Like two predatory birds performing a mating ritual high above the mountains, twisting and looping around one another before they lock together and fall hundreds of feet, still spinning, until they break apart moments before it seems they will hit the rocks, so two dancers of the Argentine tango — two of the best dancers — will turn, separate, then come together, as the woman draws her trim ankle slowly up the inside of the man’s calf.
The dancers in question are Ive and Ludmilla Simard, San Diego’s reigning tanguero and tanguera, who blew into town in December 1993 to judge a ballroom dance championship at the Marriott Hotel, then were invited to give two weeks of tango lessons to local teachers and have remained ever since. In 1996, they opened their own school, El Mundo del Tango, behind a small shopping center on Miramar Road. A year or so later, it expanded sideways to add a room for dances.
Then in April they took over a church next door and turned it into “America’s First Tango Theater.” The first performance of “Le Vaudeville” was presented to an enthusiastic sellout crowd of 160 on April 29. Further shows were held last summer, with a fourth-anniversary sold-out show in August. Although more than a thousand people have studied Argentine tango in the San Diego area, the effect of the Simards’ tango theater has been to lead many more people to take lessons, where they hope to perfect tango moves with names like “the whip flick,” “the ambush,” “the weighted doll,” and “the shop and jewel.”
Tango had its beginnings in riverside slums and brothels of Buenos Aires around 1880, but its current popularity in the United States began with the Broadway stage hit Tango Argentina, which opened in New York in the early 1980s. When the production came to San Francisco for a short run around 1985, it ended up staying for two years and led to San Francisco becoming the center for Argentine tango on the West Coast. Other stage shows followed, as did a number of popular movies. Another influence was a change in tango itself caused by one man, Astor Piazzolla (1921–1992), whose New Tango infused traditional tango with jazz and classical rhythms (check out www.piazzolla.org). One of Piazzolla’s most famous albums, with baritone saxophone great Gerry Mulligan, was released in the early ’70s. He also recorded albums with vibraphonist Gary Burton and the Kronos Quartet. Piazzolla has set to music ballads by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, and he worked with Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer, who wrote lyrics for nearly 20 Piazzolla tangos. His music has also been used in films such as The Tango Lesson, 12 Monkeys, and Lumière. Other of his tango sequences have been choreographed for the ballet. The effect of Piazzolla is to give tango a range from the whorehouse to the symphony orchestra, the slapstick to the philosophical, the choreographed dance to the purely improvisational, the traditional lyrics of revenge, betrayal, and lost love to the surreal and high poetic.
As a result of these different influences, Argentine tango has become increasingly popular in the United States in the past 15 years, as well as throughout Europe and Japan. Tango weeks are regularly held in cities all over the country, where hundreds of people go to take classes taught by Argentine tango masters during the day and dance at night. In addition, there are dozens of tours offering to take Americans of all levels of tango experience to Buenos Aires for one- or two-week workshops.
I had thought that where I live, in Boston, there was little Argentine tango, but checking the Web I found I could easily dance tango five nights a week. And visiting one of these places in a VFW hall, I found nearly 200 people energetically zigzagging across the floor to recorded music. What was striking, and what is also a reason for its popularity, is how inclusive it was. The dancers ranged in age from 15 to 85 and came in all shapes and sizes — no one could be pointed to as being out of place.
Ive and Ludmilla Simard are a striking-looking couple. He is 54, slender, about five feet eight with shiny black hair, pulled tight back in a ponytail, thick black brows, bright blue-gray eyes, a thin face with thick creases from his nose to the edges of his mouth. He dresses dramatically in black — one day a black shirt with grapefruit-sized scarlet circles and baggy black pants tight at the ankles, black half-boots that seemed molded to his feet with mule-skin soles for dancing (“it makes a sweeter sole,” he said).
Ludmilla is about 50, a beautiful woman with straight blond hair pulled back like Ive’s, bright blue eyes, an electric smile that illuminates her face. She dresses in black, often in black gowns slit up the side. She practices yoga and has such flexibility that she could probably tie herself into a square knot with a bow on top.
Ive was brought up in the city of Quebec and speaks with a thick accent. He began studying many kinds of dance when he was four and began working with an Argentine tango master when he was nine and continued with him for eight years. Ludmilla is originally from Czechoslovakia, where she studied dance. In 1968 she was touring Germany with a Czechoslovakian dance troupe when the Russians invaded her country. She stayed in Bonn, then immigrated to Canada, where she met Ive. They taught ballroom dance in Quebec and competed in many national and international competitions. From 1985 to 1992 the Simards worked on a cruise ship producing and performing over 300 shows a year. From the end of November to the end of March each year the ship traveled between Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, staying in Buenos Aires four or five days out of every ten. Although tango was by that time Ive’s primary interest, those stopovers in Buenos Aires helped him crystallize his future plans.
Those plans were not simply to have a school or club or a tango theater. The ambition that has driven him since 1982 is to have the world’s first tango university — a four-year program leading to a bachelor’s degree.
“The goal is to teach all aspects of tango,” Ive told me, “not just the dance — the dance is just one goal. We will teach all the instruments, all the folklore, even the cooking, and we will direct people into performing arts or into education.”
We were sitting at a table in a large room with a white-and-black checkerboard tile floor and tango posters on the walls. Dances are held here at least twice a week, as well as many of the private lessons.
My obvious question was whether there would be enough interest to sustain a university, much less to begin it. He brushed my doubts aside, telling me that tango was the most complicated, most ornate, most emotional, most intellectual, even the most philosophical of any of the western dances. To hear Ive and Ludmilla describe it, tango was not just a dance but also a way to order one’s life and put the world in perspective.
“First we had to make a syllabus, then we put it all on videotape. It’s a system to teach and to learn. I’ve been working on this syllabus for 36 years, but we just made our instruction tapes five years ago. We’re talking about 1632 patterns, or steps, presented chronologically starting from 1905. The tapes are now being used in about 21 countries. The plan was to find the right city for our university. We didn’t think of San Diego, but we came to San Diego and we said, This maybe is it. We will start the university as soon as we get the funding. We can get donors, but we need the right donors.”
