Petroleo, the great renovator of the 1940's

By Lily Palmer

From the series written for the Canadian tango publication De Puro Guapo.
Published with permission of De Puro Guapo, Le Journal du tango argentine du Montreal
Translated from French by Jean-Pierre and Corrine Sieghe

Each period of the history of the tango has produced its outstanding dancers. Some become famous on stage whereas some others, no less talented, evolved in the environment of the more discreet porteño milonga. One often forgets that numerous dancers of the popular dance floor exercised a major influence on the development of the tango.
Just like the first generation of anonymous dancers of the 19th century, the milongueros of the ‘40’s were motivated merely by the pleasure of dancing and creating. They didn’t look for fame and didn’t sell their talent. In the end, the contribution of these intuitive dancers is an undeniable proof of the popular roots of the Tango. One ought to keep in mind that from 1935 through 1955, the musical style triumphs, bringing to the dance floor a multitude of amateurs. Salons and clubs multiply. The whole of Buenos Aires is dancing. Tango leaves the stage to return to the milonga.

We will focus here on the contribution of someone who perhaps embodies the dancer from the barrios: Carlos Alberto Estevez, better known by the nickname, Petroleo. This individual who evolved in the climate of great excitement, is now revealed as the leader of the milongueros of the Golden Age and as one of the greatest renovators of his generation. Yet, Petroleo never set foot on the stage. However, thanks to him, Tango is danced differently and better. In one decade he modernized the Tango salon.

Born in 1912 in the neighborhood of Almagro, the young Estevez began dancing around 1927. The following year, he met El Negro Navarro, an experienced dancer of the 1890’s, who entrusted him with the secrets of the primitive tango. Petroleo (this nickname came about because of his fondness for red wine) is determined to become the best dancer. Incidentally, he is not the only one to entertain such aspirations. However, his avant garde ideas are not welcome by his peers. They annoy, among other things, the traditionalists who are still hanging onto the old style, orillero or canyengue. But Petroleo, who glows by his audacity, will not let the hostile environment discourage him; he will enrich his practice with a series of innovations.

The style most adopted by his contemporaries was somewhat obsolete. The dancers had not followed the musicians’ steps, who had begun renovating the rhythms (ed. note from 2 X 4, to 4 X 4). Moreover, the posture of the dancers often seemed anesthetic to Petroleo’s eyes. Hence, he undertook, with his friend Salvador Sciana, El Negro Lavandina, to invigorate the old figures. The two accomplices spent their evenings at the Nelson Club practicing. They excelled in inventing steps and streamlining the figures. They refine the ganchos so well that they are attributed with their authorship. It’s in the clubs of the barrios that the two milongueros test their latest discoveries before they spread them to the milongas.

From the beginning, Petroleo had noticed that people no longer danced in tune with the new music that had developed a slower tempo over the years. Since the end of the 20’s, orchestras played on a four (4 X 4) beat, in accordance with the musical renovations of Julio De Caro. Yet the people persisted in dancing on the two beat (2 X 4) rhythm. Anxious to adjust the movement to the constantly evolving musical rhythm, Petroleo selected figures that would enhance a more harmonious interpretation of the music by the dancers. The style he promoted is elegant, calm and always in tune with the musical tempo. At his instigation, the outline of the bodies straightens and the man embraces his partner with more delicacy. The finesse of marking the steps (ed. note la marca) replaces, little by little, the vigorous embrace of the canyengue style.

Gifted with a fertile imagination and an accurate instinct, Petroleo authors very pretty figures. He will never be tempted by flashy acrobatic movements that some of his contemporaries are fond of. Despite their seeming simplicity, his steps are designed with infinite subtleties and nuances. He is owed to have inscribed on the Tango roster figures such as sobre paso, giros, arastres, voleos and piques.

Petroleo performed with a rare vigor, the figures of his own making, reaching in the giros, unmatched virtuosity, Two years prior to his death, he confessed to journalist Hector Negro in Clarin, our new patterns, with their visual effects of a great beauty have quickly overshadowed those of the dancers of the 1930’s. People kept on inventing until 1945. Around 1960 everything stopped. The birth of rock and roll and television, coupled with unfavorable political conditions announced the death of a glorious era.

The venerable milonguero danced until the beginning of the 1990’s. Until the end, he never stopped mentally making up figures that his tired legs could no longer execute. He died in May of 1995, at age 83, leaving behind him a huge and precious heritage. He has been until the end, a true example of innovation.

At the dawn of the year 2000, Petroleo reveals himself as the bridge between the dancers of the first generations and the dancers of the present. One feels in the later, a strong desire to ascend again to the source. Professionals such as Juan Carlos Copes, Milena Plebs and Miguel Angel Zotto have drawn their inspirations from the famous milongueros.

At the beginning of the century, Ain (ed. note Casimiro Ain) El Vasquito, played a first class role in the conservation of Tango as a dance of the salon. Petroleo, on his part, exercised a marked influence on its evolution.

French born Lily Palmer is one of the organizers of milongas and classes in Montreal with her Argentino friend Antonio Perea. They were the first teachers of Argentine Tango in Montreal starting in 1987-88. Lily Palmer thanks Roberto Tonet, El Aleman, who enriched her documentation with savory anecdotes about Petroleo.

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