by Kevin Carrel Footer
When I arrived in Argentina in the early 1990s, all the tango dancers were septuagenarians.
Or so it seemed.
They were grandparents and pensioners and widowers. They had aches and pains and afternoons free. I remember going to a milonga at Salon Canning in 1994 and being the only person in the room under seventy.
Surprisingly, this did not perturb me. I was excited by this strange, new world and, in any case, I have always looked forward to knowing the future incarnation of myself as an old man. I guess I was just born old. One day, I imagined, I would be like them, dancing tango to the end of my days.
That afternoon at Salon Canning while I was sitting at my table eying my potential septuagenarian dance partners, a couple on the dance floor stopped in front of me. They wanted to tell me how pleased they were to see a young face at the milonga. (I was almost 30 at the time.) They were excited and fussed over me, wanting to know my story, how I had gotten there, where had I learned to dance? Did I know, they asked, that tango was not only a dance but a way of life?
I did. That was why I had come to Argentina.
These two people had lived it. They came up during the Golden Age. They had danced to all the great orchestras playing live for them. They knew in their blood of tango’s power to create beauty and transform ordinary lives. They had seen it all. The boom… and then the bust. They had watched with infinite sadness as tango was pushed back into the margins of society (where it had come from) as rock and roll swept the world.
Today they danced at decrepit ballrooms whose ancient plumbing has reeked of piss since the first day I set foot in them and reek of piss still today. (I’m looking at YOU Confiteria Ideal and your stingy Gallego owners who have let you fall so far.) They danced every week in the company of friends who — like tango itself — were getting old and dying off.
When these people died, they knew that no one would be left to even say what tango had once been. Sure there would be the old recordings and photos and some movies, but how paltry all that would be compared to the experience of a milonga. The codes and glances and attitude that gave tango its spiritual heft would be forgotten. And once it was forgotten it might never be found again.
Which is why they were so glad to see a nearly 30-year-old face looking eagerly across the dance floor searching for that septuagenarian woman who would share her tango wisdom with him.
This story has a happy ending.
Tango did not die. Though it looked to be on its last septuagenarian legs in the early 1990s, the forces that would save it were already busily at work in the world. Tango Argentino was doing its magic on stage, igniting a fire that would sweep tango to the furthest reaches of the planet. (I don’t know if anyone has danced tango in outer space yet, but it is certainly only a matter of time before two astronauts meet out there and, chatting over Space Food Sticks, discover that they share a common passion in their off hours when they are not doing calculus.)
If I could have predicted all the things that would resuscitate tango in the coming decades, all the people who would contribute to the making of a Second Golden Age, no one would have believed me at that poorly-attended milonga, and certainly not the couple who paused their dancing just to tell me that it was good to see me there. It didn’t matter how well or badly I danced. What mattered is that they saw the fire in my eyes, a fire they knew so well.
As long as that fire burned in eyes like mine, they knew tango would not die.
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As an American tango dancer who is pushing 70 and has spent time in BsAs with my dancer husband who got me into tango, I was very happy to see this. Sadly–and oh, so ironically–at most milongas both here and there, a Woman of a Certain Age often has a problem, as tango seems to have reverted to a youth culture. Even when we sit apart from our regular partners and know the codigo, it is difficult. Old eyes sometimes do not catch the cabaceo. Younger men seem only to want the even younger women who still can wear 4 inch heels and execute the most complex nuevo moves or do hybrid dances, not salon. Few milongas start at a time suitable for retirees, especially here. We find ourselves dancing less and less. And wondering what those people will regret missing.
Marti, many thanks for your thoughts. I think it is the modern world that is youth obsessed and that inevitably affects the tango scene. However, tango is old (not only in years but in spirit) and its deepest secrets, I suspect, will only be revealed to us sometime after 70 — when we are at last ready to receive them.
Yes, indeed. I enjoy watching the couples even older than we are dancing. There is something deeply moving about that. And I hope younger people see it in us as well.
Tango – unlimitless passion, one way trip, addictive pleasure! Thanks Kevin for writing about it. It´s so satisfactory to see so many young people embracing it!
From what I´ve seen and still witness in the milongas, young people would pick up ´salon´ or ´nuevo´ and so they look technically nice and professional.
Yet, I´d rather stick to ´milonguero´ style and enjoy the nearness of the dancing partner, the silent ´marca´ of the man and decode it so the whole tanda becomes a 6´ romance. 🙂
Exactly, Matu. That’s the essence of tango — that connection between two people in a close embrace — from which everything else derives.
I was sharing some of my frustration about lack of dance floor time with two North American women friends, one a tango dancer, the other not. (Thanks for letting me vent, by the way!) As we described the quirks of the tango subculture, the non-dancer asked, “So why do you put up with it?” We tried in vain to explain the utter joy of the expression when it works, the sense of sensuality without sex, the equality of the respective gender roles in the actual dance. Words, of course, failed.