Archive for the ‘ESSAYS’ Category

MISSING CARLITOS   Leave a comment

Every year on this date, June 24th, I’m haunted by the image of the freak airplane crash that took the lives of Carlos Gardel and Alfredo Lepera in 1935.

For most folks born outside South America, it is nearly impossible to understand what it meant for the nation of Argentina, and many other South American countries, to wake up on the morning of June 25, 1935 to the chilling news shaped in bold letters headlines that, except for minor variations in copy, were saying the same unthinkable fact: GARDEL IS DEAD.

Gardel and Lepera had become very successful partners in the tango-for-films department. Under contract with Paramount, Carlos Gardel was becoming a box office attraction in South America because of his personal appeal, his baritone voice, and his successful tours around Western Europe. Yet, the underlying attraction of Gardel, the music and lyrics of his tangos, had presented a public relations problem for the Hollywood suits. There was something about the language and jargon embedded in the lyrics of the tangos Gardel sang that didn’t fly very well outside Buenos Aires.

So they brought Alfredo Lepera, a Brazilian born writer and poet then living in Buenos Aires. His mission was to write new lyrics in a more palatable Castillian language that would be universally understood and appreciated in all of South America and Spanish speaking Europe.

The resulting body of work represents the most popular and celebrated songs that are easily recognized by people all over the world, even when many may not realize that they were all written for films starring Carlos Gardel.

Can you remember hearing any of these titles: Cuesta abajo, Volver, Melodia de arrabal, El dia que me quieras, Por una cabeza…? It was during a promotional tour for his latest film, El dia que quieras, that Gardel and Lepera met their untimely deaths. First Puerto Rico, then Cuba and finally Colombia were visits that attracted large crowds eager to see, touch and listen to Carlos Gardel.

Towards the end of the tour, Gardel and his entourage boarded a plane at Medellin airport for a short flight to Cali, where he would make his final appearance on a radio program before returning to New York, in time to board a ship to Buenos Aires to fulfill a promise he had made to his mother, that is, spending more time with her. The aircraft never got completely airborne as it suddenly veered of course and slammed into another aircraft waiting to enter the runway. Among a twisted pile of melting metal and an infernal blaze, Gardel ended his mortal existence.

Almost instantly he became immortal, and his image, his legacy and his works eternally became the subject of a religious adoration and veneration for a large majority of people spanning many generations.

When his remains arrived in Buenos Aires almost a year later, the city came to a grinding halt. He laid in wake for a day at the Luna Park arena, located where Corrientes Avenue begins to grow up into the heart of the city. Dignitaries, musicians, singers, artists, and plain people all shed tears of sorrow and mourning before his casket began its final journey along Corrientes Avenue to the cemetery of Chacarita where he was laid to rest. The slow pace of the funeral march was accentuated by a shower of flowers and tears being cast from every balcony and every door along the way.

Carlos Gardel began singing at a very young age. Raised in poverty and with limited means of survival, he managed to get singing gigs at weddings, birthdays and other family receptions. His repertoire was mostly made out of Creole compositions, a genre that included folk songs and rural milongas typically accompanied by one or more guitars. Gradually he began to hang out at some seedy cantinas surrounding the old Mercado de Abasto, a sort of central wholesale market. Visitors today may have noticed a subway station under Corrientes Avenue named after Gardel. A super modern mega shopping center stands above on the grounds of the old Mercado de Abasto. It was in one of those cantinas that he faced Uruguayan folk singer Jose Razzano in what was supposed to be a duel for supremacy and ended up becoming a sensational duo that started performing at theaters, clubs, and cabarets around the country and in neighboring Uruguay.

The story goes that sometime in 1917 Gardel was approached in Montevideo by a street poet who had a penchant for writing risky lyrics to existing tango music. Gardel loved what Pascual Contursi had written for a tango named Lita composed by Samuel Castriota. In private gatherings he was amused at Contursi’s clever use of lunfardo expressions to describe the sappy tale of a pimp in love who laid awake at night hoping for the return of his former whore.

It began with, “Percanta que me amuraste, en lo mejor de mi vida…” (Woman who left me at the best moment of my life) and ended with,

“Porque tu luz no ha querido, mi noche triste alumbrar…” (Because your light (talking to a lamp in the room) has not wanted to illuminate my sad night.” And those three last words, MI NOCHE TRISTE, became the title of the first and foremost tango lyrics, setting the stage for a rich chapter in the glorious book of tango history.

Going against the advice of his friends, Gardel decided to take a chance singing “Mi noche triste” at a theater performance. Razzano bailed out, and Carlos Gardel made history by singing his first tango in public, sending the audience into a frenzy and receiving a standing ovation.

What followed was a body of work touching on tales of love, hate, infidelity, and crimes of passion depicting the fictional relationships between pimps and their whores. Record companies couldn’t press enough vinyl to keep up with the demand, and many popular bards followed Contursi’s suit and inundated the market with one of the most prolific productions of lyrics in tango history.

Gradually, Gardel began to incorporate tangos in his recordings, and by the early nineteen twenties the popular demand and the pressure from the record companies made him become a full time tango singer.

Soon he traveled to Spain and was met with great success. Then he ventured into Paris where he became the darling of a decadent aristocracy who catapulted him into international fame. He kept returning to Buenos Aires in what became trips “to enjoy the city as a visitor, rather than as a resident.”

The Radio Broadcasting Company brought him to New York from where he made history by broadcasting a program via telephone lines to Buenos Aires. Paramount saw in Gardel their golden opportunity to enter the Latin American film market. At the time of his death, he had become an idol among fans from all over Latin America.

So, if shouldn’t come as a surprise that this June 24th, as it has been happening since 1935, men and women in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico will listen to Gardel with a very special purpose, to continue paying respect to his memory, to continue admiring a singer that sings better every day.

When Gardel died, so did the hopes of any aspiring singer to ever reach universal acceptance. Agustin Magaldi and Ignacio Corsini were great popular singers contemporaries of Gardel but withered under his shadow. Horacio Deval’s register was identical to Gardel’s so he was chastised for that, and in spite of a short success with the Horacio Salgan orchestra, he never achieved popular recognition. People have found Horacio Deval and heard him sing the Gardel repertoire at one of the many Argentine restaurants and tanguerias in the city of Miami, where he had been residing for many years until his recent death.

Uruguayan born Julio Sosa came very close to reach the pinnacle but his life was cut short in a car accident. Roberto ‘El Polaco’ Goyeneche reached cult-like following and respect, but he managed to age and deteriorate in the eyes of the public. They say that it will snow again in Buenos Aires the day a replacement for Gardel is born.

Perhaps what it is most important to understand about Gardel, the man, the myth, the icon, is the identification that the common people of Buenos Aires have with his rise to fame from humble beginnings. With his unmatched fame and success, and his eternal smile, he has been shining a ray of hope over the tribulations of those who face life challenges from a less than ideal social standing. Gardel is the epitome of the socially challenged immigrant who made it out of the tenement and into the royal palaces of Europe all the while retaining the modesty, humility, loyalty and generosity of those who never forget the friends they make on their way up because they know that they’ll still be there when it’s time to come down. The eternal smile reminds us of that.

Posted June 24, 2009 by Alberto & Valorie in ESSAYS

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TANGO, THE ARCHETYPE   1 comment

By Gisela Kirberg Mamone (1942-2009)

The tango is an embrace in movement. A man and a woman enter a dialogue through their bodies, guided by music which has an almost somber quality of yearning. Of a passion that can that can never be fulfilled. Of a sweet sadness. Two strangers become one for the duration of the dance. Two opposites come together briefly to create the fantasy of a harmonious whole.

