Book Review: Malena, by Edgardo David Holzman

(NOTE: This is not a book about tango - though there is tango woven through the story.)

I keep delaying writing this review because I think my words can't do Malena justice. It's been sitting in my drafts folder for weeks. So this is a bit rambly and disjointed, for that I apologize, but I didn't want to delay any longer. Frankly, this book is too important to keep delaying.

Let me hit the important points first - it is well written, very well researched and the stories of the characters display such craftsmanship and care that once you're pulled in, you can't let go of the story.

That said - it is also a very difficult book to read. The longer you read, the more gut-wrenching it is. I cried through pretty much the entire last third of the novel.

Malena is the story, through a small handful of characters, of Argentina's war against its own people - known now as The Dirty War. The novel is based on many real events and it reads as such. The recurring theme of "beware the fool with good intentions" plays to the heart of tragedy in the novel, and in the actual events of that period. There is a palpable, and growing, sense of dread from the first few pages as characters struggle with the question - did I just trust the wrong person?

What do you do when you can't truth the organizations that are supposed to protect you - the police, the governments of other countries, even the Catholic Church? Where do you go? You go to the people you think you know - like anyone would. The characters in Malena take ever riskier chances, trusting people they never thought they would, as they realize they can't save the people they love without help.

Captain Diego Fioravanti is a man trying to survive, protect the woman he loves, Inez Maldonado, and to escape the Argentine army. Kevin "Solo" Solórzano, a former suitor of Inez, is an American interpreter, traveling with the OAS (Organization of American States) Human Rights Commission to investigate the treatment of prisoners in Argentine jails. They must all trust unlikely allies and uncover the truth about events in Argentina to save the people they care about.

In Scot Butki's interview with the author, Edgardo David Holzman, Scot asks why Holzman chose to write a fiction novel instead of a non-fiction work. Holzman says:

"Governments, international organizations, NGO's and scholars continually churn out books and reports on human rights. Few people other than experts, advocates and officials of various kinds ever read these publications, invaluable as many of them are. They are to be found mostly in specialized libraries, not bookstores for the general public. 

"Fiction, paradoxically, is the closest thing we have to real life. It's where readers can put themselves in the characters' shoes, occupy their heads and hearts, feel their emotions. On a subject as fraught with drama as human rights, a novel is particularly well suited to involve the reader. Over time I realized that I wanted to write a gripping, entertaining story, a thriller about a serious, sobering subject."

He's right. Reading page after page of documents detailing the atrocities of the Dirty War is horrible, but in many ways lets us keep our distance as facts are related coldly, one after another. In a novel, we develop emotional relationships with the characters while we read and their stories become personal - not just statistics and facts on paper. Malena is worth the work to read - these are stories we need to hear.

Names of the disappeared at Parque de la Memoria, Buenos Aires, Argentina

If you read Malena, it will change things for you when you visit Buenos Aires. Although I didn't take part in a "Torture Tour" when I visited Buenos Aires this past Autumn, I did hire a very knowledgeable and compassionate tour guide (Maria Lelia Ivancovich) to take my travel companions to some of the sites of Argentina's Dirty War. I encourage tango visitors to Buenos Aires to at least see some of the sites. Once you do, once you know even a little bit of the story, you see the scars of the Dirty War all over the city, in the contemporary art and music.

"Carteles de la Memoria (Posters of Memory) - 53 signs that relate the timeline of the Dirty War

ESMA - Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada - Navy School of Mechanics

Another thing becoming familiar with Argentina's past did for me was make me even more painfully aware of recurring themes in our own news headlines in the US. Every time I hear the phrase "enhanced interrogation techniques", it makes me feel sick in the pit of my stomach. Every time we give up more freedom in the name of safety against "terrorists", every time we meddle in the affairs of other countries (as we did in Argentina and with our support of Operation Condor), I wonder if it's possible for us to learn from the past. That's why reading books like Malena, no matter how uncomfortable we have to get to relate to the stories, is so important.

Don’t Make Assumptions

Another post in my "Four Agreements" series - though I am taking them out of order. (Because, if I try to write in order of the Four Agreements book, instead of the order in my brain, it will never get done.)

Agreement Number 3 - Don’t Make Assumptions
"Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life."   Don Miguel Angel Ruiz

Assumptions about Professional/Competitive/Performing Dancers
(fill in the descriptor of your choice - I've heard these assumptions applied to all three.)

Note: I didn't say these assumptions publicly before the event detailed below, and for that I am greatly relieved. The crow that I find myself eating now is uncomfortable enough.

Somewhere along the journey of my dancing life, I picked up the assumption that professional dancers, once they choose to devote energy to performing, touring or in particular competing in Argentine tango, somehow lose some of the soul of social dancing. As if to do one was to sacrifice the other. Experience bore out some of that assumption as I watched many visiting teachers come to the milongas and teach on the social dance floor, exhibit an incredible lack of floorcraft and social graces, and then proceed to sit on the sidelines and criticize local dancers. Their classes were often filled with patterns and steps that would be impossible, or at least very unwise, to use in the milonga.

Oops, there I go again, looking for reinforcement of my assumption . . .  The problem with an assumption is that very soon we start to see only the evidence that reaffirms our belief. The belief then becomes a fact and a lens through which we see situations.

There were plenty of exceptions coming through Austin of course - Javier Rochwarger, Murat and Michelle Erdemsel, Oliver Kolker and Silvina Valz among others, who do emphasize technique for the social dance floor.

Back to the story . . .

When organizers and teachers Juan Carlos and Alicia Suarez brought professional dancers (Diego Benavidez and Natasha Agudelo, Ramada Salieri and Yumiko Krupenina, Roxana and Fabian Belmonte), all of whom were world class tango competitors, to Austin for their Second Annual Day of Tango event, I had very mixed feelings. I love this event so much but, I hate to admit it now, I was disappointed that they weren't bringing people who were more widely known for their social dancing instead of for competition. (Which in itself is problematic - if one only engages in social dancing, how would anyone know about them? And well known by whom? Me?) I had already formed an opinion of their teaching and personalities based on that one fact - that they had been champion tango competitors.

