In a Minor Key
Over the discreet clink of silverware, opera and tango managed to distract us from our fork-tender Churrasco con Madeira y Hongos and other Argentine delicacies at Malbec Argentinean Cuisine on Green Street. Singing and dance came together in an unusual fusion through the musical talents of vocalist Camila Lima with Ruy Folguera on keyboard, paired with tangueros – tango dancers – Lynn Ho and Guillermo Blanco.
Lima’s sparkling soprano fearlessly pivoted between familiar melodies from both classical and pop repertoires, including Puccini (Nessun Dorma, O Mio Babbino Caro), Gershwin (Summertime), and even Bernstein/Sondheim (I Feel Pretty). Her operatic inclusions were presented as a nod to tango’s significant Italian heritage, although the dance form is inexorably tied to Argentina and Uruguay.
A unique hybrid dialect called lunfardo – derived from the Italian, lombardo, meaning “thief” – emerged as waves of Italians arrived in Rio de la Plata beginning in the late 19th century, and words in this idiom often give tango its distinct flavor.
Closing each song with smiles and outstretched arms, Lima’s sequin-bright, even frisky renderings brought a surprising counterpoint of innocence to a dance form which, if anything, is the lurching, loping, swooping embodiment of lived experience in the shadows.
Alejandra Folguera, Executive Director for Nomad Tango, suggests that a lot of us are wrong about tango when it comes to our expectations and associations. And small wonder: most of us only witness it on the movie screen, where decades of actors (Valentino and Dominguez, Julia and Huston, Schwarzenegger and Curtis, Pacino and Anwar, Brando and Schneider, Banderas and Zeta-Jones, Banderas and Madonna, Pitt and Jolie, Hayek and Judd), in films ranging from the 1921 silent The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to Addams Family Values, True Lies, Scent of a Woman, Last Tango in Paris, Mask of Zorro, Evita, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Rent, Moulin Rouge and more, have hoofed, mugged, huffed and puffed through an approximation of the tango, complete with clichés: the rose clenched between the teeth is but one of many.
Borges is often cited as the primary source of misinformation about the origins of tango, linking the pulsing, African-influenced rhythms to the sordid life of brothels, prisons and the seediest of street scenes.
Like every art form with anonymous popular roots, today tango is the subject of much scholarly bickering having to do with notions of “authenticity.” A major obstacle is Argentine literary giant Jorge Luis Borges, who wrote tirelessly about tango. Borges is often cited as the primary source of misinformation about the origins of tango, linking the pulsing, African-influenced rhythms to the sordid life of brothels, prisons and the seediest of street scenes. In his poem called Tango, Borges writes:
(Hecho de polvo y tiempo, el hombre dura
menos que la liviana melodía,
que solo es tiempo. El Tango crea un turbio
pasado irreal que de algún modo es cierto,
el recuerdo imposible de haber muerto
peleando, en una esquina del suburbio.)
Made of dust and time, man lasts
less than the light melody,
that it’s just time. Tango creates a murky
unreal past that is somehow true,
The impossible memory of having died
fighting, in a corner of the suburb.
Wait, “suburb?” Really? In context, we’re talking about outliers on the outskirts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Borges was writing about the subterranean life on the margins on polite society, long before “suburb” meant swathes of identical tract homes, fitness clubs and a Starbucks on every corner.
Borges was writing about tango when Valentino starred in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and apart from any critique of The Sheik’s floorwork, it’s worth noting that the dance salon in the film clip is literally underground: observe the legs of passersby through the sidewalk-level windows above the dance floor.
As danced by Ho and Blanco, this is a tango of youthful sunlight versus forbidden sensuality and midnight regrets. Ho’s slim skirt of turquoise silk flashed with every pivot, swivel, kick, and lunge like the flight of a tropical bird, as the suave Blanco maintained an air of icy, aloof control.
There is a Queer Tango movement afoot, but at Malbec the sex-roles shaped a century ago remained firmly in place. In Valentino’s time, the invitation to dance – el cabaceo – was the exclusive domain of the man, initiated from a distance, via subtle eye contact. Words, if any are exchanged at all, are kept to a minimum. This etiquette persists in some circles today.
And here it must be noted that, at least to the casual observer, the woman in a tango pairing seems to be doing all of the work. Ginger Rogers observed that she had to do everything that Fred Astaire did, except “backwards, and in heels,” and this rings true for tango as well.
Ho smoothly busted out the full vocabulary of moves – saccadas (leg thrusts), ganchos (leg hooks), barridas (sweeping foot-drags)—without the melodrama that may make bad tango resemble Apache dancing. She and Blanco danced heart-to-heart in the curiously prim posture unique to tango.
