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Big Nose Tango

Close up of feet dancing tango

(The tempest, the taxis, and Narigón)

 

by Terence Clarke, author, journalist and Alma del Tango board member

Weather makes Buenos Aires sidewalks perilous. The city is subject to violent hail and sidewalks become simply un-navigable, almost all of them in bad need of repair. You can’t see anything, you’re usually running in order to get out of the tempest, and your concentration is being scattered by hailstones that are like the globules of cement missing from the sidewalks. During such storms, the rain seems like a driven cataract. This may sound like an exaggeration — and it is — but not much of one, and there are saviors in this city who, for a slight fee, will help you through such torment.

Bea and I had been dancing tango one night in Buenos Aires. We’d begun around 11:00 PM, and we came out of the Viejo Correo club at about 3:00 in the morning. Sweaty, heated, and exhausted, all we wanted was a taxi and bed. We found when we came out onto the sidewalk that the very awning over our heads was groaning beneath the weight of the water coming down. A more or less slick sheet of it cascaded from each side of the convex canvas. I felt we were inside a constantly descending comber at some famous Hawaiian surfing spot.

Out on the Avenida Díaz Vélez, rain battered the pavement, lit by the headlamps of the heavy traffic. There were, as always in this city, numerous taxis, but they all seemed occupied or traveling so quickly that it would be impossible for their drivers to see the blur of an imploring hand waving for attention in the midst of the storm.

It was then that Narigón came to our aid.

The doorman had noticed our plight and whistled for Narigón. He came out of the dark. About 23, he was an over-the-hill street urchin. His name is Buenos Aires slang for “Big Nose,” and there was an Italianate heaviness to his own. His nose was, actually, muscular. In twenty years, it would have the look of a much-used doorstop. He looked like a laborer from contemporary Rome, his broad face already shaded with the beginnings of a dark beard.

At first I was intimidated by him because, although he was only of average height, there was a severe, even angered look in his eyes that made me think he could take a swipe at me with a club when my back was turned, in order to get to my wallet.

“Che, man, ¿taxi?” he said.

He was wearing an old coat, old pants, and running shoes without socks. His voice was arrabalero, a phrase that in Buenos Aires means “of the rough neighborhood,” as though he’d already smoked way too many cigarettes and drunk a good deal too much whiskey. It’s a voice you hear everywhere on the streets of Buenos Aires, and frequently in tango.

Rain soaked street in Buenos AiresI assented, and Narigón ran out into the street. He had to contend with two elements: the tempest and the taxis, both of which seemed to want to run him down. He pulled his coat over his head and raised his right arm, his hand like a splayed flag over his head, waving back and forth. He was able to whistle, very loudly, at the same moment. The rain that pummeled Narigón sunk into the shoulders and the back of his coat, rendering them immediately soaked.

His shoes splashed in the puddles, the water whelming over into them so that his feet were inundated within seconds.

In a few moments, an errant taxi pulled across a couple lanes of traffic to answer Narigón’s request, and as soon as it stopped in front of the club, he was there, at our side, with an umbrella. Where he’d gotten it was beyond me, but he sheltered Bea as she got into the taxi, and then me as I fumbled in my pants pocket for a tip. As I searched my pockets, I considered my admiration of this man. Of course, the effort he was making was for himself. Perhaps he had a family, maybe some children, but even if he had only himself, he was indigent and trying to make a peso. Standing beneath that umbrella (underneath which, by the way, he was not standing) I felt I was in the company of a man of intense values, who was living a hard life, who had found me a cab under circumstances very threatening to his own health.

I pulled the bills from my pocket and handed them to him.

“Chau, señor,” he said, clapping me on the back as I got into the taxi. “Suerte.” This last is a Buenos Aires salutation. It means “Good luck.”

The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel, The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the central character, will be published on December 1. Titled La espléndida ciudad, it will be available in bookstores worldwide and at all the usual online sites.

 

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What Does The Pandemic Have To Do With Tango?

by Terence Clarke, author, journalist, Alma del Tango board member

Couple dancing tango with masks during the pandemic

Dancing tango during the pandemic

As everyone knows, we’re in the midst of a pandemic. But what many don’t know is Tango was affected by another plague that took place in Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century.