I should have trusted their judgment more.

Saturday night at Esquina tango, during the first milonga of the Day of Tango festival, I saw two of the couples in action. Esquina is an increasingly tight space to dance as our community grows, and the floorcraft can be iffy. It was even a bit of a challenge for some of our dancers who dance there all the time.

I think I was just sitting and waiting for one of the visiting followers to execute some high boleos or for a couple to stop the line of dance to do some fancy stationary move. That would have validated my assumption, after all. Instead I saw them dance respectfully, gracefully - even quite conservatively in respect for the space. Frankly, they were gorgeous - incredible examples of compact efficiency and elegance of movement. I was mesmerized by their ability to be so responsive to the dancers around them, and still express the music so beautifully.

At one point I just watched Yumiko Krupenina's feet while she and Ramada Salieri circled around the room. Yumiko had the most precise, controlled, beautiful footwork I remember seeing in a very long time. Nothing overdone, nothing flashy - everything completely appropriate to the space and the music. Next I watched Diego Benavidez and Natasha Agudelo as they moved calmly and smoothly around the pista. No flash, no kicking - just natural, effortless (appearing) movements in  harmony with the music.

I had been very wrong.

I was lucky that my partner and I had enough time to take a lesson with Diego and Natasha before they left and our first impression had been correct - they were consummate social dancers. Our lesson had no figures, no patterns, no steps - posture and technique only. We weren't the only ones to make that observation. They focused on the fundamentals and we had a fantastic lesson.

So there you have it - the lesson I seem to have to learn again and again. Don't make assumptions.

(And one last note to Juan Carlos and Alicia - thank you for an amazing event.)

Impeccable with my word.

Be impeccable with your word - Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

"To really master being impeccable will require that you heighten your awareness not just to the words you say, but also to the emotions you express, your attitude, your actions, and where you express the power of your belief. You will need to develop a discipline of mindfulness to be impeccable in these expressions through out the day." Gary van Warmerdam,

I have been lazy lately. Lazy in my thoughts and lazy in my words. Lazy in the things I expressed, and in the things I chose not to say. I did not speak up when I should have, and lashed out carelessly when I should have been more thoughtful. The worst part is that kind of thoughtlessness can spread and ripples can pass from person to person creating a feeling of criticism and judgment where none is warranted. When that happens, thoughts about creating solutions are stifled, and criticism gets more and more personal.

The Problem

It started out of frustration, as it usually does. I wanted to address a disturbing problem I saw but I didn't do it constructively. I complained, as did others, to the people who weren't the problem instead of addressing it at the time to the people actually involved.

During what was an exceptionally beautiful event called YoLaTango here in Austin, I observed behavior that well and truly pissed me off.  Here is what I posted on Facebook (which is a different problem to be addressed in a separate post.)

"I did not get kicked or bumped at all while I was *dancing* at the milonga tonight. However, I did get stepped on (three times) and kicked (twice) while I was sitting in my damned seat!! A girl a few chairs away from me almost got kicked in the head(!!!) as she reached under her chair to get something from her purse! WTF??? One guy got a stiletto heel stabbed into the top of his foot while he was sitting down.

"I know teachers teach dancers to do their fancy moves in the corners, but if there are people sitting in the corners keep your effing feet on the floor. Worst of all, the offenders were people who've been dancing well long enough know better. Another thing - if you do something like that, don't laugh and shrug - damned well apologize.

"This was a very, very nice venue, with fantastic music and I had so many beautiful tandas, but the times I did sit and watch the floor, it was so disheartening. There was no reason at all for that. To the leaders who worked so hard to keep their partners safe (including me) - thank you so very much. You guys rock my socks off. To the followers who kept their feet low even when their leaders led them huge moves - thank you for having the presence of mind to look out for others."

Two dancers told me that the cut short their visit to our festival because they could not relax and feel safe on our dance floor. I was heartbroken to hear that. How did things get so bad? Murat Erdemsel, during one of the milongas, even spoke about etiquette on the pista. It seemed to last about an hour. People commented that they were afraid to sit in the chairs along the dance floor because they were getting stepped on or kicked.

Austin, and Austin's tango community has, for many years, enjoyed a reputation for being friendly and welcoming. We cannot be friendly and welcoming if dancers are afraid of getting hurt in our milongas. One visitor who complained to me said it just validates what he's always heard about Austin Tango - "The people are wonderful and friendly, but the floorcraft is crap." Is this what we want people to think about dancing here?  (I should note that several of the 'hazardous' dancers were not from Austin, but the overall feeling many dancers got was that the milongas ware a kind of free-for-all even though many dancers were working very hard to keep things calm and sane on the pista.)

People came to me to complain who knew about my blog, and my posts on Facebook, so I let loose in person and online my opinions on the matter.  My criticism was not constructive - it was bitter. It was also, as I noted above, not directed at the people actually causing the issue. Normally I am against giving criticism on the dance floor, however when safety is at stake, I think it's warranted.

There are constructive ways to address the behavior without getting personal, without putting people on the defensive, without being disruptive or ugly - but those ways require good timing, tact and forethought.  I was lacking in all three. I just bitched rather generally and than sat and stewed about it some more. Neither of those actions helped the situation, helped other dancers, or helped the organizers of what was truly a wonderfully put together event.

So I am reacquainting myself with Don Miguel Ruiz's First Agreement - Be impeccable with your word.

When I speak, particularly when I am criticizing something, am I speaking from a place of truly wanting to help or am I just bitching?  Am I addressing the behavior or getting personal and making character judgments? Am I just looking for validation of my opinion? Is my attitude projecting kindness and helpfulness - or close-mindedness?

A Different Solution

What I would have done differently if given the chance?

 - Talk to the organizers at the time that it was happening. I didn't because I felt they were busy enough already and I didn't want to bother them. I justified it further by thinking they probably wouldn't want to say anything that would cause hard feelings. But if I had been organizing the event, I would have wanted to be bothered with it.

