In Memoriam, Carlos E. Gavito
|Picture taken by Marcela Duran
My Tango Journey: my Meeting the "Master of the Masters",
Carlos Eduardo Gavito
By Jean-Pierre Sighé
Although incredible to realize, 8 years has passed since a great Tango Maestro exited this world. Carlos Gavito passed away July 1, 2005. Since that day, I have listened to many share their memories of this great man. As I shared mine, I realized how privileged we have all been meeting and studying with Gavito. For many of us, this man personally touched our lives. For me, it is personal. Like a generous uncle, Gavito took me aside, teaching, influencing, caring.
Time has moved on, so now I must pay my own tribute to the man, the artist who helped me to deeply understand the art of Tango. In the past, as I contemplated writing a tribute to Carlos Gavito at the anniversary of his passing, it always seemed incomplete to simply express my personal feelings or express my gratitude. Many tributes do just that, which is not to be criticized. However, I have always felt such a tribute requires something more present and dynamic. It finally hit me: Carlos Gavito told in the context of my own Tango journey would be more appropriate.
Patience is a great teacher! I am finally ready to express my gratitude to Carlos Gavito and through the magic of affiliations, to his master(s).
Discovering the Argentine Tango
First unaware of its future impact on my life, I was charmed into Tango as I heeded an irresistible call to an experience I enthusiastically embraced. Once I signed up for my first class, it didn’t take long to understand that I had opened a door to a strange and marvelous journey. I was more and more excited at the thought of the unknown feelings, emotions and discoveries yet to be revealed. I embraced my journey with a cheerful enthusiasm, filled with gratitude yet tempered with patience, a strange patience that often murmured to me: “Keep going! You’re on your path!” It feels appropriate to tell the story in its entirety as it occurred. After all, my story could serve as an inspiration to those who have not yet made the decision to embark on a Tango journey, or it might simply give comfort to others who have just begun, wondering what just happened. So, candid I will be.
My natural African background provided me with all the opportunities to grow up dancing. Born and raised in Cameroon, I first danced the Makossa. I was soon exposed to other foreign dances, such as Swing (we called Rock) and the Jerk. Early on, I was initiated into another of my tribal dances, Mwouop. To this foundation, the Latin dances, such as Salsa and Rumba, would soon find fertile grounds. Later in Europe, Zouk burst in, and I fell in love with the Caribbean music. Upon landing in California, I quickly renewed my interested in Salsa, the Latin style. I signed up for some Salsa, Cha-Cha and Rumba classes at an Arthur Murray Dance School in San Jose.
After about two months, I realized the methodology of teaching dance differed from my original ideas. Dancing, to an African, implies improvising. The simple repetition of steps is not enough, and one does not feel satisfied nor enjoy all the mockery from friends and others around. I was more and more discouraged by this set up, although I stayed the course to at least enjoy the weekly parties that were organized for socializing. At that same period of time, good fortune had connected me with Ms. B.M., someone who became a good friend and who was a great Salsa dancer. I called her the “Salsa Queen”. A dedicated dancer, she had studied from the best Cuban Maestros and Maestras.
Ms. B.M. invited me to the “Forever Tango” show in San Francisco. I was taken away by the music. One specific piece had a tremendous effect on me: “Celos”, performed by a virtuoso violinist. I was so touched that the song kept playing in my head for days. I returned to the show to listen to “Celos” live one more time. By then, naturally, I had the recorded CD of the show. I listened over and over and fell in love with all the tracks.
Growing up in Cameroon and being a musician, I was familiar with Tango thanks to the radio. There was this show, “La discotheque de papa” (“Dad’s discs library”), where Tango and old Cha-Cha and Rumba songs would be played. However, in San Francisco, this was the first time I actually listened to live musicians playing Tango - and playing it so well. On the other hand, the stage dancing that I saw was indeed impressive and beautiful, but I viewed it as well-choreographed dancing. I didn’t think more of it. A few weeks passed, and the Arthur Murray School was encouraging their students to see the movie “The Tango Lesson”. It was showing at a theatre in Palo Alto for the last time the following week. I went to the show, and it is then that my Tango journey took flight. The cultural background appeared to be deep and real, far beyond the simple dance. I could relate to that fact. Before I stepped out of the theater, I had made the decision to learn Argentine Tango. That was in 1998.
