Thursday, January 23, 2014

Episode #6 - My tango date with Juan

Helaine's Adventures in Buenos Aires Tangoland -Episode #6

In the last 3 weeks I've continued building my experience in the more challenging milongas of Buenos Aires.  By “challenging” I mean those milongas in which it’s harder for a relative newcomer to get invited or have one's invitations accepted, no matter how good a dancer one is. So this month I've drafted the next series of episodes, which I'm calling "The Cachirulo Chronicles", named for my experiences in the toughest milonga in the city!  

While I edit my pages of Cachirulo notes, here’s an episode about a very special tango date I had last Saturday night!  I’m going to share many details with you, so you get the inside scoop on what it’s like to spend an evening with someone whom I consider a legendary tanguero.

Last Friday night, I got home very late after two milongas, feeling excited and honored.  Something had happened during an unexpected interlude between the two milongas.  As I was leaving the first milonga at around 2 a.m., I had stopped to thank Carlos, the organizer, for the lovely evening.  Though I’d intended to get to the other milonga earlier, because it is one of my favorites, the music at Carlos’ milonga had been wonderful - even the cortinas. I found myself in a great mood and didn’t want to stop dancing.  

I found Carlos chatting at the bar with an elegantly dressed man who had his back to me, but whom I immediately recognized by his suit and his thick, wavy, perfectly groomed, white hair.  My heart almost skipped a beat when I saw him, because this man had been very special in my tango life.  His name is Juan.  (To understand why he had such an impact on my tango life, scroll down to the end for the link to Episode #4, "The man I rediscovered".)

I thanked Carlos and gave him a kiss, telling him how much I had loved the music. Then I turned to Juan with a big smile. His eyes widened. 

“Where have you been?!?” he chided me in Castellano (Argentine Spanish). “Someone told me you’ve been here for months since I saw you last!  Why haven’t you come to Canning?”  Organizer Carlos excused himself to dance with a guest. “If I were to go again to Salon Canning, Juan,” I answered, “it would only be to dance with you.” 

I was amazed at how my Castellano was becoming more fluid.  We chatted for 10 minutes about our mutually favorite topic.  He was respectfully calling me “usted”, the formal form of “you”, which I had never yet experienced in the Buenos Aires tango world.  Like a child who doesn’t yet know how use “usted”, I simply used the familiar “vos” form. 

It was time for me to get to the other milonga if I wanted to dance there at all, and I started to say goodbye.  But Juan had an idea, and proposed it with diplomacy, underscoring his respect for me.  He asked whether I knew of a certain historic, neighborhood social club that’s been active for almost 80 years. (That’s would be the mid 1930’s, the very beginning of tango’s Golden Age!)  I did not know of it.  He said he would like the honor of introducing me to this club, which played a part in the history of tango, and asked if he may take me there for dinner and dancing tomorrow, Saturday night.  Saturday is traditionally couples’ night in certain milongas, including this one.  That meant that I would be dancing exclusively with Juan.  I have admired Juan for his dancing for the last 15 years, though until last April, I had not seen him since 2000.

To accept Juan’s invitation, I would have to abandon my Saturday night plan to further test my new “insider” status at Cachirulo, with its high-level, exclusive dancers.   I told Juan that I already had plans, but I didn’t want to miss this very special opportunity.  He gave me his phone number, and asked me to call the next day and give him my answer.  

I went to the second milonga for the last hour and danced just one tanda, a great one.  I was still excited about Juan’s invitation. That night it took me a long time to wind down enough to get to sleep. I already knew what I wanted to wear.

My date begins with an unexpected focus

The next day I booked a hairdresser appointment, and a manicure and pedicure. I wanted to be impeccably groomed too.

Juan picked me up around 10pm, wearing a cream-colored suit, shirt and shoes, and a wheat-colored tie.  Strikingly elegant, as always. His old Fiat was spotless. A CD was playing in the car with a man speaking about tango.  I asked who it was.  He said, “Listen!”  It was Juan.  The CD was part of a project he’s creating, in which he tells of aspects of tango history from his own experience, in the form of giving an imaginary walking tour of legendary tango venues. At each location he tells part of the story and brings it to life with little-known pieces of tango music, or with remixes he’s created in his home recording studio. For example, he put together tracks of a singer and an orchestra who had never worked together, but he wished they had. Juan is very passionate about his project.  I asked him what’s his purpose in creating this CD series, and he answered “to educate tango dancers, especially the many Porteños who know so little about the history of their own tango.” 

