In Buenos Aires, tango styles are both as varied to the palate and as plentiful as the various courses of the traditional asado (barbeque); for those accustomed to ‘nose to tail’ dining, the full palate may be gratifying yet for those unaccustomed to consuming offal, they are not. To say the least, it is an overwhelming prospect for the aspiring tango dancer to find a style and teacher to suit them in the time the dancer has to enjoy and immerse themselves in the dance form at its source and height of availability. Tango is a passionate dance and fast becomes a lifestyle for those who take it up, some will learn Castellano, take up an interest in Argentinian wines or history, others will engage in learning about tango music or choose world class dancers via the all-powerful YouTube to observe and approximate their own style from. My partner and I were the kind of avid tango dancers that took up all those options and more. We travelled to Buenos Aires for the sole purpose of immersing ourselves in the tango culture at its source. Luckily for us within the first few weeks of our six-month trip in 2012, we discovered a veritable chocolate sampler box of Argentine tango to help us on our way.
Having already been well schooled by the many tango dancers and teachers that had taken the pilgrimage before us, we knew that to discover which milongas (social dance gatherings) are running and gather the general timetable of the multitude of tango events available in the city, we should gather the newest copies of the free tango magazines that are published city wide. From there, social media networks needed to be established as the magazines printed timetables of milonga and practicá (guided practice) but not necessarily who would be teaching the classes traditionally run at the milonga prior to the milonga proper or which orquesta tÍpica will be playing where. Fortuitously for us, El Tanguata magazine was celebrating a significant publication birthday and was hosting a free two-day festival ‘inspiracion’ inclusive of short workshops with a plethora of famous and infamous tango dancers. Apart from the ridiculous difficulty of locating the venue and that we turned up on time to discover that time runs differently in Argentina, we waited literally hours before anything actually happened, this event set us up beautifully for engaging in a relaxed manner with many of our dance idols and discovering new ones. There were four significant highlights: Mariano ‘Chicho’ Frumboli and Juana Sepulvelda dancing live to Ruben Juarez’s Prologo Para Mi Argentina (which can be seen here), dancing with tango legend Juan Carlos Copes, the unbelievably talented tango comedians Eduardo Cappusse and Mariana Flores plus encountering the infamous Norberto ‘El Pulpo’ Esbrez (1966-2014).
El Pulpo, or Pulpo as he preferred, being quick to affirm that only his mother called him Norberto, was one of the most inimitable tango dancers in the history of tango. Even distinguishing between nuevo, or new tango, and the more traditional milonguero styles, Pulpo’s nuevo style was utterly unique. Here was a tango dancer who earned the nickname ‘The Octopus’ for his languid movements and specific leg entrapment style, renowned for dancing to non-traditional music with a glass of red wine or cigarette in one hand, see this link for an example of El Pulpo dancing to an orchestra playing a cover of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. My partner, had introduced me to El Pulpo’s style which he felt was impossible to imitate successfully without learning directly from the maestro himself, and there we were attending an event where we could have a lesson with El Pulpo face to face for free! It quickly became apparently that Pulpo was perhaps a little down on his luck, as we gathered for our lesson excited and more than a little intimidated we soon realised that there were only a few others joining the workshop. Optimists as we are this appeared very favourable for us but there was something in the way Pulpo reacted that demonstrated the disappointment known only by those that have previously known great success. Throughout the lesson Pulpo was patient, engaging, kind and enigmatic. His style, for me, was the equivalent of changing from aerobics to tai chi. My partner adapted better than I did but we both enjoyed the experience and decided to seek out Pulpo’s regular classes. I was not sure why we ended up connecting with Pulpo the way we did, there was something within both myself and my partner that Pulpo resonated with, but for whatever reason we had an incredible time getting to know the iconoclast of a man.
