Ten commandments of the milongueros

April 19, 2019

These are the unwritten rules that every milonguero respects.

1.  Thou shalt always dress well.  A milonguero bathes and shaves before the milonga. A pressed suit, clean shirt and tie are his uniform. Trimmed hair, shined shoes, and scent of cologne complete his attire for the milonga.

2.  Thou shalt dance ones own style.  A milonguero is a self-taught dancer with his own style, who can dance elegantly with any woman and make her happy.  A milonguero has learned by observing others, but he never copied them.

3.  Thou shalt dance well or not at all.  If there is no woman with whom he can dance his best, a milonguero is content to listen to the music and observe the dancing.

4.  Thou shalt dance for yourself and your partner.  A milonguero dances what he feels and transmits that feeling to his partner.  He doesn’t dance to perform or for applause.

5.  Thou shalt treat women with respect.  A milonguero never approaches a woman at her table or greets women while entering the milonga.

6.  Thou shalt invite a woman to dance from the table. A milonguero uses either a tilt of the head or movement of the lips to invite a woman to dance.  The invitation is subtle and not obvious to others in the salon.  Once a woman refuses his invitation, he will not invite her again.

7.  Thou shalt not dance with another man’s partner.  A milonguero takes time to watch the floor for several tandas so that he knows if a woman he wants to invite has a commitment with another man.  This is not always obvious since they sit separately, but dance only with one another.  A milonguero learned patience.

8.  Thou shalt dance in the floor space available.  A milonguero dances compactly without interfering with others dancing.  If he touches other dancers, he quickly acknowledges it by raising his hand.

9.  Thou shalt not dance consecutive tandas. A milonguero dances only when the music inspires him.  He can wait hours to hear his favorite orchestra or a certain tanda that inspires him to dance.  A milonguero prefers quality over quantity of dances.

10. Thou shalt not be seen leaving the milonga with a woman.  A milonguero arranges to meet a woman on the street.  He always leaves the milonga alone, just as he enters it.

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“The codes are like the commandments which were born with the tango.”  — Ricardo Vidort

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Back to basics

April 18, 2019

There are some misconceptions about learning to dance tango:

  1. You will never completely learn it and could spend years on one step.
  2. It is a difficult dance and requires years of study to dance well.
  3. It is best to study with a variety of teachers because one can always get something from every class.

Learning tango is approached by many as a dance to master, no matter how long it takes.  Those who become obsessed take classes with every teacher they can find (whether or not they are qualified to teach), attend marathon weekends of seminars and milongas, and work tirelessly on perfecting every detail of their dance until it no longer resembles tango.  They look to the so-called experts for criticism on how they can improve.  A simple social dance has become a world-wide market for anyone with the guts to hang out a shingle and call themselves a tango teacher.

What does “completely learn it” mean?  Learn all the steps ever created and master them?  Why spend years working on one step?  Who says it’s not good enough the way you did it a year ago?  How can someone judge a feeling?  There is a collective mindset that is brainwashing everybody into believing that it takes years to complete enough training to be worthy to dance it.

I taught social dance classes for ten years.  At the end of eight classes, the students had enough basics to go out and dance.  People have busy lives with work, family, and other obligations.  They learn to dance for pleasure and to enjoy the company of other dancers.  Those in my classes didn’t have to continue with more classes in order to dance socially and enjoy themselves.   Why isn’t it the same for tango?

Tango has been labeled as a “difficult” dance.  It is really very simple.  One needs to learn to walk with the music.  Understanding the music takes years, but dancers rarely dedicate themselves to the music first.  They go to classes where they are expected to memorize steps and then try to fit them to music they never heard.  This is what makes tango difficult.  If those who wanted to learn to dance were told they had to listen to recordings of Troilo, D’Arienzo, Di Sarli, and Calo for eight hours a day, seven days a week, in one year they would be ready to learn the basics of tango and dance after eight classes.  We can’t dance to music we don’t know.  Music that is foreign to us requires time to understand.

Ricardo Vidort once told me that he taught everything he knew in eight classes.   Then he told his students he had no more to teach them. They had to go practice on their own and develop their own style.  They didn’t need more classes.  He was right.  Those who stay in classes for years want approval from the teacher and won’t practice on their own.

People who have taken years of lessons with many teachers eventually return to basic classes.  Imagine all the hours spent in classes to improve one’s level of dance only go back to the beginning.  I suppose many finally realize that all those advanced technique classes were not what they needed.  They forgot most of it, and in the end knew that one needs only a few steps to improvise tango.

