Daniel Nacucchio and Cristina Sosa - "Learn to read the air"

Article by Ute Neumaier, Buenos Aires, published in the German magazine Tangodanza, No. 50, April 2012

The neighborhood of Villa Urquiza has written its style into the history of tango. Daniel Nacuccio and Cristina Sosa teach there in the age-old venue Círculo Apolo. On the walls hang pictures of tango celebrities from the past and of today. The class begins on time, Daniel speaks fluently with the Japanese students in their own tongue, Cristina occupies herself with teaching in English. Together they won the Metropolitan Championship in 2008, the tango competition of the City of Buenos Aires, in the milonga and tango category, and the same year they became world tango champions in Buenos Aires and in Japan. Even so, they remain grounded, with none of the airs and graces of stardom. Their classes have a clear structure and are organized in a logical manner. They dance with each of their students. That way, everyone has at least one chance to dance with a world tango champion.

What was it like to be World Salón Tango Champion?

Cristina: I’ll never forget it. Everyone embraces you, gives you flowers, congratulates you. You work so hard, you dream, but in reality you don’t believe in victory. Then it’s like a flash, the most beautiful moments, the tears, everything comes together in a feeling of incredible happiness. Until that moment it was unthinkable that I could make a living as a dancer, and suddenly the dream becomes reality. And I felt proud because we had made something together. There are so many dancers who fight together during the training and never make up.

Daniel: I was happy to have won with Cristina, but there was something else: I’d dedicated my whole life to tango and to win was as though someone had said: You’ve done well, what you’re doing makes sense.

How did your participation come about?

Daniel: I listened to tango day and night, danced in a show and afterwards went out every night to dance in the milonga. When you’re on stage with professional dancers and at the same time you dance socially, sometimes you get laughed at. My colleagues would ask me why I was so crazy. I replied: “I’m a milonguero” and they took me at my word and said I should sign up for the Metropolitan.

Cristina: I was familiar with dance competitions through ballet and I was easily enthused to take part. Since Dani wanted to go to England, I didn’t pay much attention to signing up for the competition; it didn’t worry me at all.

What do you need to win?

Cristina: You don’t need to just know how to dance, you also have to know the music well and know which steps go well with which tangos.

Daniel: In the case of Di Sarli you have to dance the pauses; with D’Arienzo, with more energy. You have to give your dance the color of each era, ask yourself how it was then, how would we have danced in the thirties, in the forties, in the fifties. I had internalized the dance of every one of the milongueros. I’d always said to myself: “If you dance Di Sarli, think of Portalea¹ or of Finito²; if you do an aguja³, in Milonguita4. I just had to sort it all in my mind and imagine the corresponding milonguero.

Cristina: It’s also about a couple being able to dance in harmony with everyone else on the floor.

Daniel: In a show you have the whole floor to yourself. In a dance competition, you have very little space and your dance is determined by the couple in front of you. You have to maintain distance, improvise if they block you or impede you progress, and you can’t lose your posture, nor your elegance, and you also can’t stop.

What changed after winning?

Cristina: Suddenly everyone knows who you are, which might seem like recognition. But you have many “apparent” friends, they criticize you callously, they love you and hate you, and all of a sudden you feel pressured to be the best.

Daniel: Before the championship, no one in the milonga paid any attention to us. Afterwards, all eyes were on us and you heard a lot of disagreeable comments. We weren’t well known in the milongas: she came from Monte Grande and I had lived in Japan for seven years. So they were asking: Where do these two come from? As if we were only beginners and we’d just been lucky. It’s strange: With the exception of the winner, everyone is bitter and only a few are capable of feeling happy for those who succeed.

How did you meet?

Daniel: I was looking for a dance partner for the show and a friend introduced me to Cris. Prior to leaving for England, in March 2008, I was to perform at Sunderland. I asked Cris, but I let her know that we wouldn’t be dancing choreography there; we would have to improvise.

Cris, at that stage did you not dance salon tango?

Cristina: No, I had started to recently with Daniel.

That suggests you hadn’t been dancing together very long before you became world champions…

Daniel: No, we won the Metropolitan after four months and the World Championship after six months.

That seems almost incredible to me. Is there a secret?

Daniel: No. For the show at Sunderland we practiced walking together: seven days a week, two hours a day. And that’s how we rehearsed from March to June: we walked with long steps, with short steps, side-by-side, in the cross system.

Cristina: We learned to move together, that was important. We hardly spoke, only when necessary, we made minute changes; we had to gain confidence in the body, in the dance, and in the language of the other. Normally we danced stage tango and that is something completely different.

Daniel: The other couples had known each other a long time. In our case there were often misunderstandings and I had to learn to change my lead so she would understand me.

You only practiced walking together?

