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November 08, 2008

Each milonga is its own story

Each milonga is its own story.
Letter from Buenos Aires, November 1st 2008
By Beatriz Dujovne

Photos from milonga “Sueño Porteño”

“Sueño Porteño” on Wednesdays at 7 PM has a different ambiance. I found it friendlier and less macho scented than most. The space was problematic since I could not grasp the entire group, something I came to expect in the usual large square or rectangular venues. This one was split into several dance floors and seating areas but remodeling is planned for the near future. At 10 PM all seats had already been taken by the 500 to 600 dancers who had arrived before 8 PM.

A very accommodating woman (a rarity among milonga hostesses) led me to the only table available - next to two tables occupied by couples. I could move to any chair I wanted if one became available anywhere, she said. At most milongas, the men’s and women’s sections are clearly separated. Not in this one, a refreshing and different touch. My next seat neighbor greeted me, also an unusual social gesture in this city where people are friendly everywhere except at tango dance halls. He warned me that no one would look for a dance partner where I was sitting because this was the couples’ area.

What to do? Just sit there and watch?


So I did. I observed a majority of local people doing excellent art and entertained myself watching the different ways women dancers wrap their arms around their partners. Styles ranged from surrounding his shoulders and neck, to arms a few inches below his shoulders, to an awkward looking oblique positioning of the arm across his back (I started seeing this position relatively recently in Buenos Aires. I first saw it in Champaign, Illinois, several years ago in an Argentine couple of teachers).

Enough watching. How do I get invited to dance here?

To walk around and scan the environment may be a good idea. I did and was pleased to see “el muchacho del tio,” sitting around an elbow of the maze. (We had met at Club Español years before. He (el muchacho [young or not so young man]) was proud of his 90 year old tio (uncle) and insisted I should talk with him because he was a walking history of tango and could assist me with the tango manuscript I was writing). I moved towards him; I tapped his arm. He sprang up from his chair and was ready to dance. He is a good dancer without the airs one encounters among many tangueros.

After the tanda I returned to my territory for couples only.

I thought, shall I take a trip to the far end of this labyrinth? I did and I found more mazes until a voice reached my ears from my back. “Would you like to dance?" I turned my head and we recognized each other from having danced at El Beso six months before. He was as disoriented as I was in this complicated space. But we both liked its energy.

It became clear to me that the milonga organizer made this energy happen. She is a woman named Julia with a theatre background. With stage presence, in her becoming apricot tulle dress, microphone in hand, she addressed us with maternal assertiveness; she referred to women as “papusas” and to men “galanes” (papusas and galanes are two terms frequently used in tango lyrics of the 1920s and 1930s, they refer to women and men respectively). She announced the date of the upcoming “milonga of the transparencies.” “Papusas, we will wear something with a bit of see through (transparencia). Nothing showing. Only suggesting.” She also announced that the tanda of the rose and the tanda of the candy will happen later that night.

The galanes were told to fetch a rose following her cue, and then invite a papusa to dance adhering to the “strict code of cabeceo.” “Papusas may leave the rose at their table, or adorn the back of the galan with a garden.” For the other themed-tanda, women will have a candy, will initiate the invitation and then give the candy to the men. “We women are givers, we give birth, we give to others throughout life; this candy represents our giving feminine essence.”

[Cultural note. In Buenos Aires – whether in classes or at milongas – the words used for women and men preserve gender differences. The words “leader” and “follower”, which we use in the USA, wash out gender differences.]

After her words, an unknown galan found my gaze in couples-land and sent me a cabeceo from the bar area across the floor. He took a quick look at my shoe bag lying on the floor by my table. In between songs he said that since I carried a shoe bag I was probably from academia (meaning I learned to dance in schools as opposed to having learned within my family). Unlike me, he said, he was “from the terraza and the patio.” I knew what he meant. But asked him to explain and he did: terraza is where he learned tango, dancing with his cousins and family as he was growing up. So was the patio. I shared that the house where I grew up in Buenos Aires’ Barracas district had a terraza and a patio which I loved. Requesting I save the dance of the candy for him, he disappeared into the ocean of people.

[Note. Homes built in the Spanish tradition have terrazas, which are tiled open living spaces above the houses; they are surrounded by walls or ornamental iron. Patios are open courtyards in the middle of the ground floor of the houses.]

It was a pleasant surprise to see Horacio. He was waving from afar. I knew his name because we take the same course at the National Academy of Tango (a tango music class, not a dance class). Last week our professor, knowing Horacio and I were dancers (some people in the class are singers to be, others are poets in the making) asked us to dance so the class could observe what steps went with the variations of the rhythm and the pauses in the music. At La Gran Milonga we danced for real enjoying a Biagi tanda. We could not wait to report the event to the class the next day. Adding a little spice of imagination we said we had danced with a sign across our back which read “Sponsored by the National Academy of Tango.” The professor asked (tongue-in-cheek) if we had represented the Academy well. We said Horacio Ferrer (the president of the Academy) would have been proud of us.

People admired Julia, I learned. She took the microphone again and read lyrics written by someone in attendance – which she had also placed on each table. Another special touch. I believe her personality, her being a respected female leader, her arrangement of men and women sharing seating areas, have created a non-stiff milonga. This may be the reason for its success. It had started only two months ago.

The tanda of the candy was about to begin. I only had five galanes in the bar area across the floor to choose from. I decided to invite a friendly face. He accepted and we went out to the floor. From this role reversal I learned that I invited him with the certainty he would accept…because he was inviting me with a “smiling face.” Not with a smile, but an interested friendly look I am calling a “smiling face.”

The tanda of the candy was true candy for me. Because it was sung by Alberto Podesta. I had interviewed the singer two years before. He had told me he was in his late teens when he recorded the ageless and poignant pieces we were dancing: “Nada”, “Tu el cielo y tu”, “Bajo un cielo de estrellas.” How serendipitous that on that occasion Podesta had given me a booklet called “Caramelos” (candy).

(Copyright © Beatriz Dujovne, 2008)

Posted by beatriz at November 8, 2008 01:55 PM

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