Saturday, 31 December 2011

Hard Times - For These Times

Hard times. Harder times to come. Here in Britain, John Humphries, the voice of doom on BBC Radio Four has just confirmed our worst suspicions: 2012 is to be a harder year than 2011, and maybe the hardest year yet.

Of course we tangueros share a history of overcoming adversity. Born in the depression years of the 1920's in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the lyrics of tango described the most painful human hardships over two decades. These are the words that are woven into the tangos that we now dance. Our forbearers survived further economic depression and the rigours of military dictatorship from the 1950's for a further two decades. For half of it's young life, tango has been hidden, sad or repressed.

As dancers, we also know extreme hardship - of learning to dance Argentine tango. "It takes a lifetime and a half to learn to dance tango". Well, with so many of my years having been squandered in tango-less pursuit, I sense that even my reincarnation will struggle to get it right. Tango is a hard task master.

So, as tangueros, we are better equipped to face the rigours of life. A handful of pesos or pounds in our pocket, a pair of dance shoes in our bag, some music, a floor, and a smile on our face is all we need to press away the threats and fears, and to dance.

Leading up to Christmas time, as festive lights festoon the city, I attended the Newcastle Upon Tyne launch of Dere Street Barristers, my new chambers; and having an hour or so before the last train, what better time than to dance tango?

From the Castlegate Centre I drop down Pilgrim Street and Milk Market towards the Millennium bridge. The night air is clear and the city quiet, but for the calls of Kittiwakes that fly late in the city's sodium lights. The Quayside rests, awaiting the Friday night revellers dressed in tee shirts and tattoos. I do not linger, but head out east, in cooling air, along the Tyne walkways that will lead to Byker. Now, on the first bend in the river, the angular roofs of the Ouseburn Regeneration Centre point back towards Gateshead's Baltic tower. Fishing boats bob in the small marina and cables clink against steel masts. Then, the sound of tango - it filters across the rippling surface of the dock, taking me back to life in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires. Here too, is the soft glow of light from the Boathouse doors that open onto port decking. As I approach I see the dancers, slowly swirling in close embrace.

Andi and Angie have finished their Boathouse class. As I enter, dancers take to the floor again. It is D'Arienzo and their dance smiles. Together with music and soft light, there is the hint of cocoa and vanilla from Andi's brownies. It feels like home at Christmas.

The milonga is the cornerstone of Argentine tango, and has a familiarity across the world. Whether in Argentina, Uruguay, North America or Europe, similar codigos mark the milonga from any other dance event. Here too at the Boathouse, the milongueros cabeceo their partners and embrace each other, as they shall at a hundred other locations this night. But tonight, the Boathouse will create its own particular, poignant memory. Their arrival is like a simple breath, unnoticed save by those who rest between dances. Their first dance was like a seamless mix of mate into the milonga. Yet, for a moment they pause for a breath at the side of the pista.

Over the past few months, Julian y Tricia have kept step with the milonga, travelling across counties and arriving in autumn downpours or winter winds. Tonight is harder, with tango exacting a heavier toll as Julian struggles, but still smiles. "A change of cylinder will put air under my feet", he says as he snaps the connector and lifts the harness to his shoulders, before heading for the floor to dance.

This is the last time I will see Julian. It is his penultimate dance with his friends. Later, they leave as the last words of Miguel Calo's Jamas Retornaras sung by Raul Beron, drift across the pista. In seven days time we will mourn the passing of a brave tanguero, and the little Boathouse community that was so rich with his friendship, will be poorer with his loss.

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