The mosquito, and the Yellow Fever that it brought to Buenos Aires, killed eight percent of the population of the city in 1871 and reduced the overall population by one-third as masses of people fled to safety.

This wasn’t the only such scourge to visit Buenos Aires. There had been other, smaller outbreaks of the Yellow Fever in 1852, 1858, and 1870. But 1871 was the worst year of the lot when, at its peak, five hundred porteños a day were dying from the disease.

A war on the part of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil versus Paraguay (known as The War of The Triple Alliance) had been fought between 1864 and 1870. It was a particularly difficult struggle. Paraguay was defeated entirely and suffered what some estimates put at two hundred thousand deaths. Bad as that certainly was for paraguayos, the aftermath of the war was also a singular disaster for citizens of Buenos Aires. Argentine soldiers returning from the war brought the Yellow Fever with them, and the rest is history. Polluted drinking water, untreated human waste, and the hot, wet summer climate so welcoming to mosquitos were singular elements in the spread of the disease. Another was the overcrowded conditions caused by the enormous influx of immigrants from everywhere in the world to Buenos Aires.

This immigration story is one of the most famous of this storied city.

As in New York City, Buenos Aires was the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of impoverished immigrants from across Europe and countries farther to the east. Mostly packed into the famous conventillos, which were large tenement blocks built both privately and by the government, these people suffered enormously from the Buenos Aires epidemic. They had nowhere to go and no money to get there even if they could escape.

The black population of former slaves, although small by comparison to most of the immigrant groups arriving in the port, lived south of the city in generally miserable, poverty-stricken, and overcrowded conditions. Better-to-do white citizens began building neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, in order to distance themselves from the black and immigrant peoples. A 2013 article in the International Business Times says:

It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army, and by forcing blacks [by military means] to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care).”

That word “alleged” does little to reveal the truth of whether blacks were so treated, and I have not yet been able to determine the truth of what happened. What we do know is that the black population of Buenos Aires was reduced to almost nothing by the pandemic, whether or not they were surrounded by the army.

These losses account directly for the fact that one encounters so few black people today in Buenos Aires.

So…what does this have to do with tango?

The basic rhythms of tango came to southern South America with black slaves from Western Africa, beginning in the sixteenth century. As with jazz in the United States, tango derived from those rhythms. Despite the many considerable elements in tango that came with other nationalities during the times of immigration, the basis for the music and dance forms is black. (See my column from last month, titled Tango Negro for more details.)

We can only speculate about what tango music and dance would be like in our own time had the black population of Buenos Aires not been decimated in the nineteenth century. My guess is that it would be much different from what we see today, in many important ways.

Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White is available online and in book stores everywhere.

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¡Dos chicos increibles! Two Incredible Tango-dancing Kids!

by Terence Clarke, author, journalist, Alma Del Tango board member

Terence Clarke, writer, tango

Terence Clarke

In 2006, my love Beatrice Bowles and I were in Buenos Aires to attend a week-long tango workshop with Gustavo Naveira and his wife Giselle Anne. It was mid-summer (i.e. Christmas-time in Buenos Aires, their seasons being precisely opposite to ours in the United States).  We had decided to participate in the workshop at the suggestion of Nora Olivera, who was also attending, with her husband Ed Neale.

The workshop was grueling and occasionally hilarious, depending on the moment and upon Bea and my abilities to keep up. I’ll write about it in a future column.

But there’s another story here.

Nora had told us about Gustavo’s two kids, Ariadna and Federico, who at the time were in school. Their mother, Olga Besio, was herself a noted tango maestra (and still is.) The two children were already masters of a kind, teaching tango together to children in a small studio in the San Juan y Boedo neighborhood, named for its most important intersection. This part of Buenos Aires has a rich tango history. (For an example, listen to the opening lines of Sur, written by Anibal Troilo and Homero Manzi [both of celestial importance to the history of tango], and sung here by Roberto Goyeneche. (“Old San Juan y Boedo…/The memory of your girlfriend’s unruly locks/and your own name floating from her goodbye.”)

