Teaching Liam Neeson

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There will be a special tango scene in the upcoming movie “Mark Felt”. Photo: markfeltmovie.com

 

“You have to teach Liam Neeson!” the caller urged her. It was nobody less than Marcos Questas. “He does not know one step!” he continued. Well, an urgent request by Maestro Questas from LA means you don’t think twice!

On the receiving end of the line was Karina Romero, a veteran teacher among the New York Argentine tango community. She was trying to grasp what she had just heard: she had been asked to coach one Hollywood’s biggest stars for an upcoming movie!

Questas, a sought-after choreographer for film and television (he worked on the Latin Grammy Awards), had a problem. He had been signed as the choreographer for a prominent tango scene in a high-profile spy thriller about the Watergate scandal by Peter Landsmann — Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. He had already started rehearsing the dance scene with Diane Lane, who plays Liam Neeson’s wife in the movie. But he urgently needed an instructor at the other end of the country in New York, where Neeson lives, to train him for his part. Questas knew about Karina Romero through Carlos Copello, the grand master of tango (Forever Tango, The Tango Lesson, Assassination Tango). Being part of Copello’s circle means being part of an exclusive network of tango professionals who can trust one another.

Karina Romero accepted. And Marcos Questas could for now, and until the shooting began, relax. Then he would see if the teacher in New York had been doing a good job.

But back in New York, Karina Romero could not have anticipated what was about to happen once she agreed. The wheels had already begun to spin and she had taken on a big responsibility. How did she prepare for coaching a film star for a big budget movie, I am curious to know? Karina takes a deep breath. Then she bubbles over with excitement about those few weeks this past summer which were for her ‘a dream come true’.

The business aspect, she explains, was the first ‘wow!’ experience. “Everything happened really fast,” she remembers. Without having time to think it all over, she found herself thrown into the Hollywood business. Within minutes after talking to Copello, her phone began ringing nonstop. She received several calls from the film studio, and was sent a lot of paperwork to sign her up as the leading star’s dance coach for the production of Felt. Once that part of the deal was settled, it took just about another five minutes for Liam Neeson’s agent to call and schedule the lessons for his client. As she was about to give directions to her dance studio, the agent politely interrupted and explained that Mr Neeson was a very private person and that the lessons had to take place at his house.

Quickly rearranging her own schedule, she agreed and then ‘spent the rest of the day watching all of Liam Neeson’s movies to see how he moves’. The very next day at eleven in the morning, she found herself sitting in this ‘very big apartment’ where everybody was ‘so very nice’ to her, waiting for her famous student to arrive, a cup of tea in front of her.

“At that moment it hit me,” she tells me with her delightful accent. “I was going to teach Liam Neeson! Oh my God!” But there was no time to be nervous. She heard him approaching through the living room, and listened intently to the sound of his shoes as he moved across the floor. “I hear how strongly he walks,” she remembers, audibly smiling over the phone, “and what a connection his feet have to the floor!” As she quickly took a mental note of his characteristic steps, the door opened and the star himself appeared and greeted her.

Despite his imposing size – he is said to be six foot four — Liam Neeson turned out to be shy indeed. He thanked her politely for coming to his house and introduced himself humbly:  “Sorry, it’s going to be very hard!” Just as Copello had indicated, he had no dance experience.

So Karina started with some basic walking exercises. After the first round of walking with her new student she could feel how her own nervousness fell away. She says she settled into her role as the teacher and ‘stopped thinking about how famous he was’. Her new student on the other hand turned out to be ‘very respectful to learn’. And indeed he had a lot to learn. Not only did he have to master the basics in tango, but he also had to memorize Marcos Questas’ choreography to the piece he had chosen for the movie: Osvaldo Fresedos’ Vida Mia. “Simple,” states Karina, “but difficult for a beginner.”

Another challenge in teaching him was that the actor, whom she came to realize was a sensitive person, was initially afraid to dance. So she decided to take it slowly — “I did not want him to be in shock!” — and not think about the time pressure — she had to get her famous student ready in only fifteen hours over the stretch of three weeks.

“You need to practice!” she told him decidedly at the end of the first lesson. “We meet again tomorrow!” She also suggested that he wear dress pants and a shirt to get a better feeling for the elegant movement of the dance.

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Tango talent: Karina Romero teaching Liam Neeson. Photo by Karina Romero

By her return the following day, Mr Neeson had done his homework and practiced a lot. And he continued to be prepared for all the lessons that were to come. “He really wanted to learn,” she explains, impressed by how seriously he took his tango studies. “He was a very smart student and he really wanted to understand.” His sincere interest in learning and his disciplined way of studying were well received by his Argentine teacher. They developed an artistic connection that Karina describes as very special. “This connection on an artistic and human level was the biggest gift for me,” she says.

But she still had to push for fast progress. At some point she provoked the actor in him, inviting him to find his role in tango and act it out on the dance floor: “If you were a singer,” she said, “you’d be Julio Sosa. This is the voice you would be in tango.” That was the magic trick. She had him practice to some Sosa tunes and says she could see how he changed and started to connect more.

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Gabriel Missé concidently became an inspiration for Liam Neeson. Photo: Boston Tango

The big breakthrough, however, came when she introduced Mr Neeson to Gabriel Missé, one of the hottest stars of recent years in the world of Argentine tango. Mr Missé happened to be in town for a workshop series that Karina arranges every year in August. She told Mr Neeson about Missé, and he became interested and asked her to bring him along. It was obvious that both men, each one a star in his respective artistic field, clicked immediately.

Mr Neeson asked Karina to dance with Missé — a moment which she describes as ‘being in heaven’ — and noticed how he enjoyed watching their little demonstration. Next, the two men danced together. She put a tango hat on Neeson and said: “Now act!” And then in front of her eyes something magical developed: As Liam Neeson danced with Gabriel Missé, he became Julio Sosa, executing all the steps he had learned: the ‘baldosa’, the ‘cunita’, the ‘box’, and the ‘sandwichito’. “It was a dream come true!” she revels. “And I saw two big persons together!”

