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Three Women of Tango

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1.

There is a tango entitled "Tengo Miedo", written in 1929.

Tu cariño me enloquece.
Tu pasión me da la vida.
Sinembargo tengo miedo,
tengo miedo de quererte.
(Your affection drives me crazy.
Your passion gives me life.
But just the same I'm afraid,
I'm afraid to love you.
)

In New York some years ago, I danced occasionally with Julietta, a woman who had had three husbands, two of whom she had left. The third was named William, a retired American investment banker who was a tall and quiet New England Protestant who'd attended Choate and Harvard. He was quite well-spoken despite his shyness, gray-haired and usually clothed in New England tweed, a blue dress shirt and an old-school tie, and he treated Julietta with extraordinary kindliness. He was many years older than she. They lived on Sutton Place and were of such polished elegance that they seemed simply out of place dancing Argentine tango.

She was of Paraguayan extraction, very dark with extremely dark eyes, who was known among the tango people in New York as one who kept to herself. She spoke no Spanish, having been raised in East Side Manhattan on Fifth Avenue. Julietta and William had a great deal of money, and had traveled the world, staying in the most remarkable hotels anyone could imagine. They received an expensive gift every Christmas, for example, from the general manager of the Danieli in Venice, where they would stay for a month each year. A hand-written letter as well from that same general manager.

Julietta was a fine tango dancer. One afternoon, I danced with her to "Tengo miedo", recorded by Ada Falcón with the orchestra of Francisco Canaro. This tango is no longer well known, but Falcón sings it in such a way that I feel it is an undiscovered treasure. The lyrics tell of a woman afraid to love her lover. The irony of the performance is that, when Falcón declares her fear, she does so with a smile in her voice.

I asked Julietta if she knew the lyrics to this tango. When she replied that she did not, I translated them for her as we danced.

Tengo miedo … A pause, in which you can feel Falcon's search for the correct words, which she delivers with considerable intensity, as though she's looking up at her lover and saying, with a smile, "Yes. Yes, I will." Tengo miedo … de quererte.

Toward the end of the tango, I sensed that the emotional state in which we had begun dancing had changed. For one thing, the front of my shirt was damp. The music came to an end, and as I released Julietta from the embrace I saw that she was in tears.

"It's just that … that translation … it reminded me of my father," she explained. "I … I loved him so."

"What did he do?" I asked.

"He died!"

"No, I mean what did he do for a living?"

"Oh…" Julietta shrugged. "He was unusual for someone from Paraguay. He was in shipping. He owned ships." She put the fingers of her right hand to her lips as she surveyed the dance floor. She was wearing a ring of black jade. "I stopped seeing him after I finished school. Sarah Lawrence. He wanted to see me. But I refused. And then … then he died."

"What happened?" I asked.

"Well, I think … I think he died of sadness." She sighed, looking for a moment at the ring, caressing it with her fingers. "Sadness for me."

Julietta and William once took me to a cloth and button store on lower Broadway in Manhattan that was staffed by elderly orthodox Jews, men who knew where each remnant was located in this store — a store filled with thousands of such remnants — where each bolt of cloth was, each button, each sequin. The store was long, very narrow, and very dusty. There was a broad window in front, but the daylight coming in from outside was for the most part cut off by piled up bolts of cloth.

Julietta shopped there for embroidery and brocade, cloth that reminded her, she said, of her mother, who had died long ago in Paraguay. The three of us had coffee afterwards in their apartment, and Julietta told me about the messages she had received from her mother, when she had been a little girl.

Her mother and father had been divorced, and her father had basically stolen the two-year-old and brought her to New York. He'd forbidden his former wife to visit them or to talk to Julietta on the phone. So the mother had sent letters to Julietta that she had sewed into remnants of embroidered lace and brocaded silk. The letters were secret. All her father knew was that his ex-wife was sending Julietta the sewn gifts, and he allowed the girl to receive them. Julietta suspected that his doing so absolved him of the guilt he must have felt being so cruel to his daughter. Each letter was a soulfully made present to a little girl far away, and each one of them had made her suffer terribly.

