Tango as a spiritual guide, a source of joy, a challenge, and continuous research.
Tango as a profession.
We meet with Roberto Herrera, and our interview turns into a dialogue rich in anecdotes, memories and valuable lessons.
It is one of those interviews where prepped questions are set aside to make room for the story of a life lived between dance and music.
Roberto defines himself as a dancer, omitting details that we know. To name a few, he is known to be best tango dancer in the world, he has worked with Osvaldo Pugliese, he is the guru and inspiration of modern tango and a greatly successful choreographer.
He has a measured attitude, a calm voice, an obvious elegance even just in how his hands move as he speaks.
No wonder he is known as the “the Poet of Tango”!
Roberto, how did you discover dance?
I was 8, and I saw Nureyev dance in Don Quixote on TV. I had no idea who he was, nor what he was dancing to. I only know it gave me such a strong feeling that I told my father I wanted to become a dancer.
I’ll let you imagine what his reaction was…
But I knew that was my path, and my determination was rewarded when I started performing my country’s folklore dances, a form of expression that my family was willing to accept.
I joined a big company that has written the history of Argentinean folklore, directed by Santiago Ayala alias “El Chúcaro” and Norma Viola, the founders of our national ballet.
I was really lucky to meet these great masters, as they contributed hugely to my training ̶ not just by teaching me how to dance, but also by spotting my creative talent, which I could develop in choreography.
Aged 12, I already was a professional dancer.
How did you fall in love with Tango?
I came to know it slowly. In Argentina, some years ago, everyone used to dance Tango at home, so you couldn’t but take your first steps in the kitchen with your family.
Just like folklore ballet, Tango is part of my country’s traditions and culture.
My passion grew stronger and stronger, as I became aware of the fact that, at that moment, I had already learnt everything I could with my experience in folklore dances.
On the other hand, Tango made me feel as if I was always discovering something new.
Tango is boundless. It demands that you develop an extraordinarily intimate relationship with your partner, and there are no strict rules to follow. Every time you dance, you create something different, something new.
It’s like an eternal first time.
What does Tango stand for?
Tango has always represented Argentina’s life up to the ‘50s. Then, political issues and the impact of new music from the United States strongly influenced the new generations.
From a folklore dance, Tango turned into something underground, something nostalgic, tied to the past. In 1986, however, the show “Tango Argentino” re-sparked the Tango fire.
Orchestras with different music styles, as well as prestigious musicians such as Osvaldo Pugliese and Piazzolla, set an example and inspired the new Tango.
As early as 1920, Julio de Caro introduced the orchestra that would accompany Tango from then on. Until then, Tango had been played by small bands of musicians who often weren’t professional concert performers. They used to play instruments that they could easily carry to the Milongas.
Julio de Caro invented the tanguero style, both the music and the song lyrics, and went as far as influencing choices in clothing, hair styling… but Osvaldo Pugliese’s orchestra was the real turning point in tango history.
So Tango had its role back in the ‘90s, thanks to Osvaldo Pugliese?
Osvaldo was a great musician, and had very clear ideas about what he intended to accomplish, and how to reach his goals.
He was a convinced communist. I remember he would always share the profits with all the orchestra, but he was also extremely sensitive, and never forced his beliefs on those working with him.
He was a great leader, knew how to captivate the audience, and had huge respect for his musicians, whom he allowed to play as a full-time job thanks to tours and shows.
In 1990, Osvaldo Pugliese’s Orchestra was at the height of its fame. He was a visionary, and used to say Tango had a human voice. Although his orchestra had been traditionally made of 8 musicians, he decided to introduce a violist and a cellist, as well as a dancing pair.
He wished for his message to reach the new generations, so he opted for young dancers.
He chose me, Roberto Herrera, and Vanina Bilous, who was my dancing partner for a long time.
While working with Pugliese, we danced on stages all around the world, and took part in wonderful tours that remarkably contributed to re-launch Tango.
Osvaldo helped countless artists to succeed and grow professionally.
Under Peronism, he was sent to jail several times. His orchestra never stopped performing, and found a pianist that could replace him temporarily, but whenever Osvaldo was in jail a red rose would be placed on the piano, as a sign that he was always with us.
The longest time he spent in jail was 6 months, but when he was freed, he held fast to his communist beliefs. Peròn apologized to him, and he took on his world tours again.
Osvaldo died in 1995, leaving behind a huge artistic heritage, but mostly an example of talent, consistency and strength.
His daughter Beba Pugliese and his granddaughter Carla Pugliese carried on their father’s business, and took the mystery and legend of Tango all around the world.
I’ve worked with them as well, and it has been a real pleasure.
How did you feel the first time you danced with the orchestra?
I wasn’t aware of what I was doing. When Pugliese chose me as a dancer, to bring something new to his show, I only knew I could do it.
The night of the first show, when I was in the backstage waiting for it to start, the orchestra started playing a famous piece, and all spectators stood up and started clapping to the rhythm of music.
It felt like being at a rock concert, nothing of the kind had ever happened before.
I was really excited, and I knew I was witnessing and being part of a new era.
When we toured Europe, calling at various cities like Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona… the audience would get up and dance, it was incredible.
There are different “styles” of Tango music: nostalgic, cheerful, bubbly. What role do the lyrics play?