When their coaching sessions came to an end and Mr Neeson started to prepare for the shooting of the film in Atlanta, he thanked her profoundly, promising to make her proud. She in return threatened jokingly: “I will kill you, Liam Neeson, if you don’t dance well in the film!” She remembers being quite nervous the day when the scene was shot far away in Atlanta. Finally she received a message saying: ‘Thank you, maestra, you helped me a lot!’

Mark Felt is going to come to theaters next Thursday, September 29, and I wonder if her name is going to be in the credits? “I don’t know,” she replies. “I’m relaxed about this. I believe this experience was a gift of God. There was an artistic connection, a magic, and the magic happened in the human part, in the connection of the soul.”

Did she get invited for the opening night? No, she says, but for sure she is going to be among the first ones to watch it — with a group of her girlfriends, somewhere in New York.

 

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Le Grand Tango – an updated and expanded biography of Astor Piazzolla

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Cover of the updated and expanded digital edition published by Astor & Lenox

 

When Astor Piazzolla died in 1992, he was not much appreciated in his native Argentina. The tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger, although well-known the world over, had stirred up a great deal of controversy with his music. The traditional tango world was still predominant in his home country at the time of his death twenty-five years ago, and he was a rebel. “He was hated because he broke a paradigm,” says María Susana Azzi, “and he changed that paradigm.”

Mrs Azzi is the co-author of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla, a detailed biography that may represent the most comprehensive work about the composer’s life and work to date. Surprisingly, the book first appeared in the year 2000 in English, published as a hardcover edition (it was a few years before e-books became common) by Oxford University Press. It says a lot about Piazzolla’s reputation in Argentina that a Spanish edition was published only later after many translations into other languages had appeared.

The biography is based on a large number of interviews and other books about Piazzolla. Together with the late Simon Collier, Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, it took Mrs Azzi seven years to collect and meticulously reconstruct details and events of Piazzolla’s complex life. It was Mr Collier who, not long after Piazzolla’s death, approached Mrs Azzi with the proposal for a biography. A British-born historian, Simon Collier’s prime academic focus was on Latin American studies and, in particular, Chilean political history. But it was his passion for tango that had led him to write a well-regarded biography of Carlos Gardel in 1986, in which he uncovered the intertwining of tango and the history of the city of Buenos Aires. His knowledge of tango turned him into a contributor to the tango history collection of Harlequin Records, for which he wrote twenty sleeve notes.

Simon Collier

Simon Collier

By the time Mr Collier came forward with his idea for a Piazzolla biography, Mrs Azzi had already established herself as one of the few academic experts on the subject of Argentine tango. She had published a respectable number of research papers and articles, and she had given numerous lectures on the topic. As a cultural anthropologist her main interest in tango lay in its socio-economic aspects. “Tango can be seen as a huge window into the social economics of Argentina,” she told me when I spoke with her earlier this summer.

Not long after she and Mr Collier began their research work for the Piazzolla biography, it became clear that Mrs Azzi would end up conducting the majority of the interviews. She worked with about a thousand informants and consultants on the subject of tango, and conducted two-hundred and thirty of the two-hundred and forty interviews for the book. In the end, the duo’s extensive research had to be condensed to three hundred and sixty pages, but they revealed an astonishing number of facts and little-known details about Piazzolla’s life, all of which contributed significantly to his groundbreaking work.

For a wonderful foreword Mrs Azzi interviewed Yo-Yo Ma, the world-famous cello player, widely known for his admiration of the grand tango master and who has performed and recorded many of his pieces. The book begins with a detailed chronicle of Piazzolla’s family, infused with anecdotes about his early childhood in Mar del Plata in the midst of a closely knit Italian-Argentine community, followed by his rough upbringing on New York’s Lower East Side after his parents had emigrated to the United States. Then there are descriptions of encounters with some of the most influential tango musicians of the Golden Era of Tango — Carlos Gardel among them — many of whom, intentionally or unintentionally, left an impact on young Astor. As a teenager, Piazzolla developed a strong interest in jazz and classical music, at the same time as slowly discovering the soul of tango. Encouraged by his composition teacher in Paris, Nadia Boulanger, his passion for all three genres ultimately led him to develop his own modern tango style, which was demonstrated by three notable groups: the Octet (1955), the first Quintet (1960), and the Nonet (1971). By the mid-fifties he had taken tango to a whole new level and had begun to compose in a unique style. Now, also established as a sought-after bandoneonist in Argentina, he had played with some of the most important tango orchestras of the time, most notably with Anibal Troílo’s Orquesta Típica.

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María Susana Azzi

“He was,” says María Susana Azzi, “a musician and a genius who combined classical music and tango, which is difficult. But he didn’t think of himself as a genius.” By the time of his death at age seventy-one he had composed a vast body of three-thousand five-hundred pieces of music, including orchestral works (Concierto Para Bandoneon), pieces for solo classical guitar (Cinco Piezas), song-form compositions (Adíos Nonino), and music for film, and was considered one of the most prolific composers of all time. He was not a political person, but ‘an anti-Peronist’ adds María Susana Azzi.

The Argentine anthropologist seems to have become as intimate with Astor Piazzolla as some of his family and friends who knew him personally and closely during his lifetime. Just like Piazzolla, with whom she shares Italian roots, she considers herself a typical result of Argentine society. “Argentine society has always been a melting pot,” she says. “It is an inclusive and open society without ghettos.” Le Grand Tango, even though not an authorized biography, quickly became a recognized resource for Piazzolla fans. Mrs Azzi, who has during the course of her research, become close to the Piazzolla family, mainly his daughter Diana, says the family appreciates it.