Out of diversity, fragmentation, contrast, difference, variance, conflict, emerges integration, harmony, oneness. This is the Archetype of the Union of Opposites, symbolized in the alchemical traditions of the Middle Ages as the Wedding of the King and the Queen, or the Hermaphrodite, or the Sun and Moon. In fairy tales, this conjunction is symbolized by the marriage of the prince, and in our modern times by any Royal or other wedding that captures our imagination. And by the tango.

Deep in our psyche we know that this Union of Opposites is never completely realizable. All the more do we ache for the unobtainable bliss of such an absolute, for a state of being where all is harmony and completion, where all conflicts and differences cancel each other out. I have wondered why the tango unlike other dances has such a compelling, even addictive quality. Is it the power of this archetype: the archetype of union with the opposite, of longing for that union, of knowing that it is unreachable?  Is that what makes it so truly romantic?

The longing for union with the opposite is seldom merely a longing for a member of the opposite sex, even though in dreams it is often symbolized as a sexual act, sometimes with the most unlikely persons. What we long for is what we perceive as opposite and therefore need if we are to be whole. We find this central theme of desire for our completion in Plato’s myth of the original round human being, divided by the goods into two halves, both of which are constantly seeking to be reunited with one another.

We find it in the epic Tristan, made into a haunting opera by Wagner, Tristan und Idolde. We find it in the literature of the romantic writers. The mystical teachings of the kabbalistic Tree of Life show us: we are trapped in our polarity, in Malkuth, and our constant striving is to become ONE again with our source, by evolving up the Middle Pillar towards Kether, the Godhead. Goethe’s main preoccupation was the union of opposites, and so was Roberto Assagioli’s, the founder of Psychosynthesis.

C.G. Jung speaks of an archetype as “the archaic heritage of humanity” – the key experiences and emotions and themes, passed down through the ages and shared universally by all of humankind. “Every individual life is at the same time the eternal life of the species.” Once in a while during our lifetime, usually when we are at a crossroads, some new cluster of emotions prepares to break through and then erupts into our everyday awareness. We may have a dream of something rumbling under the floorboards, or of some liquid squelching up through he cracks. Or we may dream of a loud knock at the door.

If we don’t have a dream, we may have an intuition of imminent change. Or we may have a synchronized event, one of these meaningful coincidences that give us a sense of all rightness: whatever may happen follows a coherent pattern, even if we cannot see or understand it. At such time, a new archetype is a new constellation in our psyche and we wait and watch how it will manifest in our life experience. We are poised for the next step.

As in tango, we must wait with alertness, ready to respond. When we are in the grip of an archetype, we are guided by something bigger than our concious reasoning and planning would allow for. We must follow it, if we are to fulfill our destiny.

Gisela Kirberg Mamone held a Diploma in Psychosynthesis Counseling. She’ll always be remembered as a kind and giving tango dancer at Planet Tango’s House of Tango. She wrote this article in May 2003 and it was first published on the May 2003 issue of ReporTango

MY EXPERIENCE WITH ALBERTO PAZ AND VALORIE HART   1 comment

A testimony by Jean-Pierre Sighé
April 2, 2006

I met Alberto and Valorie during the Winter of 1998, in California . I had just made the decision to learn Argentine Tango, after going to the show “Forever Tango” twice in San Francisco and watching the movie “The Tango Lesson” by Sally Potter. I needed someone from the Culture of Argentina to teach me Tango, as I had intuitively sensed how deep Tango seemed to touch the different delicate layers of the human emotions.

Someone had given me their phone number. I called and during the preliminary introduction, I explained the reason of my call: “I needed someone to teach me Tango, but more than the steps. I wanted to understand the “Culture” behind the moves”. After his delighting usual chuckle, he said: “Well…you found me. I think I can teach you what you’re looking for”. These words marked the opening of a marvelous door to my quest.

The first lesson consisted in Walking and… Walking, with no reference to any figure. I had to learn how to keep my partner in front of me, therefore, learn how to “negotiate” curving and straight paths. “Tango is a walking danceAlberto said. Little did I understand at the time all the profound implications of that comment. Confident I was, sensing I was studying with someone who knew what he was doing.

After several months of private and semi-private lessons, Alberto and Valorie encouraged me to start going to the milongas to dance. The dance floor is the place where my many lessons taken, would show, they kept saying.

About 6 months later, as I signed up for the Nora’s Tango week-end (a major Tango event in the San Francisco Bay Area in July) I began to realize how fortunate I had been to study with Alberto and Valorie. I had been very well prepared to understand the instructions of other great tango Masters such as Fabian Salas, Carlos Gavito, Tito…etc. that I encountered at the event and later on, studied with.

I had NEVER had to go back and unlearn or correct anything Alberto and Valorie have taught me. For that I will be forever grateful to them. In the world where many delve and stagnate in so much fantasies and half information dispensed by people who have not yet studied long enough and yet want to be “teachers”, it means a lot to find the right Master Teachers such as Alberto and Valorie, from the very first neophyte’s steps.

To Teach is also to express Love. It is a gift and a talent. I was very impressed with Alberto’s ability to go into my mind and explain to me a difficulty I was experiencing. He was thus able to help me identify the problem and therefore put me in a better position to correct it. Infinitely patient, Alberto and Valorie NEVER looked at their watch to “check the time” of the lesson. I remember one day where I was so enthusiastic about a subject we were studying, that I kept working on it and asking questions, over and over. At some point, Valorie went to the kitchen for a quick brake. I continued with Alberto for a while. Then, Alberto walked toward the couch, slumped onto it with his hands resting on his head. At that moment, Valorie came out of the kitchen and Alberto, looking at her said with a very calmed and exhausted voice : “I think we’ve created a monster!” She burst out laughing. I quickly realized…checked my watch and (Oh my God!) we had been working for over two hours already, for a lesson that was meant to last one hour. I too laughed, apologized for my “stubborn focus” and departed shortly after to allow my teachers some rest.

That availability of a Teacher, that Love expressed tirelessly for the student, has marked me forever. There is an indescribable joy in helping a student receive the information and to see that information take shape in his/her mind. The length of time it takes to accomplish the goal does not matter anymore. That is the modus operandi of Alberto and Valorie.

Very attached to the historical accuracies, Alberto opened my eyes to many facts about Argentine Tango. He is the one who made me realize the contribution that the African descents in Buenos Aires , along with the Italian, Spanish and Indian, had brought to the birth of Tango. After the class, it was customary to sip a cup of tea, graciously offered by Valorie, in the kitchen of their wonderful house (I called it ‘The Temple of Tango”, because everything in that house was breathing Tango). During that special time, casual comments often helped me open my heart more to the Argentinean spirit.

Alberto and Valorie gave me a gift of a priceless value, an added life lasting joy to my existence: the experience of Tango. They opened a window on the garden of my soul to let more rays of the sun and more warmth of Love rush in. Thank you!

Watch your step with the tango: It’s addictive   Leave a comment

Watch your step with the tango: it’s addictive
By Margaret Putnam
Copyright (c) 2000, The Dallas Morning News. All Rights Reserved

I’d been warned. The rapids are treacherous and the current swift. Once you step in, watch out. It doesn’t take long to be swept away.
Those rapids – otherwise known as the Argentine tango – have claimed plenty of victims. Valorie and Alberto, for instance, gave up lucrative careers to tango. Beth resisted for a while, quitting, returning, quitting and now back at it. Eiko is definitely a goner – she took up tango four years ago and soon found it impossible to return to Japan.

