A retired dance librarian, Cherie Magnus has done everything from tour with an international folk dance troupe to run her own belly dancing company in Los Angeles. Since 2003, the 67-year-old has called Buenos Aires home, teaching tango by day and frequenting her favourite milongas by night with her partner in life and dance, Rubén Aybar, a 56-year-old Tucumán native. She blogs about tango and expat life at tangocherie.blogspot.com.
How did you learn to tango?
You name a kind of dancing, I’ve done it. But the tango is something that you can do when you’re old. I saw a stage show in LA, and I thought, “well I could do that”.
Why did you relocate to Buenos Aires?
My husband died and I got breast cancer twice. I couldn’t continue to work fulltime because of my health. By this time, I had started taking tango lessons. I came down here for a ten-day trip, and then I was hooked after that. I danced when I could in LA, but the tango style wasn’t milongero. It wasn’t about connection; it was about showing yourself off. When I had to retire, I moved to Mexico, to San Miguel de Allende, which was too gringo for me after a while. The prices started getting higher and higher. So I moved here with the cat in 2003.
How did you and your partner Rubén start dancing together?
I had never wanted to dance just with one person because part of the challenge for the woman is she has to adapt her way of dancing to every man she dances with. But then I see Rubén at a milonga, and I say, “who is that guy?”. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. I don’t know if you know about the cabeceo (“head nod”). I looked at Rubén for, like, two months before he took me out to dance. (Soon) I started to only want to dance with him. I would still keep my independence, and go to my favourite milongas, but then it was “oh, I wish Rubén were here”. So after a while, we became committed to one another, and I totally gave up dancing with other people because I was bored with it.
Explain the cabeceo.
There’s about 40 different codigos that go with the milongas about how you behave. One is that the men do not come up to the women and ask them to dance. In between sets they clear the floor, with music called a cortina, or curtain, and everybody sits down. (The woman) starts looking around the room to see who (sic) she would like to dance with, and then she stares at the man. If he wants to dance with her, he’ll stare back and nod to her. And then she’ll nod back, meaning ‘Yes, I’ll dance with you for this set.’ She stays sitting in her seat, and he will walk across the floor close to her table and wave. She stands up, they meet on the floor. “Hola, cómo estás? Todo bien?” The music starts. After a few phrases – there’s no rush – he’ll open his arms, and they’ll embrace. And they dance.
How did you and Rubén start teaching?
In 2006, we entered the Campeonato de Tango. There were more than 500 couples, and we ended up number 15. I was the only foreigner to make it past the semi-finals. After that people started asking us if we teach. Rubén didn’t want to. He said “I don’t want to make the tango a job, it’s my pleasure, it’s my love.” But on the other hand, he had been laid-off in 2001, and he needed the money. I live off my dinky little pension, so I needed the money, too. So we started to teach, and it’s been growing and growing, and it’s been very satisfying.
How hard is tango to learn?
Well the good and bad thing about tango is that the basic step is the walk. It derives from natural movements of real people, not from professional dancers that have taken ballet for ten years. So anybody can do it. The challenge is, though, that unlike salsa or rock ‘n roll, there’s no basic step apart from the walk so you have to improvise.
You have to not be afraid to be close to another person of the opposite sex. A lot of Anglo-Saxon people – English, American, Canadian – they’re afraid of dancing that close with a stranger. Rubén can make any lady dance. The men usually have a lot harder time. Some are very challenged that they have to think up what to do. They get impatient. They’re very self-critical.
How is dancing tango different for men and women?
The man has to be the leader. He cannot afford to not think. The woman can’t think at all, because she has to just respond to the body of the man. Our teaching as a couple is perfect, because whether we have a man or woman, the student dances with the teacher, and the other teacher observes and corrects.
What should a foreigner expect to pay for lessons?
Sometimes it’s a bit of a tease because you arrange a private lesson, let’s say for $50, and you go there and they tell you (that) you have to pay for the studio rental, which is usually $20, and then if you don’t speak Spanish, you have to pay someone to translate, and you have to pay someone to be your partner. We charge US$60. But some of the more famous tango teachers, maybe it’s US$150. (For) group classes, it’s maybe $15 or 20.
How does tango reflect Argentine culture?
There’s a saying that “it’s a sad feeling that is…” (Chokes up) I get sad when I think about it! Tango is very emotional. “It’s a sad feeling that is danced”. And Argentine people, especially the porteños, they are sad. Their faces are sad. They don’t have a lot of hope; they live in the past; their hearts have been broken. I mean it’s human, all these things. But the Cubans, they salsa their way out of it. The Mexicans, they cumbia their way out of it. But the porteños, they seem to enjoy being in the middle of all those sad feelings.
Are young Argentines embracing tango?
There’s a lost generation. Tangos were outlawed by the politicians, and there were no more milongas. So Rubén is like the youngest milonguero, which means men who have grown up in milongas. Between 40 and 55, there are very few. Now people that age are looking to dance. And the young people are attracted because they see it as a way to get out of dire economic circumstances. They can become stage dancers, or they can become teachers and tour the world. And there’s a different style. It’s more athletic, more aerobic, less connection. But whatever attracts them, dancing is healthy.
Is tango gaining popularity outside Argentina?
I (recently) wrote about tango for the in-flight magazine for Qatar Airlines. It was cute because the guidelines for writing for that magazine were “don’t talk about alcohol, sex, or pork”. There might be some porky dancers, but I didn’t mention that.
To request lessons, contact Cherie through her blog at http://tangocherie.blogspot.com.