Por Marina Gambier
Fotografía Pilar Bustelo
Traducción Mariela Wladimirsky
Leaning on the Ford window he discovered the gray landscapes of Castile, and remembered that the hue of the ground is different—almost black—in Argentina. It was June 24th and he had been traveling in Spain for over a year with an orchestra of Argentine jack-of-all-trades musicians— they played malambo, chacarera, guitars, La Verbena. Sometimes he tangoed, or rather, he repeated a couple of numbers learnt by heart, because he did not even know what an ocho was. On that drowsy ride, the radio let out the voice of Carlos Gardel, and his body shook with a known emotion. What was he doing there? At that very moment, Oscar Armando Martínez Pey knew that the adventure was over. It was time to head back home.
“I always say you can’t look for it. Tango just arrives. It knocks on your door and says, ‘Hey, you.’ When it has to come in, it does. And it won’t leave. You’ll get to be a professional or dance at milongas, you’ll take thousands of lessons or you’ll just listen to it at home. But one way or another, it will stay. To me, it arrived at a crucial moment. I had gone through tough experiences in a very short time— my parents got divorced, I was in another country, I felt melancholic, it was hard to be on my own. I cried… I felt depressed. I missed my family, my dog, my friends. But in that trip I discovered myself. It marked me out— I wanted to be an artist. Dancing was the fastest way to pursue that vocation. I came back to Buenos Aires and in two years’ time it was all set. Pablo Coelho says that the universe conspires when you want something to happen. And he is right.”
The stars conspired, and he did his share. The eager type of person, by the time this interview is being transcribed Pancho (as he was called as a child) has probably already conceived one of those new projects that now come to his mind, after another painful separation and the confirmation that years performing on stage have not killed the milonguero within him. He can sing, he can dance, he is a choreographer, a comedian, an exemplary father and a responsible teacher, but he is respected by those engaged in tango because he can master the dancefloor and the stage—two very distinct spaces—equally. One can hardly be good and shine at both. However, he has demonstrated a chameleon-like ability to move nonstop from the archetypical dancer for export in a pinstriped suit and a hat at an angle, to the discreet elegance of tango salón. On stage he transforms, and off stage he is the same old fellow. Affectionate, a friend. That fact has born sweet fruit— he danced with María Nieves in the latest festivals organized by the Secretary of Culture of Buenos Aires, taught with Milena Plebs in the summer and was part of the cast of Tita, una vida en tiempo de tango, the musical starred by Nacha Guevara in 2011.
“I did it the other way round— I started out on stage, got off to the dancefloor and learnt how to dance, and then went back on stage. In Spain I’d had a bit of a warm up, but when I met up with my friends again in Buenos Aires I noticed they had evolved a lot and I was millions of light years behind. I saw them dance and said, ‘Ok, I want this.’”
The Martínez only listened to Argentine folk music. At the age of 8, he took lessons with a teacher from Ramos Mejía who owned a peña named La Brasa, where his father’s group, Los 4 vientos, used to play. Surrounded by malambo, bolas and spurred boots, he grew up happily. He played soccer with the boys from his neighborhood and spent afternoons watching movies starred by Gene Kelly, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney and Fred Astaire. Looking back at it now, some of that struck deep in him.
”There was always a lot of music at home. I lived with my whole family in one of those typical large buildings, with a yard and concrete walls— you hammer a nail and they crack. We settled in that big house when I was five and my sister six. My grandmother and her younger brother, the four of us, and, next door, my granduncle, who had raised my father and his two brothers. On Sundays, we had rounds of guitar-playing, asados, and some unforgettable fun. New Year’s Eves were amazing. I remember one in particular, my father and uncles dressed up like women on the street, stopping cars… they were terrible. It was a decisive atmosphere.”
