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.

Toronto Weather

Buenos Aires Weather