The syllabus takes a student through different levels of complexity — bronze, silver, gold — and teaches other forms of tango, such as the milonga — an earlier form, faster and more cheerful — and the vals cruzado, or tango waltz.
Ive brought out a thick roll of architectural plans, done by a local architect who had traded the plans for lessons.
“The plan is to make a tango mall. The university will be in the back, all the university on one floor, all the departments. In the front will be a circular mall with 24 boutiques, all related to tango, and keep the middle for dancing and other programs. It will be a reconstitution of Buenos Aires, and when someone steps into the mall he will forget he is in San Diego. It is ambitious but not impossible. One thing I know — it will happen, definitely. I will find a way.”
Then Ive began to talk about the origins of the tango.
“Tango started in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, from the port. Immigrants from eight different nations came to Argentina to find work. They left their families in Europe — from Hungary, Russia, Italy, France, from Poland, and Jewish and African. Tango was first an African contortion dance and ‘tango’ is an African word. It means ‘a place where blacks sit down to dance.’ Then all those nations — you know, they came by ship and they didn’t find any work. Argentina, the silver land, it was a deception. Now they live in this little outskirt, one above each other, and they start to exchange culture, music, exchange everything, and they met the gaucho, the Argentine cowboy, and the payadores, the troubadours — the ones who carried music from ranch to ranch with guitar. And altogether they start to build a kind of music, nostalgic music. Before tango, was milonga — it’s what payadores play — but it was just rural milonga, not the dance. There came little by little a dance composed by habaneros from Cuba, polka from Czechoslovakia, mazurka and Scottish dance and African candombe — this created the first pattern of milonga, which matched the rural sound played by the payadores. You know, tango is a bastard. It contains 21 dances. It’s not like another dance — it has a history but no foundation. Tango is a way of moving, a way of thinking. It didn’t start with a pattern like another dance. In other dances you first look at the basic pattern, the steps, and then you recognize the dance — you say that’s a waltz or a polka. Tango is the opposite — the way makes the pattern, and in other dances the pattern makes the way. In other European dances everything started in the aristocracy or the theater and it dropped down to the population. So if you take the polka, the waltz, it was just for aristocracy, rich people, theater, then the population learned it for pleasure. Tango was the opposite — it started in the street and it moved upward.
“Tango is a culture, a story, a dance, and a way of life. But again, contrary to anything else, the music was created after the dance, not before. The way of life was created before the dance. It gave some patterns about how to move and from that was created music, then it became the culture. First, it’s a way of life, then a way of moving, then a music, then a culture. It started with the way of life, but we must go back to the kid, to the children of immigrants who met the gaucho, and they began to imitate them in the street, they swaggered and walked as they did and there was always fighting. They played the little gaucho and then they became independent of him and the tango began.”
Early tango orchestras were made up of a piano, flutes, and violins. Then around the turn of the century a queer instrument called the bandoneon was added — something that falls between the accordion and concertina — squared-shaped with 71 keys and invented by Heinrich Band of Krefeld, Germany, in the mid-1840s. The bandoneon has been the primary instrument of the tango every since. It was the bandoneon that was played by Astor Piazzolla.
Argentine polite society found the tango a disgusting dance. It was called “that reptile from the brothel.” It took Pope Pius X, who was pope from 1903 to 1914, to change all that. By calling tango obscene, he created a tango craze in Europe. In Argentina, in 1910, what was a craze in Paris had also become a craze in Buenos Aires, and so the tango’s popularity began. “What was once a devilish orgy is now a way of walking,” said a critic. But there was a difference. The tango for Argentine polite society became mixed with theater, myth, and nostalgia for the rough old days of 40 years earlier — the whorehouses and knife fights. In fact, many of the steps in the tango were named after knife-fighting moves.
One early lyric goes, “I’m from the Barrio del Alto, from the Retiro, I am. / I’m the man who barely notices / whomever I have to fight, / or whomever I milonga, / nobody fools with me.” And another — “When I tango I’m so tough / that, when I whirl a double cut / word reaches the north side / if I’m dancing on the south.”
I asked Ive to describe a double cut, or dobla corte.
“A dobla corte is a framed pattern we use to change direction in close position. The man checks forward his left foot across his body, transfers his weight to the right foot, still across his body, and steps his left foot diagonally back. Then he steps back with his right foot across his body with partial weight, he replaces his weight forward across his body on the left foot and he steps forward with the right shoulder leading all in close position. This pattern allows the dancer to turn left in an emergency situation.”
It’s a move suitable to tango or knife fighting.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was drawn to the violent aspects of the tango. “To speak of the fighting tango,” he wrote, “is not strong enough: I would say the tango and milonga directly express a conviction that poets have often tried to voice in words: that a fight can be a celebration.… Music is will and passion; the old tango, as music, immediately transmits that joy of combat which Greek and German poets long ago tried to express in words.
“For myself, I cannot hear the tangos ‘El Marne’ or ‘Don Juan’ without remembering in detail an apocryphal past, simultaneously stoic and orgiastic, in which I have challenged and fought and in the end fallen silently in an obscure knife fight. Perhaps this is the tango’s mission: to give Argentines the belief in a brave past, in having met the demands of honor and bravery.”
And Borges gives a little story to describe the spirit of the tango. “The hero in this version was Juan Murana, wagon driver and knife fighter, in whom converged all the tales of courage circulating around the docks of the north side. A man from Los Corrales, knowing the fame of Juan Murana, whom he has never seen, came up from his outlying slum in the south side to pick a fight; he challenged him in a neighborhood bar, and the two moved out on the street to fight; each is wounded, but in the end Murana slashes the man’s face and says to him: ‘I’m letting you live so that you can come looking for me again.’ ” Borges adds, “The detachment of that duel is engraved in my memory.” Juan Murana expressed the soul of the tanguero.
The original tangos had no lyrics, but by the 1890s lyrics started being written. A tango lyric has been described as an opera lasting three minutes.
