An interview with Christy Cote who celebrates her 20th anniversary as a tango teacher
In January 1996 Christy Cote made a decision that would change her life forever: she quit her daytime job and became a fulltime professional Argentine tango teacher. She had fallen for tango when the legendary “Forever Tango” show arrived in San Francisco in 1995. She was completely captivated and ushered to see every single show for free for 56 performances after that. Twenty years later Christy Cote is now one of the most popular and successful tango instructors in the country. Among her prestigious mentors and partners she can count tango legend Carlos Gavito and stars like Pampa Cortes, Facundo Posadas, Daniel Lapadula and Eduardo Saucedo.
While San Francisco remains her home base, she has taught and performed all across the USA and even in Buenos Aires. She has appeared repeatedly as a teacher and performer at the world’s premier Argentine tango festival, CITA in Buenos Aires. She is one of the founders as well as a performer and choreographer of the all-female tango performance group “Tango Con*Fusion.” She has created her own teaching method, which has been published by Dance Vision, together with instructional videos, and has recently started her own “Associate Teachers Program.” She is also the creator of a highly successful series of Tango Boot Camps.
I was lucky enough to catch her at the “Tango USA Championship” while she was waiting to be called to the judges’ panel, and this is what she revealed about her long and astonishing career:
Question: How do you feel about judging other dancers at the championship tonight?
Christy Cote: When I was asked to be on the judging panel for the first championship back in 2012, I didn’t like it at first. But it got better and now I enjoy it. When people compete, they do it because they want to be judged. It’s different from social dancing and performing. I used to compete in ballroom dancing, so I know what it’s like.
Q: How did you first get into ballroom dancing?
CC: I was actually a jazz dancer, but then in the seventies disco became popular and I got interested in partner dancing. So one day I walked into an Arthur Murray studio on Sutter Street and they gave me a twenty-minute private lesson for free. Then they said they were looking for ballroom teachers, and next thing I knew I enrolled in their teacher training and became a ballroom teacher.
Q: If you liked it that much, why did you drop ballroom and go into Argentine tango?
CC: As they say, tango comes to you! At the time when that happened, everything changed for me: I broke up with my boyfriend, I broke up with my ballroom dance partner, Larry, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had no idea what would happen to me, I thought I was going to die. So I gave everything up – my daytime job, my ballroom dancing – and I took the leap. Then something new started to emerge. I went to Argentina from October 1995 to March 1996, and after I came back from that trip, I met Carlos Gavito. He became my mentor, but I didn’t believe a lot of what he told me.
Q: Like what?
CC: For example, he said: “Train your partner.” I didn’t believe that. Since then I’ve trained about four of my professional partners, including Darren Lees – who I never thought would become my professional partner – and Eugene Theron.
Q: Wasn’t it a scary move to leave your previous life behind?
CC: I was never scared of the future, certainly not at that time when I had breast cancer. I felt I had nothing to lose. I lived in the moment. At the time, I partnered up with Pampa Cortes. New things just emerged. Before, I had always thought that I needed a day-time job and the security. And there I was all of a sudden, no longer driving a company car, no longer going out to high-end restaurants, no more fancy vacations. I don’t need all of that anymore. A vacation from what? I love what I’m doing!
Q: Times have changed since the mid-nineties. Tango has become widespread and there a lot more teachers and milongas everywhere. And the economy has changed, expenses are much higher. What would you tell someone today who wants to get into tango as a professional?
CC: Times have certainly changed and the competition is tough. I was at the right place at the right time. But if you’re passionate and if you believe in yourself, do it. Of course, I wouldn’t start out in a place like the Bay Area where there are so many good teachers. But if you can go to a small town anywhere in the US, then go for it. You can still make it, absolutely.
Q: What was the tango scene in San Francisco like when you first started?
CC: For the first few years there were only about twenty or thirty tango dancers. There was Nora [Dinzelbacher] who had already established part of the tango community in the Bay Area, and there was Victor Menendes, and there was Carlos and Elaine. Then more and more dancers started to show up, and at first I didn’t like it! I liked the small community and I didn’t like seeing it grow, I thought that’s all there is and it stays that way. But I learned to open up to the fact that the community was growing and many more new people started coming in.
Q: So many dancers go through a transition from first excitement to becoming frustrated.
CC: I know that feeling. I think it’s similar with wine lovers. At a lower level you’re all enthusiastic and you try everything. Then you get to the other level and you become picky. You walk into a milonga and you expect your favorite music to be played and to dance with your favorite partners. If it doesn’t happen, you get frustrated. But you can’t blame it on others. You have to be open and change your own attitude, be positive.
Q: What do you like most about your “job”, if one can call it like that?
CC: The teaching part!
Q: Not the flashy performances? Why is that?
CC: Because I understand more and more about the dance and I love sharing that understanding with my students. But then I’m also more than just a tango teacher. Often I find myself in the role of a psychologist or a friend. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve asked a student just how his or her day was and they broke into tears and spilled out all of their problems. Then I suggest that we just sit down and have a cup of tea and talk.
Q: Aside from the mentoring part of your teaching, what do you consider most important? Could you name three basic elements every student has to learn?
CC: Yes, I call it the “recipe of success for the dance floor.” First of all, feel it — get the music that is danced. Then it’s the walking and the embrace, the 100% intimacy with your partner. And finally the culture of Argentine tango. It’s not just a dance. That’s why I think every dancer should travel to Buenos Aires, to get that sense of that culture.
Q: You started teaching “Tango Boot Camps” in 2007. It’s a very successful and intense 16-hour tango workshop. You teach the advanced boot camp with George Garcia or Eduardo Saucedo and the beginners’ boot camp on your own. Whose idea was it to teach tango in boot camp style?
CC: My mother’s! She was in the Navy, as a nurse, and I think she liked that drill. But then my teaching partner George Garcia taught tango boot camps in Hawaii. We hooked up and started teaching boot camps in the Bay Area. It became an immediate success.
Q: Your career is an endless string of highlights. Could you name just a few?
CC: There are certainly two highlights that stand out in my memory. They both involve Gavito. One was when I danced with him at the opening of “Tango Nada Mas” [a tango club] fifteen years ago in Chicago. The other one happened at one of his performances at “Tango by the Bay.” His partner, Marcela, couldn’t make it to the performance that night. I was sitting in the audience, not expecting in the least to dance. I had a knee injury at the time and had told all of my friends that I couldn’t dance for a while. Then Gavito came on stage and said that because Marcela was sick, he would like to invite me to do the performance with him! I was shocked, but couldn’t possibly refuse to dance with him. It was such an honor! After the performance I had to go to the emergency room to get treatment for my knee!
Q: What is your resolution for the future?
CC: To stay healthy and to continue with Jazz dance!
Q: Would you say that Jazz dancing has improved your tango dancing and vice versa?
CC: Absolutely! It has helped me so much with performing — the theatrical and projecting aspects of it. And I would also recommend to every ballroom dancer to take up tango. You learn so much about the music and the feeling.
Q: You sound so completely happy and fulfilled. Isn’t there anything you would really wish you could do?
CC: Sit back, have a cup of coffee, meet friends, read a book. I never have enough time for that!
Q: What is it that you least like about what you’re doing?
CC: Dealing with e-mails and text messages! Again, I just don’t have enough time to keep up with everything! At this point, I have about 300 unanswered e-mails in my inbox, and I hate it! I like being organized and getting things done, but despite all the new and different ways of communication, I’m just less able to stay on top of it!
Q: When do you think you are going to retire?
CC: Retire from what? I’ve got nothing to retire from!