Fabián Salas, original interview 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.

Keith Elshaw: 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.

When I see you dance, like in last night’s Tango Masters showcase here in Miami, I feel I’m witnessing something IMPORTANT. Why do I get that feeling? What am I seeing?

That I don’t know, really. But, I know – what you must see different; or what looks different to your eyes and what you can catch looks different – however, you have to have some training to catch that. Most of the people don’t. The reality is that (we’re not going to use these words, but) most of the people are used to bull. Where, the more tricks you perform, the better dancer that you are. And that’s wrong.

Last night we were watching this competition, and I was just telling Carolina how difficult it is to put together something that has some meaning; that is not a bunch of steps just (claps) put like that. And that’s what it looked like. Most of the people did not know how to dance. And the ones that knew how to dance, lost. And that’s a problem. I knew, everybody knew, the kids from Miami were going to win. But you have Victor (Crichton) and I placed him second … because for me he was the one who danced the best. But nobody else did … not even the teachers. They want flash and trash, you know?

The value of being a good dancer, the value of putting everything together, of being an articulate dancer, that can converse … it’s important and not too many people realize that.

So, we’ll come back to WHAT it is you are doing, but this brings up an interesting point: is what you’re teaching for somebody brand new to Tango? Or should they already know a lot of things first?

Not at all. 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.

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. And that’s why people from all different sorts or styles of Tango they could have danced together before. But, you go to a class and nobody tells you what it is. It’s one of those things where you can not put your finger on it, but you’ve been trying to do it for so long.

Unfortunately, we haven’t done any – if you want to call it “scientific” study of this where, at the end, you have a book or a video. Because, we should start all this process by teaching the teachers what it is that we’re talking about. Because most of the teachers don’t know what we’re talking about. This is the problem.

I believe that if you write a book, sooner or later the teachers are going to buy it and when they are in their homes, where nobody can see, they’ll read the book and they’ll understand what we’re talking about. Because they won’t come to our classes. 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 anymore 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. Because the teaching cast, the teaching people are not instructing well. We are still saying too many different things to students.

For instance, if you want people to lean forward, you want … that’s not the structure of the dance. 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.

And then teachers come to you and say, “What’s the pizza step?” They think there is another step that’s called the pizza step because there is one that is the sandwich step. And because we talk about slices of pizza to be graphic, you know, about triangles etc. I mean, teachers – their main responsibility is to be informed – at least. Informed of what’s going on. They don’t know. They heard from some student, who can’t understand what you’re talking about, “Oh, they taught the pizza step today.” So, they want to know what the pizza step looks like because everybody’s talking about it. I mean, things like that, that to me are … they drive me nuts.

That brings up two questions in my mind. Here’s the second one first: you look beautiful when you and Carolina dance – but she’s a real dancer

That’s correct.

So, many people must ask you: can I just do this with anybody who doesn’t have good balance, good posture, they’re brand new … ’cause you do a lot of turns, things like that which require technique?

Well, first let’s talk about more advanced dancing. I think that dancing, uh, dancing at this point is becoming like, how do you say in English, we call it “alta competencia” which is high competitive sports. Like, today you cannot talk about how good was a runner 40 years ago. They didn’t exist 40 years ago like now. Today, it’s different. It’s not just natural talent. And I think Tango, or dances are becoming that way. In ballroom, you already see it – these people are athletes.

In Tango, in ballet, you see that. In Tango, we’re coming in to the idea of realizing that this is not for everybody. To be good, you have to have a lot of things lined up together for you. It’s not just the time, it’s not just the balance – it’s a combination of things. I mean, this is a complex dance. My feeling was always that it can’t hurt that you are able to understand the dance. 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 that this is good about him, that’s bad about her … we should give them more elements that we are not giving.

Two nights ago I saw you dance with a woman who lives in Miami who is not a “dancer,” and it looked beautiful. She is like the typical person who wants to dance Tango; isn’t going to do great turns and jumps and all that …

Correct. For a “normal” person, if you can walk you should be able to dance. That’s it. If you understand that there isn’t any other weird things in between. What we put the accent on is on the walk and the way of moving.

Now, people – because they’ve been taught that way – before they move they do too many things. Instead of relaxing and just let the movement take you; and then correcting a few things here and there; they think too much … start acquiring weird postures; ideas with their feet; you know, where they have to look … things which the Tango doesn’t go through. I mean, a lot of people ask me in classes, “How much weight do I have to put on this foot, how many pounds?” Or, “What kind of an angle do I need here?” The dance does not go through those paths. And if you start thinking like that, the last thing you can do is walk … which is what you want.

But at some point, you have to give them something that they can grab – some of those things you can put your fingers on. So you have to tell them, “Do this, and put your arm like so;” things that they can chew on. And that’s why, for too many students, after years and years of teaching, people come to realize that we are good teachers. 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. 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.

