Translated by Frances Riddle
Every year, at the height of summer, the remote Argentine village of Laborde holds the national malambo contest. Centuries-old, this shatteringly demanding traditional gaucho dance is governed by the most rigid rules. And this festival has one stipulation that makes it unique: the malambo is danced for up to five minutes. That may seem like nothing, but consider the world record for the hundred-meter dash is 9.58 seconds. The dance contest is an obsession for countless young men, who sacrifice their bodies and money as they strive to become the champion, knowing that if they win—in order to safeguard the title’s prestige—they can never compete again.
When Leila Guerriero traveled to Laborde, one dancer’s performance took her breath away, and she spent a year following him as he prepared for the next festival. The result is this superlative piece of journalism, told with tremendous economy and power.
The malambo is my favorite dance that I never knew about. It’s athletic, takes massive skill and commitment, and is just fun to watch. I mean, look:
As Guerriero writes:
At three minutes, the malambo is a wall of sound, a jumble of boots, drum, and guitar that picks up speed at an asphyxiating rate. At four minutes, his feet pound the stage with savage fury, the guitar, drum, and boots are a solid mass of blows, and at four minutes fifty seconds, the man lowers his head, raises one leg, and with colossal force, bashes it into the wood, his heart monstrously swollen, with the lucid yet frenzied expression of someone who’s just experienced a revelation. After a few seconds of unnatural stillness, in which the public claps and shouts, the man, like someone emptying a gun into a dead body, dances off the stage with a short, furious storm of tapping, and every cell in his body seems to scream: This is what I’m made of. I am capable of absolutely anything.
If that doesn’t make you want to watch through to the end I don’t know what will.
The yearly festival at Laborde is only known to other dancers and the title comes with a price – you can never dance the malambo in competition again. Why do these dancers work so hard to end their career?
Guerriero examines Laborde from all sides – the dancers and their families, the practice and sacrifice required to be a contender, the place of the malambo in Argentinian society, and so much more. The prose is powerful and comes through full force thanks to Riddle’s translation. I purposefully limited myself to small doses so I could spread my enjoyment out as long as possible.
This book is a perfect case for non-fiction in translation: it opens our eyes to something we never knew existed that, like all things, relates back to us. Check it out for the story, for the prose, for the dance, and for the experience. My second five star read of the year – I heap my love upon it.