I have a dozen identical white linen shirts, which you might think sounds like a lot. But given that I generally need a change of shirt during a milonga, and am sometimes doing two milongas a day, dropping and collecting laundry is a regular task.
The hours of my local laundry are clearly shown as 11am to 9pm. Of course, this being Argentina, that doesn’t mean 11am to 9pm. It means ‘We do, broadly speaking, have the general ambition of operating hours which may perhaps bear some resemblance to these. Oh, and we may randomly close for half an hour to an hour at any point.’ Which explains this sign when I got there at 5pm …
I went and got a cold drink, then returned at 5.45pm when it was of course still closed. Just as I was about to WhatsApp them to find out what time they would really be back, the woman who runs it arrived.
Then back home to shower and change before a private with the teacher Ale had met at a milonga, Gonzalo Robín. While I’m generally exceedingly suspicious in these circumstances, I watched her two-hour lesson, and it looked amazing. 100% technique-based, starting with sitting in a chair barefoot to learn how to really feel the floor, and transfer weight millimetre by millimetre. I understood little of the Spanish, but the work was familiar from things Diego had done with me.
When they danced, it was really beautiful. He moves in such a fluid way. I’ll see whether I can talk Ale into letting me share a video clip here later.
Private with Gonzalo Robín
The poor guy had terrible timing. He’s from northern Argentina, with ten years of tango experience, and came to BsAs to teach. He was offered a job at DNI – and got to work there for one week before the school was closed by the pandemic.
I booked my own private with him for today, and I just danced with Ale and with him, and asked him to tell me what I should work on. My immediate takeouts were three things, in ascending order of importance …
Down before direction
He said my walk was very good, grounded and with a strong chest lead, but my side-steps and back-steps were not of the same standard. With both, I needed to ensure I was bringing the follower with me, chest to chest, in the same way I did in the walk. He said that followers too tend to be less comfortable with the opposite direction (ie. a forward step for them), so gave me a way to better prepare both myself and my follower.
Other teachers have taught me that every step begins with a downward movement, sinking into the floor. What Gonzalo added was the next level to this: that the downward movement should be separate from, and precede, any signal for the direction. Which is to say, it’s not down-and-forward, or down-and-back, or down-and-side, but instead:
- Down (prepare for a step)
- Then the direction
In other words, think of it more as a slightly curved L-shape movement than a smoother one (or a quadratic Bezier curve, rather than a cubic one).
He said this also helps prevent followers from anticipating, and getting ahead of the leader. The sinking is the request to ‘stay with me’ so that they are prepared to do this by the time the direction is signalled. First he led me, and I could feel the difference in sensation this made, then I led him. I found it easy when I was focusing on it, but as with many things in tango it will require much solo practice before it becomes muscle-memory for milongas.
I’ve said many times before that so much teaching in tango is not new information, but rather reminders of things we’ve been told before. My tango brain can only cope with so many things at once, so some things simply got forgotten along the way.
But there are also things that you need to address at the right time. For me, there have been certain things that made perfect sense at the time, but my attention dollar was already being spent on much more basic things, so I had no spare capacity for some of the subtleties. One of those has been using breath as part of the dance, and specifically part of the lead.
But when Gonzalo introduced the breath as part of the lead, as well as using it to begin a tanda, it was the right time for me to be able to incorporate this into my dance.
He said that both leader and follower may have tension to begin with, so he recommended entering the embrace, taking a slow and deep breath in, and imparting a slight lifting sensation to the follower at the same time, and then a slow out-breath, focusing at the same time on relaxing the shoulders.
My usual habit when beginning a tanda is to simply do changes of weight for one or two phrases. For me, this helps calibrate the level of lead needed, and for the follower it gives her time to read my lead – I really saw the power of this when taking following lessons. It also gives both of us time to settle into a comfortable embrace, making adjustments as needed. But sharing the breath right at the start felt like a wonderful way to begin, and really served well as a reminder to relax my shoulders.
We also worked on using breath in the same way for a side-step, and again it finally felt like I had the capacity to use this. We worked for a while on three ways of taking a side-step:
- Hip movement
- Flexing the knees
- Lifting the heel of the standing leg
Again, this is a way of providing a greater range of expression with the simplest of movements.
Developing an Argentine embrace
Right from my first trip, I noticed two things about the way the local leaders embrace. Both looked to me like they must be uncomfortable for the follower:
- Reaching right around the follower, the right hand almost under her right armpit
- With the leader’s left hand, what looked like bending the follower’s wrist back
I couldn’t understand why this embrace was the norm here, or why followers talked in such gushing terms about the Argentine embrace. Gonzalo finally made sense of this!
I’d mentioned before the need to block an unwanted extra step in movements like the ocho cortado. I’d learned that I needed to contain the embrace more to prevent this. What Gonzalo was talking about was keeping all movements this contained (with me adding the caveat, except when actively creating space for the follower’s dance). This makes the lead much more precise, and much easier to follow. It also makes the follower feel safer, because she can feel that even if she loses her axis, or we’re dancing a pivot with centrifugal energy, she’s definitely not going to fall.
As for that awkward-looking bent wrist … What Gonzalo said is that you want some degree of compression in the embrace. Teachers often talk about a rounded embrace, as if embracing a beach-ball, but I’ve always found that hard to put into practice. But now it made sense. Gonzalo said that it’s as if you’re trying to close the gap between your left and right hands. Not squeezing the follower, but also not lacking any sensation of closed-ness. Just a light compression, with additional compression when the follower is using my left hand to push against in, say, an ocho.
So the left hand is not facing diagonally forward, as is the norm in London tango, but rather fully inward, toward my right hand. As for the angle of the follower’s wrist, she actually chooses that – all the leader is doing is providing that sense of compression, containment, and leaving her to adjust the angle as she prefers. And when I followed, then I understood why followers might choose an angle which looks awkward, but feels rounded. It’s inward, not backward.
It made intellectual sense, but I was super-sceptical about how it would feel. But when Gozolo led me, with and without that feeling of containment, it was a night and day difference, and clearly preferable.
I danced a song with Alessandra to try it, and she loved it! I still felt nervous, to say the least. From an early stage, I’ve had followers compliment me on my embrace, so I was very concerned about altering it so dramatically. That led me to later ask some followers if I could break one of the milonga codes, and ask for feedback – purely on whether the embrace felt comfortable to them. I asked four followers – two of them from a party of Germans, so more likely to be truthful! – and they all said yes, it felt great.
One follower even spontaneously complimented me on my abrazo and said that I must have learned to dance here; I didn’t like to say well, yes, I did learn the embrace here – about six hours ago!
By the end of the evening, after four hours of fairly non-stop dancing, it felt completely natural.
Update: At a high-level milonga frequented by many teachers, I paid close attention to the right hands and arms of the leaders. The containment on that side is not really coming from the arm across the back – which can be held tighter or looser – but by the crook of the elbow. Once I appreciated that, I felt far happier, as I was worried about becoming one of those leaders who clamps the follower too tightly.
There was much more than this. I always ask teachers to do a recap of the key priorities from the lesson, and video it so I can watch later and work on one thing at the time. Admittedly this took longer than usual as Alessandra very kindly sacrificed a planned group class to act as interpreter (Gonzalo speaks much more English than I do Spanish, but isn’t fluent), but even so, it was almost ten minutes long because we covered so much ground. I’m not even going to think about watching it anytime soon – I have more than enough change for now!
Ridiculously, he wanted to charge just $10/hour. We of course didn’t allow that.
Diego had recommended Muy Lunes to me previously, but I hadn’t had a chance to make it there. Alessandra went on Monday (er, obviously!) and raved about it. She said she didn’t get many dances, but was happy to mostly just watch. She was quite star-struck by all the famous performers dancing socially there, like Corina Herrera and Marcela Duran. I’m not a performance fan, but watching Ale’s videos of them dancing in a milonga was lovely. She also said it was super-friendly.
However, the idea of dancing there myself in such exalted company seemed ludicrous. The level of dance in her videos was just astonishingly high. However, she assured me that there were mere mortals there earlier in the night, and the stars only arrived around 2am. I already had a table booked at Parakultural for midnight, so decided to try the sister milonga Muy Martes for an hour beforehand.
Let’s start with the bad news. It was at a different venue from usual, which was described as a rooftop terrace. This was slightly true: there was a small outside terrace. But the dance floor would be more accurately described as a rooftop greenhouse. It was glazed on two sides, perfect for capturing all the heat of the day and trapping it inside for the night. It was the ideal temperature for baking empanadas.
I danced four tandas, and by the end of them needed a bowl rather than a seat. (The terrace is on the left here.)
