Wednesday Nights and Remembering Roger Ebert and Carlos Saura

For a time, I spent almost every Wednesday night under the dimmed light of a dance floor in Hollywood. This isn’t the Hollywood of tourists or actors, although I did on occasion meet a famous actor there. This was a week-night practica, something of a precursor to a milonga or a bailonga.

An Argentinean American girlfriend and I had wanted to learn tango. Up until then, I was dancing East Coast Swing at Caltech and some flamenco. She never did go into Argentine tango, but I read about a 1997 film, “The Tango Lesson” when Roger Ebert wrote about it.

The Tango Lesson” (La lección de tango) is a semi-autobiographical film about a middle-aged woman, Sally (Sally Potter) taking Argentine tango lessons from dancer Pablo (Pablo Verón) which leads to Sally becoming obsessed with both the dance and the dancer. Yet Sally is a film director and she’s more used to leading than following and Pablo, as a master of tango, is used to leading.

Ebert wrote: “The duel between Potter and Veron is all the more fascinating because it is about the wisdom of passion, rather than the temptation. The score, partly composed by Potter, is so seductive that for the first time in years I walked out of the screening and down the street and bought the soundtrack.”

That was my introduction to Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango.” On the soundtrack, Yoyo Ma performed on cello to Sebastian Piana and Homero Manzi’s “I Am You” to which Sally Potter sang the lyrics with Nestor E. Marconi (bandoneon), Antonio Agri (violin), Leonardo D. Marconi (piano) & Horacio Malvicino (guitar).

But while I did eventually buy the DVD and meet Verón on that very Hollywood dance floor and take tango lessons, the object of my cinematic obsession would come a year later,  “Tango No Me Dejes Nunca” or, as it was known in the US, “Tango,” incorporated a story about a middle-aged man, searching for love, seeing his former and current lover duel and duet, all while telling the history of the dance and music. My obsession with tango would lead me to turn down many men, turn away many men but lead to great friendships and marriage and a trip to Buenos Aires.

I should preface this by saying, I learned the difference between the physical exhilaration of flying in a man’s arms. During my junior year in high school, I was the demo girl. The guys in the musical high school musical production tried out different lifts on me. By that time, I was in my second year of gymnastics and probably hovering near or just below my senior weight of 90 pounds. If guys could not do lift with me, they could not expect to do it with anyone.

Having taken some gymnastic aided these endeavors and there was one particular evening at Caltech where several men were talking about lifts and trying them out with me. Even those Wednesday nights on the tango dance floor, men were often tempted to try at least the waltz lift while dancing and that was easy enough for me.

Ebert wrote about “Tango,”:

With the tango you never get the feeling the dancers have just met. They have a long history together, and not necessarily a happy one; they dance as a challenge, a boast, a taunt, a sexual put-down. It is the one dance where the woman gives as good as she gets, and the sexes are equal.

He also continued, “The tango is based on suspicion, sex and insincerity. It is not a dance for virgins. It is for the wounded and the wary.”

That’s an odd sort of estimation, but I’ve notice a distinctly suspicious regard for tango by people from the UK and the US. According to the Spanish dictionaries I’ve consulted, “tango” doesn’t have the concept of insincerity and intrigue attached. Yet when I hear it in the soundtrack of films and TV shows from the US and the UK, there’s that suggestion of an “interaction marked by a lack of straightforwardness.” Spies must all need to know how to tango.

Yet, in this film, the protagonist observes children at a school learning tango, because it is a matter of national pride, not unlike learning hula in Hawaii. These children are no doubt virgins, but they are not without some resonating trauma from the national tragedy where people were tortured and disappeared. This was not Marvel Movie blip, but a military dictatorship.

Eventually, I found dance partners and began taking semi-private lessons in Argentine tango. There were weekly practices, lessons and monthly dances. Halloweens and other holidays were celebrated at milongas. Eventually, I did find someone to dance with. But I knew from my days as a demo lift partner that the physical exhilaration didn’t mean couple compatibility. I loved dancing with people who I might have nothing to talk about with or with whom I didn’t click with on a personal level. And there were people that I loved talking with who I didn’t feel compatible chemistry on the dance floor. Most of my dancing took place in Pasadena and Alhambra and included swing, tango, salsa and flamenco. I did brush by some of the Asian American crowd that were in Monterey Park.

