her partner that was the strange one. He stood there, looking offended at everyone and everything, with his green sweat-stained t-shirt pulled tightly over his protruding pot belly. I couldn't imagine him dancing tango. He looked like he really, really didn't belong. Staring at us with the intensity of a participant in a staring contest [and we hadn’t even started writing our blog yet!], he was antagonistic without even opening his mouth. "Yikes! What's up with him?" I thought.

In Buenos Aires, you can meet Tete, Pocho, Juan, Julio... and if you are really lucky, even the "Grinch"

Man Yung’s Darcos were expensive – 300 pesos, as expensive as the CIF’s I bought a couple of days earlier. I was surprised.

By the time we finished with Darcos, Artesanal was open. The store on Riobamba was very serene compared to the chaos at Darcos. There weren't as many choices as in Darcos, but the place was organized and the place was not packed. Man Yung found a pair of shoes he really liked, with craftsmanship he admired. Only 260 pesos! With an additional 100 pesos off from Man Yung's winning lucky draw ticket from Glorias Argentinas the previous Saturday.

But the really special thing about Artesanal was that it was run by cats!* A calico and a siamese kept their eye on the till (they slept right next to it) and inspected all the customers that came through the door. Naturally, Man Yung couldn't resist hugging all these the "tango shoe store" cats and babbling to them in baby-talk. He even tried to sneak them out of the store in his shoe bag but luckily we stopped him.

Camicando was held at La Nacional again, just like last year. This year, the line-up of instructors included Martha and Manolo, Roxina and Adrian, Yuyu Herrera, Osvaldo and Coca, and and milonga traspie teachers Eduardo Perez and Gabriela Elias. Going up the turn of the century grand stairs (and running out of breath) to the big hall was like going home again. We saw many familiar faces at the festival. Like us, many participants from the previous year had made the trek to Buenos Aires again for more classes on Canyengue, Milonga and Candombe.

The festival started with a class of milonga traspie with Gabriela and Elias but we skipped that class and arrived just before Martha and Manolo's canyengue class. Our friend from Toronto, Ms. X, who had been impossible to reach by phone on Sunday, had also arrived to attend the festival with us. We were happy to see her.

Guess who else showed up? The strange couple from Darcos. The canyengue class began and everybody was diligently practicing what Martha and Manolo just demonstrated to us. That is, all except the couple. Instead of practicing, they looked bored. The man went from rude staring straight into obnoxious comments.

"Are you advanced dancers?" he asked me abruptly. "The class level here is kind of low."

My eyebrows shot up to my hairline. I could hardly stay civil. "We were at the Camicando festival last year, yes we are very advanced dancers, we are here taking classes with Martha and Manolo because they are excellent teachers and even advanced dancers must always work on their basics. That is very important to us." I was so annoyed by his obvious contempt for the students and for Martha and Manolo I couldn't help but abstain from my usual humility! But what I was saying was true - Canyengue is challenging if you want to do it right. We are always working on getting the right posture and on correcting our mistakes, and Martha and Manolo are the teachers to turn to for this.

We jetted over to the other side of the room to avoid any further confrontations with this man and his partner. We saw Martha and Manolo attending to this couple as well as all other couples with the same patience, dedication and care. We would never in a million years have the same kind of patience - if we have to teach class we'd probably break out the shinais and start threatening people push-ups or a hiding!**

After the class we watched a twenty five minute presentation of old video footage of Martha dancing with various dancers from twenty years ago, among them Cacho Pistola and Petaca. Martha was absolutely amazing - it seems implausible, but even Geraldine is just a shadow of what Martha was at her peak. Her feet seemed to "speak" even when she was not doing her trademark adornments, and even when her partners danced figures that were impossibly challenging for the follower. Every dancer had his own individual style. Man Yung was astounded by the inventiveness and athleticism of the old dancers, but because the video presentation went by so fast, it was impossible to remember all. It was too bad we were not permitted to videotape the films, and the films were not for sale. We had been shown some priceless treasures from the past.

Camicando is quite gruelling so we decided to take a break and skip Candombe class - it was late afternoon so it was a good time to have a nice snack. We went to have an empanada at a nearby chain restaurant, and bumped into the european family who was attending the Camicando festival with us. They were also at Camicando the previous year, so we were quite glad for the opportunity to sit down and talk.