I fear I’m next. Already I’ve skipped two ballet classes, rushed from a flamenco show to get to a Sunday afternoon session, plunked down $60 for a private lesson, practiced tango steps on the streets late at night while walking the dog and danced on and on despite feet that ache so badly I wonder if I’ll make it to the car. And it’s not even a week. Only last Friday I had laughed when Leonard responded to my question about what other kinds of dances did he do. “Tango is the only dance,” he said. I think he’s right.

Tango is the Everest of social dance. Impossible. Demanding. Intricate. And therefore irresistible. “The geometry, the navigation and the balance captivate men,” says Valorie Hart, who with her partner, Alberto Paz, is in town to teach a three-week tango workshop sponsored by Tango Argentino Dallas and the city of Dallas. “Engineers go wild over the infinite mathematical possibilities.” She mentions likewise lawyers, architects, artists. “Tango has become the darling of the professional classes. In the old days it was the working class and the middle class.

“People who spend too much time staring at computer screens and talking on cell phones discover, through tango, the heady pleasures of physical reality. Suddenly, the body counts for something. And the isolation and distance built in to most forms of modern work disappear in a flash the minute a man steps forward to embrace a woman.

With that embrace, the rest of the world falls away. The music takes over. Even in the cold florescent glare of KC Dance Studio where some of the workshop classes are held, my partner listens, I listen, both of us waiting for the moment to take that first smooth step to the side. Then I’m moving backward, to the side, forward again, gliding like a miniature liner through unresisting ocean. “Stay connected,” Alberto exhorts, surveying the dancers from the middle of the studio. The tango requires uncanny cooperation between man and woman and woe to anyone who loses focus. This is not the fox trot or the waltz, for which you learn a pattern and repeat it, ad infinitum. There are steps and patterns, to be sure, but they’re only a base, and the possibilities of variation are infinite. To tango is to improvise, and to improvise with a partner requires intense concentration.

Not that we start out in the workshop improvising. Alberto starts us with the basics: the tango walk, a stealthy stride placing one foot directly in front of the other, thighs crossed, upper body moving slightly in counter motion. Then the side-back-side-front pattern.
We practice, and practice and practice. Amazing how much there is to learn, about balance, keeping connected, turning out the legs ever so slightly on the side step, shifting the weight, keeping the rhythm.

Overconfident at the end of the second lesson – after all, I’ve had decades of ballet training – I approach Alberto with a question. He eases me into his arms. I move before he does. “No!” he barks. We start over. “No! Why are you swinging your leg?” he says. We begin again, and once more, before we get to the end of even a complete pattern, I’ve done something wrong. “What are you doing?” he asks incredulously, trying to explain that the leg doesn’t initiate the movement – my wonderful ballet training – but the upper body.


Alberto is so warm and encouraging
The two-minute lesson is a revelation. And after that, every time Alberto glides over to me, hand outstretched, I quake, ego on the line. But each brief encounter yields tremendously helpful information, and I improve on the spot. Think what a private lesson could do, I reason, and Tuesday I find myself in the Oak Lawn apartment where Alberto and Valorie are staying and spend 90 minutes dancing with him on a slick wood floor. Not only does he not bark, he is so warm and encouraging I begin to understand why Valorie ditched her New York business five years ago to take up the tango life with him.

My friends in New York thought I had lost my mind,” Valorie says. “I had a beach house in the Hamptons, a studio and an apartment. I gave all that up. My friends thought I was going into white slavery. I’ve never had those issues of submission. A kind of courtliness arises with the tango. We’re all in this together.

The “togetherness” aspect of tango, in fact, is its most striking characteristic. The battle of the sexes may rage elsewhere, but not on the dance floor. The man and woman either cooperate or stop dead in their tracks. Alberto doesn’t even like the terms “lead” and “follow.”

Lead and follow imply we are doing something we both know,” he says. “But the moment you are improvising, you can’t lead or follow. The woman moves first, the man responds and creates the space for her to dance. It’s not even 50-50, it’s 100 percent and 100 percent from both of them.

Tango is too intense to permit small talk. In three group lessons and a tango party, I learn nothing about any partner other than name and tango history and often not even that. I have no idea what Leonard, Mac or Carlos do for a living, whether any of them has been indicted for fraud, been married six times or plays the horses. Nor do I care. Can he dance is the only burning question.

The single-mindedness of the tango fanatic extends after class, too. After the second lesson, about a dozen of us repair to Goldfinger’s restaurant nearby. The band plays Greek bazouki music, and in a flash, the dance floor fills with couples doing – what else? – the tango.
And who can bother eating? At the milonga, or tango party, Saturday night, two tables filled with food at 9 p.m. are still filled with food at midnight. When Astor Piazzolla’s music is playing, “to dance or to eat” isn’t a hard choice.

When I first signed up for tango lessons,” Valorie says, “I thought, how hard can this dance be? I can fake it. That first lesson was like ‘Whoa!’ I’m not going to be able to put on a cute dress and cute shoes and think that will cut it.”

Watching Alberto and Valorie move together in their infinitely smooth and subtle way, I’m heartened. Valorie took up tango only five years ago, and look at her now. True, she has her own Argentine partner, a charmer, but I’ll bet she’ll tell me where to buy some sexy tango shoes.

DANCING TO A TANGO   Leave a comment

For over forty or fifty years, the dance halls where tango has been danced in Buenos Aires, continue to enjoy a tradition that is widely celebrated by those who take pleasure from a night at the “milonga.” During the course of the evening and all the way through the night into the early hours of the morning, the DJs play sets of Swing, Rock and Roll, American Jazz, Cumbias, Salsa, tangos, Valses and Milongas. Each set includes four alike rhythms, which the locals call “tandas.” It is quite a treat to see the Argentines flocking to the dance floor to dance swing to Swing, rock to Rock and Roll, jazz to American Jazz, cumbia to Cumbias, salsa to Salsa, tangos to tango, vals to Valses and milonga to Milongas.

Like most of my compatriots, I never took ballroom classes, and as matter of fact there isn’t a single ballroom dance that I can dance. Some of my best friends and a lot of our tango students dance ballroom. I admire them and respect them for their grace and talent, and I truly enjoy watching them dance cha-cha to Cha cha cha, rumba to Rumba, salsa to Salsa, merengue to Merengue, mambo to Mambo, swing to Swing, fox trot to Fox Trot, waltz to Viennese, American tango to American tango. Even when the music almost never matches the dance being called in the lists placed on the tables, I can almost identify each one of the dances, even if as I said before, I have no clue as to how to do them myself. I can only dance tango, vals cruzado and milongas.

As a matter of fact I paid for and took my very first dance lesson less than ten years ago. It was a tango lesson. Ever since, tango has given me the gift of love and friendship in the way of the best partner I could ever dream of or wish for. It has given me the privilege and fortune of making everlasting friendships and sharing lives and homes across the country. It has afforded me the unexpected luck and fortune of learning the structure and conceptual form of the tango dance as it has been transmitted from generation to generation from the best. In particular, I profess a proud admiration and a profound respect for Mingo Pugliese who taught me how to think and therefore, how to dance to a tango; how to learn by teaching and to teach by learning.

