This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Raquel Greenberg was traveling the world teaching and performing Argentine tango when I met her in San Francisco in 2011. At the time Raquel, who was born in Israel and raised in Paris, was based in Buenos Aires but spent much of her time traveling. She came to the Bay Area twice within a year and became a widely respected teacher. She taught privately and at tango schools and clubs in the Bay Area. In a relatively short amount of time she built a base of dedicated students who followed and supported her. I was attracted to her teaching because she was a well-rounded dancer. Her background is in ballet and ballroom dancing and, just like me, her heart is in Latin dance. One night we sneaked away for some salsa dancing and she had a blast. There was a rumor that she would settle down in the Bay Area. But when she left the second time, it was for good. She kept in touch with her friends in the Bay Area via her newsletters, sending updates from her new and ever-evolving tango life. To my surprise, one day I learnt that she had settled down in London! England didn’t strike me as a place that would embrace the sensuality of Argentinian tango. London, so I thought, was better known as a business-oriented, fast-paced, tough and expensive place to live. But, as I learned during my recent conversation with Raquel, London is not like the rest of England. It’s a cosmopolitan center with a lot to offer and an open-minded young international crowd. However, just as everywhere else, it all came to an abrupt end when the COVID-19 crisis hit.
Unlike most people I’ve been talking to, Raquel didn’t feel paralyzed when the lockdown was imposed on London. Instead, she took action.
“When it all started, I felt the need to do something,” she told me. “I thought of all the people who were not going to see each other.” She started to investigate the possibilities of online classes, and quickly discovered Zoom. Until then, she hadn’t even heard about the online meeting place which has since emerged as the most widely used video-conferencing platform in the world. Not always abreast with technical innovation, Raquel nevertheless quickly learnt how the video-conferencing platform works. Now she proudly claims to be one of the first tango professionals to teach online Zoom classes, and she is already well into her third month.
Her first class, which still continues, was a weekly ladies’ technique class. “Because that’s my strength.” she claimed. Her students welcomed the new concept of online classes, and tuned in from all over London. Since springtime has been exceptionally beautiful in London, many Londoners who were otherwise confined to their apartments chose outdoor locations such as their balconies or small garden spaces. Raquel feels lucky to live close to one of London’s parks and loves the open space. It allows her to do outdoor training, mostly basic exercises for balance and walking, during the lockdown.
However, the classes are not all about tango. “I’m not just teaching,” said Raquel, “but I talk a lot to my students.” She told me how they are grateful for the social interaction, and the fact that the class has catapulted them out of their loneliness. “The Zoom classes created an amazing bond,” she continued. People thanked her, and someone even went so far as to say: ‘You saved my life.’
After so much positive feedback she offered another class, this time a free music-session aimed at expanding the knowledge of tango music. “It’s more of a social meeting,” she said, “and it happens every Friday night.“
It sounds as if in some ways her students have been enjoying more social time with each other because of tango than before the lockdown. “Usually,” Raquel told me, “when I try to ask people to meet for a coffee or to go for a drink after class, they never have time. They have to get up early the next morning for work or they have to go back to work right away. They are busy all the time. People are so busy and focused on work. There never is time for socializing.” In that respect London is more like New York, she noted, not like the rest of England.
I circled back to the question that had been burning in my mind. What made her decide to leave Buenos Aires, the center of Argentine tango and the nirvana for every tango dancer, and move to London? She had lived in Buenos Aires for ten years, studied tango, turned professional, and taught as a guest artist all over the world. It looked like a great life – why did she leave?
“Living in Argentina was difficult,” she explained. “Traveling and staying at other people’s houses didn’t work anymore. I did it for ten years.”
Even though Raquel considers herself a citizen of the world, she wanted to move to a new place where she could really settle down. “I was looking for a cosmopolitan place where an artistic culture had already developed and where there was an artistic movement.” In addition it also had to be a place from where she could travel easily. “Also,” she smiled, “the weather had to be nice.” (She likes mild temperatures.) She talked about how she debated moving to Italy because she has a special connection with the country. But despite her love for Italy, she found it to be too similar to Argentina in terms of the way business is done. In the end she chose London as her base, the main reason being that business was taken more seriously there. London, however, she admits, is challenging in other ways, and it’s expensive.
