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A learning experience in Buenos Aires

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By Enrico Massetti

Date: Mon, 3 Nov 1997
From: Enrico Massetti
Subject: A learning experience in BA
During a business trip to Buenos Aires, I decided I wanted to learn tango, not as a tourist passing by, but rather as a true native Argentinean would have done. I started by not calling the friends that had offered help in telling me where to go, who to contact, and where I could find the best milongas, I rather preferred to ask my Argentinean colleagues I was going to meet and work with, none of whom is a "tango fanatico", to organize for me evening training sessions, after work, as they would do themselves if interested in learning tango. They, of course, contacted some of their local "tango fanatico" friends to find out the best place for me to go, the same they would have done for a "porteno" friend or colleague.

This is a brief summary of this learning experience organized by my colleagues.

The first day lesson was in a beautiful museum in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, a very nice and unique environment. I had a private lesson with Osvaldo, "el professor de tango", before one of his standard group lessons (with a group of Argentinean men and "damas"). In effect initially I was admitted only to the first private lesson, as an evaluation, an exam, to see if I was at all fit to be included in the group lesson. Two colleagues that came with me, two Finnish engineers, did not even make to the dance floor for the private evaluation (wrong shoes, no leather sole, you MUST know this fundamental before even thinking of learning tango!).

I tried unsuccessfully to show what I knew, only to be told (without words) that this is not how it works over there: "el Profesor" is in charge, he showed me a couple of basic steps, asked me to dance them by myself, then with him, then with his wife, then with his son (a 25 years old professional tango dancer), then with his son's partner before deciding that I had enough knowledge to be allowed not only to touch, even to come close to, any of the portenas ladies in the group lesson.

During the group lesson, he was always in charge, assigning me to a different partner: as soon as I mastered the steps with the new partner, a new one was coming. He did it with me, but he was doing the same at the same time with all the other members of the group, as he was aware of the individual level of each of us and was mixing us in every possible different way, always telling what he was expecting from the assignment. For example "this dama does not understand "las marcas" (the commands with the right hand), you have to make her understand it". It was a very fascinating and unique experience, kind of having 20 private lessons going on at the same time at different levels, I never saw anything coming close to this in any of the many group lessons I had in the States before or after, but, of course, Osvalvo has something like 50 years of experience with tango.....

Oh, by the way, this was preceded by a "special assignment" I and another gentlemen received: we had to dance back ochos with a closed door for at least half an hour, and at least until we had learned how to dance them well (supervised closely by his wife).  With all those beautiful portenas around, I guarantee you that this was the best incentive to learning fast that I ever had in my school life!!

I know that many of you could have been annoyed at the arrogance of the professor I studied with, and could consider that doing ochos on a door for a half hour is beyond necessity (well... maybe it was 5 minutes, but it was an eternity for me), but I was not annoyed at all, in effect I found that the first hour of lesson with Osvaldo taught me many basic concepts of tango (in Argentina) than any of the hours and hours of training I had before or after in the States never did.

I don't mean the steps and the mechanical part of it, I mean other concepts, such as the respect for the "dama", the effort a leader has to put in before even thinking of approaching a lady, which comes from this respect, are just some examples you can understand from the above.

Perhaps it is a matter of cultural background, I was raised and educated in Milan before the '68. Osvaldo is ten years older than me, and I felt perfectly comfortable with his "authoritarian" teaching approach, as it reminded me of the authoritarian education approach I had as a child.  In effect now we are very good friends, as I don't see anything wrong in recognizing and following his "authority" in TANGO.  At the same time I can understand that the same approach could be shocking for somebody raised and educated in a different more "libertarian" environment.

After this learning experience I understand WHY the Argentinean males were rehearsing between them before going to a milonga and inviting a "dama" to dance.

From the above story you could have the impression that what I got from Buenos Aires is the idea that for a man, tango, the Argentinean way, is only a duty, and it's no fun at all. This was exactly how I felt after the first day of training, but Osvaldo, with his experience, had all well planned ahead! He left me with this impression for an entire night and one day, so I could have the time to get it (it's hard to teach new tricks to old dogs....), only to add the fun part of tango during the second day.

During the second day group lesson, Osvaldo, with just one phrase pronounced in public to the entire group, in addition to fixing a lot of problems with my posture, let me understand what it takes to feel like an Argentinean, and not only how to try to look like one. He gave me a key on how to feel the pleasure to learn and dance tango: "senti el placer de aprender y baillar TANGO" is the title of his training video he sold me, and it's his motto on the advertising fliers.

He gave me also a powerful tool to easily improve the posture and the dancing of my partners, as well as to make them feel much better after the dance.

What did he say?

He stopped the entire group and, pointing to the girl that he had used for my private lesson with him, said "mira la chichita, es muy bonita, es un placer de mirarla" (Look the girl, she is very pretty, it's a pleasure to look at her). When you look at a beautiful girl, and express admiration, you cannot do anything but assume the correct posture...

Anonymous BA taxi driver: "el tango se bailla con el corazon y la cabeza"
(you dance tango with your hart and your brain - Hart first, brain second).

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