Moira Soto

Nieves - Interview to María Nieves

mythical figure of tango dancing, teacher without formal training María Nieves —ex artistic and romantic partner of Juan Carlos Copes—, she was a boom in 2002 as the «madam» of the musical Tanguera. She survived after a very hard chilhood and being forsaken by her partner, today, full of life and spirited, she is ready to make her debut in Madrid (note published in 2003).

«I think I fell for tango much before I knew it was possible to be danced to. On the radio, when I was a child, the only music heard was tango. We were very poor. My daddy, a Spaniard, worked as a milkman and died when he was very young, at age 45, from tuberculosis. Next door, in Saavedra, my godparents lived. He was a soccer player in Platense. I’m a fan of that team. And they had a daughter of my age. They had a better financial position and the girl owned a lot of toys that she shared with me. But I, at home, used to place a piece of cloth to soda siphons, on the upper side, below the faucet, and those were my dolls. If when I was at play I heard a tango tune, I stood apart, seized a little broomstick and started to walk to the beat of it. I was attracted to the instrumental tangos, pure music: Juan D'Arienzo with his fast rhythm, the opposite side of Osvaldo Pugliese or Carlos Di Sarli that were richer melodically. Later I preferred Aníbal Troilo.

«At school I didn’t reach sixth grade, that simple, I quit after Dad’s death and I never liked to study in a formal way. I cried all year long. I didn’t want to go to, I played truant and with my siblings we went out to take a stroll in Palermo.

«At home they never noticed that but we had many problems. We even were absent for a whole month and after that we were scared to death for inventing excuses, for fear of the teacher who then had a great authority. Until one day my sister said that Dad had traveled to Spain, that Mom worked as a housemaid and that I had to help her in the housework. But we were also embarrassed, I knew that I was Nieves Rego, the poor girl, with only one pinafore, full of patches, for the whole year. I felt myself segregated and I noticed they ignored me.

«But I never told this to my parents. Mom, poor dear, had no authority. Dad worked like mad so that we would have something to eat. His children were five. They never accompanied us when we went or came back from school. Think that Mom was unable to read, was not fluent with words, she lived her own drama, immigrant, uprooted from her town, from her people. There was also lack of love, there were no gestures of fondness towards us, and, furthermore, Dad used to beat Mom. It hurt us but we thought it was a normal thing to do, that he had the right to do it.

«Before tango became my passion other things happened. When I quit school, at age nine, I worked as a full time, sleep in housemaid for the first time, in San Isidro. They beat me, and forced me to do a lot of work. It was a two-story house with garden and I was expected to clean everything. One day, unintentionally, I stained a wall with my greasy hand and my lady employer slapped a heavy blow on my face. I was free only two hours on Sundays after washing dishes. When the month was over Mom took me out of that house. I went on as housemaid but in houses where I was treated better and I was able to go home to sleep.

«Little by little I discovered dancing. My elder sister began to go to Platense which was five blocks from home, but I was ten years old and fell asleep soon. At age twelve I started to like it, to enjoy looking at the boys.

«In fact, my hormones began to stir up. “What a nice guy, how much I like him, if I danced tango I would do it with him!”... that was what I thought when some young man appeared among so many veterans. The good thing was that I was interested in watching the way people danced. The bad thing was that I used to go to the ladies room where nearly all the women smoked. And as I wanted to be an adult, I began to smoke when I was eleven and I never stopped. Fortunately that is my only addiction, otherwise I would be dead by now. When I was young I used to largely drink whisky, but alcohol never controlled me.

«I learned to dance by watching. When I dared to do it, then I was fourteen or fifteen, I already knew how to do it. My sister was a good tango dancer but she didn’t allow me to do it yet: She told me I was a brat with a dirty ass and that I had to wash my panties first.

«Of course, I didn’t obey her. The dancehall was big and when she danced near the middle of the track I did the same in a little corner. I used to dance to three tangos played by D’Arienzo, three waltzes by Troilo and some milonga. There at that club they did not allow you to perform difficult figures, but later on, at the Atlanta club there were no problems. I met Copes at the Club Estrella of Maldonado but we began to dance at the Atlanta club, at All Boys of Saavedra, at the Mariano Moreno, at El Pañuelito, at the Sin Rumbo...