Nora had put us in touch with Olga, who invited us to join her at one of her children’s class sessions. This neighborhood is filled with classic big-city noise…tremendous traffic on both boulevards, street vendors, cafes, small stores of every sort and bustling foot traffic on all sides. It was a very warm afternoon, and Bea and I were simply dragging along, hoping for some shade. After lemonades at The Esquina Homero Manzi, which is an elegant tango supper club on the corner where the two boulevards meet, we crossed the street and found the address Olga had given us. A simple door opened to a stairway leading to the second floor. We had not yet met Olga face-to-face, and we ascended the stairs, following the sounds of a recorded tango from up above.

Meeting Ariadna and Federico

Tango dancer Federico Naveira

Federico Naveira

The second floor contained three or four poorly painted rooms, including a large kitchen, windows wide-open for the air. It appeared to have once been a café of some kind, and now was quite run down. But the music was insistent, one of those tangos that commands your attention with its slow sensuous flow and possibilities for embrace.

We encountered such an embrace right away because Ariadna and Federico were dancing in the largest of the rooms. Bea and I stood watching in the doorway and, if it is possible to be transfixed, we were. They were just kids themselves, dressed in Levis, an over-sized T-shirt for him, a flower-printed blouse for her, and the de rigueur elegant dance shoes. But they both had all the authority that the finest tangueros have in the command of their dance.

Federico, with large dark eyes, like those of his mother, moved with slow, unquestioned intensity. His footwork, complicated and simple in the same moment, moved precisely with what the music wished to say. Ariadna is renowned for the spectacular grace with which she dances and her insistence on her own importance to the embrace and the movement of the couple together. That was evident even then, when she was in her teens. (You can see here a video of the two dancing together in 2006, the same year we met them. (Apologies for the poor video quality. The dancing is another story altogether.)

We also met Olga in person that day. She arrived later, and clearly wished to know who these two Americans were and how they had heard of her two kids. We admired her careful shepherding of her children and thanked her many times for allowing us to see them.

Argentine tango dancer Ariadna Naveira

Ariadna Naveira

Ariadna and Federico Naveira have gone on separately to international fame. If you have the opportunity to study with either of them, please do. You won’t regret it.

 

Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve was published on April 15.

 

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Tears for Orlando Paiva

Argentine tango Dancer Orlando Paivaby Terence Clarke, author, journalist, Alma del Tango board member

In 1995, Orlando Paiva was visiting the United States and stopped at Nora Olivera’s Sunday afternoon class and practica in Berkeley. These were very special sessions. Nora is noted for her exceptional teaching, especially in the way that she never molly-coddles the students. She tells you the truth about how you’re doing, and if you’re having trouble, she always offers a way to resolve the problem.

I had been studying tango for about a year, so I got quite a few justified suggestions from Nora, and I can still recall almost the exact words she used for many of them. Precision, exactitude and follow-through are the prime elements in Nora’s advice, and those who understand that her deep love of tango is what drives her realize how valuable those elements are.

She introduced Orlando to the class. At the time he was about sixty years old. He was very slim and gray-haired, and dressed in tan slacks, a navy-blue blazer, white shirt and tie. Not a demonstrative man in conversation, yet he exuded a kind of kindness that won over the students immediately. Nora later told me that he had a serious heart condition at the time yet he persisted with his tango no matter what.

She asked him to perform for us. I don’t remember to which tango he danced, but it was slow and extremely elegant, with the nonetheless acerb bite that makes tango music often so revealing of deep emotion. He took his partner into his arms and began dancing.

You could see immediately the care with which he pursued the dance. He walked very slowly, and I remember how he would let his trailing foot follow along, pointed back, the toe at an outward angle that underscored the grace with which he was moving. Straight-backed, immersed in the music, and very formal, he made his partner look beautiful because she too was so involved in the way he was dancing. You could feel her intensity, and part of that, I’m sure, was enabled by Orlando’s caring escort of her around the floor.