 - Talk to the people in question when I saw the behavior. This is trickier. It's so tempting to get in someone's face and say, "Hey, you shouldn't do that - you could (or just) hurt someone!"  If you approach someone in a very obvious and accusatory manner, it immediately puts then in a position of defending themselves. I truly don't believe that any dancer wants to be a danger to other dancers - bumps and missteps happen in crowded milongas. The best way I have seen it done is a dancer waits until the person in question is off of the dance floor and then says (quietly) that the floor is a little rough and would they mind helping out by being a little more cautious. Basically, they tasked that dancer with the safety of the people around them. It's human nature to want to be invited to fix things - not be accused of breaking things.

 - Look at the floor and see if there are changes that could help the dance flow. If something seems helpful, suggest it to the organizers. In the case of one of the milongas, having a more marked pista would have helped even if all that meant was creating a more regular dance space with chairs and tables.

 - I would have left it off of Facebook and kept it in person. Negativity breeds negativity and that's what happened with my post.

Maybe those things would have helped - maybe not. There is a significant chance that I could have screwed it up worse - who knows? I know that I did do helped no one.

Dear readers, I would appreciate your feedback in this. What would you have done? What has worked in your community?

Tango Home

Outside Maria Teresa's Casa Maria Tango - near Venezuela y Pasco

Two Cities

Surprisingly, to me at least, I was far more nervous about dancing in Albuquerque's Tango Festival than I was dancing in Buenos Aires where I didn't even speak the language beyond a few phrases. I know now, which seems so obvious in retrospect, that it was about my expectations. Buenos Aires was nearly a complete unknown. I had no expectations. If I sat, I sat. If I danced, I danced. The fact that I was in Buenos Aires was enough. In Albuquerque, I let the expectations creep back in. I felt I should be successful, whatever that meant, in some part because I had such success dancing in Buenos Aires. If I could dance like crazy there, than surely I could dance my butt off anywhere, right?

Not so fast.

I hadn't dealt with much of a culture shock when I returned to Austin's tango scene because I was happy to see, and dance with, my friends and be on familiar ground, in my familiar language. I was very relaxed. Maybe I was still marinading in my Buenos Aires experience. There were reminders, shifts, observations - but I didn't have the hard transition back that I worried I might have. Maybe in part because so many people in my community have been to Buenos Aires? I don't really know.

The culture shock I had expected came in Albuquerque - and it was truly disorienting for me as a dancer.

What happened? I was ready - more than ready - to keep traveling for tango. I couldn't wait for the opportunity. As my friend had warned me I would, I felt the pull the tango gypsy life. Surely, I would feel at home around so many other dancers on the same path.

Two things happened that made me rethink things a bit. First, instead of feeling part of a community, I felt a little isolated - out of place. It was good in a way because I realized why I was feeling the pull of travel. While I loved dancing in Buenos Aires, I missed the feeling of home - familiar faces, familiar embraces, familiar voices. When I returned, I relaxed more, but I kept waiting to feel 'settled in.'  I felt like I was still traveling - like not all of me returned. I wanted to travel again so that that peculiar alien feeling of not being at home, would be muted. If I'm not home, than there is no expectation of feeling 'at home'. I wanted to run from that expectation. Playing tourist in Santa Fe and Albuquerque did quite a lot for me in that regard. I reveled in it. I loved both cities and the mesmerizing terrain between the two.

The second thing was dancing in Albuquerque made me miss Buenos Aires far more than returning to Austin had. The skill level (for whatever that means to anyone) was very high in Albuquerque. Embraces were warm, the music was fantastic. Individually, my dancing experiences and in particular the gentlemen I danced with were beautiful. But the tango festival culture I was hoping to find a home in left me feeling tired. I danced often, and I think, fairly well. I met wonderful people and would love to go back - but that's after my expectations got a very serious reset.

Different Worlds . . .

(Note: some of what I am about to relate is directly attributable to _where_ I danced in Buenos Aires. Your mileage may vary. I danced in places like Club Gricel, La Milonga de los Consagrados, El Arranque etc. in El Centro. These are generally speaking more conservative, traditional milongas.)

In Buenos Aires, people dressed quite well - but rarely in what North Americans would call "tango clothes" - though the city has tons of beautiful offerings in that regard. Even my tango-adapted asymmetrical skirts from Goodwill seemed occasionally "over-the-top tango tourista". I rarely saw fishnets, gloves, thigh high slits, navel-deep v-necks. There were definitely some very alluring outfits, but refreshingly not the cliche tango image that's splashed all over the post cards.

Dancers were very well mannered, respectful of the codigos (usually) - but very relaxed, natural -  with few exceptions, not donning a 'tango persona' for the evening. They weren't acting as though they were "honoring tango etiquette" rather they were simply behaving in a way that was expected and appreicated. That's it. I may have been nervous sitting in my assigned seat - but once out on the pista, I couldn't help but relax. The sense of calm ease washed over me from my partners. It was infectious. It was also easier to feel because, admittedly, I had no expectations blocking the sensation.

In Albuquerque everyone was sporting their best, newest, shiniest tango clothes, accessories, shoes and jewelry. This was an event after all - and I should really have expected that. The codigos were followed most of the time and certainly more than I am used to locally - but from many people it felt like an affectation. The lighting was actually bright enough for long-range cabeceo - much to my delight. But the feeling was that we were all gathered to do this exotic, dramatic thing in as exotic and dramatic way possible. This was the opposite of the naturalness I felt in Buenos Aires. It was almost manic.  I didn't have the energy to participate in the fantasy. I just wanted to dance - to relax. In Buenos Aires tandas most often felt like a whisper - a private conversation. In Albuquerque it felt like many dancers were shouting their dances to each other and to onlookers.

I looked for quiet leaders - and there were many there, but hard to spot on the crowded floor. Those dancers were tiny pools of calm on the pista. I sought them out whenever I could. When I got to dance with them, I would get sublime tanda-long vacations from the mania.

