I'm a Tanguero

by Jaimes Friedgen

I’m a tanguero. You can enjoy being in my arms, you can enjoy watching me dance or forget about me altogether… but you can’t judge me. If you’re not in my heart, in my mind, in my body… if you can’t feel exactly what I feel with this music, this woman, this movement, you can’t judge me. You don’t have enough information. You don’t know what’s going on in here. Tango is going on in here.

I’m a stranger. I know more Tango lyrics than I speak Spanish. This dance was built by and for the foreigner, the estranged, the disenfranchised. The losers. The big winners in society have tried to kill it over and over again for more than a century, with money, competitions, ticket sales, and all kinds of codifications and bastardizations. It just gets stronger. There are always a lot more losers than winners. This is a dance for everyone. This is Tango.

Julie is not my biological mom. We’re not even related by blood. She rescued me from the ghetto in the most violent time and place in American history and adopted me as her own. Badly malnourished and riddled with disease, I was a goner, but she took me in and raised me up to be a strong young man. Still, she couldn’t undo the damage that had been done. I was angry, depressed and violent. I needed something. Tango. I listened to Di Sarli’s El Amanacer on repeat all night until the chirping of the birds outside matched up with violins in the song. The music and the dance haunted my dreams, got under my skin, into my muscle memory and shaped my bones. I’m only half as bow-legged and pigeon-toed as I was twenty years ago. From two decades of trying, I can now breath through both sides of my nose so that my jaw doesn’t hang slack while I dance. Julie took me to my first tango class. When she went to her first milonga in 1988, she had severed her achilles tendon earlier that afternoon, passed out from loss of blood, but made it to the dance anyway and stayed until 4am until she was taken to the hospital. Julie is a tanguera.

My first teacher was Alberto Toledano, an extraño… a spanish moroccan mathematics professor whose voice cracked whenever he said the word “woman”. He practiced ochos barefoot on carpet to make his ankles strong. He told me to study with everyone so that I would develop a style of my own. Alberto was a tanguero. My mentor, Angel Echeverria, told me in my third week of tango that I had to come up with five variations of whatever I learned from any teacher. Then I would be creative… unique, a tanguero. When Angel’s torn up knee was operated on and rebuilt, he was told not to walk for six weeks and not to dance for six months. The next week he was dancing at El Encuentro with all the ladies who didn’t have partners. His knee hasn’t given out since. Angel is a tanguero.

I’ve been in a lot of dance competitions, of many kinds of dances. My first was when I was eight years old. I’ve never lost. I’ve never come in second. My last was a stage tango competition in which I improvised with a girl who had been dancing less than two months. I was in my grease-stained work clothes (I was a dishwasher). We won first place and the right to dance for 17,000 people a night at the Hollywood Bowl with the five best couples in the world. I was elated. When I told Orlando Paiva Sr., who was raking leaves in my parents’ backyard, with a kind, wise old smile, he made me promise to never enter another Tango competition. I understood. With that simple exchange he taught me everything. He made me strong. He made me brave. He made me a tanguero. If you watch the homages to Paiva, you see who honors him… who gives him a standing ovation; the greatest tango dancers the world has ever known. Paiva was a tanguero.

I’ve taken my shoes off to find my socks bloody. I blew out my hip by twenty, shredded up my back by twenty-five… had my heart broken into a thousand pieces, fallen on the floor at the milonga, tried every style, taken many risks and made a fool of myself countless times. I’ve taught and performed all around the world… my own steps, my own styles, my own musicality. Tens of thousands of people have seen me dance and have learned from me. Tango has given me a beautiful life… a beautiful daughter who tells her friends with great pride what her father does for a living. It has brought me catharsis, love and adoration. I’m not Argentine, not a big stage name or world champion, not even fluent in Spanish, and I still spend hours a day trying to improve my dancing. But I love these people and I love this dance with all my heart until my dying day. When I do a double cut on the south side, you know they talk about it on the north side. You can’t judge me. I’m a tanguero.