“The first milongas and tangos might have been foolish or at least slipshod,” wrote Borges, “but they were heroic and happy. The later tango is resentful, deplores with sentimental excess one’s miseries, and celebrates shamelessly the misfortunes of others.… Tangos of guilt, tangos of hatred, tangos of sarcasm and bitterness were written difficult to transcribe and even to remember. All sides of the city began entering the tango, the lowlife and the slums were not its only subjects.… We might say that these lyrics form a vast, unconnected comédie humaine of Buenos Aires life. In time, tango lyrics will form a long civic poem.”
Over 5000 tango lyrics can by found from the Web’s tango lyrics home page, 99 percent in Spanish but some translated into English.
The lyrics often used a lowlife slang called lunfardo (a dictionary of more than 2500 words can be found at www.gotan.com.ar/lunfardo.htm), similar to cockney, in which “mangos” means money and “to eat an olive” means to leave in a hurry. One of the most famous tangos, written in 1926, is “Yira, Yira.” In lunfardo a yira is a whore or streetwalker, yirar being the verb to describe walking from one corner to the next. “When you’ve worn out your dancing shoes / searching for the buck / so you’ll be able to eat, / then you’ll at last figure out / the indifference of that / deaf and dumb world.”
Most Americans who are caught up in the current tango craze don’t know Spanish and ignore the lyrics. I asked an Argentine tanguera in Boston how she felt about this. “Of course, you can dance the tango and not know the lyrics, but the lyrics take you to a deeper level. They’re about adults, people with a past. The lyrics of most popular music are about men and women who have no past. To dance the tango and not know the lyrics is like dancing with a limp.”
And she quoted a tango called “Vivamos No Más.”
- Let’s live, girl, what an agonizing time,
- But behind death there’s nothing to be seen.
- Worlds are destroyed by absurdity and ashes,
- But we are the world as well.
- Let’s drink a glass of warm witch,
- That wine returns and the smoke blows away.
- Let’s leave aside this absurd sadness,
- Let’s live now…Let’s live, nothing more.
The early tango reeked of sex, violence, and betrayed love. The tanguero had a lot of attitude. He never said, I’m sorry. He had only two types of smiles — one combined disdain and mockery; the other conquest. Both were very small. At the start of the dance, the tanguero led, but if the woman was good she immediately established herself as an equal, but with a difference. She was the bitch-temptress who tried to overcome his composure. The true tanguero never settled down, married, and had kids. He didn’t have one woman, he had several at once. Yet all left him. Perhaps it was because of the women he chose. It’s hard to domesticate a bitch-temptress. These many betrayals led to knife fights with other tangueros who stole his women since tangueros were always stealing women from one another. Or at times they killed the women themselves. The murders and fights tended to stem not from jealousy and love but pride. It was simply part of the duty of the tanguero, part of the job description. The betrayed tanguero never admitted love. Even partiality was a sign of weakness. The tanguero had suffered grief in love, but that love was not for the woman who had just left him but for a woman far in the past. The women, too, had such a grief in the past — these bitch-temptresses — so both kept dancing, constantly dancing and constantly dissatisfied, while their search and frustrated passion fired the energy of the dance, yet the partner of the moment was at best a dim image of that other remembered face that still burned in each dancer’s heart.
At the end one might see older tangueros and tangueras sitting alone in bars and cafés — Buenos Aires is full of dark barnlike confiterías — with a single absinthe, silent, gaunt, proud, perhaps with a raw scar across one cheek, perhaps one of the men missing an eye. They look like people who have tales to tell, though they will never tell them. Occasionally the bartender might tell a story to someone else in the bar about an especially elegant knife fight or pitiless act of revenge, or perhaps someone will hint of a tragic past. At times, the men become pimps or gamblers. At times, the women become whores or turn to opium; or they end up as those old ladies who clean offices late at night, or they are suicides. Yet right to the end they are true to their code; they maintain their silence. For the men it is better, finally, to die with a knife in the belly than in bed.
It is hard to know if this world ever existed, but in Buenos Aires in the ’20s and ’30s this was the world that was nostalgically looked back on, this is a world that Borges describes in his stories with a mixture of envy and suspicion, this is the world of the music. If not completely true, it is partly true. It is the shadow behind the popularity of the dance. “Ballad for My Death” (“Balada para mi muerte”), which Horacio Ferrer wrote for Astor Piazzolla in 1968, begins,
- I will die in Buenos Aires. It will be early morning.
- I’ll obediently put aside the things of this life,
- my small poetry of good-byes and bullets,
- my tobacco, my tango, my handful of ennui.
- I’ll drape the whole dawn over my shoulders like a coat;
- I’ll put aside my next to last whiskey without drinking.
Set against Argentine tango is a purified tango, the ballroom tango, the stylized form mostly taught in dance schools throughout the world during this century.
I spoke with Scott Dodson, an independent teacher working at the Champion Ballroom Academy on Fifth Avenue, who has taught dance for 18 years and who teaches the international standard ballroom dances — Viennese waltz, fox-trot, quickstep, and tango. He told me that he gives tango lessons every day of the week and has about 25 private tango students and another 75 in classes. He spoke about the differences between the three types of tango — International, American, and Argentine.
“In the International style the legs are further apart, and the International moves a lot more across the floor, so you need a much bigger floor. With three or four steps or patterns, you can be 40 feet down your dance floor, so it isn’t as suitable for the stage as the Argentine tango. The heads are almost touching in the Argentine tango — it’s very, very close. In the International style, it’s much more like fox-trot — it’s more open. And the music is different. The Argentine music is a little slower, yet it can vary in tempo and be very melodic. The International is more of a marching type of action — a strict tempo. And usually there’s less improvisation with International tango. If you have a good partner, someone that you have danced with quite a long time, you can improvise, but normally if you’re dancing with someone that you haven’t danced with there are maybe five to ten figures you’d dance to. Unlike Argentine, there are no famous orchestras or composers for International tango, but there are a few numbers that are known to all of us. The most famous is ‘Sombra,’ or ‘Shadow.’ There are several orchestras now days that are really good — Japan has a very good orchestra, Germany has a good one. As for differences between International and American — in International-style standard you stay together with your partner throughout the dancing. American style has different steps that will allow you to split up several times and come back.”
He described the International as more team-style dancing, the American as that plus certain theatrical elements. Both lack the intensity and elements of the erotic found in Argentine tango. A few of Dodson’s students also take Argentine tango, but very few.
“Usually the crossover with people who take the different tangos is American and International. There is some Argentine that is entering into both of those, but Argentine tango really is by itself, because the style is so different.”
But for many people the International and American styles are a higher form of tango. At one point I talked to a woman named Joyce who worked at the Champion Ballroom Academy. When Joyce had been thinking about taking tango lessons, she decided she wanted something “less earthy” than Argentine tango, “something more sophisticated,” and so she chose International and American tango. And she pointed out to me their similarity to figure skating and said how ballroom dancing was now going to be a part of the Olympics.
On the other hand, one passionate Argentine tanguero I talked to dismissed the International and American styles as “vegetarian tango.”
Of the 50 or so dance academies in the San Diego area, more than half teach tango and perhaps 20 give lessons in Argentine tango, but they tend to have added the Argentine in the past ten years. Many of the teachers have taken workshops with the Simards and nearly all recognize them as the masters, even though some may question the Simards’ philosophical focus. Yet it is the Simards’ intensity that has caused their academy to expand so rapidly, training teachers, filling classes, opening a club, holding dances at least twice a week, opening the theater, playing to packed houses, and raising money for the tango university.
There are other places than El Mundo del Tango to dance Argentine tango in San Diego during the week. Dance North County in Encinitas has dances on Tuesdays, and in the Gaslamp Quarter, Clayton’s and Cafe Bassam hold dances every Wednesday.
A Palestinian, Bassam Shamma originally learned tango in Amman, Jordan, where he said all the Latin dances were taught. His café has been open since 1990. “Everybody who teaches tango in San Diego started here,” Bassam told me.
Ive, however, said that although he had given some lessons at Bassam’s back in 1994, they were by no means the first lessons he gave in San Diego.
But Bassam is a man of great enthusiasm, who plied me with sweet drinks. When I gave him my card all bent from being in my wallet, he presented me with a shiny, silver-looking business-card holder in a blue velvet pouch. I used it once and the person to whom I gave my card guffawed. However, I like my case and admire it in private.
“We have the most beautiful women in this place,” Bassam told me, “and we’ll keep the tango for the ambience even when business is slow. Tango is very passionate, very elegant. When you lead the lady, it is as if you protect her. I’m not a teacher, but I used to go to the ballrooms and pick up the steps so now I can dance as well. With all the movies, tango has become much more interesting, and now all the ballrooms have tango lessons, and with all the classes, more people have been coming to dance.”
But to listen to Ive is to have a sense of the tango as something more than a dance.
“The goal of the tango is a high goal,” he explained. “It’s not a dance — it’s to find yourself. You find who you are and that scares many people. As recreation it’s okay, it doesn’t need a system. But on the academy side it’s different — how can it work without a system? Tango is about awareness, nothing else. Be aware, then you are aware. It is an esoteric dance, a standing meditation. It’s why you have artists and gymnasts. When tango becomes a translation of the music into the body and when you can see a man and a woman and you cannot see who is who — when the power is divided between the two — it’s an art. When you see a bunch of steps, even if brilliantly performed, it’s gymnastics.
“Tango is divided into two parts. The upward part is what we make you believe. From the waist up is the sensual part, from the waist down is the erotic part. You can’t see the erotic part, you see the sensual part. Much of the erotic part is awareness. When you dance any other dance, you can talk about whatever you want to during the dance. You don’t need this tremendous awareness of the present moment. Tango is just the moment. We call that moment Tango. It’s to be there at every second [Ive knocked rhythmically on the table]. If you’re not there in the moment, you’re just finished.
“In tango there is a word — quietness. You must know what you want to do at every second. Tango is based on quietness. When somebody starts, his mind goes at 100 miles an hour. When he’s an accomplished dancer, his body goes at 100 miles an hour and his mind is at rest. It’s peace in mind. You cannot balance tango without peace in mind. You have to be there, you can’t be in the past or future. That’s why it’s good — for many people it’s a big therapy, because what do we mostly think about? What will I do next year or next month, or what I did last week was so nice — perhaps I was fishing. But the fish is an illusion now and what we’ll do next month is an illusion. What’s our reality? Now. And tango, it’s always now, now, now. If you lose one single moment, you just trip over. It’s why it’s difficult. That’s one of the very, very difficult problems.
“Tango contains a universal message, that we know. It’s very simple. It helps us start a massive, massive awakening. We live in three states. We sleep, we dream, or we are awake. When we go to bed, we sleep. When we wake up in the morning, we start to dream. When you step out of your dream, you are awake. And tango can wake you, because it tells you that the only thing you are is a small person — it doesn’t matter if you have a bank account of 40 million. You don’t own your past and you certainly don’t own your future — you own only the moment. The tempo of tango, the speed, the 4/4 time, is the normal human walking speed [Ive gets up and strolls across the room — a tango walk]. It corresponds to the heartbeat. It’s the natural walk of the street, the natural breath and the heartbeat. That makes you aware and I see people begin to awake. We have found many loyal people here and their lives have really changed through tango. In a very simple way — instead of planning one year in advance, they plan one month in advance; later, instead of planning one month, they plan one week. I didn’t say it was bad to plan — it’s terrible not to plan. What’s dangerous is when you expect your plan to work out. Expectation equals frustration.
“So tango has all sorts of improvisation — like life. Life is an improvisation. You can’t even say I will do that, that,that. How many times do you follow your plans? Of course on the stage it is choreographed. But when you are an expert your awareness is there, then the improvisation exists between the choreography. It may be full of improvisation, that is not planned. It’s like you have the building and it’s white. And suddenly it becomes blue, but the walls remain the same.”
And Ludmilla leaned forward and gave one of her dazzling smiles and said, “Tango means being in the momentum.”
Well, this is tango that has come a long way from knife fighting, just as it is a long way from tango that resembles figure skating. There is another form of Argentine tango, which might be called a purely recreational tango.
