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Juan At 70  

Juan Carlos Copes was the first person to choreograph Argentine Tango for professional dancers on the stage. The first.

His family thought young Juan was going to make his living as an electrician when, in the early 1950's, he began to follow his dream of becoming a professional Tango dancer.


Of course, he needed a partner, and wanted to dance with Ñata Rego. She told him to go away and learn how to dance. He did.

Copes and Ñata began to work ... but she got married and her husband made her quit. So, Copes took her young sister, Maria, who was 14 years old. He had to sneak her into many of the places they began to work in because she was under age.


They entered a huge competition in Luna Park. The judges picked the traditional winners, but when the crowd went wild in opposition, Copes and Nieves were awarded top spot.

Their professional debut on the big stage came in Francisco Canaro's last concert, circa 1955. In 1958 they toured Europe and debuted in the U.S. at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York.

Having been the original choreographer and the great innovator in Tango, every big show since the 50's has used his ideas - they are now so classic: (the men fighting with knives being bested by a gun; dancing Milonga on a tiny table; the man disrobing the heroine on stage; the immigrants dancing their folk dances and melting it into Tango, etc.).

Juan's hero was Gene Kelly. Aspiring to be the best, he began inventing new steps in his ambitious choreography - many of which we all dance and think are old Tango steps. He put together a company (The Copes Tango Revue) and began touring South America; then Puerto Rico and into the US and Europe. He and Maria first appeared on Broadway in "New Faces of 1962." He is credited with introducing Milonga into the United States through their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1962, 63 and 64. They played the Catskills, Las Vegas (nine months at a time), all the hot spots.

with Ed

Of course they continued to tour Europe and the Mideast as well, always returning to Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata; then back to New York and around the circuit. He would take a bandoneon and a couple of musicians and a singer with him, and use pick-up players to fill out his orchestra.

I have heard many old-timers credit Copes with keeping the Tango flame alive through the years of the cruel military rule in Argentina when the generals did their best to kill Tango as a popular expression. Many others quit; Copes kept going and mounted the highest of quality shows continually. Even though there was a curfew in Buenos Aires, there was a Copes - show often with Goyeneche, Troilo, even Pugliese making his music. Only the Best. He and his company were "untouchable" by those seeking to hold tango back in the wild Argentina political atmosphere (what does that say for his people skills?)

In the audience, the generals would be on one side of the room; the mafia on the other; the "people" in the middle. Everyone left their politics and rivalries at the door. Tango WAS urban Argentine culture - and Copes showed it at it's best - when it took incredible courage to do so.

In this aspect, Juan was a great influence on many people. One among them was the great musician/composer Astor Piazzolla (seen below with Juan and Maria), who credits Juan with renewing his interest in Tango in 1959. (He also gave him work when Piazzolla was in need). What a combination they made - imagine the pleasure and satisfaction Piazzolla had in having Copes to put moving imagery to his revolutionary musical ideas. (There is a very interesting interview with Juan about Astor here).

Juan and Maria were married when she came of age, but after seven years found that they had to divorce in order for them to be able to dance and work together. A two year period of estrangement followed, during which time Juan took Maria's younger sister, Cristina, as his partner. This little-known fact - that Juan only danced with the three sisters for 40 years, says much about his character (and their ability!).

with Astor

The rest of the story is well known ... Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves traveled the world showing the classic Tango Fantasia they had invented.

Then came "Tango Argentino," the show they starred in that is credited with re-igniting world interest in Argentine Tango.

Juan assisted the late choreographer Bob Fosse and taught Tango to many celebrities including Mikhail Barishnikov. He choreographed the first Opera Tango, Piazzolla's "Maria de Buenos Aires," in which he and Maria were of course lead dancers.

Juan married his current wife Miriam and started a family in the 70's. His daughter Joana began working in his shows in 1994.

It is sad that Carlos Saura, not for want of trying, could not persuade Nieves to dance La Cumparsita with Juan in his film, "Tango." She was still very angry with Juan for splitting up the partnership.

But now, they have been together again, on Broadway and around the world, in "Tango Argentino - 1999."

Countless famous dancers today began their career with Copes or took their dancing to the stage because of him. Among them: Carlos Gavito, Pepito Avellenada, Guillermo Merlo, Cecilia Saia, Aurora and Jorge Firpo and many others.

He is always demanding, but in a gentlemanly way. He is just a pleasure to be around.

I'll share with you a picture of what he is like on a personal level.

Everything tango was new to me in 1989. He and Maria were the first dancers I ever saw. (That became every night then, because they worked in Toronto for 5 months). Poor Keith - I didn't even know where to get good dancing shoes. I mean, everything was new to me. I loved the boots he was wearing on stage. They happened to be new, so he gave them to me and said, "Now you can dance Tango in shoes from Buenos Aires."

I had no music. He gave me all his tapes to take home and copy. As music is such a big part of my life, and Tango is all and more, this was more than a gesture, to me.

Most every night after the show I would drive them home and we would have dinner and drink wine and they would talk about everything. That was my introduction to Tango.

I found his, and Maria's, openness and generosity so human in the best sense.

It was a real pleasure for me to be the dj at the Miami Tango Congress in 2001, 2 and 3 on his birthday - and be the one selecting the music as he danced with all of the women and received his birthday honors. (I played Verana Porteño by Pugliese - one of his signature pieces with Nieves).

Juan has always generously given back what he could to help others grow. He has for years given free classes to children and teenagers in Buenos Aires to keep the Tango alive.

It is hard to imagine how much Tango there would be in the world were it not for Juan's grace, immense talent, vision and tireless hard work during the last 50 years.

Juan & Joana
Juan & Johana

In a very real sense, because Tango is alive and growing,
we are all his children.

Excerpt from Reportango (February 2003, Issue # 27), interview with Juan Carlos Copes:

"My life with Astor was very profound. I believe that he always considered me a friend and I believe that from the pedestal where I held him I always offered him what I could humbly do. Approaching that music that made me fly so much, it made me fantasize, but also approaching him and feeling like his friend was very satisfying. I had some sort of idolatry towards him.

I remember when I met him. I was a crazy amateur back then. It was the year 1952 and those that have any memory of those days will remember they would kick out the milongueros from all the popular places. And I said, "I have to continue with this in some way, I can't leave it." And besides learning other dances (dances that I was never very good at), like contemporary, acrobatic, choreography, I felt I was very limited with what I knew. So, I began to pay attention to the music.

"A Fuego Lento" by Salgan was one of the first tangos with which a group of inexperienced friends and I worked, then one day I listened to Piazzolla. Then I became a habitue of his concerts, which he often played on the radio with his quartet. And one day I went to the Patagonia Theater and I told him: "Look Astor, I have a small group with amateur dancers and we are doing little stories about BA, not only with couples but also telling stories and I would like you to see one that we did with your tango "Contrabajeando." It seems that was a good introduction, because he came by to see us.

He saw it, thanked us, and left. And then I realized that I still have a long way to go to realize what Piazzolla had in mind. That was my first physical contact with him. Until his last words in Rio de Janeiro after a performance, he came, gave me a very strong hug and told me: "Man, who said that Piazzolla could not be danced?"

© 2005 Keith Elshaw

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