You could not have avoided the folklore
YClearly not. With that family background it was difficult to play dumb. But when I finished high school I enrolled in Business Administration undergraduate studies. At 17, I had been hired by the firm of an accountant who used to go to the peñas where my father played. I did the paperwork, because in high school I had undertaken the accounting program, with specialization in administration. After 1991, I was hired by Banco Liniers Sudamericana—which doesn’t exist any longer—, located on Esmeralda and Rivadavia streets, as an administrative clerk. I enjoyed wearing a suit, sitting behind a desk, dealing with people, making calculations. The day of my job interview—I will never forget it—I was wearing a pinstriped taupe-gray suit that I was very fond of, and the interview was to be held next to the Colón opera house. I took bus line 106 from Liniers downtown, I got off… and it started to pour. By the time I got there I was soaking wet. Later, a friend of my father’s suggested going to Spain. And it fit me like a glove. My parents’ separation affected me badly. All the joy was gone.
Before his trip, he had taken some lessons with Juan Carlos Copes in Fama studio, but when he came back, while he was part of a folk dance group, his first teachers were Héctor Falcón, Susana Rojo, Celia Blanco, until he got to Dinzel studio. By 1995, he was a ticket-seller at Floresta station of Sarmiento train line. He began his workday at 5 in the morning and danced until 11 in the evening.
You had not been to a milonga yet
I was an “embrace virgin” until a friend and I got to Gustavo Naveira’s practice at Cochabamba. I was 22, and there I was intimidated by a woman for the first time. I asked her for a dance, but when she got up, I got shock still— she was red-hot, all curves. Very milonguera-style. She embraces me… and I can’t explain what I feel. She took my breath away. When I embraced her I was really afraid, but you can never forget the connection with your first real embrace. She was a wide-eyed brunette, very exuberant. Nowadays, to me she would be just another woman at the milonga. After the tanda she said, “You’re a nice dancer,” and I felt relieved. And then I began to go out dancing.
And you got to Club Almagro
But at Club Almagro, everything changed. On Sundays, music was played by el Pebete Godoy, and later on by Picherna, I remember. The place used to be full; you couldn’t move. I came from Dinzel, which was open style, better suited for the stage than for the dancefloor, so I ask a girl for a dance, but I fail to take two steps in a row: I didn’t know how to move around. I was so cussed at that I gave up. I spent the following two months just watching, studying the dancefloor. I couldn’t walk. The Dinzel taught the moves, which were very useful for the stage, but the dancefloor is something different. I watched Poroto, all the experienced dancers were there, but Petaca was the one who brought me along in the end. Actually, he taught me how to walk on the dancefloor. Shortly after that, I am offered to teach with Dolores de Amo, there in Almagro, and I get to substitute someone in a show named Sexytango, choreographed by Cacho Dinzel. Marcela Monteleone and Daniel Bo, and Dolores and I were the dancers, and that’s when my milonguero side shows up. That same year they call me from Parque de la Costa, my first big job.
Were you a professional dancer yet?
I wasn’t quite there. I hadn’t taken classical ballet or jazz lessons. I lacked structure, bodywork, axis, balance… I couldn’t perform two pirouettes! However, I went to the audition in a storehouse in Palermo, where I had to improvise without music. It was the first time I did that. Everybody was watching and when I finished, the man said, “Welcome to the dance group of Parque de la Costa.” I was trembling in the knees, in the jaw. Dancing is what Indians do to a percussion base. They move, they let it all out without any kind of choreography or preset structure. They express through their bodies the sound they hear, which you can’t do when you take lessons. Sometimes lessons impose a structure, they set bounds. They place you within closed walls and say, “This is the way it is.” Ok, but within that booth, teach me how to dance! Today, teachers place a man before a woman and say, “Make her dance.” The man is under a lot of pressure because, on top of that, he can’t move himself, and he feels a dumbass. So he gives up. That’s why most men never take technique lessons. And that’s why I praise the old style, when women selected who to dance with, so men worked hard to do it better. The lack of technique intensifies that arrogant I-can-dance macho attitude and the fact that some women can’t say no. In the past, a woman would walk out on you and leave you right there on the dancefloor.
