When I was visiting Buenos Aires for the first time in 1987 I was taken to a dance hall in Palermo called the Hellenico where I was introduced to Miguel and Nelly Balmacera, who became my first teachers.
I suppose I had some vague image of the tango from the reviews of the show in New York some years before, but I had never seen it danced. I was inspired by the intensity and the intimacy of the dancers and their passionate dedication to their form.
Tango has been often injected into the ballroom dance world outside of Argentina without connection to its true context as an expression of the Argentine soul. The tango is a dance that can stand on its own in terms of technique and intricacy, but to separate it from its cultural milieu is to dilute its power. The dance exists as one facet of a very rich culture that includes poetry, music, great historical personalities, changes in the Spanish language, and evolutions in its style and acceptance. To fathom the depths of tango culture one needs to have an experience of PorteÐo culture (the culture of the city of Buenos Aires).
There is a distinction between two esthetics of tango dance which is not always so clear outside Argentina. Salon tango involves improvising each step according to the nuances in the music, and, like any other social dance, it involves communicating each decision to your partner. Fantasy tango is theatre, choreographed for the stage.
Tango began in the late 1800s. There are many competent dance historians who have tracked its early development, its great impact in Europe in the early 1900s, and its further development in American and International style ballroom dancing. Less is known about its evolution within Argentina that led to its golden age as the great Argentine social dance of the 1930s through 50s.
In the 1940s there was a great innovative dancer named Carlos Estevez whose nickname was Petroleo ( from petrol or oil meaning slick, slippery, fast, etc.) His ideas were at first received as strange to the tango dancers of the preceding epoch, that of Canyengue (Kahn-jen-gay) tango. The Canyengue style had a macho swagger, was more bent-kneed, gaze down, with the frame more introverted. The man’s left hand was lower or even in his pocket (her right hand the same or on her hip). The dance was characterized by the footwork which included lots of interlocking legs and complex syncopation.
Petroleo’s ideas included a change in the frame to a more erect, outward looking, and elegant stance. His style followed closely the development of the smooth dance music characterized by the orchestras of Carlos DiSarli and Osvaldo Pugliese. He replaced the strong hold of the canyengue with the lighter lead and follow of modern salon. The big ganchos (hooks) were refined into the fine and subtle displacements of the feet. Smooth walking became the measure of good dancing. Figures with turns in combination with displacement became popular. Today almost all of the older dancers with whom I have spoken can show off popular Petroleo steps that influenced them.
Between the 50s and 80s Argentina was in the grip of some cruel dictatorships. Public gathering of any kind was discouraged. People stopped dancing. Many of the best artists went into exile or stopped working altogether. Several generations of continuity was lost. The revival today is an example of the dedication of dancers who, having lost the tango social world, are returning in this era of new freedom. That is also why the salon style of the forties is still the contemporary style of today. There is a passing of the torch to a younger generation.
There are truly great masters still teaching in Buenos Aires. However teachers alone would not have given me the tango experience necessary to really understand the dance. Its the older couples that hang around the practice sessions and the dance halls and call you over to offer comments and anecdotes, the countless meetings, conversations, theatre productions, music concerts, tango shows, bookstore and flea market browsing.
Good dancing begins with one’s pinta or look. It is based on how one stands and walks. As with any sophisticated dance technique, like ballet or international dancing for example, this is the hardest thing to learn. The most common advice I received from the older dancers was to walk my kilometers and not to be distracted by the fancy steps until I was prepared. In Argentina the quality of dancing does not depend on how many steps you know. That’s because everyone knows so many steps. Only steps that you have invented yourself, that have your signature, get peoples attention.
Inventive ways of using the known vocabulary to interpret the music is judged to be superior dancing. Efficiency in movement, doing more with less, and the most subtle changes in the displacements of feet are what bring the murmurs of appreciation from an educated audience. The finishing touch is the endless variety of tiny movements of the feet, called chiches, which embellish a step and can fill a moment of stillness with a musical flutter of controlled passion.
In teaching tango outside of Buenos Aires I try to provide a cultural perspective by presenting a visual display of photos and prints that I have collected in my travels in Argentina. I also show video of salon and fantasy dancing so that people can see the difference. Class begins with a review of the ladies basic technique and everyone learns it. Men who can dance the ladies technique have a chance to then lead in an elegant and courteous manner.
Everyone learns to lead the basic walks around the salon. When dancers are comfortable navigating the salon then they can begin to learn turning figures without being rude to each other as they share the floor. This way the development of figure work and embellishments is never separated from the floorcraft that underlies it. The dance progresses as a smooth walk around the floor and dancers have the possibility to listen to and interpret the music.
It’s essential to dance milongas and waltzes as well. These dances are lighter in spirit and really complement the more melancholy tango. Without them the tango dance will lack its full musicality and emotional range.
If authenticity is important to the dancer than dancing salon is the base for learning to dance tango. Every Argentine performer I know of learned the salon base first. That’s where they get character. When Argentine tango is performed by people who do not have a salon base it is quite apparent to the educated eye. When people show off their tango fantasy routines in a social context it is rude. Learning salon makes tango more accessible and choreography easier to do well. The pity is that there are so few people teaching it outside of Argentina.