Interview with Joe Leonardo! Creator of Tango Silent Films from Portland!

by Holly Darling

 photo by Isaac Oboka at

photo by Isaac Oboka at

Joe beautifully expresses the connection between Tango and Silent Films, combining the two in a brilliant project.  At the Oxygen Beginners' Milonga, we are so fortunate to have our very own screening of his silent film "Oh, My, What a Night!" based on the harrowing experience of being a beginner at a milonga. We may think these are times we want to forget, but upon watching this film, we also remember the sweetness that comes with our first memorable dance with a stranger, and the connection that can bloom even from the most awkward of cabeceos.

Interview with Joe of Tango Silent Films :

What was it like for you when you were a beginner in Tango ? What keeps you in tango ?

After my very first beginner’s lesson, the milonga began and of course I was too afraid to get out on the dance floor. But I couldn’t bring myself to leave the milonga either. I was mesmerized by what I saw out there, these men and women moving with such elegance and power. As I watched them I couldn’t help but have the distinct desire to be like that, to be able to dance like them. So, I screwed up the courage to come back the following week and take the beginner’s lesson again.

"With Tango, I had to recognize that I wasn't very good at something."

And I kept coming back. With tango, it was the first time in my life that I had been able to accept my limitations, to recognize not only that I wasn’t very good at something, but to be okay with that fact as well, accepting it and moving forward in the earnest practice of something. I approached tango with dogged determination, but probably as a glutton for punishment as well. As a beginner, tango was a harrowing experience. I often felt like I was living off the kindness of follows. Each night out was a gamble and a challenge and I never knew how the night would be, whether I’d have good experiences or bad. There were a lot of bad nights but I would have a good night here and there. I still remember the first moment a follow was kind to me. I still dance with her to this very day.

I realized early on that that I not only had to develop as a dancer, but I also had to develop real relationships within the tango community. At one point, long after being a beginner, I learned that it is not as important to be a good dancer as it is to be a good person. That was the hardest lesson for me, but I’m glad that I eventually learned it, because what keeps me in tango is the community, the relationships I’ve built over the years. The tango community is my family and my home, for better and worse.

Why is your tango website called "hard road tango" ? Where did that name come from ?

See above. Also, I've always tended to do this the hard way in life, but I'm trying to get over that...

What gave you the idea to create films about Tango? And specifically silent films?

These films are about tango because tango is the world that I live in. It’s my community and like the larger world out there it’s filled with wonderful things and horrible things, both of which I I often feel I struggle to understand. And I struggle to understand myself, because I am a part of this tango world and every day is a battle to come to grips with my own ego, my well being, my perception, and my actions.

"In both tango and silent film, we may not know what they are saying, but we get what’s going on."

The tango world that we live in is constructed of complex and subtle relationships. I think that these relationships are so complex that we struggle to put them into words. In fact, so much of the dance and the culture surrounding tango is wordless, such as the act of asking someone to dance or that thing felt with a person close to you in that moment when a song ends. We are capable of going through a full night of actions and movement, of relationships and moments shared with other people, all without having said a single word. I think the silent film genre lends itself beautifully to this. In both tango and silent film, we may not know what they are saying, but we get what’s going on.

What attracted you to the silent film aesthetic?

I read a great biography on Buster Keaton and I was fascinated by the details of his productions, especially in his days of producing short “2 reelers” in the early 1920’s.  Every day was a day of innovation and improvisation. They dreamed up gags and then they figured out how to do them, how to capture them on film.  It was a time when they were figuring out how to do things that had never been done before. They used the tools they had and did the best they could with them, and they ended up doing amazing, magical things. I wanted to approach filmmaking with this same spirit.

I think I relate to those rough, experimental times because even though I don’t have a background in film production—I’m self-taught—I’m figuring it out as I go along and doing the best that I can with the what limited resources I have. It’s the act of learning by doing, starting out primitively with the hopes of evolving with experience and time.

