Petróleo, the great renovator
How many times, in an Argentine tango class, or during a performance, did you hear about the posture? Is there a real rule about how to dance tango? That is, is there a rule to know how the man and the woman should place their arms, what the tango hug should be like or how the tango partner should physically accommodate themselves to dance? And in another order, do you have to dance all the time hugging?
In this article you will see who was responsible for us dancing like we do today.
If you want to see him on video, click here: Petróleo. Subtitles in different languages.
Origin of Carlos Alberto Estévez, alias “Petróleo”
Petróleo was born in the Almagro neighborhood and was largely responsible for our dancing as we do today. In fact, he bequeathed us a lot of documentation on the history of tango until the mid-1940s – or beyond. It is very likely that you have heard of him or you come to hear of him during your own tango story.
There is much to say about this milonguero teacher and dancer. And we already know that you can’t cover everything.
But let’s start by saying that the man we are talking about today was named Carlos Alberto Estévez, presumably the son of Spanish immigrants.
The nickname Petróleo (Oil) would come over the years. In his own words, in an interview made by the journalist Sergio Criscolo and published in the magazine “La Maga” in May 1992, the teacher said:
“They gave me Petróleo because he drank a lot of wine. He was a drunkard. I’ve been drinking soda for some time, but he’s worse, it rusts.”
It was true, he liked red wine, cheap wine, which was so dark that he compared it to the color of black gold.
But let’s go beyond this.
Petróleo was born on September 29, 1911 in the Almagro neighborhood, but grew up in Villa Devoto, a beautiful neighborhood of low houses, with diagonals and boulevards, then a unique design in Buenos Aires.
Petróleo enters the dance
But when he was 17 years old, in 1928, an encounter occurred that would change his life. He met “Negro Navarro”. Who was he? El Negro Navarro was a dancer who walked around Paris around 1910 and perfected it in the art of dance.
By then, many dancers were trying their luck in Paris and other European cities.
Let us remember that that was a time of splendor for the people of Buenos Aires. So much so that in France the phrase was coined: “rich as an Argentine”.
Let us also bear in mind that saying “black” in Argentine culture does not refer specifically to a skin color, or an African origin, but, for example, to the color of the eyes or the color of the hair. Just as they called Carlos Gardel “el morocho del Abasto” and the word morocho did not refer to his skin color.
Well, the point is that –as we said– Negro Navarro perfected Carlitos Estévez in tango dancing.
But in 1930 another meeting was to occur that would change his life much more. In a milonga he met Esperanza Díaz, a young dancer with whom he would form a couple in tango and life.
It would seem that everything was ready for Petróleo to show off what he learned with Navarro. So after many practices with his girlfriend, he made his debut at the Rosa de Abril club in the Devoto neighborhood.
Needless to say, how much the boy enjoyed the taste of the applause, right?
Be that as it may, that was the first of many exhibitions, although he never recognized himself as a professional. In fact, he would say in an interview:
“I never went on tour, because I had my job at the bank; but I did about two thousand exhibitions.”
Yes, he worked in the bank, drank, danced, and other passions were beginning to awaken in him.
“Apart from tango I was crazy about horse racing. I went a little every day, I gained a lot and lost a lot.”
Petróleo danced with Esperanza Díaz until 1949 and then continued to exhibit with other dancers.
Petróleo, the great observer of tango dancing
But even more important was that he had become a great observer of tango dancing.
In the Province bank, where he worked, he wrote an article about tango dancing once a month in the bank’s magazine.
In one of his works he said that until 1930 the breasts supported each other and space was left between the legs and feet, to make arabesques and ornaments.
But after the 1930s, he established a concept of ballroom dance that several dancers still respect, a resounding change in posture to dance as a couple: straight bodies, faces facing the same side, shoulders horizontal to the floor, the breasts touching lightly and the man’s arm at shoulder level.
Little by little, Petróleo began to transform himself into a great teacher and to have a group of followers … or, rather, admirers who noticed the sharpness of his comments.
We are talking about meeting in bars –such as in the café “Febo”, in Jonte and Segurola, in the Monte Castro neighborhood– and those neighborhood clubs –such as the Social and Sportive Nelson Club– that the boys used to frequent to invent and practice his own tango steps.
In these practices, Petróleo created and developed the turns, twists, drags, the rear and the boleos, among many other movements, and determined the changes of postures that we talked about before.
Petróleo, honored with the “Day of the Milonguero”
Throughout his life he left several written texts, which can be found on the internet, and it is like having a record of the history of dance and the history of dancers.
He even attributed himself to having separated sex from dance.
The truth is that he awakened another consciousness of the body and movement.
Petróleo once said:
“My dream was always to dance better than everyone. I invented many figures, I transformed the tango, but I should have done more. I lacked inspiration to create true tango. Today I would do it differently. As each tango lasts three minutes, I would divide it into a prologue, development and epilogue.”
In July 1993, because of his career, because of his extraordinary contribution to tango dance, the historic organizer Oscar Héctor Malagrino – better known as Oscar Héctor – decided to honor him on his birthday. And with the presence of several friends, September 29 was determined as the Day of the Milonguero.
You can see him dance and be honored by his friends by clicking on this link: https://youtu.be/mre9rBndfQg
Petróleo always remained in contact with tango, even when he could no longer continue dancing or teaching. He surrounded himself with his favorite students and friends. He asked them to continue loving tango
He used to say that: “Tango was born to be danced, that is its destiny, because it is nothing more than a message that is expressed by dancing …”
And that message of love that is expressed with the feet, is the path that we follow until today.
Gustavo Benzecry Sabá
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In a comment, Mr. Jorge Rodríguez states that Petróleo did not work at Banco Provincia, but at Banco Italo Belga, Head of the Expedition sector.