Their average age is twenty-three. They don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t stay up late. Many of them listen to punk or heavy metal or rock, but all are able to differentiate a pericón from a Chilean cueca, a waltz from a vidala. They have pored over books such as Martín Fierro, Don Segundo Sombra, and Juan Moreira: epitomes of the gaucho tradition. These sagas and certain period movies — like The Gaucho War — are as inspiring for them as Harry Potter or Star Trek is for others. They place importance on words such as respect, tradition, nation, flag. They want to have, onstage but also offstage, the attributes commonly ascribed to gauchos — usterity, courage, pride, sincerity, directness — and to be rugged and strong enough to endure the blows they’ve always taken. That they still take.
Héctor Aricó is a dancer, choreographer, researcher, author of books and articles on traditional Argentinian dances. He’s been a judge at Laborde for fifteen years and he has an impeccable reputation. Today, Friday, he’s been at the judges’ table, like every day, from eight at night to six in the morning. He gave a talk on attire at ten this morning. He now stands smoking under an awning in the field, dressed in black, carefully modulating his words and gesticulating a lot, as if he were an actor in a silent film.
“Laborde doesn’t have the recognition that other festivals have at the commercial level, because the organizing committee and the delegates have preferred it that way. But it’s the bastion of the malambo, and for a dancer it’s the highest recognition.”
“What things are the judges evaluating when they watch the dancers?”
“First of all, symmetry. This is a perfectly symmetrical dance by a human figure that’s naturally asymmetrical. The first step in training — and the biggest challenge — is to create symmetry: in ability, intensity, sound, in spatial equality. The second problem is stamina. Here, everyone knows they’re not going to win with a two- or three-minute malambo: they have to get close to five. So the capacity for stamina is also evaluated. Then the structure, which has to be attractive, but also has to be within the regulations: we have to see, for example, that the legs aren’t raised above the limits, because this isn’t a show, it’s a competition. And the musical accompaniment — often the musicians don’t really accompany the malambo dancer, and instead the music becomes the protagonist and detracts from the dance. And last, the attire: the design on their ponchos must correspond to the correct province, and the bombachas can’t have too many pleats. For these boys, when they win, an important labor market opens up for them, but it’s also a premature retirement. They become champions at twenty-one, twenty-two years old, and it’s a dance they’ll never do again. There’s no regulation prohibiting it, but what’s at stake is the idea, ‘And if I sign up for that festival and they beat me? It’s better to keep my glory.’ ”
“Just one, on the stage: that’s what I need from you guys.”
Early afternoon, under a brutal sun, a malambo quartet rehearses onstage. They wear brightly colored shirts, surfer shorts, and their feet are bare. The coach repeats:
“I don’t need anything else. Together, together, together. Just one.” They stomp on the floor as if they’re trying to get a confession out of it. Meanwhile, sitting under the shade of the eucalyptus trees, Pablo Sánchez, the delegate from Tucumán, speaks to a group of girls and boys who look at him with worried faces.
“We have to be strong. Other festivals are fine, but Laborde is in a higher category. It’s the heavyweight category. This is the first time it’s happened in fifty-five years of dance, and we’ll figure out where to get the money to pay for the bus. You guys don’t need to worry about that, only about putting everything into your performance on the stage.”
The crowd nods and disperses. Sánchez —p atriarch of a family of malambo dancers from Tucumán, who’s trained six champions and two runners-up — explains that the bus that was supposed to bring them from Tucumán, and which they’d already paid for, never showed up. They had to hire another bus at the last minute and, of course, pay for the trip a second time.
“We got ourselves into a lot of debt, but we’ll find a way to work it out.”
“You didn’t consider canceling the trip?”
“Never. Not coming to Laborde is unthinkable.”
Pablo Sánchez’s oldest son, Damián, was destined to become the next grand champion at Laborde when, at twenty years old, he was killed by a brain aneurism. So his younger brother, Marcelo, entered the competition and took the title in 1995.
“The power of the dance is in the soul, in the heart. Outside is all technique. Your tapping has to be perfect, you have to know how to stand, stick the instep, increase your energy, your attitude. But the malambo requires a much stronger expression than other dances, so apart from just knowing the technique, you have to be able to feel the boards, understand them, bang yourself into the stage. The day you lose that, you lose everything. You have to feel it blow by blow. Like the beat of a heart. The message has to clearly reach the people.”
“What message is that?”
“The message is: Here I am. I come from this land.”
I named him Fausto after Fausto. I think criollos have to remain criollos in everything. I don’t like names like Brian or Jonathan. And besides, with my last name, Cortez, it doesn’t go.”
Fausto, by the nineteenth-century Argentinian writer Estanislao del Campo, is an emblematic work of gaucho literature, and it’s also the name Víctor Cortez gave his son. Cortez is the 1987 champion from Córdoba and persona non grata according to the festival’s organizing committee due to a labor lawsuit he filed against them after losing his job as an instructor at a dance school in town.
“The champions have some privileges. They don’t pay the entrance fee, they eat for free. I have to pay for my ticket to get in, I have to pay to eat, but the worst thing is that I can’t accompany my hopefuls backstage. It’s like having a kid you’ve taken care of all year, and then he has his mother taken away at the last minute. This is the most important moment — hen you’re putting on your boots, when you’re getting dressed like a gaucho, when you feel the malambo growing inside you.”
