Sunday, 7 October 2012

The Milonga Villages of Manhattan

You need to live in New York to get the feel of Manhattan's milongas. Richard Lipkin's great guide is one of the best places to start, giving you the facts: the days, dates and links to events around the city. Then, there are the well-blogged subjective views of which are the busiest, the best, the ones that attract young dancers, and the favourites of the older milongueros. Of course, these cannot really form the best basis for choice - one man's meat is another woman's poison. And milongas, by their very nature, change. This month's most popular milonga becomes next month's graveyard. Perhaps the organiser is away, or the DJ has moved. Maybe re-decoration is underway and dancers stay away.

Being part of the Manhattan milonga scene for such a short time, this blogger does not seek to pick between  RoKo at Manhattan Ballroom, Ukranian East Village, Triangulo, Tango Cafe, La National or Tango Lounge. Nor, in doing so, would he want to take attention away from the missing gems he failed to visit whilst in Manhattan. Rather, this blog will tell the generic story of Argentine tango on the island, focussing on 'feel' and atmosphere of the New York tango scene. For the rest, you will simply have to dance your way around Manhattan and decide for yourself!

Mid September is a great time for tango in Manhattan. During the summer months, when temperatures soar and air conditioning machines hum cold air into the milonga studios, the tanguero is trapped between heat and chill. As the season turns, and New York settles into autumn (or 'fall'), the condensing units are switched off or down, and a gentle breeze drifts down with cooler Canadian air. Past are the prickly nights when shirts stick, and arrived is that short rest between the heat of summer and the Arctic chill of winter.

With the departure of summer visitors, the milongas are returned to the New Yorkers, together with those from neighbouring states that travel to dance in Manhattan. A quiet time, but one still blessed with able tangueros who love to dance.

We arrive in Manhattan at that moment when the New York weather forecasters are on the alert for change. A jacket or wrap may become necessary, but not quite yet. Perhaps an umbrella is wise, as showers flick in across what moments before was a clear blue sky.

Before arriving, I had pictured Manhattan as being divided North-South. Perhaps it is, but the Manhattan subway map tells another story; as do the Manhattan villages. The real divide for the visitor is, of course, East-West. Subway lines 1,2,3, A,C, 4,5 & 6 all run end to end, giving quick travel (especially on express lines 2 &3) along the island. The East-West divide is both physical and cultural - although lines E, 7 and L give small relief and continuity for the tourist.

So, for milongas, take Richard Lipkin's links and map their location. Manhattan comprises 23.7 square miles, is 13.4 miles long and is 2.3 miles at the widest point between Upper West Side and Yorkville. Check and plan your route, and note when exiting the subway, which way to turn. How I wished I had taken my compass! Consider too, a laminated city street map - small cost for great convenience.

Check also your return route, and keep your 7 day Metrocard, and the free subway map obtainable from the ticket office, to hand. Returning home after milongas by subway is not that bad - they run throughout the night and are sufficiently safe for the careful traveller. As in Buenos Aires, avoid an ostentatious show of wealth. Use a 'false wallet' if you travel alone, and separate your possessions. Travelling to a milonga, you need little other than your Metrocard, dance shoes, a jacket, bottle of water, the entry charge of up to $15, and something for a drink. And if your shoes are in a shoe bag, they will have little appeal to the passer-by. 

Coming from provincial England, with only Buenos Aires milonga experience to contrast, I was amazed to discover how many milongas were set up amongst the twinkling lights of the high-rise towers. If you have charted your principal choices of venues, it is not a bad idea to check their location when passing in the day. Some appear quite obscure, and their locations may well melt into a multitude of doors and blocks after dark. Note that some entries may need a code or specific bell to gain access to the elevator, which will whisk you up to the 4th floor or beyond before giving onto a corridor concealing the milonga doorway. A preparatory visit, email, text or phone call may save precious minutes trawling the street and avoid asking passers by who may not even recognise the word 'tango'!

As you would expect, each of the milongas has its own character and interest. The tango community of Manhattan is not huge, so you will encounter some of the keenest dancers at different venues throughout the week. These are often the people to ask - they will tell you where the dancers are meeting and which are the current favourites. Our experience of local tangueros is just how helpful they will be in this regard - so ask, and keep your pen and paper to hand to note the advice. For those travelling alone, consider taking a plain card bearing your name - something that sounds pretentious simply reminds those who you meet who you are - and that often smooths the way. 