«I went there for the sake of dancing, I never even imagined that one day I would do it professionally, but Copes did. Although he fucked my life I admit he was a forerunner. There is a time before him and another after him. When I came to know him I worked as a housemaid at La Boca. That people were who treated me best, I was like a daughter for that lady. It was my last job. She encouraged me when I met Copes and we started to practice with a more professional spirit.

«Before Copes I had no boyfriends, just buddies. I was 14 when he appeared and I fell in love right away. When he came to the Estrella of Maldonado he didn’t know how to dance, he had awkward movements. But he was good looking and all the girls were charmed but then I had an impressive body and a long and wavy hair. He danced awfully bad, shaking his arm. He approached us and danced with all the girls but not with me because I was quite embarrassed. I don’t forget that: he had dark hair, wore a gray suit and a light blue shirt, suede shoes. He looked like a rich boy of the twenties. He was an electrotechnician and worked at the Ministry of Education.

«One year later I saw him again at the Atlanta club. He had improved, he knew how to handle a woman with ease. I was fifteen when I danced with him. He said to me a very pretty compliment and I crazily fell in love with him. Then one day he invited me to go out. I replied that I had to talk it over with my sister. On a Thursday he invited the two of us to a resort in Quilmes where there was a lot of dancing. He caught her in a good mood and he asked her. She warned him that it had to be true, «If you want to have fun you’ve got many others». When he came back he told me: «We’re engaged». With an excuse we went out and later he taught me to kiss. Thereafter when we caressed each other like mad I thought that people would notice it, that they were looking at us. Only after a year we went to bed. I was a nice love affair.

«I was seventeen and he was twenty. Before becoming professionals we were well-known at the Club Atlanta and we were also called from other places to appear at contests. We always turned out second. There was string-pulling and we were not Peronists, but the public knew it. The choreographies were made by the two of us, because I made my contributions, I invented many steps. The change began in the 50s, we were announced as El Estudiante and Nieves. Always for free. The first of the gigs we were paid was in the play by Francisco Canaro: Tangolandia. Also radio people that organized balls in Villa Urquiza and in San Isidro paid us some money.

«I’m quite sure that from the times of El Cachafaz there were not so many steps. Today there are a large number of dancers that bear our trademark. Copes used to say that at the Teatro Colón they ought to teach tango dancing. The contemporary dancers owe everything to him, he invented by pure intuition, without academic background. Later he polished himself. He was looking after new steps, figures, the way to balance the dancers onstage.

«His idol was Gene Kelly —also Fred Astaire— and mine was Cyd Charisse. I had no one whom to watch here, I didn’t know what ballet was and I didn’t like to go to the Colón, only to the movies. He was very ambicious and used to say time and again: “If the Americans create those dances with jazz, why don’t we do something similar with tango?”

«The first work completely ours was Copes Tango Show with María Nieves, with our own wardrobe, with a plot. We were in many venues and began to get some bucks. But good money was with Tango Argentino in the eighties, a boom worldwide. We had to wait for a long time before we were able to buy our first little house in Saavedra which was paid in installments. With the show Tangolandia we made a lot of tours, even New York. Later we went on our own because the company was dismembered. Once again to shoulder hardships in small rooms at the Village or at first-class venues like the Chateau Madrid. We danced at Jewish parties for wealthy people. We opened but later Frank Sinatra, Danny Kaye or some other famous showman would appear. We were hired on recommendation by the choreographer Vassili Lambrinos at the New Faces 1962. We came back because we were summoned by Caño 14 and Copes wanted to succeed in his own land. Thereafter Astor Piazzolla called him and we made tours of Latin America and Europe.

«We married in Las Vegas where we worked a lot. But marrying meant the beginning of our breakup. Our marriage ended in 1977 but we went on dancing together. As from that I began to grow as an artist. All my anger, all my pride was thrown onstage. Many people who did not know what was happening told us: «It’s quite noticeable your passion when you dance». Yes, the passion of hate.

«At the last Tango Argentino, in 2000, I didn’t feel like dancing together with him, but there was a good pay and it went out all right. I only know what I went through, it was terrific. What I least expected was that he would fire me the way he did. He didn’t even suggested it face to face. He sent someone to tell me that I had no part in the show From Borges To Piazzolla.

«I pulled myself together without therapy. I should say that dancing with Luisito Pereyra at Tanguera was my revenge. It was a smash hit. The greatest encouragement was the warmth of the audience for me. The same happened in Chile. Yes, in fact, it was a terrible revenge.»

Excerpted from the newspaper Página 12, January 24, 2003.