A tango can be sweet, playful, arrogant, elegant, flirty, romantic, risque, enrapturing, compelling, simple, complex, sarcastic, sad, crude, tedious – you name it. It is the reflection of the people who created it. As it touches me with its music, it is its “compas “that invites me to dance it. Its sound enters my brain for recognition and a vast array of emotions fill my heart in response to the stimulus of a song. As I look for the unsuspecting eyes of a woman whose emotions have been set in motion by the music, I just know I’m going to share the intimacy of an embrace, the nervousness of the first displacements, the warm breathing that follows every step, the soft texture of skin as faces touch. There is nothing like the shared intimacy of a sound, a scent, a gesture, a look, a smile, a tear, a trembling body, nervous hands, a sense of implied trust and respect for the hundreds of total strangers I have danced with, some of which have become dear tango friends, sometimes at the end of just three minutes. Then another tango plays. New and old emotions will be shared with new and old partners. Our hearts harboring the feelings so we can draw with our entwined bodies renewed dreams and promises to the sound of a tango on the inviting canvas that our feet caress.

Posted January 15, 2000 by Alberto & Valorie in ESSAYS

WHEN THE TANGO WAS IN JAIL   Leave a comment

When the tango was in jail
By Alberto Paz
Copyright (c) 1999-2011, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved

They were on the wharf surrounded by armed policemen, on a foggy night before boarding the boat. In the dark, the guards forced them to enter the ship by the footbridge. They couldn’t see anything. It was dangerous because they could fall into the water. They asked for light because a slip could be mistaken for an attempt of flight, and their lives would end riddled with bullets.Inside the tight compartment, the water covered their ankles. They made them sit on the ground. Two or three sailors armed with machine guns, stood guard in front of them.
It had been only a month since a military coup had overthrown Peron in September of 1955. The military rulers turned the ship Paris into a floating jail for political prisoners. Rumors were heard that the government planned to sink the boat with its opponents inside. The day those rumors reached the ear of the prisoners, the man who had been entertaining his fellow prisoners every afternoon playing tangos, sat at the piano and played the National Anthem. Shortly after Osvaldo Pugliese and the rest of political prisoners regained their freedom.

♢ ♢ ♢

Open fields and a menacing creek less than five miles to the northwest of the center of the city were the destination of the “death trains” that in 1871 carried the victims of the yellow fever epidemic to the cemetery of the Chacarita. Both the Maldonado creek and the railroad tracks divided the otherwise vast expanse of land and wild vegetation. By 1888 the funeral processions had ended and a visionary shoe entrepreneur chose the area to build a shoe factory. The city mayor, Antonio Crespo ordered the land to be parceled and the lots to be auctioned. Shoemakers were then the first inhabitants of the new village that took the name of the mayor, Villa Crespo. Sordid shacks spawned around the shoe factory, and later the first tenements were built. This area became the orilla, the outskirts where the aristocracy would push the more destitute immigrants, the disdained working class, the criminal element and the artisans who had fallen from grace.

Villa Crespo was the melting pot of the working class and the scoundrels, living in overcrowded conditions in the extreme poverty of the slums and the conventillos. Their presence was undeniable in the nauseating stench of the narrow Maldonado creek, where garbage and human excrement began to flow.

Somehow, the meeting of workers, thieves, ruffians and bullies found in the tango a way to identify their crude congregation. Not too far from the slums, the governing aristocracy, seeing the tango from their salons becoming an indecent shriek of the lower class, began to plan the building of an opera house. They wanted a monument representing the superior culture of the dominant class.
In 1904, as the walls of the Teatro Colon began to rise, Villa Crespo saw the first celebrations of the International Worker’s Day, followed by several popular attempts to overthrow a fraudulent government. A year later, Angel Villoldo unveiled his tango El choclo. On the day of its debut, December 2, 1905, Aurelia Terragno, wife of Adolfo Pugliese gave birth to their son Osvaldo.

♢ ♢ ♢

La Chancha was the nickname of a fat guitar player who used to drop by at a bar every couple of weeks with a bunch of guys. They would line up at several tables. He would tune his guitar and they would sing and drink for hours. He was stabbed to death one day during Carnaval. That’s why this cafe bar (since 1919) was named after him.

A few years later, a bookie named Torcuato, his cousins Amadeo, Domingo, Alfredo and Rogelio, who used to hang out in La Chancha, made their way to the nearby Cafe ABC. They wanted to listen to a kid they hung around with in La Chancha when he began to play there at the age of fourteen. Do you remember us Osvaldo?, they greeted him. Osvaldo remembered his friends. He also remembered when after eight hours of studying at the conservatory, he amused himself playing tunes he had written. His dad and his brother would drop by in the late evenings. His dad would ask, play THAT tango. It was a tango he had started composing on a tramway ride to the piano academy a few years back. He finally completed in 1924. Until that night at Cafe ABC, THAT was how the tango was known as. What’s the name of THAT tango? they asked. It does not have a name, Pugliese said, I’ll call it Recuerdo and I’ll dedicate it to you guys.

♢ ♢ ♢

The artistic life of Osvaldo Pugliese took root in the period of renovation led by Julio De Caro. Rather than just living the decade of the twenties, Pugliese practiced it. The style imprinted by De Caro had derived from the ABC’s of the tango, Arolas, Bardi and Cobian. Arolas was a musical author with a deep melody. Bardi had combined the sounds of the city and the pampas. Cobian gave the tango its elegance. Still very young, Pugliese lived that progressive era from within. This was reflected in the initial repertoire of his legendary orchestra. Compositions by De Caro, Pedro Maffia and Pedro Laurenz formed the basis for the unconditional popular support that Osvaldo Pugliese received until his death in 1995.

His career as a working musician, as he has often humbly described himself, began at age fourteen. He saw, listened and participated in a long list of ensembles playing the piano with Roberto Firpo, Francisco Canaro, Elvino Vardaro, next to Anibal Troilo, Pedro Maffia, Pedro Laurenz and many other members of the greatest crop of tango musicians gathered at once in one generation.

During the decade of the 30s, the tango was the music of the cabarets. At the Moulin Rouge the orchestra of Pedro Maffia had Pugliese at the piano. This was a favorite place for Rodolfo Bianquet, the famous bailarin the world has come to know as El Cachafaz. The “crafty rascal” as he was known, like many people of the night stopped by at the cabaret after the milongas for a drink. One late night Pugliese asked him, What makes you dance so well? All the walking around, said El Cachafaz. Only those who lived at the time could relate to the way the tango was danced in place, twisting and turning from the legs to the head. When the dancers moved around the floor, they would accentuate their march with rhythmic patterns. The rhythm was full of modulation, that swing that looks so beautiful in the tango.

By 1940 D’Arienzo and Di Sarli had defined a feeling and a rhythm that was intrinsically personal and emotional. Many have disdainfully equated D’Arienzo’s sound to that of a tinsmith banging pots and pans. Pugliese thought of D’Arienzo as the atomic bomb somebody dropped one night at the Cabaret Chantecler and later at El Mundo radio station. Such was the boom that the king of the beat created.

From the center of that expansive wave, an internal and spiritual need was digging into Pugliese’s inspiration. The pulse of the city was the percussion that marked the rhythm; the folklore from the pampas contributed its characteristic dragging; De Caro had began to accentuate the first and third beat of the 4×4. And so it came to be, the unmistakable Pugliese sound that marked the first and third beat with a dragging percussion that shook the very foundations of the renovation movement, and that Pugliese himself had crafted like El Cachafaz, walking step after step with the firm conviction of man’s inalienable right to work. That’s the sound that became La yumba.

