In a pretty little square next to a train track, there is evidence that even a pandemic cannot separate us.
Five couples bow, cheek to cheek, marking steps that reflect the tortuous path of life. If there is a map, it emerges from a portable speaker and the melancholic poetry of a tango.
“The saying goes, nobody wrote a tango while eating yogurt”, reflects Juan Carlos González, 64 years old. “To write a tango you have to have suffered, to have lived many things that were very hard”.
And it has been a very tough pandemic year for Argentina. With 4.4 million cases and a death toll approaching 100,000, the country of 45 million has battled some of the worst levels of contagion in the world. Its healthcare system has been hanging by a thread, inundated by an average number of daily deaths per million that has been the third highest in the world for the past seven days.
In this context of devastation, there are also less tangible losses to be regretted. The era of social distancing has made tango an incarnation of everything forbidden: the warmth of the other, the closeness between strangers, touch. Those who find vitality and sustenance in Argentine dance now live that feeling of nostalgia that is captured in song.
The halls that drew crowds to the weekly dances, called milongas, are still closed. Dancers teach online or reinvent themselves to survive. Others, like the couples who met in the small plaza in Buenos Aires, go to clandestine milongas in the parks. They have also mourned one of their own, Juan Carlos Copes, a legend of dance and choreography who died at the age of 89 after complications related to Covid.
“For us, it was as if they cut off our wings, our feet, everything,” said Valeria Buono, violinist and one of the organizers of the Villa Lugano open-air milonga.
“Not being able to get together with our friends, sit with them and talk, listen to music. All of that. It is so Argentine. We have this affection that is a very important part of our culture, “said Buono, 46.” The punch as a way of saying hello is ridiculous for us. I still can’t do it. I need to hug, kiss, touch “.
Now popular around the world, tango originated along the Río de la Plata basin, in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, where European immigrants, African descendants, and enslaved indigenous people mingled in a cauldron of diversity that created an identity. unique cultural. It is now a large industry in Argentina that includes dancers, musicians, choreographers, and composers, and has a place on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. But the vast majority of its workers in Argentina are informal, without a safety net to turn to. As it has in countless other spheres around the world, the pandemic quickly exposed the precarious conditions in which tango workers live.
For many, just a month without work puts them in a difficult financial position, said Gaby Mataloni, a dancer and teacher. It is part of the Tango Dance Workers Association, or TTD, which since May 2020 distributes bags of food to people who work in the tango circuit, thanks to local and international donations.
In all these months of the pandemic, the government of the city of Buenos Aires “did not give a peso to support the cultural workers,” said Mataloni, who helped form the TTD four years ago after a famous dancer from tango from Buenos Aires made public its informal working conditions.
“People have begun to understand that if we don’t meet to make these demands, conditions are not going to improve,” says Mataloni, who was a pharmacist before becoming a tango dancer who travels the world. Forced abstinence has not been easy for her. He has been able to teach online, but had to return home to his parents due to the financial impact.
“I had never been without work,” said Inés Muzzopappa, her friend and another tango dancer who migrated online. “I never imagined tango in the virtual world,” he said. But Muzzopappa realized that people craved at least some kind of connection during the loneliest moments of the pandemic.
The tango community recognized early on the risk inherent in its proximity and closed venues before the government shutdown in 2020. But as the months passed, a division emerged, with some pushing for events, while others preferred to wait. Meanwhile, the TTD has organized new methods to highlight local talent, such as an online showcase and virtual classes.
Like any art form, tango is a living being that evolves with the times. And just as feminist and queer artists have reinvented their patriarchal foundations, Mataloni believes that dance will continue to transform, whatever the post-pandemic reality.
“What we find is the need for people to continue enjoying life, despite what is happening to us,” said Buono, while touring his tango playlist in Villa Lugano. “The hug is therapeutic for us. It is curative. It keeps the will to live. “In fact, romances were formed in those encounters in the park.” Things happened, “he said with a smile.
He remembered the first pandemic milonga he organized in September with González, in a large park in the south of the city. It was just the two of them. The worst that could happen, they reasoned, the police would tell them to go. They did not. So they have held outdoor milongas every week since then, mainly between couples who know each other. They haven’t had a problem until about a month ago, when police arrived to enforce social distancing rules and separate older couples who were dancing.
But they have returned and will not go anywhere if René Serrudo has something to say about it. The 65-year-old mechanic traveled almost two hours, from his home in Berazategui, to the milonga in Villa Lugano.
“In the capital you can dance,” he said. “In the province, they closed it.”
He chose tango 14 years ago, but in a sense, tango chose him: at the time, he was struggling with the pain of a separation and he went to dances to lift his spirits. A woman told him one day: “You dance very well, but tango awaits you.”
He took lessons and found his salvation. “I used to go to church and all that, but once I found this, I never let it go,” he said.