Our european friend had been dancing for six years, and her mother and father for about ten.
She talked about taking lots and lots of classes with Graciela Gonzales, DNI studio, Aurora Lubiz, and others. She liked going to Villa Malcolm, Practica X, La Viruta, La Catedral - and was a little surprised that we had never gone to any of these places.

She also complained about not getting asked to dance a lot, either in her home country (one of the tango meccas outside of Buenos Aires) or in Buenos Aires itself. It's frustrating, because here she was - young, pretty, with a lively sweet personality and intelligent bright eyes, and not a bad dancer at all to boot. Was it just the immense competition or was she doing something wrong, like, perhaps not wearing a bikini to milongas or not doing enough face dancing? Or was it the milongas she frequented? A mystery - and the lament of tangueras everywhere in the world.

After the break, we headed back to La Nacional to take Martha and Manolo's milonga class and Osvaldo and Coca's milonga class. Man Yung remembered some of the steps (we had taken 52 hours of classes with Martha and Manolo in 2006 in the one month they were in Toronto and we attended Camicando the previous year, so a lot of the material was not new to us) but it didn't stop him from practicing and refining his technique in class under the watchful eye of Martha and Manolo. And it didn't stop him from still getting into arguments with me about what we were practicing!

We had been looking forward to seeing Osvaldo and Coca again and taking their class. Man Yung had been studying Osvaldo's style all year and from what he had learnt from him the previous year, had found the key to unlocking many of his steps and movements. Osvaldo and Coca remembered us from last year and they were really happy to see us - they are so sweet that they are always happy to see everybody - and Osvaldo was very impressed that Man Yung could remember what he taught last year and duplicate many of the steps that he hadn't taught! Unfortunately, Osvaldo was not feeling well, and the steep flight of steps to the hall at La Nacional did not help - Osvaldo had problems with breathing and only finished the class with much difficulty. By the end of the class he was wheezing for breath. Yuyu Herrera tried to massage his back to make him feel better, but it didn't really help. We were very worried for Osvaldo.

By the time class ended, it was too late to go back to the hotel to shower and change - we had promised ourselves that we would try and catch Milonguisimo at it's original venue at La Confiteria Ideal, and Monday was the only night that we were free to go. After a warm embrace and goodbye to all our wonderful teachers, we were off into the night, with our friend Ms. X in tow: Milonguisimo-bound!

* Just joking. Artesanal is run by people - but there's always at least one sweet-faced, good-natured cat in every one of their stores.

** Martial Arts people can sometimes get all worked up like this. One of Man Yung's favourite sayings: "Tango people have no discipline!"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Report on Camicando

As a tie-in to our next post "Buenos Aires 2008" post, here's our report on the CaMiCando festival originally posted on another tango website in 2008. This gives you a little bit of background on the festival so we don't have to repeat ourselves again!

Camicando 2008:

The Canyengue, Milonga and Candombe Lover’s Dream Festival

The word “CaMiCando” incorporates Canyengue, Milonga and Candombe; the CaMiCando festival held in the first week of March every year in Buenos Aires accordingly brings together dancers from all the corners of the globe for week-long intensive workshops in these forms of dances.

This year, participants of CaMiCando came from a wide range of countries such as the U.S.A., Canada, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Japan, Poland, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and Argentina itself. As Adrian, Roxina and Jorgo of the MoCCA association (Movimientos Cultural Canyengue Argentino) the organizing association of the festival, comment, “We have participants who participate every year, which gives the festival an aspect of a family reunion. The festival is purist – we focus on the roots styles of tango (Canyengue, Milonga, Candombe) and their contemporary expression. We think that the participants appreciate this opportunity to experience the source of tango, in other words to connect themselves with the roots styles which are the source for all variations and future developments of tango.”

The staff teachers of CaMiCando 2008 included Martha Anton and Manolo “El Gallego” Salvador, the world-renowned experts in Milonga and Canyengue; Roxina and Adrian, Martha and Manolo’s direct students and specialists in both Classic and Contemporary Canyengue; Osvaldo and Coca, the 2004 World Salon Tango Champions; Gabriela Elias and Eduardo Perez, famous for their classes in milonga traspie at the Escuela Argentina de Tango and organizers of the popular milonga La Baldosa on Friday nights in Buenos Aires; and last but not least, Yuyu Herrera, Candombe expert and featured dance teacher in the Frommer’s Travel Guide to Buenos Aires. All teachers were hand-picked by MoCCA for the festival. As Martha Anton states, “they represent all the expectations set by the goals of having the festival – which is to reunite the three fundamental dances in a way that hasn’t been done before for distribution to dancers so that one does not lose all the music and dance styles of the old days.”

