Tango: my life as a not-so-good leader

And you thought that YOU were the worst dancer in the world ?

Friday, April 30, 2004

Big names

The obscure non-argentine tango teachers invariably mention on their CVs a prestigious list of the instructors with whom they took classes. One hour of collective class with Gavito and they name themselves "disciples of Gavito's", or "mainly influenced by Gavito". Well, if I followed their example I could now print an impressive CV after my short CITA trip, and entitle myself as "first-rate tango instructor, trained by the most prominent teachers of Buenos-Aires". But of course I'm still a beginner. The most beautiful girl in the world can only give what she has (russian proverb), and even all thoses great teachers could not magically turn me into an intermediate.

Here follow some impressions about all of them. Not worthwhile at all, but I'm writing it all the same, because in a few weeks I'll have forgotten everything.

Julio & Corina: Julio makes the teaching, Corina is merely an assistant. Speaking about assistants, they had not less than four of them, so there were six "teachers" in their classes. We, the clumsy students in need of much help, appreciated a lot. Julio taught us mainly fundamentals and technique, not sequences. One big concern, yet: He's lazy, and made twice the same class, under different titles.

Nito & Elba: On DVDs Nito looks like an old little fat man, but seeing him in a class is something else: he's incredibly grounded, and as for leading he's a kind of semi-god; I saw a complete beginner lady (american, more over) making, under his lead (or should I say his spell), effortless and beautiful boleos, saludos, barridas and giros, without understanding anything.

Milena & Ezequiel: The big name is Milena (Plebs), but she just stands quietly while Ezequiel gives the class. They don't explain much, and demonstrate sequences to keep students busy. I won't take classes with them any more.

Cecilia Gonzales: She has no partner, so something is definitely missing in her classes. On another hand, she insists more than her teachers colleagues on the woman's part in tango, which is a good point.

Paludi & Masso: a young and lively couple. Still, they're a bit lazy (they made a stage demo that I had already seen twice)

Gavito & Maria: He talks almost all the time, when he teaches he insults his students. Unlike the other teachers of the CITA, he has no assistants. Furthermore, the material he's demonstrating is not really useful if you're not a devotee of the milonguero-apilado style.

Demian & Carolina: They demonstrated unusual stuff, yet easy to lead, and usable in milongas.

Roberto & Natacha: they don't master only tango but also other things like folkloric dances. You may consider this as an asset (it enlarges their horizon) or a concern (they're dilettantes). Their musicality class, where they used different musics like samba or techno, was an eye-opener for me: all the foreign students kept doing the same sequences at the same rythm, whatever the music, unable to change their one-step-per-second routines. Only the local taxi-boys did adapt their dance to the music. I had fellows in this class, and I thought they were advanced dancers. Well, they're advanced leaders, or advanced technicians, but not advanced interpreters.

Facundo & Kely: Nice people, smooth tango, not the sharpest among the tango teachers or performers, but at my beginner level it was more than enough.

Sergio & Alejandra: They're true to their reputation, even in classes, which they give in a unique humouristic way. The material presented is very straight, though.

Melina & Claudio: Claudio comes from modern dance (and is still a modern dancer, by the way) so, a bit like Roberto & Natacha, it's either a good or a bad thing.

Adrian & Alejandra: I like them a lot. Their style is similar to Sebastian & Mariana's one, but as they're taller, their movements have more amplitude and it's easier for a beginner like me to watch what they're doing when they perform.

El Pulpo: this guy has found his own, unique style of tango (he uses only his legs and feet), which is nice. It's just that I don't like it, and I wouldn't want to dance this way.

posted by Pablo  # 3:54 AM (0) comments

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Could've been worse

The lady who had already required me for her bronze medal in argentine tango, decided to go one step further and invited a bunch of friends at her place, for a demo. So I had to go too, of course; and, by the way, not reluctantly at all. As long as there is free food somewhere, I'm always ready. And some food there was, indeed. Cakes, pies, ice-creams, strawberries, cheese...

Some people too. Non-dancers. None of them. Not only non argentine tango dancers, but neither able to dance anything. So it was a bit weird, with our kind hostess trying CD after CD to make people dance something (disco alternating with viennese waltzes), and the floor remaining desperately empty.

Actually, this proved to be an asset, as when our demo began, the public was impressed as soon as we got in the abrazo, and went nuts when we did our first back ochos.

