On Monday night I watched Carlos Saura's film Tango. I had first seen it when it came to Vancouver in 2002. Rosemary stayed upstairs. She knew I would be suffering from nostalgia and longing. Nostalgia and longing are not the same. Nostalgia is to want to experience something you had at one time. Longing involves knowing that it is a loss that is irreparable. Nostalgia is pleasant. To long for is to despair.
In November 2001 I danced the tango with 78 year-old Dolly at the Club Banco de la Nación Argentina at Vicente Lopez, an outskirt of Buenos Aires. I danced for almost two hours and nobody noticed me.
Me quité la espina (or to remove that thorn from myself) is a an expression in Spanish about satisfying a mild desire to eat ice-cream or in my case to get rid of an obsession to dance the Argentine tango. I removed that thorn on that Saturday evening at Vicente Lopez.
Before that, I was never able to dance the tango or dance at all because my father was such a good tango dancer. I grew up with a block about ever being able to dance anything. But it was around 1997 that I finally decided that my internal obsession for the tango (a thorn in my side!) had to be satisfied or exorcised.
That first and best teacher of mine right here in Vancouver, Argentine Carlos Loyola, (below left with partner) watched me stumble and said to me, “I will teach you to dance the tango as well as your father danced.” He almost delivered but then I must have been a lost cause. While Carlos Loyola inspired and pushed me to perfection, my lack of it made him angry and I soon was almost afraid. It was a second Carlos, the great Argentine tango dancer Carlos Gavito who taught me to accept what I did with resignation and contentment.
It all began at a March 1997 performance of Forever Tango at the Vogue on Granville. The performance made me realize I had been repressing my Argentine heritage. I decided to learn the tango. I think I was so inclined because I watched Carlos Gavito dance in what looked like a simple (no quick and fancy steps) performance with his sultry red-headed partner, Marcela Durán. The slightly paunchy, bearded man with a receding hairline got the attention of my wife. She though he was sexy. That had me worried as the “old” man, I found out later was a couple of years younger than I was.
While other dancers impressed us with leg ballistics, Gavito’s style was slow motion, with a particular step of his. Marcela Durán, her legs crossed at her ankles, was suddenly put at a 45 degree angle to the floor and Gavito would deftly swing her around like a merry-go-round while having her lean on his paunch. Because of the resemblance to a tent the step is called la carpa . Then and there I decided I had to learn the tango, and la carpa.
I had waited so long to commit. After all, I fell in love with Grace Kelley in 1956 when I was 14, watching her waltz with Louis Jordan in The Swan. Her marriage to Prince Rainier and my inability to dance made me a sad wallflower at the Catholic boarding school in Austin, Texas. To my classmates I was the Monk. If you didn’t dance you didn’t meet girls.
For some years the Monk showed up religiously with his wife Rosemary for weekly Tuesday and Friday practices the the Polish Community Centre on Fraser Street. There, because the tango is the tango, the Monk (giving somebody rabbit ears, is in picture below on the right side) was expected to dance with many partners. And because the tango is the tango when the Monk failed to glue his chest to his partner’s (in some cases and absolute stranger) I was chastised for not dancing properly. “Alex, unless you are close to your partner, “my instructor, Carlos Loyola would drum into me, “you will never learn to tango.” I had observed that when Loyola danced with women, he danced very close. One of the regulars in my class had once said, “He dances with her as if she were his suit.”
From Carlos Gavito, the legendary master from Avellaneda, I learned other truths about the tango. In a weekend beginner’s class he taught not moves, so much, as when not to move. He taught me la pausa. In tango the woman reacts to the man’s subtle indications of his right hand or body signs. Much like Prince Phillip follows the Queen, a few steps back, a good female tango dancer is always on her toes in a state of controlled imbalance, ready to swing in whatever direction the man chooses. When there are mood or tempo changes in the music, Gavito indicated to me, that is the moment when a man can simply stop, gather his thoughts, and only then might he move again.
Gavito who had been know to have given private classes to the tango obsessed Robert Duval when not tutoring the Monk or others taught me one more tango truth. “The tango does not come from here,” he said, placing his middle finger on his brow. He then placed his fingers on his heart. “…but from here. Tango," he stressed in his perfect Argentine-accented English, “is not steps. It is not tango or anything, if it does no come from the heart.”
I was elated when not only did nobody notice me dancing the tango in the old tango club but that my godmother and first cousin, Inesita O’Reilly Kuker and her daughter Marinés had not laughed at me. They had insisted on organizing the whole thing when I boasted to them that I had learned to dance the tango. “ Alexander,” my godmother and first cousin told me, “We are going to buy a bottle of Champagne and we are going to laugh at you.” They didn’t laugh at me. Nobody noticed me. I fit in. Finally that thorn on the side was gone. I was free. That thorn was in my head, not my heart. I should have known. Gavito had told me.
The story on how I came to take the above left photograph of Carlos Gavito is an interesting one. When I watched Gavito dance that March 1997 I had an idea.
"Do you want me to bring my partner?" Gavito asked me when I proposed a session in my studio. His partner, Marcela Durán was extremely beautiful but I said, "No I want you alone." I was to meet him outside the Vogue Theatre at 8:20 during the intermission. I was to have no more than 20 minutes.
Walking to my nearby studio people looked at us oddly. With his stage makup and dark Argentine suit Gavito looked like a vampire. On a rain slicked Granville Street it almost felt like we were strolling Avenida Corrientes in Buenos Aires.
I took a few tight portraits and showed him the Polaroids. Then I posed to him the problem, "A face is so far from the shoe. How is one to bring them together unless..." Gavito looked at me, then down at his charol (patent leather) shoes. He promptly removed one and brought it up to his face, "Una caricia (caress) por favor, "I asked.
Carlos Gavito died July 1, 2005
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