Carmencita Calderón

Real name: Riso de Cancellieri, Carmen Micaela
(10 February 1905 - 31 October 2005)
Place of birth:
Buenos Aires Argentina
José María Otero

he mythical partner of El Cachafaz.

In those early tango ambiences, with strong uncured brandy, with thick and cheap tobacco smoke, with tough quarrelsome rivalry, women scarcely showed their presence through foreign whores —mostly French— or girls from the interior popularly known as chinas.

The Buenos Aires dance was born bastard, macho and in the outskirts, so women had to wait for a long time before they were able to pass through those forbidden doors as well as the prudish society of the period. But tango waited for them and at its Customs granted safe-conducts to the dancing muses that came to bring light to the new dance floors in dancehalls and clubs that displaced the academias, bailongos and cabarutes.

For that it had to supress the impudence of its movements, transforming them into an intimate, sensual, in retreat, substance that encompassed a community whose feelings were untransferable and where men and women shared a common passion. One and the other created while dancing to the music beat, the man leading, marking bars and steps, the woman interpreting the way of answering and enjoying with her body what the male dancer was suggesting.

And here in this place it’s comforting for us to bring back through the coordinates of recollection that little old woman that passed away recently, named Carmen Micaela Riso de Cancellieri. But as she had chosen the family name of her maternal grandmother, she was known as Carmencita Calderón in the show business milieu. For years she was pioneer and archetype in dancehalls and on stages, in academias, in the movies, on tours, accompanying dancers of long fame and challenging the prejudices of the time, because not only tango was macho-oriented.

I liked to spur her to make her speak about those times when she was so much admired:

«Today there are many male dancers like El Cachafaz, and quite complete female dancers...

«Don’t say that, please! El Cacha was the greatest of them all —she answered in exaltation—. Nobody has created steps like his, no one was so elegant, no one invented that much...»

Carmencita, as we all called her, was a queen but the marketing of the period was able to afford her only a minimum retirement. She learnt to dance at age 13 at home with her brother Eduardo and she never dreamed of being a professional dancer. One evening in 1932 she accompanied her two younger sisters who wanted to dance at the Club Sin Rumbo in her neighborhood of Villa Urquiza. Their mother had died young so she was going as their chaperon, even though she was only 27. Some friends who knew her capabilities encouraged her to dance with a renowned habitué.

«—He was an Italian gentleman, a bald man, that had become a widower recently. Then I remembered that from a window of my house on Constituyentes Avenue I had watched the funeral procession pass by. He didn’t seem to me he was something special, so I heard them and danced with him.» Carmencita recalled.

The dancer at issue was no less than Tarila —José Giambuzzi— teacher of many outstanding dancers. After several tango pieces he made her a proposal.

«—Wouln’t you like to dance with me at my academy and with El Cachafaz at his?»

Cachafaz was the magic word so the following day she was at the café of Corrientes and Talcahuano that El Cacha frequented every afternoon and where he would introduce her to his great friend, Carlos Gardel and others of his entourage like Alippi, Muiño or Tito Lusiardo, because the first table of the tea room was his secretary.

El Cachafaz was ugly, pockmarked, with an almost harrowing look that he managed to hide when he slid his patent leather shoes on the waxed floor. Beside him, seizing him like a little thistle, Carmen would complete the most emblematic team. They made their debut with the Pedro Maffia Orchestra at the Teatro of San Fernando, made numerous tour, especially with Canaro and his Historia del Tango, and their last appearance together was in Mar del Plata in 1942.

After having danced “Don Juan (El taita del barrio)”, El Cacha —55 years-old—, unexpectedly died of a heart attack in his dressing room. That year 1942 at a crowded Palermo Palace, with the orchestra led by Ángel D'Agostino —who was as well a dancer— and Ángel Vargas on vocals, Carmencita was acclaimed by the milongueros, teaming up with El Pibe Palermo —José María Baña—.

She always knew that allowing to be led by a man on the dance floor or the stage is not to be subordinated or being subdued by the male, but accepting his leading in order to dance. And then, while the man's arm like a snake curls around the waist that is going to bend, she, entranced, navigating on the latitude of the music staff, ignoring, at times, the somber display of some men, improvised with them complex figures and drawings that aroused admiration.

Trained in popular schools, dancehalls and local clubs, her body language was unique, full of feeling and a gallant simplicity that is not learnt in academies. She was neither wife nor mistress of the mythical Cacha, who always adressed her respectfully, even though he was 16 years older. She never practiced a choreography beforehand! And she used to recall her mother as her secret teacher: «She always told me: Raise your head and don't look at the floor , and she corrected my posture. She died at age 39, very poor, and my father died without knowing that I was a tango dancer because that was severely criticized then.»

The passing of time spoiled her like any other creature but her avant-garde teaching designed for the future that the female dancer knows how to follow validating the proposal of the man that dances well. And that thanks to her tango sensitivity, her devotion and dedication, with her own style and conviction, will achieve together with her partner's artistry an untransferable emotion.

I saw her dance when she was very old with Juancito Averna, but she kept that inner fire and notable precision in rhythm, swaying to the music beat and the erratic drawings that his young partner proposed to her, with and old and renewed thrill. She danced with El Cacha on the movie Carnaval de Antaño, in 1940. She was 10 years with him, accompanied other dancers and she is generously recognized by her successors.

Carmencita transmitted a tango of the time when people used to whistle and hum in the streets and when her mother sang while washing clothes in the basin. A kind of tango walked on the Buenos Aires dance floors with neither hooks nor spectacular jumps, but with an untransferable hug, unique, sliding one's soles on the floor, with no sweet words or lustful hugs, because above all the main thing was dancing and feeling the bandoneon playing of El Gordo (Troilo), the piano touch of El Tuerto (Di Sarli) or Juan D'Arienzo's beat.

Carmencita keeps on growing, she is over ninety, and at the time of reminiscing her in torn photographs, by paying homage to her we honor all the female dancers that frequent the dancehalls obeying the ancestral call of tango.

José Gobello defined her as follows: «You are the girl without age / a dancer of highest rank, / you are eternal like the tango that drives you in its soft beat. / Carmencita Calderón the floor tiles start to tremble / foretelling your twists, your runs, your sit-downs / now when it is dancing time.» Amen.

Published in the Madrid magazine Gilda, mujeres en el tango. December 2002.