Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dancing in Argentina: Gaucho Vs. Tango

I've made it, Argentina, last country on my agenda and it's been worth the wait!

There are three Argentinian things I've been dreaming of for the past six months, and they are tango, steak, and wine.  I've tried the first two in my time here, (strangely, no wine yet... but soon,) and it's been everything I've ever dreamed of.

First of all, I made it over the Peruvian-Chilean border without much ado, and I spent three nights in the desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama.  I went on a desert tour of the Valley of the Moon (mad stuff, all clay and plaster and crystals and salt flats, like scenery right out of The Dark Crystal,) and then had salsa lessons and Pisco Sours with some lovely Dutch folks.  Salsa still is not and never will be my dance, and as we sat around a campfire I mentioned how excited I was to try to learn tango in Argentina.

An Ecuadorian girl we were sitting with had this to say: "I cannot watch tango.  It's passionate and intense, but it makes me want to cry when I see it.... tango is not a happy dance."  Which, of course, immediately made me more determined than ever to learn it.

From San Pedro I bussed it to Salta in the north of Argentina, where I went out to a peña, a Gaucho party, and watched traditional dancing from that region.  And it was just the funnest thing in the world!  There was this little guy in full cowboy attire, ("The chubby ones are always the best," our Argentine friend assured us,) who just threw himself into it, stomping and spinning and throwing himself in romantic desperation at his lady partner, who seemed pretty thrilled with herself indeed.

By the end they were smiling and sweaty (it was a warm night,) and there were cheers all around.

Contrast this with tango, which is everywhere in Buenos Aires: from what I've seen, it's this fantastic music that's fueled entirely by melodrama.  That is, the more anguish and ire you can convey, whether singing or dancing or playing the concertina, the better you are.  For buying a CD from a street band named Al Afronte, who play traditional tango numbers with a kind of darker, artier, modern twist, I was given free entry to a tango club.  There I got a preliminary lesson to how to dance it, (my partner gave me this piece of kindly advice: "Try not to fall over your feet,") and then sat in a corner the rest of the night and drank gin and tonics with the one other Gringo in the class, a French guy who was even awkwarder than me.  (It's a start!  I WILL master tango!  Maybe not on this trip, but someday...)  But at any rate, the singer had this boundless, tragic energy and he bellowed from the stage like his heart was cleft down the middle.  Everyone else in the club danced and danced in this eerie blue light, like ghosts, and they were still dancing when we left.

And later on, at an outdoor market in San Telmo when meeting with a leather-worker who had promised to make me a bracelet, I stumbled into another pair of dancers, hired by the fancy restaurant to dance in the plaza and attract tourists, who were absolute quintessential tango.  They were young and handsome and dressed in black and red, and they were the two angriest looking people I'd ever seen.  (To be fair, it was nearly 30 degrees out, and the guy was in a full length black suit and waistcoat, and they must have been out in the sun all morning.)  But man, could they dance!  It's impossible to even describe it - their movements were lithe and sinewy and threatening, like neither of them weighed anything at all.  You couldn't even follow the pattern their feet were following - it was like calligraphy, and they were beautiful like a pair of 1930s con artists, like wolves, and like if you got too close to them they'd tear your throat out without breaking stride.

It was absolutely mesmerizing, and I stood there and watched until they took a break to pass a hat around.  So I gave 10 pesos to the guy and he said to me, "Gracias," with this look of pure loathing, like he hated me and himself and his partner and the whole world and everything in it except for tango.  It was absolutely fantastic.  I have got to take proper lessons at some point in the future.

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