This I learned about from Glen Lovelace, owner and general manager of the Arthur Murray Dance Studio on Fourth Avenue in Hillcrest since 1996. Lovelace also has four other Arthur Murray Dance Studios — one in Sacramento and three in the Bay Area. He told me that while salsa was the most popular dance at the San Diego studio, in the Bay Area it was tango. “In San Francisco any night of the week you can find at least two places to tango. On weekends, I can find three or four places — a lot of them with live music.”
Lovelace is in his late 50s, with thick gray hair and a thick mustache — a man of extreme grace and charm. We talked in a small office at his studio. He said about 10 to 15 percent of his students studied Argentine tango, and some he referred to the Simards.
Lovelace spoke of tango for Americans as being a hobby, while for Argentines it was a lifestyle. He clearly loved the tango and danced it regularly, yet his approach was a practical approach. As he talked about it, he demonstrated the steps, moving gracefully across his office with an invisible partner.
“Sometimes you dance to the room,” he said, “and sometimes you have to dance to the floor conditions. So if you take the basic eight-count ‘salida,’ or ‘exit,’ it tells you how to start and stop all the movements. Some people take the one in place or they take the one back. But it’s always one, the sidestep is two, walk three, four, the way you cross is five, and then they do a kind of a half-a-box ending. So that salida on a crowded dance floor might be danced slow, slow, slow, quick, quick, quick, quick, slow. But you might find couples in your way, so if you stepped back slow, and somebody got in your way, you might stand there for a bit and take this step over here, and if they got in the way again, you’d kind of sneak through — it takes sometimes 32 to 40 beats of music to dance a 16-beat step, because they don’t worry about how fast you have to go, where with other modern dances it’s one-two-three — it’s stepping on the beat.
“In tango they use a lot of what they call ‘pauses,’ and that’s to make it fit socially so they can change the alignments at any time. They have so many pauses because you don’t even want to brush against another couple on the dance floor. So when you’re dancing, you have to really protect your partner to make sure that other people aren’t encroaching on her. So sometimes the guy will take the girl on two and he keeps her weight on her right foot and he sort of lifts her up a little bit so she’ll step here and the weight goes on this foot and he just turns her, because he couldn’t go this way, so he goes off over there — so you’ve got a lot of that stuff. There’s a lot more improvisation. Big-time. There are no school patterns as in ballroom dancing. The Argentine-style tango teaches you popular combinations, but you never dance it that way completely because somebody gets in your way and you put another component to it — it’s never the same.”
Over the years, Lovelace has attended many tango weeks in San Francisco, where master tangueros from Buenos Aires come to give lessons.
“One of my teachers mentioned something to me. When you’re dancing, you have to think about protecting your partner, as if you’re walking down the street with your arm around her. You’re really involved with her and everything is real slow because you’re taking your time with her, as opposed to just holding her hand and walking down the street. So when you take the embrace, it’s much more subtle and you really get that connection, so everything that I do is for her. I don’t take a step unless I feel she’s ready to go. He also said that when he first started learning the dance he was so involved with the footwork and making the changes and doing the leg things that he never saw the dance. And he said that for four or five years he was so involved with that, he didn’t see anything else and then one day he looked up and it was like a whole new dance. So there’s a lot that goes into the tango — even the embrace becomes a big deal. There’s not, as we say in ballroom, ‘Take the dance position.’ ”
While Lovelace’s approach was completely different from Ive’s, he often praised Ive’s mastery. As I was leaving, Lovelace said, “Have Ive tell you about what we call the ‘split weight’ in tango.”
So I did.
“In tango,” said Ive, “the center of gravity is always divided in two. When the dancer takes a step, let’s say to the side (which is the more difficult one), he allows his spinal column to travel only to the center of both of his feet. When he closes his feet, he allows his spine to travel in the middle right above the left foot, both middle, forward middle, lateral middle. When he steps forward with either foot, let’s say left foot forward, his spine remains over the ball of the right foot, which allows again the center of gravity to be divided in two and to have half the weight straight over the middle of the body. Now when the dancer travels forward on the left foot, he allows his spine to be well over the ball of the left foot with the foot flat, straight over the middle of the left foot, which is approximately just on the back ball of the left foot, in between the second and the third toe, when we walk laterally. That means split weight.”
Got that? It seems a long way from those black footprints painted on the floors of dance studios in the past.
In order to understand it somewhat better, I took two lessons in a beginner’s class at El Mundo del Tango with two teachers who had been taught by Ive and Ludmilla. I should say that my previous tango lesson had been in a Quonset hut on the Michigan State University campus about 1951 when I was ten years old and a bit of a cutup.
The teachers were Martin Vollmer and Clair Sosna, both about 30. Martin is Swiss and had first taken lessons in Zurich in 1995. His wife — then his fiancée — wanted to dance tango at their wedding and had said that unless Martin learned, the wedding was off. So he learned to tango. Besides giving tango lessons he is working on his Ph.D. in oceanography at the Scripps Institution. Martin is about six feet with wavy brown hair. His eyes always have a faint look of surprise, and dimples pop up when he smiles. His English is almost perfect with a slight accent. He says, “Remember dat” and “We made a liddle exercise.” An excellent dancer, he performs in the stage shows and exhibits only one serious flaw. He smiles. The serious tanguero never smiles.
Clair is five feet two or three, very pretty, and also an excellent dancer. She has studied tango for only a year and a half but had studied jazz, ballet, ballroom, “and all that other stuff since I was a child.” She, too, dances in the shows.
The class was made up of five women and six men ranging in age from 30 to 60. In general, we were a nervous and fidgety lot. Martin and Clair were very patient and reminded me of those dentists who promise to be 200 percent pain-free. Martin started the music rolling. We students assumed alert expressions.
“As a teacher, I must give you some tools,” he said. “First comes the basic structure, the basic steps. Then you modify them. But first you must learn how to walk. You must learn to walk like a cat.”
He demonstrated, slinking four steps forward and four steps back. Soon we were all slinking along. Several more advanced students watched from the doorway with compassion and humor, as if remembering their own cat-walking days.