She showed me several of them that day. She had catalogued them by date and had stored them, singly, in protective manila envelopes. The letters themselves contained bits of family news and were written in very simple Spanish. Each was framed in cloth, pink, green, light blue, made playful by the lace that her mother had sewn to the cloth, by the colored thread that held the lace to the paper, by little tassels, cloth buttons, quilted little squares of velvet, gold brocade, bright cotton and silk, silver and white.

"The maid had to read them to me," Julietta told me, an admission that caused her mood to darken. "Because I couldn't understand the Spanish."

"Why haven't you ever learned Spanish?" I asked.

"I couldn't stand it! Spanish was my father's language, even though he spoke English to me. He spoke Spanish on the phone every day, doing business. It was like a gun or something. He was always so formally dressed, shirt and tie. Perfect. His hair combed, so handsome. And everything he said on the phone sounded so disapproving."

I read a few of the letters, translating out loud into English the news about the new bishop at the cathedral, about her mother's servant Locala, a Bolivian Indian woman who made such wonderful coffee, and Locala's sister Marisol who had six little children, all of whom prayed every Sunday for Julietta's soul.

Julietta nodded, joyful in her memories. When I looked up at her, she was seated in the sunlight coming in the window, in a chair for which she had done the needlepoint work on the chair back herself, a pair of dark red roses on an ebony background. William sat across from her, a saucer and cup of tea in his hands. He had heard this story many times before, it was obvious. But he listened in silence nonetheless, allowing Julietta her sorrow.

Earlier, she had handed the man at the Jewish remnant shop a twenty dollar bill, to pay for a selection of colorful remnants, a few pearlescent buttons, some red velvet tassels and a quite frayed but nonetheless somberly beautiful piece of blue Chinese silk. The man was in his seventies, wearing a wrinkled white shirt and black pants. His white beard was stained below his mouth with yellow. He wore a black yarmulke and he counted out the change from a drawer in the counter in a hurried manner. He had had to interrupt his cutting of a large piece of cloth with a pair of heavy scissors, and he appeared to resent the distraction. He put the items that Julietta had bought into a white plastic sack and handed it to her with her change, thanking her without looking at her.

The three of us passed back into the noisy flow of Broadway.

"What do you do with the remnants you buy?" I asked as we stood before the shop awaiting a taxi. The remnants showed through the plastic, as though shrouded by a cold fog.

For a moment, Julietta remained silent.

"I donate them to the Catholic girls' school in my neighborhood, for the girls' art classes."

She put on her sunglasses, and looked back over her shoulder at the shop window, the view through which was almost fully blocked by the ends of the bolts of cloth.

"I like their selection here. Their prices. They've got everything."

Her eyes were hidden by the glasses.

"But mostly," she murmured, "I come here to weep."

2.

An Argentine couple I knew in New York had had an on-again/off-again relationship for many years. Federico was about fifty, short, squat, and had a terrific sense of the rhythms of tango and its related dance, the milonga. Lucia, known as La India, was rather tall, with long black hair that seemed to command the space around her upper body. You had to arrange your right hand carefully when you took her into your embrace, so that the hand would not pull her hair or ensnare it any painful way. She danced very slowly, and always appeared to be savoring this moment of masculine intensity.

India was the number one woman I knew for shopping at used clothing stores or "seconds" shops. Many of the tangueras in New York would not go shopping for dance clothing without her. I associated the sound of clothing stores — the tight click-click of hangers moving from or being replaced upon the racks — with her. The sound was a major part of India's personality. It was the sound of commerce being done in the name of artistic necessity.

She did not buy conservatively. For tango she dressed in the mode of a 1950s screen beauty. So there were a lot of sequins and tight dresses, very high heels, remarkable makeup. Film noir severity, with dark sunglasses, tight sweaters and long black skirts. A form of dress very often sought after by the older New York tangueras, say those over forty. The younger women don't much care for any of that, and appear at the practicas in Levis and baggy shirts, in keeping with the contemporary fashion of the streets. Basically they dress in hip-hop clothes, K-Mart style. The older Argentines cluck at this, certain that this kind of sloppy informality is an offense against tango itself, and will result in sloppy tango.