Cristina: No. We asked our teachers and our dancer friends to observe us, to critique our dance, and we had to make changes again and again to our embrace. Jorge Dispari wasn’t in Buenos Aires at the time, which is why we went to Carlitos Pérez, who helped us very much. He knew what was important for a world championship. You shouldn’t do too many steps and figures at once and you also shouldn’t do a lot of turns in a tango of the era when they didn’t yet exist, for example, in an old tango by Canaro.

Was it a nice experience rehearsing together?

Cristina: For me it was a huge change. I’d never thought about working with him professionally – in the show I was just a replacement. It was Dani who made a living from tango. It’s true that I taught tango to children, but beyond that I studied psychology and worked in a law firm. We were so different: we had different attitudes, opinions, behaviors and also our dance experiences were different. I’m a purebred Argentinean. Japan changed Dani a lot. When I see him there I have the impression that he fits in better in that country than he does in Argentina.

Daniel: I matured in Japan and the country left its mark on me professionally. There they tell me: If you do something, do it well. Arrive late to class, that’s not acceptable.

Why do you think you won?

Daniel: I’m a classical dancer of salon tango, I spent seven years in Japan and at that time YouTube didn’t exist. So I didn’t have anyone’s help and I danced what I’d learned in Buenos Aires from my teachers, the milongueros. In Argentina I probably would have become a tango nuevo dancer, who knows. And when they saw me dance in Buenos Aires, they said to me: “Ah, look! We haven’t seen dancing like this for a long time, it’s lovely, it’s old.” I differentiated myself from other dancers by my prolonged absence and simply had to choose the right steps.

Cristina: I think we danced nicely, in harmony and with musicality, as one.

They say of those legendary milongueros that they danced well but taught badly. You say you learned a lot from them.

Daniel: Yes, they were my role models, they had their own philosophy of tango and they taught me love and respect for tango, not just steps. They were “El Lampazo”, Carlitos Pérez, Aldo Chimbela, and Alberto Villarazo, who presented me in the milonga and made me known. And there was also a generation of younger teachers, among them Gabriel Misse, Jorge Dispari, Gabriel Angió, and Roberto Herrera.

The milongueros didn’t explain steps to you, they showed you. As a student you had to copy and that often caused chaos, because you didn’t know what the move was about and it took a long time to be able to dance it. The important thing about them was the way they listened to the music, the way they interpreted it, where they perceived the pauses and how they danced them. Today there are excellent teachers and the students learn very quickly. But occasionally they forget that you need time to assimilate everything. It makes a difference whether someone has danced for four years or for ten years, you feel it above all in the embrace. The steps can be perfect, but the body is not yet ready for the dance.

You have different backgrounds. Tell me your stories.

Daniel: I was a musician, I played the piano and had given piano classes since I was 14 years old. When I was 16 I began taking tango classes at a cultural centre with a group of kids – at first four times a month, but before long, every day. On my first visit to a milonga I was astounded, although I hardly knew how to dance, had no dance shoes, and wasn’t dressed properly. In those days the dress code was stricter and so it was that at 17 I bought my first suit, which I used every night. Soon they let me help out in the class and at 18 I was teaching on my own. I played less and less piano. I had become fully integrated in the world of the milonga.

Cristina: And I did ballet from childhood. At 18 I began to study psychology and for that reason stopped dancing. But after a year I was missing dance. During a ballet competition I saw stage tango and I fell in love instantly.

What did your parents say?

Daniel: My family was made up of my father and my grandmother, who raised me and my four brothers, as my mother had died. At first they were proud, but when I began to go out every night, my grandmother called me a “lout”. I replied, “No, Grandma, I’m a milonguero” (he laughs). She didn’t like it, but even so she ironed my shirts. In those days, in the milongas, there were fewer performances, just now and then they would celebrate milongueros and I could dance in their honor. They had been my teachers, some lived in my neighborhorhood and I could simply go out and find them and learn a few steps from them. It wasn’t until I was overseas that I realized how lucky I’d been to have the culture of tango so close to hand.

Cristina: In my case, at first I had nothing to do with the milongas, rather with a dance academy. When at the age of 14 I wanted to take tango classes as well as ballet classes, my elder brother told me: “Tango or ballet, the family can’t afford the cost of both”, and that’s how I came to choose tango.

Dani, how did you come to be living in Japan?

Daniel: A Japanese tango student was returning to her country and asked me if I’d like to go with her and be her dance partner. I was 21, I came from a poor family, and I knew that I shouldn’t miss this opportunity. At first it was fun, I didn’t know how long I would stay, I had work, and I earned well. I stayed 14 months, but I had no social life and also practically no friends. Only when I returned after a short stay in Buenos Aires did I begin to learn the language. But after three years I realized that wasn’t sufficient, that I also had to take on board the culture.

How does one take on board a culture?