Those who place themselves at an “advanced” level continue to attend classes.   Perhaps they like showing how easy everything is for them and justify participation because they always learn something new.  That’s life. We learn something new every day and hopefully continue learning throughout our lives.  There should be a point, no matter what we are learning, when we gain more from self-study and practice.  That’s certainly true in tango.

  1. Learn the basics, practice on your own, and then go dance.
  2. Tango is simple.  Love the music first, and your tango will come out of you.
  3. Leave class before you become obsessed with collecting steps.  Then develop your own style.

From street to stage

April 17, 2019

A street dancer creates rather than copies and improvises with the music without rehearsal or choreography.  A street dancer dances in the moment and derives inspiration from the music.

Ricardo Vidort talked about tango as a street dance that was practiced on the corner or in the park between boys who knew nothing about dance technique.  There were no dance teachers when they were learning tango in the 1930s and 40s. Feeling was their only technique.  They developed their own personal styles.  They were creating their styles in those days that we see today in the milongas of Buenos Aires.

Today we can find all types of dances being taught in studios.  Street dancing (hip hop, funk, etc.) originated in the streets of the ghettos just like tango did in Buenos Aires.  Contemporary street dance is so popular today that it is taught in dance academies and certified teacher training programs.  Professional instruction washes out all the creativity of a pure form.

Tango originated a street dance.  Boys practiced together to dance well enough to invite girls at the dances.  Tango was danced in its purest form.  Watch the milongueros viejos in the milongas, and what you’ll see is pure feeling and simplicity.  They created their personal styles at an early age and then danced every night of the week in the downtown confiterias, cabarets and salons.

Today, the younger generation of dancers is studying tango, perfecting their technique and preparing choreographies to perform for exhibition and stage.  They are trained, but they lack the essence of tango.  They practice choreography hours each day for performance.  Their goal is technical perfection, but they have no feeling.

What will the milongas be like when all the milongueros viejos are gone?

Connection

April 15, 2019

I recently attended a concert by a jazz quartet.  It was nice hearing live music being improvised in the moment.  Jazz musicians know what pieces they are going to play, but they never know exactly how they will turn out because they allow the music to happen in the moment.  The music is improvised within the framework of each specific composition.  Each musician has his part to play and at the same time are connected with one another.  They respond to one another in the music, and that’s when it all happens.  You can see it on their faces.  They are having a musical conversation with each other while the music happens.  Each takes a turn with a solo while others support it — piano, string bass, trumpet, and percussion.

I couldn’t sit still during the concert.  The rhythm was contagious and had me tapping my hand or foot quietly the entire hour.  I felt a connection to the music.  This is the reason I go to listen to live music.  It’s a different experience whether listening or dancing.

The quartet invited a tenor saxophonist to join them for a Thelonious Monk composition.  When he wasn’t playing, he was on the sidelines, connected with the music and doing his own little dance.  Musicians dance while playing their instruments, in their own way.  The body wants to move with the feeling that comes from the music.  Whether they are swaying back and forth, nodding the head, or tapping a foot, musicians respond to the music with movement.  It’s their unique way of dancing.

After the concert, I thought about the similarities and differences in tango music and dance.  Tango music is not improvised, although the dance is in a social setting.  Each tango, vals or milonga was arranged in a particular style for a certain ensemble.   Each group has its style from the arranger.

The milongueros improvise their dance in the moment because they know the music and connect with it.  Their tango comes out of them; the music tells them what to do.  There is no thinking going on, only feeling.  Connection comes from one source — the music.  It doesn’t happen without it.  It has nothing to do with technique, footwork, sequences, etc.  Two become one in the music because they are connected with it.  This connection is like a meditation when there is awareness of the moment and nothing else.   Feeling will get us closer to this connection than thinking about it.

The music is the source of the emotional connection in tango, and the embrace is the catalyst for sharing it.

Musicality

April 14, 2019

Musicality: a sensitivity to, knowledge of, or talent in music.

For some it’s natural, for others it’s a struggle.  You either have sensitivity for the music or you don’t.  That doesn’t mean it can’t be learned.  Attending classes on the subject offered by dancers with no musical training won’t help.  More than anything it takes listening for hours to music to internalize it.  Then your dance becomes a natural expression of your connection with the music.

I recall that not to long ago tango dancers weren’t interested in the codigos in the milongas of Buenos Aires.   That has changed, and progress is being made. Finally many recognize that there is a need for rules of social conduct on the dance floor.  Another subject that was avoided in tango classes was dancing to the music.  Everyone was completely focused on learning and memorizing steps patterns that there was no attention given to the music.  Teachers with no musical training counted steps rather than the beat of the music.  That, too, has changed.  Connection and musicality are the topics of discussion.