He performed none of the gymnastic irrelevancies that so often appear in the work of today’s show dancers. No kicks. No lifts. No impossibly fast tripping about. This man was a tanguero, and you could tell that by how respectful he was of his partner and of the music. He moved very slowly, and every step was a marvel.

The students loved it and responded with much shouting applause. I turned to Nora, my own noisy clapping appreciative of what I had just seen. But what I saw now astonished me. Nora, who knew Orlando well, was awash in tears. I cannot recall another occasion when I have seen her so taken by what she has witnessed. Later, I asked Nora if Orlando’s heart condition were one of the reasons for his dancing so carefully and slowly. She responded that, no, this is the way Orlando has always danced. “He is a great master, you see,” she said. That was all the explanation I needed.

This video gives you a good sense of what Orlando Paiva could do. The quality of the video is not good, for which, apologies. But please note how beautifully his partner Cristina Benavidez follows him. She is wonderful herself, of course. But Orlando gives her the opportunity to dance in so contemplative a way that her performance reveals her very heart. Watch with what attention the audience watches them. The response of the audience at the end will give you a good idea of what you’ve just seen.

Orlando Paiva died on November 28, 2006.

Read about Debbie and John’s friendship with Orlando

Terence Clarke’s latest non-fiction book An Arena of Truth was recently featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

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Los Filippini: Style, Elegance, Kindness.

Tango dancers Lito and Lidia Filippini

Tango dancers Lito and Lidia Filippini

By Terence Clarke, author, journalist, Alma del Tango board member

Beatrice Bowles and I were visiting Buenos Aires in 2006, and were told about the club Viejo correo at Avenida Díaz Vélez 4820. Diaz Vélez is an interminably long thoroughfare, and on this particular night, we worried as very heavy rain coursed from above. Our taxi driver had to lean well forward over the steering wheel in order to be sure that his view of the road was clear. What was not obscured by the downpour on his windshield was blurred by the hurrying of his old, ragged wipers across the glass.

We got to the club, though, and were greeted by a couple of men at the door, armed with large umbrellas. They escorted us in, and we immediately noted the black and white tiled dance floor, gleaming smooth, that was surrounded by tables-for-four at which many dancers were sitting. What made the place immediately special for us was that the dancers were well-dressed. This is not something you normally see in Buenos Aires milongas. That city is infected with the same nuevo-homeless style of fashion, most prominently among men, that you see in almost every other American or European city these days. Levis, T-shirts, no verve, etc. At the Viejo correo, every man had on a suit and a tie. The women were all dressed with a preference for real elegance.

The Viejo correo is a local place, visited mostly by neighborhood dancers who seem to know each other well and, we found, are exceedingly friendly. They were surprised that a couple such as we could even find the place, and they watched carefully as we danced. They seemed equally surprised that we could essay the tango with at least some panache. Many of the other dancers wished to talk with us, and when they found we also had Spanish, our evening filled with conversation.

Many of the men offered the cabeceo to Beatrice, and always thanked me when they escorted her back to our table, for not being offended by their taking her from me. It was clear to them that she could dance, and I was not about to intervene with her opportunity to be on the floor with authentic milongueros porteños. The entire experience, for both of us, was unique.

There was a further surprise
One of the renowned couples in tango at the time were Lito and Lidia Filippini, and we learned that they were going to arrive at the Viejo correo, to dance that evening. “Not to perform,” one of the men assured us. “They come here all the time, just to dance, like the rest of us.”

When the Filippinis arrived, they were greeted by almost everybody as they passed through the tables to their own, which had been reserved for them. They were an older couple, dressed just so, as were all the others in the room. And indeed they did not perform. Beatrice and I watched as they joined others on the floor. Their dancing was in no way flashy or overtly gymnastic. They too were real milongueros and danced with care and elegance spiced by the usual Argentine porteño intensity.

