CHATTIN' UP: Ricardo, El Milonguero Viejo (whose last name I don't know)
Balding, slightly hunched over, and coming up to just below my eyeballs when I am in my tango heels, 84-year-old milonguero, Ricardo, would probably not fit the profile of an ideal dance partner in any other ambiance but this one. However, his clientele is skewed toward the attractive-under-50 set, a phenomenon that could only seem normal in the milongas of Buenos Aires, where the only requirement a man needs to fill his dance card is to dance well.
From across the room, his eyes meet mine, and he mouths, “Vamos?” I nod my acceptance. He walks across the room, and gives me the perfunctory kiss on the cheek before we embrace to start our dance.
Some may scoff at his limited repertoire. There are no fancy sequences, no acrobatics. Just a few simple steps repeated throughout the piece. For Ricardo, it is all about feeling. “One dances the feeling one has,” he explains, “You can tell when a woman dances without emotion.”
He has had over 70 years to perfect his ideas about tango, May 2008 marking the 70th anniversary of the first time he stepped foot on the pista. He has danced to the most famous orchestras playing live during the 1940´s and 1950´s. His longevity and popularity in the scene has earned him free entrance to many milongas, he notes proudly.
“We never took tango lessons,” he says, “We learned on the danced floor, making up steps,” Ricardo is one of the few remaining dancers who can remember what tango was like before it became a cash cow for the local tourism industry. Whereas most of the friends his age have stopped dancing, he still walks or takes the bus to the best milongas several nights a week, a practice he credits for keeping him spry.
One of the main draws of tango is, of course, the chance to embrace and be embraced by many women while dancing to beautiful music. A life-long bachelor, who has had a generous sprinkling of affairs and a couple of long-term relationships, he does not hide his enthusiasm for women, remarking, “I pay attention to women and what they wear. I even notice when they change their perfume.” When asked if he has a certain "type", he replies, "I've dated blondes, brunettes, all kinds. What is most important to me is the woman's skin." He adds with a roguish smile, "Como lo tuyo."
When he mentions how nice my legs are, I am flattered, but surprised by his compliment. Unlike many men who use the tango embrace as a prelude for more horizontal activities off the floor, he has only ever been the gentlemanly grandfather type who, in my mind, could never entertain such thoughts. But he shrugs and chuckles as he says matter-of-factly, “Eh, si, with those legs you should wear more skirts.”
I would call him a viejo degenerado, except that he's such a gentleman when he slips these comments into our 30 second conversations between songs. One can't help but giggle and blush.
Like the archetypal Latin lover, he appreciates women, but it seems his first love will always be the tango. As our set draws to a close, I ask if Argentine women have an advantage over foreign women when it comes to dancing well. “Bueno,” he says thoughtfully, “Not necessarily. First, you need a sense of rhythm, then you need ‘cadencia’,” the ability to feel the music and translate that feeling in the dance. “In fact, there are two foreigners who dance well,” he murmurs, “and one of them is in my arms.”
At 9 p.m., Ricardo is my last partner for the night, my enthusiasm for tango waning with every grumble of my ravenous stomach. For him, though, the night is still young and filled with the promise of more tango embraces.