Musicality workshops seem to be more common these days.  It has taken years for teachers to realize that the music they have lived and breathed all their lives in Buenos Aires is strange for newcomers to tango.  The music is where the dance begins.  Without it, there is no dance.  Knowledge of the music for dancing is necessary for its natural expression.  You can’t dance well to music that you don’t know.  In order to be connected, you need to feel it.

One can present information about how to listen to music, hear the differences in rhythm, melody, harmony, pitch, etc., but it takes active listening on the dancer’s part to acquire the sensitivity to relate to it with the body.  I believe that tango as a social dance does not have to be artistically perfect by well-trained dancers in order to be called tango.  Tango is one of the most natural social dances I have encountered in my life where every milonguero has his own style, improvises in the moment, and knows how to dance well with any woman.  The embrace is more important that any steps to a milonguero.  That, too, is rarely taught in classes although it is the basis of tango for a milonguero.

Do you dance tango to impress others or to express a feeling?  This is an important question.  Both types are seen at social dances.  Those who are out to impress others are usually oblivious to others on the floor.  This is demonstrated in all the exhibition videos where one couple performs to impress the audience.  Usually what they are dancing cannot be done on a social floor, so students are not learning what they need. Tango is a means to an end for them.  On the other hand, there are dancers who express their feelings calmly and quietly without disturbing others.  Tango is a feeling shared by two.

Every orchestra has its own unique style, with a different rhythm and mood.  It takes years of listening to distinguish them and learn to dance differently to each one.  There is no pressure on dancers to accomplish this in a certain amount of time.  One’s commitment to the enjoyment of tango includes listening to the recordings on a daily basis to know and understand the music.  That is the only way to become a good dancer.  The goal is relating your dance to the music through movement.  The feeling comes from within you and only when you connect to the music that you know and love.  That feeling is yours to share with your partner as a silent conversation.

The challenge for tango dancers is acquiring a knowledge of the music that was born and created in Buenos Aires many decades ago.  The music has remained timeless in the recordings.  It is our job to become acquainted with it and love it.  An hour class on musicality won’t accomplish that.  It takes personal dedication.  No one can do it for you.

Tourism keeps the milongas open

March 6, 2019

Jorge de Gouvea and I stay in touch by telephone since I no longer go to dance.  He told me that he went to Lujos in El Beso where the entrada is 200 pesos (about $5 for tourists).  Jorge enters free wherever he goes to dance.  Frankly, organizers should pay him to show up and dance with foreign women.  He dances with them anyway.  There are very few remaining gems like Jorge in the milongas.

Jorge said that the foreigners are the ones keeping the milongas open in Buenos Aires.  That’s the truth.  He heard there were 155 at Lujos, 96 of whom were foreigners.  They outnumber the locals at some milongas, and the milongas can’t survive without them.

I remember when the tourist season was November through February many years ago.  Now the tourism is no longer limited to one season, which helps the milongas.

Bandonegro

March 5, 2019

During two weeks, I had the pleasure of hearing live performances by Bandonegro in five locations.  Each one was unique and exciting.  One never tires hearing great music performed by outstanding musicians.  The fact that they are all 25-26 years of age makes it remarkable.  Also that they learned to love and play tango in Poznan, Poland, far from any cultural influences or technical training unique to tango.

Marek Dolecki (piano), Marcin Antokowiak (double bass), Michal Glowka (bandoneon), and Jakub Czechowicz (violin) were in Buenos Aires with the financial support of the Argentine Embassy in Poland.  They are all fluent English speakers, so they will have no problem when they tour the USA next year.  They are already working on 2020 tour plans, contacting milonga and encuentro organizers.  They perform at tango festivals in Europe.

Here’s a preview of this amazing tango quartet.

Photo credit: Amy Kadori Concert at Casa Polaca in Palermo, Feb. 8, 2019

 

That was quick

February 15, 2019

I saw a sign on the street today announcing the opening of Smart Fit Congreso on Bartlome Mitre 1759, so I went to check it out for myself.  I wrote about the demolition of Nuevo Salon La Argentina in December, and its conversion to a gymnasium.

Smart Fit, a Brazilian company, opened its first site in Argentina on February 9th, two blocks from the national congress.  What was once a spacious dance salon with stage was quickly turned into a modern fitness facility with wall-to-wall machines.  The place is open from six in the morning until eleven at night.  I noticed only a handful of people on the premises today at 7:00.  Membership is $800AP per month.

