Monday, April 22, 2013

Episode #4 . . . and the man I rediscovered

After my Saturday night in a more challenging, competitive-feeling milonga where I didn't know how to "break the ice",  I wanted give myself a break.  I had been looking forward to trying out a famous, classic, Sunday milonga only 2 miles from home. This venue on Sundays is not on the "in-crowd" circuit, though on three weekdays it's considered "hot".  Different organizer, different crowd.  I had been there only once, years ago, on a Sunday and had liked it.

Coming from a late dinner in another part of town, I rushed to get to the milonga, feeling anxious. It had started at 6pm and it was already after eleven. A lot of people were leaving as I arrived.  The milonga would close at 1am.  

But the moment I walked in, I felt comfortable!  I thought, "Even if I don't dance tonight, but just relax and become familiar with this environment, it will be a nice 2 hours."  I took my time freshening up in the ladies' room and changing my shoes.  The music coming from the next room was soothing to me.  I was seated at a good table, and ordered a bottle of mineral water.  

One after the other, two men came up to my table to invite me.  In Buenos Aires, "walk-up" invitations are usually done by bad dancers or men without manners who think, "She's a foreigner; I'll just go and grab her".  I find it rude because it puts the woman in an awkward position of being obliged to dance, unless she chooses to turn him down in full view of everyone there, making him lose face in front of the others.  Sorry, but if I haven't seen a man dance, it's up to me to decide whether I want to risk having a bad experience on the dance floor.  In the tango world, the whole ritual of inviting with a glance (mirada) and a nod (cabeceo) from a distance is an art, with social dynamics underlying every nuance, which we learn with experience.   Also, I don't particularly want to dance with a man who hasn't seen me dance. A good dancer determines before inviting whether he's likely to have a good dance experience. If he's not looking for a good dance experience, he's inviting for other reasons.

Eager to change the dynamic that had started with the table invitations, I decided to get myself invited by an older man who looked nice on the dance floor. I simply looked at him as he returned to his seat.  And he invited me, probably presuming I had liked the way he danced.  Dancing with this man gave me a chance to be seen by everyone else.  He wasn't great, but he was a genuine, traditional dancer and it was pleasant.  After that set, the invitations started coming from good dancers, and I really had fun!  

One man who had come to my table at the beginning was tall and attractive.  I had been disappointed to discover when he danced with someone else that he was a very good dancer.  Why was I disappointed? Because now I thought of him as a guy with bad manners.  But after he saw me dance a few tandas with men who had invited me properly, he also gave me a very nice "cabeceo" from across the room, and I accepted.  It turned out to be really beautiful to dance with him!  By the third tango he said, "From now on, when I invite you, please accept!" And I smiled and said, "With pleasure. But not at my table."  (It gives other poor or ill-mannered dancers license to do the same. And what if I'm in the middle of accepting an invitation from across the room?) Truthfully, however, I can't wait to dance with him again.  I still suspect that he's not a well-mannered guy, but the enjoyable fantasy can live on the dance floor!

I recognized an older gentleman in the room as someone with whom I had danced often 15 years ago, on my very first trip to BA.  He seemed to be semi-retired back then.  He looked a little shrunken, but he was still so, so elegant!  He invited me, and it was perhaps the best set of tangos I've experienced since I came to BA, and therefore one of the best sets of tangos I've ever had!  I think that in this tanda I experienced a level of emotion in tango that I have not allowed myself to experience before. 

Here's the story I posted on Facebook about my encounter with Juan Topalian, in the form of a letter to my late friend Norma, who invited me to join her in 1998 on her seventh and my first trip to Buenos Aires: 

Dear Norma,

It's 2am and I'm feeling so emotional!  Norma, from your place in the non-physical, did you see who I danced with late tonight at Canning? It was Juan, the elegant, retired gentleman with the thick, wavy white hair and dark eyes who danced often with both of us 15 years ago at Club Almagro and at Confiteria Ideal. He had been so kind to us back then. He always wore a suit, was always impeccably groomed, and his embrace and sense of the music were divine. 

Tonight I went to Canning around 11pm, and it took me a few minutes to recognize him because he looked a bit smaller and less robust - he's surely close to 80 years old now. I have never forgotten Juan in all this time; I had learned a lot about tango from dancing with him back then, when I only had 3-4 years of tango under my belt. In fact, during all these years, every time I heard Pedro Laurenz's tango "Vieja Amiga", I have thought of Juan. 

After I had danced several tandas with others, when I was thinking of how to approach Juan to let him know of my memories and my appreciation, he invited me to dance, and I was thrilled. Of course, he didn't recognize me, having danced with thousands of "extranjeras" since then. What I didn't expect tonight from this elegant, still perfectly dressed and groomed gentleman, was that dancing with him would be such a rich and beautiful experience. It literally felt like being in love. I forgot all about making my feet look nice. It was one of the deepest tandas I've experienced in the weeks I've been here. 

Can you believe, Norma, that during our first tango, before I had introduced myself, he let me know when I was finally embracing him "properly"? Then between tangos he gave me an explanation that I believe might change my tango forever. I held both his hands as he corrected me, and I thanked him.  

Then I told him we'd danced together years ago. Juan was very happy that I remembered him and that I had thought of him often, particularly when I heard certain tangos. We had been dancing the last tanda and then we danced the Cumparsita. It was a very special moment. Then he introduced me to some friends, so proud that I remembered him from Almagro*, and he recommended his favorite milongas to me so that we could dance together again. 

When I got home tonight, I was still trembling a bit with emotion, and I was sure you came to listen when I said, "Norma!! Did you see who I danced with tonight?"
(*For those of you who don't know, the legendary Club Almagro, which hosted one of the best and most beloved milongas in the '90s, closed in December 2000. I was there when they made the announcement, and it was a sad moment!)

Tonight, by the way, I'm returning to this Sunday milonga, with the hope of dancing with Juan once more.

Here's a video of the elegant milonguero who moved me so deeply, about whom I wrote above.  His name is Juan Topalian.  In this video he's dancing with milonguera Franca.  Thanks to Janice Kenyon, "Jantango", for a link to this video on her blog, Tango Chamuyo.

Of course, I'm always happy to hear your thoughts!  Can you tell what might have made dancing with Juan so special for me?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Can I ask - what was the explanation that changed your tango?

    1. Thanks for your question, Tom! I'll paraphrase what Juan had said. It's something most of us "know", but it really hit home for me in that moment: "The abrazo of tango is an expression of love. For the 3 minutes of a tango, we are in love with each other."

      Your question brings this important possibility back to my attention. And I say "possibility" because in the 9 months since the encounter with Juan I've had many great tandas in which the level of pleasure was amazing, but it wasn't always about love.

      I just got home last night from another 3 months in Buenos Aires. 2 weeks ago, Juan and I reconnected by chance, and danced many tandas together at subsequent milongas. With Juan and with others, sometimes the love feeling happens and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes my mind is busy, THINKING about the music or about my partner, rather than immersing myself in feeling.

      On the other hand, for years I have consciously "turned on my love" to increase connection with a partner. (If the man just isn't present, it's rare that I can penetrate his heart. That's one reason I am so selective.)

      But I can remind myself to enter a tanda with this intention so that love becomes more consistently a part of the connection with my partners.

      What do you think?