Archive | February, 2018

The story of the Milonga

Terence Clarke, writer, tango

Terence Clarke

By Terence Clarke, novelist, journalist and Alma del Tango board member.

Terence Clarke’s latest book is New York, a collection of stories, all of which take place in New York City. He and his partner Beatrice Bowles are the organizers of the milongas at The de Young Museum, the Palace of The Legion of Honor, and The Ferry Building, in San Francisco. You can see him in his role as the moderator of Alma de Tango’s video “Tango: A Romantic Ritual.”

In 1883, an Argentine writer named Ventura Lynch, who studied and wrote about tango and all its variations, described tango’s older relative, the milonga: “It is so universal in the environs of Buenos Aires that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (in Lynch’s Spanish, “bailecitos de medio pelo”), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by organ-grinders…It is danced in low life clubs, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, the soldiery, and compadres and compadritos (i.e. streetwise ruffians and gangsters).”

This was written well before the tango’s own development in the twentieth century. But the milonga was already an ancient term, and referred to music and dance that was, in the days long before Lynch, not Argentine at all.

The famous early gauchos from the Argentine pampas and elsewhere in southern South America…lonely cowboys wandering from place to place in search of work…also sought entertainment. They found it in their own “payadas,” which were verse-competitions in which a gaucho, with his guitar, would sing a verse of his own making, and a second gaucho would respond with a competing verse, an answer to the first payador’s offering. Inventive rhyming language back and forth was the goal, accompanied by guitar, with quick thinking and improvisation the method.

African influences

Some of these gauchos were black, and before 1861, the year slavery was outlawed everywhere in Argentina, many of the servants and country working class were black slaves. They had been brought to Argentina from the Niger-Congo regions of Africa, where the many Bantu languages and dialects are spoken. One theory has it that these slaves, not understanding the Spanish in which the payadas were sung, and noting how much language there was in the competitions, referred to them with the word mulonga, which is the Bantu for the Spanish palabra, or the English word.

So these payadas were a lot of talk, and with time, the competitive gatherings became known more universally throughout Argentina as milongas.

Dance was not far behind, and at first it was an individual expression, in which a gaucho (probably bottle in hand, his movements fired by drink) would dance to the payadores’ music by himself. Simple, a step to every beat of the music, rough-and-ready solo moves were the earmarks of the early milonga dance.

Sometimes, the men would dance with each other…milonga’s earliest appearance as a couples event. Later, as the music and dance moved toward the city in the nineteenth century, the presence of women became a reality (usually women of not much virtue). The phenomenon was deeply influenced by the black former slaves, whose presence in Buenos Aires made a permanent mark on the music and, especially, the dance. The best-known rhythms were the habanera and the traspié, the syncopations that we now always hear and see in contemporary milonga. Both are of African origin.

With time, the milonga became not only a music form in its own right, but also the single word that would describe a gathering of people coming together to dance. So,—¡Vamos, chicos, a la milonga! “Let’s go, guys, to the milonga!”

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Students of the Month ~ Jim Depeyster & Lynn Tompkins

by Lanny Udell

Jim & Lynn dance at Alma del Tango milongaDancing tango since:  Jim started dancing Argentine Tango in the mid 1990’s. He was living in New York at the time and after seeing a tango performance he was intrigued. In 1993 he saw an article about Buenos Aires in Smithsonian Magazine which mentioned clubs where people dance tango all night. He thought, “yeah, I’d like to go someplace where they dance tango all night.” So he started to look for a place to learn tango in New York. “I searched for a year and a half,” he says.

Lynn was living in Colorado, but the couple met in Florida when both were visiting their mothers. She moved to New York in 1997 and they started taking tango lessons together. “Fortunately, our relationship was strong enough to survive our early tango years,” says Jim.

Why tango: Jim had danced ballroom but wasn’t satisfied with it. “When I found tango, I knew there was no point in doing anything else,” he says. Lynn, who loves all kinds of dance, decided to learn tango so she and Jim could dance together.

After moving to the Bay Area they found tango in the City and danced at the Golden Gate Yacht Club and the Verdi Club. Eventually they found Gustavo and Jesica in Marin. “At the time we were volcada challenged,” says Jim, “they took us through that.”

Favorite part:  For Jim it’s about the connection and communication on the dance floor. Lynn agrees. “Touch is a basic human need,” she says, “and tango is difficult. You have to be brave to keep working at it. If it weren’t for the touch, people may not stay with it.”

The couple makes tango a central part of their exercise routine. They dance two to three times a week, primarily at Alma del Tango. “Lynn has cleverly molded this into a dinner date—dinner and tango, it’s part of our relationship,” Jim explains.

About Debbie & John: Jim first danced with Debbie at a practica at Bay West. He knew she was a teacher but didn’t know about her role as a founder and choreographer of Tango Con*Fusion. When Lynn watched Debbie dance she realized that she was not like other dancers. “She was doing something different, it’s the way she moves, the way she pushes off.”

“We gravitated toward Debbie and John as teachers,” says Jim, “and they’ve taken us over the colgada threshold.”

Anything else? In July 2017 Jim had hip replacement surgery. He wasn’t allowed to dance for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks he was on the dance floor the next day. 

Last word: When she isn’t practicing tango or enjoying a daily walk with Jim, Lynn can be found in her art studio painting portraits (people and pets) or still lifes, or on location painting in plein air. See her work here.

Painting of tango dancers by Lynn Tompkins

Dean and Raya at the Seahorse

Cat portrait by Lynn Tompkins

Cat portrait

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