Daniel: I asked questions, how should I do this, what they liked, what didn’t they like. People there are not as extroverted as Argentineans and we seem quite scandalous to them. They are never direct, they avoid saying, and do everything possible to never say, “no”. That’s how I learned what the Japanese call “learning to read the air”.

Cristina: When we’re in Japan, often I’ll have the impression that everything’s fine, then Dani will tell me that a student is very angry. I can’t see it. They never express it, they don’t frown, they don’t gesticulate, and I don’t know where I stand. But he sees everything for which I don’t have eyes.

Why did you leave Japan again?

Daniel: I’d made a name for myself as a teacher. But when I watched the young dancers in the World Championship videos, I said to myself, I have that sort of energy too. I left when I was 28, if I’d waited till I was 35 I’d have a different story to tell. My most important piece of learning was my concept of professionalism. There are couples who dance magnificently and everyone thinks they could be world champions, but after six months they disappear off the face of the earth. They were very talented, but they weren’t sufficiently professional.

Cristina: At first I never understood Daniel, he was always talking about professionalism and none of us knew what he was referring to nor why it was so important to him. We found him odd, a strange bird, different.

You’ve taught together since 2008. What’s the most important thing to you?

Cristina: At first we had trouble agreeing with each other. Dani was very much accustomed to working his way and I often became upset because he was so structured, so determined.

Daniel: We want to be good teachers and that means we should provide some guarantee to our students that they can learn the steps we teach them.

Cristina: We place a great deal of importance on individual work with the students, their needs and difficulties.

Daniel: We believe less is more. For that reason we teach simple things that can be danced in the milonga, and we like to teach the same step with different endings, instead of starting each class with a new step. We relate the steps to their history, establishing a connection with the milonguero, the era or the neighborhood in which it was danced. We value very much the musicality, we teach students the differences between distinct orchestras and when to dance the rhythm and when the melody.

Cristina: Not all dancers are good teachers, it’s not the same. Some give their students confused messages, without meaning to. That’s why it’s important to us to pass on to our students things we’ve already put to the test, things that are working for us. That way, we can ensure that our students will achieve top results.

Dani, what do you teach in your classes for men?

Daniel: The most important things for a man are a good posture, an elegant walk, musicality, and a beautiful and soft embrace. He’ll only be a good dancer if the woman feels good with him. As you can’t dance without good use of your axis, I offer exercises that improve balance, posture, the walk, and turns. The milonga codes are also important, and that a man understands that it’s not a place to practice, but a place to enjoy the dance; that it’s not about dancing as many complex steps as possible, but rather to dance well what you know.

Cris, what’s important to you in your classes on women’s technique?

Cristina: The classes should not be too serious, as when you laugh you learn more easily. I always look for creative ways to teach my students the fundamentals so that they can stand, walk, and dance better. If as a woman I can’t walk correctly, I’ll never be able to dance ochos, and without ochos I’ll never be able to turn. That’s why it’s so important to have a solid and broad base.

I never teach adornments without the corresponding music and I put a lot of emphasis on two other relevant points: control of the body and the sensitivity to, as a woman, end an adornment right in the moment that the man wishes to continue. This is an art form, with in reality only one objective: to connect to the music and with the partner, but without the physical training it isn’t possible.

This sounds like lovely work. Have you also had sad experiences on your journeys?

Daniel: When I farewelled my family and went to Japan. When the first milongueros died and I didn’t know. When I was criticized with the only intention being to hurt me. When lots of people don’t like my tango, I know how to handle it. When my teachers don’t like my tango it unsettles me, but I can live with it. But if the woman with whom I’ve chosen to dance, work, grow, says to me, “I don’t like your dance”, that destroys me.

Has it happened to you?

Daniel: Nearly! The difficult thing about being a dancer is that you depend on your feelings and on those of your partner.

And the good things in this journey?

Daniel: There are many unforgettable things: When my teacher asked me to teach with her. When I went to Japan and danced to a live orchestra. The milongueros who are with me in every tango. That they made everything possible by saying: “Kid, make pauses, don’t rush it. Kid, dance softly. Kid, don’t dance so many figures. Kid, walk more. Kid, choose the most beautiful steps and forget the rest”.

But the best of all is the experience with Cris. We’ve learned each other’s language, a language without words, we’ve learned to “read the other’s air”, because another person is a universe in themselves, a foreign country that you have to learn to read. In particular in the tango.

1 Gerardo Portalea (1928–2007), legendary salon dancer who was famous for his slow, elegant, deliberate style.

2 The legendary Ramón “Finito” Rivera, who died in 1987, was considered the personification of elegance in tango.

3 The “aguja” is a figure in which the man turns on the spot on this toes while the women turns around him.

4 Luis Lemos, of Saavedra, a milonguero known for being a virtuoso representative of the Villa Urquiza style.