Fabián Salas, interviewed by Keith Elshaw 2001

This interview is no longer available at totango.net, so I found a copy on another site and have reposted it here to be sure people have access to it. Please note there are still a lot of other very interesting articles available at totango.net. Since this interview is very long, I have shortened and reorganized it thematically. If you want to read the full original version, it’s here.

Keith’s questions and comments denoted by italics.

The Inventory

Fabián Salas: Several years ago, before 1990, I met Gustavo Naveira, who was the person who really impressed me the most in Tango. For quite a while we worked together, and even though I wasn’t at his level (he’s been dancing for a lot longer and he’s a great dancer, anyway) we started talking a lot about Tango.

Today it’s totally different than it was 8 years ago. And that came from us. From two guys: Gustavo and me. Later on Pablo (Veron) came in, and Chicho (Mariano Frúmboli).

At one point, I remember that we were very concerned about all these dancers dying – all these milongueros, all these teachers, they were dying. One after the other, three or four in one year. It was catastrophic. So I said, “Gustavo, we are on our own; there is hardly anybody any more and if there is, we can’t do much about it because it’s hard to talk to these people. We have to start learning from ourselves. We have to start bringing the process along and the only way to do it is getting together. Why don’t we join with the people that we consider are good dancers that have something to offer with this idea of, you know, changing – exchanging things? Getting together and practice in a serious way. Analyze.”

So we decided to – I don’t recall when was the first meeting, but we had several meetings with different teachers and dancers and people we thought were interesting, you know, to interact, to talk. For a few months, we were having at least one meeting a week, sometimes two. Most of the time it was hard trying to deal with people. They thought that we were trying to steal their steps. Even today that’s the case, you know; Tangueros, they have one step, they treasure it and they don’t want to share it with anybody. And we thought it was important to share. So, at one point we realized that that wasn’t working. That, ah, all these meetings were slowed down because of personal problems with these so-called great dancers or whatever. So we said, Gustavo, the only ones that are speaking the same language here is me and you. Why don’t we just do it on our own? Why don’t we just start working on our own … and we did.

We didn’t know what we were looking for. We were just … (pause) looking. We needed to do it and at that point we changed the idea of getting together and we started doing it several hours per day, every day. I mean, we couldn’t sleep. Talking; we spent hours playing billiards and talking; coffees – they’d throw us out from one coffee shop and we’d have to go to another and to another bar and all night long – talking and talking. For years.

So at one point we decided well, if we don’t do anything with this, we’re going to spoil it. So we went out and we started dancing, and looking for what we didn’t know. And every day we were coming up with new things. Not steps – just concepts. Things that we could discover, we could see and … we weren’t organized, we didn’t know what to work on, but we started dancing and then he was dancing and I was looking and, this idea would come to my mind. But we always looked for structure – for things that you could say well, this is organized this way and this is organized this other way …

It’s not like for one voleo; we were looking for: how many voleos were possible in Tango dancing; how many different ganchos there are; things like that. To come to a total knowledge of what’s available.

An inventory.

That’s right. But for that, we needed a structure; we needed … what’s making all these combinations possible. And one day, again I don’t remember, it was 7, 8 years ago, we came up with this realization that the fundamental structure in Argentine Tango was the turn. It was the structure that is always there. The structure you can’t see, until you look for it.

We saw that the so-called side-steps (we call them Open steps now) are all over the place, but they don’t look like side steps. They look like back steps or front steps…when I go to the outside this is a cross …

And these realizations opened all the doors at once. We knew a lot of things before then, we knew a lot of steps, we knew a lot of possibilities; but after that we came up with reading the Tango only through: Open, Back and Front steps and that’s it. To 2 sides, that makes 6 – that’s all we have in Argentine Tango: 6 different steps.

I remember Gustavo saying, we have to come up with something that has the significance of a voleo – imagine the first person that invented the voleo. Or a gancho. How important that is – the meaning that it has in dancing. What did we invent? Nothing. Yes, we came up with linear voleos or ganchos like this, but everything was already there. Even what in the beginning we called them “alterations” and then later we called them changes in direction. We didn’t invent them, they were there. A change of direction is a simple ocho, really.