"My life in tango had taught me a lot about living and feeling in a wordless world."

Also, while reading about and seeing the films silent films I realized that silent film acting did not pantomime. Silent film was (and is) capable of telling incredibly rich and complete stories and portray moments of complex and subtle meaning, just as much as a talkie can. And my life in tango had taught me a lot about living and feeling in a wordless world.

How did you come up with ideas for film concepts / topics?

The structure and pacing of the films are based on traditional Argentine tango music from the 1930’s and ‘40s. Each film’s soundtrack consists of 4-5 songs by one of the major tango orchestras that we hear often at the milongas. For example, the soundtrack for “Oh My, What a Night!” is a tanda of 1930’s instrumentals by Juan D’Arienzo. In editing, I lay out the soundtrack first and then edit the scenes to the music, often matching cuts and physical movements with unique musical elements.

As a tango DJ and teacher, I give weekly lectures about each of the major orchestras to which we dance and I learned in my research that one of the main sources of income for musicians in Buenos Aires during the 1920’s was playing in silent film theaters. Nearly every orchestra leader in the ‘30’s and 40’s had gotten their start in a silent film house. Imagine them playing tango and jazz to film for eight hours a day, seven days a week!

The 1920’s was also the period in which the sound and style of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s orchestras is rooted, so I can’t help but feel that film must have had an effect of the development of tango music, if only through the act of playing songs over and over again to the stories up on the scene in front of these musicians. I believe that the narrative quality of films might have helped create the narrative quality of tango music.

So Tango Silent Films is an experiment of the reverse: If film affected the development of tango, then let’s see what happens when tango affects the development of film.

"The music and the wordless nature of our tango culturematch the wordless nature of silent film so well."

Argentine tango music has always seemed very movie-esque to me. With the drama and romance, the loss and gain, the hope and despair, all of this dynamic (and dramatic) change, I can’t help but have little movies play out in my head asI hear tango music. A tango song inspires these little stories and actions to unfold and play out. To me, tango music is silent film music and the tango dance hall is a silent film set, because the music and the wordless nature of our tango culture match the wordless nature of silent film so well.

What ideas do you have for the future of the company and concept? What is your overall goal for creating the films?

The Tango Silent Films project is a planned series of 13 episodes. Each episode will stand on its own and use a common element of our tango culture as a theme. “Oh My, What a Night!” is about the cabeceo and how to get a dance, for example, but all the episodes will be tied together with an overall story arc for the series. It features a core cast of seven iconic characters having adventures of love, ego and tango and just like us in this dance, the characters will grow and evolve throughout the series.

Our production team consists of an all-volunteer cast and crew drawn from members of the Portland Argentine tango community. We all enthusiastically donate our time, energy and talent and are passionately committed to seeing the project through to its completion. Our shared goal in this project is to grow and develop as filmmakers, just as the characters in our films grow and develop as dancers and members of a community.

How did you come up with the idea of the ‘beginner at his first milonga’? What is it about this experience that lends itself so well to humor?

Many of the core characters are beginners and their development as dancers and members of their community will hopefully match the development that we all go through in tango. That’s one of the reasons that humor lends itself so well to this, because this experience is so common. We all share in the same confusion and mystery of the dance hall. We have suffered through the same pitfalls, conflicts, and obstacles and have all enjoyed the same triumphs as well.

How time-consuming is it to make these films?

About two months: 1-2 weeks to write the script, 3-4 weeks of pre-production and rehearsals, two full days of shooting (about 18 hours), and 2-3 weeks of post-production. Because we all have day jobs, the production process often gets stretched out to 3-6 months as we struggle to get a tremendous amount of work coordinated and done in everyone’s free time.

Our current goal is to release a new film every three months. We’ve gotten to the point where we have several scripts completed and are overlapping our productions, so that goal is looking pretty good. It’s still a struggle and a challenge, but we’re getting better at it and in the end, that’s the point.