So, when you take a beginner, what do they look like 6 months later? What have they learned? Can they dance with anybody?

If they stick to what we do, yes.

Do you mind me asking – in a first one hour class, absolute beginner, what do you start with?

Walk. I make people walk in front of each other. That’s it. Walking and then, I explain to them how the cross happens if we get to that point. Because in one hour, it’s too much information. But realistically speaking, what I would explain in the class is, which structure is Argentine Tango using. And then we go to the turn because for us dancers, it’s all turns; and the basic step is nothing more than a turn to the left and the cross there happens because of that. I mean it’s the same code; people have been using for years and they don’t even realize it. But it’s too much for a beginner. And unfortunately, they leave the class, they don’t understand much what you were saying. Then the next class, the next teacher after you comes in and says, “OK” here is the basic step. Followers on one side, leaders on the other, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8.” And that’s the way they teach. That’s “fine,” that’s the way we all learned. And it’s proven that can work after years and years of practice. But you don’t have to go that way.

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.

Now, try to prove this with somebody, I mean with teachers. No, the technique classes are very important. You have to teach the answers to stand … where? Boleos – do boleos by themselves. This is crazy. The boleo is generated by the energy of the other person. Now, you’re going to learn how to do a boleo with the bar, that doesn’t have energy? So, what you’re learning is to be independent … which is exactly what we don’t want.

The form is the least important thing. First you learn to follow, how to feel; then you learn the form of the dance. It doesn’t go the other way around. There is no gain in going into the form of what you’re going to do next if you haven’t done it before. If you don’t know how a boleo should feel, if you don’t know what lead are you expecting, I mean … this idea of telling you for two hours and a half how your feet are supposed to look while you’re performing a boleo that somebody supposedly is going to lead … no.

 Fabián, you say, “we,” and you say “discovered,” and “looked at and found out” … So tell me, who “we” is, what is it you did and where are you with it all now?

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.

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. But you were in that class where, briefly, I explained the difference in the side steps and 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.

Then … we saw the dance as pretty advanced. We couldn’t come up with new structures that had the significance of older movements. I remember Gustavo saying, we have to come up with something that has the significance of a boleo – imagine the first person that invented the boleo. Or a gancho. How important that is – the meaning that it has in dancing. What did we invent? Nothing. Yes, we came up with line boleos 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.

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?


The most profound things are often simple and hardest to find, right?

That’s right. And it still is that way. Because, we have no influence over the teaching world. We have some – but not much. I mean, how many people, Tango people, can you reach in a class, compared to the Tango world? How many other teachers there are? And I’m a very popular teacher … and Gustavo is a very popular teacher as well. How many other teachers are there saying things that are seemingly easier to understand for the person … and they are saying things that we do not agree with. What’s the rate where you can really influence people?

And now there is something, whether you call it a philosophy or a style that’s around, that you’ve developed, and there’s going to be confusion for a while about what it is and what it’s called.

There is. And see, you go to Europe, most of these people dance the way we do … they don’t even know where it comes from. Some of them might. The new dancers, people who have been dancing for 2, 3 or 4 years, they started that right away and they don’t know how different it was before; they don’t know what is the so-called traditional Tango is compared to this so-called new Tango. They don’t know where the turning point is. Now everything is mixed up. But, for somebody that’s been dancing for 10 years, they know the difference. 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).

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.

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?

I mean, and that’s our problem, most of the teachers don’t know about this. 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.

Now, this is a sad fact of life: choreographers can’t patent their work like composers can.

No, no; who cares? That’s not the idea. I mean, I don’t care about the credit. I care about (pause) … how long is it going to take for people to realize – for the teachers and for the performers to realize that what they’ve been calling wrong all their lives is right, and it’s the way everybody’s going. And it’s the natural way. How long is it going to take to not deny things any more? Not just start labelling 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.

In a way then, is the rest of the world kind of helping in this as opposed to Argentinians who don’t want to think in a new way?

Well, I don’t think Argentinians are the most … I mean, I have students in Argentina too, but it’s sad, again, because how many students do we have? How many times are we there to teach? I mean, a lot of people come to Argentina from Europe, they dance better than the Argentinians. To us, I mean.

Still, 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.

Are you comfortable with the fact that it has to be called something?

Of course.

So, you call it Cosmotango?

No. That’s our association. 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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Now, I’d like to ask you what’s happening now with “the Project.”

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.

I want you to know that you are not alone…

embrace orig crop

… neither in your dreams for tango nor in your frustrations.

My deepest desire is the same as all my students and friends … those who have yet to start dancing and those who dance a lot.

It’s partnership.

One thing I’ve learned on this quest, we need to:

Stop Waiting for Partners, and start Building them.

I’ve written a 10-step Action Plan.

Are you ready to find the Partners you want?




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