The classes are always held in a central location in Buenos Aires - this year, the grand hall of La Nacional. Apart from the intensive workshops, participants also enjoyed exclusive presentations of rare, old, never-seen-before private video and film footage of dance exhibitions by dancers such as Miguel and Nelly Balmaceda, Petaca, Pepito Avellaneda, Tito Pajaro, and even movie star Robert Duvall! In addition, the CaMiCando festival package includes two special milongas at two major Buenos Aires venues with music by live orchestras. In 2007, the festival milongas were held in La Nacional and La Confiteria Ideal; this year, the festival milongas were held in Dandi and La Baldosa. All milongas included spectacular performances by the festival teachers; alumni of the festival even had a chance to perform at the closing night milonga.

More is in store for CaMiCando 2009, which will be held March 2nd to 6th, 2009. When asked about their plans for CaMiCando 2009, Roxina, Adrian and Jorgo advised, “CaMiCando will celebrate its 5th Anniversary! Martha and Manolo will spearhead an exclusive festival and offer a week’s program of specialised workshops, canyengue master classes (new in 2009), performances and milongas with live orchestras, as well as screenings of films showing the milongueros of the classic era. The classes will take place in a classic milonga salon (within wooden floor and air conditioning) in central Buenos Aires.”

We have traveled to Buenos Aires for two years in a row now especially to attend the CaMiCando festival. We have wonderful experiences every year – both in terms of what we were able to learn from the workshops, as well as the friendships we were able to cultivate with the teachers and the other participants of the festival.

We asked Roxina, Adrian and Jorgo about what is their greatest satisfaction in organizing a festival such a CaMiCando, and they replied, “It is […] great to experience how the love for Canyengue and roots tango connects people from all over the world, who don’t know each other’s languages but understand each other and have fun dancing together.”

Inquiries about the festival can be directed to moccayengue@yahoo.com.ar. More detailed information will be available in July 2008 on www.camicando.org.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Adela Galeazzi y Carlos "Cachito" Alcon - Homenaje al Anibal Troilo at the Circulo Apolo

The always wonderful and talented Adela Galeazzi just emailed us links to two of her recent performances on Youtube with Carlos "Cachito" Alcon:

Adela y "Cachito" bailan el tango "Guapeando" de Anibal Troilo

Adela y "Cachito" bailan la milonga "Mano Brava" de Anibal Troilo

We always look forward to having the opportunity to watch Adela's brilliant performances with her many different partners - for example Ruben Harymbat, Horacio Prestamo of Milonguisimo, Rino Biondi, and now Carlos "Cachito" Alcon. It's not only a treat to watch Adela but also the dancing of her partners, all of whom are superb leaders with distinctive personal styles whom we may not always get a chance to see outside of Buenos Aires. No matter what the leader's style is, Adela follows perfectly and puts her own unique stamp on the performance! Adela's performances makes us believe that there is nothing that Adela can't follow.

The really great followers have this versatility regardless of who is the leader, even if it he is not their regular partner. Think Milena Plebs dancing with Juan Carlos Copes, Fernando Galera, Julio Balmaceda and Chicho Frumboli; or Geraldine Paludi (formerly Rojas) with Gustavo Naveiras, Geraldo Portalea, Pupi Castello and Carlos Gavito. It could be close embrace, or open embrace; "nuevo" style, "milonguero" style, "salon" style, "stage" style, or "orillero" style - you won't see these ladies slamming on the brakes while dancing and stopping to nag and scold! Que Lindo - our thanks to Adela for the links to these videos!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Entre Nosotros Tango con Osvaldo Rivas (Between Us Tango with Osvaldo Rivas)

Surfing on Youtube recently, we stumbled upon a series of Tango programs called "Entre Nosotros Tango con Osvaldo Rivas". It's a series of one hour variety shows devoted completely to Tango, hosted by singer Osvaldo Rivas, who used to be the lead singer for the orchestra of Donato Racciatti.