My first Tango instructions
I was living in San Jose, and I thought I would likely have to travel up to San Francisco to find a good Tango teacher. After all the frustrations I had experienced at the Ballroom school and having now understood how much culture was behind Tango dancing, I wanted to make sure I would learn from an authentic Argentine Tango instructor, preferably someone from Argentina.
In Cameroon, we have over two hundred tribes living together. The differences in dance can be startling at all levels including the music and the rhythms. Over time, a common identity has emerged, and the people have adopted their own dances, rhythms, and a general mentality. We learned how to perform dances from distant tribes. One thing is clear about learning these distant dances - we had to understand the generated movements. They were and are always related to cultural, emotional and psychological idiosyncrasies of the corresponding tribe. We didn’t just try to dance the steps. It was important to mimic the thought and project the spirit behind the moves.
So I set out to find the right Tango teacher for my instruction. I picked up a flyer from where I had bought my dance shoes. The store clerk thought the person who brought that flyer advertising for Tango classes was from Argentina. As soon as I got home, I called. An answering machine came on. I introduced myself and expressed the reason for my call: I was looking for someone from Argentina who could teach me Tango, but I was not interested in the steps. I wanted to understand the culture behind them.
A gentleman picked up the phone; I repeated the object of my call. He asked me a few questions about the dances I was currently practicing. At some point he said: “Well, I think I can teach you what you’re looking for.” We set up an appointment. To my surprise, he lived in Mountain View, less than 30 minutes from me. The day the appointment came, I drove to his house. The moment I set foot inside, I felt at home. I immediately noticed several pictures on the wall, all related to Tango and Argentina. The living room had been transformed into a small dance studio. We talked some more; I felt comfortable and signed up for my first private Tango class.
The gentleman was Alberto Paz, and he was teaching with his wife, Valorie Hart. There I embarked upon my Tango journey. I studied exclusively and privately with them for five good months. They basically taught private classes and from time to time would set up a group class with a limited number of students. Those sessions provided the opportunity to apply my private lessons.
I truly enjoyed the fact that Alberto did not encourage remembering any step but rather he wanted me to understand the step’s origin. He based his whole foundation on improvisation. He was meticulous with the precision in the movement generated and of course paid attention to the music. I was at home! Furthermore, I could ask him all kinds of questions after the class.
At the time, he was publishing a small free black and white magazine called El Firulete. It was very instructive and well put together. It is here that I first heard about the Afro roots of Argentine Tango. Needless to say, I was surprised. It is also here that I first heard of the Tango Legend, Facundo Posadas. He was featured on the cover of the upcoming “El Firulete”, elegant and gracious, along with his wife at that time, Kelly Posadas. Filled with excitement, I hoped to know them personally. I would later, of course, be privileged to meet Facundo Posadas when he finally came to teach on the West Coast. We were so honored that he taught at Tango Magdalena Dance Studio.
I remember confiding to Alberto, after the first two months of my studying, that I felt a window had opened in my mind. I had a distinct impression that Tango would play an important role in my life, although I did not yet know the details.
Preliminaries to Meeting the “Master of the Masters”, Carlos Gavito
The nickname, “Master of the Masters”, given to Carlos Gavito was appropriate. It was obvious that his art went far beyond the physical dance of Tango. The contact with Gavito, either by being around him, listening to him talk or even just watching him dance, brought forth that awareness. I was not at all prepared to meet Carlos Gavito; I was simply enjoying learning Tango. I was enjoying the journey.
At the end of the seventh month studying Tango, my first teacher, Alberto Paz, encouraged me to dance at the Milonga. He said, “I appreciate that you’re taking private classes and all that assiduity, but you have to go to the dance floor. Only there will your learning take shape and become real.” Of course, I delayed as much as I could, with the excuse that I didn’t feel ready and needed to study more. Some weeks passed and Alberto suddenly informed me that he and Valorie were starting a Practica in Palo Alto on Tuesday nights in a Cuban Restaurant and that I had to be there. I could no longer come up with excuses to stay away from the dance floor. I took a deep breath and headed out.
I picked a seat where I could see the entire floor. I watched the skilled dancers and sat humbled and petrified; I was frozen. Suddenly, at the end of a Tanda, a dancer left the floor holding a lady by her hand and walked straight toward my table. Alberto introduced this dancer to me earlier when I had arrived at the Practica. He walked to me and introduced me to Mrs. T. As I congratulated them for their dancing, the lady looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “Would you like to dance?”