Once I returned to Austin, the same 'home, but not home' feeling returned. I am making peace with it. Maybe it will pass. Illness has kept me home more than I would like and I haven't danced much these last few weeks. Another festival looms on the horizon, and one after that, and another . . . 

I'm not avoiding the festivals but I don't look forward to them like I used to. I look forward to seeing people I rarely see except at festivals - and to meeting new people. Mostly though, I'm just trying to keep my expectations from creeping in again. 

Ultimately, the tango home I'm seeking can only really ever come from inside myself. When I dance with others who have found their tango homes, I can feel it - they remind me to keep building.

Vignette - A Conversation*

Him: "What was the best thing about tango in Buenos Aires?"
Me: "Seeing it
not treated like some exotic fantasy role play."
Him: (blink-blink)
Me: "Tango, and music and dance generally in Buenos Aires, is every where....
It's every day. It's as every day as taxi cabs and coffee shops. On the corner by a farmacia, in a shop, on a patio, in a living room. It's living, breathing conversation. How can a dance become natural, internal, personally expressive - if it's always something separate and exotic from yourself? From your life?"
Him: "oh. . . well. . . huh."
Me: "How can I explain? The most important thing that happened to my dance in Buenos Aires is that tango stopped being a dress and shoes I put on. A persona I slipped into - some picture I had in my head. It sunk in to my bones. Even if I never danced again, I couldn't stop seeing my world through that lens."
Him: "wow."
Me: "Indeed."

(*Originally shared on Facebook.)

Buenos Aires - My Favorite Travel Essentials

Coffee in the morning(ish) sun in Mocambo Cafe, Buenos Aires

A word of warning, what's essential for me may not be essential for you, and vice versa. I took my purse (see the article in Thrifty Tanguera regarding "Frankenpurse" -  and a freebie backpack my husband got from a vendor. I checked no luggage so everything I brought needed to be really useful to justify taking up room in my bag. Here's what worked best for me.

Clothing and Accessories

Scottevest Women's Trenchcoat - This is part of why I didn't need to check a bag. A couple of months before I left I needed to replace my old rain coat. I found this one online, read the reviews, then after getting a 20% deal, decided to get it. (In black of course.) I had to waterproof it before I left (thankfully I realized it wasn't as water-resistant as advertized before I left for Buenos Aires.) Other than that little hiccup, the thing was great. Warm, but not too hot. It holds a lot and very comfortably. I didn't take anything out of the pockets when I went through the airport, I just took it off and threw it on the x-ray belt. Didn't have the slightest problem. It also washes very well in the washing machine (on gentle cycle.)

Terramar Silk Pointelle Long Underwear - I got the top and bottom for $17.50 each at and I'm glad I did. Mostly it was very temperate in Buenos Aires, but it got quite cold a couple of nights and having these to wear under my regular clothes kept me warm without adding any bulk to my outfit or weight to my backpack.

Sprigs Phone Banjee Wrist Wallet from REI (which I'm wearing above) - this worked best when I had long sleeves on (and everything I wore was basically black) because it blended in and also covered my watch nicely. I had just taken my sweater off in that picture (since I was sitting in the warm sun) and it's much more conspicuous. Out and about, I would have stuck with either my SPIBelt  around the waist (under my skirt waist band), or the silk undercover money belt from Eagle Creek . Both are very comfortable and I switched them out depending on what I was wearing. I had both of those accessories in black. The SPIBelt I've had for several years for just running errands downtown or dancing in festivals when I didn't want to leave money in my shoe bag. It's always done a great job of staying in place and not being too noticeable.

Firm Support Coolmax Over the Calf Support Socks - My doctor recommended these and honestly, I was going to skip them. My grandmother wears these and I didn't want to admit they would do me some good. I'm so glad I rethought that (lack of) logic and got a couple of pair. These kept my legs from swelling up after the long flight (and some long nights dancing), relieved pain in my calves and dried very quickly after washing. Plus they're soft and comfortable.

The North Face Women's Crystal Wrap
-  -I wore this constantly! A black, wrap sweater that dries quickly but still keeps you warm. Perfect for packing - weighs almost nothing.

Capezio Free Form (Practice) Shoes  - I loved these for the trip. They fit in the pocket of my coat so I could slip them on any time I didn't want to wear shoes but wanted something on feet (on the airplane, in practice, in my room etc.).  They were fantastic!  Plus I could just throw them in the wash when I got back.


Medications in chewable/dissolvable (no water needed) form.  My motion sickness tabs, allergy tabs, Peptobismol - everything I could, I got in chewable form. Ten hours on an airplane when the flight attendants act like you're asking for 25 year old scotch every time you ask for water - you'll thank me. Another note on medications - about two months before I left, whenever I needed a medication refilled (that I knew I would need to take to Buenos Aires), I asked for it in the smallest bottle they could possibly fill it in. Since you have to carry the damned bottles with you, this helps save a little space.

Visine Multisymptom Eye-drops - I can't recommend these highly enough. I skipped bringing my contact lenses which turned out to be the right call. I would never have been able to wear them in BsAs - my eyes were just too irritated.
Emergen-C Immune +, Citrus - I hit the ground in Buenos Aires already sick and dehydrated. I didn't have time to try out the Katadyn Micropur MP1 Water Purification Tablets I brought with me, I needed a lot of water and fast. I used the Emergen-C packets to give myself a little energy, to flavor the water so that I would actually drink more of it, and eventually, when I did have the time and inclination to use the Katadyn tablets, cover the taste of the "purified" water.  

A note about the Katadyn Purification tablets: For the record, 'chlorinated' would be a more accurate term than 'purified'. The part of their advertisement that reads "improves the taste of water" is a gross exaggeration. It tastes like pool water. Not awful, but not better. Also, I ended up having no problems at all with the water in Buenos Aires. Eventually I gave up using the tablets because I had to wait 4 hours for it to do its work and I'm just not that great at remembering to fill the bottle. Frankly the water in Tennessee gives me more problems and tastes worse.