Today Víctor Cortez works as a welder at a company that manufactures buses, and he says that, from time to time, his coworkers find an article about him and they’re shocked. “And they say: ‘Look who this old man who works with us is.’ ”
He’s seated on a bench in the town square. The bars around it begin to fill up, and on the grass, groups of young men and women play the guitar or dance. This year, Cortez trained Rodrigo Heredia, from Córdoba, who will compete for the first time in the main malambo category.
“He’s a beautiful kid. Healthy, clean. You can make them into artists, but not into good people. When I came to Laborde, I thought I was the best of them all. They could have put God in front of me and I’d have said: ‘I’m better than God.’ And well, you have to work with them on that in some way. So that they don’t lose their humility, but up there they can still say: ‘I’m the best.’ ”
“And if they lose?” I ask.
“It’s painful. But life doesn’t end here.”
Exhaustion sets in after two minutes. Someone with an average level of training could dance, without too much effort, a malambo that lasts that long. But after two minutes, the body keeps going only thanks to the intense training and the flood of endorphins that try to block out the panic of suffocation, the contraction of muscles, the pain in the joints, the expectant gazes of six thousand people, and the scrutiny of a jury that registers every last breath. Maybe that’s why when they get off the stage they all seem like they’ve just gone through some unspeakable experience, some traumatic event.
Although during the day the temperature can exceed 104 degrees Fahrenheit, at night, without fail, it drops dramatically. Today, Friday the fourteenth, twelve thirty a.m., it must be around 55 degrees, but backstage it looks like Carnival. There are bodies dressing and undressing, sweat, music, rushing. Darío Flores, the hopeful for the province of La Rioja, leaves the stage as they all do: blind from the exertion, crucified, his gaze absent and his hands on his hips, fighting to catch his breath. Someone hugs him, and like a person coming out of a trance he says, “Thank you. Thank you.” I watch and think I recognize a pattern: the same exasperating tension when they’re in the dressing rooms, the same blazing explosion as they perform, the same agony and the exact same ecstasy after they’ve finished. Then I hear, from onstage, the strum of a guitar. There’s something in that strum — something like the tension of an animal crouching low to the ground, ready to pounce — hat captures my attention. So I turn around and run, ducking down, to find a seat behind the judges’ table.
It’s the first time I see Rodolfo González Alcántara.
And what I see leaves me speechless.
Why did he stand out? He looked just like anyone else. He wore a beige jacket, gray vest, bowler hat, red chiripá, and a black tie. Why did he stand out for me when I couldn’t even tell the difference between a really great dancer and a mediocre one? But there he was — Rodolfo González Alcántara, twenty-eight years old, the hopeful from La Pampa, gigantic —a nd there I was, sitting on the grass, speechless. When he finished dancing, the distant, indifferent voice of the female announcer declared, “Time employed: four minutes fifty-two seconds.”
And that was the exact moment when this story turned into something else. A difficult story. The story of an ordinary man.
That Friday night, Rodolfo González Alcántara moved to the center of the stage like a hurricane-force gale, like a puma, like a stag, like a robber of souls, and he remained nailed to the spot for two or three beats, his brow furrowed, staring at something that no one else could see. The first movement of his legs made his cribo tremble like a soft sea creature rocked by the waves. Then, for four minutes and fifty-two seconds, he made the night crackle with his blows.
It was the open field, it was the dusty ground, it was the taut horizon of the pampa, it was the smell of horses, the sound of the summer sky, the buzz of solitude, it was fury, sickness, war, it was the antithesis of peace. It was the blade and the cut. It was all devouring. It was punishment. When he was finished, he pounded the stage with a monstrous force, froze on the spot, and stood staring out through the fine layers of the night, covered in stars, all ablaze. And, half-smiling — like a prince, like a ruffian, or like the devil —h e tipped his hat. And he left the stage.
That’s how it was.
I don’t know if they applauded him. I don’t remember.
What did I do after that? I remember because I took these notes. I ran backstage and tried to find him in the tumult — huge man, dressed in a hat and a red poncho tied at the waist, someone who wouldn’t be hard to spot — but I didn’t see him anywhere. Until finally, in front of the open door to one of the dressing rooms, I saw a very short man, no more than five feet tall, without jacket or vest or bowler hat. I recognized him because he was panting. He was alone. I went up to him. I asked him where he was from.
“From Santa Rosa, La Pampa,” he told me, with that voice I would hear so many times afterward and that peculiar manner of snuffing out the end of his sentences like someone who assigns himself little importance. “But I live in Buenos Aires. I’m a dance instructor.”
He shook, his hands and legs shook, his fingers shook as he stroked the beard that barely covered his chin, and I asked him his name.
“Rodolfo. Rodolfo González Alcántara.”
In that moment, according to my notes, the announcer said something that sounded like “Marín Mills, the flour that fights high cholesterol.” I didn’t write anything else that night. It was two o’clock in the morning.
The above is an excerpt from A Simple Story, published by New Directions.
Leila Guerriero was born in Junín, Argentina, in 1967 and moved to Buenos Aires in 1984. She is one of Argentina's foremost journalists and writers and has published four books.
Frances Riddle is a freelance editor, translator, and writer based in Buenos Aires.