By Alberto Paz
Copyright (c) 1997, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved
We met Mingo for the first time on April 5, 1997, at the corner of Corrientes and Medrano, the night we arrived in Buenos Aires. Tall, fit, standing straight, we formally shook hands, then he led us past a crowd waiting to get into Club Almagro. That night, the tango community was paying homage to the reopening of radio program FM Tango. For the next couple of hours, we witnessed a parade of celebrities and civilians who stopped by our table to greet and shake the hand of this man who now had become a gracious host to us. Over the next 30 days we were made part of the Pugliese family entourage and we had the rare opportunity to know very well the man behind the name Mingo Pugliese.
I was born in the neighborhood of Villa Devoto near the corner of Marcos Sastre y Emilio Lamarca, he speaks softly after he had just run to the corner store to buy a couple of batteries for our moribund tape recorder, my father was an immigrant who arrived alone, without a family, in Buenos Aires in 1905.
He did not get to see the high crime area where his father lived. Today, the Arroyo Maldonado runs under Juan B. Justo Avenue, but way back then it divided the city in two. The tramways reached the creek by Gaona and Nazca Avenues and people had to cross suspended bridges to get to the other side of Juan B. Justo into Villa del Parque and Villa Devoto.
When my father arrived to Buenos Aires, my mother was being born in Italy, he says, seventeen years later they got married, not before they had a hard time explaining to the authorities that although their respective parents were from Cozenza, Italy and had identical first and last names, they were not related brother and sister!
Gregorio and Maria Pugliese had three sons. Mingo is the youngest. The father was a consummate vals criollo dancer. This was a similar dance to the Viennese waltz but danced a lot closer turning right and left. He danced with his partner with their knees tied together in order to be able to move in very small spaces, he smiles and winks adding, that’s what I call real dancing on a tile.
In those days tango dancing was very popular. The older brothers loved to dance tango although they were nothing out of the ordinary. His father also danced it but he did it in a very simple way before he got married. Wrongly so, society always looked at the dance as something bad, he indicates. The dance of tango had a checkered past originated at the bordellos. Thus, it was not looked at very well among the decent families. The daughters of these families always needed to maintain a highly visible behavior that was not tainted at all by the Tango. Then, in the home of decent families, tango was a forbidden word. The only dances practiced by this sector of society were mazurkas, chotis, Viennese waltzes and whatever else was fashionable at the time, he concludes clarifying that he heard these stories from others who heard them from others.
Mingo Pugliese got attracted to the arts at a very early age. He recalls that from the group that he went to school with, he is the only one that turned out to be a bohemian. The rest are pianist Gerardo Baldini, a famous musician, Alberto Cosentino who might be a bishop by now and other successful businessmen. Of the group, I’m the only one always broke, he smiles, and recalling my own recanting of my experience in Buenos Aires he adds with a laugh, like you said, who can take away what I’ve already danced!
He never graduated from Fine Arts School because of political reasons. He was thrown out of school because his ideas clashed with the Peronist regime. It was around 1953-54. I had dissenting political views. Then, if you asked the wrong questions you could get in trouble. I asked a professor to explain some political positions and they kicked me out. Later, after Peron was overthrown they wanted me to come back but I decided not to, he concludes.
In a city like Buenos Aires, where in every corner cafe, porteños solve the problems of the world, form a new soccer national team every hour and have an opinion on everything and everybody, depending on who you talk, Mingo is respected, admired, questioned, envied, and above all controversial. Like everybody in the tango scene, he’s got very strong opinions about everything and everybody. What makes him controversial, is that he tends to tell people what he thinks about their dancing or their performances straight in their face, rather than going behind their back like many others do. Of course, dealing with reality, even if it is somebody else’s version of it, is not very pleasant and many opt for shying away from the authoritarian image that Mingo typically projects. Somehow, we seemed to get along very well and every time I offered to stop the tape recorder he said, let it run. You can write everything I say.