Tango has always been used to convey many social messages through the lyrics.
They are often about feelings, everyday life, lost lovers, re-found or quarreling friends. They’re about family, and represent scenes from reality.
The rhythm of music, though, is not always consistent with the lyrics.
Sometimes, I find it amusing to watch dancers performing with a smile on an apparently cheerful Tango without understanding the lyrics, which are sometimes dramatic.
Is it true that the woman has to be “led” by her male partner?
Luckily, the role of the woman has deeply changed in time. In the past, women didn’t have a role but within their family.
With emancipation, they grew more conscious, more determined. Based on my experiences, this is evident in how Tango is danced as well, since partners interact more now.
That said, it’s still the man’s responsibility to lead the dance, and the woman’s to let him lead her.
They develop a deep relationship, a harmony that allows the woman to totally abandon herself, and even dance with her eyes closed.
There are rules in Tango, and the first is elegance, which shows through the dancers’ harmonious movements, their attitude, their gestures and even their costumes.
There are traditions handed from generation to generation that have led to the creation of specific codes in the ‘40s: in clothing, for example, there’s a “Tango color” that can be identified as a particular dark red shade usually worn by women.
A passionate, vibrant, seducing, and energetic color. Just like our dance is.
After performing all around the world, you established your own company. What led you to this decision?
The “Roberto Herrera Academy” was born of my will to share my passion for tango, and the joy it brings to me.
We have hold hundreds of shows in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Bali … and luckily, we’ve always met a huge public success.
We have set up events for the most diverse occasions, from the Football World Cup in Korea to the Milan Fashion Week.
I absolutely love Milan, and it’s also where our European tour kicked off last year with our show “El Tango” at the Teatro degli Arcimboldi, with my dancing partner Laura Legazcue who has been performing with me in every exhibition for six years.
It was a wonderful experience to work both as a dancer and a choreographer at the creation of a new theatre show that would collect all aspects of an ancient art, which is part of the UNESCO’s World Heritage.
The “Roberto Herrera Tango” company is still active, and performing on international stages. Tango is very popular all around the world. Last year alone, I went to Japan 19 times.
Asians are literally crazy about Tango.
They used to listen to Tango orchestras on the radio after the war, maybe because they felt something as gloomy as their mood in it.
In time, they discovered the dance too, and because of their highly competitive culture, they became excellent, committed students and had great success.
One of the Tango world champions is Japanese, and he won the title in Argentina, the land of Tango!
You’ve chosen to personally teach your students, who aren’t professional performers. With your expertise, you could have “bred” and raised brilliant Tango dancers.
Teaching means continuity to me, it means showing more and more people how to feel their bodies move, to let the music carry them, and simply to dance Tango.
Yes, I could have trained masters only, but teaching is a calling. Seeing beginners’ progresses, their smiles, their satisfaction is pure joy for me.
It’s amazing to walk with them as they discover a way of personal expression whose goal is not just to learn movements, but also to find one’s Tango personality.
And what role has Italy got in your life?
In 2005, I went to Italy for the first time with my company.
While we were touring the country, theatre manager Luigi Pignotti approached me, and told me he was intrigued by our way of performing.
Soon after we met, I found out that Luigi had been Nureyev’s manager for 25 years.
Words can’t describe the way I felt!
I asked him to tell me every little detail about my idol dancer, who had inspired me to become a professional dancer myself when I was a child.
That was a sign: Nureyev was back in my life, and Luigi Pignotti and I worked a lot together, and produced wonderful shows.
Italy is a generous country, which has always welcomed us with great love and warmth.
Lately, I’ve mainly devoted myself to teaching in Italy too, which, like I said, is very rewarding for me.
We own a historic Academy in Buenos Aires, we founded another one in Germany and also in Italy. Now I’m working as a teacher in two different, very professional locations in Milan with Laura Legazcue, and every weekend I hold dance workshops in different cities.
The Argentinian and Italian mindsets are very similar, we have elegance and passion in common, so maybe that’s why I love your country and the Italian community so much.
I love teaching, helping the students grow, creating new choreographies, which are my great passion, and setting up shows where my students can express themselves.
This year, we finished our course with a performance at the Intercultural European Exchange in Stuttgart. My Argentinean, German and Italian students were as one, they were really happy with themselves, and so was I.
In my future Italian academy, I’m also planning to introduce social projects, such as tango therapy, tango in the dark of the blind, and organize shows involving inmates. We’re already getting in touch with the institutions.
As Osvaldo Pugliese used to say, “we are sailing the vast sea of tango”, and I want any form of creativity to break free in this sea.
As you dance, do you hear to your dancer’s heartbeat?
Yes, it’s all part of my experience. I hear her heartbeat, and understand how she feels – if she’s tensed, worried or at ease, and I behave consequently when leading the dance, until her heartbeat is harmonious again.
Then her breath slows down and follows the music, letting her body free of moving and expressing itself.
What does tango represent to you?
A lively art continuously moving.
Tango is freedom. You often start dancing, hear the music, “feel” the person dancing with you, and in that moment, only in that moment, you know what to do.
It’s a unique, one-time moment.
Tango is a way to experience existence, life, love and death.
Tango is limitless.