After we had gotten the hang of slinking along by ourselves, Martin and Clair paired us off and showed us the salida that Lovelace had described to me. We changed partners often. Above the music there was a constant muttering of “Sorry, sorry.” Martin and Clair kept telling us not to stare at our feet. It seemed dangerous not to. However, it soon got easier and even a bit of enthusiasm developed. I seemed to be doing all right except for a tendency to steer my partner into the wall. Because of the tango’s odd rhythms and pauses, there was a certain amount of unfortunate body checking.
When I danced with Clair, she told me, “I find it fascinating how tango makes you move your body through time and space. It’s the only partner dance where you’re not always doing the same footwork. You need to be very concentrated and relaxed at the same time. It’s almost like self-hypnosis. In my own dancing I want to go as far as I can go, be as good as I can be. And the erotic element makes it far more interesting.”
I didn’t relax. Clair is more than a foot shorter than I am, and I was afraid I would squash her. However, by the second lesson I was looking forward to dancing with her.
Martin spoke about the basic step as being divided into three parts, then you vary it by dropping off the third part, or, as you increase your improvisation, you can drop off the second part; then he taught us how to turn. I bumped into the wall again. My feet seemed to be doing pretty well and Martin and Clair praised my sense of timing, which rather went to my head. On the other hand, I had trouble keeping my elbow at a right angle, which led me to walk past my partner, putting me almost behind her — a misfortune.
The next week we reviewed what we had learned and half forgotten. Everyone had come back, and another couple had joined us. Then Martin and Clair taught us a step, or pattern, called the ocho (the eight) in which the woman was passed back and forth in a figure-eight movement in front of the man, who bent his knees and swung them from side to side. Having little or no cartilage in my right knee, I could hear the bones click and grind together like castanets in time to the music. Afterward Martin and Clair showed us how it was supposed to be done and we scratched our heads.
However, the teachers at El Mundo del Tango, all taught by Ive and Ludmilla, had begun their tango experience just as we had on those two evenings. They, too, must have looked sheepish and said “Sorry, sorry.” And now they perform in Le Vaudeville, the Simards’ tango theater.
“Me, I believe tango is for everybody,” Ive told me. “I will say, I will take you and bring you on the stage as an artist, because, me, I have a very, very strong belief — first I believe everybody’s equal. Second, everybody has the tango, they just didn’t discover it yet, that’s all. I was lucky, I am a disciplined person, I had the right information and I had talent. But talent in tango is number four, not number one. Number one is to wish it, to want the real tango. Then the discipline, then the consistency, then the talent. If you don’t have talent, it doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t come first. And anybody can do it.”
“Then tango-nirvana,” added Ludmilla.
The audience of 160, plus the 20 performers, then the stagehands, ticket takers, and all the other El Mundo del Tango helpers jammed Le Vaudeville’s opening night, and it seemed that in moving through the crowd before the performance I could have used Glen Lovelace’s tricks of how to handle oneself on a crowded dance floor.
I spoke with Barbara Broderick, who is one of the Simards’ most passionate teachers and performers. She is also the oldest, being 75 and proud of it. It would be wrong, however, simply to say she looks ten years younger. Small and white-haired, she looks youthful and moves across the stage as gracefully as any of the others.
Barbara met the Simards shortly after they came to San Diego. For a year before they opened El Mundo del Tango, they gave lessons out of Barbara’s house in La Jolla. “They even lived there for part of the year because I have a little apartment there and I got my lessons for free.” She chuckled at this; even her laugh is youthful.
Although she began to study the tango four years before she met Ive, she tended to discount those earlier lessons.
“I owe everything to Ive. He’s been my mentor for five years now. Before that I went to 12 different tango weeks, all over the United States — Stanford, Seattle, New Orleans, Columbus, Chicago. I traveled to workshops in Buenos Aires and had a number of the top teachers, and I went to other teachers in San Diego, but they were not adequate teachers. I had no one to dance with here and nowhere to dance and no teacher that was worth anything. Perhaps I was too demanding or maybe I expected more. I expected someone to really help me learn what tango was all about, rather than just patterns, just the steps. There was no continuity in anything.
“Ive is an absolute genius as a teacher, and his goal is to really help people understand the deeper world of tango, not just the fluff, not just the flashy boleros. He’s helping me every single lesson, and I take two to three lessons every week. By deeper, I mean learning how to move your body so that you’re completely in sync with your partner, how to not give up the space you’re supposed to occupy. Tango is an extremely deep subject, it’s about relationships between bodies, between music and the person and the floor. It’s one of the most challenging mental, physical, spiritual disciplines that exists. It grabs so many intellectual, smart, and exciting people just because it’s such a mental and physical challenge, as well as teaching you how to be gentle. The gentleness that Ive is teaching is not taught in almost any other school that I know of.
“But Ive has been studying it for 35 years. This is a man who knows it inside out. He knows almost every possible step you can make in tango. But not only has he studied tango, he knows body dynamics. He knows dance in general. He was an international champion, and to do that you must have tremendous discipline and understanding of what you’re doing. But he decided he’d rather teach and be involved with Argentine tango — he gave up all of what he’d done for all of his life to do tango because he felt it was the most important thing he could do. And Ludmilla fought him like mad, because she didn’t want to give up ballroom, because that was her world, but he had a dream and, boy, he stuck with it night and day, to build this tango university where he’d be training teachers. This is the vision that Ive has — he is going to make tango available not for just a few people. It’s too beautiful an art to stay in just these little tiny small pockets.”
I suggest that it sounds as if Ive wants followers, and Barbara gets a little huffy.
“Tango is about being yourself. No one is a disciple of Ive’s. You dance who you are in tango more than in any other dance. You’re given freedom by a good lead as a woman, and as a man you can be so creative, so in touch with the exciting mental dance, how to get your partner so that she’s right where she should be. It’s so intriguing, it’s the most intriguing thing in my whole life. I gave up my whole studio. I had a beautiful store for 35 years in La Jolla. I was a custom designer of jewelry, starting in the late ’60s. I just designed one piece at a time. I was very small, I never hired people to work for me except goldsmiths and I had a wonderful life and I’m a world-class designer. I had a wonderful business, but I gave it up because I wanted to devote my life to tango. I still design jewelry, but I do it out of my home, so it’s on a much smaller scale.
