Sunday, July 15, 2007

CHATTIN' UP...Hector of Cachirulo on Milonga Seating Strategy

444 Maipu. Saturday night at Cachirulo, one of the best nights of tango in Buenos Aires. The tables are about 3/4 empty when we arrive at 6:30 p.m., our usual time, and there are a few couples taking advantage of the free space on the dance floor. The red curtain opens and closes, regulars and tourists, couples and singles come through and wait as Norma, the benevolent "anfitriona" (female host) exchanges the entrance ticket for a raffle ticket. Up for grabs in a few hours is the usual bottle of champagne. We don't stick around for that, as 9:00 p.m. is dinnertime for both of us (and goddess help the person that comes between me and my hungry stomach). Still, we manage to pack in our tangos, milongas, and valses with our usual clientele in a short amount of time. We're efficient that way.

Hector, always elegant in a suit and tie, his few strands of gray hair in place, greets us with arms outstretched, and he tells my partner to sit in his usual seat in the primera fila. Then he takes me by the hand and leads me to my seat in the primera fila, a few seats to the left of center. I had a seat right smack in the middle of the row for a long while, but, because the smoke from my neighbor was killing me, I requested a seat next to the non-smoking ladies a little farther down the row. Thankfully, it hasn't affected my dancing at all, as I'm still sought out. Now that the non-smoking ban is in effect, a move back to my original seat could be in the works, but then I would miss talking to my neighbors, which is part of the fun, so I may just stay where I am. Whichever spot I choose, though, that spot will be my regular seat. I will be able to count on that seat having my name written all over it even BEFORE I arrive. It's MINE, MY PRECIOUS...

I asked Hector about his organizational strategy, if, indeed, he had a strategy, as the seating arrangement causes a lot of consternation among many dancers, both Argentine and non-Argentine. A few Saturdays ago, I witnessed a tall blond woman, who was obviously not a local or Argentine, tell Hector that she didn't want to sit in the back. She wanted a seat in the primera fila, anywhere up front where she could be seen. Another woman I know would not pay the entrance fee unless she knew where she was going to be seated first. What gives, Hectorcito? Give a lady a good seat, will ya?

Oh, if it were only that simple, dear grasshopper...

Listen, he said, the primeras filas are reserved for A) those local regulars, who keep the food on the table YEAR-ROUND, and not for tourists who come in for a few weeks or months at a time; and B) those local regulars and regular foreign visitors who dance well. Those who fall in the second category include two fabulous Italian women who come here for 2-3 month dance stints, who come faithfully every Saturday during their stays, and who are very popular with the gentlemen.

He admits that that there are local regulars in these coveted seats who don't dance as well as some of the tourists, but they are at his milonga every Saturday night, don't cause any fuss, and are also popular with the milongueros. Then he pointed out another regular visitor from Italy, fresh off the plane and sitting one row back from the front row of seats. He said, "That woman dances very well, but I had to put her there because the women who usually sit in the front row will get angry and not come back if I give away their chairs." When those who have permanent seats leave, like my partner and I, Hector has them already reserved for those who come in with the second wave of dancers between 9:30-10:30-ish.

But what about the extranjeros/as who live here and who are STILL given crappy "ubicaciones" (locations, or, in this context, seats)? Well, that has more to do with the quality of their dancing than anything else. Frankly, they may just not make the grade. I use myself as an example. I used to get so frustrated with the seating politics. I was an OK dancer, AND I was young and pretty cute, for chrissake. That had to count for something. However, I found that I had to earn my spot by working on my dance, which was humbling. And they watched me improve, and with that improvement came my seat.

And they are probably watching you, too. I see Norma watching people's feet all the time at Cachirulo. It's sort of unnerving when you catch her doing it, but I understand now why she does it. Hector goes to El Beso on Thursday nights, not only for the ambiance, but also to watch the dancers, many of whom will be going to his milonga.

As I said in one of my first messages, it's about the bottom line. Popular male and female dancers draw more male and female dancers which, therefore, brings home the bacon. Mmmm...I love to hear that bacon sizzlin' myself, so one can hardly blame him.

The worst thing a woman can do when she is given a seat that's not to her liking is to get pissed off. At the very least, ask calmly and and respectfully, if there is any way the host would consider giving you a better seat. If he or she will not relent, then accept what is given to you, or leave (This second option will probably do more harm than good, by the way.) If you accept what is given to you week after week, month after month, and you take classes to improve your technique, and, still, the dancing gods do not bestow upon you the place which you feel you deserve and/or a night filled with wonderful tandas, then perhaps you should consider that this particular milonga is not for you. Perhaps the level of dancing is just too high for you at the moment, and you need to reconsider other milongas where the dance level will allow you to dance and have a good time...which is the whole point of coming here in the first place, right? Why be miserable?

Think about Darwin's survival of the fittest. The baddest-ass animal is going to get the first and the biggest bite. Cachirulo is a place where good dancers from all over the world, who care about the dance and not just steps, go to dance with good dancers who care about the same thing. This milonga is VERY difficult to break into for the average-to-below-than-average dancer who comes into town once a year and who is relatively unknown. It is even more difficult for the aforementioned dancer to break in if he or she is unattractive. BUT it would be a VERY good opportunity for a dancer to sit and watch the dancers, which is an education and a pleasure in itself. I learned a lot this way: feet placement, abrazo (embrace) styles, embellishments.

Please keep in mind that the seating arrangement you see at Cachirulo will probably be different from the arrangement at Canning, or El Beso, or La Viruta (Thanks, Elizabeth.). Each dueno (pronounced duenyo...can't figure out how to get the little doohickie that goes over "n") has his or her own criteria. So, as the Good Book says, the first will be last, the last will be first depending upon the milonga.

