Scene: Interview with Graciela Gonzalez at her home. I met her at the final milonga for El Pulpo’s Festival. Tara, Luz, Graciela, Geri and I were talking about cleavages… yes cleavages. That’s what happens when you get a group of independent women together.
First she shows me photos of Pupi and tells me that on the 20th of December, Pupi will be 70 years old. She’s going to put together a video of all the old photographs. Then she offers Ronnie and I coffee and manages to make us feel very welcome. Graciela has a lovely smile and is very gracious.
Q: When did you start dancing? Why tango? Your teachers?
Graciela: In 1988, I began studying tango. My parents danced Tango and my father never wanted to teach me but I wanted to dance with him. My parents aren’t alive now and they KNEW how to dance tango. They were from a much older generation. If they were alive today, they would be 80 years old. They lived in the golden years of Tango.
Q: When you say they “knew” , do you mean the manner… the quality?
Graciela: When they were young, the only music they listened to on the radio was tango. In order to get married, they needed to know how to dance. It was the “in” music at the time… tango and jazz.
Q: With whom did you study?
Graciela: At a cultural center near my house, a group of disciples of Gustavo Naveira organized a practica on Saturdays. I saw a notice and since it was close to home, I began going. The first day, I almost danced 4 hours and from that day on, I never stopped dancing. 1988. (18 years ago)….the 9th of January.
Q: At that time, who else was popular? other than Gustavo Naviera?
Graciela: Pupi Castello, Pepito Avellaneda, Antonio Todaro….the popular ones were the older people. Gustavo was one of the young people who was teaching. He was an upstart….he was doing something different.
Q: No women?
Graciela: When I began, the men teachers was more popular. I was the assistant of a milonguera, Alejandra, the only woman I knew that was giving classes. She was a very strong woman.
The women accompanied the men, but they weren’t the star. Miguel Balmaceda was another man teaching.
So the classes were directed towards men, the leaders. The way women learned was by dancing. All the instruction was given to the man. That’s the usual way of teaching Tango.
Q: How did you learn the women’s role?
Graciela:: by watching the old milongueras. The majority of them have died.
Q: From who and what did you learn?
Graciela: First I noticed the feet and the way someone walks. There wasn’t anyone in particular, I watched everyone and then I danced. I danced without adornments because every man was different. They danced very well so I felt that it showed a lack of respect to do adornments…. Because I didn’t have time to think about doing an adornments. Each man had a world he created of his own in which he danced and I would discover that from dancing with him. Someone who learned during the `80′s went through a series of stages in their dance.
To watch… to be invited…. to earn the right to be on the dance floor. That’s true for all of us who began at that time. We had nicknames for the young people.. Miguelito, Gracielita.
Q: Who did you start dancing with?
Graciela: I started dancing with Pupi in competition. In 1998. Pupi invited me to dance at a practica and there was a competition going on at that time. He said “let’s dance in this competition”. I didn’t realize he was an important figure so I said “okay”. In the first one we came in second. After that, we came in first. The competitions took place at different milongas. That was the style.
Martita danced with Petroleo and sometimes with Pupi. She was amazing. Small and thin and she did fantastic embellishments. Pupi taught me the embellishments that Martita used.
Margarita, another milonguera, is still alive. She is approximately 70 years old and still dances at the Sunderland club. Other names were La Rusa and La Gallega “Adela”, La Tana…
Q:….why do so many of the women have nicknames only?
Graciela: The women only had nicknames and the men might have both…. El Cachafez and Carmencita. and Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves (Nieves is not her last name, it’s her middle name). Milena Plebs was the first woman to appear with a first and last name and changed the history of women in Tango. She is approx. 44 years
Q: Do you have any stories you would like to share about some of these personalities?
Graciela: Margarita said that when she doesn’t dance she feels bad. For these people, they say they want to be dancing when they die.
Graciela: I believe that for the new generation, Tango is an element chosen but it’s not the only thing.
Q: Are you part of the new generation?
Graciela: I’m part of the generation of the 80′s. For example, last year when the fire happened there were no milongas for more than a month, the man El Tano Guillermo didn’t know what to do with his life. He was totally depressed. The place where he belonged was closed. So for many people of that generation, the milonga is their life. His past? He lived for a long time in Canada. He danced milonga traspie but with troubles with his life, he changed.