Sadly, only three years after the book’s publication, Simon Collier passed away, leaving the rights to the book with Oxford University Press. When Mrs Azzi regained the rights to her book, a friend asked if she would consider publishing an updated version. This friend — Terence Clarke — happened to be a tango afficionado from San Francisco who had been introduced to Mrs Azzi in 2003 by the acclaimed tango singer and composer María Volonté. Mr Clarke is the co-founder and director of a new and small publishing-house, Astor & Lenox, whose mission is to ‘print and publish ebook editions of remarkable out-of-print books.’

Mrs Azzi agreed to a new version only to find out, as she told me, that “more than seventy people interviewed for the first edition have since died.” As a result, she undertook additional research for the new version. Most interesting about the new edition, now expanded by an additional one hundred pages, is that it reflects events that have contributed to the growth of Piazzolla’s influence since his death. “Piazzolla is greater than ever,” adds publisher Terence Clarke. “He is much more accepted than in 1992, and his popularity keeps growing.”

After a complete re-edit of the republication, Astor & Lenox published the anniversary digital edition last February — just in time for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Piazzolla’s death on July 4. Mr Clarke says that he is considering publishing a print edition. An expanded Spanish edition is also expected to come out soon.

The updated and expanded digital version of Le Grand Tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla by María Susana Azzi, published by Astor & Lenox is available online.

The El V Story

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The last milonga at El Valenciano. Photo by Stanley Wu.

 

“Where did the time go?” asks Julian Ramil, and as they both shake their heads his wife Claudia repeats: “Yes, where did the time go?” We were talking about El V, one of the best-known milongas in San Francisco and beyond, and which was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on May 30th at the very same venue where it started in 1996. However, at the time when I was talking to the Ramils in early April, El V was about to close its doors forever. It looked like the much anticipated 20th anniversary celebration was not going to happen. The proprietor of El Valenciano, the restaurant/bar/dance club which had served as the venue of this popular tango social, had decided to sell the business. The Ramils, together with other long-time tenants of the dance club, had received notice about the termination of their lease, that very afternoon of the last milonga. This meant they had to break the news to both the local and the wider tango community — and find a new venue quickly.

“It didn’t exactly come as a surprise,” said the Ramils, who founded the El V milonga in 1996, and who had been hosting it ever since. The building is located at a prime location in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. Since real estate prices have been skyrocketing for a number of years, driving less-than-above-average income residents together with smaller dance and music events out of this part of town, the Ramils suspected that their Tuesday night milonga – one of the longest-running Argentine tango events in the Bay Area – would sooner or later come to an end. It was only a matter of time before the restaurant/bar would be put on the market for sale, and force them to look for a new venue, thus becoming yet another victim of gentrification. Many popular tango and dance venues, such as Studio 1924 in Oakland, and numerous other ballroom dance studios in the Bay Area, had suffered the same fate in recent years.

There had been some previous issues: since the passing away of the previous owner a few years ago and the subsequent taking over of the business by another owner (his ex-wife), the venue had not been running as smoothly as patrons had been accustomed to. Neither the dance club, which also hosted salsa and swing events on a regular basis, nor the bar could obtain a liquor license without the operation of the restaurant. So in order for the dance club and the bar to remain open for dance events late at night, the restaurant had to remain open, too. However, the tango dancers who came for the Tuesday night milonga were not so much interested in having a meal as simply enjoying a drink while focusing on having a good time dancing. Consequently, the tango crowd didn’t generate enough income for the business – a common problem with tango events that take place at restaurants or bars.

During my last visit to El Valenciano in the winter, I couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant had lost much of its appeal. The once popular authentic Spanish eatery with its Moorish-style alcoves and colorful murals had long been known for its delicious food and warm hospitality. Now it looked like it was due for a much needed make-over. Nevertheless, the Tuesday night El V milonga in the classy backroom remained as lively as ever. It was still a very popular spot where one could always encounter a particularly large number of professional and other high-level tango dancers. It was still on the ‘A-list’ for visiting Argentine tango dancers from all over the world as it had been for many years. Not surprisingly, I often found myself being asked about El V in San Francisco by dancers in far-away places such as rural New York State as well as cosmopolitan Barcelona – a phenomenon that was not expected in its humble beginnings.

“It really started just as an after-party of Verdi Club in 1996”, recalls Julian Ramil. When San Francisco became the residence of the cast of Forever Tango, people often hosted private tango events at their homes. Verdi Club, Ruvano’s and Broadway Studios were pretty much the only public places in San Francisco to dance tango. El Valenciano in those days was popular with the salsa and swing crowd. It featured a stage and a small dance floor surrounded by a semi-circle of tables and club chairs. When Julian started to hang out with a small group of tango dancers after Thursday night’s milonga at Verdi Club, he tried playing some tango tunes. Since the small tango community liked it and would ask for more, he decided to start a small milonga on Tuesday nights. Inspired by one of his favorite milongas in Buenos Aires at the time, the Almagro, Julian wanted to create a small, intimate place with a pleasant crowd and no security. He succeeded and named his new milonga Ramilonga Del Valenciano. It became the home of a tight community, “…a place where the die-hards would hang out,” he says. Somehow over time people started to refer to it as El Valenciano, then eventually El V, and that’s how it eventually became known.

The setting was certainly part of the success, but so was the music. For the first five years, Julian was the only DJ playing the tunes every Tuesday night. “I love the music and I want to share it,” he explains. Only slowly would he start to approach the idea that perhaps every now and then he needed a break and needed someone to fill in for him. That’s when he asked Glenn Corteza to take turns. Glenn playing the music was an equal success with the dancers. Over time they asked other tango DJs for whom they had high regard, and so Felipe Martinez, Christopher Nassopoulos, Rina Gendelman, and Shorey Myers also became regulars at El V.