♢ ♢ ♢

Standing quietly in a corner, her eyes were full of love and pride as only a mother’s eyes can be. She was a simple, humble woman, a working class mother and a wife who like all people living in poverty knew what it meant and what it took to reach the pinnacle, to rise and shine. As the notes of Recuerdo filled the modest room from the piano that papa had bought, the sweet and loving mother that had encouraged their younger son to study piano, cheered with affection, al Colon! Was it just the unconditional love of a mother or did Aurelia Terragno know that after almost sixty years of persecution, incarceration, harassment, his human rights violated, his right to work denied, blacklisted from radio, television and clubs, all because of his personal convictions, Osvaldo Pugliese would ride on the shoulders of the working class people for whom he fought, to the stage of Buenos Aires’s most exclusive den of the cultural elite. On December 18, 1995 the chants of the people, resounded amplifying a million times the cheers of a mother. Pugliese played the Colon.

Along the way, Osvaldo Pugliese paid the price that men of honor and ethics pay when living under totalitarian and oppressing regimes. Pugliese believed in Argentina’s version of the comunist ideals, and he lived a self-sacrificing, unselfish life, placing himself at the service of the people and the working class. He understood that a comunista ate and biologically functioned like any other human being. However from an ideological viewpoint, comunistas were supposed to break away from everything that came from the dirty hands of the bourgeoisie, the ruling upper class that lied, created diversions and deceived the people to keep themselves in a position of power. He accepted a life of suffering, because he took pleasure in suffering for a greater ideal, and he believed that a life fighting for one’s convictions, was indeed a life worth living. His orchestra was organized from the beginning as a cooperative, where everybody composed, arranged, participated in the decisions, and shared all the income in percentages according to each member’s contribution.

Arguably, the decade of the 1930s is the darkest period in the history of the tango. A military coup was the preface of that sad chapter. Many musicians faced unemployment as the shrinking number of tango venues finally disappeared. Pugliese, the journeyman, the blue collar musician he knew he was, survived by sitting at the piano of any orchestra that would take him. In the meanwhile Tito Schipa and Lily Pons were featured at the Colon, their contracts adding to the hemorrhage of red ink bleeding the budget of City Hall, while painting a picture of glorious abundance on the dismal frame of the country’s economical condition.

In 1936, Pugliese and other musicians founded the first union to fight for the rights of the artists to work and be fairly compensated. Shortly after, Pugliese joined the Comunist Party. Over the next two decades, Osvaldo Pugliese was jailed more than ten times because he refused to trade his convictions and ideals for the seal of approval of the government and the establishment. It is inconceivable to picture the members of his orchestra being banned from entering a club, a radio station or a television station, where they had signed contracts to perform. On the rare occasions when the orchestra managed to circumvent the police barriers, the popular support for Pugliese was unconditional.

There was the time when they played the longest Cumparsita. It was at one of the many neighborhood clubs where tango dancers flocked to listen and dance with Pugliese. While playing La Cumparsita, the police entered the club and ordered the dance to stop because Pugliese was not allowed to work. The organizers stood up to the police saying that while the orchestra was playing and the dancers were dancing, nothing or nobody would interrupt them. Word got to Pugliese about the imminent arrest and he directed his musicians to continue playing La Cumparsita over and over. The public caught onto the trick and kept on dancing. The police grew impatient and uneasy, and finally left. As the last beats of the tango concluded the longest Cumparsita ever, the thunderous applause and cheers brought a smile to Pugliese’s face. Humbly, he stood up and pointed to his orchestra.

Much has been said about Osvaldo Pugliese’s creative genius and inspiration. He wrote a masterful trilogy, La yumba, Negracha and Malandraca years before there was any talk of modern tango. The frustration of the cultural elite and the numerous military regimes, combined with Pugliese’s refusal to give up his political views eventually encouraged others who wouldn’t hesitate to do away with the soul and essence of the tango, to create a sound that pretended to be cult enough to soothe the egos of the aristocracy.

Record companies profited from Pugliese’s recordings, but his compensation was meager. He finally enjoyed the freedom to work and to provide jobs for the members of his orchestra during the last ten years of his life.

The list of musicians that passed through his orchestra is long and full of prestigious names. As it seems to be an Argentine custom, the due recognition and unqualified respect for those who deserve it in life, comes too late when they are already dead.

♢ ♢ ♢

The bus was making its way through the maze of rush hour traffic looking for the right turn into Avenida Nueve de Julio. A boy and his father had just attended the live broadcast of the orchestra of Osvaldo Pugliese on Radio Splendid. The young boy had noticed the red rose resting on the empty piano keyboard and had wondered about it. His father had shrugged touching his lips with his index finger looking away towards the orchestra. His face now pressed against the window of the bus as the Obelisco came into sight. The bus began to circle around the monument where Nueve de Julio and Corrientes Streets converge. On each of the four faces of the Obelisco the graffiti read, The tango is in jail. Free Osvaldo Pugliese. His father held his hand and raised his eyebrows in a contrite sad look. More than forty years later the boy, now a man, finally understood.

NOCHERA SOY   Leave a comment

Nochera soy
By Valorie Hart
Copyright (c) 1999, Planet Tango. All Rights Reserved

Alaska like Hawaii is an adopted offspring of the American Union, the colossal continental conglomerate of the United States. As it happens with adopted sons and daughters who conform to the codes and behavior of the adopted family while maintaining a sense of individualism and an unmistakable personality that betrays their roots to their birth parents, Alaska is unique both in its ruggedness as a geographical casualty and in its embrace for the joys of life typified by the intensity with which its inhabitants approach the excitement of living every day with a fierce determination.

The first thing one notices when arriving at the Anchorage airport after midnight, is that the place is jumping. Every restaurant, coffee stand, gift and bookstore is open and doing brisk business. Hundreds of people are bustling about. If you’ve ever traveled to any other major American city and arrived at 9:00 PM or later, you can’t buy a newspaper or get a burger. Everything is usually shut up tight for the night.

It’s winter when we arrive. Our host called us before our departure inquiring as to whether we owned winter coats, perhaps not knowing that there is an actual winter season in Northern California. Just stand on top of Nob Hill in San Francisco on a rainy, foggy, windy night. Maybe it doesn’t snow, but it is bone chilling.

The folks in the airport look appropriately outdoorsy. Lots of parkas, hiking boots, etc. Lots of energy for this time of night. We find out later that night flights are the norm. It all fits since the nights in Alaska are legendary.

As we finally make our way out of the airport into the famous Alaskan night we are immediately exhilarated by the very fresh and cold, dry air. It’s not unpleasant. Besides this is 1999, the era of the remote controlled car. Everyone has those little clickers, and they put them to good use by pre-starting a locked car, so that it is toasty warm by the time you get into it. So in essence we are continually ushered from a toasty building to a toasty car and vice versa. The dance studios in Alaska are better heated than the ones in the Bay Area. A snow boot is necessary for walking even the short distance from dwelling to car, to avoid a misstep and a slip. Other than that our bulky coats, hats, gloves, sweaters, wool trousers, etc. seem like too much clothing. We meant to buy thermal underwear before we left, but ran out of time for this errand. It turns out to be lucky, since one more layer would surely be suffocating.