Technology and Logistics

Skype - I can't say enough good things about Skype (and also Google Voice). There were times when Skype didn't work because the wi-fi signal wasn't strong enough, but I could still get a text message through on Google Voice. I did not take a cell phone/service with me and I didn't buy or rent a phone while I was there. If necessary I was ready to buy a calling card if I needed one, but I never did. The wi-fi wasn't very reliable where I was staying, but the ice cream shop down the block had great signal so when I needed to, I would go there, get some food and catch up with everyone.

Streetwise Buenos Aires Map
  Thanks to my friend Pat and my aunt Melissa for the recommendations on this. Foldable and laminated - this was a great map, except that it didn't go quite as far out as I needed it to for some of the places we went. That's why I also loved the Offline Buenos Aires Maps for Android.

Samsung GAlaxy Tab 2 Tablet 7" - This thing was a gem. I turned my old LG Ally Android phone into a PDA relying on wifi for everything. The problem was that the antenna  was so small, and battery so weak, unless the signal was very strong, I couldn't rely on it for Skype video. The Samsung Tab on the other hand, did a great job getting and staying connected to even the weakest signal.

Copy of Passport in my wallet - I only needed it once, but I did need it. And I felt much more secure not carrying the original with me.


As far as makeup that travels well, I had great luck with these (which is lucky, because I brought very little in the way of cosmetics) - Stila Waterproof Smudge Crayon in Smoke which I used on my eyelids and on my eye brows, Physicians Formula Eye Booster Eyeliner which doesn't boost anything but is very water resistant. L'Oreal Double Extend Waterproof Mascara with a coat of Anastasia Lash Genius Waterproof Topcoat over the mascara (and on my eyebrows). Finally Benefit PosieTint Lip and Cheek Stain. The good news is that my makeup stayed on no matter what happened, the bad news is it takes a bit of work to get it all off. Still, it's nice not to have to check my makeup during milongas. I forgot my face powder which was a bummer - I really could have used that. I have a travel size of Smashbox Halo powder that I would have brought had I remembered it.

Which brings me to Make-up Remover Pads - I was doing everything I could to avoid carrying liquids, so I didn't want to take a bottle of makeup remover (and I have to use makeup remover to get the waterproof makeup off at night.) The Almay Moisturizing Makeup Remover Pads are the only things that remove my makeup, but the canister they come in seemed too big for just 9 days worth of pads. So I took 10 or so pads and stuffed them in a little sample tub. By the way, these are also great for getting oil-based stains out of clothes.


Delta Sky Lounge Day Passes - When you have almost 5 hours to kill at the Atlanta airport, it's worth the $50 bucks to check in to a Delta Skylounge. There's snack food (Nutella, hummus, fresh vegetables, etc.) plus free wine, beer and wifi.  It sounds decadent, but being able to charge your electronics, catch up on email/Skype etc., and have some wine, olives and hummus made what would have been an unpleasant and long chunk of time much nicer.  We were also grateful that we had the presence of mind to put a few packets of nutella and hummus in our pockets (hey, don't judge) as there were some mornings we were living on those.

There you have it. I'll probably think of more but for now, that's the list. Thank you to everyone who gave me recommendations before the trip and keep giving me great recommendations now. I look forward to more travels in the future, and I've learned so much from all of you!

Buenos Aires - What I Should have Packed and Should have Skipped

Image courtesy of
The "Live and Learn" Post

True to my trainer heart, I am doing what's called a "plus/delta" evaluation of my trip. What worked, what didn't, what I would take again - what I would leave behind. Hopefully this will be useful to others traveling to Buenos Aires (or anywhere internationally.)  Please let me know your thoughts and experiences.

Here's what I really missed and should have taken with me (many of things of course are available at the market, and I did get them once I settled in - but I could have brought them from home easily enough, and for free.):

A nail brush - it's such a simple thing but Buenos Aires can be a gritty, grimy place - especially where I was staying in Once. A nail brush works great on clothing, calloused feet, grungy finger nails etc.  I bought one at the market, but I have a few at home and I should have grabbed one.

Perfume - I missed my perfume. Another thing that just seems silly, but it would have been nice to have. I didn't want to carry one more bottle of liquid through the TSA checkpoint, so I didn't bother with it. Now I've found solid versions of several of my favorite perfumes, and next time I'll go with that option.

Liquid Shampoo and Conditioner
- I opted for Travelon Shampoo and Conditioner sheets because they were very light weight and not liquid. When I tried them at home, they worked great but that's because I have a water-softener. The water in BA was quite a bit different and these little buggers took forever to dissolve and then even longer to rinse out. I should have just brought small bottles of my shampoo and conditioner.  (The bar soap I brought, Dial, worked just fine.)

- I had a few of these, should have brought more. They're genius - great for tucking into your wallet or coin purse. (Especially considering how much wine I was drinking.)

Floss - I brought one of those travel floss thingees you get from the dentist. It had enough for about 3 uses - I should have just brought a regular container, it's not like they're big or anything.

- what the hell was I thinking only bringing one pen????  I'm a writer!!  D'oh!

Pesos in small denominations - I always needed change and rarely had any. Very frustrating for me and for the merchants I had to do business with.

A decent razor - I brought a cheapo disposable razor and it was terrible. I know fancy razors are ridiculous with their triple blade, moisturizing strip with aloe or whatever, but damn, I really missed my good razor.

- washing my clothes in the sink worked ok - I used Travelon detergent sheets which worked only slightly better than the shampoo sheets did on my hair. Again, they worked great when I tried them at home with my soft water - not so much in BA's water.  In the end I mostly used my bar soap to wash clothes which didn't do that great either. I know there are lots of places, including milongas, that have banned smoking - but I always seemed to smell like smoke anyway (that and diesel fumes.) Febreeze would have been nice to freshen up my clothes and shoes.