In 2003, the popular milonga had to close its doors for a short while. But within less than a year, El V was back. By now the Argentine tango fever had spread widely, and the Bay Area tango community had grown to a substantial size. At the same time, the first local Argentine tango orchestras were founded and started to perform. Julian, a bandoneonist himself, decided it was time to take advantage of the small stage in El Valenciano’s backroom, and he invited the newly formed local orchestra, The San Francisco Tango Orchestra directed by Roman Rosso to play. In later years local orchestras such as Trio Garufa, Pablo Motta, and Seth Asarnow with his Sexteto Tipico all performed at El V, to the delight of the tango crowd. Both Julian and Claudia Ramil, being full-time professional teachers and performers, managed to keep El V on the cutting edge of Argentine tango during all those years. “It was like going to an art event,” as they described it.

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The new Ramilonga Balançoire

When they had to leave the beloved venue, and the tango community fell into mourning over the loss of the place, the Ramils seemed to be the only ones who didn’t appear distraught. They had already been looking ahead, well-prepared for a change. Within days of the announcement that this time El V was closing its doors for good, they had signed a new lease with Balancoire Restaurant and Club on Mission Street, only a few blocks from the old venue. Seamlessly, they opened their new milonga at a bigger, newer venue. Their loyal tango community followed without missing a beat. For a few weeks now the Tuesday night tango crowd can be found on 2565 Mission Street, and that’s where El V’s 20th anniversary will take place – but now under the name Ramilonga Balancoire.

Fort Bragg — Buenos Aires del Norte

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For some quiet time after tango: the beaches by Fort Bragg.

On a recent flight from the East Coast to California I was sitting next to a top commander of the Coast Guard West Coast. He engaged me in a long and lively conversation about assignments that have taken him around the world, and how he and his wife — a modern and tap dancer — enjoy traveling and exploring. When I told him how my tango dancing has taken me to various places, a surprised look came over his face and he told me how they had just stumbled upon a ‘tango house’ in the middle of nowhere, on a trip up the Pacific coast to Fort — he couldn’t remember the rest of the name, so I finished it for him — Fort Bragg, the Weller House Inn.

He looked even more surprised. Most of my tango friends in the Bay Area have been to the Weller House, I explained. Indeed, I might be the only member of the entire tango community between Portland and Los Angeles who has not been to a tango event at this historic mansion. The tango world is small, I went on coolly, news spreads quickly and tango people travel far to explore exotic and fun places.

But inwardly I cringed, scolding myself for still not having been there. The Weller House Inn and its special tango events had long been on my list of destinations to visit. Somehow it had been easier for me to travel cross-country, and even beyond, than to take a three-hour drive from my Bay Area home up the coast. And now a stranger, completely unfamiliar with tango, had told me, almost in passing, that he had been there!

A few days later I repacked my bags and set out on the scenic drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway. The stately, multi-storied Victorian mansion stands out like a monument in the otherwise unremarkable little town of Fort Bragg, and is hard to miss. I arrived in time for the Tuesday night tango lesson and practica which takes place in the house’s big ballroom. Vivien LaMothe, the owner, happened to be in the kitchen and welcomed me, immediately offering to take me on a tour. My lucky day, I thought!

But less than half an hour into our private tour, Vivien broke some unexpected and sad news. We had barely covered the mansion’s ground floor, and I was still admiring the original woodwork and Victorian-style furniture of the guest rooms and the library, when she stopped in front of some historic photographs in the hall and looked me straight in the eye. “You know, it’s for sale,” she said gravely. I was flabbergasted. For sale? How could that be? A unique place like this? A most romantic inn with an historic ballroom? How can you let go of that? For a moment I thought she was pulling my leg.

As we climbed the stairs to the impressive Virgin Redwood Ballroom on the top floor, she explained. But I had already begun to suspect the reasons for her decision to step away from this place — and my guess was right. The huge task of managing a nine-guestroom inn with another three guestrooms in the adjacent Water Tower, maintaining a historic building, and at the same time running a busy ballroom with different dance events six nights of the week had simply become too overwhelming for her alone. “Ideally,” she summarized, “there should be two couples running this place.” Meaning two couples who would split the responsibilities of the hospitality business downstairs and the dance studio upstairs.

Virgin Redwood Ballroom

Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda dancing in the famous Virgin Redwood Ballroom.

Vivien has been successfully juggling all this ever since she took over ownership in 2011. During this time she also unexpectedly become the caregiver of her 93-year old mother, who had stepped in as her business partner until passing away in 2015. Understandably, she feels a bit burned out.

Things looked a lot easier when she first became acquainted with the Weller House Inn and became its manager. She was bursting with ideas on how to tie the ballroom into the inn’s hospitality business.

When she was hired, she proposed bringing back the glory of the unique Virgin Redwood Ballroom. It takes up the entire top floor, and was originally intended by its first owner, H. A. Weller in 1886, as a meeting hall for the local Baptist community before there was a church in town. It is built entirely of local redwood, with acoustics that are so superb that, to quote Vivien, ‘it has recording-studio qualities’. It has a dance floor that sweeps every dancer away. Vivien’s idea to host tango and other social dance events met the immediate approval of the previous managers, a couple of musicians who were open enough to let her try out new ideas. As Vivien says: “When I became the manager of the Weller House Inn, I had a short leash — and a big opportunity.”

“On my first day at work,” she remembers proudly, “I already started a practica!” Hosting tango events at the Weller House Inn became a priority of her managing duties. Soon she established the regular Tuesday night tango lesson, taught by local teachers from the Mendocino tango community, followed by a practica. Then she went for bigger events, holding special tango weekends once a month with visiting teachers from all over the country and abroad. “I brought world-class dance teachers almost every month for a few years,” she recalls. The year 2011 was the peak when she printed and distributed 10,000 postcards.

Looking at some of these postcards and flyers from the past eight years, I recognize many familiar names: Eduardo Saucedo, Melinda Sedo and Detlef Engel, Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, Murat Edemsel and Michelle Lamb, Facundo Posada and Christy Cote, and Chris Peake and Michelle Laughlin. Many of the nearby Bay Area instructors such as Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda, David Orly-Thompson and Mariana Ancarola, Lisette Perelle, Glenn Corteza, and Nora Dinzelbacher have also been here to teach and perform, some of them several times.