The city landscape is luminous. There is deep snow everywhere. The kind of fairy tale magical snow that you only see in ski resorts or on calendar art or Christmas cards. It lights up everything. We’re told that the mayor has asked that the citizens of Anchorage use those little white Christmas lights for the entire winter season, leaving them on day and night, to help ease the psychological downside of the long winter nights. The huge evergreen trees look like they have been decorated by a whimsical pastry chef using gobs of white cake icing. Great swags of snow weigh down majestic boughs. Each and every branch of the other types of deciduous trees is completely and evenly painted with ice and snow. Many of the trees are festooned with the white lights the mayor requested. We are enchanted.

We are driven to downtown Anchorage to the home of a tanguera that has generously offered to house us. We keep looking for the prerequisite city skyline, typical of both large and small American cities. All we see are low buildings, with an occasional taller structure, maybe twenty floors at most. Our host points out a park that is the center of activity for summer soccer, concerts, softball and picnics. In essence the Anchorage version of New York City’s Central Park. It’s called Delaney Park and runs for four of five blocks, and is maybe one block wide. It seems small by any standard. We are told that Anchorage has had a population explosion that has brought the population to a bursting-at-the-seams number of five hundred thousand. Even so, we saw a moose walking right through the middle of the city in broad daylight with traffic whizzing by; it nonchalantly cut through front yards. It was the ultimate Northern Exposure experience. We are told that buildings are low because this is major earthquake territory.

Our housing is a beautiful second floor apartment, affectionately known as the downtown penthouse. It has windows overlooking the park with a view of the ocean and the mountains. It is spectacular. As the days go by outside our rooms with a view, we see many dog walkers, joggers, Frisbee players (yes they play and run and walk in the snow) and ravens as huge as cats, their shiny blackness like ink blots on the snow. We have never seen so many beautiful shades of white.

The next morning we get up around nine, and it is still dark in a pre-dawn dusky sort of way. It’s a little disconcerting, because it seems like it should be six in the morning, and we want to go back to sleep for a couple of more hours. But we check all the clocks in the house, and the activity outside of our windows of people going to work confirms that the time is correct. It is fully light by eleven, but the bright sun stays very low in the Southern sky with the intensity of a gorgeous sunset. By 3:30 in the afternoon, it’s getting a dusky twilight look. It seems the perfect atmosphere for tango people; after all we are the quintessential night people.

The night of our first class comes. We arrive at a Junior high school. There are hundreds of pairs of boots lined up outside the gym doors where our class will take place. We don’t know what to expect. All of this is a gamble for both the promoter and for us. It’s a long way from Buenos Aires. There’s a Swing class in progress, and the place is packed. We wonder how many of these people have an interest in Argentine tango. At the end of the class, people start to leave. We’ve been told that the Swing dancers are purists, and don’t mix their dances. We’ve often heard this from Argentine tango dancers too, so it is understandable for us to think that this large Swing group will not necessarily become part of our class. The gym looks huge. We are pegged as the teachers, and a few people say hello and make polite small talk. Everyone is very direct and disarming. You have to be a special soul to live in Alaska.

We realize that we’re going to be part of the very first authentic tango dancing experience in Alaska. We take a deep breath, we exchange an encouraging wink and we can’t wait to invite everybody to embrace and walk. From zero on up, the tundra milongueros would never be prisoners of the Eight Count Basic or the sanitized American version of genderless tango. A tall order indeed, a unique challenge, and a rewarding opportunity to become an integral part on the creation of a new tango community thousands of miles from the birthplace of tango and surrounded by a thousand shades of white.

We are signaled to start the class, and we are very pleased and a little unnerved to see the room packed with dancers! And yes these people are pure dancers. There are no agendas, no excuses, no mental masturbation. Instead there is openness, intelligence, free spirit and comfort with their bodies. We present a comprehensive amount of material at a very brisk pace, and they are with us one hundred percent. The music is playing and they are dancing.

On this night this version of la ronda reminds us of another gymnasium on the other side of the world on a Saturday night in the Sunderland Club in Buenos Aires. We are overcome with the emotion that never ceases to surface when we see people dancing this hundred-something dance born in the mud out of a melting pot of a luscious variety of music and life experience of the immigrants of Buenos Aires. I whisper in Alberto’s ear Nochera soy, and say, look at them, so are they.

Nochero/a: A night person. The title of a tango composed by Oscar Herrero and made a classic by Osvaldo Pugliese.

Flirty dancing   Leave a comment

Flirty dancing

By Jim Rendon
Photograph by Christopher Gardner

Tango has been called the three-minute romance, and a thriving circle of aficionados says the late-late 20th century is the right time for its passion and perfection.

Dance of Life: Sunnyvale residents Valorie Hart and Alberto Paz found each other through tango and now teach others in a thriving Bay Area scene where a milonga can be found any night of the week.

Valorie and AlbertoVALORIE HART LOOKS out on the empty dance floor, watching as couples arrive, a few at time. She reaches across the table and grabs for an Altoid. “These are addictive,” she says, popping a bright-white mint in her mouth from one of the little red-and-white tins that seem to be everywhere. Tango is a close dance. Dressed in a glittering black shirt, fishnets and a short skirt with a long slit, Hart keeps turning her attention to the floor as she talks. Her dark hair is slicked back, cut straight at the neck. Though her eyes look sleepy, her conversation is sharp and entertaining.

“With tango, you are either in or out,” she says, turning away from the floor. “Family and non-tango friends don’t understand. My friends in New York thought I was white-slaved away. I sold my business, gave up my apartment. But I did not really give up anything,” she says. “I have a great life with Alberto. We embrace this community.”

On the dance floor, couples move tentatively in a counterclockwise walking embrace. Clearing his throat, Alberto Paz brings the studied movement of five couples to a halt. “OK, now we’ll try something different,” he says. Valorie’s 55-year-old partner has an air of grace about him that makes his maroon tuxedo jacket and white silk scarf look comfortable, almost casual. “Like this,” he says as he and Valorie embrace, face to face, and move in exaggerated motions to the melodramatic rise and fall of the music. Even in their overblown instructive performance, their connectedness is unmistakable.

Alberto steps across Valorie with his right foot, then brings his left foot toward her. They move to his right and stop, shifting weight back to his left. “Go on, try it, try it,” he says. And the circle of dancers moves again.

Each Monday night Paz and Hart drive from their home in Sunnyvale to share tango with everyone who wants to learn, from the advanced, invitation-only crowd decked out in dark suits and slicked-back hair, to dance-floor virgins in rubber-soled shoes, like me. As with many of the people who are filtering into the room, tango has enriched, changed and utterly consumed their lives.

Five years ago, Hart and Paz lived on opposite coasts, each unaware of the other, wrapped up in successful business ventures of their own. Today their careers lie abandoned, their lives bound to each other and to the dance that brought them together.

Since meeting and falling for each other, Paz and Hart have been an important part of a decade-long Bay Area tango obsession. This is the hottest tango spot in the United States, and some claim the hottest in the world outside Buenos Aires. On any night of the week, tango-obsessed dancers can hit a milonga (social dance) somewhere in the Bay Area. Homegrown teachers have sprung up to support the craze. And many Argentine masters work their way through town, arranging invitation-only classes through Paz and Hart.

The dance–close, passionate, sensual, demanding a physical connection–expresses a side of the human experience that Silicon Valley turned its back on. Engineers locked in a mental embrace with numbers, theories and codes have traded sensual experience for platonic flirtation with a machine. Tango, Paz says, can help fix that. “Silicon Valley is populated and run by engineers, people who have a love affair with the keyboard,” he says in a deep voice that masks a distant accent. Tango is refreshingly different. “The first thing you do is to embrace a total stranger, keep your mouth shut and listen to the music. You learn to listen to your partner, to know what they are feeling. It is a shocking and devastating experience. These moments of sheer connection are important,” he says, especially in a valley where people are increasingly alienated and cerebral.