The bar and food prices are more touristic than local, and there’s no table service, but it’s offering a far less formal experience than a traditional milonga.
Diego and Ale were absolutely right about the friendliness. Also the level. For the early hour I visited, 10.30-11.30pm, the level was very mixed, and not at all intimidating. I will definitely visit either this or Muy Lunes next week, after carefully checking that they’re not holding it inside an active volcano.
Parakultural at Marabú
I again shared a table with two local tangueros, and initially thought we’d been consigned to one of the worst tables in the place. Perhaps retribution for my table theft last week. It was at the very back on the right as you enter, to the side of the raised area.
But it turned out to be a very strategic position. Simply by standing, you could cabeceo about half the tables on that side, plus those on the raised platform. I also noticed that a lot of women looked in our direction. It seemed my companions were popular leaders at their usual table, and I got to enjoy the benefits of that too.
Parakultural retained its magic for a second week. A Canadian follower asked my favourite milonga in the city, and I said “Well, it was this one, at Canning.” She agreed, and we reminisced a little. Feels kind of crazy to feel such a connection with it after visiting a handful of times over a couple of trips, but that was the power of the place.
But for me, at least, it’s still wonderful music, beautiful dancing, and little snobbery. The only downside was way too many performances! Admittedly I think one performance is too many, but there must have been about six.
However, I was forced to forgive them when there was a Zamba – a folk dance I’d always seen as silly, people just prancing about while waving handkerchiefs at each other – which was stunning! (I video the performances just in case there’s something amazing, but don’t generally keep them.)
It was by Emilse Martinez, Romina Ferrara and Dabel Zanabria (the two women danced with him, and also together, and I’m not sure who is who).
We even got a surprise live band! La Auténtica Milonguera. I literally danced every single song during their set, so don’t have any video of my own, but here they are playing at Canning.
As always with live music, I was in heaven. The floor was of course busy, but it was a proper moving ronda, so there was opportunity to walk a couple of steps at regular intervals.
They didn’t play tandas, so you never knew what was coming next, and sometimes the lack of cortinas can feel a bit awkward. Am I monopolising a follower who’d like to dance with other leaders? Or if I’m ready for a change, will she feel rejected? But, either by planning or good fortune, there were short gaps every now and then as they seemingly discussed what to play next. That made for a comfortable time to thank my partner and escort her back to her seat. Finding my next follower from the edge of the dance floor never took more than a few seconds.
One of the local followers allowed my Spanish small-talk for the gap between the first couple of songs, before switching to English. She was the one who told me, unprompted, that I had a proper porteño abrazo. We connected really well. When I paused and relaxed the embrace, she decorated for half a phrase or a phrase, but didn’t propose anything. After a few times, we settled into a very flowing rhythm with that, and because I knew she wasn’t wanting to do more, it made for a beautifully smooth gathering up afterwards. We just looked at each other as each song began, nodded and continued to dance. I think we danced six to eight songs together, and despite a relatively passive dance on her part, I loved it.
As ever, the live set felt like it was over in minutes, and again the majority left when it ended. By 2am, it was down to a relative handful of people dotted around the room. However, that included a table of five followers, one of whom I’d danced with earlier, and in the last hour I danced with each of the other four! Literally accompanying one back to her table and collecting the next. There should be some kind of prize for this level of tango efficiency.
By the final tanda, there was almost nobody on the dance floor, and most others had changed out of their dance shoes or were sitting back with a glass of wine.
Oh yes: wine. Last night I managed to accidentally order a bottle of wine instead of a glass. Tonight I successfully ordered un copa de vino tinto, but when it arrived, I swear they’d managed to fit almost an entire bottle’s worth into the over-sized glass.
The most impressive part was that the waiter, who was around 200 years old, successfully carried it from one side of the room to the other without spilling it.
So, not quite closing the place, as I was denied the last tanda.
I absolutely adore walking home from a local milonga in the early hours – just enjoying the peace and feeling the warmth of the memories infusing every cell.
Oh, one other thing I love! Back in the UK, I’ve been dieting (successfully), but I was rather dubious about how I might fare here, given all the empanadas and dulce de leche I’m contractually obliged to eat during my stays. However, while I don’t have any scales here, I last night had to take my belt in another notch! If I can eat like a king (well, a teenage king) and still lose weight, I should really emigrate.
Tomorrow, I think, Sans Souci.