He first heard tangos as a child at home. One of his older brothers went out dancing every night to the academies. Now, there is a great confusion about what the academies were all about, he says. You had the type of academies where women worked and men purchased tokens to dance. For example, in the Tuvilla Taxi Girl, which later became the Maipu Pigall, you could buy 10 coupons for 1 peso and you could have 10 dances or buy a bottle of beer. Now, there were those who were very good dancers, then when the women were not too busy, they would give them back the coupons so the guys could drink a bottle of beer. Besides dancing for a living, the women enjoyed dancing with those who were very good at it. Those were one type of academies, he concludes.
He then explains that there were also the other academies where men practiced with each other and where men could really learn how to dance well. This is something that I want to make real clear, he emphasizes, men never danced with each other, because to dance is to go to a milonga. Men practiced in the streets, on the corners. I have photos of longshoremen practicing during breaks on the shores of the River Plate by the harbor. The reason why men had to practice with each other is because women were not allowed to attend these practices, then he reiterates, you had the women who were marriage material and the others, he smiles and winks, the women from “decent” homes and the others.
The mere fact of going alone to a milonga, was enough to lump women right away to the other category. Mingo explains that “decent” women went to the dances escorted by their mothers, fathers, older brothers, or older married sisters. Then, they did not have the chance to go to the practices. Most women learned to dance with their brothers or with some trusted friends of the family who had been given the seal of approval to enter their homes by their parents. Of course, many women learned how to dance at the milongas, he adds, a woman would dance with a good dancer and he would teach her gradually.
Mingo is very clear to emphasized that it was the men who really made a cult out of the dance and worked very hard to perfect their skills. Why, he rhetorically asks, because dancing was just about the only way that men had to conquer a woman’s heart, dancing very well. There was a time in the first half of the twentieth century when approaching a woman on the street or pulling up a chair and joining a woman at a table in a restaurant or coffee house was out of the question.Those things did not happen , Mingo says, then he elaborates, then, one of the ways to get close to a woman was the dance. There are many marriages that got started with romances on the dance floor. The dance was the only convenient place for men and women to meet, and the tandas were created for that purpose, to allow them a long enough time to begin to know each other. Here he points out that the time porteños wait after the music starts before actually begin dancing has been the motive of one of the many tango tales circulating around. Tango is surrounded of lies, he states, inventions of the younger generations or stories from the surviving old-timers who invent because most of the folks from their generation are dead and can’t call them a liar. Dead people can’t talk. That is a very nasty habit of ours. I don’t know if it is the same abroad, but we are masters at that. When Troilo died he had an infinite number of friends. Same with Goyeneche and everybody was a friend of Gardel. Take Petroleo for example, he gets very serious now, after he died, suddenly everybody studied with him, right? Yet, in interviews he gave to magazine La Maga and newspaper Clarin, he clearly states that I was his only disciple.”
The Pugliese family has earned the respect of the American tango community because of their dedication to the teaching of a method forf learning to dance the tango. A method that stresses good posture, careful foot placement and extensive body communication. A method based on the movements and positions of left and right turns, commonly known as eight count giros.
Mingo Pugliese defines those eight body positions as the key to the continuity of the dance and the elemental core of movements that lead to the all elusive art of improvisation. The origin of the method and the elements that make up its structure are attributed to a group of renovators led by Carlos Estevez, most commonly known as Petroleo. As it is the case with Pepito Avellaneda and Antonio Todaro, these three names are often dropped by people who claim to have studied with them, claims that can hardly be corroborated because they are all dead. Mingo touched on this subject that he calls the tango lies. Mingo assures me that Petroleo never taught anything to anybody. He may have shown a step here and there or he may have corrected the way a step was being executed, that is fine, he says, but he did not teach anybody, he concludes.
Besides he did not have the character and patience to teach, Mingo continues. He was a person so intelligent, that in a certain way he assumed that what was easy for him, had to be easy for anybody. He could not measure his own dimension and his capability to assimilate and know a lot of material. A person like that can’t serve a student very well. Well, it was not that he was useless as a teacher, he clarifies, on the contrary he was very useful, but he did not have the patience to be of any help to a person that makes mistakes. He needed to find somebody who had the consistency to be patient.
That is why when Petroleo wanted to incorporate more changes to the tango in the ’80s, he called upon his disciple to try the new movements together. It appears that Petroleo, whose nickname derives from the dark color of the wine he liked to sip, wanted to transform the way to dance tango with totally different movements that had nothing to do with the movements of the giro, enrosques, and boleos. Now there were my feet and his brain, Mingo explains. At that time he had new ideas, he kept generating ideas but his legs did not respond. Very sad, isn’t it? Later when he gave up I did not want to continue either, he confesses while his eyes betray a hint of the admiration and respect he still feels for the old master. I know some of those movements we did together, he recalls. Yes, I still remember the things he told me but I did not want…, he pauses trying to find the right words. Perhaps, he says, I did not want to get into an area that seemed too difficult. Perhaps it sounds like the easy way out but I opted for leaving it for the younger generation, he mixes sincerity with pride as there is an obvious reference to his son Pablo. I prefer that the youngsters do it, he says as he moves onto another subject.
Previously he had mentioned another of the common tango lies being spread for mass consumption. It has to do with the way the Argentine man stands in front of the woman in between the tangos of a tanda and seems to be waiting for the music to play a few bars before starting to dance. Many people say, there he is waiting to start dancing on the beat. Mingo explains that the wait in between songs allows the man a chance to talk to the woman because he does not have many other opportunities to do so after the tanda ends. He offers a plausible explanation. Traditionally, when the tanda ended, if the young lady did not go back right away to her place in the salon, she would be chastised by her mother, father or whoever was chaperoning her. For that reason men and women took advantage of the initial bars of each song to get to know each other. That is why the tango is the only music, and the Argentines the only ones, that when the music begins they let a few bars go by before they start dancing. This is a habit from the time when the dancing couple talked in between songs. So, those who now say that the delay in starting to dance is to enter on the beat are lying.
At the time Mingo started dancing there was already a transformation in progress of the way the tango was being danced. Two distinctive styles mixed up in the dance halls. There were some who danced in the old way and those who already were being part of the transformation. A musical and a dance transformation, Mingo clarifies. For him, tango is dance. The tango dance always existed, he says while explaining why he is against those who talk about tango and tango dance as two different things. There are no multiple definitions of the tango. For a simple reason, he continues, if the tango was always danced, it is a dance. People dance tango, sing tango and play tango. That’s all. I know that there is a generation of people that say a whole bunch of things with what I don’t agree at all. I can never agree with them because the tango was born as a dance. It all started with dancers. There were no singers. Some people sung obscene lyrics that eventually disappeared but fundamentally the tango was for dancing. Then, if it was danced, what was it? A dance or what? Why, I ask, they call tango dance to the tango they do for export? What does that have to do with anything? What is the other tango that people dance in the salons then? I’ll never understand. If both types of tango are danced, then why the different definition?
Mingo Pugliese confirms that the tango music had a series of transformations that move right along with the transformation of the dance. Very early, the tango had a 2 by 4 time signature. A copy of the habanera and the fandango. But there is something very important that he points out. Many people talk about the tango as a folkloric expression of Buenos Aires. The tango is not a folkloric dance. The tango is a populist dance. It is a hybrid that in its beginning took things from different musical rhythms. Therefore it does not have its total roots in the city. If it does not have roots, Mingo concludes, it is not folkloric music. Unless we pay attention to Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is proposing that the spelling rules be changed, because then they’ll change the meaning of the word folklore. So, I always say that the Tango is a modish music, not folkloric music. It is a hybrid derived from other musical expressions, some say from the habanera, the candombe, the fandango, the milonga. In another words there is a lot of controversy. But the musical notation of the Tango in the early stages was the same as any of those aforementioned, two by four. The Tango lacked any musical arrangements. All the musicians played basically “a la parrilla” throwing literally their sounds altogether without musical scores, mostly playing by ear. There were some wonderful orchestras.
The tango dancer
Mingo Pugliese calls himself a tango dancer and he has been doing it for 50 years. He claims to be the sole disciple of Carlos Estevez , a.k.a Petroleo, a fact that has been confirmed by Petroleo himself in interviews published in La Maga magazine and newspaper Clarin. Like many old timers of his generation, he is reticent to share his knowledge and his experiences possibly because he can’t measure his own dimension and visualize his place in history. We realize how important it is this exclusive interview that he agreed to do for us over a two day periodat his home in Parque Patricios in April 1997.
The following is account of Mingo’s recollecting about the way the music and the dance came to a historic encounter in their individual evolutions. According to Mingo, the Argentine tango, is founded in what he calls the ABCD of tango: Arolas, Bardi, Cobian and the one that rounds up the alphabet, De Caro.
Around the years 1922 or 1923, the musical notation of the tango changed. The change was already unfolding when Arolas began to compose the first arrangements “octavados”, in other words playing a succession of 1/8 notes in every beat. But De Caro gave the arrangements a more concrete form and began to write musical arrangements for each instrument changing the time signature to a 4×4 beat.
The basic rhythm consists of four 1/4 notes or eight 1/8 notes. What happened then? Some musicians, like Roberto Firpo, stayed with the rhythm of 2×4 . Many others began to adopt the De Caro style. However, the dancers continued dancing with the established style dictated by the 2×4 rhythm. The visual appearance of the dance did not match the sound of the music being played.
I know several people today that still dance with the 2×4 rhythm but if you see them dance a Tango with the 4×4 rhythm you figure out right away that they are not dancing within the music.
It’s not known how the primitive tango was danced, but it was done in a different way. More than anything, everybody danced with the same figures and movements that they would pass from one another. The figures had names, like el paseo, el molinete, la quebrada, el corte, la medialuna, el arroje, all figures that have passed into history and are mostly forgotten.
All those figures and steps that people invented, la rueca, el alfajor, la bicicleta (which is not like the bicycle figure used today), la corrida del bolsero, they were all names related to activities of everyday life. For example, la rueca is a textile tool used to spin wool that has a pedal that goes up and down. In the step called la rueca, the woman places her foot on the man’s instep and the man lifts his foot up and down, just like operating a pedal.
La corrida del bolsero was copied from the people that unloaded bags from the ships, carried them over their shoulders and loaded them into a carriage.
Many movements copied from real life were becoming figures of the 2×4 tango. Later, in 1938-39, Jose Orralde, El Vasco, practicing with one of the Recalde brothers, stood up straight and when he tried to bring his partner forward to begin dancing, he realized that there was no room for the man doing the woman’s part to advance, so he stepped back. They realized there and then that a new option was being presented to them. Typically, at the salida the back step did not exist. The man playing the woman’ role opened his right leg to the side and entered with his left leg forward, very similar to what some people called the American salida. Then at the cross there was a slight bend, not quite a quebrada. The walking was relatively slow, sharply marking the rhythm of the music because the 2×4 beat was much easier to follow.
All that did not look right with the music that had already gone through a dramatic transformation by Julio De Caro and those who followed his style. The transformation was so evident that De Caro dedicated a wonderful Tango to the old guard of musicians, and named it precisely A la Guardia Vieja, one of his better compositions. It was a homage to all those who had played without musical notations, a la parrilla, which literally means the act of throwing things onto the grill. The music stands were commonly known as “parrillas”, every instrument played from the same piano score.
In 1940, a group of neighborhood dancers known as bailarines de barrio, led by Carlos Estevez, a.k.a.Petroleo and Salvador Sciana, El Negro Lavandina, used to hang out at the corner of Jonte and Segurola Avenues at a cafe named Febo next to a movie house in a tiny neighborhood that most people associate with Villa Devoto but it is called Montecastro (a historical site where troops left to fight the Desert’s Campaign against the indians).
These dancers belonged to a new generation that was replacing the old bailarines orilleros. You, see, always there has been and there are only two types of tango: salon and orillero. Salon was the tango that was allowed to be danced at the salons. Orillero was the tango danced on the fringes. Originally the fringes were the territory of the scoundrels and rogues, el malandrinaje. Later the fringes became the neighborhood clubs. In another words in the center of the city you had the salons and in the barrios you had the clubs. The tango salon was danced walking in a very simple way, plain, unadorned. The tango orillero was danced with steps. This is the way it has always been.
Except in 1930 when another of my teachers, El Gallego Mendez began to dance the Tango with a canyengue style, which has nothing to do with the so called canyengue that is taught today.
Actually, those who claim to dance canyengue, dance very slow and with a gentle sway of the body marking the time with their feet. The real tango canyengue was very fast to the point that when Mendez began to dance it, people said that he had poisoned the tango. Many still remember, one of them is Carlos Albornoz, possibly the oldest living dancer. The other one is Jose Maria Bañas, a.k.a. El Pibe Palermo. However, what Palermo dances on the stage of the show Una Noche de Tango is not canyengue, it’s a tango with “medio corte”, a sort of tango-milonga. The tango canyengue is twice as fast. Of course it has more weight the one who says that dances canyengue and lived in the era of the canyengue than the one who did not know it. Because in the early ‘40s people did not dance canyengue anymore. The canyengue dancers you could count with the fingers of your hand. The only one that today comes close to the real canyengue, albeit that his legs can’t hack it anymore, is Jose Maria Baña, El Pibe Palermo. He’s the son of a dancer nicknamed El lecherito, the little milk man. They also called El lecherito to Casimiro Ain. Here there is something that has to do with history. I saw Mendez dance the tango canyengue and today it seems funny to hear people talk about tango con corte, de medio corte, canyengue. I lived through that time at an early age because I was lucky that being so young, they accepted me in their circles. I also saw people like Misto and Carila dance the tango orillero and the tango salon. I entered in the dance circles by the hand of a person that was loved and respected, El Negro Lavandina, whose real name was Salvador Sciana, the name that I use to identify my tango academy. He is one of the many forgotten people of tango. There were many important people that transformed the tango. The only one that people remember is Petroleo. Everybody talks about Petroleo. He was the inspiring figure of that movement. But there were many who contributed to that movement of transformation.
I started in 1948, eight years after that transformation had begun. This transformation and the movements that were being incorporated in the tango continued until 1953-54. Among all those people, there were a few that were not totally defined with the new movements and mixed the new with the old. That is why what I teach and the way I dance has many principles that were utilized in the old style of dancing. The way to place the feet without raising the heels, for example. When I started dancing, if somebody raised his heels so you could see the bottom of his shoes, we would tell him to go and put on the horseshoes.
There was this great dancer who taught Todaro a lot, named Arturo Intile, a.k.a. Arturito. He was stiff but he had a tremendous speed in his legs doing those combinations so characteristic of Todaro. But he danced always showing the heels of his shoes. So when somebody would say that Arturito danced very well, el Vasco Orralde would disagree saying that if he painted Arturito’s heels with a chalk, all you could see were the white marks. Inclusive in the boleo. We never did the boleo raising the heels. We did it hiding the foot so the heels always pointed to the floor. Many of my friends would say, you can’t put the feet so your heels show because you never know what you may have stepped on.
All of these things have been disappearing. As a result there have been many who dance because all of us who were there at the time did not continue dancing, otherwise they could never dance. I tell it to you this way, very clear.
In spite of the fact that I may or not may like the way they dance, there are three persons that I respect very much and that I don’t allow anybody to talk bad about them. One of them is Juan Carlos Copes, the other one is Eduardo Arquimbau and the third is Virulazo. I will never allow anybody to talk bad about them. I reiterate, whether I like or don’t like the way they dance, that is personal, these are three persons that the whole world must respect, because they were the only ones that when nobody cared about the tango anymore, they continued fighting for the tango, working for the tango, sometimes dancing for free, for little money, or for a meal. That kind of people we have to respect because everybody else, including me, around 1958-59, deserted the tango and tango began to disappear.
Actually, many invent things like the military proscribed or prohibited the tango. That is a lie. What happened is that because of the continuous stage of siege and martial law that the country was in, there was a prohibition for people to meet or gather in groups. To give a party or to celebrate a wedding you had to have a permit so eventually people stop dancing everything, tango, rock and roll, boogie-boogie, tarantella, etc. But, never, never, ever any military government issued a decree to prohibit the tango.