Tango in the Time of Covid-19

 

Or: The end of Tango? Seven stories from around the world.

 

This is the beginning of a new series about tango professionals worldwide in the current crisis of Covid-19. Their stories, and their different reactions, provide a unique snapshot of everyone’s changed reality. The sequels will appear over the next few weeks. Please stay tuned.

With the spread of Covid-19 millions of artists have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. One group in particular has been affected more than others: that of dancers and social-dance instructors, especially those involved with Argentine tango. The reason is obvious: Argentine tango is all about being close. Partners typically dance in close-embrace in a crowded social-setting called a ‘milonga.’ In short, Argentine tango is the very opposite of social-distancing and the perfect breeding ground for virus transmission. So it didn’t come as a surprise when tango venues were among the first places that had to close their doors.

I happened to be in Buenos Aires, the cradle of tango, during the fatal first week of March. Mornings I took a crowded commuter bus to my Spanish language class. In the afternoon, I took dance lessons at a tango school, and at night I would go to a milonga. While the virus was spreading from one area to another back home in the United States, Argentina —at first — seemed calm and prepared. But within a few days I could sense panic spreading. So it was no surprise when one day I was barred from continuing my tango lessons, and the next day from all tango events. Initially, the ban only affected visitors from infected regions, such as California, where I came from. But within twenty-four hours all dance schools, clubs, and tango venues were closed by government directives. My tango teachers, who until then had been rushing from lesson to lesson and from student to student, found themselves jobless overnight. There was nothing they could do.

The lockdown in Argentina continued, from the closing of schools, churches, all social gatherings, and sports. Before my return to the States I had wanted to pay a quick visit to Recoleta Cemetery, but even its gates had been locked and there were signs alerting visitors to the danger of the spreading virus. Soon after I left, everyone had to stay at home. 

I managed to catch a flight back to the United States shortly before the total lockdown, and began sheltering in place on March 15. The tango world I left behind was utterly frozen. Like everybody else I watched in horror the drama unfold. Worst of all, there was little I could do to help make things better, and there was no tango to help me through this bad time. It’s true that there have been countless tango groups and online-classes on social media, trying to keep tango dancers connected. But I didn’t feel like participating. At first, I felt sorry for myself. Then I started to look closer at the faces of the tango teachers online, some of whom tried to be upbeat, but there were others who couldn’t hide their desperation. Some were asking for donations, others were selling their instructional videos online. But it was all a poor substitute for the real thing.

I thought about the tango teachers I had taken lessons with over the years. They had taught me more than tango steps; some had taught me lessons for life, some had become friends. They had been there for me and all the other students. Now it was time to be there for them.

I decided to give them a call to find out how they were really doing. I was curious to learn if their situation differed according to whether they were in Argentina, Europe, or the United States. This is a snapshot of what life is like for so many people in the world right now. Tango teachers are only a small piece of the pie, as Christy Cote said during our interview, but they are representative of almost all of us.

Orlando Farias, Buenos Aires, Argentina: performer and instructor

Orlando Farias
Orlando Farias

Orlando Farias has been traveling throughout Europe and the United States for the past two decades, teaching and performing. I first met him a few years ago when he came as a guest artist to Upstate New York. Coincidentally I saw him again shortly afterwards when he spent a week teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area. Unfortunately it turned into a short and disappointing gig for him; poorly organized and promoted. But it was a great opportunity for me to learn from him in a smaller group of people, and we became friends.

 During my brief visit to Buenos Aires, I had been planning to get together with Orlando, but it didn’t happen because of my hurried departure. So instead I called when I returned home. I was not prepared to find him in such a desperate state. We used Facetime for the first few minutes before the connection collapsed, and I could see a frightened look in his face. We then switched to an audio call, and when he started to speak, his voice was somber. He said there was no work for him — nothing. At first he didn’t want to talk about himself, but about the overall declining situation in Argentina and how the economy was becoming worse by the day.

“I bought pasta for sixty pesos the other day,” he said. “And now it costs one hundred pesos.”

As it happens, his mother is staying with him. She came from Patagonia to visit in early March, and then became stuck, unable to return home because of the lockdown. On the one hand this was a good thing for Orlando since they can live on her pension, but at the same time it posed a huge risk factor.

He lives in a house outside Buenos Aires. Over the last two decades he had saved up enough money by teaching abroad to build this house. The plan was not to just live in the house, but also to add a tango studio where his students from abroad could visit Argentina and study with him. During the two year construction he didn’t have time to travel and make money, and instead invested everything into this project. Now his plans have been shattered overnight. The remainder of his savings have already been used up. He has ongoing bills to pay while prices keep rising. Fortunately his family runs a small store in Patagonia and are helping him with his expenses.