“Then Seth [Asarnow] came,” she recalls. He discovered Fort Bragg while playing with his group, Sexteto Tipico, at the nearby Mendocino Music Festival, and was impressed by the local tango community. “And after he started coming, everybody started coming.” She would often find him sitting on the porch by himself, playing his bandoneon. One year, Seth brought along Pablo Motta, the famous tango double-bass player. Vivien is particularly proud of having hosted both these acclaimed musician. (Note: Seth and Guillermo Garcia are scheduled to perform again at this year’s Dancing Fools TangoFest 8 which runs from March 30 through April 2.)

What else has made this remote location so attractive for teachers? She smiles, “The lure for the teachers is a nice double-room with a jacuzzi — and that it’s close to the ballroom!” Having just admired the guestrooms with their adjacent private bathrooms — some of them with hand-painted tiles and claw-foot bathtubs — I completely understand.

When the opportunity came to buy the mansion in 2011, Vivien went for it. But then her focus shifted, and a major part of her time went into the maintenance and improvement of the house, the occupancy of the inn, and caring for her mother. And all this not to mention that she still has a teenage son. Her mother’s death at the age of 97 was a turning point. But even though she is now ready to let go and move on, she is still attached to various projects related to the house such as an extension of the dining room and finishing a guest suite in the Water Tower that has sweeping views. At the same time she wants to make sure to keep the Weller House’s role for tango and a broader social dance community alive.

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The Weller House Inn and Water Tower.

The events and ongoing activities at the Weller House Inn (affectionately called ‘Buenos Aires del Norte’ on its former website) have certainly contributed to the strengthening of the local Mendocino tango community. Vivien points to people’s active support in promoting and helping all sorts of events. As a result, Fort Bragg, commonly regarded as the ugly little sister of Mendocino, has turned into a surprising hot spot for tangueros. “We recently had new dancers coming from Chico,” she says proudly. “They got set up with local instructors and liked it so much that they come back in May.” And the number of regular dancers from the local community has grown. “We have more dancers per capita than Buenos Aires!” she laughs.

Why, apart from the flashy events with big names, does she think the tango program has been so successful? “Because I was striving for quality, with the focus on technique,” she answers. “The social tango was more important than flashy steps.”

She would still like to continue being a tango host, but at a different place and under different terms. Meanwhile, her focus is on finding a suitable buyer who is ‘dancer-friendly’ and willing to continue this new tradition.

“I have tried to be a good steward of the house,” she says, “and I would like the house to be in the hands of someone who can also be a good steward.”

Photos courtesy of Weller House Inn

Tango with an Ice Champion

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Evelyn Meier as a young ice skater

Since getting into Argentine tango I’ve met some pretty interesting people. People whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and whose fascinating stories I would have never known. And I don’t even mean the professionals — the teachers and performers who stand out anyway, and whose lives seem to be so much more interesting than those of us ‘regular folks’ with jobs and families and mortgages and so on. No, I’ve met some really interesting people among the social dancing crowd. People who one day trust you enough so they begin to reveal their own personal history, which is sometimes permeated with deep personal tragedy — or, quite the opposite, with some really thrilling life experiences — so that you inadvertently shout out ‘Wow!’ in the middle of the dance floor. People who, through their own unique experiences, have gained a particular perspective on life which reflects on how they perceive tango.

One of these is a resolute petite lady called Evelina by her tango friends, but whose real name is Evelyn Meier (which already reveals her background: Swiss-German). I picked her out of this group of special characters whom I’ve gotten to know over time because with her eighty-something years she never ceases to surprise me, often makes me chuckle, and has become a kind of a role model for me as a furiously independent lady, an astonishingly versatile and technically proficient tango and ballroom dancer, and as a meticulous observer and instructor. I also admire her creative mind and great crafting skills, which she uses artfully to provide the décor for more tango events than you can imagine.

I met her in Woodstock, NY, where she moved more than ten years ago after having spent most of her life in New York City. She has been a fixture of the New York tango scene for many years, both as a social dancer as well as a driving force behind countless tango events. These days, when asked, she might even still teach privately in her spacious living room (which has been a bit challenging of late after she crashed through the ceiling while cleaning up her attic, leaving the space underneath, where she teaches tango, in shambles for a couple of weeks). However, students who are not accustomed to the drill of learning basic technique and who might expect Evelyn to turn them into exquisite dancers overnight, should know about her strict credo: “I teach people according to what they can do, what their bodies can do, not what they should do.” As she formulates it: “You can’t change the limitations of your body, but you can change your attitude.”

Evelyn can often be seen sitting next to the dance floor, watching the scene intensely, following the dancers with her bright eyes in a highly interested and curious manner. Every now and then someone captures her special attention. Then, during a cortina, she approaches them with a determined, yet well-meaning and encouraging attitude. I’ve overheard her making little remarks like: “You dance beautifully! If it’s not too uncomfortable for you, I’d really like to dance with you later — if and when you feel like it!” If she gets a positive response and dances with that person, she may even make small a suggestion: “I’ve watched your dancing and I love it, but I think you would look even better if you’d …”

I’ve often wondered where she gets the guts to approach people in such a direct way. Her observations are always spot-on. Whether or not somebody has a foot pronation, falls into a step or is not on axis, has little or no flexion in the extended back leg — in her opinion, a mistake most followers make — nothing escapes Evelyn’s sharp and trained eye.

When I found out that she had been a long-time ice- and roller-skater who won four national titles in competitive free-skating, I finally understood: her early hard training has shaped her approach to dancing. Everything she learnt in these disciplines from a young age on, she rightfully applies to dancing.

