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By Diego Jemio, from Buenos Aires
Out on the corridors the air is stale. The smell of hairstyling gel mixes in with the powder from the makeup. The apprehension prior to going out on stage increases by the minute. “Couple number 224. Test the dance floor!” orders a woman, her muscles tense, and a folder in her hand.
In other corners of Centro Cultural La Usina del Arte in the La Boca neighborhood, there are couples rehearsing their steps, trying on their attire or doing stretching exercises. Further away, someone is giving his shoes an impossible shine. It is the day for the qualifying rounds at the Mundial de Tango - Worldwide Tango event in the category of Stage Tango, the most sought after by the dancers.
At a time when the tango is spreading throughout the world, winning the title in Buenos Aires – this Thursday is the grand final – is for many couples the huge showcase that enables them to make a living from this dance.
One of them is Cristian Correa, a finalist at the Mundial de Tango in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He believes this is his grand opportunity, together with his partner in dance – and in life – Lea Barsky. “
Not everyone can dance the tango like we do. It’s a matter of technique, training and many hours studying the choreographies. My partner comes out of classical dance and her technique allows me to go beyond the limits of the genre,” says Correa, born in the Argentine province of Córdoba.
One can see this in the rehearsal before they go out on the stage, in the dressing room and in the preparation. Overall, there is a grand mise-en-scène that, judging from appearances, has very little in common with that tango that began in the barrios. The sensuality has been transferred over to the low-cut dresses and the choreography that includes great leaps and pirouettes. In summary: the tango is for sale at any show in Buenos Aires, something for which tourists pay as much as 200 dollars, including a beef-eating dinner, with the intention of doing honor to the country.
“ Many older people say we distort the tango. They believe it is a sin to perform a stunt or raise a leg because in the dance halls you’re supposed to dance al piso – in a down to earth way. But the tango is still alive because at some time or other it was brought up on stage and went around the world,” Correa adds.
His partner Lea, a German living in New York, is more adamant about that judgment: “There are people who say that this is not the tango. You might hate Picasso, but you wouldn’t dare say his work isn’t art. It all depends on what you want to show. The stage tango means image.”
Throughout the day dozens of couples will go in and out of Usina del Arte. All impeccably dressed, in an immaculate theatre, and with judges gazing with an air of solemnity. The vast majority steps up projecting a hyper-sensual image, men with the macho profile of the Argentine with his hair combed down under a layer of brilliantine and the women wearing mesh stockings.
“This is the tango postalero (in reference to postcards). They execute their passion through tensed gestures, penetrating gazes, muscles under tension, male hands resting on thighs, female breasts and derrières, lips approaching each other in anticipation of the kiss. And legs that spread in unlikely angles,” is how it is defined by anthropologist and ballerina María Julia Carozzi in her recent book Aquí se baila el tango – Here We Dance the Tango.
For some the stage tango is nothing more that the repetition ad infinitum of that cliché, a successful formula in Argentina and the rest of the world.
Of course there is another tango, the one descended from what was danced in the waiting rooms of the brothels, between criollos, gauchos, mulattos and blacks. There are some places in Buenos Aires where they still dance that thuggish tango, very much al piso, without doing contortions or wearing any makeup.
The tango from 1893
“This is authentic. The stage tango is something altogether affected. It’s all contortions. A show for foreigners. Here we dance al piso!” says Mirta Reynal, as she gulps down a glass of wine at Los Laureles, a bar, restaurant and milonga that has been operating in the barrio of Barracas, south of the city, since 1893.
Her ragged voice – broken down from poor sleep, sand and black tobacco – is lost in the music of the dance hall; she dances the tango and sings some classics at the local singers’ club, where singers with a vocation and others who sometime or other were glorious step up to perform. Here we play records made of hardened shellac on an extremely old gramophone, the walls are peeling and the counter is full of bottles that have been gathering dust for decades.
Dancing al piso is an expression used very much by the milongueros – those who frequent the city’s traditional milongas. They also say “ bailar chiquito” (dancing small). At the milonga, in contrast with being up on stage, the dance floor is shared with others. Therefore, the steps have to be are short and the embrace is tight.
The embrace is one of the few things the stage tango and the ballroom tango have in common. Even though in the latter, you never lose contact with your partner. “ Here we don’t get sidetracked – Mirta adds – nor do we fly around like they do in the stage tango. You have to feel the floor and the earth beneath your feet.”
Ricardo Valverde is one of those who dances al piso. He wears a suit from another era, but it is impeccable. His gaze is seductive. His face shows wrinkles from the years and his work in construction at his hometown of San Pedro, which is some 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Buenos Aires.
He travelled to the Mundial del Tango, but prefers to spend his evenings at milongas such as this one. After dinner, he commences his dance with an intimate embrace. The contact with this partner is close and the steps are as natural as taking a stroll during a duet; the figures presented are minimal and fleeting. There is something so up close and light in the encounter that it is hard to imagine it up on a stage. Valverde never stops embracing his partner.
“The embrace must never be cut off. Not for performing acrobatics nor for doing anything else in the world. You must never let go of the woman, my friend! That happens in music such as the cumbia, rock and roll or the stage tango. But not here,” says Valverde. “Do you know what makes a dancer a good dancer?” he asks Mirta and hastens to give the answer away, “Draw attention to the lady and dance with your soul.”
Even though they may seem to be irreconcilable, there are many dancers and scholars who talk about a “ tango salonario,”using a play on words between the dance hall ( salón) and the stage ( escenario). The two ways of dancing the tango are crossbred and they embrace as if they were a milonguera couple (from the milonga) .
The history behind this music is none other than a trip, from the fringes of Buenos Aires – such as the barrio where Los Laureles is located – to Paris and Broadway at the beginning of the 20 th century. Shortly after its success abroad in those years, the tango was adopted by the upper class Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) .
Today that trip is being repeated and the tension is kept alive. Professional dance partners travel to Europe so as to earn a better living and then return to Buenos Aires. During their leisure moments they go to the milongas to chat with the old folks, step on the wooden floors of the historic dance floors and dance “chiquito” style where there is not enough room for any gyrations or stridency.
There are other shorter stories that are not motivated by the professionalism of stage tango nor by accusations of denaturing the genre coming from traditionalists. In that same corridor at the Usina del Arte, where the air is thick and all are stretching their muscles before going up on stage, Ana María Campistrus and her husband Martin Mondre sit in a corner waiting. She is from Uruguay and he is German.
“Because of the tango, we met and fell in love,” says the woman, holding her partner’s hand, and he looks at her in a captivated way. This is the first time they compete in the Tango Escenario (stage tango) category at the Mundial.
“We know young people are more successful. They are the ones who will go around the world with the tango. But we wanted to demonstrate that, at our age, it is possible,” Ana Mar ía adds.
After their performance, together they return exhausted to the dressing rooms. They have a smile that is open to the world after dancing Esta noche de luna (this moonlit night), a tango from the 1940’s that tells a beautiful love story. A romantic story that could very well be their own. Those lyrics are still floating around in the air: Come closer to me and you’ll hear my happy heart beating like an enchanted clock. The night is blue, it beckons you to dream, and the sky has already lit the best of its beacons.