“There are government programs for freelancers like me,” he explains, “but it’s not much.”  Like so many Argentines who have tried to better their situation, he made most of his money abroad, something that has now backfired. “We who worked outside Argentina didn’t pay into the government system. That’s why we’re not part of the system now.”

Orlando was born and raised in Patagonia and started Argentine folk dance back home before he fell in love with tango. He didn’t plan to become a professional, he says, it was a natural progression. “I kept practicing and I got better and better.” Soon he was asked to perform and eventually decided to move to Buenos Aires where there was a job market for tango professionals. He wasn’t even twenty years old. All of a sudden he was on stage, performing with the stars he had admired from far away. ”A dream became true,” he remembers. For a moment his voice sounds happy reveling in the past. He traveled to Europe, Japan, and the United States. He could be frequently seen teaching in Italy and then in Russia. He explains that when Russia stopped the visa requirement about seven years ago, teachers like him were able to travel freely and teach.

“In the beginning there were only few people dancing tango in Russia,” he remembers. “They were extremely dedicated, just like Germans.” The tango community in Russia grew fast. “Russia became the best place. Not only because they are determined and practice a lot, but because they are very talented.”

I asked him if he had thought about teaching online classes. He doesn’t offer any, but thinks they’re good as training. “Online classes are about moving, and exercises: things that are always important.” As for his own exercise program, he practices ‘ochos’ (stepping like a figure eight) every day at the barre in his new studio, then gets on his bike and works out at his gym. He spends a great part of his day staying connected with his students all over the world, mainly because he wants to make sure they are okay. It touches me that despite his own desperate situation he is deeply concerned about the well-being of others.

What does he think about the future of tango? “Tango is about being face-to-face and in close-embrace,” he says. “So of course, everybody in tango is at high risk and that’s why we’ll be the last ones to re-open. Everybody is now scared to touch each other. Maybe outside Argentina tango might change, but not here, no. This virus will be forever.”

He believes that this could be the end of tango as a business. Tango has played a big part in Argentina’s tourism industry, and if it ceases to exist, it could hurt millions of other people in this industry as well. But hasn’t tango survived other crises, I ask — like the military junta?

 “That was a dictatorship,” he explains, “which tried to kill all the intellectuals. The intellectuals were into tango, so they didn’t allow milongas. When we went back to a democracy, tango came back. But this virus is different. It’s like cutting somebody’s leg off. Can a dancer dance without legs?”

So what is his plan? He shrugs. “It’s time to think about Plan B,” he says vaguely. “Maybe move to Patagonia, and join the family business.” And then he says something rather philosophical: “In the end, it’s our own fault. We never took care of the earth.”

                                                                                          *

Picture on top: Christy Cote and Eduardo Saucedo. Foto by Jason Eng.

 

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 2

Andrea Monti, San Jose, California: owner, founder and director of ‘Argentine Tango USA’ the official Argentine Tango USA Championship & Festival

Andrea Monti
Andrea Monti, founder and director of the ATUSA

Andrea Monti announced a fundraiser with the seemingly outrageous goal of $45,000. Oh my, I thought. She was trying to recover her advance expenses for ‘Argentine Tango USA’ (ATUSA), currently the biggest tango event in the United States. I closed my eyes and made the call, worried about what I would find out. 

I have known Andrea personally since I interviewed her for one of my first tango-blog stories back in 2015. At the time she was in the midst of a promotional tour for ATUSA, a four-day event with hundreds of competitors and over a thousand spectators which she had started in 2010. I remembered how she told me how much time, effort, and money she had put into this festival every year. I got to know her as a hardworking and passionate organizer; as someone who would follow up on every single detail. She had gathered a team around her that would loyally work for months to make the event happen every April. Tensions would often run high, but each year turned out to be more successful than the previous one, especially when a few years back her new husband and partner, Adrian Durso, joined her organizational team. Andrea had successfully received official approval by the City of Buenos Aires for ATUSA as a branch of the annual ‘Mundial Del Tango’, the tango world-championship in Buenos Aires, where as many as seven hundred international tango couples compete. Now ATUSA was about to celebrate its tenth anniversary; even bigger than previous ones.

“We did a huge campaign for this year’s event,” Andrea told me over the phone. They had the entire website professionally revamped, invested for months in promo ads in social media, tango magazines and other publications, sent out fifteen thousand postcards and hundreds of posters. Then they hired two tango orchestras, a singer, ten maestros, DJs, and judges, some of them from as far away as Buenos Aires. Not only would they have to be paid for their work at ATUSA, but their expenses had to be covered. This included airfares and accommodations at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Hotel in San Mateo County where the event is held. Altogether she had hired twenty-five people for the event.

“We also invited previous champions to perform together,” Andrea continued. The ‘Champions’ Gala’ was supposed to be one of the highlights, and she had hired a choreographer specifically for this. It was easy to see how quickly $45,000 in advance expenses had accumulated, a sum which represented only about half of the total cost. This year two hundred dancers had registered to compete in different categories from ‘Tango Salon’ to ‘Stage Tango.’

