- Five Minutes to Fame
Frances Riddle, trans.
120Pages; Print, $14.95
The malambo, a fierce, extraordinarily intense Argentinean dance that demands training “…for 365 days to dance for 5 minutes” is only part of the subject of journalist Leila Guerriero’s powerful book, A Simple Story: The Last Malambo; the larger, more profound part of the “simple story” are the malambo dancers themselves, particularly Rodolfo Gonzalez Alcantara, whom Guerriero shadowed as he prepared for the competition. Her goal? To try and discover what compels Rodolfo and the other contenders toward a championship that celebrates as well as ends the winner’s career the moment his name is announced.
The annual malambo competition is held in remote, tiny Laborde, “a small town on the flat Argentinean pampas,” it is 7 blocks long and 14 blocks wide and during the 6 days of the competition, which includes other performance categories, this tiny town and its outskirts fill with over six thousand people, competitors and spectators alike. Guerriero provides the necessary and interesting history of the town and the dance, and important descriptions of what the reader is about to encounter, including this definition of the dance itself: “‘…a battle between men who tap in turn to music.’ It is a dance accompanied by guitar and bass drum, performed by gauchos, as competition of endurance and skill.”
And it lasts no longer than 5 minutes.
Guerriero had read an article in an Argentinean newspaper about the competition and, having never heard of Laborde before, became intrigued; so, in 2011, she went to Laborde to “…see it, I guess” and “…to try and understand why people would want to do such a thing: rise to greatness only to immediately give it up” because the champion, while hailed as a national hero, can never compete again.
Fascination and this quest to understand, which propels Guerriero’s journey, is one readers will immediately become immersed in, especially after they learn what the malambo dancer has to endure in order to compete—“A malambo dancer has to be willing to sacrifice inconceivable things”—and get [End Page 19] to know through Guerriero’s graceful and honest prose, “Rodo” and his courageous, determined, undaunted family and friends.
To train for the opportunity to become the champion, to perform the malambo in its purest form, the dancer must give up nearly everything. For a five minute dance. Most of the contenders are poor; they and their families make enormous sacrifices—money, housing, food, relationships— just so the dancer in their family can focus as much as possible on the dance. Many of the dancers work 3 or 4 jobs during their training years in order to be able to live and still train.
It is these personal stories of hope, despair, triumph and tragedy, not to mention the potential physical dangers of the dance, that take this “simple story” far beyond the realm of the simple:
“Only the malambo dancer endures the five full minutes. It’s brutal. After a minute and a half of malambo your quadriceps start to burn, your breathing changes. If you’re not prepared you have to stop.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because you’ll suffocate.”
Early on in “A Simple Story,” Guerriero describes the details of the range of requirements for participating in the competition: the dance style, the music, the costumes. Perfection of every detail is imperative to the dancer’s success and even the smallest dent in any component can result in failure. The will to achieve perfection demands everything from the dancer and the relationship between the art form and the performers has deep roots in tradition and history: “I think that’s why the malambo means so much to us. We’re humble people who understand suffering. Like the malambo. And we have to tell the boys to show that, that essence. To defend the tradition. But it’s a huge sacrifice, because you have to train for 365 days to dance for five minutes. And if they make a mistake in those five minutes, goodbye...