DANCE ME TO THE END OF LOVE
“This is the story of a man who took part in a dance competition.”
A Simple Story by Leila Guerriero, translated by Frances Riddle, (New Directions, $14.95, 128 pages) really is as direct and cogent as the first sentence of the book. The dance is the malambo, obscure even in its native Argentina. It’s a centuries old gaucho dance performed in groups of two or four, or the most preternaturally demanding, alone.
Maddenly quick and stunningly complex, the malambo involves multiple rhythms managed at breakneck paces, using all parts of the foot: heel, toe, ball, side, sole, and all combinations thereof. The average solo malambo clocks in between 4 1/2 and 5 minutes. There’s almost always blood on the floor when the dance is done.
In 2011, Guerriero, an Argentinian journalist, travels to the tiny town of Laborde, 300 miles south of Buenos Aires, population 6,000. Laborde is the home of the national malambo competition and contestants arrive annually from around the country to compete for the title.
She doesn’t know much about the dance or the competition, having only read an article in a city newspaper, but she thinks it might make an interesting story. On a warm January night, she’s sitting in the audience during the solo competition when a thunderclap breaks and a raging storm overtakes her.
That storm is Rodolfo González Alcántra.
“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—he 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.”
Rodolfo González Alcántra does not win.
Still, Guerriero decides to follow him in the year leading up to the next competition.
Nothing explains fully, or in any kind of satisfying way, why we become obsessed, engaged, enthralled, with the things we do. Attempting to construct a foundation, we create stories, but beauty, like love, is contradictory, mysterious, impenetrable. Our only role is submission.
Only, it’s not submission to the lover, the one obsessed. It’s only submission to the outsider.
To the lover, it is complete engagement, an immersion. It’s a form of bliss.
Leila Guerriero doesn’t attempt a narrative of explanation. She doesn’t try to rationalize the sacrifice, the constant training, the strained relationships this kind of commitment is made up of. She tells us what people do and what happens.
She illuminates this range of experience in A Simple Story, not only by telling Alcántra’s tale (which she sometimes worries is too ‘nice’, from a journalist’s point of view, as there are no discernible tortures or traumas, and Alcántra himself never complains), but by touching on the stories of his family, his teacher, and his competitors; this community of mutual obsession. There are new aspirants, teachers who are winners from the past, musicians, dancers returning year after year watching their chances wane, all sharing tiny, doorless dressing stalls just offstage, all stumbling back from that stage barely able to breathe.
The prose bears the marks (or scars) of the malambo. It is powerful, rhythmic, and economical, rising in bursts that sometimes explode from the page, always acutely focused. Stories are told in short, concise paragraphs, character to character, while maintaining clarity and masterfully building suspense. Throughout the year, we move toward the only thing that truly matters.
And when the 2012 solo malambo winner is announced:
“That’s it, I tell myself.
There goes a man whose life has changed forever.
No more sliding under turnstiles.
No more worn out sneakers.
No more hunger.”
No one can really explain to Leila Guerriero what it feels like to win at Laborde. They only know they will never have that feeling again, and that is both the payoff and the curse.
A wordless acknowledgement passes among the past winners, as if they are conversant in a language they’ve agreed never to speak; so, they nod and embrace one another, and leave it at that.
To win at Laborde is the pinnacle of the malambo. Winning there means there is nowhere else to go. And because of this, as soon as you are crowned champion, you never dance again.
Steve Mitchell is co-owner of Scuppernong books in Greensboro, NC.