We drove about 20 minutes to the famous barrio of La Boca, and into the parking lot behind Social Club "Los Bohemios".  The building and its parking lot reminded me of the Miami area ethnic social clubs that host milongas. Los Bohemios is a typically homey, no-frills community center with a strong sports component.  In attendance at the milonga were mostly couples on their Saturday night date.  Women were dressed between “nice-casual” and elegant, and most men wore slacks and short-sleeved shirts. Maybe some had sport jackets on their chairs. Only Juan and one other man wore a suit, keeping their jackets on all evening.

We were seated side by side at a table facing the dance floor.  While I changed my shoes in the ladies’ room, Juan ordered dinner for us: a “Milanesa Napolitana” and roasted potatoes.  I tried to joke in Castellano about the irony of that name:  in Italy, “Milanesa Napoletana” (different spelling) would be an oxymoron -  it made me laugh - because of the extreme gulf between the cultures of Milan in the north and Napoli in the south.  Juan didn’t get the humor, because, as I learned later from Wikipedia, “Milanesa Napolitana is a dish created in Buenos Aires and typical of Argentine and Uruguayan cuisine”.  Ours consisted of the breaded cutlet of beef, baked and then dressed up like a pizza, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and oregano.  An Italian might be appalled by the idea (having lived 20 years in Italy, I was!) . . . but it was quite delicious!  

Juan checked with me and ordered red wine, which surprised me, since wine is generally not good for one’s dancing. He added ice cubes to our glasses, and again with my “okay”, diluted the wine with sparkling water.  I didn’t object because we’re in the middle of a summer heat wave, and the wine was too warm!  I drank very little because I didn’t want to jeopardize my stability and alertness on the dance floor.

Juan had carried with him into the dinner-milonga two notebooks full of his handwritten notes.  During dinner, as we watched the dancers, he continued telling me with enthusiasm about the content of his project, showing me examples of his writing.  (I can finally read in Castellano easily enough!) 

When we finished our meal, the organizer asked Juan and me to come to the center of the floor, along with a Belgian/Japanese couple.  The organizer introduced us foreigners as guests from other countries.  Juan had been mentally prepared to dance a demo with me (ideally, to Di Sarli) and was disappointed that we and the other couple weren’t asked to dance.

We danced only 6 tandas that whole evening.  We started with a rhythmic tanda of Biagi, which Juan then regretted because that’s not one of his favorite orchestras, and he felt we didn’t communicate as well as we normally do.  Then, at intervals, we danced a tanda each of Di Sarli, Fresedo, Pugliese, and Caló, and also a tando of D’Arienzo with Echague singing (the latter musical team is Juan’s favorite for “fun”, rather than for “romance” or “passion”).  During our discussions, I found out that these were all his favorite orchestras.  He said that  at a normal milonga he’ll usually dance only four tandas. 

Between the few tandas we danced, I enjoyed our watching the dancers together, and listening to Juan’s comments of appreciation.  I heard from him ONLY comments of appreciation about what we were observing.  The organizer called up one couple to dance for us all in celebration of their 45th anniversary. Their tango was simple, faithful to the music, and full of feeling. A little trick in the middle, smoothly executed, brought a round of applause and a few cries of “Eso!” (“That’s it!”).

The couples dancing at Los Bohemios that night were not sophisticated nor highly trained.  But their musicality was outstanding across the board - men and women alike.  It was especially interesting to me that they danced mostly Salon style, with vertical, independent axes.  They sometimes opened up the embrace to do figures, unlike Juan and other “Milonguero Style” dancers of all levels that we find in most of the city’s milongas.  

You can watch a video of the neighborhood couples dancing a tanda of Di Sarli tangos at “Los Bohemios”, in this Saturday milonga named after the tango “Alma de Bohemio”, by clicking this link:  The video was shot 3 years ago, but I recognize some of the couples, especially the white-haired couple who appears at the left side of the screen when the video starts, and stay in front of us till 0:16.  Last Saturday, they were the first couple Juan pointed out to me with admiration.