DICK SIMONI, a Menlo Park architect, sits down at a long table dotted with glasses of wine and tall draughts of ice water. He moves a few glasses aside and puts his small canvas bag on the table. His back to the dance floor, he pauses to take in a stunning view of San Francisco’s rolling hills, fading into the gridlike outer Richmond. From the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill, the city unfolds in every direction. Simoni turns his gaze back to the table and pulls a pair of leather-soled dance shoes from the bag, swapping them with his formal footwear.

At the sound of tuning violins and the sighing bandoneon, the Argentine accordion, people begin to mill about at the edge of the dance floor, picking out partners, anticipating the evening’s first dance to the live band. While most milongas have a DJ, Paz and Hart have booked Strictly Tango, a five-piece band, to bang out Argentine tunes every Monday night.

Like most of the men in the club tonight, Simoni wears a dark suit, his hair brushed back off his forehead. He looks around the room, enjoying the view, the potted palms and wood pillars that hem the dance floor. “We like to imagine this is a 1920s Berlin nightclub,” he says. “Today in Europe, it’s more underground,” he says, describing the warehouses he and his wife, Ginger, danced in during a recent trip to Switzerland, as the band starts playing and the dancing begins.

The band starts with a stereotypical tango song. It’s the one that I hear in my head when I think of tango, a jerky beat, soft and then loud. It has the rhythm of someone frantically sneaking up a staircase–a quick run, then a pause to check if someone is listening, then another burst up the stairs. It’s almost comic, reminding me of Charlie Chaplin’s slapstick, until suddenly the music slows, becoming sad, almost tragic. Even the fastest, most upbeat tangos the band plays have an edge of sadness and tragedy.

Simoni points out a couple moving past, their chests pushed tightly together, legs pushed out so they look like a triangle. “That’s milonguero style,” he says, admiring the couple’s performance. The tight embrace and subtle foot movements evolved from the tightly packed milongas in Buenos Aires.

A woman in a long black dress pauses at the table and asks Simoni to dance. Standing chest to chest with the woman on the dance floor, Simoni waits for the music to move him. Then, on the downbeat, he steps away, tangoing with the others, adding his own slide and shuffle of leather against wood to the quiet sound that flows just beneath the surface of the music.

Tim Yoshida watches another young woman whose arms are draped over the shoulders of a tall, older man. She stretches to reach him, but the couple looks graceful nonetheless. “She’s only had something like three or four lessons,” Yoshida says. “But she’s danced just about every song all night. She’s hooked,” he says with a laugh.

Yoshida, like a lot of dancers, talks about two things: the sensuality of the dance, and something dancers call the tango trance. Yoshida studied martial arts for 10 years before trying tango. After three years of dancing, he finds it fills the much the same need as martial arts. “In the beginning, you work on posture and try not to fall down,” he says. But once you get comfortable with the footwork, the dance changes. “You are torso to torso, hand to hand. It’s up to you to lead. If you lead and she follows, you become lost in the music. You are transplanted to another time and place.”

Sitting across from Yoshida, Caroline Duncan agrees. But for her, the spirituality gets wrapped up in the physical, sensual nature of the dance. “With tango, you meet a man right here,” she says placing her hand flat across her chest. “It’s a touching way to meet a man.”

Duncan takes a sip of her drink and looks out on the floor, watching for a minute as dancers pass. Everyone is engaged in their own world, creating their own steps. Some move slowly, deliberately, with long pauses. Others stamp by quickly, swinging and kicking feet in the air. Though everyone moves differently, the dancers flow together. Always the couples stay close, never leaving the embrace.

“It’s a dance for people who like to touch,” she says. “When you first start a dance, you press your shoulder up tight against them and listen to the music. You can feel the music, your partner’s energy. You can tell a lot about the quality of the person you dance with. It’s synergistic. Together you are more than two.”

The dance, she and others say over and over, got its start in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Some call it the three-minute romance. Though it quickly left the bordello for Argentina’s society nightclubs, the heart of Argentine tango never strayed far from its passionate working-class roots.

TIM RISES TO GET IN a dance or two with the young woman. As he leaves the table, Jim Maes, a slender, bearded man in a dark suit, approaches the table. He says a few somber hellos, then crosses to the other side of the room, where he sits alone with a full glass of red wine, watching the dancers spin past him.

Maes is a casualty of tango. Tonight he looks back on his five years of dancing with a wrenching mix of joy and despair.

Maes began dancing after seeing Forever Tango, a Broadway-style show featuring some of the best tango dancers in the world. “I saw it three times,” Maes says. “It brought tears to my eyes.”

Maes had a nearly instant reaction to the show and the dance. “I know that,” Maes said to himself as he watched the proud attitude of the dancers, the tough stance and macho clothes. As a teenager Maes had been a greaser, knocking around San Francisco’s Mission District. The tough, proud attitude reminded him of the street. The lure was irresistible. He jumped in head first.

Maes would take classes as often as possible, sometimes six times a week. “I fell in love with the beauty of the dance, the passion and the power,” he says.

Maes left his most recent job so he could dance more often. Tango has taken over his life, and Maes feels lucky to give himself over to the dance. “It’s a way for me to express myself,” he says. “It’s been a long, hard struggle to get to where I am now.”

But now that pride is tainted. “The dance is so seductive,” he says. At a recent milonga, Maes’ dance with a stranger went too far–extending beyond the dance floor. The relationship with his longtime girlfriend came tumbling down around him. Now he hates himself for what he did and for what he has lost.

Yet tango draws him back. “It has brought me so much joy,” he says of the dance. “But it has also brought heartache. I wish I never found it. I wish I could cut myself off at the knees and never dance again,” Maes says, looking at his untouched glass of wine.

Simoni walks over to offer Maes a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. An older woman extends her hand to Maes, offering a dance. He accepts, taking the floor. But he moves stiffly, his thoughts elsewhere.

MAES HAS AN UNUSUAL dedication to the art of tango. But for anyone to master even the basics takes time and some commitment. Learning to dance well is like learning to play jazz music. Tango is less about learning individual steps than about understanding body position, knowing what range of movement to pursue from any given position, and learning to give oneself over to the music. Like jazz, the form allows an infinite range of personal expression. It can take a lifetime to master. Women take about a year to feel comfortable, Hart says. Men can take two years before they are confident on the dance floor. For me, I think it would be longer.

As couples circle the room under Hart and Paz’s direction, she can’t resist giving me a little help. With her fishnet-clad legs bowed as if straddling a Brahma bull, Hart stomps away from me. Her hands rest on her hips as she swings her chest back and forth exaggerating a swagger. “Don’t walk around like a cowboy,” she says to me, a grin creeping across her face.

“You want to keep your feet together, place them right next to your partner’s as you move,” she says, grabbing my shoulders and moving me around with unwavering physical certainty. “Feels better, eh?” she says, cracking a smile and walking off toward another couple. I am left to work out the rigorous act of walking with my partner.

Though we attempt little more than walking counterclockwise, I feel as if just putting one foot in front of the other is beyond me. But I am assured over and over again that everyone feels lost at first. Even Alberto, who grew up in Argentina surrounded by the dance, felt awkward when he took his first steps less than decade ago. For the first six months he found the dance a trial.