The night that was particularly memorable followed on from a tango lesson wherein Pulpo had raged about the state of modern tango culture, about how the political past had eroded yet strengthened tango and how the current period was deeply saddening for him. He then pulled out an audio cassette, outdated technology then, and played us something incredibly precious to him; a song from his father’s orquestra tipica. Pulpo sharing this unique moment with the class led on to his inviting everyone in the class to share a meal and attend a milonga with him. The cassette we later found out, was the only copy he had which he played sparingly, given that cassettes stretch when played eventually distorting the music. Pulpo’s history was rich with tango, both his grandfather and father had played bandoneon. His father’s music was one of the many victims of the various forms of political oppression in Argentina, the masters of many famous tango orquestras were destroyed in an effort to quash tango as a cultural-political movement, Julio Esbrez was one of the musicians whose music had been erased. Public milongas had also been banned during that time with tangueros risking arrest by meeting privately to continue creating tango music with potentially political lyrics and to dance. Pulpo told us how he never wanted to follow what had become the family tradition, he recalled being dragged to milongas as early as three years old, falling asleep to the sound of tango music and the hum of crowds. Being rebellious in nature Pulpo wanted to be a ‘rock star’, more akin to Elvis Presley than to Carlos Gardel, his father disapproved yet Pulpo made the most of both worlds becoming the defiant rock star thorn-in-the-side of the traditional tango movement; although he was also a exceedingly accomplished traditional tango dancer as well.
In Argentina it is tarde or afternoon until around 8pm which is the time when dinner menus become available in all cafes and restaurants, when our class had finished it was still tarde so we agreed to meet later at Villa Malcolm, a hugely popular tango nuevo milonga venue. Milongas start late and run late, often the lessons at the beginning of the evening start at 10pm with the milonga beginning around 11.30pm and running until the small hours of the morning. Nuevo venues tend to have a broad spectrum of age groups present, though prominently younger to middle age dancers, etiquette is more relaxed in comparison to the traditional milonguero milongas where women and men sit separately with a special area set aside for couples who wish only to dance with one another. At a nuevo milonga women and men sit where ever they wish although the all-important cabeceo was still adhered to, albeit not as strictly, say if the room was too dark for eye contact to occur, or the layout of the room made eye contact difficult. It is a major breach of tango etiquette at a milonguero milonga to ask someone to dance in any other manner than the cabeceo – which is the art of seeking eye contact with those you are interested in dancing with, both women and men seek out eye contact but it is traditional, and still considered correct protocol, for the man to initiate the nod of the head to request the dance, the woman responds positive or negative and if it is positive usually the man will then approach her and guide her onto the milonga floor being careful to negotiate around the couples already engaged in dancing. This is a subtle art designed so that neither woman or man are humiliated if the dance is declined, although the bravado of the older men who are more common at the milonguero milongas did astound me. I was disinclined to dance with one man whom I dubbed ‘Argentine Magnum PI’, as his similarity to Tom Selleck as Thomas Magnum was uncanny, at my subtle disinclination to dance with him he made a loud joke with the men around him that the women were ‘playing hard to get tonight’.
At Pulpo’s request a large table had been set up at Villa Malcolm where the group could order dinner from the attached kitchens and dine. Pulpo did not dance but ate and poured drinks from one of the large beer bottles that Argentinian’s so enjoy sharing. We wanted to purchase a drink for Pulpo, a gesture that is common in our home country, but he refused as he considered us his guests. Pulpo then, somewhat ironically, pointed out that despite his reputation for being a wild drinker he was consuming cerveza sin alcohol – zero alcohol beer. He then explained that he had diabetes, which is why he didn’t drink and why he had, as he described them, ‘bug eyes’. I danced a number of tandas, a set of four tango songs in the same style which it is customary to dance the entirety of with the same partner, through this first phase of the evening. Many of these were with Mario, who is a gentle bear of a man, a nuevo dancer and tango teacher in his own right who was also a long-time student of Pulpo’s and deferred to him as a maestro. When he first asked me to dance I was hesitant, he took this in his stride and patting his opulent stomach joked that perhaps I was afraid he was too big and heavy to dance and proceeded to prove that he was both light and dexterous on his feet. My partner danced a number of tandas with Pulpo’s current dance partner, this connection seemed more like an apprenticeship where the dancer received one-on-one tuition in exchange for assisting Pulpo in his classes, who was an accomplished tango dancer from Germany. My partner and I also danced together, enjoying one of the best tandas we had ever experienced on the milonga floor.
Pulpo spent most of this period of the evening talking with both my partner and I divulging his life story. He discussed the pressures of growing up in a tango family and explained more in-depth about the politics of tango and how having forged a name for himself he now hid things, like how he no longer drank alcohol, because people then asked too many questions about his health. His health, he admitted to us was poor and he was about to embark on an American and European tour in the hopes of recovering some of his former glory and, importantly, to make some money. What Pulpo didn’t want the tango community to know was that he was suffering from complications with his diabetes and needed a liver transplant which he could not afford nor was he very high on the public waiting list because of his age. I think perhaps his state of introspection might have been why he opened up to us so much. We were somehow a safe pair of ears that he was able to divulge his truth and secrets too as we were not a part of the Buenos Aires tango social circuit nor had we come to him ignorant of the subtleties of tango culture. We, like Pulpo were aware of and lamented the central issue within tango politics; Argentine Tango having been recognized by the government as being a national cultural icon worth of heritage status was a ‘catch 22’. Because of this, tango has become a commodity, not just within Argentina but internationally, meaning every aspiring tango dancer/teacher we met was plying for trade or more importantly saw us a potential ticket into the overseas market. This made it difficult to establish the authenticity of each teacher and made it important to be discerning and cautious. The market was flooded with such teachers.
As the milonga wore on Pulpo and Mario decided to head to the iconic milonga Parakultural at Salon Canning. At this point we discovered that Mario’s day job was as a taxi driver. As Mario said working as a tango teacher he still had to make money to put food on the table. Pulpo, his dance partner, my partner and myself all piled into Mario’s taxi and made our way across the city. Mario crooning at the top of his lungs to the tango songs on his car stereo system. We had been to Salon Canning before but to arrive at a milonga with Pulpo was an entirely different experience, for one there was no charge at the door and everyone referred to him as ‘maestro’. The other elements were subtler, waiters were more attentive, and locals intrigued by who was at Pulpo’s table. When Pulpo eventually danced with his dance partner they were watched attentively. The following tanda she was immediately beset with dance requests and Pulpo lamented that people ‘always wanted what he had’, this outburst seemed to leave him disgruntled and subdued. Pulpo did not dance with me publicly which I was somewhat relieved by, as I simply was not proficient in his style, nor would I have welcomed any more attention than I already currently had. Even dancing with Mario, who was well known, meant that there were attentive eyes taking in our dances, although it was satisfying to hear the elusive compliment ‘¡eso!’ uttered by a native tango dancer at a highly reputable milonga.
Pulpo recovered from his darkened mood and he and my partner resumed conversing intently, being of a similar age they had many commonalities to discuss. Pulpo compared himself to the American rock singer Kid Rock saying that the song ‘Born Free’ surely must be written for him. He lamented the festival where we had met him, reminiscing of the time when there was an entire festival devoted to his style and the proponents of this style were called ‘Pulpitos’. We discovered, although we often attended milongas until the very early hours before hunting out one of the 24hour cafes dotted around the city to refuel before heading home, that Pulpo didn’t seem to need much sleep. We parted when the milonga ended near dawn but as soon as we arrived back at our apartment Pulpo was sending us messages both to check we had arrived home safely and inviting us to join him at his apartment for breakfast and more dancing. We needed sleep so did not take up the offer immediately laughing (ironically) as we were convinced we had adapted to the milonga lifestyle better than most. Shortly after this night Pulpo embarked upon the first leg of his international tour only to end up hospitalised. For the next two years he was in and out of hospital. When the Buenos Aires tango community finally learned of Pulpo’s condition they rallied to raise funds for a liver transplant, sadly before the operation could occur, on 16 July 2014, Pulpo succumbed to liver disease. In Pulpo’s last conversation with me he was in hospital and when I asked how he was he simply said he was like a motorbike with no reverse gear, only ever going forward, signing off by saying we were beautiful friends and always in his heart. We may not solely dance Pulpo’s iconic style, but we were both were deeply moved by our connection with this exceptional tanguero who will forever be an inspiration in our hearts.