You came from the stage, where there is room to spare. How do you find your way on the dancefloor?
Dinzel’s technique helped a lot. There I learnt to dance with my whole body, which most teachers don’t teach. As soon as they take your partner away, or change a step, or tell you, “Now dance on your own,” you don’t know what to do, because you can’t really dance. On the dancefloor I learnt what the balance between smoothness and strength means, which isn’t the same as the dynamics. I learnt some jazz and classical ballet to get to know the body’s energies better, because many people dance with their feet but are not aware of their own feet, or embrace someone but aren’t aware of their own hands. When I got back on stage I was less rough and something in my head had shifted. Today, I devise a choreography starting from the dance, and based on the dancefloor.
What distinguishes stage dancers from one another? Are they all the same?
Nowadays they are. Personality is missing because the dance is missing. What makes you different on stage is personality. You must do your best, give your all. There’s no other way round. This is a popular dance. It’s not like ballet, where technique must prevail and so if you have a good technique you may be as cold as ice but you’re still a dancer. Here you need to put your heart into it. Baryshnikov was a shorty with a hell of technique, but he was who he was due to his great sensitivity.
The stage outcasts the milonguero
Now I’m finding my style again, after Tanguera and the separation from Gabriela Amalfitani. People really liked what we used to do, but we lost the essence because the stage was prevailing. I took part in that show for five years, until 2009. Besides, I was assistant to the theater director, who really trusted me. On tour, I was in charge of the dancers, the lights layout, I organized the stage and danced. It was a nice time. I grew but I felt that with so much stage I was getting lost, because I may be a stage dancer but I feel I’m basically milonguero. I wasn’t taking pleasure in dancing any more, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to you.
Which characteristics of a milonguero were you losing?
I couldn’t improvise, I mean, I lost the essence of tango. I had no creativity at all. When you learn a lot, at some point you liberate yourself. From that moment on, when you don’t need to think about what you should do, you begin to flow— and you dance. That happened to me with Cecilia González in the international congress of Argentine tango—the CITA—in 2001 or 2002, I can’t remember now. We had rehearsed dancing to a tango by Piazolla but when we were there they played another track. Cecilia looked at me like saying, “We’re here, let’s dance!”— and it was damned great. We improvised. I didn’t know him much then, but Julito Balmaceda came to congratulate me and said, “What you did there— it was tango.” Tango means connecting with your partner and interpreting the music with no mental conditioning. That’s more or less a summary of what the personality of a dancer should be.
You started to dance again at the milongas not long ago. What is your view about them?
When I got back I felt frustrated— there’s a lot of mediocrity. Those who were good dancers began to work abroad, and the learners who were left became teachers! In the past, you were mad because you didn’t want others to take your woman; today, you get mad because there’s nobody to dance with. I’m talking about 2008, more or less. From 2004 on, there was a boom in trips and tours, and everybody left the country. I’ve had students who couldn’t even keep a newsstand and who left, got married to foreign girls… and now teach in Europe!
You sing, you dance, you work with humor… What is your project?
This year I have got creative. Ideas come up. I used to be too absorbed in what I did—due to my own decision and partly to my family background—but I realized I wasn’t being myself. I feed on practice; it stimulates my creativity at all times and has connected me with my style again. My humor vein has been striving to come out for a while, the same as the singing part. My dream is to make a musical mixing the absurd, dance, drama, singing… It’s a lot to ask but I’ll put it together one day. It needs maturing, marinating, so that it can take a clearer shape, because there’s just a thin line between making people laugh and being an idiot. There’s also the idea of doing something in the radio. I’m always conceiving things; otherwise I don’t work. They don’t call you. But I don’t complain. When I began doing this I quit everything else. I’ve had very good times and long bad times, but that’s the way it is. Otherwise, I would still be working in a bank trying to build a career, and I don’t know if I’d be happy doing that.