“When I came to London, I didn’t have any family or friends.” she said. “Nobody knew me and nobody threw out the red carpet for me.” She started from zero on her own, and said it was difficult. “I don’t want to start the ‘women have it so much harder’ number,” she said with a quiet laugh, “but it’s definitely harder for a woman alone. It helps to have a partner.”
Raquel considers herself ‘a dancer in her body and her soul.’ She began ballet when she was six years old. As a young adult she discovered partner-dance, becoming a ballroom and Latin dancer and competitor at age twenty-one. When she discovered Argentine tango — she was watching a tango show — she knew this was it. “That’s what I wanted to do.” She quickly understood that Argentine tango was more than just a dance, and that it was about a different culture. She said she became serious about tango in 1996, and moved to Argentina to study with some of the great tangueros, among them Carlos Gavito, Osvaldo Zotto and Lorena Ermocida, and Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne.
Once she had made the move to London, she founded the Raquel Greenberg Tango Academy at three main locations in central London. I asked her whether there is a predominant age group, as in the USA, where most of the tango community is quite mature. “No,” she said, “in London it’s quite the contrary. I teach all different ages; anybody between twenty and eighty”.
She has several group classes and doesn’t employ staff teachers. Instead she relies on guest teachers and emphasizes that she only invites ‘the best of the best.’ Her guest artists have included Diego ‘El Pájaro‘ Riemer, Pablo Veron, Julio Balmaceda, and lately with Alexandr Frolov, to name just a few. Despite her full schedule in London she continues to travel for workshops all over Europe, especially in France. She has also created a tango holiday on Crete after having fallen in love with the beauty of nature of the island. She feels a strong bond with the local tango community and has taken tango students from different parts of Europe, including her own, to Crete for the past four years in May and October.
When the lockdown came in March all this changed. “Group classes stopped, privates stopped,” she said. Her two weekly milongas have also stopped. Personal traveling to workshops is on hold. Her annual two-week tango holiday which was planned for mid-May was cancelled. “It’s a lot of work behind the scenes that is gone,” she said. The UK Tango Festival & Championship, a major tango event similar to the Argentine Tango USA (ATUSA), which was scheduled for early June and in which she was involved was also cancelled. In short, all her sources of income for the foreseeable future have vanished.
At the same time, she has ongoing expenses. She continues to pay her assistant and a software consultant. To make matters worse the rent in London is payable for a year in advance, meaning that the rent for the three locations where she taught and ran her milongas is also gone. In addition the restaurant where she taught is now out of business, as is the gym where she held some of her classes. “Luckily,” she said, “the third location is at a church where they have a community spirit and haven’t been charging rent since April. “
“The British government talks about the fifteenth of June for opening up businesses like retail shops,” she said. “But now there is talk about a recession. In Britain, employees receive eighty per-cent of their salary when they lose their jobs. But eventually there will be no money left, and who knows what will happen in July? And on top of the pandemic we’re also dealing with Brexit.” she added. “We’ll see what that brings.”
Are there government programs for artists like her? I ask. She says she hasn’t been able to find any help or grants from the government for small business owners like herself. “I would have to fire myself from my own business to become eligible for the government’s unemployment program.”
On the other hand, people from the tango community have been very supportive. There have been fundraisers on Facebook like Help save the milonga, Where am I not going to dance tonight? or the Unidos Tango Festival. She was part of Unidos, which was the first online tango festival ever. It stretched for two weeks in March and early April, and featured seventy tango teachers from all over the world with online classes and presentations. “It was a very big effort from everybody,” she emphasized. She enjoyed the experience: “It was good to see that in times of a crisis people can push together to make something happen.”
She is well aware of the risk of infection among dancers, especially since some of her students became sick with the virus after traveling to Italy. Fortunately they recovered. She herself had a very bad flu in January, and thinks that’s perhaps why she hasn’t gotten the virus. Meanwhile tango professionals in England are trying to organize another online event to help make some money and keep tango going. But like so many other tango professionals, Raquel says she has no idea about the future. For now, she does what she can to keep her teaching going. But being focused so much on her current tango activities it’s very difficult for her to think about a plan B. She is in a holding pattern like everybody else. Her teaching continues but what does she think about the future of social dancing? “The milonga is the big question mark,” she said. “First of all it’s very difficult to find a venue in London. Secondly, public transportation is difficult since everybody in London uses public transit and that in itself causes a high risk of infection. And thirdly, a milonga means a lot of people in a small space.”
So for the time being Raquel is going to continue with online classes via Zoom. And her students participating from the safety of their homes.
© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif