She is known as La Negra, and by calling her by her affectionate nickname, we got another viewpoint of political correctness. Her Women’s Technique Class held in the huge Robles Gym late in the afternoon of a hot California Summer in 1995 is still talked about. There were about one hundred women all standing at the unusual position for social dancers, at the ballet bar. We were asked to perform the perfect and exquisitely painful technique of the forward ocho as explained by Graciela as something that emanated from the torso and the center axis of the body, down to the big toe and going from there to the rest of the foot, culminating into La Negra’s idea of a properly executed front ocho.
We stood at that bar for over three hours, long after the appointed hour that the class was supposed to be over. Earlier smiles were wiped off our faces, replaced by sweat and earnest concentration. La Negra walked up and down the rows of women with the demeanor of a queen combined with the attitude of the strictest ballet master, making gentle corrections and never letting on that she was either pleased or displeased with our efforts. Later on in New York, I took a private class with her, where we continued the same drill for two hours. At the end of the class she told me that when I visited Buenos Aires three months later, if I had practiced my front ocho enough to her satisfaction, we would continue the lesson with perhaps, the back ocho.When Nora Dinzelbacher announced that she would bring La Negra to her 1998 version of Tango Week (replacing the now defunct Stanford Tango Week), I was curious about what Graciela would bring to us this time around.
She felt a little disappointed with herself after her first visit to the US at Stanford ‘95, feeling that she didn’t emotionally reach the people, that they didn’t understand her way of teaching or appreciate her seriousness.
She wanted to revamp a bit, without losing her integrity. She presented her first classes using American music, asking the couples assembled to dance the music with the same emotion that they danced as teenagers. She asked that they not dance tango steps, and to rely on a sense memory that she hoped the music would evoke. She wanted them in touch with their own bodies, and the body of their partner. Later in the advanced class, she presented challenging material, not in the form of another quickly forgotten complicated figure, but by showing the partners how to look for angles in body alignment to invent and improvise figures.
Sounds simple? Let’s just say you had to be there, to watch some of the country’s best dancers struggle with the concept and execution. No one left her classes without being enriched and challenged.
By midweek, the legendary Women’s Technique class was offered at the huge Allegro Ballroom, minutes away from the Tango Week site at The Holiday Inn. The large space was needed to accommodate almost every woman in attendance of Tango Week. No one wanted to miss this class. Many of the women had been at Stanford ‘95, and were looking forward to the challenge, wondering if we would get to work on back ochos, three years later. Surprisingly, there were no ballet bars this time. The next surprising thing was that Graciela asked that we remove our shoes and sit down! A kind of peaceful, reverent hush fell over the room. She presented us with some circular breathing exercises, coaxing us to move the air up into our chests and torsos.
She talked at length about the way to stand in order to dance Argentine Tango, with the body weight slightly and naturally forward, with breasts (chests) over the feet. She called this the basic posture.
She talked at length about the porteña attitude assumed in dancing Tango. She demonstrated how a porteña would sit at the milonga in order to invite a dance. The posture was similar to the basic standing posture, torso elevated. She explained that it is almost confrontational, an expressed desire to get what is yours, to be let in from the outside, an expression of that ever present longing of the long ago immigrant culture excluded by the upper class native land owners. Of course she explained the ever elusive (for American dancers)gaze that Argentines use to get each other onto the dance floor. She also spoke about the woman needing to empower herself in the dance, to claim and keep the space she defines with her forward body position. She told us to give ourselves permission to dance, in essence to be the equal partner.
She got us back on our feet, and moving with partners, using our chests aggressively thrust out, to play a cat and mouse kind of game to induce mutual movement. Some of the women got wild with this exercise, running around the room and falling on the floor!
The energy level was tremendous. She revisited the subject of the forward and backward ocho, stressing again the technique of it beginning with the forward basic stance, breasts out over the support leg, leg movement starting with the big toe… oh well you know the rest. We didn’t have ballet bars, so we got into couples and practiced ocho technique for a little while.
Two hours had passed quickly, and it was nearly time for the last exercise of the class. La Negra instructed us to stand and face the mirror.
The proposition was to use the basic Tango posture in movement; to imagine being on the stage in front of 10,000 people, perhaps on Broadway, to dance the performance of our life, and to never lose our own gaze in the mirror, to look ourselves in the eye constantly as we danced. We lined up in several rows at the back of the room facing the mirrors, each woman looking at herself. An expectant hush fell over the group as we readied ourselves for the curtain going up. Then she put on the music: the sound filled the room, Whitney Houston singing Hero.
She must have played the thing three or four times. It’s not a little three minute Tango, and it has compelling words and music, popular enough to be familiar to everybody. An amazing spontaneous “choreography” ensued, with sixty or so women moving as individuals and as a group. It proved to be moving and emotional and it became the defining and pivotal mid Tango Week cathartic experience. It was the release and that permission giving catalyst that we needed. It enhanced the rest of the week’s classes and milongas, and for many raised the bar for their dancing, taking them to the next personal plateau dancers always strive for. At the end of the session there were tears, quiet moments of reflection and a heartfelt appreciation for La Negra’s unique Women’s Technique class.
Later in the week, at an afternoon Tango talk featuring the women teachers, we were presented with some terrific role modeling. Guillermina Quiroga and Graciela Gonzalez credited Pupi Castello with their education in the world and ways of the Tango. They spoke about him, in his presence in the audience, with such love and respect, that he left the room overcome by emotion and tears. He was very proud of his two Tango daughters, each having respected careers as Tango professionals. Mina and La Negra both said that Pupi taught them how to exist in the life of the night, that he not only taught them how to dance, but how to understand the codes of the milonga, irreplaceable and valuable life lessons that they still carry with them today. Someone in the audience asked Graciela what a woman should bring to the milonga. It was one of those esoteric questions that might result in some dreamy ideas of what essence or nuance is required. La Negra answered with a frank and startling revelation saying that what she brings to the milonga is her survival kit that includes a pair of flat shoes, a toothbrush, money and condoms. She also advised us to know what we want from the Tango that night. Her surprising answer made everybody laugh and put a reality spin on what dancing Tango in the milonga is really about, i.e. to mate.