Wash cloth/sponge/shower puff -
I picked one up at the store, but I have several at home and they weigh next to nothing. We had a bath towel and a hand towel in our bathroom, which was great, but after an entire day of walking all over the city, I felt pretty grungy and in need of some serious scrubbing. Next time I'm throwing in a Buff-puff sponge.

Things I should have left at home:

My beige fishnet tights
- I thought black fishnet would have been too touristy (probably true) but the Capezio fishnets in beige are nice looking without being horribly clichéd. The problem is they're damned uncomfortable. I forgot about that. I put them on once and took them right off. I was bare-legged at almost all the milongas because I'm frankly too lazy to bother with tights.

Detergent Sheets 
- see above, these were not very useful. The bar soap seemed to do a better job actually.

Braza Secret Stash money holder
- every time I thought about how the heck I was going to inconspicuously try to get money out of the damned thing, I thought better of using it. Didn't use it a single time.

Arm/Thigh strap and pouch - same problem as above - just not convenient, especially as a garter-pouch. You can feel it constantly when you're dancing and getting anything out of it requires a trip to the ladies room. It was a novel idea, but not useful. (I think I was probably overly excited by what looked like a cool spy-accessory. Can't blame a girl for trying.)

Interview with Alejandro Gée - Tango as Therapy, Culture and Context

Another picture from Alejandro Gée's Studio - more info and pictures here:

Understanding the Approach of Tango as a Therapeutic Technique

"Tango is successful therapeutically because it provides connection, openness, awareness (awareness, is number one aspect) - connection with another in a contained environment." - Alejandro.

When I sat down with Alejandro my last night in Buenos Aires, I had so many questions about how to approach tango students who either consciously approach learning tango as a form of therapy, or who, in the course of the class, treat learning tango as therapy unconsciously. For example, on several occasions I've seen a couple start a tango class only to engage in belittling or antagonistic behavior forcing the teacher to become (for the duration of the class anyway) a relationship counselor. (Or at the very least, a referee.) Issues come up whether we want them to or not when we make demands of our bodies to learn new things. Especially when we have to learn these new things with another person in our space.

“The personalities and where the relationship is at that moment, including conflicts, power struggles, etc., start coming up in the tango class, as soon as the communication between the two participants becomes necessary. This is the case of couples, but in the individual cases their lives are out too, since the dance requires expression, connection, and communication with another human being.”

I don't have the background or the training to actually do therapy, in a tango class or anywhere else. However I have seen tango classes (and business communication classes that I used to teach) derailed by individuals and couples who need more care and attention than a typical tango class might offer. There are ways to retain these students, and to minimize their anxiety and frustration simply by adjusting teaching methods, body language and even the progression of topics. I was surprised at how familiar those methods are to what I had learned as a business and communications trainer. 

For example, know when to slow the pace. Ask more questions. Watch for physical cues - the body can give a lot of information long before the conscious mind is ready to disclose. It's important to pay attention to that. Information about what a student needs from you is usually presented in very indirect ways. Go with what's presented and try not to make assumptions. 

From Alejandro, "There are things you consider - how far to go with the embrace, the feeling of the body. There are time constraints. Go very slowly, constantly test how much you can give and how much that they can take. It's constantly changing, minute to minute. When something presents itself [like a discomfort] there is always a reason. 

"When clients, and people generally, get uncomfortable they change topics to escape. If you want to help, take them to that moment. There are things you can see; the embrace is close but not too close. Guide the person to be there, present - guide them to find their own tango from inside to outside. “

"Self-awareness connects you with yourself - physical body and unconscious mind through the body. You start expressing what's happening in the unconscious mind. They [your mind and body] are processing all the time. You might not know why you feel better - but if you take the time, you learn. . . . Communication with another person - you have to wait. You both have to present in different ways. That's an opportunity."
As far as teaching tango generally, I had more questions.

Me: "When do you recommend that your students start going to milongas?"
Alejandro: "Right away, but not to dance. To learn by being there -learning the culture and the dance. Especially the most traditional milongas to learn the most authentic experience right away. It's best to start with the hardest milongas. Dancing [at the milongas] is a different story. That requires losing the fear."
“First watching and breathing the milonga. then, losing the fear which involves risking. at this point the student goes into the dance floor. the teacher, preferably, should coach this initiation by giving indications of what to do and giving support, even going to the dance floor with them the first time. taking it easy and doing the minimum is important the first time. the point is first just to experience the floor without distracting others and without losing the embrace, the connection, and respecting navigation (as much as the level of the beginner allows it). the rest comes with time.”

Me: "Do you send your students home with 'homework' - things to work on outside of classes with you?"

Alejandro: "Always. Homework is like a bag of tools - aspects of culture, technique, psychology:

- Technique exercises.
- Going to watch milongas
- experiencing the social aspect, the tango culture.

"The psychological aspect of take-home tango work - conscious awareness, in the right moment. Take it and apply it to your life. Pay attention to how you walk. Know yourself is the way to really learning tango. If a person is afraid to embrace, for example, explore that. You have to acknowledge it. For the physical aspect, I suggest pilates and/or yoga - it depends on each person. Whatever you can use. Whatever tool is useful to you. 

"Other homework of course is the music. Listening to different orchestras. Identifying songs, singers, orchestras. Thinking of how you would dance, and how your dance would be different, for each music. The music is instrumental in understanding the dance. The context of the time - its relevance. "

Me: "What is most important to observe in the milongas? Which milongas do recommend to your students?"

Alejandro: "The codigos are important. Especially observing the traditional milongas where men and women sit separately. There are cliques -people who know each other. Women make the milonga. If you want better milongas, you need to protect that [the codigos]. They make the milongas feel safer. Take the time to go through the ritual - the dance is softer. [For example] it is an invasion [for a man] to just approach a woman at her table. You also learn about another culture which is a very positive thing."

“The ‘codes’ are based on respect for the other people in the place, to the culture of tango and to its music, not as a strict, neurotic, and inflexible method (that some people understand as ‘codes’).