“It’s very disappointing,” she said sadly. “Adrian and I worked so hard for an entire year.”

She had begun with the design for this year’s event at the end of May 2019, and only paused briefly during the month of August when she was busy taking her champions from ATUSA to the ‘Mundial del Tango’ in Buenos Aires. Last September she began the registration process and the campaign. In early March she saw how the situation was becoming worse. She held on to her plan, not wanting to cancel. “I’m in the middle between the competitors and the audience,” she explained. “I have a responsibility to the community.”

So she sent out messages on social media, assuring everyone that the event was going to happen in early April. With the competitors in mind she said: “I didn’t want to cancel one year of work, training, time, expenses.” She knew about the hardships every competitor goes through in preparation for a competition. Her husband, on the other hand, who acts as Artistic Director, saw where this was going and tried to prepare her.

Then in early March, the county issued a recommendation to cancel events with more than two hundred participants, then one hundred, then ten. Nonetheless there were many competitors who wanted to compete anyway. Some suggested competing without a live audience. On March 15, California announced the shelter-in-place order. Now Andrea had no choice but to cancel the much anticipated ATUSA 2020.

After that she spent the next two weeks crying a lot.

On top of her own huge disappointment she then had to deal with the financial loss. Most of the advance payments had come out of her own pocket. The biggest chunk went to the event venue: the San Francisco Airport Marriott Hotel. When I asked if she had recouped her down-payment, she said it took weeks of negotiating. “They were hostile at first,” she said. “They kept saying: ‘Oh, so you’re canceling,’ and they treated it just as any other kind of cancelation.” She insisted that this virus was an Act-of-God and that she had no choice but to cancel. They finally agreed to refund part of her advance payment.

Then there were the expenses for the teachers and the judges, plus the competitors’ registration fees. Fortunately, and to her big surprise, many of the competitors donated their money for next year’s competition.

I asked what she envisioned when she started ATUSA ten years ago. She said she had wanted to do something different from other tango festivals; she wanted a festival where the tango community could participate more. “I was a judge in the big Buenos Aires championship first,” she says, “and from there I got the idea to bring this to the United States. Everybody thought I was crazy!” It was a huge undertaking both on a practical as well as a financial level, and she didn’t have much support in the tango community back in Argentina where the traditionalists were opposed to her plan to take an event abroad which identifies Argentine culture. She said she didn’t have the funding at first, but after receiving some limited support she was able to organize the first official tango championship in San Francisco. She knew she needed a festival to pay for the expenses of the championship.

What did she set out for when she started this? “My goal was to promote Argentine culture and tango,” she explained. She saw the competition as an opportunity for the community to participate in ways other than taking lessons and watching shows. “This is also important,” she said, “but I thought there should be more.”

Now what does she think about the future of tango; how is this crisis going to affect tango? She replied: “You have to consider that the majority of people in tango — at least in this country — is older, and the virus affects older people.” She is sure that it’s going to take a long time until tango comes back, but she has a positive outlook and thinks that at some later point we will go back to tango. “Maybe we’re going to wear masks. Maybe it will be possible that one teacher works with one couple, but can’t touch the students. We can’t have direct contact until we have a vaccine. Tango is so popular all over the world. We’ll be fine. If not, we’ll see.”

In the meantime she and her husband are back to training and practicing. They began offering two online-classes a week and producing online-videos. “It’s a lot of work,” she said, “it takes about ten hours for a thirty-minute video. I’m very busy.”  

*

 

Tango in the time of Covid-19, Part 3

Dario da Silva & Claire Vivo, Aix-en-Provence, France: owners of Aix-en-Tango, teachers and performers

Claire & Dario
Claire and Dario da Silva

I had heard a lot about this couple in the South of France. They had started a vibrant tango community out of nowhere in New York’s Capital Region in the early 2000s, then moved to southern Europe where their career took off. With a flourishing tango school and performances all over Europe, they have made a name for themselves in the world of tango. I was curious to find out what their situation in France was like.

 “The first week, we were just relaxing,” said Dario over the phone. The second week, they started practicing. Claire began to take online-yoga and Pilates classes. But by the second half of April they were worried. Could they keep the school open? They don’t know about the future. “We have dark thoughts and are not sure what to do if we can’t open the school by September,” they said. In the meantime, like many others, they began to teach free online classes.

Claire’s and Dario’s business consists of two parts. One is their tango school Aix en Tango, which they opened in 2011 in Aix-en-Provence, a well-known tourist destination in southern France. They say they have about two hundred and sixty regular students, eighty of whom are from nearby Toulon. They teach eleven group classes a week. Together with special workshops this amounts to almost three hundred and twenty students a year.