India, though, was sympathetic to the simpler mode of dress, even though she was well into her forties. I once asked her why, even in Buenos Aires, one sees so few women who take the trouble to dress for tango the way she did. She nodded and sighed.

"It's the economic situation in my country. It's always bad. The government. Corruption. So women there don't have the money to dress up like a two-bit tart." She smiled and lay a hand on my shoulder. "The way I do," she said.

India was five inches taller than Federico in her stocking feet. So, with heels she was seven or sometimes eight inches taller than he. She did not slouch when she danced with him. They looked like a pine tree dancing with a shrub. She appeared to love Federico as though there were no other lover in the world.

One evening I was cadging some cheese from the kitchen of a milonga in New York, sneaking around in the refrigerator. I'd found a little bread, some gouda, and a knife, and I was happy.

As I turned to return to the milonga, I saw India leaning in the kitchen doorway crying. She resembled – this evening – Ida Lupino in sunglasses

"India," I said. "¿Qué pasó?"

She looked up at me and I could see tears running down her face, melting pearls covering her cheeks with silvery light.

"Oh, it's just that …"

She looked away. I found a roll of industrial paper tissue on the sink.

Tearing off a square of it, I approached her.

"It's just that Honey Bun doesn't love me any more," India said, taking the tissue from me.

"Who?"

"Federico."

I would not have equated Federico with the notion of being a honey bun. Glancing out to the dance floor, I saw that Federico was dancing with a portly blonde woman. Ada Falcón's voice floated through the kitchen. Tu cariño me enloquece. Driven mad by affection. The middle finger of the blonde's left hand was caressing the back of Federico's neck.

India sat down on a wooden chair and leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, her lower legs splayed out to the sides. She placed a hand on the back of her neck and grimaced. I felt she was on the verge of explaining some sort of secret to me, an internal solitude of some kind that would explain how she could give herself over so completely to such sadness.

"She wouldn't leave him alone. I asked him not to dance with her," India muttered, "but he went and did it."

There was nothing else. Silence. Tears. She daubed at them with the industrial tissue.

I had never seen such a display from India, and a few days later I was speaking with a mutual friend, a woman who knew her well. I worried out loud about the state of India's emotions.

"So this is the first time you've seen this act that Federico does?" my acquaintance asked.

"Yes."

"It happens once every few months," she said. "It sends India into some dark unhappiness that …"

"That must be terrible for her," I muttered

"She loves it!"

"But who'd want anything like that?"

My friend shook her head.

"She says it makes her feel like a woman. A true woman. She lives for it."

3.

Ada Falcón herself was a child star in Argentina, making her stage debut in 1910 at the age of five. Known then as La joyita argentina (The Little Argentine Jewel) she was an immediate hit as a singer during interludes between acts in Buenos Aires stage productions. At the age of thirteen, Ada made her first film and became an immediate star.

Her voice was mezzo-soprano, and so has a profundity not shared by the more usual  sopranos. When she sings, there is nonetheless a kind of playfulness in her voice that seems to make fun of the possibilities for betrayal and desperation that fill so many of the tango lyrics. When she is singing of the disappointment life can bring — when she's seen how the love she's given away has then been thrown away — now that she's given up what she had in such abundance as a child: innocence, trust, laughter — now that the only thing she has left from that time is the memory of the madreselva, the honeysuckle that grew up a wall, to the flowers of which she confided her closest secrets, when there's nothing left at all, Ada still sings with a smile in her voice, fresh and genuine, and with a suggestion of jaded desire for the person to whom she is singing.