"Society teaches us to have control. Here (Buenos Aires) it is chaotic. Last minute. You need to be open [to changes]. Learn as much of the culture and context as you can - as a matter of respect. They (the dancers/milongueros in Buenos Aires) don't adapt to you. It's important to develop respect for the culture.

“Learning how people live here and how tango describes the daily lives of Argentineans, whether they dance it or not. very important aspect for foreigners, to translate into the dance and understand that tango is a whole culture not just a dance (it's dressing up, shaving, smelling nice, embracing everybody when we meet, sitting around, gossiping, watching and not even dancing sometimes, learning from each other, meeting friends, respecting our codes, etc.).”


My favorite bit of information from Alejandro, and so completely true -"An important thing to understand is that you are dancing as soon as you enter the milonga." My strongest experience of this was at El Arranque milonga. For some reason at that milonga more than any other, as soon as you enter, all eyes are on you. And when you're invited to dance and make your way down the long aisle to the dance floor - you are already being observed and judged. I started to think of that aisle as the "catwalk". Every time a woman (not so much with the men, I noticed) walked down that aisle, heads turned to watch her. In the milongas, you are always engaged in the dance - whether you're on the pista or not.

Alejandro added, “And the dance starts even at home…..when you are getting ready, taking a shower, dressing up, putting perfume…that is already experiencing the milonga and tango.”

Lesson with Alejandro Gée and his partner, Joujou

From Alejandro Gée's studio - more pictures and info from his website here:

The Lesson with Alejandro and Joujou - Technique and Posture

(Note: My explanations of things I was told may not be accurate. They are what made sense to me at the time, and given the visual and tactile nature of the instruction, may not translate well to the written page. Whenever possible, I asked for clarification from Alejandro to get as accurate and clear an explanation as possible.)

1.) Sink into the standing knee first instead of stepping/falling straight back into the back step. (I've heard that before - not sure why I can't seem to remember to do that.)
According to Alejandro, basically the sequence would be:

1. Sink the weight into the floor through the standing leg (here’s where the knee bends slightly in order to be able to push the weight of the body back in the next step), while straight,  free leg extends backwards  caressing the floor with no weight on it and torso reaches towards the partner.  The standing hip is strong and grounded, the free hip is relaxed and opening backwards as a natural continuation of the leg. The knee is straight.
2.  Weight transfer: heel of the leg extended backwards goes into the floor and the same hip starts traveling backwards until it is on top of the foot. This leg stays straight from the moment the leg extended backwards until the whole weight is on top of it. In the weight transfer the belly button pushes the spine backwards (that is, the abs sustain the whole movement). The transfer is not just in the legs, but mainly in the core.
3. Free leg (which was the front /standing leg until now and is about to extend next) softly collects with a relaxed knee. The standing leg starts step one.

2.) Connect at the solar plexus. (I've heard this before, but I've heard other variations as well. It's comfortable with Alejandro, but with some of my taller leaders, I'm not sure how to make that work.) This was something I asked for further explanation on, and this was Alejandro’s answer:

“The connection at the solar plexus is key.  The solar plexus should be open like a window. It actually works with everyone, it does not depend on the size of the person.  The connection at the solar plexus happens in the context of the right posture, which should not accommodate to body sizes. It does not mean the two solar plexus have to touch, just that you concentrate your energy, in the movement, in this area.  Where the solar plexus reaches in the other person’s body, varies. You do not lose your posture and your focus on this area, same for the other part.”

3.) Relax shoulders (Had no idea they were tense, but wasn't surprised. It's an old habit resurfacing.)
Alejandro’s clarification, “Shoulders should be down and relaxed. Usually they tense because they are compensating some area that is not engaged in the body, many times it is the core, or because the hips and knees are too forward and down.”

4.) Relax head slightly forward (not exactly forward – but just instead of pulling it back and tensing my neck, which I was doing. When did I start doing that??)  It turns out that what felt slightly forward wasn’t actually forward. I looked at video of my dancing later and realized when I thought my head was in a “neutral” position, it was actually very clearly pulled back. Not only does this cause me to tense my neck, but also pulls my shoulder blades together. Until I saw, I didn’t realize I was doing it.

Alejandro explained later, “The head needs to be aligned with the rest of the elongated, flexible yet active spine, neck to tailbone. The head is heavy and breaks the axis easily if misaligned.”

5.) What I originally understood as stay on the balls of the feet (instead of falling back onto my heels) was not actually the whole story (I got further elaboration later).  This has been a source of great confusion for me because about half my teachers say keep forward and heel off the floor and about half say to use/land my heel. Not enough to be 'back-weighted', but enough to be stable and keep the heel on the floor. Enriqueta Kleinman in particular was strong on that point. Using my heel feels far more stable to me but the risk of back-weighting is very high.)

Later Alejandro explained further, “You should definitely use your heels but do not put more weight on them than on the rest of the foot, because that means your torso is too far back or your core is inactive and sinking in the hip.  The weight is distributed but more of it is above the ball of the foot. I absolutely do not mean going up on your toes/ball of foot but shifting the weight of whole body forward even when your heel is firmly on the floor.”

6.) Don't lose the forward intention/presence of the hip bone. (This one is trickier to explain. I tend to break at the waist and my hips tilt back, bowing my back slightly. When that happens, for lack of a better way to put it, I lose the energy of the leader's lead. It just kind of evaporates and I make my legs do whatever I think it was he wanted me to do. No bueno.)

“The main principle of balance is that if something pulls in a direction, something else needs to pull in the opposite direction with the same energy. The hips are not one compact piece. The right hip is part of the right leg and the left hip is a part of the left leg. As you know, in tango we say that the legs start underneath the torso, not underneath the hip. When one leg is strong, that same hip is strong while the other one is free. The hip bone needs to be engaged (pushing forward) as you hold the weight in the standing leg to allow the free leg to move in the opposite direction.”

