This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Judy and Jon are among the most unusual tango professionals I’ve ever met. I was assisting Ivan Shvartz at teaching the tango class at the Senior Center in Emeryville, CA, when one day they appeared for the first time as visiting teachers. While Ivan and I often had trouble getting our mostly elderly students’ full attention, Judy and Jon got them organized in no time. A short strong clapping of their hands, a few firmly spoken instructions, and everybody paid attention. The students understood that kind of tone, they recognized them as one of their own. Here was an American couple just like them that still understood straight talking. However, these two had broken out of their world and taken a different route by doing something unusual – tango! They had the same background, but now they lived a seemingly colorful life. The students at the senior center had clearly become curious and more eager than ever about learning Argentine tango. I still remember how during the course of that memorable lesson the seniors respectfully admired Judy and Jon.
Aside from their outstanding appearances — they sport a classy Hollywood style with Judy’s bright red hair calling for everybody’s attention — Judy and Jon look back at an extraordinary career. Tango came to them at a stage in life when most people are settling in for a quieter life style. Instead they set themselves a new goal by deciding to get better at tango and become part of the Buenos Aires tango community. One step led to another until as they say: “We were invited to perform again and again, and were urged to take the authentic tango of Buenos Aires to dancers around the world.” They eventually moved to Buenos Aires where to everybody’s surprise they became the only American couple who would successfully teach the Argentines to dance tango. And not only that, the local Porteños actually adopted this gringo couple as one of their own. Soon Judy and Jon would become regular teachers at Confitería Ideal, Cultura Tanguera Academia, and other well-known tango venues. They also performed on stage and at popular milongas such as Sunderland, Salon Canning, Gricel, and El Beso. While living in Buenos Aires they travelled regularly for teaching tours around the US.
But after ten years in the capital of tango, Judy and Jon witnessed the Argentine economy beginning to collapse and decided it was necessary to move back home to the States. They saw an opportunity for themselves in Las Vegas. While this fast-growing city in the desert of Nevada, which calls itself Entertainment Capital of the World, has been their base for the past eight years, they have been travelling to teach in nearby California, where they became regulars of the San Francisco tango community, Florida, and other places both nationally and internationally.
These days, however, the couple’s active schedule has been reduced to a quieter and more secluded life style. I browsed through their recently revamped website and Facebook pages before calling them. In one of their entries from March they described how they were preparing for sheltering-in-place. They posted pictures of a well-stocked refrigerator, vitamin pills, and declared their determination to stay fit and healthy. So how has it been working out for them?
“We sequestered ourselves for eighty-four days”, they told me when I spoke to them in mid-June. “During the pandemic we felt we had to self-quarantine to help mitigate the spread of the virus.” They’ve been practicing strict social-distancing since mid-March, ordering curbside pick-up service for their grocery shopping, and avoiding most direct contact with the outside world — except for once when they had to go to an AT&T store for a new smartphone, which they did only by taking every possible precaution.
Practicing social-distancing does not mean that they have been totally homebound. Having all classes and milongas cancelled, they’ve taken advantage of their free time by exploring state and national parks in the area around Las Vegas. “Our backyard is the desert,” said Jon. And so daytime outings have become their new favorite thing to do. Judy is in charge of checking the weather forecast and a map before they decide where to go the following morning. They quickly learned to use the backdrop of their outings for their photos and videos online. “We do all the photo and video shoots ourselves,” they explained, again pointing to the fact that in doing so they strictly adhere to social-distancing — no photographers allowed. Over the course of the past three months they’ve been creating a number of new short videos. Their dance studio now primarily functions as a recording studio or ‘a creation space’.
However, these videos are anything but the conventional instructional videos. They have a surprisingly refreshing and sometimes funny take on tango, and are useful at the same time. They have topics such as ‘Pajama Tango’, ‘Hypno Judy’, ‘The Ceremony of the Embrace’, or ‘Shoelaces’. During the latter Jon falls out of a tenth floor window of a high rise building because of a shoelace malfunction. The concept of these ‘videocitos’, as they call them, started with Jon’s creative mind, said Judy. She creates the graphics and promotions and website while Jon is the videographer, and photographer, and does all the video pre- and post-production work. She told me how she always laughs even if she doesn’t agree with his ideas. “But for the most part I go along with it.”
On a social level, they started an unusual meeting group on Zoom: a weekly cabaret which they call ‘Hola Tango Cabaret Cocktails & Tango’. It’s a unique and fun way for their students from all over the world to get know each other and enjoy a leisurely hour together. The tango cocktail hour has a different theme each week. For example, on the Friday evening when I joined, everybody was asked to name their favorite movie, which triggered an excited exchange of movies, actors, and showing of memorabilia. People toast to life and dance to a list of songs that Judy prepares. That way they’ve brought their students from different parts of the country and the world together.