Deep inside I shouted: Ooohhh nnoooooo! I started mumbling, “I’m not yet ready…I…I…” To make things more dramatic, Alberto’s partner who was seated nearby and had heard the invitation thrown at me, joined forces and added, “Yes, Jean-Pierre, you have to dance!” I stood, and we walked to the floor. Now, to make things worse, Mrs T. asked Alberto to play a Milonga, a subject I had not yet fully explored.
Here I was, pushed into the swimming pool. Instinct kicked in. I did whatever was necessary to dance and keep the lady dancing. At the end of the song, as I was praying for the next song to move to the more familiar ground of Tango, Mrs. T, very enthused and animated, exclaimed an encouraging “great dancing!” and asked for another Milonga song. We ended up dancing several Milongas and a couple of Tango songs in a row - a long and pleasant set. That set had a profound effect on me for the long weeks that followed. My initiation to Tango was proffered. The frozen glass had been broken. My spirit was freed!
From there on, I started venturing to the Milongas, putting into practice two major points Alberto had taught me:
1. The lady is the center of the dance and your role is to accompany her dance.
2. When you start the dance, don’t rush into complicated things right away; walk, pause, walk again with your partner and gradually lead the elaborated moves that come to mind.
These precepts helped me a great deal. I would report back my Milonga adventures to him and Valorie. They would offer their recommendations and encouragements.
One evening, after my class, Alberto inquired about my dancing plans for that evening. If I were going to a certain Milonga in San Francisco, he wanted to send a package of Magazines (El Firulete) to his friend running that particular Milonga. I had never been to that Milonga before. Eager to render service, I decided to go and carry Alberto’s package. Attendance was low that night, but I was able to dance. I danced with a lady who would later become very important in my life for more than two years. I danced with Ms. A.M.
About six months later, I had discovered another Milonga (El Valenciano) in San Francisco that I enjoyed attending weekly because the atmosphere and the music program fit my personal taste well. There, one night, I invited a lady to the floor for a Tanda. A little later I reinvited her, and we danced another Tanda. I then asked her if she would be free to practice outside of the Milonga. She accepted, and we exchanged contacts. A few weeks later, we met again and started practicing. She revealed that we had danced prior to our meeting at El Valenciano. I was astonished. She reminded me of the Milonga where I had brought Alberto’s package in San Francisco. Of course, I remembered my dance with Ms. AM.
Meeting Carlos Gavito
Ms. A.M. was a very sophisticated lady who had spent time learning Tango only with the best instructors. She had gone to Buenos Aires and had studied with Carlos Gavito and his dance partner, Marcela Duran, during two trips. She was very meticulous in her understanding of the dance and was very focused with our practice sessions. We practiced in her studio in San Francisco that was wide and comfortable. We would film ourselves so that we could see what was not working and implement corrections.
One day, she asked me if I knew Carlos Gavito. I had heard the name but did not know him. She said, “The day Carlos Gavito comes to the Bay Area, we should take some private classes with him. You’d like him very much!” I accepted the idea. We kept practicing and dancing. We danced a lot! We practiced once or twice a week and went to the Milongas every week, sometimes twice a week. We lived a rich and intense life and our Tango experience grew tremendously.
Summertime came and the Nora’s week was on. Carlos Gavito and Marcela Duran stood within the brochette of teachers. Ms. A.M. offered me a gift of a weekend package, and we both signed up for some private classes with Carlos Gavito. I arrived at the private class before Ms. A.M. I knocked at the door, opened it, and showed my face. Carlos Gavito was in the room. He immediately started the following conversation.
C.G. Oh, yes, my friend, come in! Where’s your partner? (I was surprised that he knew me precisely.)
JP: She must have encountered some traffic. We drove in separate cars, but she should be here shortly.
C.G. Ok! My friend, you are a good dancer. I have watched you dance and you have a style that is similar to mine. Listen my friend, I am going to show you something. I usually don’t show this to people because everybody is into figures and figures! (I was shocked, surprised, humbled, happy, profoundly touched, encouraged, confused - all these states experienced at once. Similar style? Did I have a style? Similar to his?)