7.) When the back leg is extended, keep heel (by angling the foot) against the floor as much as possible. In other words, extend through the Achilles tendon rather than through the toes which points the heel upward. This is kind of a visual thing and hard to explain. Again, about half my teachers have told me to extend my foot, pointing my toe down into the floor, and the other half have said to extend through the arch and lengthening the Achilles tendon. To me, the second one feels and looks better - but every time I get used to doing it that way, another teacher tells me to switch back again.)

Alejandro’s excellent explanation, ” Extending through the Achilles tendon keeps you more grounded and elongates the spine and you don’t risk a) stabbing someone with your heel or b) making a step longer that it needs to be (thus breaking your lower back).”

8.) Walk in two tracks instead of pulling my extended leg directly behind my standing leg (leading me to almost cross myself or do shallow ochos.) Again, this is something I had heard before and used to do, then had another teacher tell me to walk in a single track, one foot directly behind the other. Another habit to break. Walking in two tracks feels more stable for certain. 

From Alejandro, “Walking in two tracks is more natural, so it gives natural stability. The walk, and everything else, should be comfortable and as natural as possible.”

That last sentence just about sums up my experience of tango in Buenos Aires - everything comes together to be as comfortable and natural as possible. Nothing felt contrived, unnatural, or forced. The more I relaxed, the easier it was to feel that.

Lesson with Rubén Aybar and Cherie Magnus - Preparing for BA Milongas

Not related to dancing, but this is the extraordinary view from Rubén and Cherie's terrace.  *sigh*

Every newcomer to Buenos Aires tango should start with a lesson with Rubén and Cherie. If nothing else to avoid the pitfalls that beset unprepared dancers who visit the more crowded, traditional (and conservative) milongas in Buenos Aires. In addition to solid technique instruction, they also provide so much insight into the milonga culture - and to Buenos Aires more generally. I just wish I had time to have more lessons before I left!


Rubén and Cherie and Preparing for the Milongas

Even with the guidance and lessons I had with my teacher before reaching Buenos Aires, I would have had a rough time in the milongas had it not been for Rubén and Cherie.  A few hours after we got off the plane, my travel mate Janet and I walked the 20 blocks from where we were staying to Rubén and Cherie's apartment. Cherie said it was fine that my friend and I sat in on each other's lessons, which was a fantastic opportunity for both of us to learn so much.

First, I danced with Rubén which, if you have danced with the man you will already know this, was fantastic. It was worth the trip just to dance with him. I was all kinds of happy after we finished the song. Cherie smiled and said, 'did you hear the clicking - all the sounds you were making with your heels?"  Oops.

"Yes," I answered hesitantly. Even though in other circumstances I really enjoy my heel adornos for expressing the music, I could already sense where this question was going.

"Try not to do that at the milongas. Keep your feet quieter." Adornments that make noise, heel or toe tapping etc., as I saw for myself at the milongas, are not appreciated and will elicit a row of disapproving looks. In the States that kind of thing is widely taught and encouraged - but definitely not appreciated in the milongas we went to.

(Note: all of my observations regarding what appears to be 'acceptable' at the milongas are only based, of course, on the milongas I went to since that's all I can really speak to.)

Other moves we were warned about that aren't welcome (and that clearly weren't appreciated in the milongas we visited) - high, sharp ganchos, leg wraps, high boleos and the like. In other milongas I hear there's little to no problem with them - especially very late in the night. But Cherie had a good idea of which milongas our hosts Maria Teresa Lopez and Margarita Guerra would be taking us to - and knew moves like that would immediately mark us as ignorant touristas. Not that we could hide that fact anyway - but we wanted to be respectful of the spaces we were dancing in.

That night at Club Gricel we saw tourists from the US doing every single thing she had warned us about - and the looks from tangueros/as observing the floor was not friendly. Mostly dancers with those moves were forced to dance with each other as many local dancers studiously avoided eye contact with them. The same thing happened at the other milongas we went to - dancers at Consagrados were even more harsh in their disapproval making quite audible comments on the matter. One couple was taken aside after the follower kicked a seated woman on the first row of tables. They were strongly encouraged to leave shortly after.

Every milonga is different and has its own personality. The best advice I can give in knowing what is appropriate and what isn't is to just watch the floor for awhile. Watch the dancers' faces - and reactions to other dancers. That can tell you so much. If you're not sure, err on the side of caution and keep your feet on the floor. If the practice seems to be bigger, higher moves at a particular milonga, then, if it's led, go for it. But watch the floor for awhile first and continue to observe throughout the night. As the evening wears on, the attitude can change as some dancers leave and other dancers come in.

Back to Rubén and Cherie - they are not only outstanding teachers, but very gracious hosts. They are warm and generous with their time and attention. The services they provide, from classes to taxi dancing, are worth every penny. They are well known and very well respected in the tango community in Buenos Aires, and of course around the world - thanks to all of the international tango students who pass through.  If you're going to Buenos Aires, look them up - you'll be so glad you did.

Personal Notes on my Lesson
Technique, technique, technique.

Technique advice in my lesson was much what I expected as my weaknesses are (unfortunately) pretty consistent. My hips and free leg weren't relaxed enough. Rubén's steps were so small and so fast that the slightest tension in my leg and hips caused a delay in my following. I was, in an instant, disconnected from him. My hips were also so tense that I wasn't completely pivoting when I was being led to.

I was lifting my heels too much and my back steps were too long, even when I thought they were short. In the milongas, the space I had to step was smaller than anything I had experienced in Texas milongas - even what I used to think of as crowded milongas. By the way, the leaders in Buenos Aires are masters of tiny spaces and almost never seemed to get frustrated or impatient by it. For them it seems the situation is what it is and they work with what they have. Beautiful circular movements, tiny, musical steps - I never once felt constrained by the lack of space. (Of course I wasn't the one having to navigate.)

I'm also still "breaking at the waist" in every lesson I have and I don't really know how to fix that. I can feel the problems that it causes and I'm working on rebuilding the muscle I lost in my abdomen after surgery last year - but I can't seem to hold my abdomen firm and keep from bowing my back. I'm trying to be patient and I know it will take time and consistent effort, but I'm extremely frustrated by this.