Sally Potter and Pablo Veron tango on the seine

The Architecture of Tango

Sally Potter begins a screenplay

I envy the pencil being held carefully between her fingers, the rasping sound the sharpener makes as a thin layer of wood peels away from the instrument’s body. I am fascinated by her hesitation, the dark point poised above the supple blank pages so pristine the sight sends ripples of resistance through the synapses of my mind. It takes an audacious writer to stare down nothingness, and Sally Potter, sitting bolt upright at a table as she readies herself to begin the process of writing a screenplay, is up to the task. She records one word, rage, in a neat cursive and nothing more. For now.

Suddenly she is rushing along a street in Paris as the staccato strains of tango music waft from a Bandoneón, drawing her into a performance hall where Pablo Veron is dancing on a stage, leading his female partner through a perfect performance. Potter is enraptured and, as the applause reaches a crescendo, the camera cuts away from her animated face to the stage; then to a close-up of the famous Argentine dancer, who peers into the camera with eyes I’ve seen before.

Pablo Veron and Carolina Iotti
Pablo Veron and Carolina Iotti dance tango.

His stare is akin to the predatory gaze I saw one summer afternoon in the zoo in Buenos Aires, the black panther pacing behind a glass partition having just awakened from an afternoon nap. The big cat’s eyes held the same mix of disinterest and menace. You are now sensually nailed into the world of the Argentine tango.

The Architecture of Tango

Sally Potter and Pablo Veron dance tango.
Sally Potter and Pablo Veron dance tango.

These scenes through which Potter has made her way are set within the first few moments of The Tango Lesson, a film she wrote and directed that serves as a canvas upon which she and Verón compose the story of the dance and its strain on relationships.

I have seen her level of passion for tango firsthand so I knew, even before I saw an interview during which she stated that the movie is nothing less than a love letter to the dance, how she felt. “I was totally and completely in love with the music and the dance itself,” she explains, “and I immersed myself completely for about two years before making the film.” This immersion included numerous trips to Buenos Aires where she danced in the city’s milongas, as the tango salons are called. She also took hours upon hours of lessons in order to perfect her moves.

Fernanda and Alberto dance tango.
Fernanda and Alberto are professional tango dancers in Buenos Aires.

Unless the music taps into a deep well inside your being, I believe it is difficult to understand an attachment like Potter describes. I learned this during several visits to Baires, as the city’s young urbanites call it, with an ex-boyfriend. His introductions to his hometown included taking me to the clubs where tango enthusiasts, called tangueros and milongueras, circled the dance floors at varying times of the day, depending upon the age of the besotted. The dancing for the older group takes place during afternoon matinees, while the younger set gathers at midnight, dancing until sunup. I wanted to learn myself but I didn’t have the courage and my boyfriend was in the camp of hating the music he’d been subjected to when he was young.

Sally Potter in an art deco stairwell
This art deco stairwell represents the quintessential neoclassical architecture in Baires.

Many of the vignettes in Potter’s film bring the city rushing back: the tapered toe of her tango shoes moving across tiled floors extant from the sumptuous Art Deco era created blurred patterns frozen in time, though now awash in a tired patina to which the modern-day “Paris of South America” has succumbed.

During a handful of balmy summer afternoons, I interviewed dancers to see if I could learn what made their passion for tango so strong. As they moved through their complex poses in the city’s popular salons, they expressed a similar sentiment to Verón’s when he says in the film, “I didn’t choose tango, it chose me.” The dance moves the tangueros perfected have mysterious-sounding names like enganchado and enrosque, each signifying the shape of the pose or the movement.

Photographing for a tango book in Baires
Maria Elena in a Tango mood in a dress she designed, the word siempre (always) poignant given few relationships outlast the dance.

Several things I learned surprised me: my boyfriend’s aversion to the tango is not an anomaly among his age group, possibly in rebellion against their parents who feel the opposite about the dance. Except for the professional dancers who make a living performing or teaching, many young and middle-aged Argentines say that the whining melodies produced by the bandoneón, even when the cadence is up-tempo, are rife with an overwhelming sadness that harkens back to a dark past.

the Architecture of Tango in Baires
The younger set in Baires have a passion for the Tango bar none.