The second part of their business consists of traveling as guest artists all over Europe to perform and teach. Last year, for the first time, they had fewer trips, but for 2020 their calendar had filled up. But since March, one after another, the trips were canceled. “The virus hit us really, really hard,” said Dario.

I asked them about their future. Given the uncertainty they said they try not to think about the long-term. “What would we do?”’ they asked. “We are tango teachers. We have invested in our business for a long time.”

For now, they focus on reopening the school and touring throughout Europe. They spend their days practicing and rehearsing, and they keep in touch with their students. They also spend a lot of time with Mia, their ten- year-old daughter, who when younger suffered from leukemia and twice went through difficult treatment. The French health-care system made it possible for Mia to receive the best care. “Had we stayed in the United States, we’d be bankrupt by now,” said Dario.

What about the social benefits in their current situation, I wanted to know. They say that they’re eligible for government support, which would be eighty percent of their regular income. However, Claire explained, this applies to employees, and it’s not clear whether as owners of their school they qualify for this kind of support. In any case, the administration in France has been slow to pay out. “The President keeps promising to help us so we can pay ongoing bills, but so far we haven’t received anything.”

They are now at the lowest point of their professional lives. Almost twenty years of ongoing success have come to an abrupt end. Dario’s tango career started in the early 2000s, when he traveled from Argentina to Albany, New York to teach tango. Argentina was in the midst of a major economic crisis and Dario’s objective was to make more money than he could at home. He had begun a tango community in New York’s capital region when Claire walked into one of his classes. She became one of his students, then his dance partner, and eventually his wife. When they wanted a family, it was clear that they would have to move to Europe.

Claire was from Paris, where her family still lives, and Dario’s parents had moved from Argentina to Spain. They started first in Barcelona, but: “Barcelona was hard,” said Claire. The tango community was not well organized; they found it difficult to connect with people and to find their market. They were soon working more across the border in France, and after three years decided to move. The move paid off. “We had the work planned before the move,” they said. They ended up working seven out of eight weekends and soon decided to open their own school.

But tango has changed. These days there is more competition and it’s not as easy to make a living as a tango teacher. “Everyone who has taken classes for ten years is trying to become a teacher,” said Dario. “To be competitive you have to speak at least three languages, travel a lot, and be well organized.” Nevertheless their tango career remained intact and profitable — until now.

Their biggest worry is the overhead for the school. They explained that their teaching schedule follows the French school-year, which begins in mid-September and ends in mid-June. Their students pay by the trimester, so they were covered until the end of March. But by the beginning of April the steady payments dried up and they had to start using their own money to pay for the rent: 3,000 Euros ($3,246 US) a month for their three hundred square-meter studio. They considered starting a fundraiser in order to help cover expenses. But fundraisers are not as common in France as in the United States, and the outcome is unsure.

When I talked to Claire and Dario the French government was planning to open certain businesses starting May 11. “We are at high risk,” they said,” and it’s not clear when we’re going to be able to open the school again.” They were hoping for mid-July. “If we don’t start in September we’ll have to think of something else,” said Claire. And then added with some sarcasm: “Now we’re in the strawberry season. Perhaps I should pick strawberries?”

 

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 4

Christy Cote
Christy Cote from San Francisco, Argentine tango teacher, performer, choreographer
(Photo: Tanya Constantine)

Christy Cote, San Francisco, California: tango teacher, performer and choreographer  

Christy is my ‘tango mom.’ She was my first tango teacher when I started learning tango in 2009. I had known her for many years before, when I was a student at the ballroom-dance teachers’ college at the Metronome, at the time one of San Francisco’s most respected and popular dance studios. I wasn’t into Argentine tango back then, but I kept seeing Christy at the studio and I loved watching her at our student – teacher showcases at Fort Mason. I thought her choreographies, her outfits, and her dancing were most charming. She was approachable and friendly without knowing me, and so I trusted her enough to finally take one of her tango boot-camps for beginners. I had fun and enjoyed her teaching so much that I signed up for her regular Tuesday evening classes. The rest is history. Now Christy Cote is without doubt one of the most established tango teachers in the Bay Area. She began teaching full-time in the mid-nineties, and will be celebrating twenty-five years of teaching next April. Now, however, her future, like that of other tango teachers, is uncertain.

When I last saw her in person at class in late February this year, she was observing the oncoming crisis with great concern. But she kept her classes going, despite warnings. “I didn’t want to feed into the frenzy,” she explained. But Tom Lewis, the owner of the La Pista studio where she teaches, urged her to be cautious, and recommended early on to consider canceling her classes. When the shelter-in-place order was announced in mid-March for San Francisco, she had no choice but to stop teaching.