‘You do not step into a movement’ is one of her basic rules in Argentine tango that she took from ice-skating. ‘You move into a movement’. It has left many social tango dancers puzzled or disagreeing with her. “But all pros agree with me and understand!” she points out. Whenever she has this discussion with a professional like Junior Cervila or Jorge Torres regarding bodyweight transference, foot placement, and its correlation to other forms of dance, they reply with an unquestionable ‘of course!’ “The way you move into a move and out of a move is similar in tango and in skating,” she continues. “Just look at a molinette, or an ocho — the figure eight in tango comes from the loops in ice skating. Just look at the loops of the ocho and how they come together — it’s the same movement!”

Evelyn dancing tango

A picture from more recent days: Evelyn dancing tango with Anton Person-Gazenbeek

Evelyn first began ice-skating at age four when her mother took her to the lake in Central Park, close to their home, “not the wealthy neighborhood back then that is has become now!” she remarks. Her Swiss-born mother, like a lot of women of her generation, was a fan of the legendary Norwegian Olympic figure skater and Hollywood star Sonja Henie. She wanted her young daughter, who at the time was still so little that her dog pulled her over the ice, to be like this famous champion. She signed Evelyn up for her first classes with Pierre Brunet who also taught Olympic Champion Carol Heiss. He became Evelyn’s first instructor when she was ten. (“These days they get them started at age two!” she says, looking doubtful.) At the same time she was put in tap-dance and ballet classes where, as she says, she began to understand movement. But ice-skating was not much of a recognized sport in the 1930s, and it was expensive. Her mother took a job to pay for her classes. “Then came the war and more important things went on,” she recalls. She stopped ice-skating at age fourteen, only to discover roller-skating a year later. “It was similar to ice-skating, and there were only slight changes of movement,” she explains. She trained hard to reach a higher level as a roller-skate-dancer; by age nineteen she had become a State Champion and a Regional Champion, and had taken very close second places in the American Championship.

With so many titles under her belt as a roller-skate-dancer, she went back to her first love — the ice —only to find out that she was already too old for free-skating. But her passion for the ice prevailed and instead of giving up, she transitioned into ice-dance and tracing figures which required sharp and clean edges and transitions of body weight from one foot to the other.

“What was different from free-skating,” she remembers, drawing circles in the air with her fingers, “were the jumps and leaps.” She not only had to learn to do the figures, but also to find her center, axis, and balance. “If one of those things was not in place, the whole thing was not working!” (Just as in Argentine tango, she reminds me again!) To the surprise of her teachers, she jumped higher than others “— because I was used to the weight of the rollers!” She learnt when the body had to shift, before and after a jump, together with something else very important: “The first thing you have to know in ice-skating is how to fall.” Was she ever afraid of the leaps and jumps, I want to know? She replies with what she calls her ‘Axel experience’: “When fear sets in in any kind of sport, it’s real. You can’t just ignore it. When you fight it, you fall.”

Nevertheless, the most rewarding experience in ice- and roller-skating was completing fully-rotated jumps with speed and height, and “being paired with a partner in dance to enjoy the perfect harmony of two people doing the same thing with exactness and complete trust in each other”. “In tango, I call it ‘Giving and Receiving’ rather than ‘Leading and Following’,” she says. “It’s an equal partnership — the only way to achieve proficiency.”

Evelyn stopped competing at age twenty-one for two reasons: she had to earn a living, and she wanted to move on with life. “I didn’t want to become a rink rat — somebody who does not see what’s outside skating. I was there, as they say. But then I really wanted to be an artist and a teacher.” She became an embroidery designer, one of the last ones of this artful trade, but continued to skate and dance on ice until she was forty. A few years later, she started ballroom dancing and immediately achieved gold-level. She began teacher training class and quickly learned both to lead and to follow.

Evelyn as a leader

Taking the lead

In 1992, however, she broke away from ballroom because of its exclusivity, similar to her earlier experience in ice skating, and stopped dancing completely. It took her a long time and several attempts to get into tango, but when she finally did, she was hooked. Having spent the better part of her childhood and early adult years on skates, her body has definitely absorbed a lot more than most dancers, and again she learnt at an astonishingly fast pace.

She believes, however, that you can start to dance at any age. Her fundamental approach is that ‘a person has to stand straight up from their nose to their toes!’ Nevertheless, she knows all too well how much of an effort this can be for a lot of new dancers. “After thirty-eight years on the drawing board, my body has a natural curve, and it is an effort for me to stand up straight.”

She still participates in classes and workshops, never too tired to learn more. “Never put yourself above your level, but put yourself at the lowest part,” she says. “Learning tango is a very long process — and you have to enjoy the journey.”

Like an avalanche

Orquesta Típica rehearsal

Ramiro Gallo directing students of an Orquesta Típica

When, a few weeks from now in the heat of the South American summer, the lights go up in the Centro Cultural Kirchner in Buenos Aires, one of the most unique music competitions will begin: the first ever International Contest for New Tango Ensembles. Ten out of an initial fifty-five orchestras from nine different countries will enter the stage of the CCK — the biggest cultural center in Latin America — to compete as finalists in a musical genre which, until not too long ago, has been seen as a thing of the past. It will be the grand finale of a week-long gathering of tango musicians who will have participated in a study program called Tango Para Músicos.

Musicians from all over the world are expected to attend six days packed with learning and playing tango. Tango Para Músicos will offer these aficionados a broad variety of classes where they will have a chance to study with some of the masters of modern tango, such as bandoneon instructor Eva Wolff, tango singing-instructor Noelia Moncada, and Exequiel Mantega who teaches orchestration. Participants can choose from eighty modules of instrument classes and fifty modular classes for arrangement, composition, production, musical training, and more. The classes are open to basically all instruments, including vibraphone, clarinet, saxophone, and, of course, all string instruments. In past years even two ukuleles have participated. Drums, on the other hand, have not been part of the course (yet). The public is invited to attend free nightly concerts, milongas, and practicas.