The dance, regardless of its origins, was born in the 19th century by all accounts, and was typically danced anonymously between strangers at social clubs. In spite of the hulking time signatures and the lyrics of cruel loss and longing, the movements themselves maintain a chaste, formal distance. This stylized restraint, perhaps symbolizing the impossibility of love, makes the exchange seem all the more desperately heartbroken.
Tango dancers do not lock pelvises or (perish the thought) grind. In fact, Ho and Blanco invited diners onto Malbec’s tiny dance floor, and demonstrated how to place an inflated balloon between their bodies to maintain a proper embrace.
Was Borges really so wrong? Remembering tango as a dance of homesick immigrants and outsiders, it seems impossible that all is sweetness and light. Are we wrong to feel despair, and imagine an undercurrent of violence beneath the surface the sultry moves? Nomad Tango is a surprising success in its willingness to make us examine our own baggage, cultural, mental, sexual, emotional, as we slip, however cynically, into our glittering dancing shoes.
It Takes Two to Tango
An Argentinian milonga (social gathering) produced by Alejandra “Ale” Folguera’s nonprofit, Nomad Tango, is “a living room tango experience,” an ambitious blend of culture, community, cuisine and the music of tango Argentino, where the audience members are treated like guests, and the intimate performances are individual mission statements for the charity.
“It is a bit scary, gusting to terrifying sometimes,” says Ale, “but I feel that we must go there. That is how we will meet new friends and open fresh spaces for the tango’s voice and embrace.”
The charity produces milongas to expand “our well-being and sense of belonging, to build healthy and thriving communities,” she said. “Tango is a special art form and needs to take its place among ballet, modern dance, etc. It allows for a wide spectrum of feelings and emotions.”
Declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage asset by UNESCO in 2009, tango was heavily impacted by the pandemic of 2020–2022.
“After the pandemic, tango Argentino was decimated.”Alejandra Folguera
“After the pandemic, tango Argentino was decimated. Teachers, musicians, and dancers were without jobs for almost two years,” recalls Folguera. “I started Nomad Tango to produce events that support musicians, dancers, and the local community by fostering an environment of connection and sharing. It is a powerful experience to get together, break bread, listen to music and dance a bit.”
Organizing milongas is one aspect of the nonprofit, which also conducts tango practices, regular tango lessons and workshops full of circular movements, rolling, spiral and press-release techniques. Participants also learn dancing and breathing together, power movements and “adornments” during pauses and movements. Beginner classes are conducted with or without partners. The nonprofit also organizes movie screenings, retreats and travel connected to the art of tango Argentino.
Professionally, Alejandra earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and is retired from the financial industry, where she worked as a portfolio manager.
Malbec: Upscale Dining with an Argentinian Soul
Maybe this bit should be whispered, but the secret of memorable Argentinean cuisine isn’t solely about selecting and grilling the perfect medium rare steak. Nearly all chefs can pull that off, whether they hail from Buenos Aires or Burbank.
More exciting is a kitchen artist who choreographs entrees by integrating regional cuisine with a stylish flavor sense and a tango-like attention to detail.
Malbec is the culinary playground of Pablo Alcorta, who trained at the Instituto Argentino de Gastonomia, an Argentine equivalent of Le Cordon Bleu. Prior to his arrival in Pasadena, Alcorta honed his craft at several upscale Buenos Aires restaurants before running his own eatery in Argentina’s second largest city, Córdoba.
Like tango, it’s about being in the moment while the minor-key harmonies of life swirl around you.
So, what magic does Alcorta bring from the pampas to the Malbec table?
One example is the ‘shroomy Madeira reduction embracing Alcorta’s Churrasco de Madeira y Hongos, served with perfectly crisp grilled local vegetables and roasted potatoes. This preparation well represents the culinary tradition of a country settled by Spanish, Italians, French and Germans introduced to Argentine Amerindian and Mestizo flavors during the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a hint of regional spiciness in this preparation that dances momentarily on the tongue.
For pescetarians craving a buttery rush, the sauteed Corvina al Champagne features Pacific white fish with shrimp, capers and a mild dill sauce in supporting roles. Served on an extra-hot plate, you’ll finish the entree and side vegetables before the plate cools to anywhere near room temperature.
Vegetarians, who can find themselves generally out of luck at many Argentine and Brazilian restaurants, should try Alcorta’s cheesy spinach and ricotta Canelones de Verdura with slightly nutmeg-infused béchamel sauce. This is how an experienced chef can marry flavors and textures to create high-class comfort food.
For dessert, the favorite at our table was the Panqueque de Dulce de Leche, a caramelized sugar-topped crepe confection paired with vanilla bean gelato. It’s great way to honor both regional and European tastes without staggering out of Malbec too full to navigate the sidewalk.
Dining is always a dance of the palate. Like tango, it’s about being in the moment while the minor-key harmonies of life swirl around you.
Top Photo: Andrew Thomas