Shortly before she had already suffered her first blow. She was about to take a group of her students to the International Tango Congress in Buenos Aires (CITA), the longest-running tango festival in Argentina. Christy was in Hawaii for her mother’s eighty-fifth birthday when her phone rang. “I was getting my hair done, my mom was getting her hair done, we were about to welcome twelve dinner guests at the hotel,” she recalled, “when Fabian Salas, the festival organizer, called and told me that they had to cancel the event.” That was two days before she was to leave for Buenos Aires. She immediately picked up her phone to inform her students and to tell them not to get on their flight to Argentina. But she had left her address folder back home in San Francisco, intending to pick it up during her layover, and now scrambled to find the phone numbers of all the participants in her group. Email, she said, would have taken too long. She managed to contact everyone, but there was one student who insisted on traveling anyway. “I had to be strong with him,” she said, “because they had lockdown already in Buenos Aires, and I told him he should stay at home.” She finally succeeded in convincing him, but one student from Canada was already in Buenos Aires. He had trouble with his accommodation and wasn’t allowed to check into his hotel. He ended up staying at a different place, but was not allowed to go out, and frantically called her for help. His situation was eventually sorted out, and after several miserable days all on his own in Buenos Aires he flew back home. Christy returned to San Francisco and kept teaching for a few more days.

How does she experience the sudden termination of her work? “It’s financially devastating,” she said. Tango, however, provides for only one part of her income. She owns a rental property in Hawaii which usually pays for her expenses. She hasn’t been able to rent the vacation property for weeks now, and she doesn’t expect it to be a source of income for the foreseeable future. She tells me that her property in Honolulu costs $1,600 in monthly homeowners-insurance, and that rental taxes run as high as $17,000 annually. In other words, with the arrival of Covid-19, both sources of Christy’s income have dried up at once.

Like everybody else, her calendar is suddenly blank. She had to cancel a boot-camp for advanced dancers in early May which she was supposed to teach with Eduardo Saucedo, another tango legend from Buenos Aires. Then a major dance-camp in Las Vegas for dance teachers, scheduled for mid-June, was canceled as was the International Tango Summit in Los Angeles in September. However, she is as busy as ever. She has recorded tango videos with Eduardo Saucedo and promotes them online. She wants to keep her students engaged. In May she started Zoom meetings on Tuesday evenings — the time of her regular class for the past twenty-five years. She talks to many of her students a lot, but to some others not at all, and is concerned about some whose only social contact is their tango class.

Altogether she remains very busy with her social interactions and care of her financials, applying for the new government unemployment program for self-employed individuals, PUA, the corona PPP program, and grants. She has applied for an artist grant with the City of San Francisco and recently received a check for $1,500. It made her proud to live in a city that appreciates its artists. She also helps her non-English-speaking artist friends who are often unaware of various benefits and grants.

At the time we talked, she said that she had received $7,000 in donations from her students and about the same amount in pre-paid lessons. The downside of this means that once she is able to teach again, she’ll have to teach six to eight private lessons a day to work off that money, during which time she won’t be able to earn new money. It’s a Catch-22, but she says she is very grateful for the help at this time and the amazing generosity of her students.

What does she think is going to happen to tango? “The gates are never really going to open to the way we knew it,” she thinks. Looking at the bigger picture of social dance, she said that ballroom dances have always been affected by politics. “Look at the swing, for example, it was at its height in the early 1940s, then the war came and the young men were drafted and that brought out the demise of the dance. The same happened with Argentine tango: after the fall of President Peron in 1955 tango almost disappeared. It wasn’t until decades later that it re-emerged. With the success of tango shows such as Forever Tango it became more popular all over the world than ever before. But that was twenty-five years ago,” she said, “it’s surprising that a popular dance lasts that long.”

“I never thought that tango would become that popular,” she continued. She says she thought of tango as a dance in popularity similar to the lambada or swing, both of which lasted for a few years and then disappeared. At first, she recalled, tango in San Francisco was danced by a small group, and initially she wanted it to remain small and intimate. At the time, she still had a full-time job and taught ballroom dance on the side. But with tango growing more and more, she realized the benefit of a larger community. Then she had a personal experience with cancer and decided to follow her passion to become a full-time tango teacher.

She wonders if now tango is coming to end or: “Maybe some kind of underground tango is going to develop.” It surprises me to hear such clear but pessimistic words from someone who has dedicated the past twenty-five years of her life to tango. She laughs and says she actually can’t imagine a life without tango.