The ‘icing on the cake’, however, is certainly going to be the above-mentioned and much-anticipated International Contest for New Tango Ensembles. The response to this first-ever international contest has been far greater than the organizers’ expectations. Fifty-five orchestras from countries in Asia, Australia, the United States, and Europe had initially applied, from which only ten were chosen. The candidates were asked to present their own arrangements with at least one by a modern composer. The submissions had to be sent in by video so that the judges could not only listen to the musical presentation, but also receive an impression of each band’s stage presence. When the finalists compete live on the stage of the CCK, they are going to play in front of a jury consisting of some the most accomplished artists of the contemporary tango world: Ramiro Gallo, Diego Schissi, Julián Peralta, Juan Carlos Cuacci, and Gustavo Margulies.

What will take place at the Centro Cultural Kirchner in the heart of Buenos Aires between February 12th and 19th marks a newly-found widespread appreciation of a musical genre which, until twenty years ago in most parts of the world, was hardly noticeable. For decades tango had played only a marginal role in the multifaceted international world of music. And even before, during the first half of the twentieth century, when tango was hugely popular and danced everywhere in the United States and Europe, only a few tango orchestras existed in countries outside Argentina. Instead, most Argentine tango musicians were classically trained musicians from Europe who would travel and perform with their orchestras in the United States and Europe.

Over the past twenty years, as Argentine tango has seen a revival, especially among younger people, it has attracted more and more musicians from different parts of the world, inspiring them to form their own bands. They are eager to master this musical style and to take it back to their own countries and communities. The best place for them to learn is still right here where it all began: in Buenos Aires.

A new generation of independent artists and musicians in the capital of Argentina has picked up that trend and begun to develop Tango Para Músicos as a specific and condensed program for musicians. The program takes place once a year. It offers a packed schedule during its six-day duration. Musicians are divided into intermediate and advanced levels based on their skills. For the intermediate level, a musician needs to know how to play and read music, and demonstrate a certain mastery of their instrument. To qualify for the advanced level, a candidate needs to be a highly accomplished, classically trained musician who wants to know how to play tango. Candidates have to apply by video, and are then put into the appropriate ensemble.

The teaching method of Tango Para Músicos is based on the Método de tango. This is a collection of course books which could be best explained to people unfamiliar with the subject as the ‘bible for tango musicians’. Método de tango is the first fundamental method for playing tango music. The collection includes six separate issues for flute, violin, contrabass, bandoneon, guitar, and piano. It was first published in 2010 by Ricordi in Munich, but since 2014 it has been published by Tango Sin Fin in Argentina. Método de tango is considered the essential source for tango musicians.

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Orquesta Típica ensemble performing at Elliot Hall Chapel

One of the authors is Paulina Fain. She wrote the issue on tango for flute. Based on her experience gained writing the book, she went on to put the method of teaching tango into practice, and created the Tango Para Músicos program with her husband Exequiel Mantega. “Our mission is to teach musicians what was not written on paper,” Paulina explains. “It’s sort of the ‘decodification’ of tango. We want to teach them how to make it happen.”

To make it happen from a practical point of view, the couple founded Tango Sin Fin, a non-profit organization dedicated mainly to promoting and developing Argentine tango music world-wide. ‘Tango Sin Fin’ translates to ‘Endless Tango’. Unlike in the United States, cultural programs in Argentina can receive governmental subsidies, and so, to no surprise, Tango Sin Fin is also supported by the Argentine government and the Ministry of Culture. Tango Para Músicos runs as an independent program within Tango Sin Fin.

Paulina talks at a speed of hundred miles per minute. She is bubbling with information. I have to interrupt her passionate flow of words several times to make sure that I don’t miss anything. Her own relationship with tango began long before she started the music program or even before she wrote the book on tango for flute. It was back in the mid-nineties, when there were only about ten tango musicians in Buenos Aires, she recalls. That’s when she and other musicians of her generation started to become aware of this genre which up until then had been closely connected in their memories with the so-called ‘dark times’ of their country. Until then, they played rock-and-roll and other music imported from the United States. “But when we started to play tango, something resonated in us and it felt deeper than everything else,” she says. This young Argentine generation, after having been disconnected from its own culture by military dictatorship, had discovered its roots.

Artistic Faculty

Members of the artistic faculty of the 2016 edition after a concert at Reed College’s Eliot Hall Chapel: Paulina Fain, Eva Wolff, Hernán Possetti, Adam Tully, Sofía Tosello, Ramiro Gallo and Exequiel Mantega.

What Paulina, her husband Exequiel, and everybody around them started only a short while ago resembles an avalanche. Only four years have passed since the first Tango Para Músicos program took place in Buenos Aires, and it has met with world-wide interest and recognition. How big an interest there is among musicians outside Argentina is shown, for example, by the fact that Reed College in Portland has adopted the program. Thanks to Morgan Luker, Associate Professor of Music at Reed College, whose special interest is in contemporary tango music in Buenos Aires, musicians closer to the United States can now take advantage of the same program on the American West Coast. Not only has Luker brought Tango For Musicians to Reed College in Portland every summer for the past five years, but he’s also been able to expand the program significantly. This coming June, for the first time, a program specifically designed for composers and arrangers will be offered: Tango For Composers including none other than award-winning pianist, composer, and arranger Diego Schissi.

Just as in Buenos Aires, the public is invited to attend certain concerts for free. Dancers and others who are not playing an instrument, but who are still interested in participating, can sign up for another newly created course called Auditors Track. It teaches basic knowledge about tango and its history, and offers participants access to rehearsals.

After the successful export of Tango Para Músicos to Portland, Paulina and Exequiel will be traveling to Japan, Australia, the United States, and Europe this year, where they have been invited to bring their program to certain schools. Paulina says that they would very much like to see it established on campuses around the world. But for the next few weeks their focus will be on Buenos Aires — and on that Sunday when the lights go up on some of the best tango ensembles in the world.