Beatrice and I danced a tanda, and we sensed we were being watched by the Filippinis. This can be an unnerving experience for dancers who are not professionals themselves. After dancing, we sat down at our table and, heads held in reserved silence, calmed our nerves with a few sips of malbec. After more tandas, we saw that the Filippinis were leaving, and as they approached our table, I nodded to Lito. To our astonishment, he and Lidia struck up a conversation with us. Where were we from? Were we enjoying Buenos Aires? Where else were we dancing? And then they told us that they thought we were dancing well. It had been a pleasure for them to watch, they said. I reached out a hand to Lito, which he shook with enthusiasm, and we both thanked them. It was then that I noticed that the others in the club were watching the conversation. It was clear that they approved, too.

The evening, of course, astonished both Bea and me.

As you’ll see from this video the Filippinis dance in an older style free of the balletic macho fireworks that so often mar contemporary tango.

Compás. Elegancia. Verdaderos milongueros.

For another adventure from that evening at the Viejo correo, see my piece “Big Nose in Buenos Aires.” 

 

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Students of the Month ~ Lynn Gardiner & Jacq Macias

by Lanny Udell

Dancing tango since:  Lynn had dipped her dance shoe into tango about 10 years ago, but came back to it seriously 2 ½ years ago after she met Jacq and they enjoyed dancing tango together.

Jacq has been a social dancer for six years and discovered tango in late 2015. (Jacq uses gender neutral pronouns they/them or simply their name when being referred to.) They had been dancing country western, but after trying a tango class at Abrazo in Berkeley, Jacq was hooked. 

Why tango? Both agree, “Tango relies heavily on connecting with your partner, there are no set steps, it’s highly improvisational. It’s an opportunity to zone in and be really present together.”

Favorite part: For Lynn it’s the feeling of flying. “A mixture of going where the leader is taking you, and what you, the follower, bring to it. The feeling of one person + one person = a pair, and the pair rides the wave together,” she explains. “The leader doesn’t create it…the music creates it.”

Jacq likes the life lessons you learn in tango. “Even if you’re leading, you’re also following your follow,” she says. Typically, Jacq leads and Lynn follows, but they do change off.

About Debbie & John: “They create a warm, welcoming atmosphere,” both partners agree. “It’s wonderful to be in their class, they’re attentive to answering questions,” says Lynn. “Debbie is trained in different forms of dance, so you can ask specific questions, such as, is this like ballet or jazz, and she can describe various dance styles and cross-compare.  John is great in the way he describes things scientifically—power, rotation, cause and effect.”

“We like that they are a couple teaching together. It’s fun to watch them get along and uplift each other. It’s like learning about a dance partnership in action.”

Jacq says, “Monday night is our favorite night of the week. We attend Level 3 and 4 and make a whole night of it.  Their teaching style is very comfortable and dynamic. I especially enjoy the musicality lessons. They offer suggestions on technique, and you find you’re getting better and better.”

Anything else? The tangueros attend weekly practicas and occasionally a milonga.

We love our date-time at Alma Del Tango, and can’t say enough, how dearly Debbie and John’s classes have enriched us…dance skills-wise and personally as well

Tango dancers Lynn & Jacq compete in April Follies

Lynn and Jacq competed in April Follies.

Last word: Lynn has been training in dance for 30 years and owns a private dance studio, Learn with Lynn! She teaches 17 different types of partner dance and also choreographs weddings and teaches a Parkinson’s group. Music is her other passion. “In dance, I feel I’m all the instruments at once,” she says. A singer/songwriter/bass guitar player, she currently has four singles out. Find them at LynnGardinerMusic.com

Tango student Lynn Gardiner teaches in her own dance studio

Lynn teaching in her studio

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Tango…and “The Two Popes”

Scene from the movie "The Two Popes" starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Prycxe ns, and

Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio in “The Two Popes”

by Terence Clarke, author, journalist and Alma del Tango board member

I would not usually think of Argentine tango in terms of the Roman Catholic papacy. But with the Netflix release of the new film, The Two Popes, the relationship is made clear, at least in the life of one of its two main characters.

A fictionalization of the relationship between Joseph Ratzinger, a German cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, and his successor Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit who was made Pope Francis I in 2013, the film is a tour de force effort by its two main actors.

Ratzinger is played by Anthony Hopkins with his usual detailed depth of gesture, speech and feeling, while another accomplished British actor, Jonathan Pryce, plays Bergoglio in what looks to me to be a spot-on accurate look at Bergoglio’s personality. They become involved in a long personal struggle over the future of the Catholic Church during a time when that organization, as it still is now, was under justified fire for its inability to address long-term, self-inflicted problems. This “debate” is the reason to see the film, and it is riveting.

But, there is a second plot in which a young Bergoglio makes his decision to become a priest, and the seasoned Jesuit Bergoglio is made to deal some years later with “The Dirty War.” This struggle resulted in the disappearance and murder of 30,000 Argentine citizens at the hands of that country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s.

Bergoglio, the young bon vivant and tanguero

As a young man, Bergoglio is something of a Buenos Aires bon vivant who is an ardent tanguero. He is in love with a woman, also a tanguera, and they attend a Buenos Aires milonga that will be familiar to anyone who has visited the famous dance halls in that city. At the same time, he is struggling to understand whether his calling to the priesthood is legitimate. That would, of course, require that he give up his relationship with the young woman, whom he was thinking of marrying.

To her great disappointment, he does enter the Jesuit order, but not before we get to see the lovely ambiance of tango and its dancing (even by Bergoglio and his girlfriend themselves) during that remarkable time. Incidentally, young Bergoglio is played by the superb Juan Minujin, a noted Argentine stage and film actor who is as porteño-looking a man as you can get.)

Just because he becomes pope does not mean that Cardinal Bergoglio loses his love of tango. Late in the film, he and Ratzinger have achieved a kind of rapprochement in their different views of what The Church should be. Ratzinger has always believed that The Church should not compromise any of its doctrines. Bergoglio is portrayed as a far more liberal force who has a realistic view of the feelings and behaviors of hundreds of millions of actual Catholics. The Church has refused to deal realistically with these behaviors, and he is the one person who can understand and bring about the changes needed.

A papal cabeceo

The two men don’t necessarily agree at the end of the film, but there is profound respect between them. In a remarkable scene, after Ratzinger has stepped down as pope and Bergoglio has taken over the office, Bergoglio visits the former pope. As he is leaving, he asks Ratzinger if he knows anything about tango. Of course, Ratzinger does not, and Bergoglio proceeds to give him a quick lesson in the tango basic. They fumble. They don’t do well. Ratzinger is embarrassed. Bergoglio is amused. But it is the moment of actual friendship with which the story comes to its end.

This moment, too, is not to be missed.

Regarding the historical accuracy of the film, there are numerous moments in it that mis-portray to a degree the relationship between the two men. You can read about these in detail here. But the film tells a gripping story about opposing political ideals that clash memorably. The movie is directed by the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, who co-directed the terrifying City of God. 

The Two Popes is a stunner. Take it for what it is worth to you on any level. At the very least, you’ll enjoy the tango. 

Terence Clarke’s novel, When Clara Was Twelve, which takes place in Paris, will be published on April 15.

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Student of the Month ~ Larry Litt

Portrait of larry Litt, Alma del Tango Student of the Monthby Lanny Udell

Dancing tango since: Larry hadn’t set foot on a dance floor until 2011, the year that he turned 70 and got married for the second time. His wife Ying had been dancing tango for 10 years.

When taken as a spectator to his first milonga, he said to himself, “Wow, I want to learn to dance like that!” His thoughts, better expressed years later by Otros Aires, included: “Say goodbye to your old life. There’s no going back.”

Back story: Larry was very diligent in his tango study, attending several classes a week, taking private lessons, practicing at home with his wife, and attending milongas. But then, in November 2018, he underwent a complex surgery and had to take a 3-month hiatus. As soon as he was able, he was back on the dance floor.

To Larry, tango involves more than dancing. It’s a life that includes physical fitness. “You use the same muscles as in martial arts or ballet, and similarly you need skills in balance and range of motion. And a great add-on is learning tango musicality,” he says.

As a new dancer starting at a later age, improving his tango involved many extra hours. “Although going to med school was an intellectual bonanza, it also was a physical fitness disaster. There was so much sitting!” says Larry, a retired UCSF professor emeritus in Anesthesiology.

