Tango Nicknames of Bygone Days: Celebrating Dancers' Uniqueness and Individuality

 José María Baña "El Pibe Palermo" (kid from Palermo) and Carmen Calderón

José María Baña "El Pibe Palermo" (kid from Palermo) and Carmen Calderón

The history of tango is studded with tangueros and tangueras with alter egos, creating a tradition of nicknames which continues into the present.  A person's tango persona is often separate from their everyday life.  For dancers in the past, tango was a merit-driven escape from their social and economic class and so some did not want to be known by their true names and professions.  In other cases nicknames arose merely because other dancers wanted an affectionate, unique way to talk about an outstanding or creative dancer.  A large number of dancers have been known by their ethnicity, a trend undoubtedly related to the huge number of immigrants to Argentina from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   Some dancers have been known by physical traits such as “El Flaco” (thin), “Petisa” (short), and “El Manca” (a man who had one hand).  Most dancers' tango alter egos fall into the following categories: physical traits, profession, early life ventures, dance style, and personality.

 Jorge Martín Orcaizaguirre "Virulazo" and his wife Elvira

Jorge Martín Orcaizaguirre "Virulazo" and his wife Elvira

One famous tanguero known as “Petróleo” was both a creative dancer who pushed the boundaries of tango as a dance and a historian who documented earlier developments and earlier dancers in tango.   Petróleo got his nickname, which means “oiled”, because he loved wine and was often drunk.  He and his colleague “El negro” Lavandina evolved the primitive tango turn into the giro that we dance today.  They also incorporated pivoting with enrosque from ballet, and he is credited with developing the boleo into a leadable movement.

 Ovidio José Bianquet, "El Cachafaz" (rascal) and Carmen Calderón

Ovidio José Bianquet, "El Cachafaz" (rascal) and Carmen Calderón

Another dancer known as “Virulazo” (the sound of lawn bowling balls knocking together) was a very successful touring artist after the revival of tango in the 70's and 80's.  Unlike other show dancers of the period he avoided choreographies and considered himself a milonguero and a perpetual amateur.  His nickname arose in his youth when he used to play bowling games for money.   There are notable nicknames among current touring tango professionals as well, for example:  Eduardo “El Nene” (baby) Masci, who began dancing more than 50 years ago at the age of ten, and Diego “El Pajaro” (bird) Riemer, a dancer known for his witty performances.

Tango nicknames have come about as endearments, markers of acceptance and of respect within the tango community.  Some are true alter-egos in that the person's tango persona is entirely different from what they are like in everyday life.  Other nicknames are alter-egos in the sense that a person's dancing has helped them build an identity all their own, based on natural skill or hard work.  Without local communities of dancers, tango alter-egos would not exist, and without dancers who are unique individuals willing to just be themselves, tango alter-egos would not be special.  The significance of dancers with alter-egos in tango's history is a testament to the individuals who have contributed to tango as a dance and art form and to the tango community itself which has accepted and appreciated their uniqueness.

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Lauren Kendrick

Lauren Kendrick is an active LA-based social dancer and festival dancer who started Tango with the Caltech Tango Club and went on to co-organize the first Caltech Tango Festival. She is one of the organizers of the Oxygen Milonga with Kris Shinn and Amy Zhou. She is currently a graduate student studying public policy at Rand.