Can you do the Yengue?   Leave a comment

Can Anyone Do The Yengue?
By Alberto Paz and Valorie Hart.
Published with permission courtesy of GOTTA TANGO. Have you bought your copy from us yet?

Although people have been dancing tango since the last decades of the 19th century, there is no solid evidence of how the dance looked until the first decade of the 20th century. The way people were dancing in Buenos Aires around 1900 somehow made its way to Europe, and something about the dance appealed to the hedonistic Parisian society. Drawings, posters, and photos from that era don’t tell how it was actually danced.

During those first two decades of the 20th century, a mythical style of dancing called canyengue is supposed to have appeared, taken the dance halls by storm, and then mysteriously disappeared without leaving a trace of how it looked. Not even the tango-crazy Parisians ever made mention of the word canyengue.

The word canyengue has two accepted definitions. One describes a streetwise and deliberate way of walking, with a lazy, and at the same time taunting, attitude attributed to some elements of society employed at the docks and slaughterhouses. The other one defines a rhythmic effect first attributed to a bass player named Leopoldo Thompson (1890-1925) that consists of hitting the instrument with both the free hand and the arc of the bow. Interestingly enough, there are plenty of recordings ranging from the time of the Francisco Canaro orchestras up to the compositions of Astor Piazzolla where the efecto canyengue (canyengue effect) can be clearly heard and recognized.

Yet there is not a speck of evidence about an alleged dancing style called canyengue.

We believe that folklore led to misunderstandings between those who told tales about loving to dance to the canyengue rhythms favored by many orchestras and those who confused it with the existence of a peculiar dancing style.

Further into the first quarter of the 20th century, tango in Buenos Aires seems to have been danced along social lines. The upper class embraced a sanitized version of the repatriated tango from Paris and made it their dance of choice at the Parisian-style cabarets. The disenfranchised class continued to cross-pollinate the tango with cultural nuances and traditions from every corner of the world that were represented in the city’s melting pot.

Sex, drugs, and tango happened way before rock ’n’ roll. Unfortunately there is very little evidence that can serve as a good point of departure for studying the evolution of the dance. Of course there are lots of mythological dancers, such as Casimiro Ain, who is purported to have danced for the pope, saving the tango from excommunication and eternal condemnation. Then there is Ovidio Bianquet, aka Cachafaz, who has been surrounded by an aura of supernatural dimensions. The only existing 30-second clip available from El Tango, the first film shot in Argentina, shows Cachafaz carrying longtime partner Carmencita Calderon in his armpit and frantically stepping around her. This uninspiring scene can only be associated with tango because of the sound track and, of course, the name of the film.

Somehow, a major transformation in the way tango was danced seems to have taken place in the late 1930s, although it is not clear what it was that was being transformed. We know that the music itself had undergone major changes since the 1920s. The generation that came of age toward the end of the 1930s had grown up in the wake of the Great Depression and witnessed the grief that the untimely death of singer Carlos Gardel had produced in their elders. Tango dancing had fallen out of favor and was declared dead in a historic newspaper headline.

From the many unheralded dancers of the time, Carlos Alberto Estevez, aka Petroleo, has emerged as one of the leading innovators who introduced the concepts of giros (turns), enrosques (corkscrews), and sacadas (displacements).

His nickname means oil, as in crude oil, because of the dark color of the wine he liked to drink. Estevez is credited as being one of the leading minds behind a new approach to tango dancing based on circular trajectories, which, structurally, form the foundation on which contemporary dancing is based. The emerging set of techniques was based on figures in which the woman moves around the man and the man trades places with the woman, using changes of front, displacements, and a new set of body positions.

Dancers from all over the city began to recognize that change was inevitable. Gradually they began to incorporate their own spice into the new luscious recipe. However, since one of the codes of conduct of the greatest tango dancers of Argentina is to shun imitation, it is important to take notice and underline the special talent and uncanny ability that are required to do things that others do, but better and differently.

Since the 1940s, those codes of ethics have led to the development of recognizable styles of dancing characteristic of various neighborhoods. Although to the untrained eye those styles may appear different on the surface, they are rooted in the same principles developed and perfected by people known mostly by their first names or nicknames like Petroleo, El Negro Lavandina, Tarila, Kalisei, Toto, and Mingo. What is significant about all these and other innovators is that they realized the importance of the woman’s role in tango dancing. They also recognized women’s intellectual capabilities in understanding the structure of the dance and their appreciation of the technical skills necessary for performing it at its best.

Bringing the wealth of oral knowledge that traditionally has been kept among friends and family into an organized written methodology takes a lot of effort, research, and actual experience. Being able to quantify, qualify, and further develop the valuable information acquired from the elders who witnessed and practiced the innovative aspects of the tango has been a rewarding journey for us.

We hope that the fruits of that effort will be preserved as a source of reference for future generations. Regardless of how many styles develop and how much people may try to modify the tango dance, the structure of the dance based on the concept of giros (turns) will always be a fundamental point of reference for understanding changes and what’s being changed.

Published with permission courtesy of GOTTA TANGO. Have you bought your copy from us yet?

Posted December 28, 2010 by Alberto & Valorie in Gotta Tango

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