Favorite part: “The connection–when it works,” says the tanguero, referring to the tango connection with one’s partner. “It can exist even with the simplest figures. For the leader, it’s all about the follower, not oneself. I learned that in an early beginner class after feeling that I had mastered the steps just taught. Proud of myself, I asked my partner for feedback. She replied, ‘I felt like I was dancing alone.’ That was the first of many epiphanies.”

Tango dancers Larry Litt and his wife Ying with Eduardo Saucedo

Larry and his wife Ying with Eduardo Saucedo

About Debbie and John: “Related to the first epiphany is the fact that one can be given an explanation without being given an understanding. Debbie and John do an outstanding job making sure students get both,” says Larry. “Their technique is highly polished. They emphasize fundamentals, teaching by example after every explanation.”

Larry takes a private lesson with John on Mondays before the Level 3 class. In early sessions with John, Larry had to lead. When asked how that went (due to the height difference) he replied, “well, it makes you stand up straight!”

Ying remedied the height issue for about a year by regularly joining Larry’s private lessons. When that was no longer possible, Larry was able to find a tanguera who regularly partners with him in John’s lessons.

“When John asks me ‘what do you want to do today,’ I say, ‘whatever is best for learning in class tonight.’ That greatly reduces stressful challenges to my brain’s visual-spatial processing. Some dancers can, from watching only once, identify steps and subtleties of a figure,” Larry explains. “Far from being such a person, I benefit greatly from the foundation set by an early look.”

Anything else:  Larry and his wife have danced tango during their travels to France, Japan, China, England and Wales. Each time they found their fellow dancers warm and welcoming, much like the community at Alma del Tango.

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“La Divina” María Volonté

By Terence Clarke, author, journalist, Alma del Tango Board member

Tango singer Maria Volonte with her guitarThe next time María Volonté comes to the Bay Area, drop everything and go see her in concert. You’ll hear intense tango, sung with Buenos Aires porteño charm and streetwise knowledge, delivered with grace and deeply felt passion. Some songs written by others; originals by María herself. And there’s more. María is an accomplished jazz singer as well, and you’ll see that she can carry her own in any North American or European jazz venue.

María Volonté was born in Ituzaingó, a city in the Buenos Aires province, about twenty miles from downtown Buenos Aires. 

“I lived with my parents and my five sisters in a large, bright house. My father worked as a project draftsman and painted watercolors in an exquisite way. But above all he was a great showman who had been frustrated. He had spent the greatest portion of his youth acting, reciting and singing in cinemas, theaters and cabarets. But as soon as he got married, his first wife made him know…clearly…that vaudeville and the delights of conjugal life were not compatible. After that, he devoted himself to transferring all his fascination for the world of the stage to his daughters.”

Of greatest importance to Maria’s father was music. “We used to sing and listen to tango, folk music, bolero, flamenco, jazz, opera, musical comedy, French and Italian songs, Portuguese fado….”

How a tape recorder awakened her to the passion of singing

When María was five, her father brought home a new invention, a home tape recorder, and one of the first things he did was to ask María to sing for him. It was an ancient Neapolitan song “Catari (Cuore ingrato)”. Listening to herself for the first time, she wept, and she remembers the moment to this day. “There was so much secret pain in that melody, so much generous love! That day I discovered, unknowingly, that singing is to allow oneself to be pierced by passion.”

María’s father bought her first guitar when she was ten. “Something within me changed forever.” As she progressed through secondary school and beyond, she sang with friends, all kinds of music. “We used to sing folk tunes or rock songs written by Argentines. And thereafter in the 1970s we would mix the Argentine songbook with music by people from other countries…the Chilean Violeta Parra, Paco Ibáñez from Spain, el cubano Nicolás Guillén, another Spaniard Joan Manuel Serrat…. It was wine and song into the wee small hours of the morning, and it was shaping my courage and warming my voice.”

María Volonté singing in Plaza Dorrego, Buenos Aires.

María Volonté singing in Plaza Dorrego, Buenos Aires.