Paz moved to the Silicon Valley from Buenos Aires in 1968 seeking a future in electrical engineering. For the next 20 years he worked for small high-tech video companies, finally founding his own in the 1980s. But by the end of that decade, Paz felt there was something missing in his life.

He began working at KIQI as a soccer announcer and eventually as a night-time DJ playing South American music. Every now and then he would spin a tango from the station’s collection and the phone lines would light up. The music brought back memories of home from listeners who grew up all over South America, and they wanted to hear more.

Soon he switched to an all-tango format. To gear up for the show, he took a two-week trip to Buenos Aires, snatching up books and music, absorbing the history and culture of the music. “I learned a lot of things that were already somewhere in my mind,” Paz says. “For the 25 years I lived in Argentina, I totally ignored the tango I heard every day at home. I liked rock & roll.”

What Paz uncovered was a rich history of music, dance and culture that was largely undocumented. At that time there were no English-language histories of tango. The first was published just a year ago. Even Paz, who tracks down the dance’s roots with a disciple’s fervor, feels uncertain about many of the details.

Italian immigrants and recently freed slaves living in and around Buenos Aires (which was a slave port in the mid-1800s) developed the earliest form of tango in the 1860s. Paz says that the dance may have originally been a spinoff of high society’s ballroom dancing which gave immigrants, penned up with little work and few resources, a chance to develop and show off their grace and skill. Initially, most of that showing off was done by men dancing together, because the flood of immigrants was largely male.

By the early 1900s, the dance moved from the streets to bordellos, where men lined up to take turns dancing with the women. The music developed an upbeat, seat-of-the-pants style, played by working-class musicians without the benefit of sheet music. From the bordellos, the dance began to spread upward through Argentine society.

Sailors took the form to Europe, where it caught on like wildfire. And once Europe embraced it, Argentine society grabbed hold of the dance, creating nightclubs and smoothing over some of the raunchier moves. When depression hit in 1931, tango went with it, falling out of favor for the first, but not the last, time.

A few years later, in 1935, musicians dramatically changed the songs, emphasizing the rhythms and making it easier to dance to. The crowds came pouring back. Tango hit its golden age from the late 1930s through the 1940s.

Though diminishing in popularity, tango remained strong among working-class people until the 1970s, when Argentina lived under a dictatorship. Paz, like most in his generation, just missed out on tango. The foreign influences of rock & roll were more appealing, and the tradition seemed on the wane.

With the fall of the dictatorship in 1983, a show called Tango Argentino was organized in Buenos Aires. Many of the old masters took the stage. The show toured the U.S. and Europe and helped to rekindle interest in the dance. When Forever Tango came to San Francisco in 1994, it was scheduled for four weeks and stayed for 92.

Now Buenos Aires is packed with tango tourists. The government officially sanctions the dance. People around the world from New Zealand and Japan to Germany and New York dance tango.

Inspired by his trip, Paz returned to Sunnyvale ready to play more tango music. Soon he was DJing milongas and classes, but he never danced himself. “I had the prejudice that tango was something you learned when you were a kid. In Buenos Aires if you weren’t good by 18, forget it. If you didn’t know how to dance, then a woman wouldn’t dance with you.”

After a while, Paz learned a few steps, but never really applied himself. Then, at a milonga one night, he realized he was the only Argentine in the room and he was not dancing.

That night Paz made a commitment to learn tango. Like so many other Argentinians, he was rediscovering what his parents already knew.

Within six months, he began to think there was hope. That was in 1993. Two years later, on a whim, he went to Stanford Tango Week and saw Hart leaning against a dance studio door.

WHILE PAZ WAS discovering tango, Hart was living a successful life in New York, running her own business, oblivious to the dance that would change her life.

One night while she was making a pasta dinner with a group of Argentine friends she met through her corporate event­ planning business, someone put on a tango album. An Argentine friend boasted that he would teach her tango. But it only took a few steps for them to realize that no one in the room could dance it. As with Paz, the dance had passed these Argentines by.

They promised to take lessons, and Hart’s interest was sparked. When she heard about Stanford’s tango event, a two-week-long, eight-hour-a-day tango celebration featuring some of the world’s best dancers, she had to check it out.

She showed up in Palo Alto just curious, not looking to change her life, meet anyone or fall in love. But then she danced with Paz. “Not till I met Alberto did I feel comfortable dancing. He produced a safe haven for me to dance,” Hart says. They danced and talked and got to know each other. At the end of the week they parted, keeping in touch via email and fax.

“Tango touches people at crossroads in their lives. There is something deep about the experience of connecting with someone. My mother had just died at the time I was introduced to Argentine tango. She died young and suddenly,” Hart says. “That made me realize that life is short. I am approaching my 50th birthday and suddenly I thought, where did 50 years go?”

Three months later, Alberto visited her in New York and asked her to come to Sunnyvale.

“I thought, am I nuts? I don’t even know this guy,” Hart says. She packed her bags and left New York behind.

HART AND PAZ TAKE the floor together after an evening of mixing partners. The couple share a dance–slow, deliberate, so close together that they snuff out the light between their bodies. They circle the nearly empty floor as others look on.

The dance holds a deep meaning to nearly everyone here. For Hart, a child of the ’60s who has run her own business, the issue is about fitting the dance with her feminist background.

“At face value, it looks as though it is traditional role-playing–a man’s dance,” she says. “But it’s not. The man navigates the dance. In following, you get to improvise. The man creates the space for you to dance in. Once that space is secure, it is a place for you to express yourself, to experience the music, to be feminine.”

Alberto finds the social nature of the dance addictive. “People come together and share three minutes of true 50-50 cooperation between a man and a woman. The body communicates. The man improvises and feels the woman’s responsiveness. It requires commitment, more than going out and listening to noise and drinking alcohol.”

Both Hart and Paz dropped everything to be with each other, and not long afterward they started a company, Planet Tango. They publish a magazine, El Firulete, and are in the midst of installing a dance floor in their home. They teach, broker lessons for visiting masters, arrange tours to Buenos Aires, and sell CDs, shoes and anything else related to tango.

“I’m living the life of a boho gypsy. It’s like being 18 again,” Hart says. “We are poor, but we make enough for house payments and to make a little pasta.” The couple travels almost half the year. In the next few months they are scheduled to teach in Honolulu, Alaska and Florida. Every summer they take a group to Buenos Aires, all to dance.

“It is an obsession,” Paz says. “You incorporate tango into your life. In many cases, it’s like a religion.”

As the floor clears, the band packs its instruments. Paz spins a few more CDs. A crowd watches from the sidelines as the dancers from Tango show off their skills. Some couples dance furiously, some slowly, with exquisite yawning movements.

The dance, which these people perform so well, seems to spark obsession in everyone it touches. Casual dancers are hard to find, and those who work at the dance are close. Tango, born at the end of the last century, fills a void that has opened up over the past hundred years. Once a release for the massive dislocation and upheaval of the industrial revolution, it now provides a vital link to that remarkably sensual world, a world that this century has left reeling behind it. Here, at the Top of the Mark, as I watch architects and mechanics, attorneys and students, lose themselves in the music and the feel of each other, the dance feels like an embrace of the waning century, a retreat from the gaping emptiness of the next millennium. Looking around the room, it seems obvious that we will need to bring tango with us.

As the song ends, Hart walks out onto the dance floor. It’s nearly 1am. She calls out loud and happy, “Last tango!”

From the December 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.
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