*

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 5

Karina Romero, New York City: tango teacher and organizer

Karina & Jorge
Karina Romero with her partner Jorge Carmona
Photo by Camilla Galletto (9 years old)

The last time I talked to Karina Romero she had just rebuilt her career. That was in 2017, a year after she had split up with her long-time partner and husband, Dardo Galletto. She had given up her share in their successful tango studio in Manhattan, and moved out of their apartment with her two daughters Malena and Camilla, who were ten and seven at the time. She rolled up her sleeves and began teaching by herself, and turned into an organizer of tango events in and outside New York City, including participating in the renowned ‘Stowe Tango Music Festival’ in Vermont. And then she snatched up a desired teaching gig: She taught Liam Neeson, the acclaimed movie star, for a tango scene in ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’ — a major Hollywood production. In a few weeks she taught the shy actor, who claimed to have no dance experience at all, the basics of Argentine tango. It was another feather in her hat for Karina Romero, who had come on her own as a young woman from Argentina for a new life in New York twenty years ago.

I was concerned about Karina and her girls living in the middle of New York City, the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis. When I called, she told me she had just moved to New Jersey the month before with her children and was about to marry a new partner: Jorge Carmona. She was at a safe place, she assured me, albeit jobless. Until March she had been teaching weekly at the Argentine Consulate in addition to private lessons, and was running her own monthly milonga. All that stopped when New York City shut down. This meant that she was forced to cancel some big events in the spring: a workshop series with tango master Gabriel Missé and his partner Maru Rifourcat in April, and one in May with Junior Cervila and Guadelupe Garcia. Both workshops have been highly successful, and she has been organizing them on the same schedule for the past ten years. Now Missé and Maru Rifourcat were stuck in San Francisco, unable to teach and unable to travel for their planned assignments in New York or anywhere else.

Karina’s calendar is usually mapped out for three months but now it looks bleak. Since her last milonga on March 6 she hasn’t been able to teach or work, and consequently doesn’t have an income. “It was hard before,” she says evidently distraught. “Now it’s even harder.”

We talk about her perspective as a young tango dancer in New York. She told me that when she came to New York in 2000, her dream was to have a school of her own. She wanted to teach tango, but having succeeded, she then wished she could be more: “I wanted to teach people from all over the world about the art and music and culture of Argentina.”

While she has been a successful ‘ambassador of tango’, just as she originally wanted, given the current situation her dream of a school is not likely to happen anytime soon. Instead she has applied for financial aid promised by the federal government, but has yet to get anywhere. Like so many unemployment applicants, she received the wrong application form and had to follow up with a phone call. She called the unemployment office more than twenty times and waited for about six hours. Despite the frustration she sounds positive and almost cheerful over the phone. She says she’s not too worried about money at this point, thanks to her fiancé who is supporting them. “We’re healthy, and that’s important,” she stated bravely, and finds comfort in helping her daughters. They keep her busy and she is delighted to be part of all the new things they are learning under the present circumstances. She tells me that they are on a tight schedule with their online-schooling and various art and special assignments. “They need my help right now to get through the day.” She also teaches them to send out positive messages, despite everything. Asked about whether she is thinking of teaching online, she says she is too busy. “Life altogether takes much more time these days; what used to take five minutes, now takes an hour!”

What does she think is going to happen to tango in the future? “I believe that tango will be the last thing to come back when the economy opens up again, and I think that people will be afraid. When we have a vaccine, we can come back. And even then the only option might be to teach couples: people who know each other, who are intimate with each other. Private lessons are going to be fine, but we cannot have the milonga back again soon.” She thinks that life in general is going to be hard. Despite her already full schedule, she now takes the time to practice a lot with her future husband Jorge. And she will try again to call the unemployment office.

*

 

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 6

Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda, Oakland, California: tango teachers and DJs

Felipe & Ayano
Ayano Yoneda and Felipe Martinez, a couple on and off the dance floor
Photo by Nikolay Chigirev

A close tango friend suggested Felipe Martinez for private lessons back in 2011. I immediately took to his teaching style which was very matter-of-fact. And no wonder, he had been a Primary School teacher before becoming a teacher of Argentine tango. I also got a kick out of his football — as in European football — madness. He being from Spain, Madrid, it was no surprise that he was brought up with football. And what a useful thing to be an expert about for anyone who dances tango. Because after all what would Argentine tango be without football?  I did wonder, however, why he kept disappearing so quickly after every private lesson. I soon found out that he was dating someone in the tango community: a Japanese girl called Ayano. They would become inseparable, both on and off the dance floor. She learned quickly and turned into a successful tango teacher and DJ on her own. While he would be away for weeks at a time, teaching tango on cruise ships, she would take over their classes and run their otherwise mutual schedule on her own. Each November Felipe and Ayano host the ‘San Francisco Tango Marathon,’ a hugely popular event, especially among the younger crowd. It takes months of intense preparation and once it’s over, they are both completely exhausted.

In early March Felipe and Ayano flew from Buenos Aires to Minneapolis. They had been in Argentina since the end of January, and followed from what seemed a safe distance the unfolding crisis in the United States. Argentina was not affected yet by the Coronavirus, but Felipe and Ayano were not sure what to expect upon their return to the United States. When they boarded their plane at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires on March 6, everything seemed normal. They headed straight from the Minneapolis airport to the Tango Marathon where they played music and taught workshops.

There was still confusion surrounding the Coronavirus during the event, said Felipe. Minneapolis at the time had no cases of infection, but the bad news kept coming, especially from the Bay Area where Felipe and Ayano are based. They were going to return to Oakland after their Minneapolis gig, but they knew that they were heading into a hot spot with many cases of infections. And then there was the cruise ship Grand Princess waiting off the shores of San Francisco with twenty-one infected among the three-thousand five-hundred passengers on board.

Teaching Argentine tango on cruise ships has been a big part of Felipe’s work over the years. Cruises constitute a part of his annual income. Plus, he gets to travel the world and go to places he has always dreamed of. Even though his job requires that he spends much of his time indoors, he is actually very much an outdoor person: someone who enjoys climbing mountains and exploring nature. In every port he would get off the ship and start exploring, soaking in new impressions and recharging before getting back on board, to teach and dance tango all night.

Felipe realized that this was not going to happen this year. The Tuesday after they returned to Oakland he and Ayano went dancing at El V, one of their favorite milongas in San Francisco, especially popular with tango teachers. It would be their last milonga. After that, everything was canceled: private lessons, classes, and workshops. The Grand Princess in the meantime docked at the Port of Oakland, and became the focus of an unprecedented health crisis, only a few miles from their home. Felipe and Ayano’s cruise to Japan was canceled in February. As expected, two other summer cruises in Europe were canceled in May.

Since their gig in Minneapolis they’ve had no work. It’s no surprise. “We’re at the highest risk with the lowest necessity,” he states matter-of-factly. “We will be the last ones to be reactivated. The mixing of people at any kind of tango event makes a perfect breeding ground for any kind of virus.”

However, when I spoke to him in late April, he told me that he felt a sense of relief. “We usually run a crazy schedule and have to be super organized all the time. We never take a vacation. When we travel, it’s always for work or family.” Felipe’s family lives in Madrid, Ayano’s in Japan. Now, for the first time, they have time off. They practice yoga and cook a lot. Cooking is their next favorite thing in the world after tango, and they like to share the results with their friends on Facebook. “It’s kind of a relief to have time for one or two months,” he said. They tried to keep a positive attitude about their finances and said that they had tightened their budget. Thanks to the support of the tango community and their ability to live a frugal lifestyle, they think they can live off their savings for a while.

In the meantime they are online regularly with friends and students from all over the world. Ayano came up with the idea of an online tango-poetry project where she broadcasts music and lyrics in tango. They say it’s something dancers don’t pay enough attention to. Felipe has also participated in teaching an online seminar on tango DJing. And they helped promote Unidos Tango, an online festival where artists have donated their classes to help tango workers around the world in dire need, and who have requested solidarity. He repeats that they don’t live an expensive lifestyle and can get by on little.

Asked about whether they are going to teach online tango classes, he says they don’t like the idea themselves. Even though it may be good for the drill, it’s not the real thing. People have also offered to pay them in advance for private lessons, but they politely declined.

Half joking he adds that he’s still on ‘milonga time’, meaning he is awake all night and goes to sleep in the morning, sometimes as late as nine or ten a.m.

I asked him if he had a vision at the beginning of his tango career. He says he didn’t, but that it developed organically. He was already in the United States working as a full-time teacher, and people were asking him more and more to teach Argentine tango. So there was no plan, he just followed the demand of the market and what he enjoyed. Of course it was a bit scary, he admits. But when he finally made the leap, it was an ‘empowering feeling of having your own schedule and control over your working life.’

His take on the future of tango is surprisingly relaxed. “I don’t think that tango is going to change,” he says. He remembers the bird flu in 2013 while he was in Buenos Aires. The dancers stayed away for a while, then they came back, washed their hands excessively, and went back to business as usual. And then he adds that at this point he is actually more worried about society at large. “They don’t manage the crisis appropriately. The economic and social impact of this crisis could get a lot worse.” That, he thinks, is much more to worry about than tango.

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Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 7

Brigitta Winkler, Berlin / New York: tango teacher & choreographer

Brigitta Winkler
Brigitta Winkler and her typical tango stilettos
Photo by Astrid Weiske

Brigitta Winkler, originally from Germany, is a tango globetrotter. She became involved with Argentine tango in 1980, at a time when tango was little known and not popular even in Argentina. When she first came to Buenos Aires in 1984 the Argentines couldn’t relate to her tango enthusiasm. She still went ahead to become a tango teacher, developing her own teaching method by incorporating body-mind centering and eventually turning into a highly sought-after authority. A great acknowledgement, given that the petite German broke all conventions of traditional Argentine tango. I took a workshop with her once in San Francisco, about nine or ten years ago, and was fascinated by her focus on how she incorporated basic movement into tango. I followed her on social media, but somehow we kept being in different parts of the world. When I finally met her again last February at Vecher Milonga at the Russian Center in San Francisco, she remembered me from back then. I was impressed by her memory. She was visiting San Francisco briefly on her way to a two-month stay in Hawaii. I wondered if she had become stuck on the islands and contacted her to find out how she was doing. Surprise – she was in Berlin!