The choreography had been cautiously prepared beforehand, of course. No less than six private classes were needed to be able to dance "Adios, pampa mia" (Canaro's arrangement), our teacher carefully choosing for us the simplest steps he knew. Well, not simple enough, as the whole tango was nothing less than a lasting series of mistakes by my partner. Anticipation, lateness, stepping on her own without my leading anything, losing balance, and so on. To make things worse, she kept apologizing to the public all along the dance ("Sorry!" "I missed!" "This step should have been beautiful..." "Stop looking at us"...), though the audience wouldn't probably have noticed anything of her mistakes if she had kept silent. The end of the song came before we had done half of the planned steps, and I had to lead a quite forceful end to be sure that she would follow at least this last moment.

Well, after all, who am I to criticize her ? She's been taking tango classes for more time than me, and she already earns three bronze medals (jive, cha-cha, tango), while I have none.

posted by Pablo  # 8:42 AM (0) comments

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Carlos Gavito, special guest of CITA 2004

Confortably relaxing in your armchair, in front of your DVD player, you're looking at a video of one CITA event. (a DVD duly bought through the official Cosmotango.com site, needless to say)
One after the other, the best performers in the world are frantically doing
jumps, kicks, hooks, turns, lifts, so quickly that you have to concentrate just to visually follow what's happening.
Then suddenly, as a new performer appears at the edge of the screen, you frown: what's the trouble with this damn DVD player, the slow motion function gets activated without my pushing any button of the remote controller!
Not so. The man now on stage is Carlos Gavito, and this man is never in a hurry when he dances tango. One minute later, he's near his partner. Two minutes later the abrazo is here. If the tango song is long enough, Carlos and his partner will reach the "four" of the 8CB.

The 75 year old Gavito is one of the Gods of tango. One of the most famous. One of the most expensive, also: 150 dollars for a private. (Number one remains Pablo Veron, with 200 dollars for 45 minutes...)

During my stay in Buenos-Aires, I had the honour and privilege to attend one of his (group...) classes.
Here is how it went:

The ladies were still wondering which taxi-boy was their, whan Gavito asked (ordered, by the way) us to stay quiet and invited us to have a seat. Then he began to speak, speak...

"I will not teach you steps and steps and steps. You have many teachers here who will take care of that. I will teach you tango (...)
Nobody here in this class, nobody, is that young any more. Far away is the time of your youth, when, looking above your head, you could see a rising sun and a blue sky. Next time you looked, the sun had already declined,
and some dark, frightening shadows were there; and by now, at your age, you're even afraid of looking up, because you know the night will come soon, you know that the end of your life, the only one life you had, is near. And you think of all these things that you wanted to get, and did never get, and will never get. All this things you wanted to do, and did never do, and will never do. You think of all the painful losses you've suffered, all the dear friends you lost. All this, is what you have to put in your tango (...)"

After an hour or so of these depressing words, and seeing that we were falling asleep on our chairs, he made us stand up and began to teach us the tango walk. Pointing at an north-american guy, he asked him to make a few forward steps. The poor fellow duly did what he had been taught to
do by all his tango teachers: feet on one line, toes touching the floor before the heels, brush, and so on.
Gavito affected a puzzled face:
"- What are you doing there ? Skating ? Walk like a man! Like a man!", and then showed a few cow-boy steps, to exemplify his words.

For sure, this man is not on par with his fellow tango teachers, who usually try to be kind with their students, and to encourage them ("Good, very good! It might indeed be even better if you did this..."). Yet, If some day, once the rent paid I still have 150 dollars, I'm not sure I'll spend them in a private with him.

As a Special Guest of CITA 2004, Gavito had to organize a so-called "night of the milongueros" at Sunderland, a kind of old neon-lighted warehouse, usually used for basket-ball championships, but where the portenos over 70 years (a.k.a the milongueros) have their habits.
He took the microphone and began another endless speech, with brief introductions of the performers (such big names as Duplaa, Pocho, and of course Gavito himself)

"(...) When Fabian [Salas] asked me to organize this night of the milongueros, I realized that this would be an enormous responsibility, something for which only an outstanding man could be up to the task. I don't know if I've been up to the task..."

Here Gavito stopped for a while, his hand on the heart, expecting the audience to burst into applauses ("Hail Gavito!", "Yee-ahh!", "Gavito for president!" and so on), but as the public remained silent he continued:
"This is a night you will remember! This is a night that will not look like any of the other CITA nights you already attended. Believe me..."
At this very moment a power failure occurred and the milonga fell into darkness for a few minutes. Fabian took advantage of it to steal the microphone, and when the light came back he
demonstratively thanked Gavito, and presented him an award, signed by all the big names.

