My sartorial standards in milongas are respectable, but I’ve now given up on mornings. We just made it to the hotel breakfast room before it closed, and I was unshaven, with uncombed hair and wearing my Virgin sleep suit.
Breakfast was spent sorting out some more of our tango schedule. With up to 20 or so milongas from which to choose every day, it’s no easy task …
One great shame is that most of the live music seems to happen on Wednesdays, but we found some exceptions, so booked tables for Marabú (Thu) and La Viruta (Fri).
A few quick reflections so far
I’m sure I will have many, many thoughts about the experience by the time it’s over, but if I don’t start writing down a few now, I’ll lose track …
Argentine teachers tend to talk a lot about the importance of really settling into the embrace before you begin moving. Julia has said the same – that a really snuggly embrace is gold to followers, and there’s no hurry to begin moving. As an inhibited Brit, I noted previously that this has always felt a little challenging.
I did mention to my friend afterwards that I feel a little inhibited about the idea of just taking time to establish the embrace before moving, as I don’t want it to feel weird to followers. I will seek some input on this from experienced followers.
However, the experienced follower feedback was: so long as you’re doing some weight changes, not just standing there, it feels good rather than weird. And here, it is completely normal. Everyone does it. You see people slowly enter the embrace and then just do some weight changes for a while. So I now feel comfortable with this.
‘It’s not about the steps’
That’s something else you hear a lot from Argentine teachers. Admittedly, some of them say this during classes where they are teaching some sequence of same … but that, I think, is mostly a supply-and-demand thing. If you want to make a living as a tango teacher, you sell what the market wants to buy – and what most people want to buy is a bumper pack of steps.
I did have the great irony at one point last night of having to say the same thing to a local follower. We had a beautiful tanda in the milonga, and she said afterwards that ‘it was really good, but I missed some steps.’ I said if she had, it was probably my lead not her follow, but in any case it didn’t matter at all. The dance felt great, we were in the music, that’s all I care about, not what we did or didn’t do. That got me an enormous smile and a hug, and I laughed at the notion of a Brit saying this to an Argentine.
Making your follower feel good
I’ve often seen it written that the goal of the leader in tango is to make the follower feel or look good. I guess some followers care more about one or the other, but for my type of follower, it’s going to be about the feeling. How I think about that goal is changing.
At first, it was three things: a comfortable embrace, a clear lead and a musical dance.
Then I was introduced, at a very early stage, to the idea of collaborative dance. Not all followers want this. I know some really amazing dancers who just want to be led. But there are others, like Steph, who want it to be a real dialogue.
After that came the next level to the embrace. Well, levels. Snuggliness, as discussed above; I think I’m about a 5 there. Adapting the embrace to my follower; I’m a 1.5 there, but at least it’s now on my radar.
And last night, I had an experience which further broadened the nature of that goal of making my follower feel good.
There was a quite elderly woman I’d seen sitting at a table next to the floor. At a guess, I would say she was at least in her seventies, perhaps older. She was with some other people, but I’d noticed that all her attention was on the pista, and she was tapping her feet to the music. That’s normally a good indication of a follower who really wants to dance, and that’s half the secret to a good tanda, I think.
So I cabeceod her, she accepted and I offered her a hand as she stepped up onto the raised dance floor. I began just with walking. There was a little room for this, and plenty of space for circular walking. Then I led back ochos.
As I did so, I noticed she had great control when stepping to my left, but felt less balanced going to the right. I focused on giving her more support in the embrace when moving that way. I did wonder whether I should just omit back ochos, in case they were uncomfortable for her, but decided to first try something else instead.
The music had a short call-and-response section, so I led a slow back ocho to my left, and a faster one to my right. That fitted the music really well, and meant she didn’t have to maintain her balance in that direction as it was immediately stepping all the way as soon as she’d pivoted. I saw her smile at that, so saved my back ochos for moments when that would work with the music.
And I realised that, for her, that was probably the single best thing I could have done to make her feel good during that tanda. We had a very lovely dance, and were both enthusiastic in our thanks.
Steph had explained that marches were kind of a national hobby here. We’d seen one yesterday, in support of Chile, and this morning a small one wandered past our hotel.
After converting myself from a bleary-eyed mess into something more tanguero-like, I headed out first to pick up the tango trousers I’d ordered on Monday. It’s not obvious from the colour balance in the photo, but the bottom-right pair are deep blue.
I said to a friend that my dance had to be at least 200% better now: 100% improvement from my feet being in contact with Argentine soil, and a further 100% because I now had genuine tango trousers. These replace the fake tango trousers I’ve been wearing to date, which are actually Slazenger golf trousers! (That was a tip from Mariano Laplume, who said that if you think about a tango pivot and a golf swing, they require the same kind of movement so it takes sense that the cut would be similar.)