When Juan and I danced the tanda of Osvaldo Pugliese, I understood from his silence at the end of the tanda that he missing something - perhaps the passion he expected from me with Pugliese.  But after the following tanda to Miguel Caló, he exclaimed with delight, “Now you’re dancing the way I know you to dance!”  I realized what had happened.  By the time we got to the Caló tanda, I had abandoned my autonomous Tango Salon axis, which I normally keep in every kind of  close embrace dancing.  I had been adapting to Juan more and more as the evening progressed, and finally, when I gave him more of my weight as we danced, I felt his weight increase against me.  

So THAT’S how he’s more able to communicate “passion” in the music  . . .  when we’re dancing “apilado”!   (Literal translation:  heaped-up or piled up.)  I had been fooled by his elegance and his prior polite acceptance of my way, into not recognizing that he dances "apilado".  Juan has spoken to me before about tango being like the "Obelisco de Buenos Aires", gesturing that the sides lean toward each other in the center.  With this position, he explained, the couple's feet are far from each other so that knees have room to move without colliding. 

There was definitely a different dynamic with Juan when we brought our weight forward against each other; I felt Juan become more alive.  Normally, I feel more dynamic and expressive in the very vertical Tango Salon, which has an upward, rather than leaning, energy between partners, even in close embrace. With Juan dancing “apilado” was wonderful.  Now I understand how I can more quickly get to that energetic dynamic with him in future tandas.  Though I danced this way for 5 years in my early days of tango, today I’m willing to give up my vertical axis for very few partners.  He's one.

After 6 tandas on the dance floor, 4 hours of appreciation of the music and the other dancers, and a nice meal, Juan was looking forward to our next stop - chatting over coffee.  Now, my friends, this was not the strategic “cafecito” that male hunters use to try to segue into romance.  It was an opportunity for him to continue sharing information with me about his passion for tango and his current project.  

So around 2 am we left the milonga and drove toward my neighborhood for coffee.  We found an all-night place on Avenida Entre Rios, where I ordered a glass of red wine - no coffee for me at 2 a.m.!  Juan had a 3-color cappuccino (one layer with cinnamon, one with chocolate, and cream on top) in which you can see the layers in a tall glass mug.  We talked until 4 a.m., looking over Juan’s notes.  For me it was the most fascinating part of the evening, and my rough Castellano was flowing better than ever.  The conversation went quite deep that night, and I was grateful that I could bring my own extensive knowledge of tango music and history to the discussion.

When Juan brought me to my door at 4am, he gave me his schedule of just two milongas this week so that I could decide if I wanted to attend.  He also insisted on driving me to the airport next Wednesday at 6 a.m. So kind!  I will probably sacrifice another night at one of my preferred milongas to have one more tanda with Juan before I leave. 

If you want the background story about how Juan and I connected last April after 12 years, and why he's been so important in my tango life, please go back and read Episode #4, entitled, "The man I rediscovered".  I think you'll find it fun, and you can see a video in which Juan dances with a favorite partner.

Did you get anything helpful or enriching from this story about my evening out with Juan? Please post about it, or any of your thoughts, in the Comments section below!


  1. That you and Juan reconnected and someone you admired for 15 years.
    It was very special for both of you! To share this special bond of music and History
    With each other. You were grateful and happy to bring your own knowledge of Tango
    Music and your own dancing imagination to share with each other.

    1. Thank you for your beautiful thoughts about this, Breeze!

  2. It's very interesting to have an insight in the out-of-milonga milonguero-style and inside-milonga feelings and thoughts. Thanks.
    I noticed that Juan's comments were "ONLY for appreciation"...Or he is indeed very polite or the technical level there is well above one I normally find here.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Stefano! As you can see in the Youtube video I link to in the paragraph starting "You can watch a video of the neighborhood couples dancing", the technical level at Los Bohemios is not high at all. But the feeling for tango is deep and authentic, and - perhaps this is more visible when observing the dancers live - the musicality is accurate and, more importantly, deeply heartfelt. That's why it was very moving for me to watch these couples (husbands and wives mostly, middle-aged and above), and why Juan was so proud to be showing me the place. It represented many of his values, even though very few were dancing in his preferred style. What he pointed out in the elderly couple we see in the video is their obvious union as life-partners, expressed in their dancing. It's about the feeling!