Tango Para Músicos takes place from February 12 through 19 in Buenos Aires. More information can be found on https://tangoparamusicos.org/

More on the Tango Sin Fin Awards can be found here: https://tangosinfin.wordpress.com/tangosinfinawards/

Tango for Musicians at Reed College takes place from June 25 – July 2, 2017. For more information go to http://www.reed.edu/tango/

Post it on TangoMango

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you’re probably quite familiar with TangoMango, an extensive online community calendar that lists Argentine tango events. The site has grown to become the number one resource for tango dancers in California since it was launched over ten years ago. It’s also well known in a few other metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. But tango dancers in most other areas of the country are less likely to visit the site and may not even have heard about it. If, for example, you were to find yourself in Hamilton County, Nebraska, and wanted to discover local milongas, you’d probably end up browsing the web for the individual websites of local organizers and venues instead of searching on TangoMango, as you might have done in the Bay Area or the Los Angeles area.

Don’t worry, most likely you wouldn’t have much success anyway in finding an event in Hamilton County, Nebraska (or in most other states all over the country) on TangoMango, even though the county itself appears on the website’s complete list of every state’s counties. Most organizers who are not close to one of the major metropolitan areas mentioned on TangoMango’s home page are unaware of the fact that they could easily post their event for free on this user-friendly nation-wide calendar, regardless of where they’re based. Instead, most tango teachers or hosts are more likely to promote their going-ons in the traditional and time-consuming ways of either sending out E-mail newsletters to a limited number of addressees on their own mailing lists, or by going through the process of creating separate web-listings, which, for people unfamiliar with the local tango scene, are hard to find.

TangoMango is a lot easier to use and reaches a much bigger audience. It’s the most comprehensive, and at the same time the most under-utilized, web service in Argentine tango. I’m curious to find out why. According to Stuart Schmukler of the Bay Area Argentine Tango Association (which maintains the site), TangoMango receives already as many as 10,000 hits a month from all over the country — even though most people search only a limited number of locations and only a relatively small number of locations have event listings.

tangomangohome

I’m trying to guess how many more visitors would click on the site if more organizers were to post their events on this free listing-service. Stuart assumes that the fact that the site remains unknown to most tangueros in the country could be because of the limited and somewhat misleading layout of the homepage. This might lead users to believe that only the highlighted metropolitan areas shown on the homepage are covered, namely ‘San Francisco & Northern California’, ‘Los Angeles & Southern California’, ‘Chicago Area’, and ‘Miami & Southern Florida’. The link ‘Other Cities’, at the bottom of the right-hand navigation column, seems to be too small for users to start a search for possible Argentine tango events in other communities, and as a result organizers don’t bother using the site for areas other than those highlighted on the homepage.

Once you dig down into the menu that starts with the link ‘Other Cities’, however, you’ll find an amazing wealth of possibilities. The menu allows you to post and to search for events in any specific location, however small or remote your community might be. You start the search for tango events by state, then in alphabetical order of counties in that state. The number of events in any particular county appears after its name and is clearly highlighted before you even click on it to get to the details. New locations can be added by organizers posting for the first time. Stuart explains that as webmaster he continues to add new places whenever he learns about an unlisted tango community.

TangoMango is thus a continually growing search-engine for Argentine tango. What sounds a bit pedestrian in comparison to major search-engines has actually been a labor of love, created in countless hours over many years with minimal funding by volunteers of the San Francisco tango community. It originally started as a community calendar created by David Hudsness in 2006 when he was a member of the Bay Area Argentine Tango Association. When Hudsness moved away, the Tango Association took it over, moved the system to another hosting server and stabilized it.

The unique web service fit right into The Bay Area Argentine Tango Association’s mission, which is to promote Argentine Tango. The association was founded in 1995 as a non-profit educational and cultural organization with the goal of holding public Argentine tango events, which up till then had only been held in private places. It started with just ten members when the cast of ‘Forever Tango’ took up residence in San Francisco, and Argentine tango suddenly became hugely popular. The Bay Area Argentine Tango Association then began not only to organize public tango events, but also to create newsletters and a tango lexicon with etiquette and codes, becoming more or less the main resource for everything tango. At its peak the association counted as many as 500 members who paid an annual fee of $35, but membership declined as information became widely available for free over the internet. Today, the association still holds approximately five to six public milongas at Union Square in San Francisco (known as ‘Tango in the Square’), and continues to support public dance events and other outreach programs. Its main flagship is TangoMango, but few people are aware of that.

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Tango in the Square is one of the public events organized by the Bay Area Argentine Tango Association. Photo by Stan-the-Rocker.

Stuart Schmukler, who is also the association’s president, has been the site’s webmaster ever since David Hudsness’ departure, maintaining it for the last couple of years. He works on it whenever his time allows, meaning when he’s not occupied with his job as a high-tech consultant in Silicon Valley or fulfilling his various other duties as head of the association. He keeps improving the site not just by continuously adding new locations, but by also adding links for resources such as tango literature and movies. He has even built a donation page to help keep the site running.

tangomangodonation

Users can donate on TangoMango 

It’s extremely easy to use. “It’s a self-listing site,” Stuart explains, “and anybody can post. All you need is a user ID.” The site doesn’t even require a password. “We’ve done away with that,” he smiles. “Since most users are artists and can’t be bothered to remember such things as passwords.” By signing up for the website, you can post your own tango event in the clearly structured format that has been provided, including location, date, time and a short description. And then bingo! — once your event has been posted and goes live, it can easily be found by anybody from anywhere.

Even though the site is unique and easy to use, there have been many attempts to compete with it. Several people have tried to come up with other, supposedly better, tango calendar services, none of which have become reality. When I ask Stuart about this, he says: “I know! But surprisingly, none of these people have ever contacted us. We would have been open to new ideas, but all these people have tried to come up with something new by themselves.”

One last question: I’m curious to know where the name TangoMango came from? For the first time during our conversation, Stuart looks a bit embarrassed and admits that he doesn’t know. But then, who exactly knows where the name “Google” came from? In the end, what counts is that the name is easy to remember and that hopefully the site will continue to grow.

The site can be found at http://www.tangomango.org