“Tango has changed my life so drastically — not only what I wear but my dimensions, everything has changed. I’m out there and I want to look good. I’m presenting myself to the world. It changes the way you feel about yourself, your diet changes, the way you dress, everything changes. It’s keeping me alive. You know what it’s done for me? It’s made me a better lover, it’s changed the way I feel about my body, because what you’re doing is channeling all of your mental and emotional energy to your center. You’re learning to control your body and you feel it. And I’ve never had this discipline; I’ve never even been anywhere near this kind of discipline. Yet I still have so far to go. This is what Ive has helped me understand — the rhythm of tango, it’s a therapeutic, healing power. And it’s true — I’m happy, I love the music, I love the sensuality. As a single woman, sometimes you have to have an outlet for your sensuality, and you can feel in your body that you’re giving of yourself with tango, because it’s total, even if it’s three and a half minutes of dance, you’re giving of yourself, at least I am. It fulfills a lot of people’s needs far more than any other social dance.”
Of the 30 or so people I talked to over two weeks, the ones who had this sort of enthusiasm, and there were many, were all students of the Simards — people for whom the tango had become more than a dance. And again there was a striking range of age, size, shape, nationality. Ive said that 24 different nationalities were involved with the school.
One of the very best dancers was Morena Marina Santos. Beautiful, petite, black-haired, she looked perhaps 19 and turned out to be 16. I thought she must have been taking lessons for years, but she had been taking tango lessons for less than six months, though she had previously studied jazz, tap, and ballet. “I learn dances quickly,” she told me. “I guess it’s my forte.” Her mother is the Brazilian singer Marta Santos, who sings locally and also tours with her trio.
Morena danced a modern tango in Le Vaudeville with my teacher Martin Vollmer. Years ago when I began to sail, I had to take a little test in tying knots. My booklet gave diagrams of the ends of ropes interweaving, gracefully binding and coming apart. In their dance Martin and Morena reminded me of that.
“I like tango because you’re dancing with someone else, not like ballet or tap,” Morena told me. “In tango the energy is more inward than outward with the two partners, and it’s also like meditation. You don’t have to think about it. If you start thinking about it, you do something wrong. And the tango is very geometrical; it deals with shapes a lot. Salsa is like a color painting, a tango has the starkness of black and white. In a good tango, the man doesn’t lead. First the woman follows, then the man follows. It’s a balance between them, so they’re equal.”
The theater has blue walls and a blue ceiling with a sea motif — seats to the right of the entrance, a raised stage to the left, a black floor with a black curtain behind the stage and a red ceiling above. The theater had been built in the two weeks before the show by Rick Johnson, who takes tango lessons at the school and does construction in San Diego. His introduction to tango was like that of many others: “I saw the show Forever Tango with a friend and I liked it and I wanted to do it.”
On the walls were colorful ceramic sculptures by Joyce Schleiniger, an attractive Brazilian artist in her 30s whose biggest work in San Diego is a 34-foot ceramic mural outside the main entrance of the naval hospital at Camp Pendleton. She had been taking dance lessons at several different studios in San Diego but then switched to the tango in March 1999 and now dances it exclusively. “Samba is the Brazilian music, and that’s what I mostly listened to growing up, although my father was a pianist and he played tangos. But the tango is a lifetime dance. There is always something new to learn. When I was first learning the tango, I hardly heard the music, I only concentrated on the steps. Then once I learned them, I forgot them so I could dance.”
Her boyfriend, James Beck, started his tango lessons in the fall of ’99. “I started because Joyce was so caught up in it. It was either the tango or the relationship. A lot of dances are just social, but tango you can get a passion for. It’s amazing to have your body move in such a complex fashion.”
The evening’s show began with a sexy red-haired chanteuse in a black clinging gown, Liliana Binner, a professional singer of great charm, who cranked up the audience with her dramatic presentations of various tangos — “sad and alone is the night” — moving from anger to sadness, to desperation. She ended with a number from the musical Evita — another influence on the current resurgence of interest in tango — singing the tearjerker “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” from which Liliana squeezed every drop of passion, shedding quite a few tears of her own. Half the audience sighed, the other looked perplexed.
The 18 numbers that followed presented a full range of tango possibility, beginning with an ensemble piece of eight women, including Ludmilla, dancing to a New Tango number by Astor Piazzolla. Clearly, everything had been choreographed from A to Z, and as the evening progressed, the performances grew stronger. Most numbers showed off couples dancing together, but several were ensemble pieces, and a wonderful African-American dancer, Todd Martin, played a milonga on the flute and danced in two numbers. He, too, in talking about the tango, expressed an enthusiasm I’d rarely heard expressed for other dances. “I switched to tango because it gives me more freedom of expression. Like ballet or figure skating, you can do anything within its specific structure. When people discover the tango, it becomes like a second home to them.”
In general, the women were better than the men, although half a dozen men were excellent, but the weakest were tentative and seemed unable to keep their backs straight or exhibited a regrettable informality. They lacked the edge required of a tanguero, the intensity of a man engaged in a knife fight. Perhaps it is difficult for American men in this age of political correctness to break through to the world of the tanguero, who is never politically correct, or rather who follows his own code of correctness. Then the Simards closed the first act as they danced to a recording sung by the master Argentine vocalist Roberto Goyeneche. These two put the others to shame, although even Ive permitted himself a forbidden smile, perhaps a bad habit left over from his ballroom days.
“There’s a lot of optical illusion in tango,” Ive told me. “The music puts you in an hypnotic state, and you don’t know what you’re watching. And the other side is that it’s like a magician — the hand is faster than the eye. When the woman starts to turn around the man, the man is in the center. She plays a strobe-light action — you know what I mean? It catches your vision. So if the man passes a foot or leg across the woman, it tricks your vision and you don’t know what you see. You see things that do not exist and what exists you cannot see. It’s like watching a snake, you know, on a tree. It’s fascinating, ah? But when you stop to see the snake, you start to see the tree. And if the tree is not there, then the snake cannot exist and he cannot fascinate you. So on the stage we don’t fool people, but we have light, darkness, everything, you know? We can play with the tango and make it really magic.