The image I'll keep from him is the moment when, at the end of his class, a group of harpies, sorry, of american ladies sollicited him for some photos-souvenir. He agreed gracefully, and with an infinite patience, let himself be photographed with each of them, pretending to dance, of having their fat arms around his neck, happy to please them and keeping a broad, childish smile.

posted by Pablo  # 8:01 AM (0) comments

Wednesday, April 14, 2004


"You've to be dominant!", the (female) teacher said to me after I hesitantly tried to lead her into a simple giro. "You've to make me step on the music that *you* are hearing. Otherwise I'll follow my own music." Sure, with all the different beats that you may choose to follow on a tango piece, chances are low, in a probabilistic view, that my partner and me will be following the same instrument.
"Also, you have to actually lead, you can't just invite me to move. I
must have no choice. You're supposed to be in command."

Well, let's sum up the situation: facing the gorgeous, worldwide famous, highly skilled, trained, thin, smart teacher, is the little me, a fat, bald, clumsy, not so young, anonymous, uncertain potato-couch nerd. Who do you think will be dominating the other one ?

Maybe this is another reason why I can't dance tango: there is no appropriate partner for me.
With a partner of a higher level than mine, I don't dare to lead, keeps apologizing for having to touch her right hand with my left, and I stop after each beat, silently asking whether the step was OK before going to the next one.
With a partner of my level, or lower (Yes, yes, there are some!), I'll assume my role and take charge of everything, but then our tango won't be nice because of her, who won't know how to make giros, won't wait for the lead,
will have a poor balance, will be tense and won't follow the beat. (Partners of my level are very very bad dancers, you know...)

posted by Pablo  # 7:03 AM (0) comments

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Argentinian organizing skills (recurrent post)

I knew that this sympathetic pair of teachers was giving classes every thursday, but to know when exactly was another matter: the town tango agenda claimed it was from 19:30 to 21, while according to the teachers' site the schedule was: from 20 to 21:15.

Where was the truth? Between the two terms of the alternative, which one was right? I e-mailed them, and, as you have guessed, got a third answer: they're giving a class from 20 to 21:30

Not so bad for argentinians, you might think. It sure could have been worse, after all the three versions mentionned the same day (thursday). But in this couple of teachers, only one of them is an argentine.

posted by Pablo  # 12:51 AM (0) comments

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Bronze medalist, indeed

The phone rang, and the first thing that the lady said was a big thank for leading her during her attempt to gain an argentine tango bronze medal. Good news. The bad news (for me) is that she now wants to show to all her friends how well she's doing, (After all, she paid all these privates, she has to somehow gain dividends now) and has organized a kind of party with a tango-demo, where I'm supposed to go too, of course, and to lead her again. Or, better said, to fake I'm leading her, because everything is choreographed. So, once again, my blood will freeze in my veins as the music will begin and all the eyes will converge towards the bronze medalist lady and her taxi-boy.
Oh, and I need a hair-cut.

posted by Pablo  # 5:05 AM (0) comments

Monday, April 05, 2004

More about bumping

During one Gavito class in CITA, an american student asked a very clever (if a bit untactful) question to the maestro:
"- With your super-slow style, how is it you're not kicked by other people? I mean, it's a bit like stopping your car in the highway." Within a second the reply came:
"- But they kick me! They kick me all the time! There is no miracle. It's either being kicked or not dancing. But I do my best to protect the lady and absorb the impact. On each step I consider the most exposed direction for a collision, and I put myself in the way, so that the lady doesn't feel anything."

In my hometown, argentine teachers expressed some surprise, as this was exactly the opposite of what they tried to persuade us about the way argentine people are dancing tango, supposedly always in control, cautious, respectful, endlessly apologizing when even touching another couple, and so on. After some thought, they found two
distinct explanations:
- Nowadays, young energetic-aggressive people tend to overnumber mild-mannered old milongueros, and milongas' rules aren't what they used to be.
- There has always be an "institutionnal" bumping by regulars, to make clear to strangers that they were not welcomed on the dance floor. Local dancer would collide intentionally at every new leader, until he gives up.
This was done to foreigners, of course, but also to locals coming from other parts of the town.

But kicking Gavito? They can't believe it. Well, maybe argentine teachers living in foreign countries should spend a week or two in Buenos-Aires from time to time.

posted by Pablo  # 2:37 AM (0) comments

Friday, April 02, 2004

I'm back...