My next investigation will be Club Gricel on La Rioja.  Yes, it is another milonga venue that has permanently closed its doors, and all the milonga organizers found new places.  I’d like to know what plans Hector Chidichimo has for the place.  Stay tuned.

Buenos Aires is a great city for retirement

February 3, 2019

Today marks my 20th anniversary in Buenos Aires.  I want to share some of the reasons why I’m so happy in this great city.

Blue skies and sun during the summer and the winter!

Great weather all year around.  I have no complaints.  My hometown Chicago was hit this week by the polar vortex and registered cold like the south pole.  I feel sorry for family members, while I enjoy summer in Buenos Aires.  Even when it’s colder during the winter months of July and August, we don’t get freezing temperatures in the Paris of South America.

Citizenship.  It’s relatively simple for a retired person with social security benefits to get citizenship through the court.  You can do it yourself or hire a lawyer to handle the process which takes about a year.  I have dual citizenship since 2013 and two passports.  I have the right and the obligation to vote in all the elections.

Bilingual culture.  English is taking over the world.  I’m glad I studied Spanish for two years in high school or I’d be lost.  Knowing the local language facilitates making a connection with people.  Without it, I’d be at a loss for words, literally.  I meet people all the time who studied and speak English.  Store windows have signs in English, and restaurant menus are bilingual.

Social Security is enough to live on.  I started receiving monthly retirement benefits at age 62.  I own an apartment that I bought in 2005 with money from my mother’s estate.  I can live comfortably on my small retirement income and have savings, but I don’t know how I would manage if I still lived in Chicago.

Public transportation.  Buses and the subway are the most efficient means for getting around the city.  The highest fare based on distance is 17.50AR — about 50 cents.  We have electronic cards to pay the fares, and most lines are air-conditioned.  Buses run 24 hours a day, and the subways have extended hours on the weekends.  You don’t need a car in the city.  The downtown is pedestrian friendly.

Tango is everywhere in the city.  The dance and music brought me to Buenos Aires.  The milongueros viejos are the reason tango is unique in the city where it was born.  I learned what tango means to them, and they taught me how to feel and love tango.

Teatro Colon

The National Symphony Orchestra – Centro Cultural Kirchner

The Chamber Orchestra of the Nation in the National Congress

Philharmonic of Buenos Aires in Usina del Arte

Cultural life.  This is a city that values the arts and makes them available to all.  I attend free concerts at several venues.  It’s like having a subscription to four orchestras, except that all the tickets are free.  There are weeks I attend as many as six concerts and a concert lecture.  My years of instrumental music study helped me appreciate the cultural life I have in Buenos Aires.

Community involvement.  I attend neighborhood meetings every three months  hosted by the mayor and his staff when residents express their concerns and make suggestions.  Participation keeps me informed about our neighborhood.  The police commissioners hold monthly meetings at the police stations to stay informed and handle problems.  In my opinion, this is a city that works on improving all the time, and I like being involved.

Neighbors.  Having lived in the same apartment for 17 years, I have gotten to know many neighbors by name when we meet on the street and talk.  It makes me feel I’m a part of the community, like the one in the 1950s and 60s in Chicago when we knew all the families on the block.  Life is fast-paced today with technology, but I don’t feel anonymous here.  The owners of the health food shop greet me by name and know my purchase preferences.  I returned to the local pasta shop this week after a year, and the new owner, who met me only once, remembered I’m from Chicago. This happens regularly for me in Buenos Aires, and I love it.

House sales and resale shops.  These were my shopping destinations when I lived in the USA.  I’ve been a regular at the weekend house sales and resale shops in Buenos Aires since I heard they existed here.  I furnished my apartment going to house sales, and all my clothes and shoes are second-hand.  I give what I no longer wear to a church-sponsored feria americana.  I recycle everything.

Organic fairs.  When I finally learned that eating organic is important for my health, it wasn’t easy finding markets that sell it.  Fortunately, the city organizes organic fairs on the weekends in the parks.  I go on Friday or Saturday to buy fruits, vegetables, seeds, grains, and beans.

Friends.  I am grateful for my friendship with these three women–Marilyn, Ines, and Romaine.  Concerts are our common interest, so we enjoy music together.  It’s always a special time for me being with them.

A long search for a milonguero

January 21, 2019

His daughter Veronica reported him missing November 22.  Friends  announced his disappearance on social media.  He was found hospitalized in a coma.  He’s recovering.  What a relief.  Veronica was searching for him for almost two months.  Juan Carlos is 81.