“Everybody will say it’s natural to dance. Yes, to dance alone, to gesticulate. But when you put two people together, it’s not natural. When you start to walk backward, it’s not natural. When you say to a man, ‘Ladies always first,’ for many men it’s not natural. Because in tango the real follower is not the woman. What appears to be the macho element in tango is what we call ‘playing tango,’ ‘false tango.’ In real tango the man must learn how to think, the lady must learn how to wait. Tango is a company, an investment. Man invests himself without his ego and the woman invests herself without her impatience. And here is the investment of two. You know, it’s not us, it’s the third. It’s a trilogy. Now we talk about the tango, the real tango — before we were talking about the steps. Tango is in the third volume. Man is the beginning, the lady is the second, third is the expression. It’s the third person. We always carry the third person. It’s nothing to do with the man or the woman. The third person — it can be your mother, your mistress, your lover, it doesn’t matter. And we carry the third volume and we dance for the third person all the time — she’s there all the time. Man is the man, he faces the third. Woman presents and observes that he takes care of this person. It’s invisible — it can be the perception of yourself. Whatever it is, it’s the third formula and it’s the same space and same dimension as one of us. That’s the start of the reality of the tango. Apart from that, it’s just dancing, recreation.” Ive saw my look of mild bewilderment and laughed. Then he added, “Oh, our academy, perhaps it is not for everybody.”
Watching Ive and Ludmilla dance in Le Vaudeville, I saw no smooth, unbroken movement; rather it was a series of seeming rushes and dizzying changes of speed, abrupt turns and pauses as the piano, bandoneon, and violins swirled behind them. The direction could never be anticipated, nor could one anticipate when he would stamp a foot or when she would slowly draw her long leg up the back of his. If one were to map their movements across the floor, the result would look like a Jackson Pollock painting. One might think that a step that long, often nearly a yard, would be ungraceful, yet it seemed the height of grace. At times when she raised her leg, you might think she was writing her name in the air with the tip of her black shoe. Then in the last half minute of the dance, it got faster and their legs became a blur. It looked like a hundred-yard dash held in a barrel, but prettier. The crowd shouted bravo. The orchestra hit the last two notes. Ludmilla curved her right leg around the back of Ive’s and they froze in position.
In the early ’80s in Santiago, Chile, I used to go to a café — the Confitería Torres — that had been there for over a hundred years and had probably never been redecorated. Even the waiters in their long black aprons were ancient, and there were occasionally rats in the restrooms. They had tangos several nights a week. These were early nights because during those years of the Pinochet dictatorship there was a strict 11:00 p.m. curfew and afterward one sometimes heard gunshots. The five men in the band were all elderly, and the man who sang had begun singing tango in the 1940s. All had day jobs. The people who came to dance were also elderly because the tango was not a popular dance in Chile at that time. Rock and roll, salsa, cumbia — they were the big ones.
These old couples would creak and moan their ways up to the dance floor, but the moment the music began, their bodies changed. They were people who had been dancing tango for 60 years, and it seemed that when they danced, 60 years fell away. They were graceful, passionate, erotic. Even the incredibly bored waiters stopped to watch. And the women would do all the fancy leg turns; the men would keep their backs ramrod stiff and never smile. At the center of the room, even in a crowd, each couple seemed alone — so great was the depth of their intimacy. Then it would end and they would limp back to their tables and pisco sours, pat their dewy foreheads with white handkerchiefs. The room had a balcony and an extremely high tin ceiling. Around the wall at the top were painted sayings of Oscar Wilde in Spanish. One of them read, “I can resist anything but temptation.” The bandoneon began another tango. Perhaps it was “Vida Amarga” this time. The elderly, the halt, and the lame hauled themselves to their feet once again.
After the performance at El Mundo del Tango, there was a buffet and then dancing till dawn. Of the 160 people who had come to Le Vaudeville, many stayed to dance and a number of others would sign up for lessons. As the performances continue so does the school’s enrollment increase and with it the likelihood that Ive’s tango university will become a reality.
In a short biographical statement, Ive wrote that he saw his life as being about self-discovery and that he owed much when he was younger to his study of the Indian mystic Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. This seemed to be behind some of Ive’s philosophical ideas. So I asked him the connection between the tango and Nisargadatta.
“Tango contains what we call the tango moment, which is the moment of truth. It’s what we call ‘the right now.’ The tango moment is about staying all the time with your core in every present moment. That means with every beat that flows with the heartbeat, in every moment of every step. Indirectly Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj teaches tango; the tango in life according to the universe, seeing the life as an illusion, like the tango is for the viewer. When we dance tango it is a special moment. I will be rude a little bit here. You have a crowd and this crowd looks at you and you must give them pleasure by staying in the present moment and dancing well. By watching you they have tremendous pleasure. The thing is that it is an optical illusion, not reality. Let me describe pleasure in a strange way. It is like two people making love and there’s a crowd around them watching them. Everyone has pleasure, including the couple inside, but the only ones that have the orgasm is the couple in the middle. That’s about tango. Inside of the couple they live the real present moment and outside of the tango the viewer has the pleasure to observe the optical illusion of the pattern, which is nothing. Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj teaches the same thing of life. It’s a difficult concept to accept because the answer is you seek yourself to know what you are. In tango you dance who you are — nothing else.”
So that was that. My evening was at an end. Maybe I would dedicate myself to the tango, change my life, grow a mustache. I asked Ive if he had anything to add.
“Tango is the dance of the next century,” he told me. “It contains a universal message, which I believe is to find oneself. Emotion lives in the mind, feeling lives in the body — tango is emotion, not feeling. Thus tango is a road to self-awareness, self-liberation. The tango started as a way of freedom, and even now it teaches a person to live in the present by learning to follow three rules — one, quiet; two, humility; three, putting the woman first, which is very hard for the South American male because it requires transcendence. There is no success in tango. One dancer always requires the other and this demands humility. Openness, humility, discipline — you see how these are necessary. Tango is like a magic tool in that it drives everyone to themselves. There is a little quote: ‘When somebody is really ready, Señor Tango will make himself visible.’ Everyone has the tango inside. Most people just haven’t discovered it yet.”