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 Jam├ís retornar├ís 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.