However, what we did start using a lot was, out of three choices you normally have, using the one that nobody used before in such a way … and make a structure out of it and not just a step.

But the structure – the ideas that we built – were never planned because we just needed to do it. And as soon as we found something, would go out to the classes and teach it. Because it wasn’t just to keep it, it was to share.

There are always 3 choices?

Yes. Because every leg has three possible movements. You can do an open step, a front step or a back step. And that’s it. You have to be in one of those three positions.

Now, this is a cornerstone concept of how you’re communicating essential Tango knowledge to people, isn’t it? And before you, nobody ever said that little simple thing?


About Tango Teachers

And to begin with, having people apart – it’s a mistake. It’s a big mistake and teachers don’t realize it yet, but what you have to teach people is to walk with another person in front, not to walk by themselves – they already know that. I don’t see why they have to learn something by themselves. It’s like, you want to learn to play piano and I give you a trumpet. It doesn’t help you. It might not hurt you, but it’s a different learning process. It doesn’t get you faster to be a good pianist to learn trumpet at the same time. Most likely it’s going to slow you down. Things that you do by yourself are out of the question. They don’t work.

For instance, if you want people to lean forward. We have not understood yet that there is a technique of the dance … and that it is not any more something that you learn intuitively; that you have to work on it and there are things that you must know. And unfortunately most of the teachers don’t know anything about this. And that’s the truth.

So, why is there all this problem from people about being rational about the dance – when in reality in any type of dance you do, there is a technique. In ballet, in ballroom, there is a technique. In Tango, there is nothing – just what the teacher tells you at this moment, at that’s it. And all of them are telling you different things. So, it’s left to the student to realize what thing is good and what thing is wrong. And the student is not there for that. I mean, that’s why he’s a student. It shouldn’t be up to the student to realize … we should give them more elements that we are not giving.

Because the teaching cast, the teaching people are not instructing well. We are still saying too many different things to students.And they keep teaching the same bull 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 for years and years – and it’s still that way. You have people talking to you about “Number 5,” – there is no number 5! There is no number 2, there is no number 7 … I mean, that’s a structure that is old, that doesn’t have anything to do with anything. The basic step is not the basic step … it’s been proven to us that it is not that way. I mean, none of the teachers use it any more in their own dancing. But when they go to teach: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. And that’s – that’s a problem.

But for years, they couldn’t understand what we were saying; because they are used to being told, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, and that’s a concept that they can believe. Because most of the teachers don’t know what we’re talking about. Because they won’t come to our classes. This is the problem.

We now tell them, no, the “basic step” doesn’t exist, number 1 doesn’t exist, number 8 doesn’t exist – there are no numbers … this is what you have: you have three steps to each side; you mix a bunch of combinations and this is all you can do.

And they resist, you know, they come to me and say, “This is number 4.” And I say, “There is no number 4.” And I know what they’re talking about, but it’s hard to get people to think in a different way; to think in a more accurate way.

In reality, every dancer uses what we discovered. We say that because nobody told us these things. But it was there since day number one.  I think that, for the first time … and this might sound pretentious but I don’t mean it that way … I really believe that for the first time we found a structure – something that is fundamental for every type of Tango that you will do. That is the basic idea of the motion, of what your choices are; and that’s good for any type of Tango you want to dance.

Naming Things

I call it Tango. To me, it’s Tango. Simple. But it doesn’t have anything to so with the ballroom Tango, and it’s what we call Argentine Tango because it brings up the origin of the dance – but not because it’s reserved just to Argentine people.

But let’s not get confused. It’s not only for Argentine people; and it’s not a must to be Argentinian to be a good dancer. Anybody can do it if they do it right. Why do Argentinians have to be better? I mean, there’s no genetic thing that you can prove to me that Argentinians have. That’s not true.

Then do we call what you’re doing … Tango Nuevo?

No. Argentine Tango. That’s what we like. It’s an evolving thing that has arrived where it is today.

Most of them, however, even though they criticize us all over the place, most of them are using what we invented. Things that I know I created myself. And they probably don’t even know. They probably took it from somebody they saw in a show and they picked it up. But they came out with movements that were not there before us. And I can guarantee you that. Most of the teachers are using, on stage, things that we created.

