Thursday, 19 March 2015

Interview with Stephanie Rose, tanguera

As an English barrister, I have spent a professional lifetime questioning people. However, here is a new dimension - my first interview here in Buenos Aires. Who better to choose for this attempt than the lovely tanguera Stephanie Rose, partner in tango, in Buenos Aires, and in life.

Stephanie, some readers will know you first hand, others through postings here, and countless tangueros through a tango embrace. Can we start with your tango journey? How did tango come about for you?

I have always loved to dance. As a child it was ballet; back when living in South Africa, I used to compete in Latin American dance - cha-cha, rumba, paso, samba and jive; and since then dance-exercise. It was whilst in South Africa that my best friend introduced me to Argentine tango. She invited me to an Argentine evening at which two old milongueros danced. It seemed so different from all of the dances I had known, but little did I realise then that later I would turn to tango as my main life interest. When we met in 2005, Argentine tango was the only appealing dance that was not already owned by either of us, and so that was the inevitable choice.

Who helped you most on your tango journey?

That is a really difficult question, for each teacher has played their part. My short introduction was with Tanya and Howard, two English tangueros, but soon after starting classes in 2007 I took my first visit to Buenos Aires. Here, Mariel Robles - then assistant director at DNI was pivotal. She instructed me how to breathe and to relax - probably two of the most overlooked aspects of learning dance. My most loved UK teachers are Miriam y Dante. They taught me back in England, and are inspirational. I believe that their future will be the most exciting in terms of both teaching and performing. Back here in Buenos Aires, Hector Corona y Silvina Machado are a perfect choice. Currently, Carolina Bonaventura at 'Mariposita' is providing my 'annual reconstruction'. She is awesome! Lita who works at Mariposita also provides huge support through her técnica class.

Have you taken classes with any of the famous names of tango?

I don't believe that Argentine tango is about famous names. Over 7 years I have taken classes with Pablo Veron, Geraldin Rojas, Miriam Larici y Leonardo Barrionuevo, Daniela Pucci y Luis Bianchi, Murat y Michelle, Michelle y Joachim, Oscar Casas and others. They have all been impressive, but for me tango is really experienced on the floor of a milonga, preferably here in Buenos Aires.

What for you is the most important aspect of tango?

The music. It is the key to every dance, but never more-so than in Argentine tango. I listen to tango music at every opportunity, I do housework to tango, I relax to tango; and have learned to identify the orchestras by their unique style and composition. For me, tango is really that of the 'Golden Age' - from the 1920's to the 1950's. Yes, it is a small window, but one full of fabulous music played by some of the most experienced musicians of the time. To play in the orchestras of D'Arienzo or Demare players needed to be at the top of their game in a tight market of instrumentalists. The old orchestras played seamlessly together - they probably performed every night of the week so they would know their fellow players as well, if not better, than their families.

After the music is, of course, the embrace, and as someone who has danced all my life, the expression of the music through movement.

What do you look for in a leader?

Musicality - of course! Like most followers, I am not impressed by the catalogue of steps that a leader may have acquired in classes, but am totally drawn in by his musicality. I love a leader who experiences the music, and shares this through his lead; who plays with the music and who creates surprises and challenges. They say that 'tango is a feeling that is danced'. The feeling should contain the unexpected, so long as it is faithful and true to the music. I would love it that leaders learned this lesson at the outset. Followers don't generally want a leader who competes with other leaders, and certainly not one who competes for attention with his partner. We want sensitivity, expression, generosity and the safe opportunity to dance.

You make regular visits to Buenos Aires. Why do you keep coming back?

There is something totally special about dancing here in Buenos Aires. It has a different quality from Europe and the USA. I don't get to dance with the most expert tangueros here (except for Oscar Casas), but some tandas - especially those with experienced milongueros - are sublime. Perhaps it is something in the culture; or maybe that they have simply 'lived' tango - something that you observed in one of your blogs. When a milonguero whispers the name of the orchestra in your ear, takes you into close embrace and leads you effortlessly in a tanda, you realise that you have arrived with tango.

Where next for you with tango?

I would love to continue to improve my technique; especially to work on my connection with the floor and my partner. Carolina has been inspriational in this regard, reminding me of some of the most essential aspects of tango and dance that get overlooked. When I dance, she spots the precise moment that my foot touches the floor, how I make the step and where my balance is at each moment. It is hard work, but then - that is tango for you!

Will you still be dancing tango in 10 years?

I have been watching some of the more mature tangueras (as well as the older flamenco dancers - another dance passion of mine) and love what they do. In fact, dancers are like good wine. If they have well-constructed technique, and continue the discipline of practice and learning, they simply mature - developing an unassailable complexity that cannot be replicated by the young. It is a special quality. That is where I propose to be, if I can. But I hope you are not suggesting that I will be too old to dance tango!

What advice would you give to beginner followers, and those at the start of their tango journey?

Unlike many other dances, Argentine tango requires a high level of commitment and application. If all that you want to do is to get round the floor with a regular partner at a social dance in Europe, that is one thing. But if you want to receive everything that tango can deliver, it is necessary to develop a softness, accessiblity and responsive to the lead and to the music. Get to the milongas and watch some of the best tango partnerships - find someone who you really admire - and dedicate yourself to learning exactly how they respond to each other. At the risk of repeating myself, listen to the music. Bear in mind that, for you, every tanda is a new start; and stay positive about your dance.

This interview took place in Buenos Aires in March 2015 - at Peru 735 and Café Rivas, Balcarce, San Telmo.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Freddy's for lunch

On the eve of a birthday trip with Miles to The New Brighton - rated twelfth in TripAdvisor's top restaurants here in Buenos Aires, is it strange to blog about Freddy's?

Saturday afternoon; Stephanie and I walk the length of Bolivar to the mercado, turning left to Carlos Calvo 471. There, nestling under the side of the market, is Nuestra Parilla (otherwise known after it's owner as 'Lo de Freddy').

For this special gastronomic experience it is necessary to be unconditionally hungry and dressed down for street food. Freddy's is not a restaurant, but simply a small incision in the market wall containing six high stools, a shelf, and some of the best cooked beef, pork steaks, and pork sausages in the capital.

Our options, with prices from 25 to 60 pesos, were choripán - chorizo sausage sandwich, morcipán - blood sausage sandwich, bondiola - pork shoulder, or matambre - beef flank steak. We chose the latter, wrapped in crusty white bread, covered in red chimichurri or green garlic and onion sauce, and washed down with a litre of pale Palermo - a light Argentine beer.

Sitting at the shelf with our perfectly cooked hunks of meat, it is easy to see why the word 'matambre' derives from the words 'kill hunger'. To our side, the wall is covered with slips of paper, 'postits' and signed photographs of visitors and patrons. It seems that the whole of the national football team have eaten here at some stage. Each message tells the story of a sated moment of complete satisfaction. Accompanying the food is the floor show, with portenos arriving, departing and simply calling by to chat with Freddy. Outside, a group of San Telmo children play with a market kitten, and an old Ford Falchon rumbles past on the paving sets. 

So, should you find yourself at that point of hunger that requires urgent support - forget the restaurants: make for Freddy's, and enjoy one of Buenos Aires' most evocative gastronomic moments.

Monday, 9 March 2015

How to dance and how not to dance Argentine tango

If you have not already tried to dance Argentine tango, you are probably reading this to get some tips. If you consider yourself a tanguero, you will be here most likely to examine the audacity of a writer and 'some-time dancer' to opine on the subject of tango.

Argentine tango was once the preserve of those few porteños that kept the dance alive through nearly three decades of challenge - when dancing tango was difficult to sustain here in Buenos Aires, and elsewhere neglected. The 'Golden Age' had been and gone, and tango awaited a new injection of artistic energy.

Now, teachers from Buenos Aires have been joined by those in the provinces, and flood across North America, Europe, the Far East, the former Soviet Union and up into China. Each teacher has spawned their own family of dancers and teachers, and tango has become 'world property'. Visit every city in Europe, and most towns, and you will find a tanguero or two dancing some derivative of tango.

So, what is the point of this blog?

Returning as I have for my fifth visit to Buenos Aires, involving over fifteen months of life here, I am still no tango expert - more of a keen observer where aspiration exceeds ability. But I have come to realise one important point: to understand the real implications of tango, you need to experience it here.

The actual mechanism of experience is less important than the fact. Whether with a handful of ancient milongueros at El Arranque on a Tuesday afternoon, or amongst the beautiful and magnificent at De Querusa Practica or Zum at Club Malcolm - the experience informs you about a feeling, one rarely recreated elsewhere.

Here, I am not focussing on that moment of connection experienced by the fortunate and able during a milonga. Nor do I include the point when what has been taught comes seamlessly together within a tanda. For me, the feeling arrives from being amongst those that are not first generation tangueros, who have grown up with the language and music of tango, and in whose soul it has 'genetically' lodged.

Buenos Aires tangueros do not, by any means, deliver the best of tango method. Look carefully at the technique and lightening responses of some of the world's professionals, and you will see technical and aesthetic brilliance. But here, tango represents simply a dance that people dance, and through which they express over a century of collective experience. Tango is certainly different from cooking or football - yes it can be exported, but it owes an essential part of its character to the bario from whence it came, in which it grew, and to the milongueros that danced it.

Young tangueros here in Buenos Aires understand this only too well. Picture the milonga glistening with youth and talent - where technique and energy combine. Enter then, a pair of ancient milongueros that take to the floor to exhibit. A silence falls, and the most talented of the best watches with hunger. It is because they, like us, know that they are to experience a part of their history that will inform their present.

So, how to dance - and how not to dance tango? For that, you will simply have to tell the boss that you are away for at least a month, buy the flight, book the tango hostel or apartment, and come. Until you do so, and feel the spirit of tango in Buenos Aires, this posting will remain an intractable mystery, and you will be missing out on a fundamental point of connection of true Argentine tango.

To learn from the milongueros' favourite tanguera, 'La flaca Lucia': "She lives and feels the moment" - Pocho y Alito at 6.15 time elapsed; go to

Sunday, 8 March 2015

San Telmo Sunday

Sunday in Buenos Aires is a most relaxing day. Traffic halves - and slows from a gallop to a trot, particularly the taxis that coast at walking pace looking for fares. Avenida Independencia is almost deserted. Gone are the trucks and deliveries, the pick-up and drop-offs, the honking horns, the blaring radios. Even the colectivos have a relative calm as they slide the calles without racing the lights.

Defensa is closed to vehicles; and is now a sea of humanity - the traders and performers, the ice cream and empanada vendors. On one side hand made jewellery and leather goods are spread out on bright cloths their makers sat on kerbs, low stools or haunches; on the other, the table stalls with deep awnings for shade. Here is every variety of tourist, from North America, Europe, China, Japan and of course the other states of the south. Occasionally, an English voice will penetrate the hubub and we will discretely look away.

Today is the day for a specific search. I descend the calle from Plaza Dorrego, leaving behind the ancient tango performers who have danced together on the same worn piece of hardboard at the same corner for two generations. Their mature daughter joins them now to support and share the performance burden, but the death of just one parent will mean the demise of this particular tradition. The antique stalls give way to tables of scarves, bags, incense burners, carved wooden figures; and to the street performers.

Just beyond Dorrego a slight Porteno in his early 50's breathes life into a wooden puppet which collapses drunkenly against a miniature lamp post. Further, the 'Spirit of Carlos Gardel' stands on a crate to sing. He, like many of the performers, has been at this same spot for decades, his grey hair contrasting with the black brylcreem of a creased Gardel poster.

I pause to greet Alvero, who makes and decorates didgeridoos with Inca patterns and animal designs. He smiles widely and greets me in Castellano. I am yet to see him make a sale, but he always exudes joy and energy. I want to shout to the crowd "Buy a didgeridoo from my friend" until I remember that, for some reason, I too am yet to buy one.

It is after midday and the sun is intense. Passers-by strive for the shaded areas of pavement, others move leisurely between the canopies over the stalls. The older traders display deep indented lines on their dark tanned faces and hands - a sign of their time on the street. To my right now is the parking yard, in weekdays full of cars, but today full of diners sat at small tables eating beef from the parilla. Towards the rear, a band of musiciens folklorique play a zamba.

In Defensa you are never far away from tango - a song, a dance, an apron embellished with the word, the playing of a CD from an open doorway. Later, at Plaza Dorrego, the square will be transformed into an open air milonga, the dancers treading carefully across lose-taped matting to a slow tango or vals.

I slip unnoticed from Defensa turning to my left and into Bolivar, joining again the slow passage of two taxis and a motorcycle. Here, a porteno shakes a mat from a balcony, a dog barks, and a roller shutter grinds to a close. Two young lovers sit on a step, their eyes glued together oblivious of my passing. Ahead, the lights change to green and the rush returns for a just a moment - but like a breath, to be followed by a San Telmo Sunday pause.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Explosive Sunday

It is Sunday 1 March here in the centre of Buenos Aires. The clock crept past nine am with the first explosion.

Some appear near - perhaps Avenida 9 Julio - others more distant, high into the city. The force is such as to set car alarms ringing across the bario. The little court yard garden oasis below the apartment quakes, and palm leaves rattle with a sudden surge of air. Our humming birds have taken fright; their scarlet flowers nod and wait.

From deep in San Telmo, it is not possible to see the full context, but this is the day designated for the Presidential counter-demonstration. Whilst last month's silent walk for Nisman had been a massively popular and dignified affair, with Portenos taking spontaneously to the streets, this is altogether different. Here, none of the mature groups, the families and the old. In their place those, incentivised by expectation, brought to the capital federal in government-funded coaches. The contrived degree of organisation presents a political chimera. Where else, but Buenos Aires, would determined choreography of government-support, present anything but pathos?

The explosions continue, and do not seem to recede. Nearby, a baby cries and now more distant cracks and explosions make a previously sleeping city jerk into a political wakefulness.

Yesterday, Portenos on the street spoke of much resentment towards government policies, especially those of the President's initiative. Argentine Pope Francis is criticised as failing to speak out, suggesting that the current government stay its term. His words, no doubt wisely wishing to avoid the instability of political revolution, are seen by the people as an affirmative nod to current political interests.

Today, their views are confirmed, rather than dispelled. The huge firecrackers, the size of small buckets, like a circus elephant, cynically draw attention, but not real support.

On 9 de Julio, the tired and unemployed spill from hot buses into the bright sunshine. Some of them have been brought 300 kilometres from Rosario at dawn and are so exhausted that they rest against the concrete walls. Banners are unfurled, and thin burgers and slices of water melon are handed out to the hungry - the offer of free food having been used as a further incentive to many who have nothing.

Television footage in the nearby café shows the President speaking dramatically to Congress from the presidential chair. She denies complicity in the killing. She contends that support for her is rising, based on the value of bonds - for which it appears the English courts have jurisdiction.

A short flash of rain means retreat back to the safety of the apartment, leaving the political stage to others. What is clear, is that nothing is quite as clear as it seems.

Argentina Independent 3 March