Posts from the Pampas

Dispatch #7 — Last Tango in Santa Clara

One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard was from my cousin AJ. “If you want to be popular with the girls,” she said, “learn how to dance.”

I came of age in the 1960’s in New York City. For most boys, sports were everything. Our heroes were Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. In fact, Whitey was one of my early nicknames, not because of racial connotations but rather due to my almost white hair.

From our perspective, the way to impress girls was through athletics. Dancing, we believed, was for sissies. So, from an early age, I developed an aversion to dancing. It only hardened over the years.

I would have been better off had I followed AJ’s advice. But it was not directed at me. It was given to my son Sam, who was 16 years old at the time. I was already in my late 40’s. As Judge Peter Buckley would say to us in Court, that ship has already sailed.

So, when Joyce excitedly told me that there was a place in Suardi for tango lessons, I was unenthusiastic at best. How did she find out about it? Well, she was in Bargilini’s supermarket one afternoon when a well built man in his 40's approached her. I heard that you like to dance, he said. That’s true, Joyce responded in surprise. Well, he said, there’s a tango group which meets every Friday night. Really, she responded. And so that Friday, with substantial reluctance, I accompanied Joyce to the dance session.

It was held in the town’s community center, a small converted brick train station. The instructor was a trim, muscular dark haired man in his late thirties, outfitted in a loose pair of pants and a dark T-shirt. He and a sweet sandy-haired woman, who had just arrived on her motorbike, showed us two basic sets of steps. The first was easy. The second wasn’t. In it, the man bookends the woman’s foot with both his feet. Then the woman slowly drags her foot up and across across the man’s calf. We practiced the steps both as a couple and with some of the 15 or so other dancers there.

Joyce, of course, had a great time. Much to my surprise, I found it tolerable. Well, maybe I even liked it. How much is the cost, we asked. 280 pesos (about $14) for a month for both of you, he responded. Okay, we’ll pay. No, he replied, next time.

This was a different approach than my parents encountered in the late 1950's, when my mother dragged my father to an introductory dance lesson at Arthur Miller Dance Studios. Maybe she was inspired by their ubiquitous television spots or their printed ads.

Each of my parents danced with an instructor. Afterwards, the instructors commented that my mother a good dancer, but it was my left-footed father who held true promise. My father was a sweet man but not an idiot. My parents never returned.

Okay, back to Suardi. In the days after that initial tango meeting, Joyce and I practiced what we had learned. The first set of steps was no problem. The second was an utter failure.

We returned the succeeding Friday and were instructed again in set number two. More dance steps were taught, including one in which the woman sharply kicks her foot upwards between the man’s legs. This one made me quite nervous, considering that most women were wearing stiletto heels.

This second tango session was mentally stressful. I had to concentrate so hard on the steps that I almost had a headache. When we tried to pay at the end of the session, the instructor once again refused payment.

The following week, we traveled back to Santa Clara de Buena Vista. Our friend Claudia told us that there would be a tango show and asado (barbeque) Saturday night at the sports center. We bought the tickets, which were $12.50 each.

The sports center is a cavernous cement structure which doubles as an events venue. It is located across the street from the home Claudia shares with her mother Leonor, an active 72 years old. Upon entering, I thought we had stumbled into a synagogue — most people in attendance were in their 70’s and up. We sat at table number 5. Our group of ten did have one young couple (in their fifties).

The event started at 9 pm. Unlike other group gatherings in Argentina, you didn’t have to bring your own plates, silverware and cups. They were provided! The drinks included the standard fare in Santa Fe province — Clasico 1895 wine (that’s the brand, not the year), the ever popular Sierra de los Padres orange soda, and seltzer dispersed from a plastic contraption. Ice was provided in translucent quart containers which once held wonton soup. (Well, probably not. A Google search turned up only two Chinese restaurants in Santa Fe Province, which has a population of over three million).

The custom is to pour some red wine into your glass, add ice and then dilute it with seltzer. (For any oenohiles who are cringing, I suggest you try the drink… of course, only with 1895 wine).

We passed the first hour chatting with the others at the table. Amelio, an 80 year old Santa Claran, was the warm-up act, serenading us with tango tunes. He bore more than a passing resemblance to Christopher Walken.

Then the tango show began. It featured couples of varying abilities. Perhaps the most popular pair were two formally attired five year olds. The girls wore the pants, figuratively speaking. The various couples tried to ignore not only the occasional meandering street dog but also the urchins who delighted in sprinting across the dance area. The emcee provided the vocals.

One couple was particularly impressive. It turned out that the woman in green is not only the mother of the young boy above but also a dance teacher.

Shortly before the kitchen staff brought out the highly salted pollo asado (roasted chicken), a young man approached me. Between the sound of the music and his Argentinian Spanish, I had trouble grasping what he was saying. The Argentine dialect is hard enough to understand in a quiet setting, let alone an expansive concrete building with loud Argentinian music. In it, the y consonant sounds, which are frequent, change to an sh sound. For example, the word yo (I) changes to sho. I motioned Joyce over for help. Her take was that Antonio, the head of the tango program, wanted us to dance.

That seemed improbable to me. No, obviously the tango director wanted to talk with us, as few foreigners visit this area of Argentina. (The other night, we asked a woman for directions. You’re from the US, aren’t you, she asked. Yes, we responded, quite surprised. Oh, she went on, I remember seeing you on television last month. She was right; we did a 45 second interview at the local high school).

So we went backstage. It quickly became apparent that Joyce was right. We’d like you to dance the tango, Antonio said. Only for two minutes. Two minutes, I thought. How could we last two minutes? No, I responded, you don’t understand. We’ve only attended two tango sessions. Oh, he said, it doesn’t matter. We’ll rehearse now. And, after considerable persuasion on his part, I agreed … to thirty seconds. We did some steps backstage, Joyce with Antonio and me with his wife Patricia. Patricia wanted to practice the stiletto castration step. I declined her generous offer.

Upon returning to our seats, we heard the emcee utter the words “Estados Unidos” and we knew he was referring to us. This struck us as strange. Was he in on this dance deal? Apparently not. He approached us with the microphone and asked us to speak to the crowd about our visit to Argentina. I went into my regular riff (all true) in Spanish about how much we had enjoyed our stay in Argentina and how friendly the people had been. Joyce added some additional platitudes. The 150 or so guests seemed please with what we said; we don’t know whether they could understand us.

We later returned backstage for further practice. Twenty-five minutes, Antonio said with a smile. I didn’t know whether he was referring to when we would go on stage or how long we would dance. I assumed the latter. Ten seconds, I countered.

And after some more songs by the emcee and additional dance performances by various couples, Antonio and Patricia entered the dance floor. The emcee called our names a second time. We rose from our seats and joined Antonio and Patricia.

The emcee launched into that Tango classic Por Una Cabeza (By the Head of a Horse), a meandering song about tango, passion and betting on the ponies. And with the able guidance of Antonio and Patricia, we managed to stay out there, sometimes dancing, sometimes shuffling along, for two and a half minutes.

You don’t believe it? Well, look at the two pictures below. If you want to suffer through the 2 1/2 minute performance, go to

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0ZyOCCS9f8

(By the way, this was the first time I downloaded a video to youtube. I was very impressed with the intuitive nature of the site, which listed the video under comedy category).

And then, basking in the applause from the crowd, we returned to our seats to finish the rest of the meal. We stayed until 1 am. Leonor rolled in around 3 am. The event concluded at 5 am.

Returning to our bedroom, I did not find Maria Schneider. And Joyce did not find Marlon Brando. Well, you might say, they’re both dead. And so were we.