Confitera Ideal is literally around the corner from our hotel. This has been under refurbishment forever, the sign outside claiming it would open in August 2020.
On the way back, I noticed the front door was open, so I ducked under the hazard tape and wandered in. I took the above photo from the entrance, and then asked the two security guards if it was possible to see inside for just a moment. They weren’t having any of that, sadly.
I had planned to attend La Verdi at Teatro Verdi, originally aiming for the 4pm start. It was, however, 30C. I needed another bath and change of clothes when I got back, and it didn’t seem like the ideal conditions for a milonga, so I decided instead to laze around for a bit and wait until the early evening.
I thought I had the hang of Argentine time by now, but it turned out I didn’t. My understanding had been that nothing ever starts or ends on time. However, it turns out the reality is a little different: things start when they start, end when they end.
Which was why, when I turned up not long after 7pm, for an event due to end at 8pm, the place was empty bar the caretaker.
Everyone had, he told me, left by 7pm. At least, I think that’s what he told me; there was quite a lot of mime involved in this conversation. Ah well, at least I got a private guided tour. Well, ok, more of a wander upstairs while the caretaker wondered why this weird Brit was taking a photo of an event that finished ten minutes ago.
Milonga 6: Marabú
This one wasn’t a result of a recommendation, rather my love of live music. I searched Hoy Milonga for ‘notable’ milongas, which highlights ones with live music as well as performances by well-known dancers. Marabú turned out to be literally two blocks from our hotel.
The place turned out to have quite the history! Paraphrasing the Google Translate version of the wiki page:
Aníbal Troilo began his career here, appearing with his orchestra and singer Francisco Fiorentino on July 1, 1937. According to some versions, Alfredo de Angelis’s debut was also here on March 20, 1941. In 1938, Rodolfo Biagi formed his own orchestra, which debuted on September 16, 1938 at the Marabú.
When in 1944 Alfredo de Angelis unexpectedly lost the singer Floreal Ruiz, he introduced his new singer Carlos Dante in the Marabú on October 1, 1944. On the same stage was where Troilo appeared with Astor Piazzolla in 1940.
Some of the other greats of tango who performed at the venue were Carlos Di Sarli, Ángel Vargas, Antonio Maida and Ángel D’Agostino .
The de Angelis parts are apparently disputed by some, with other venues staking their own claims, but either way, that’s an impressive heritage.
Our own evening was a little less high-brow. Let me tell you how it started, as that really set the tone for the rest.
The tango trousers incident
This was my first time ever wearing the first pair of my brand-new trousers: the tan coloured ones bottom-left in the photo above. We’ll get to why I mention this; it isn’t just because I am very, very pleased with my brand-new tango trousers, honest.
Steph sized up the standard of dancing on the floor and declared it mostly abysmal. Watching with her, even from my one-year perspective, I had to agree. There was all kinds of nonsense going on. There were leaders who were visibly squeezing the air from their followers. There was one guy who was holding his follower by the wrist instead of the hand. Another one who appeared to be trying to break his follower’s wrist by bending it backwards. There was one guy who appeared to be standing still throughout the entire song. I don’t mean a long suspension, I mean, stationary for the whole three minutes. I could go on, but those were some examples which spring readily to mind. (We won’t even talk about the visual entertainment, like the lady of a certain age wearing a mini-dress that was little more than a t-shirt, or the guy with the largest milonguero belly you have ever seen in your life still dancing gracefully, albeit with his follower about 16 feet away from him …)
Steph decided the best course of action was to treat the evening as date night. We ordered a bottle of sparkling wine, a pizza (for Steph) and an empanada (for me). The wine duly arrived, and having toasted each other, Steph decided she was going to be romantic and pull her chair up against mine.
The romance of this gesture was somewhat lost when she failed to notice a table leg, barged her chair into it, knocked the table heavily and sent my glass flying, covering both my shirt and tango trousers in wine. You know, the brand new, never-worn-before, seeing-their-first-milonga tango trousers. Those ones.
Both shirt and trousers were literally soaked in wine – the trousers very visibly so. There were two saving graces. First, the way the wine soaked my trousers was off-centre, so it didn’t look like I’d had an embarrassing accident. Second, of all the milongas to choose to do this, she’d done it in the one a five-minute walk from our hotel.
I walked back, had a quick shower to wash off the wine, and left the clothes to soak in the sink. Having had the foresight to buy tango trousers plural, I was then able to don the next pair. And I’d got my shirts back from the hotel laundry, so had a spare.
Missing, presumed dead: Floorcraft
Showered and dressed for the second time in 15 minutes, I returned. Steph and I danced a milonga tanda, on a floor which started reasonably empty but filled in the course of the tanda. The concentration needed for navigation meant I didn’t do much of my fake double-time rebounds, and I was too worried about what was behind me to risk much turning, so I don’t claim it was the most interesting milonga tanda I’ve ever danced, but it was still fun aside from one thing.
The floorcraft. Or, rather, the utter and complete absence of same. There were a lot of tourists there, and a lot of people who hadn’t the first clue about navigation. There were collisions left, right and centre. One guy was actually leading against the line of dance. I don’t mean taking more than one back-step, I mean actually dancing clockwise. Steph and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. From his dance, he clearly had at least some clue about tango, so how he managed to learn anything at all without learning about the ronda, I have no idea.
When we returned to our seats, both still uninjured, Steph engaged in a bit of people-watching, and figured out that the large group table next to us had two or three taxi dancers. When she pointed them out on the dance floor, it was obvious.
They had, we think, three taxi drivers between a group of around a dozen, mostly followers. There was one absolutely terrible dancer – the poor taxi dancer was visibly struggling to get her to even move, let alone follow what he was leading – but the rest seemed decent. Since they wanted to dance enough to have taxi dancers, but didn’t have one each, that seemed a good hunting ground.
It turned out they were a group from Connecticut over on a group trip organised by their tango school, with a sub-group from New York who come on the trips.
I danced with five of them in all, and all were better dancers than me, which was a very good thing given that the floor was very, very crowded and the floorcraft meter was still firmly pegged against the ‘Jesus Christ are you kidding me’ side of the scale. Most of my job was trying to protect my follower from collisions, which required some very quick moves at times, and all my followers instantly went with me.
After one particularly harrowing tanda, where I’d had to literally use my elbow to repeatedly fend off a guy who kept trying to walk into us, and take some very rapid side-steps to avoid other hazards, my follower said that I was a really good bodyguard, and that’s indeed how it felt.
There were, though, three upsides to this.
Greater comfort with crowded milongas
First, I danced seven tandas in the course of the evening, all of them on an incredibly crowded floor, and with the worst floorcraft I have ever seen. In that time, exactly one person collided with one of my followers, and I was able to turn her fast enough to make that a glancing blow rather than the full-on crash it was about to be. That was a huge confidence boost when it comes to dancing in crowded milongas.
And the secret to this was …
Something I’d read about suddenly made perfect sense, and I became instantly more milonguero-like.
I’d read that milongueros always dance diagonally, facing out of the ronda. So instead of facing in the line of dance, they are facing 45 degrees to the right of it. Think of it like a diagonal parking space.
This provides four benefits:
- It’s a very efficient use of space (you can fit five cars in the above space, versus 2.5 end-to-end)
- If others around you do it, you each have space to walk forwards and backwards
- With your head turned to the left as it should be in the embrace, you have a perfect view of when the ronda moves
- Your follower is protected from both the couple behind you and those in the inner ronda, because if either steps into your space, they are going to hit you, not her
It suddenly clicked. If a space opens up, you can turn to walk into it, but the rest of the time you have your little reserved space.
Of course, an out-of-control leader can still barge into you, and that happened on quite a few occasions, but knowing my follower was protected massively reduced my stress level.
I danced diagonally all evening, and it’s a revelation.
Rapid collision-avoidance techniques
While my followers were protected from the couple behind, and from the inner ronda, that still left the possibility of the couple ahead of us either walking backwards into us or doing giros or similar that invade our space.
So diagonal dancing was great, but wasn’t enough on its own: I still had to apply some rapid collision-avoidance techniques.
Steph had previously demonstrated that I could just make stuff up, move myself and trust my follower to follow. I hadn’t had the courage to try that with anyone else, but tonight I had no choice. There were moments that someone was about to hit my follower, and even if I took her off-balance, that would be the lesser of two evils because I could catch her.
But it never happened. I would move quickly in whatever direction was away from trouble, and on every occasion – and there were quite a number of them – my follower effortlessly came with me. I have no idea what steps were involved, it just worked. Perhaps after that, I will, when it’s clear I have an experienced follower, risk it when there’s no imminent emergency.
The live band
The live band was Orquesta Los Reyes Del Tango. Argentina being Argentina, the 11pm live set began after midnight. The F word aside, I very much enjoyed dancing to them – but the F word also meant we didn’t stay too long. And so ended an entertaining evening!
Tomorrow afternoon, Steph is going shoe-shopping at Katrinski, then meeting her Spanish teacher. If it’s not too hot, I’ll do the tourist thing and go for a wander around La Boca.
Then in the early evening, Steph has a women leader’s class while I’m doing a class and milonga at Patio de Tango, a Diego recommendation. He described it as ‘a beautiful, crowded, friendly milonga in a historic place.’
Finally, we have a table booked at La Viruta for 11.30pm, another milonga with live music. Depending on how I find Patio de Tango, I may also do the pre-milonga class at La Viruta.
Parking image: Shutterstock