"Between Us Tango" is charmingly makeshift. In fact, the show reminds us of Public Access TV programs like "Wayne's World", except that instead of Metalheads, you have Tangueros! However, what the show lacks in production values it makes up for in content and enthusiasm. Our Spanish is not the best and we don't understand everything that is going on in the show, but our general impression is that the producers and Osvaldo Rivas himself are serious and passionate about Tango. You can see the love and care with which they bring their world of Tango to their audience.

I don't think I've seen any other tango show with so much content and hardly any filler. When Osvaldo's Rivas' guest singers sing, they sing for like half an hour. When the guest dancers dance, they dance at least three dances - usually a tango, a vals and a milonga. When Osvaldo Rivas interviews his guests the interviews seem to be at least ten minutes long. You never get the sense - as you would get in most North American late night talk shows - that any guest is there just for thirty seconds and then it's time to cut to commercial.

Unfortunately, we have no idea about the current tango music scene so we can't comment on the singers on the show, but luckily we are somewhat knowledgeable about dancers. The show features a few relatively big names like Nito and Elba and Oscar Hector, but there are many dancers that we have never seen. Some are young, some are old; some dance "stage" style, some dance "salon" style, some dance "milonguero" style. Some of them are excellent; some of them would be considered "not great" by any of the current trendy standards. But none of this seems to matter. It seems to us that Osvaldo Rivas treats everyone - from the humble barrio "mom and pop" tango couples, to the eager tango professional wannabes, to the established performers and teachers - with the same respect and interest, as if all his guests were the Clint Eastwoods, George Clooneys and Angelina Jolies of Tango.

The show's respectful attitude towards all its Tango participants reminds us of something that our teachers Martha and Manolo have mentioned to us in the past. We, like many of the current tango generation who have started to learn tango within the last decade, can sometimes get caught up in the "tango authenticity" game. We get carried away with debates about what is "pure" or "authentic" or what is "tango" or "not tango".

We remember complaining to Martha and Manolo about how horribly and "inauthentically" some people are dancing Canyengue, and how others are making a mockery of Tango or Vals or Milonga.

"What is the (Tango) world coming to?" we asked, exasperated. We feared an apocalypse.

"So long they are still dancing Tango, Tango will survive," Martha and Manolo replied.

Some people try to make their names in Tango by presenting themselves as the last bastion of "Tango Authenticity". "You have to listen to us and people like us," they say. "We are the only ones who know the TRUTH of Tango. Just look and compare our pure immaculate style to what you get out there - you will see that all those who don't dance like us are ridiculous, disgusting. We are the true heirs of Tango." They cannot bear any dissent. They ridicule any one who does not fit in their specific, rigorously tailored mold.

Maria Nieves once said, "No-one owns the truth to Tango." Then, is the kernel of Tango's truth in all of us, or in none of us? Or, as the title of Osvaldo Riva's show suggests, does the truth of "Tango" lie in the space "Between Us"? And in the end, does it matter?

As Martha and Manolo has said, "So long they are still dancing Tango, Tango will survive."

Every one of us is important in this, the greatest story of Tango ever told.

While we are still pondering this issue, why don't you enjoy some of the dancing and singing on the show?

Entre Nosotros Tango con Osvaldo Rivas Program 2:

Dancers: Laura Vasica y Julio Cesar Cordi

19:40 Tango - Milonga de 40
22:15 Milonga - La Milonga que Faltaba
24:39 Vals - Corazon de Oro

Entre Nosotros Tango con Osvaldo Rivas Program 1:

Dancers: Oscar Hector y Mily Vallejo

24:59 Tango - Patetico
27:45 Vals - Viejo Porton
29:55 Tango - Poema

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Coping Strategies for the Cabeceo-Challenged Gringo in Buenos Aires

"I don't have my glasses - is that a lady or a dude that I'm cabeceoing?" - Man Yung

Man Yung at a milonga is like a kid in a candy store. He tries to act all cool and stuff when I tease him about it but in reality for Man Yung, not even the Communist Party is close to being as fun as a Tango Party.

All that uncontrollable enthusiasm and a good dose of near-sightedness makes Man Yung "Tango a Go-Go" with an extra bit of "Geeky" on the side. Forget about being one of the level-headed, suave "Gringo Milongueros" lounging elegantly at the bar, dry martini in hand, dressed in their sharpest tweed suits and scanning the room with a cool, discerning, expert eye for the best followers on the dance floor. Man Yung wants to dance with every single follower at every possible moment using the greatest number of steps possible! And how about that pesky partner he drags around with him to every milonga?* Man Yung is the poster-child for the "Cabeceo-Challenged".

Sad to say, even though Man Yung’s tried-and-true technique of “Running up to every woman in sight in order to ask her to dance” may often work to get him dances in the local gringo tango community, the Portenas of Buenos Aires may not be so forgiving of such blatant violations of Codigo.

So what is Man Yung to do when he is at a Buenos Aires milonga? Is he forever doomed to dancing three tandas with Irene and then sitting out the rest of the evening because he has completely tired Irene out with all the turn, voleo and gancho combinations known to tanguero-kind?

Not at all. In fact, total tango geeks like Man Yung can still get to dance with the Portenas (or even Milongueras) of Buenos Aires! How does he do it? We humbly refer you to:

Irene and Man Yung’s Coping Strategies
for the Cabeceo-Challenged Gringo

1. The Gringo must take advantage of his advantage

Any Gringo that walks into a Buenos Aires milonga has a distinct advantage over the regulars. Believe it or not, the Portenas are not automatically disgusted by presence of the said Gringo - conversely, they are automatically intrigued. Said Portenas have danced with all the regulars for years and years and no matter how great asado is, sometimes they want a little chinese take-out (or whatever foreign cuisine may take their fancy). All eyes will be on the Gringo for at least the first 30 seconds.

You've got their attention - you should take advantage of it! Do not confirm the typical gringo stereotype of being loud and pushy by being rude to the waiter. Do not shove people to one side to get to your seat and start picking at your stinky bare feet on the nearby chair. Do not dress like you have just dragged yourself out of bed and you can't find any clean shirts and pants so you put on any ratty, sweat-stained old thing. Do not wear cologne that smells like eau de foxes' ass or worse, exude the natural aroma of dirty moldy dishtowel.

Smile and be friendly! Smell lovely and look presentable! You want to attract and not repulse the inquisitive Portena/Milonguera. First impressions count - make that a double for the Gringo.

2. You may not be able to see more than five feet in front of you, but there's no need to strike an iceberg and sink like the Titanic

Man Yung looks like he is bright and alert but he is actually blind as a bat without his glasses. He is so eager to dance that he isn't going to waste time by putting his glasses on and them taking them off after every tanda (besides he will probably lose them).

It will be futile for him to try and cabeceo the ladies on the other side of the dance floor when he can't even distinguish between man, woman, animal, vegetable or mineral at that distance. So what does he do? Man Yung cabeceo's the ladies sitting nearby within sight range, preferably the ones seated only a few seats away. He is never choosy. He operates on the principal that all ladies are lovely (and indeed they are), there can be no duds and besides, any dance is an opportunity for other Portenas to observe and hopefully approve of him.

I must admit, sometimes it's not possible to cabeceo the closest Portena due to the seating arrangements. At some of the barrio milongas like Glorias Argentinas and La Baldosa/El Pial where people are seated in couples and groups and singles all in a big mish-mash, the lovely ladies are often within Man Yung's reach. But what happens if he runs out of nearby ladies and has to target the ladies a little further out? And what about places like Maipu 444, Leonesa and El Beso where the single ladies are seated on the opposite side of the room? Man Yung has to try something a little different.

If Man Yung has already danced with a nearby Portena, and if he has made a good first impression (see #1 above), Man Yung will already have a little "dance credit" which makes the next step a little easier. In any case and whether or not he has already danced, Man Yung will have to find some excuse to take a walk to where the other Portenas may be seated - you know, just stride nonchalantly past the ladies' section on his way to the washroom, the bar, etc. While zipping past within sight range, Man Yung will carefully observe who is looking at him. Anyone looking with anything more than just a casual glance will be potentially agreeable for the next dance with an 80% certainty.

When Man Yung comes back from the bar or washroom (and washing his hands with soap and water before returning to the milonga is of utmost importance - you'd be surprised at the number of men who don't!) he waits for the beginning of the next tanda. As the first notes of the next tanda plays, Man Yung will cross the floor while staring intently at the most encouraging candidate. When he gets to the point where he could actually see her, it's a score if she returns his gaze - if she is looking away he better surreptitiously (the key is "surreptitiously") move on to his next choice or, if that is not possible, he will have to change his course and discreetly walk to the bar/washroom again.