After Brigitta Winkler’s abrupt return from Hawaii to her home in Berlin jetlag hit her. She had been traveling with her husband for three days.

A few days before, back in their vacation home in Hawaii, her husband had been on the phone for six hours. When he was finally able to contact the airline they arranged a complicated journey from Hawaii via Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and finally back to Berlin, Germany. Without wasting any time they packed up and left. Everything went smoothly, and to their surprise even the usual security procedures at Los Angeles Airport were lax. The scary moment came when they arrived in New York. “We were not allowed to leave the plane,” she recalls. Instead, police came on board. They then learned that one of the passengers had developed a respiratory issue during the flight and was taken of the plane. The remainder of the passengers had to remain on board, and uneasy feelings kept growing. It took one long hour until they were told to ‘leave the plane swiftly.’

Brigitta usually teaches during February and March in Hawaii, and towards the end of her stay holds a tango retreat. Then she would move on to New York where she would work for a few weeks before returning to Berlin for the spring and summer. This year everything was different. “I saw the crisis coming,” she says, “because I talked a lot with my friends in Italy who warned me.”

She told me about her special connection with Italy, particularly in the regions of Umbria, South Tyrol, and Venice. She has spent much time teaching in these areas every year. From her home in Berlin she told me over the phone how, while in Hawaii, she watched in horror how Italy went from bad to worse. When the country was in full lockdown she and her husband decided it was time to leave.

“It was so unreal, like parallel worlds,” she recalled. “There we were, in a beautiful house in the jungle on Hawaii with a view of the beach.” Meanwhile the rest of the world was falling apart, and she witnessed how friends in Italy went through hell. Even though there were no warnings by officials in Hawaii, she knew she had to cancel her immediate plans. “Hawaii responded very, very late,” she recalls. Understandably so, with much of the islands’ economy depending on tourism.

After all this turmoil and now being forced to stay at home in Berlin, how is she spending her days? First of all, she reminds me, Germany is about to slowly open up. We spoke two days before Germany loosened its restrictions on certain parts of the economy. “There is actually a lot to do,” she said, “mainly on social networks.”

She follows and contributes to several tango and support groups that have popped up since people began sheltering in place. “The isolation is the same for all of us: everybody is at home. We’re all paralyzed,” she states. But out of this isolation there has developed a sense of community spirit.

She tells me that she is trying to further process the basics that she has been teaching for tango, and is reflecting on her own values. “First of all,” she says, “tango is about grounding. And grounding is important right now for all of us to cope with the current situation. Then you should find your balance and keep it. And third, you need to listen. Only then can you take action.”

To help practice her own basics she spends her days outdoors as much as possible, mindful of social distancing. Her home is near the River Spree, where she loves early-mornings walks when only few people are out. She raves about springtime in Berlin, and emphasizes how glad she is that there is a lot of nature in Berlin. Nature gives her a lot: instead of hugging a tango partner, she encourages people to hug a tree, but not — she is quick to add — in the derogatory sense of ‘a tree-hugger’. In that respect she worries a lot about her New York friends: the ones living in small apartments, especially single mothers with children. She keeps in touch with her students back in New York City, and tries to encourage them.

Another positive experience for her is the fact that the Berlin tango community has united and approached the Senate with a petition for financial support. In an astonishingly swift move, the Berlin government has made funds available for artists. She tells me that she submitted her application on a Sunday and received 5,000 Euros ($5470 US) the following Wednesday.

She is also surprised how well fundraisers have been going. There was one fundraiser “that was meant to orchestrate the difference between the USA and Europe and people donated a lot.” Friends of hers have received private sponsoring, some of them as many as fifty privates in advance.

“I think that there is a lot of potential in the current situation,” she says.

She approves the lockdown and records small videos for her students in her studio. She teaches at werk36, a big dance school, that supports local dancers. In return, the dancers keep paying their dues during the crisis to keep werk36 alive. She also has started training again with her partner at the studio, having decided that they feel safe with each other. 

How does she see the future of tango? She thinks that the heart of the milonga — dancing with someone you don’t know — will be gone for a long time. For her, tango is traveling because it’s defining and essential for her life. “We gain different experiences when we travel.”

She thinks that people will continue to need intimacy and to fall in love. That’s what tango is about. She doesn’t think that these values are going to change. Intimacy will be become more valuable; it won’t go away. But the milonga is certainly going to change.

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