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