What Man Yung should not do is what he did last weekend at a local milonga - walk confidently towards one lady, stand in front of her, discover she was uninterested and deliberately looking away, and then immediately turn to her friend seated next to her. How uncool is that! Of course he was rejected. "No-one wants to be the consolation prize," I sternly reminded him. In fact, one gentleman did this to me at Toronto's now defunct Milonga Sentimental and I gave him such a resounding "No!" that we have not exchanged a single word since.

3. Dance, and do not manhandle.

All Portenas would love to dance with the best of the best at all times but they know that will only happen in Tango Heaven. In making do with lowly Tango Hell, the Portena understands that leaders come in all sizes and shapes and levels of dance competence.

Therefore, even if you are not totally confident in your dance abilities, please do not hesitate to cabeceo the Portenas. They can be surprisingly forgiving of a leader's faults - so long he is still "Dancing".

By "Dancing", this means that dancing with, and not dancing at, to, or against the Portena. Within the first 15 seconds of the embrace, you know every thing you need to know about your partner. You know if she can follow some complex things, or whether she can just walk. You know whether she wants to dance simply or go for plenty of figures. It's not rocket science, and it's never wrong to play it safe and err on the side of simplicity.

What you don't want to do fling your partner about in some bizarre tango fantasy with splits and aerial acrobatics. You may also want to avoid aspiring to be "Head Bumper Car" in the quest to bump all other couples aside to make more space for your exhibitions. It is also inadvisable to make yourself as stiff as a board or as hard as a vice in trying to contain or control a partner that does not follow perfectly, or who is perhaps moving by herself in a frenzy of steps and adornments.**

Whether you encounter small stumbles or whether something goes terribly wrong, accept it with good grace and good humour. Don't throw a tantrum or look like you are in pain. Be a gentleman and not a dictator. Aim for a smile on your partner's face, not a grimace. The Portenas looking on will note your dancing - but what will be even more important is your gracious attitude. And they will tell their friends.

4. Treat your significant other as an asset, not a handicap.

It's not set in stone that couples will not get invited to dance in the milongas of Buenos Aires unless they split up, sit in different areas and pretend not to know each other.

If you are so lucky to have a partner, don't divorce her when you are paying the entrada, use her to get more "dance credit"! Dance with her to show off your skills and treat her like a queen. And, as in #3 above, do not manhandle. Portenas will judge you by your treatment of your partner - the nicer you are to her, the nicer you are likely to be with others. Gain enough "dance credit" - and the cabeceo stares will still come your way.

The above will obviously not work if your significant other is a total bitch. If she is visibly unfriendly, if she is staring daggers at every woman in the vicinity, or if she is throwing a jealous fit, Portenas will stay away from you like the plague. The last thing they want is to get into a catfight on the dance floor over a Gringo (Breaking News: You are not worth it).

5. Even if you are not irresistible, it doesn't mean that you can't make the prospect of dancing with you irresistible.

Know your music. If something particularly lovely and charming starts playing - a delicious Di Sarli, a moody passionate Malerba, a romantic vals - see who didn't get asked to dance.

Chances are that many of the Portenas left out of the first round will be more receptive to a request from you! They'll be likely to dance if you haven't horrified them with your behavior to date. Don't disappoint them (see #3 above). They're doing this because they can't resist the music and not because you are some Hot Shot Tango gift from God.

Please note: Don't do as Man Yung does. He'll dance the nice music with Irene and then leave all the milongas and all the tandas of muddy, aimless middle-of-the-road music for everyone else.*** Yes, Man Yung loves Irene - but this is not the way to get dances from Portenas.

6. The Portenos would like a bit of your attention too (Especially in the Barrio milongas).

All this staring at Portenas may mean that you are neglecting the Portenos - don't forget that they need attention too! After all, they may have escorted some of the Portenas to the milonga, and the Portenas you want to dance with may be their wives and friends. It is a winning strategy to be on their good side.

Have some manners. Be receptive and friendly. Look at the Portenos in the eyes when they look like they want to nod hello or speak to you. Smile and nod back, even if you can't speak or understand Spanish and the Portenos are going on and on about something mysterious. So long you are pleasant and agreeable the Portenos don't mind if you don't understand a single word and you don't have Irene to translate (happens to Man Yung all the time).

Enjoy and admire their tango! Or better yet: enjoy and admire their rock n' roll and their cumbia. Don't frown and roll your eyes when the Portenos steal all the Portenas or when they flood on the floor in tanda after tanda of "tropical music". Appreciate it! Smile, make eye contact, give the "thumbs up" or call out "Esa!" or "Lindo!" for particularly nice moves on the dance floor. But don't over do it. Be honest and sincere - because Portenos can see through any fakery.

If you are intent on being a rude, snobby "I'm better than everyone" a*hole with a sour expression on your face, don't blame us if you get the "Evil Eye".

However, if you make enough of an impression that you are a good guy, the Portenos will welcome you with open arms and introduce you to their friends. In fact, you and your significant other may even get stopped by friendly Portenos on the dance floor - I don't know how many times Man Yung has switched me with some Porteno's partner right in the middle of the tanda upon the said Porteno's request. In addition to a dance or two, you may even get an invitation to someone's house for asado.

7. If your heart belongs to Buenos Aires, do make sure you go back - often.

A Gringo with his regular gringo life may not be able to spend 365 days of the year in Buenos Aires - but being there two weeks out of fifty-two does not automatically mean that you can't be a "regular" at your favourite milongas.

Make your time at each milonga significant. Remember the faces of the people you meet, note down their names. Send them christmas cards and emails if you get to know them better. Go back whenever you can (whether on the same trip or on future trips) - and be surprised at the number of people who will remember and recognize you and embrace you with fondness.****

Conclusion: Be respectful of the Buenos Aires milonga, be friendly, honest and sincere to all the inhabitants therein- give out positive vibes. Lay down the appropriate groundwork, and it wouldn't matter how Cabeceo-Challenged or otherwise defective you are in complying with the Codigos. You will not only get dances, you will also discover life-long friends.

* Her name happens to be Irene.

** At Glorias Argentinas one night, Man Yung was stuck dancing with precisely this kind of Portena, namely, an ancient follower who will did every kind of wriggle, toe tap, kick, step, knee lift and leg flap in the world to her own delight far far away from "Realm of Following". Man Yung was too much of a gentleman to spoil her fun and she had such a blast. All the locals (except the organizer) had stopped dancing with this poor lady but did they think less of Man Yung for dancing with her? No. In fact, they were pleased that he treated her so well and was so good-humoured about it. It was one of the rites of passage at this milonga to dance with this strange old bird and after this, Man Yung was treated like one of the locals!

*** Don't think that the ladies won't notice. Our Toronto Milonguera friend always complains to Man Yung, "What's your problem? You only ask me to dance to music that Irene doesn't like!"

**** As one Porteno remarked to us upon seeing us again this year at a milonga: "Where have you been? It's about the time of the year that I knew you two would show up. In fact, we have been waiting for you to arrive since last weekend!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Buenos Aires 2008 - Part 6

Sunday (night)

There's nothing like taking a shower and lounging in the hotel room after a hot, sweaty, dusty day walking about in Buenos Aires. We spent the rest of afternoon indulging in nap-taking, email-sending - and soccer watching! Man Yung is is heaven in Buenos Aires, not only because there's tango, but also because there is always soccer on tv.

Late afternoon the storms came. It got pretty wild out there with the thunder and the rain. The news announced severe flooding and horrible weather conditions for the evening. We thought we were lucky to miss the flooding that had happened the day before we arrived - but now it seemed like we were going to be stuck right in the middle of it anyway.

We received a call from Alberto - he was concerned about the weather too and wanted to "wait and see" before deciding to meet at the milonga. We suggested that we cancel for tonight, we could always meet up later as there was a week and a half left on our trip. It was disappointing but we didn't want Alberto to drive out and get stuck in three feet of water just to meet us. It was also an good opportunity to take some rest. Sometimes Buenos Aires is just too exciting and we don't take good care of ourselves even though we are totally exhausted. In any case, we promised Alberto we could meet again on Friday after the Camicando festival classes.

So we take a look outside at 9:30 p.m. and guess what, the roads were dry and the cars were zipping by without nary a hint of waterlogging.

So what do we do? Instead of being "good" we decided to be "naughty" and head out to a milonga. Consulting the Tangomap, we saw there was a milonga at "Plaza Bohemia"/Maipu 444. We had heard on our last trip that apparently lots of "good" dancers go there. It was time to check it out.

