As the days grow longer and things altogether seem to be a little more hopeful, I’m starting to make plans to return to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. This past year I’ve been seeking shelter from crowded Oakland in upstate New York. With more space around me, it seemed a safer place to get through this terrible pandemic. With the luxury of having two homes on different coasts, in the lively years before the pandemic hit, I had the opportunity to get to know two completely different tango communities: one very large and active with different events happening every single day of the week together with many high-profile teachers competing with each other, and the other one being a rather small and more dispersed community with only a handful of local tango teachers who also teach ballroom or salsa or at local schools to make a living.
I’ve been wondering what it is like for tango teachers in these very different environments to live and work, and what it has been like to get through this pandemic? I therefore spoke last year to one couple in the Bay Area — Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda — and another couple in the Hudson Valley — Maia Martinez (no relation to Felipe) and David Salvatierra. Some of you may remember their stories. Felipe and Ayano had retreated to their home in Oakland, not too concerned about their future, confident that tango was eventually going to come back. Maia and David, in the hamlet of Rosendale in the Catskill Mountains, felt lucky to have a comfortable place in the country and to be surrounded by a supportive community.
I recently followed up with both couples.
Felipe & Ayano
Back in California, Felipe and Ayano are still their same cheerful selves. For almost all last year they have been working together on Ayano’s tango poetry project: an hour-long online session where she introduces tango music to dancers. She has been hosting this twice a week with great success. For this unusual project she and Felipe have been translating tango songs from Spanish to English. Their list now includes two hundred songs. For Felipe, who is a native Spanish speaker, this has been a challenging task. But for Ayano the translation process has been an even bigger challenge since she speaks English as a second language having learned Spanish as a third language! A look at their new website — https://www.tangopoetryproject.com/ — which they created specifically for this project shows that they have mastered the translations beautifully.
After years of teaching tango dancing they felt the need to bring a different aspect of tango closer to their students. The continuing restrictions of the pandemic opened a new window of opportunity to work on tango lyrics. It goes without saying that any dancer can express him- or herself much better if he or she can relate to the music and its lyrics. This doesn’t mean that tango songs have not been translated before, but most of these songs are not known by dancers. “There is no such project anywhere and we felt the need to translate songs for dancers,” they explain. Since Felipe and Ayano are also much sought after as tango DJs they have been able to focus on their own large repertoire.
When I reach them, it is two p.m. California time but still early in the morning for them. They are both in their kitchen and Ayano is just sipping a cup of coffee. “We’re still on milonga time,” Felipe says apologetically. He is busy preparing a complicated cake from scratch while we talk, and says he enjoys baking a lot these days. They have both been cooking exclusively at home and eating healthily since last March — something they hadn’t been able to do enough while traveling so much for so many years.
When I ask them if they are still dancing they both firmly say no, but then explain: “We have tango in our lives all the time.” Aside from translating tango poetry they co-host an online-milonga on the fourth Sunday of each month together with other tango hosts from Portland. They also watch videos and listen to their vinyl collection. “We are surrounded by tango all the time,” they say, so no, they are not afraid of getting rusty because they are convinced that ‘tango is a feeling that doesn’t go away’. Admittedly, Felipe suffers from a lack of movement, but says he doesn’t necessarily attribute it to the lack of actually dancing tango.
They put the tango-poetry project on pause during January, but are going to resume in early February. Felipe and Ayano have thereby found a new purpose during the Covid crisis. They seem to be fine both emotionally and financially. I’m happy for both of them.
* * *
Maia & David
I see Maia in class once a week at the Center for Creative Education in Kingston, NY. Together with David she began teaching in-person classes there again last October. Students had to take a temperature check, wear masks, and were spaced far apart in the studio. In the beginning there was a single technique class where each student worked individually on various exercises. For a while afterwards another kind of ‘partner class’ took place in which Maia and David introduced the students to learning with a hula ring: two students would grab the ring — which was repeatedly disinfected — opposite each other. That way partner dancing could be practiced without actually being physically connected. ‘Embracing tango without the embrace’ they called it. I found it a challenging exercise, but also enjoyable. It was the closest I had been able to dance with a partner all last year. “The feedback for the (original) technique class wasn’t all that great,” says Maia. “People want to dance with a partner.”
A few weeks into the program, despite the safety measures, Maia and I both contracted the virus at the carefully spaced-out technique class. But we were both lucky and only had mild symptoms. We stayed home and recovered quickly, but classes were suspended for a while and when they resumed in January, it put a damper on the experience. Now most of the remaining students attend the class online and I am the only one in the dance studio with our teacher.
David meanwhile remains at home with their little daughter. His focus now is on his other standing leg: high-end carpentry and his art work such as painting, drawing, and making one-of-a-kind cajones (drum boxes) and chess boards. Since Maia and I are alone after the other students have signed off on their home computers we get to chat a little.
One evening as we talk about the dispersed tango-community in the Hudson Valley, she muses about tango’s comeback. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose a lot of people in tango,” she says. “Especially the older ones.”
Despite their efforts to keep this small but once lively and loyal community going, most people have disappeared from the scene. David and Maia keep reaching out, particularly to those who are alone, by calling and writing letters whenever they can. “There is a lot of need out there since so many elderly people are part of the community and they are alone,” she says. “It’s something we didn’t fully realize until now.”
Shortly before Christmas they tried to get the community together by organizing a fundraiser. It was also their first performance since the beginning of the crisis. While the majority of the audience watched online via streaming, a few people were allowed to attend in person. “It was a small, distanced audience“, remembers Maia. “Everyone enjoyed being together and seeing each other.”
They are well aware of the social function that tango has in this rural part of New York State. The culture of Argentine tango may be foreign to most locals around here, but it attracts a remarkable number of people. It gives them a place to go and socialize and dance and learn something new every week. Maia appreciates her role in this particular social environment. In order to improve her own teaching skills she is currently studying to become a certified yoga-instructor. Hopefully, as things improve, they plan to open up again. Their next big goal is to organize a small and distanced open-air milonga in the spring.
* * *