Through tango, I met the man that I married. We once used to celebrate our Halloweens, New Year’s and birthdays at milongas. But that slowly wound down due to work complications until it stopped with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet I went on to watch the flamenco films by Carlos Saura that preceded “Tango” and together my husband and I watched “Fados,” a film that I consider one of the best films about song and dance.

I was with my husband when I met Verón in Hollywood for a dance workshop and I would later meet the main choreographer of “Tango,” the man who played Carlos Nebbia, Juan Carlos Copes, in Buenos Aires. I also met one of the main dancers, Carlos Rivarola, when he came to Los Angeles. While I think it was predictable that the protagonist, Mario Suárez (Miguel Ángel Solá), imagines his ex-girlfriend Laura (Cecilia Narova) dancing seductively with his new love Elena (Mía Maestro), less predictable was the duet between Carlos Rivarola’s Ernesto Landi and ballet dancer Julio Bocca (Julio Bocca). One of my biggest regrets is not seeing Bocca dance in person.

Until his death, I was unaware of Saura’s other films, only his dance films. His dance films surely touched many people. And the friends I made during milongas will stay with me always. When you are on the dance floor with a partner, you create a moment of magic and an elusive feeling. There certainly can be sadness when it ends. But I’m lucky. I have a dance partner in my husband and we’ve dance while standing in line, in museums and wherever we’ve been struck with the time and the space.

I danced at Ebertfest, the first time I was invited there, finally meeting Roger Ebert in person. When Ebert died, I wrote this:

Looking at the photo taken at Ebertfest, I think of Gerardo Valero, Grace Wang, Seongyong Cho, Ali Arikan, Michael Mirasol, Omar Moore, Omer Mozaffar, Jim Emerson, Steven Boone, Odie Henderson, Scott Jordan Harris, Olivia Collette, Pablo Villaça, Michal Oleszczy and Donald Liebenson. I’m sad that I’ve fallen out of touch with some, but glad I am still social media friends with others.

What an odd turn a life can take from reading one review, from making one choice and choosing to learn ochos instead of aerials.

When I was asked to write a paragraph about Roger Ebert on the 10th anniversary of this death, I didn’t think I could write just one because Carlos Saura also just died (10 February 2023), and that was very much on my mind

I reviewed some of the emails I had sent Roger over the years. In 2007, wrote to ask Roger to review “Fados” because it moved me so that I was watching it over and over again.

The film moved me so much I wrote at length about it:

Then when I saw “Pina,” I wrote to Roger again:

This was one of many videos that I sent to Roger FYA, many of which he later retweeted. The above  link is no longer valid.  Things may seem eternal in cyberspace, but sometimes they are not. I hope that Roger Ebert will be one of those things that are eternally in the ether on social media in whatever form. Looking at the last ten years, he certainly changed my life, not only by asking me to understand the world from the eyes of a White Midwestern man, but also from the eyes of all the people I met through him.

I feel a sadness that time has passed and so many of my friends have disappeared into diverging tangents of life or into the eternal ether.  And that could be expressed as a tango. There’s always something a bit mournful about many tango songs (as opposed to milongas).  Yet with the pandemic, the tango dance parties and dance events had shut down and I have not embraced their reopening just yet.  So I don’t see many of my dance friends, and a recent tragedy also means that some people that I had knew casually–only by sight, will never return.

Wednesday nights are no longer spent in darkened rooms listening to tangos, valz and milongas. Instead the bark of dogs is what I hear as a run around an agility field, something made easier because of my dance training.  The death of Saura made me think I need to get back to dance. Reflecting on the passing of a decade since Roger Ebert died, I think of how he changed my life and I think I need to search for those people I met on my first trip to Ebertfest, even if I can’t make it there and I need to tweet some great dance videos. Send me links if you find any.


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