Friday, 14 September 2007

La Rural, tango and leaving Buenos Aires

29 Aug 2007

The morning light is thin through the rain. A queue snakes from Plaza Italia out along Avendia Santa Fe towards Palermo. Men and women huddle under umbrellas giving the appearance of a long string of coloured beads. Closer, you see a combination of anticipation and resignation on the wet faces that wait whilst drops of water drip from the hoardings alongside 'La Rural'. We are standing for tickets. The mate´ seller has just wheeled his cart festooned with silver thermos flasks, each with a painted top to indicate its contents. For 2 pesos (17pence) I have bought a cup of sweet white coffee to stave off early morning hunger and cold. A small man in a thin, wet jacket, holding a fist full of pieces of paper, painstakingly hands a sheet to each person who will accept. It bears a poem about tango and love and loss in rain smudged typing that reminds of a tear stained love letter. The old man in front of me hands him a peso and pushes the sheet deep into his coat pocket. The queue starts to move, hesitatingly at first, then more quickly as I measure our progress against the second hand book kiosks that are opening on the centre island of Santa Fe. After 30 minutes a man dwarfed in an official jacket bearing the word 'Seguridad' directs me to an adjacent booth, and I now have my two tickets for the competition final in Salon Tango of the 5th World Championships. Stamping my cold wet feet I head off with other successful travellers for the subte and back to the city centre.

It is now 6.30pm. Stephanie, who has come to rescue my tango and sanity and I are the 39th and 40th in a queue which will reach 1000 or more. The atmosphere is so different tonight with thrill and excitement on the waiting faces, the grey morning figures replaced by couples and families who laugh and chat together. With a further flurry of rain, the first 150 people are admitted to wait in La Rural, a huge complex of inter-connecting halls and exhibition spaces. By 7.30 pm we secure our un-numbered seat on the massive tower of steps overlooking the stage. Here 1500 of us huddle together, our feet almost touching the bottoms of people in front. Those around us are drinking mate´and eating empanadas and cakes, laughing and pressing together like a single organic pulsating being. A slow hand clap from the good humoured sections way above us forces the show into action. The presenter announces the start of the final competition. Ripples of applause cascade out along the the stands. The first ten of forty competitors walk from the wings towards the stage. These are dance finalists that you would never have expected. There, tall amongst the first group, are Daria and Nikolaeva ( ), the Russian pair we ate pizza with after the show tango semi-finals. They look sophisticated and elegant. Behind are a couple from Colombia, both under 5' tall and dark, her skirt slit to the thigh, and in front two ordinary Portenios from the barrios of Buenos Aires who look as if they have just stopped off for a break on their journey home from work. Her plain skirt is fawn and his suit is baggy round the knees. But on stage, each of ten couples at a time dance themselves and the audience into small dreams.

The judging criteria for Salon Tango is strict. No showy steps, ganchos, lifts; no separation from the embrace; lots of contact with the floor; moves you would commonly find in the milonga, with the emphasis on walking, the hold, respecting space and re-creating the romantic contact of two dancers moving as one. Our Russian friends and the Australian couple from Sydney stand out as elegant and stylish against the preferred earthy style of the barrios. Back to the drawing board next year for them. We look with awe as a couple in their sixties slowly circle the floor. They have been dancing for over forty years together and relax, waving to friends in the audience between dance pieces. As the rounds unfurl, interlaced with tango bands, an exhibition from last years winners and a short film about tango, an unprepossessing youth in a grey work suit catches our attention as he dances with a girl in a simple black dress. His dance style is forward, his knees slightly bent. Their heads touch as they dance. Their turns slowly evoke an age of romance. I push a handkerchief manfully across my eyes to hide from Stephanie my tears of emotion as I watch transfixed by a sudden feeling of intimacy and heart-rending loss. Two hours later they will be the 5th Champions of the World, having lifted into ordinary life a simple dance of perfection, joy, movement and connection.

We are leaving La Rural for the last time. I still feel emotional as I take Stephanie's hand in the crowd. People around us are chatting and laughing, criticising and praising performances in rapid Castellano. I realise that it is not just the end of the competition, but the closing stage of my visit to Buenos Aires. Stephanie will leave within 48 hours and I will follow in 6 days. Leaving La Rural is like the end of a dream. The colours, smells, sounds, faces, friendships, touches, caresses of a city are melting like the crowds fanning out onto Avendia Santa Fe. From the warmth and noise of the throng we are stepping out alone, each with thoughts of our impending return. For me, a sense of loss, almost bereavement. Europe, for 6 months a distant thought, is now intruding into my mind. Family, home, work, colleagues, news, routine seem to be pressing to take their place in my thoughts, just as the Portenios drift away towards their homes and their lives. This will be my last blog entry to detail my time here in Buenos Aires. But for those of you who have followed my adventures I will try later to capture how my time here has changed my life. And who knows, may have changed yours?

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