She is a Judy Garland-like figure. Evidently she did not attend school. Rather she had personal teachers who worked with her when she was not making movies or singing or making records. She was also quite remarkably beautiful, notably so. By the time she was in her twenties, she was driving around Buenos Aires in a fast, red luxury convertible, she owned a fabulous three-story home in the Recoleta neighborhood, and she was appearing in public wrapped in fur and glittering with jewels. In the early thirties, she made approximately fifteen recordings a month. She was a superstar, and when you listen to her recordings you understand why. There are few singers in any genre who approach their songs with as much casual authority, yet fine artistic judgment, as Ada Falcón.

She was not as successful in matters of love.

She fell for Francisco Canaro, who was himself one of the most successful tango orchestra leaders of the twenties and thirties. This man's music is extremely popular to this day. Many of Falcón's greatest recordings were made with Canaro, including "Tengo miedo". I have listened to most of them, and wondered how much of the passion that is so evident in her voice came about because Canaro himself was standing near her as she sang, behind her, watching her and marveling at the feeling with which she gave him back the songs that he had given her.

In 1943, at the age of thirty-eight, at the peak of her career, Falcón abandoned it. Her retirement was sudden, completely unexpected and extremely strange. She began to appear on the streets of Buenos Aires in disguise, it seemed, her head swathed in scarves, shawls hanging about her shoulders, her considerably lovely eyes hidden behind slab-like sunglasses. She stopped recording. There were reports in the newspapers about strange nighttime peregrinations, about her odd dress, her raving. What was more unexpected was that she abruptly left Buenos Aires one day in the company of her mother, traveled to Cordoba, Argentina and there entered the Molinari Convent of Franciscan nuns.

There is a great deal of speculation about her decision to leave show business, the life she had known almost since birth, and to enter the contemplative life under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Most center upon her love for Canaro. Because Canaro had a wife.

Evidently Falcón had been very guilt-ridden about her affair with a married man, yet overwhelmed by the love she felt for him. She had pleaded with Canaro to divorce his wife so that she could marry him. Canaro had agreed, but did not actually go through with the divorce action. He kept Falcón on one hand and his wife on the other, for years. There were family reasons. The Church, you see. We just have to wait for a while, he said, to keep it respectable. We have careers. We have obligations. Falcón waited, until the day on which Canaro admitted to her that he would never leave his wife under any circumstances.

Falcón, the theory says, went mad. She went to the streets, wandered the streets, swathed in craziness. Shortly thereafter, her mother took her away and she entered the convent.

Ada Falcón died in 2002, at niney-six, in the convent in Cordoba. She seldom left the convent, she never recorded another song, and it's my guess that she never recovered her heart.

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About Terence Clarke

  • http://.thetangojungle.blogspot.com Evie Abat

    Really lovely stories that capture the feeling of tango.

  • http://www.robot-of-the-week.com Christopher Rose

    Terence, this is absolutely one of the best things I’ve read on Blogcritics, so thanks very much for that.

    It’s one of my secret desires to learn to dance the Tango, having started listening to Tango music some twenty or thirty years ago when I first heard Astor Piazzolla, but I doubt I have enough control of my body to learn the movements.

  • Silver Surfer

    Yeah, great stuff. Thanks for putting pen to paper (virtually, anyhow).

  • Ashtoreth

    This was a beautiful piece. I was actually listening to Tango music as I read it. (Pure coincidence.) Not only is it a portrait of Tango, it shows how this world is infused with the Madonna/Whore/Suffering Woman archetypes that are so much a part of both Catholicism and Latin/Mediterranean culture.

    In the third cameo, one also sees the archetypal wall of death that a woman, especially a woman celebrated for her beauty and appeal to men perceives as she approaches the age of 40. It represents an existential extinguishing point. Not everyone gets through it intact.

    I think that this element of ‘running out of time’, combined with the fact that Canaro, in selfishly and narcissistically insisting on hobbling the psyches of two women to act out his own Madonna/Whore complex, refused to vindicate her ‘whoredom’ to the pure state of ‘wifedom’.

    This effectively drove Ada to disassociative, mind splitting, self-annihilating madness, and a kind of death/punishment/female castration/transcendence cascade.