My most poignant memories of the dance took place during matinees, the Saturday or Sunday afternoon sessions during which men and women in their 60s and 70s glided around the dance floors with dreamy expressions in their eyes and talcum powder wafting from their shoes. I admired their formal politeness, which I recognized from my boyfriend’s mother’s behavior. I would walk down the hall of their flat to hear her humming strains of Astor Piazzolla’s melodies, which prompted me to ask if she was a fan of the dance. She answered that she was; that she had danced in the parlor of her home when she was a teenager, the only place she could have because the public displays of tango were forbidden for proper young girls like her at the time.

She loved to talk about those days as we lingered over post-lunch cafécitos or gathered in the living room as the evening light infused her apartment in a mellow glow. Because no one from her generation with whom to reminisce was left and her children had little patience for it, I could tell she enjoyed being able to languish in that other time when she was young. Visiting historical properties like the Alvear Palace hotel, which holds a sumptuous ballroom that evokes Parisian luxuriousness with its grandly sized velvet borne settee holding court in the center of the room, gave me visuals for the heyday of the dance she would have experienced.

Alvear Palace ballroom
A ballroom at the Alvear Palace hotel in Buenos Aires.

Having talked to professional dancers and watched the country’s devoted tango fans slide sharply and pose, I must say Potter made a fabulously authentic film, even if she has been accused of taking a precious point of view of the dance.

She defends the schmaltz by asking, “What’s wrong with sentimentality? Real sentiment is the innocent, natural way of a child in a state of wonder at the world, which we eventually forget so we can become blasé and cool. One thing this film is not is cool—I wanted to make a very uncool film that wasn’t detached, wasn’t ironic; one that was raw!”

Talking to the men and women in Buenos Aires who spend much of their lives involved in the rawness of the dance, I learned that in spite of the fact tango seems romantic, it is hardly so. It is a brutal dance, both physically and psychically. Someone always gets hurt, regardless of how smooth his or her moves are, which is why the savvy dance partners I met—especially those who also make a living as choreographers and instructors—have learned to keep their love lives separate from the drama surrounding tango’s pull. The ones who have not learned that lesson continue to suffer greatly as one heartbreak after another ensues.

Potter illustrated this point in the film and mentioned it in the interview, saying, “I have an enormous feeling for the dance. It’s more than love—when I was learning the tango, I had an adoration for the form.” There is a breathtaking scene in the movie at 4 minutes and 10 seconds during which she and Pablo dance along the Seine as one of the Bateaux Mouches floats past. The air, which is swirling with fog, grows iridescent as the lights from the boat hyper-illuminate the scene, bathing them in an ethereal beauty that, in my mind, only Paris can inspire. The scene was also magnificently intimate and yet so quintessentially Parisian.

Sally Potter and Pablo Veron in Paris
Sally Potter and Pablo Veron dance along the Seine near the end of “The Tango Lesson.”

During the interview, Potter was asked whether her films are concrete personal histories. She answered that they are “made on an autobiographical principal but not, strictly speaking, autobiographical. It’s a subtle and fine line—sometimes a confusing one, even for myself. But if a film is not a documentary (I’m stating the obvious here), it’s not putting a camera in an existing situation but creating a situation by constructing everything with artifice with the intention, in this case, to appear natural, to have authenticity and to feel very close to the bone, to the skin. It’s something intimate, which it seemed to me was the only way to get close to the tango itself, to its interior world.”

Sally Potter and Pablo Veron tango on the seine
The mists swirl around Sally Potter and Pablo Veron in “The Tango Lesson.”

When the interviewer asked her why she needed to dig so deeply into the world of tango if the film is merely a piece of fiction, she answered brilliantly: “It is fiction that is playing with reality.” Not pushing myself to dance tango in Argentina is one of my greatest regrets and I think one of the things that appeals to me about Potter’s film is how she takes no prisoners. I admire someone with that level of confidence and wish I’d had the balls to put my pride on the line as she did and strap on those shoes.

The Architecture of Tango © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.