We took a taxi and it took us on the other side of the big Av. 9 de Julio. No rain, just another mild beautiful glittering Buenos Aires night.

Maipu 444 is a venue on the second floor up a steep flight of steps. It’s small and there’s a bar on one end, a floor with blond wood, and a DJ booth elevated up up on high on one side. In contrast with the lack of activity in the streets, the milonga was packed to the rafters with dancers.

Since we were a couple the organizer seated us right at the back next to the window overlooking the street. The tables in the front and along the sides were filled with “single” men and women. The place has more "big name" milongueros per square inch than any other place we have gone to so far. Cacho Dante, Ricardo Viqueira, Abel Peralta, Rueben de la Pompeya (hello again!) and other assorted top leaders lined one side of the room. On the other two sides of the room: lots and lots of hungry looking women in their four-inch Comme Il Fauts and sexy outfits. Rrrrrrrrooaaaarrrwww!

Hiiiisssssssssssssssssttt! Hands off MY milonguero!

From what we observed at Maipu 444 (and perhaps in other places too), bagging a "milonguero" to dance with you is serious business. The competition is stiff! So how does a follower get a dance? First, you better be a good dancer, because the standard here is top of the pops. Secondly, you have to look attractive. The young and sexy definitely have an edge - and so do the conspicuously rich. Thirdly, it helps to be a regular so that the other regulars have a chance to observe you in all your glory.

Fourthly - (for the very advanced only) you could try FACE DANCING. The fact that one can dance with one's face in Argentine Tango did not even occur to us until we attended this milonga and saw it in live, technicolor action. Hate it or love it, it works like a charm. It may give us the heeby-jeebies but we have to admit, not only "Irene" but "Man Yung" would face dance too if they were competing with ONE HUNDRED other women for FIVE milongueros. Survival of the fittest!

We managed to navigate the the teeny-tiny space between the packed bodies on the floor without being stomped to pieces and more or less with the music - what a feat! Some burly argentinian guy sitting a few seats from us gave us a thumbs up when we passed by on our way to our seats in Siberia. Perhaps he was thinking: "Way to go, funny-looking little chinese people! I thought you would be massacred in this crowd!" Ruben was really friendly too, we said hello and he kissed us both at two different times during the milonga.

Then BOOM! The power went out at the milonga around 10:30 p.m. The air conditioner, which had been operating at full blast (the milonga was a "disco human inferno" with all those people, even the milongueros were wearing short-sleeved polo shirts and not suits), finally blew a massive fuse. There was a bewildered commotion but luckily no stampede for the door. Gradually, people started to leave. We stuck around for around 15 minutes more, observing the organizers trying to locate the problem, shining their flashlights up and down and scratching their heads. To no avail. They looked pretty darned confounded by the problem, so we left. And went to Lo de Celia!

The taxi driver scared us a bit by saying that we should be careful around Lo de Celia, it was in a bad area filled with thieves and prostitutes. Well, the area isn't as nice as the area we are staying in, but it was still ok - thankfully we didn't get mugged or propositioned in the three metres we had to walk from taxi to the door. The milonga was upstairs on the second floor.

The milonga was kind of empty. People stayed away because of the rain. Certain dancers may consider the level of dancing at Lo de Celia lower than that of Maipu 444, but then they may have been hoping to see more ram-rod straight "Compeonato Salon Tango" dancers in crisp suits with the deadly serious "Somebody killed my goat - I revenge with Tango Walk!" expression on their faces.

If you aren't measuring tango by this, ahem, "rigid" (but currently trendy) standard you would find the the dancing at Lo de Celia wonderful - musical, emotional and honest.

Lo de Celia

People were enjoying themselves at Lo de Celia. The floor is really nice - granite tile, but really slippery, like oil or butter, so you can glide along - and the music was excellent.

We had a blast at Lo de Celia, even though the milonga finished soon, shortly after midnight. We just danced with each other, shared a beer, and didn't care a whit about "not embarassing ourselves in front of Cacho Dante". There were people who recognized us from Glorias Argentinas - and they said hello and were really friendly.

Afterwards we went to eat pasta and empanadas La Madeleine, the 24 hour restaurant near our hotel, and we were back by 1:30 a.m. - a record. Our evening was not spoiled in the slightest by the weather.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


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"?


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!"


** 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:


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


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.

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