...from Buenos Aires. Now I'm part of the happy few who went to the tango Mecca, now I can end any tango discussion with a no-reply "You're wrong, they don't do it this way in Buenos-Aires; I saw them when I was there."

Well, technically speaking I stayed 10 days there, but it was more of Cosmotango than Buenos-Aires. With 4 shows during the week there remained few nights for the milongas.

Here follow some snapshots, but of course there simply is too much material for one single post, so I may come back to the subject later.

Milongas: shame upon me, I only attended five of them, and didn't even see the "Confiteria La Ideal". Well, I actually saw the confiteria, but the milonga is only open on afternoons, and during afternoons I had classes. I liked Gricel, Canning, La Viruta, El Beso, and disliked Sunderland because it is basically a basket-ball place (with ads, with powerful white light)
Apart from El Beso, the milongas where less crowded and smokey than I feared beforehand. No big surprise, as they had been booked by Cosmotango, so only foreigners were there. At El Beso (I went there after the festival had ended), it was crowded, and I made the painful experience
of the argentine leaders' bumping technique. Who told they never bump one into the other ? They're always bumping. If you're doing a static pattern and they're walking, they'll kick you; if they're doing a static pattern and you're coming behind, they'll make a small back step to kick you. If you see an empty space near you and want to use it, they'll first kick you to slow and block your move, and then they'll go in the spot. And as they're very grounded, it's like they're the truck and you're the bicycle. The most crowded hour is around 1 am. At 3 am there remain much less people.

Milonga rituals: the schedule is invariably the same : 2 tango tandas, one vals tanda, 2 tango tandas, one milonga tanda. For the cabeceo, I saw it at El Beso. All argentine guys were standing at the bar, while the ladies sat on the opposite part. I stayed within my group of non-argentine, mix-of-men-and-women people, and didn't even try to catch the eyes of some local chica, but the women at my table entered the game, and indeed got dances, despite some cabeceo-beginner mistakes ("I tell you he smiled to me!" "No, have a better look, it was to me, of course!" "You're both wrong, it's me whom he's trying to invite!")

Dancing empanadas: unlike the Loch Ness monster, they're no myth. In Corrientes avenue, between the obelisk and the port, alongside a McDonald-alike fast-empanadas shop, a team of people with empanadas costumes dance on the pavement, to attract customers. They're not dancing tango, though, as their funny costumes have short arms and short legs.

Dance styles: I knew it! I knew it! Buenos-Aires people are not dancing this stupid so-called milonguero-apilado way, both dancers leaning heavily on each other, glued and stuck, unable to move in any direction without lengthy preparation. They dance close, because they have to due the lack of space, but each one on his own, vertical, axis. It makes sense, by the way, as two people in a pyramid-like position need much more room than the same people in a close-but-vertical position.

Levels: Argentine leaders, no big surprise, are good. Not only do they always follow the beat, but they also adapt their way of dancing to the music played: smooth or nervous, large or small, sad or playful, static or walking; and they combine all this, e.g when dancing on El Puntazo (d'Arienzo) they make nervous, small, playful, walking steps. On the opposite side, U.S. citizens are incredibly bad. Not only on the dance floors (at La Estrella I saw a guy unable to make giros, leading with his arms, shaking his partner as an attempt to follow the rythm; to his credit, he wasn't looking at the floor, and
navigated nicely, without bumping. Two days before, as we were chatting informally in the hotel lift, he had told me it already was his third CITA festival, and I had then replied "Oh, you must be a great dancer then!") but also in the classes, where, in an intermediate one I saw U.S leaders not knowing a basic turn and U.S followers unable to do a back ocho.

Teachers: I took a lot of classes at the CITA. Being a beginner, I have to, of course. Maybe I'll detail the pros ans cons of each one in another post. One common thing I can already say is that they had a hard time with the american students, their bad level and their stupid questions. "In a milonga, am I responsible of the collision if I anticipated my leader's lead and moved on my own, but my step was the logical follow-up of the previous steps he had led?" . Hey, CITA is supposed to be a tango congress, not a bad lawyers' one.
Too many times, the teachers had to lower in quantity and quality the material they had intended to present. I have to congratulate them for their patience.

Suggestion: CITA 2004 had many more participants than CITA 2003, which already was great. Somehow the organizers were overwhelmed by their own success, and in many events the place proved too small for the crowd. For 2005, I suggest two separate CITAs: one for U.S people, and another one for the rest of the world.

posted by Pablo  # 2:24 AM (0) comments


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