    Given the context of her culture and religion, this entailed self-immolation and consignment to a nunnery, effectively sacrificing all that she was, loved and had achieved – all for a malignant narcissist, who probably took it as a badge of honor that he had driven a woman mad and to the convent for her pathological addiction with him, him, him. He sounds like quite the game player.

    With such men, it’s all about them.

    Canaro sounds like so much Canard. Same can be said for the manipulative shrub and the pathological psychic BDSM he subjected his partner too.

    The story of the first woman was a gem. They all were lovely cameos that haunt you. In each vignette, I felt I was there. Bravo.

  • http://www.terenceclarke.org Terence Clarke

    Hello Ashtoreth:

    Thank you for your thoughts on my piece. There’s a film about Ada Falcón that I think you’d find interesting. It’s a feature-length documentary entitled “Yo no sé qué me han hecho tus ojos” (“I don’t know what your eyes have done to me”) by an Argentine film-maker named Sergio Wolf. He was fascinated by Ada’s story, which is famous in Argentina. He interviewed many tango people in Buenos Aires who either had known Canaro and Ada personally, or who have a deep understanding of the tango scene in that country. And, best of all, he actually found Ada herself in the convent and was able to interview her before she died. The interview is extremely interesting, not least because she is extremely charming, humorous and quite willing to talk about Canaro and her music. Given the sadness of her story, I was surprised to find so much life still there. You may be able to find the film at NetFlix. I’m not sure. But I recommend it highly.
    Best,
    Terry Clarke

  • Ashtoreth

    Thank you for the information on the film, Terry. It sounds fascinating.

    From your description of Ada at the end, maneuvering through the rigid constructs of her life and culture, she found what was her means of absolution (for all her ‘sins’) sacrifice, death, transformation and transcendence. She cast herself as a kind of Magdalene figure.

    Life is a series of little deaths and transformations, some more violent or literal than others. She was a product of a very literalist, dogmatic culture.

    You didn’t see ‘Canard’ sending himself off to such a fate.

    Still, as you touched upon, there is a bizarre reverence for the archetype of the suffering or defeated woman as somehow ‘womanhood’ in Latin culture. It is a male invention and women dutifully leap through the hoops, unfortunately to their demise. It is a part of their social conditioning and the archetypes of the culture.

    It’s sad. Even if Ada had left dancing, left Argentina, she did not have to lose herself the way she did. She could have gone to Europe or America, found another man, a man who truly saw her and loved her. Instead, she tangoed with a narcissist. When you do that, you always lose.

    The pathological relationship has been described as a dance, or an addiction. To celebrate this in a macho culture necessarily ends up in the destruction of women.

    I was listening to the wonderful sound track to the film, ‘Tango’. It is a mediocre movie that makes one chuckle at the banal narcissism of the Latin men in it.

    Also the way they underscore the old and hideous men ‘the shrubs’ of the world scoring fabulous women, supposedly endlessly dominant and virile and magnetic – even in their dotage is done to hilarious effect. It is overdone and forced down your throat to the point of camp.

    Their wives are all presumably fossils at this point, and their mistresses in convents. ;)

    The dance performances are extraordinary though, especially a woman I referred to as ‘The Panther’. She has two main performances, one which opens the film.

    In that dance scene the man ends the dance by stabbing his partner to death viscerally penetrating her abdomen like it is both weapon and penis, interchangeable as weapons to defeat the woman. (It is an act, but very convincing and disturbing, with knife and all.)

    The male character soon after seeks to force himself sexually on the her to the point of rape. Not cool. This is all portrayed as jolly ‘normal’ for the Latin male.

    Gee, the convent might look like a relaxing place in comparison, come to think of it. ;)

    The idea of pathologically narcissistic men bent on controlling, murdering women (literally or figuratively) out of desire for sexual control and dominance plays itself out at the end of the story, but peters out for a ridiculous finale that is just maudlin.

    The best things about the film are the dance choreography and the soundtrack. I highly recommend the soundtrack.

    Which reminds me. The music has stopped… I need to start it again and get back to my painting. :)