C.G.: My friend, when you walk, what do you move first?
JP: My chest
C.G.: No, try to walk and tell me what you first move. (After three more answers all calling for his NO, I said, I don’t know the answer.)
C.G.: Your knee my friend! Your knee! Look! (He then proceeded to demonstrate what he meant.)
CG: Walk with me! Follow me and copy everything I do.
I walked with him back and forth. He stopped, watched me walk and was satisfied. Then he stood in front of me, looked at me in the eyes as my family member, (my dad or an uncle or even a granddad) and said: “My friend, practice this and practice and practice and practice!! You’ll see something!” He added: “This is what I do every single time, before I go on stage.”
I thanked him but understood full well that my “thank you very much” was insufficient. I promised to practice as he recommended.
My partner arrived, and we moved into our lesson that was entirely on a different subject. When I left that room, I understood this moment’s impact on my journey. A Tango Master had shared with me a personal exercise that had helped him for decades. Here the Master dancer of “Forever Tango” shared with me a secret of his excellence. He was under no obligation to do so. I did not ask for it. Before we met, the Maestro already knew what he was going to teach me. He had observed me dance (without me knowing) and was willing to share with me a hidden mystery. I thought of Alberto and his wife Valorie and realized how providence had coached my Tango journey.
I returned home and practiced…and practiced…and practiced! I practiced on my carpet with socks on. After a few sessions, I became aware of a muscle in my feet. I reasoned - there must be more than this that I will discover. I kept on practicing and sure enough I sensed a greater controlled balance. Some few weeks later, I went to a Milonga with Ms. A.M.
In the middle of the evening she said to me, “I think you’re having a breakthrough!”
I replied, “What do you mean?”
“There’s something that has changed in your dancing! There’s something smoother compared to the way you danced before. It’s more pleasant!” She laughed. I gave her a hug and confided to her that I was now experiencing what Carlos Gavito had promised I would - if I would practice.
I met with Gavito for several more occasions when he came to the Bay Area and to the Las Vegas Tango Festival. I felt honored to be invited to the private sessions he would improvise when visiting the Bay Area (he was here quite often till the last part of his life when he stayed most of the time in Buenos Aires). Carlos Gavito beamed in seeing the progress that his teaching was having on me. I measured more and more how my first classes with Alberto Paz had properly prepared me to understand Carlos Gavito. He was satisfied with what I knew before I met him. Nothing that I had learned before we met required correction. As they often say: “When the student is ready, the Master appears”. My preparation was good, and Carlos Gavito appeared. Suddenly, every thing my first teacher had taught me became crystal clear, a cohesive body of knowledge. The impact was profound.
I kept my Tango dancing going, not at all interested in the idea of “teaching”. I had already turned down one teaching opportunity prior to my meeting Carlos Gavito. After meeting him, I was again approached by a different person who offered that we partner up to teach. There too I declined the offer. I was adamant about not engaging in teaching but to simply enjoy my dancing for a long time; I kept that modus until it occurred to me that it was not right to have received such a gift from Carlos Gavito, only to now keep it for myself. I understood that it’s only by sharing with others that the gift from Carlos Gavito could achieve its full impact. So I gave up the resistance and started teaching Tango in 2000. (I will share the complete story of that decision making process in a future article.)
One thing remains clear and true as years go by. My Tango journey and my Life journey feed into each other. The interconnectedness of all things is once again verified. The conditions qualifying me to receive the valuable lessons from the Master (at the appropriate time) were prepared long before the meeting by my first teacher. By opening myself to passing on to others the knowledge passed onto me, I realize how enchanting the process is. Tango! What a great tool at our reach to further explore the depth of Living! It makes sense to approach Tango with the sincere desire to understand the generation of MOVEMENT rather than the quick and easy gratification of steps.
The truth is that no one can cheat with Tango. The easy and quick steps will fool the participant only for a short period of time before they begin to feel inadequate and incapable of improvising, thus truly dancing. Every move in Tango is important - must be felt important because it participates in the expression of the deepest part of who we are.
Carlos Gavito often said: “Execute each step as if it is indeed the last step you are executing in this life time.” At once, this sounds like an exaggeration in order to excite our learning. As time passes, we learn it is much more. It is a simple truth, an invitation to the “Here and Now”. To that, I am eternally grateful.