I should add a few words about tandas. Visitors from Europe will have been brought up with the codigos de tango where an invitation means that the full tanda will be danced. This is not necessarily the case in New York. Even some apparently experienced dancers will terminate a tanda after one or two dances, much to the concern or disappointment of their partner. How could they! This may well be the subject of comment elsewhere in tango-blog land, but forewarning is helpful for those encountering this for the first time.

The standard of dancing throughout Manhattan varies considerably from milonga to milonga. Some are sharp and smart - La National, Triangulo, Milonga Roko - others are friendly and more informal - Ensueno and Central Park tango. Remember that all venues contain both joys and disappointments - and that an evening of tango is just one night of lifetime. The emphasis on cabeceo is not universal, but wherever possible should be tried first. Leads should not approach followers directly without first making some eye contact, and followers should announce their desire to be asked by presenting themselves actively as dancers, rather than women who wish to chat together. As in Buenos Aires, the better tangueros will refuse the direct request to dance.

And so, let us leave the Manhattan milonga scene at Milonga RoKo, 29 West 36th Street. It is Sunday evening. The elegant studio is set around with small tables. The bar offers complimentary water and snacks. Here are young, sophisticated dancers, even numbers of leaders and followers, and some expert tangueros - perhaps this is the Milonga 10 of Manhattan? For a moment, we sit and watch the dancers, soaking up style and content - seeing the smart RoKo society in full flow. Yet, at one side of the dance floor stands a lone figure. He will be perhaps seventy, with a look reminiscent of Albert Einstein, his wild white hair and crumpled suit. As the Canaro tanda starts, he enters the pista alone, making his way safely to the centre of the floor, where he dances. The young and daring dance around him, whilst he - in a world of his own - quietly moves to the music. This is the telling link with tango past - the new styles, steps and fashions pass him by, relationships come and go, and he tells us what we really need to understand. 

Englishman in Central Park, Manhattan

Throughout the summer there is tango in the park - Argentine tango around Shakespeare's statue just south of Sheep Meadow in Central Park, Manhattan. We are now well into September, nights are drawing in, and autumn sunshine is low as we arrive from Columbus Avenue. Within an hour, dusk will have gathered and shadows of dancers will be cast by the antique lamp stands that surround the square.

The music of Di Sarli, gentle but rhythmical, drifts across the grass as we approach on the park road. We cut north from 65th Street Transverse and follow the sound. Ahead, tangueros already circle the statue. Cast by John Quincy Adams Ward and unveiled here on the southern end of Literary Walk in 1872, Shakespeare looks down from his lofty plinth onto a hexagonal paved square. Around the base of the statue is the bag park, piled with sacks and coats, safe within the dancers' reach. Surrounding the square are benches, perfect for the cabeceo, although experience will suggest that invitation takes the place of cabeceo as the shadows fall.

As advised, we have left our best dance shoes in Harlem, and try our older pairs on the textured square. It is not as challenging as it appeared, perhaps with the seasons' tangueros polishing a little more of the concrete pavers each week. With care it it 'yes' to the pivot, the inner lanes being smoother and relatively unaffected by debris from the overhanging trees. This tanda is Laurenz - so we take to the pista to join swirling dancers as the park's pigeons take to their roosts. Here is a gentleness, the lyricism of the music being absorbed by the evening as the sun drops far away west across the Hudson.

For those visiting for the first time, arrive with a distinctive bag (so that you can spot it in the pile), a wrap, a dap of mosquito repelant (not a major issue) and maybe a folding umbrella should the weather change. Here in the park, you are a ten minute walk from the shelter of 66th Street and line 1, or Columbus Circle at Central Park South. Most women wear heels, but if you dance in flats, that's fine. I would advise the men to leave their best dance shoes at home and to wear a leather soled shoe. Bottles of water are available, but best come prepared. Should you spot the empanada tray, dip into the dollars and enjoy an authentic taste of Buenos Aires in Manhattan. During the evening, a hat is passed around for such contribution as you can afford. The organisers have real costs and make such effort that $5 per head is always welcome, although not essential, making this, no doubt, your most inexpensive dance in New York. Another tip is to arrive early (before 6.30 pm) and leave late (at 9.00 pm). The early arrivals get to chat and meet other dancers - the very best way to assure you of later tandas with your chosen tangueros. The later part of the evening is the most magical - when you feel Central Park against the skyline of Manhattan, and the warmth of the swell of dancers before leaving into the darkness and head to Central Park South, the lights, the traffic and the subway.

Unmissable are the characters of the park that seem to drop by.

Here, a grey haired woman dances silently on her own, giving an impressive lead to her invisible partner. Her life, flair and style bring a strange dignity to the square. She dances patiently, interpreting the music with joy, before she melts into the shadows until the next tanda.

Midway through the evening the quietness of Calo's 1942 Jamás retornarás is interrupted by the arrival of a strange figure. Not a tanguero, clearly, but a dancer all the same, Central Park's most prominent transvestite appears with a flurry of swishing skirts. This is 'Carmen Miranda' meets 'Gaga'.

photo by                                                                     photo by Cornelis Verwaal

With red, green and yellow beard, matching poodle and African Grey parrot, Ms Columbia is a regular visitor to tango. I decide against a cabeceo, but Ms Columbia would have almost certainly rejected it, preferring to dance with the poodle. When resting, her parrot takes a break from the swirl of tango aboard the poodle who seems quite oblivious to his presence.

After Ms Columbia's departure (she does not stay long) and Canaro's slow milongas, the evening settles into the quieteness of an autumn night. Above us to the south, the lights of the Plaza Hotel and Rockefeller Centre beyond, glint and wink in the sky. A dark cloud looms and a little rush of night air spins the crisp leaves that scatter into little pools. It is the last tanda of the evening, we change into walking shoes, and set off towards 57th Street. It is as if we have stepped away from a perpetual loop of tango, the music fading as we depart. Whilst not a classic tango venue, we leave a place of individuality, of warmth and lasting memories that are Manhattan.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Tango in New York

This year, New York takes the place of Buenos Aires for tango. With the support and advice of our group of dancers who have recently returned from dancing in tango's second capital, we are off to see for ourselves. The next series of posts will detail what we find, the favoured venues and the unmissable events.

Of course, any suggestions you may have will be most welcome!

Friday, 15 June 2012

Voodoo Milonga Club

In April 2012 a small group of visionaries met at the Cantina Voodoo Cafe, Darlington. Among them were the cafe proprietors, Les and Kendra, and the tango dancers, Stephen and Stephanie supported by their tanguero friends who just love to dance.

This was the moment that gave birth to a new tradition: the Voodoo Milonga Club. The idea was to create a new milonga experience in Darlington. For inspiration, we gazed back to the 1920's in Buenos Aires, when the early immigrants to Argentina who danced on the stone flags of La Boca, first got together to hire a room. This was what we would do - a meeting place where everyone could sit, relax, eat, drink, dance, watch, meet, chat and chill. Yes, those who wanted to dance could get up and dance or take the early faltering steps that eventually fascinate and ensnare the would-be dancer in tango. And those who simply want to watch, or listen to the intricate, delicious music from the Golden Age of tango, could do just that.

With our dance shoes strapped across our shoulders, Stephanie and I walked the historic gates of Darlington - through Houndgate, across Blackwellgate into Skinnergate where, at number 84, the Voodoo Cafe announced its presence with the faint sound of tango. The tables had been pulled to the sides of the room and the warm glow of the bar cast intimate shadows into quiet corners. The scene was authentic 1930's Buenos Aires.

Dancers and watchers arrived, to be met with smiles and hugs. A tradition of Buenos Aires is the greeting - the most important part of genuine connection between two people. In Argentina, the hug is ubiquitous, and so forms part of the Voodoo Milonga experience. Colin and Joan, Catherine and Phyllis, Geoff and Corinne, Jayne, Morgan and Kat, Greg and Sarah were the early arrivals, taking to the floor, or simply chatting and watching. Voices of English, Spanish, Haitian Creole and French curled like smoke amongst the tango music of Rodriguez, Donato, Canaro, Biagi and Verela. Shards of light were created by the contemporary tango of Otras Aires, Bajo Fondo and Gotan Project.

So, what of the future? Our tango dream has taken form. The Thursday haven of beautiful tango music and dance is now a new reality. A place where friends meet, enjoy an embrace, share a glass of Malbec or Champagne, taste the flavours of burritos, chimichanga, feijoadas and fajitas. An oasis of Latin culture in the sea of turbulent English life.

If you dance, perform, sing, play or simply love to soak up the atmosphere of something new and entirely different, join us at the Voodoo Milonga Cafe. It will probably change your life.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Argentine tango....where?

photo courtesy of  john hennessy

If you think slipping from the Pennine clouds into Cumbria does not seem the proper prelude for a milonga... wrong!

Leaving my home in Darlington for the Pennines meant exchanging light rain for heavy mist which encircles my little Smart car and gives the feeling of being raised on a vortex of cloud. From the Stainmore gap and Brough, the high A66 road drops gently into Westmorland - despite its' geographic assimilation into Cumbria I still see this lush and gentle landscape thus. The Gypsy and Romany travellers heading for the hills with their horse pulled caravans are now behind us, and ahead is their destination - the town of Appleby, where a famous horse market is held each year in the late Spring bank holiday. Down below, curls of woodsmoke rise from the red sandstone chimneys of the tiniest cottages, and the rich, sumptuous fields of the North West open towards spring-green woodland and raindrops on tousled cobwebs.

My ultimate destination is Dalston in Cumberland, a small village tossed around a green, bearing that well-washed Cumbria feel. Down on the right is the Victory Hall. After the First World War, the worthy and wealthy Cumbrians of Dalston subscribed to the project, and by 1921 Victory Hall opened its doors for the first time. Then, and for the next ninety years, the mainstay of social life in this remote backwater was to be the village dance. This was where young men met the lasses they would marry, and where after the wedding they would celebrate by dancing.

Today, the dance is not the Cumberland Square Eight (do look it up if you are not familiar with it) but more remote - from 7,000 Atlantic miles away - tango from Buenos Aires, Argentina. As the Smart car nestles into the smallest of spaces to the right of the hall's canopy, the sound of 'Vida Mía played by Osvaldo Fresedo's orchestra slips beneath the double doors that give onto the main hall. Inside, already dancers walk easily and gently on the polished wooden blocks, and the smell of old curtains is replaced by the scent of fresh baked cakes and tea. Yes, this is Tango in Cumbria's tea dance.

The tea dance is one of the most special events you could conceive. Imagine a table laden with fresh sandwiches, home made cakes and scones. Add to the mix an aromatic Darjeeling tea and the clink of tea cups on saucers. Now finish the picture with the sounds of tango, a late afternoon blackbird singing, and the swish and swirl of dancers. And there you have it....the tea dance.

Francesca has entreated those attending to come as 'Monarchists or Republicans', but being England's most remote county, there is not a Republican to be seen. Queen Victoria is here, as is Prince Albert, the current Queen's grandparents. In their shadow, we are but footman and lady-in-waiting - but it is Francesca that attracts the attention. She is the 'Pippa Middleton of Dalston', her delicious curves shown to great effect beneath her micro skirt: "I shall have to wear less clothes next time"...yes, Francesca, yes.

Today, Philip, event organiser (no relation to the Duke), has skillfully created a piece of Buenos Aires in Cumbria. We change into dancing shoes, mine the Darcos and Stephanie the Comme il Fauts. Then to the floor, to be wrapped in Cumbrian romance and later satiated with carrot cake, strawberry flan and Earl Grey. 

As the last of the late Spring showers taps the windows, giving way to shards of sunshine through the clouds, the music ends, tea cups are carried tinkling away, and the tango embrace ends. Who said that you need to be Argentine to host a milonga? Well, Dalston proves you wrong!

Monday, 12 March 2012

Flor de Milonga

Colectivo no 10 tears along Chacabuco in the direction of Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo. I disembark at Carlos Calvo, the doors crashing to close, the engine screams, and the faces of the tired and weary stare out at me as they are propelled towards their homes in La Boca and Barracas.

With the bus departed, I am now strolling in gentle afternoon sunshine. Humberto Primo is quiet. A young couple sit on their doorstep, deep in conversation, an elderly woman sweeps her first floor balcony with a long handled broom, and the ancient, weather-beaten, unofficial parking attendant guides - with his grey duster - a rusting Ford Falcon into a tiny space.

My current destination is the bakery in Peru. There with a smile, and perhaps a free taster, I will be served with biscuits, bread and media lunas. Calling for fresh ground coffee (sin azucar) at the Chinese supermarket, I shall return home to El Sol, to relax on the roof terrace, observing the cloudless sky, with the sound of city below.

Today is Tuesday, and Tuesday in San Telmo means Flor de Milonga.

As my early readers will recall, on my first visit to Buenos Aires in 2007 I danced with Lucia at El Arranque. La flaca Lucia was described by the old milongueros as "their favourite tanguera". She started life as a waitress at a prominent milonga, but was soon in demand when the milongueros realised that she could dance...not just well, but without equal. Part of her fate -as a dancer - was then sealed. The other part was sealed by dancing with Gerry from Ireland, whose great charm was not to go un-noticed. They now share their lives and run Flor de Milonga together, assisted and enlivened by their playful daughter Michelle.

My tango shoes are strapped to my back as I slam and double lock the hostel's outside door. The air is cool, and darkness has dropped across the roofs of San Telmo. The streets themselves are never dark, unless shadowed by tall plane trees. I turn back towards Peru and within 5 minutes reach Avendia Independencia 572.

As ever, the milonga's secret is given away by the sound of tango, drifting from the upstairs balcony to the street. Just inside the doorway is the Flor de Milonga sign, and the staircase that ascends to the first floor studio. That sense of fascination rises each time I visit Lucia and Gerry's milonga. From the top of the stairs I see figures moving to music. Tonight the club is popular, but not too crowded, affording the rare opportunity to move on a milonga floor. Gerry greets me at the door, and Lucia blows a kiss. For those that haven't been to Flor de Milonga - this is a bohemian space that time forgot. If one could step back twenty, thirty years, Lucia y Gerry's forbearers would be circulating to some of the same tunes and dancing the same steps. There too would be the shadowy figure of a lone dancer in the corner of the room, and the pretty tanguera fastening her shoes. It is hard to imagine a trip to Buenos Aires without the Flor de Milonga magic.

I take a table by the pista and sip sparkling water. Her shoes, now secure, she accepts my cabeceo, and we dance. I sense the moonlight on the trees below the salon balcony. I hear a gentle breeze stir the leaves. And I am lost in tango as we dissolve amongst the dancers, seeking the secrets of Flor de Milonga.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

End and Beginning

Not the usual preparation for a milonga. Our mood is subdued. Mid-winter light fades early, and curtains are pulled to keep out the cold. The little Smart car slips across the Tyne Bridge out towards Heaton and the Dexter Grosvenor Dance Centre. Tosson Terrace in north east Newcastle seems the last place you would expect to find a dance studio, and the black door at the bottom of a steep staircase only discloses its secret with the feint sound of Argentine tango.

Tonight is the milonga dedicated to Julian Dockery's life of tango. Julian's last task for us was to choose the music that he would have chosen, and to dance to the codigos de tango that he respected. The lighting is soft, early dancers circulate on the smooth block floor, the tables are decorated with flowers and chocolates, and Tricia performs her last tribute to Julian's memory.

Dance teachers from across the region are here, Robin has donated his milonga evening; Miriam is the DJ; Andi y Angie arrive, together with John Paul; and later Miriam y Dante will perform. Now, Donato's 'Sombra Guacha' brings tangueros to the floor, their gentle movement silhouetted against a flickering slideshow of Julian's youth.

Audrey, Julian's mother, has come from the Cotswolds in south west England for the event. This is the most poignant moment for her as she watches the dancers that shared her son's life of tango - most strangers to her, but in another sense familiar as part of the tango family that surrounded Julian. Their dancing tells his story; moments of joy, of sadness, of friends and of loss.

'Quiero Vierto una vez Naz' by Franciso Lumato and Bianco Bachichi's 'Cumparasita' signal the end of the evening. It represents a passing, but also the embracing of another spirit into the rich life of the tango community that we love.