“We enjoy having the time to redefine ourselves,” she said. “It’s a new era for tango.”
However, despite their apparently positive attitude, I could sense there was something else which they seemed to be reluctant to talk about. I asked them why they haven’t been teaching live on Zoom like so many other tango and dance teachers in order to survive financially. I understood from their reply that they’re committed to the traditional way of tango, and that that is the reason why they’ve been reluctant to embrace the same new teaching methods as others. Jon believes that tango is about the feeling between two people in an embrace — something that doesn’t happen in the virtual space. “Tango allows two people to share an intimate moment,” he explained. It’s a creative process which evolves when two people dance together, and he emphasizes that it’s this unique moment which he enjoys. In contrast, much of the latest online teachings looks the same to him. And he doesn’t see tango, specifically milongas, coming back in the way we’ve known it in the past.
I could hear a deep sadness and asked him about it. He was quick to deny that and clarified what he had just said with a quote from Eduardo Arquimbau, the famous tango dancer: ‘Tango will never change. The music may change, the dance may change, but the tango will never change.’ “In order to understand this quote,” Jon continued, “you need to understand what Eduardo means by ‘tango’ — but that’s another story for another time.”
Despite their divided view about the new format of tango classes, they’ve adapted some online tools for their own unique way of teaching. In their private lessons they focus on technique and movement rather than steps. They ask their students first to record a video of themselves dancing to their favorite song three times. When they watch the student’s video, they focus on three things that the students can improve and later during the recorded lesson they demonstrate just that. It appears to me like a lot of preparation time, but it seems to work.
Their next big goal for the near future is to produce a new series of videos with different concepts. I became aware of their latest weekly group class where they teach tango line dancing. ‘Tango line dancing?’ I wondered. It’s a concept I know from different music genres, like country-western or swing or salsa rueda, but tango? They laughed and started to explain excitedly the concept of this new class which they call ‘El Gogotán’: “People can develop their technique by dancing with themselves.” Students can tune in and learn elements of tango technique on their own. “But even with a partner you can get excited.” They told me about several of their students who have been practicing with their partner since the beginning of the pandemic. Now they both want to be part of the tango line-dancing class. They’ve got other concepts in the making, and hope eventually to turn these too into a series of online videos.
Aside from their positive attitude there are undeniably worries about their financial future. While they assure me that they are very happy while working to creatively develop income through online work, the pandemic has been financially tragic for them. All the things they had planned for this year were cancelled. They used to go to the San Francisco Bay Area a lot and had more visits to other places in California and other states planned. One of the highlights of the past few years was the International Tango Summit in Los Angeles in September where they have taught with great success. Their calendar was full for this year, and the termination of all tango events has put them into a tight financial spot. They’re hoping that a big teaching job on a cruise in early 2021 is still going to happen, just as will other international work that had been planned. It would be their first cruise ever and they’re very excited. “If that happens,” they said, “it will get us right back.”
In the meantime, creating videos and teaching online provides them only with a fraction of what they used to make. Some of their students, they said, don’t even want to study online. They used to take privates regularly, but online lessons don’t work for them. Another common issue for tango teachers in general is the overall concept of charging for online classes. Many people who previously had no problem paying for workshops now don’t want to pay for online classes, partly because so much on the internet is available for free, partly because art generally is regarded as a free service in our society.
“It’s a new reality: we must do business on the internet instead of showing up in a community and teaching in person. We have to prepare our art as a product that we can sell,” they said.
I asked them what they thought about fundraisers. It turned out that they are strongly opposed to the idea. “It feels like begging for money,” Jon said. “I learned from my parents that you work for money.” He’s kept this attitude all his life, and even during the tough times they’re going through right now they refuse to have anything to do with GoFundMe and other fundraising campaigns.
Now that their home state of Nevada is slowly opening up, I asked whether that provided a glimpse of hope. But Jon thinks that it’s going to be a disaster when they open the casinos and restaurants and shopping malls. “Everybody comes to Las Vegas, the whole world,” he exclaimed. “They come for gambling and partying. Start a pandemic and you get a disaster,” he concluded. For the foreseeable future the couple remains at home, practicing social-distancing and waiting for things to improve. They keep in contact with their friends in Buenos Aires where the strict sheltering-in-place started in mid-March and will most likely continue through late September. Sheltering-in-place is enforced by police and security officers, and people are fined if they go further than the nearest supermarket.
We finished by briefly talking about the wider impact of the pandemic in the USA. “We’re blessed,” Judy and Jon said. “We’ve got a roof over our head. We’re peanuts in comparison to what many others have to go through in these times.”
© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif