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The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis
Usually you have to go to a dance recital or see a movie about an old fashioned dancehall to begin to understand the lure of the tango. But author Carolina de Robertis puts that passion into words in her rhythmic The Gods of Tango, a pulsating, gender-bending tale of love and power. Here she tells us about tango’s lifelong hold on her and her writing.
The tango has been with me ever since I can remember. As an immigrant growing up in three different countries, with roots in faraway Uruguay and Argentina, tango was always the music of my distant home. My maternal grandfather, a pharmacist by trade, used to compose tangos in his spare time; the sheet music for one of his songs, “Nunca Te Olvidaré,” hung framed on our kitchen wall.
The tango I knew best as a child was “Fumando Espero,” a relatively obscure song that was the favorite of my paternal grandmother, an Argentinean poet who died when I was seven. In the years after her death, my father used to sing it around the house, off-key, giving voice to the story of a woman who smokes as she waits for her lover to arrive. I was always struck by the raw sensuality of the song, which seemed at odds with the prudishness of the cultures that surrounded us, first in Switzerland, and later in the United States.
In the U.S., the tango is known primarily as a dance, one which has been flattened into predictable stereotypes by Hollywood’s portrayals. Yes, the tango is a dance, and it can certainly be erotic, but it’s also a great deal more. In ríoplatense culture—that is, in the combined culture of Argentina and Uruguay—the tango is hallowed and embraced as a core piece of the region’s identity, a musical tradition with a history as rich and significant as the history of jazz. It rose up from the great cauldron that was Buenos Aires at the turn of the twentieth century, in which immigrants from throughout Europe blended sounds with those of the Afro-Argentinean community, rural gauchos, Uruguayan transplants, and Cuban sailors to forge something entirely new—something full of desire, yes, and also grief, longing, exuberance, and an aching beauty that transcends words.
For all the beauty of the dance itself, it is the music of the tango that made me fall in love with it so deeply that I had to write a book about its origins. When I hear the bandoneón—that accordion-like instrument with the velvet wail, so intrinsic to the tango—a part of me feels simultaneously transported, and at home.
Stretching the definition of tango beyond the dance also lets in far more of its intricate history. In Argentina, the most famous name in tango is not a dancer at all, but a singer and film star, Carlos Gardel, whose untimely death in 1935 is still marked with elaborate festivities to this day.
In the 1920’s, with the rise of tango singers, some women such as Azucena Maizani responded to the machismo of most lyrics of the time by dressing in drag to take the stage. These gender-bending trailblazers are often relegated to the footnotes of tango history, even in Argentina; I was stunned to discover them after a solid year of poring over scholarly texts. Their stories only corroborate, for me, that official histories have been too full of silences for too long.
Naturally, I couldn’t fully research this book without venturing out onto the dance floor myself. This was not easy for me: as it happens, I have two left feet. I took a few classes in the United States, and then studied the dance more deeply in Uruguay, where I lived for a year and a half during the writing of this book. My marvelous private instructor, Darío, not only taught me how to dance, but awakened me to the history of steps, including the subtle differences between Argentinean and Uruguayan tango styles (the latter retains more of its black roots). With Darío, I learned to open my body’s listening centers so that, together, we could glide not just through space, but through the music itself, becoming part of it, merging for a moment with its radiant heart.
But my most beautiful experience with dancing the tango was my very first one. It was in 2007, on a visit to my relatives in Buenos Aires. At the time, I was researching my second novel, Perla, and the seeds for The Gods of Tango were not yet in my conscious mind. My cousin Diego took me to an underground milonga (or tango dance club) at 2 a.m., just as the crowds were beginning to gather. The milonga was in a windowless warehouse, with no wall hangings or curtains for the stage. By three a.m. the place was packed to the gills with hip young Argentineans, dressed casually in tight jeans or simple skirts. There were no tourists in sight, no red flowers in any woman’s hair. The focus was not on the outer trappings of the tango, but on the thing itself.
Diego patiently taught me the basics on the spot, and we danced, our bodies bumping against the couples around us, keeping our moves to a constricted space, as is common in popular milongas. I stepped on his feet; we laughed and kept dancing. The air was hot and delicious, so thick you could almost swim in it, vibrating with the live orquesta’s thrilling sounds. I didn’t dance well, but the night was perfect anyway. I was inside the tango; I was home.