And that, my friends, is the law of a jungle called Cachirulo.


Elizabeth said...

Dear Tango Goddess,
This is great information, really useful and it helps to create a bit of understanding about Why things are done a certain way. It is very much appreciated! We plan to make a trip to Argentina at some point, when the time is right, to be with friends, to dance.

There are Argentines living here (in the Pacific Northwest) who are trying to get people to do the cabaceo (sp?) at their lovely Sunday afternoon milonga. It is hard for us (for me anyway) to actually get it. It comes from a place where contact is made in subtle ways, with the question and answer with the eyes. I just feel relief when someone just moseys on up to me and says "Ya wanna dance?". Ther relief comes not just from getting a dance, but from things being familiar, the way we do it here.

Anyway, it seems we are having a pretty interesting cultural exchange with the current tango scene.

I wonder if your description is typical of the milongas in Argentina, or does it vary quite a bit? I thing sitting women and men seperatly is a good idea. How else to be available? Having couples at tables as we do here (mostly) slows the process of getting a collection of good partners. People are unsure at first, if one is free to accept a dance.

Your entry really is a "Survival Tip" and I look forward to more. I guess the body image stuff is too, just knowing a bit about how they focus on it. Not that I can really address it for myself other than staying fit and healthy, and just continuing to feel, and to seek, beauty from the inside.

Tango Goddess said...

Elizabeth - I totally understand why women get angry when they get a crappy seat. I have a good seat b/c I've managed to work my way up the foodchain, but that's not to say that I have a good seat at every milonga. At one milonga, the anfitrion (host) who KNOWS us from Cachirulo put us pretty much in the back row. What gives? I had no clue. Apparently, we just don't rate. After we got into a huff about it, we calmed down, had our lovely tandas, and then vowed never to go back again. We got upset, because we're proud, but we also have to accept that this man is the owner of this milonga and has his own seating arrangement, and, therefore, we must suck it up. BUT, we also have a choice to suck it up a second or third time. We just choose not to. Hmph!

Some people in D.C. where I used to live introduced the cabeceo in their milonga, and people resisted and, ultimately, it reverted back to people inviting people directly, which definitely has its bonuses. Like you, you know, I just hate feeling like the dorky kid eating alone at the school cafeteria, and, unfortunately, that's not just a metaphor (I sometimes wonder if I'm still going through my awkward stage.) Frankly, I LOVE the freedom of walking up to someone and asking them to dance a la americana. I am WOMAN! Usually, at least in D.C., we rarely turned down an invitation because we would feel badly for the other person. Not so here, your cabeceo gets ignored, and you just have to deal. But also, if I, as foreign man or woman in BsAs invited someone directly, my ego would be pretty much pummeled from all the rejection. There are people who are "bien educadas" and "mal educadas" (well/poorly mannered), and those that invite directly are disdained.

However, not all milongas are alike. I know of 2 off the top of my head that are more relaxed. One is runned by a foreign woman-no big surprise there, La Vikinga, I think is her moniker. Another milonga at La Viruta is pretty much willy-nilly, and is probably the result of it being a predominantly "young" milonga, meaning more people in their 20's/early 30's doing open figures, and less traditional, closed-embraced tango. It gets dangerous, though, as people there don't really pay attention to the line of dance or where they're doing their ganchos (hooks). From my experience dancing salsa there, it's pretty unpleasant and rather claustrophobic. There are also several milongas that are made up mainly of couples, in which case, it would be mal educacion to cabecear (sp?) someone who is obviously paired up and sitting at the same table.

The cabeceo is still frustrating sometimes. Besides the whole rejection factor, there are other variables that you absolutely can't control. Like other people's heads in your way by accident or worse, on purpose, which really burns me up. Then there's the lack of vision factor: the dim lighting, the distance, forgotten contacts or glasses. In general, though, I've gotten used to it, and I've come to really appreciate its face saving attributes. Who likes to be rejected out right?

You just need to get over here and experience it for yourself! Take care, and happy dancing! TG

David said...

It pays to know your waitperson. Patricia would take care of me at Los Consagrados and give me a good seat but the guy at Salon Canning had me cooling my feet at a table near the door and against the wall.

Tina said...

Is Hector his name? Cool, I was trying to remember what it was -thanks. :-)

Wow, I must have been very lucky! :-) Cachirulo is one of my favorite, favorite milongas in the whole wide world.

Mi Amor and I ran into Hector in the street one day, and he recognized us and asked us to keep returning to his milonga. I just thought he was being nice and I didn't realize how important this was, and therefore didn't quite understand why Mi Amor's chest got all puffy with pride afterwards. Now I know! Great article.

I think my stroke of luck with that place is due to being taken there for the first time, by Mi Amor (who is a porteño) and our old milonguero friend, who is a regular and naturally knows everybody there. This of course meant conversing with Hector, which I think served us well in the long run as it got us right on his radar.

I too remember Norma watching people's feet - and I think Hector has the waiters and waitresses watching too. I received a compliment from a waitress, after which I was on Cloud 9.

If I'd shown up all alone that first time, I don't know how it would have worked out. I like the layout of that venue and I really don't remember any terrible seats though, so I probably would have just gone with the flow.

Tango Goddess said...

I think it's strange how the whole "ubicacion" thing seems to get blown out of proportion, but it can really make or break your experience of the milonga.

I definitely think, as David said, you should work your waiter if you can, if he or she does the seating arrangements. Once I started over tipping at Canning, I've had a nice reserved seat ever since. I could take a Canning sabbatical for 3 months and come back to my place. It's a nice feeling. The waiters at the other milongas I frequent don't seat people, so I'm at the mercy of the dueno.

In the end, I try not to take anything too personally, but, still, a little recognition in the street and ego stroking is always good!