Q: Like Carlos Gavito?
Graciela: Si….but this applies more to the men, because the women have children and grandchildren. So for some people, the milonga is all there is. For me, I like to meet with friends, read books, …..
Q: Is the reason why the newer generation is different is because the men are more involved in the family?
Graciela: Yes. It’s 50 50 with the new generation. In the dance and outside of the dance as well.
Q: Are the women stronger… more vocal about their needs?
Graciela: Si… the women have much more participation in life in general. Couples didn’t split up in the past, now we see couples splitting today that we didn’t see in the older generation.
Q: What is it like now compared to then? the social scene? the personalities?
Graciela: Many things. The dress – before you had to be dressed elegant sport … men had to wear a jacket maybe a tie… women did not wear pants. and now everything is okay.
Then the economics of the people. After the show tango Por Dos with Miguel Zotto and Milena Plebs, you started to see more young people dancing. They weren’t as well off and so they went dressed as they could. It isn’t that the milonga changed but that the country changed economically.
The codes are more relaxed.
Q: Which codes?
Graciela: The cabaceo, women dancing together, the lack of a cortina at some places, and the line of dance changed. Now it’s chaos because everything is open at different levels of dance. You don’t earn the right to dance. On the one hand, it’s good because you have young people dancing but on the other hand, it can be total bedlam.
There are also more foreigners than before. Almost 50% now are foreigners in most milongas.
Q: Have they changed the dance?
Graciela: No…at first, they were from Holland and Germany and the United States. Now it’s everywhere.
Q: I saw a video of you dancing at someone’s birthday party. Maybe with Pupi and I also saw a video of you talking about the role of women. Were you a pioneer regarding the women’s role? Was it concerning adornments? women teaching?
Graciela: Yes I was a pioneer. I created the first course of technique for women at La Galeria of Tango. The owners were Gavito, Eduardo and Gloria. They invited me to do something at the Galeria. I was already giving classes with Pupi so if I gave classes with another man, that would have ended my teaching relationship with Pupi. So we created the first practica with only women teachers. Martha Anton, Veronica Alvarenga, and me. Both women and men attended and then, out of that, came the 1994 first women’s technique class.
Q: What did you teach?
Graciela: I taught by myself….. balance, the attitude, the quality of walk and embellishments. Only women attended.
Q: What was the reaction from the community?
Graciela: For Gavita and Eduardo, they thought it was a good idea. With the old old milongueros, they could not understand why the women need to learn. Margarita thought it was a good idea.
Q: You knew how to lead and follow?
Graciela:: yes – all three of us.. Martha, Veronica and myself
Q: How would you define your style? a signature? a specialty?
Graciela: Good feet.
Q: And your most special tango moment?
Graciela: Every moment is special so nothing in particular…. because they have to do with my growth … my development. Wait… Traveling… the first time I went to United States in 1985 at Stanford. it was my first class and somebody said to me, has Graciela Gonzalez arrived yet .. and it was a class of 80 people. It was very emotional moment. I thought, “what am i doing here?”…. and after earning the confidence of the people there, I felt better. I was the first woman to give classes alone at Stanford and received rave reviews.
Q: How was it to work with Pupi, Gavito, Daniel Trenner?
Pupi – a personality and he was my teacher
Gavito – a friend. I went to NY for a festival .. I wanted to sleep, I was tired. Some people said , “Come with us… let’s have a drink”. It was a surprise because Gavito was waiting for me.
Daniel Trenner – the first person who brought groups from the United States to Buenos Aires.
Q: Where is tango going?
Graciela: The aesthetic of tango has changed but structurally there’s nothing new. The women has a lot more aesthetic participation. The structure for example volgadas, already existed.
Q: Can you describe what the perfect dance would feel like?
Graciela: It’s the sense of a trip. It doesn’t have anything to do with the form of the Tango. It could be just walking… traveling… or lots of figures but it depends on a lot of different circumstances.
The connection is the most important. If there is no connection, there is no trip. It’s just training… nothing.
Q: Do you have any words of advice for tangueros/as?
Graciela: Many of the old milongueros/as don’t travel or give regular classes, so I would recommend that they take classes with them before they die.
Examples are Pupi Castello, Margarita Guille(at Borges), and Eduardo Pareja at Estudio La Esquina