Married in the early 1980s, María and her husband lived in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires. A subterranean folk culture was thriving in the city during those years, and she was an active part of it, paying her early dues as so many musicians must, wherever she could. “I sang outdoors at the Plaza Dorrego. I sang in many, many bar rooms. I sang in sheds.”Her musical eclecticism was not to be denied.

But María knew even then that there was one sort of music that was meant for her.

“I clearly realized that my destiny was in tango.”

Maria Volonté’s home is still Buenos Aires, where she lives with her second husband, American writer, musician, and photographer Kevin Carrel Footer. But they concertize together extensively in North America and Europe, visiting the San Francisco Bay Area once or twice a year. You can see them together in a recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert Video

On her website, you’ll see some other fine videos of María at work. You’ll get a sense of the breadth of material with which she works, and you’ll see especially what a true tanguera María Volonté really is. Her recordings are available on Apple iTunes.

Terence Clarke’s new novel, When Clara Was Twelve, will be published in 2020.

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Adriana Varela – From rock star to tango singer

Tango singer Adriana VarelaBy Terence Clarke,  author,  journalist and Alma del Tango board member

Adriana Varela may not be for everyone. Her voice is not pretty. It seldom floats and will not ease you into dreamland. But I became a fan of her voice the moment I first heard it. I feel that, if you want to hear how Buenos Aires can sound when portrayed in song, you should go to Adriana Varela and listen closely.

Varela has been a best-selling recording artist of tango since the early 1990s. Starting out as a rock singer, she paid little attention to the at-that-time accepted notion, of traditional tangos of the 1930s through 50s being those most worth listening to. So…large string and bandoneón sections playing lyrical, even romantic, versions of tangos ad nauseum. They’re all very pretty, but we dance to them over and over at the milongas, no matter where the particular milonga may be held…in Buenos Aires, San Francisco, London, Istanbul, or wherever.

The voice of Buenos Aires

Varela’s voice, however, is pure porteño, which is to say, Buenos Aires!…rough, direct, and filled with irony, often humorous, often angry. When you walk down almost any street in that city, you hear this voice and that language. It is recognizable to anyone who has enough Spanish to understand what is being said, and especially how it is being said. There is no other accent in the Spanish language quite like it.

Early in her singing career, Varela made the acquaintance of the great Roberto Goyeneche. By now internationally famous, his voice was anything but soft and pleasing. When you hear it, you know that this man, too, knows the streets of Buenos Aires’s massive urban landscape and the difficulties it can present.

The circumstances of their first meeting have become famous. Varela was singing in a Buenos Aires club one evening, and she spotted Goyeneche sitting at the bar. It was known that he did not care for female tango singers, and he spent her entire set silently nursing the whiskey before him, his back turned to the stage. At the end of her set, beset by nerves, Varela stepped down from the bandstand and approached the great man. When Goyeneche realized that the young woman was trying to get his attention, he turned to her and, without provocation, said, “Che piba, (Hey, girl) you’ve got it!” From then on, they were fast friends.

For an example of Varela’s work, watch her studio performance of Mano a Mano (“Hand in Hand.”) It’s a tough-minded tango, one of Carlos Gardel’s greatest. The lyrics tell of the crazy love the speaker has for a very high-spirited young woman he knows, although one with questionable morals. She is sought after by the worst of the local two-bit gangsters…and she often gives into them. But the speaker loves her no matter what. As the singer puts it in the last verse:

“Y mañana, cuando seas descolado mueble viejo

y no tengas esperanzas en el pobre corazón,

si precisás una ayuda, si te hace falta un consejo,

acordate de este amigo que ha de jugarse el pellejo

p’ayudarte en lo que pueda cuando llegue la occasion.”

Sadly, I can’t translate the lyrics to include the rhymes they contain, which are terrific. But here’s the essence of what they say:

“And tomorrow, when you’re broken down, an old piece of furniture,

and there is no hope in your poor heart,

if you need a hand, if you need some advice,

remember this friend here who would risk his skin

to help you any way he can, whenever you need it.”

 

The Spanish translation of Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Splendid City, is currently seeking publication in South America.

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