I don’t care about the credit. I care about (pause) .., How long is it going to take to not deny things any more? Not just start labeling things, you know – the “new Tango” is destroying the whole … how long is this fight going to go on until we all realize that this has to move up. And it’s been moving up, with or without their help.

Can I ask a really dumb question? Where did the Cross System come from. Is that your work?

The cross-foot system? Yeah. We named things that most of the people don’t know. What we call the cross-foot basic has been there forever. But we came with the idea of explaining the normal way of walking as parallel, and showing the cross foot and calling it that.

One night Gustavo came up with this idea of calling the Ocho Cortado. Or the cut Ocho. It was a mistake – the concept was a mistake. He invented it, the Milongueros are using it, and they don’t even know where it came from. And Gustavo is saying, I created a name that now people are calling Ocho Milonguero. Ocho Cortado is a mistake – really, the cut ocho is a cut turn … a reverse of direction, because you go front, open, and then you go to the other side. It’s not that you are cutting the ocho anywhere, it’s just you are making a turn to one side and then you start to the other side. So you have a front step and an open step. That’s what an ocho cortado is.

But after years, somebody grabbed that … for example Susana Miller, because she was taking classes with Gustavo, and she came up with his terminology, ocho cortado, and she taught this all over the world. And now the greater community of dancers has a concept that we brought out, that is wrong. (Chuckles).

You know, names are only … For years, we wanted to use terms that describe what is going on. Because most of the people want to know what is the name of the step. And they named the steps for the look, for the idea, they didn’t have a structure/form idea. I mean, the ocho is named for how it looked; it doesn’t tell you about the structure. Ocho Cortado is just a name that tells you you are cutting the ocho somewhere, it doesn’t tell you anything about the structure of the step.

And to me it is a shame, it’s hard. When you’re convinced about something, that you realize this is it; you can’t just go to a class and say, “Look, we were all wrong. This was wrong, now this is it.” I mean, I’ve been telling my students, remember how I told you this one is? Yeah. Well, now forget about it. Now, we’re going up. But, how many people can do that? How many teachers can accept that they’ve been wrong?

So, do you want to re-name a lot of things?

There are things that can not be re-named. The name is like your own name; it doesn’t tell me anything about your personality, but it’s your name. So, I’m very careful with names now. If I describe something, I say this is a change of direction.

What is Cosmotango?

That you come from Argentina, from where Tango was born, you’re supposed to be good. Bullshit. To me, there is not an Argentine Tango. It’s a technique of dance. That it was originated in Argentina and it has to do with tango, fine – but, today it’s universal. That’s why we call our association Cosmotango.

For a couple of years, we stopped getting together and researching things. Once in a while we get together and “throw steps” as we say. But um, we’ve been trying to carry projects along, like, getting the Congress (CITA) was one of the first ideas; and now we’re in a project of trying to do a show.

At one stage in this whole project Chicho came by, and he brought a lot of new fresh things because of his way of learning and grasping things. I mean he was a student of ours, but it was one of those things where you give him something and he works with it and throws you back something that is even a bigger problem. And that’s a challenge and that’s what you want.

The first year at CITA it was just Gustavo and me and our partners; then the second year Chicho came by and we did something the three of us togther with our partners. And this year, we went even bigger and we did over a half an hour of our stuff, what we like.

But we only get together one month a year, before the Congress and that’s to rehearse these ideas that we have. And now we are planning to arrange our trips, because the reality is that we have to live, we have to work. We work on our stuff, we share it with the whole world, but have families to support. There is no support for cultural work in Argentina. They don’t care about Tango … they sold all the rights to the Japanese. At this point, we are in Argentina 2, 3 months a year and that’s it. So in that context, I have to happen to be in Argentina the same time that he is there – which is rare. But for most of the people, we are a team. We just don’t appear together unless we want that to happen.

This interview was recorded in 2001. In July, 2001, Gustavo withdrew from Cosmotango; at which point Fabián considered whether he should continue alone, or call a halt. He was persuaded to continue. The 2002 Cosmotango event in Buenos Aires was an unqualified success (being the 3rd annual).  A summer Festival will be held this year for the first time.


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