A positive take on tango: Maia Martinez and David Salvatierra

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Building community and staying positive in times of crisis: Maia Martinez and David Salvatierra

Why haven’t I written about Maia and David before? Geographically they are two of the closest tango teachers to my East Coast home, which is where I have gradually shifted the center of my life over the past few years. On a personal level I have known these two ever since I started tango here in upstate New York. They were still dating, and Maia had just begun to teach David everything she knew about Argentine tango; he had been a dedicated salsa dancer and part-time teacher until then. I watched them moving ahead with their teaching, becoming professional teachers. Then I saw them getting married, starting a family, and moving from Newburgh further north to the Hudson Valley, closer to where I live. I became a regular at their tango events, and saw their community grow, and in return both of them supported me and my partner when we hosted musicians from Argentina. So why have I not written about them until now? The answer is simple: because they are too close. It is a delicate matter to write about people you know well. There is a personal relationship, and writing reflects a different image both of the people you write about as well as about yourself, the writer. So I approached the subject of Maia and David slowly until I at last felt confident that the time was right. Here then is my story: a couple of tango professionals in an unlikely rural area of America; a tango story in an unusual setting with a surprisingly positive take on the future of tango.

The small hamlet of Rosendale in Ulster County, two hours north of New York City, has one main street with brightly painted period buildings, a movie theatre, a bakery, a grocery store, and an eclectic café: the ‘Rosendale Café’. The latter has become the epicenter of the Hudson Valley’s Latin dance world over the past eight years. Until last March a couple from Argentina, Maia Martinez and David Salvatierra, taught a mix of salsa, bachata and Rueda de Casino every Thursday night to a remarkable crowd of about thirty students. After the class the restaurant’s floor would be cleared for a popular social dance with more people cramming into the small space; tables and chairs had to be removed. Younger and older folks of different social and ethnic backgrounds, and of different levels of dancing would mingle and rotate partners on the dance floor, especially during the Rueda — a salsa group-dance where the dance figures are called out. Many friendships would be formed that way and were carried over into people’s daily lives.

The other part of the couple’s teaching was dedicated to Argentine tango. This used to be an entirely different scene, but the tango dancers were nevertheless as loyal and dedicated to their friendly instructors as the salseros. The tango crowd was smaller and somewhat more mature. And most tango events took place not at the casual Rosendale Café, but at slightly more distinguished venues in the area. There was, for example, an elegantly converted barn at a private estate in Hudson, and a spacious dance hall in the historic building of the Arts Society of Kingston. Sunday afternoon ‘tealongas’ took place for a while at a small dance studio tucked into the charming colonial town of Beacon, until finally all tango events were moved to the J&B Dance Center, the longstanding and only surviving ballroom studio in Kingston. Tango dancers would come from near and far, even from the neighboring state of Connecticut, and some of them would drive up to two hours to enjoy some Argentine tango.

The more dedicated tangueros would take private lessons with Maia and David and lessons were usually booked well in advance. One-on-one instruction mostly took place in the privacy of their spacious apartment upstairs at the Rosendale Café, with whose owners they maintain a family-like relationship. Tango students from the area appreciated the dedication of their teachers as much as the authentic Argentine tango experience, which would be otherwise hard to find in this neck of the woods. Another advantage was the convenience of a close-by location versus the long and nerve-wracking trip into New York City.

With salsa and tango the energetic Argentines had a busy schedule — and the local dance community was kept on its toes. As well as their regular dance events, they also started the ‘Hudson Valley Tango Festival’ in 2017. This quickly turned into a major three-day event with internationally acclaimed stars such as Fabian Salas and Lola Diaz, or Junior Cervila and Guadelupe Garcia, teaching and performing. The already busy couple admitted that preparations for the festival took up a lot of their time — between six and seven months of the year — but their efforts paid off and the festival began to grow quickly and eventually attracted almost three hundred dancers. This is not to say that it turned into a profitable enterprise, as is rarely the case with most festivals, but apparently this was never their primary goal. As David explained: “The festival’s goal was to get different tango communities together and to present the Hudson Valley to different people, and to offer the Hudson Valley different talents and people from the communities around.”

This year’s festival didn’t take place for obvious reasons. They had seen the pandemic coming since December, they told me, when during their annual family visit back home in Argentina Maia had a dream about cancelling the festival. At the time, the threat of the virus spreading to the USA seemed so unlikely that David laughed away her concerns. But the uncomfortable feeling never left them. And by the time they returned to New York in early February they were concerned enough to be among the first passengers to wear masks on their flight. It made their four-year-old daughter Catalina very uncomfortable, and she cried on the long way back.

After several more weeks of much back-and-forth they decided to follow their instinct and cancel the event, even though long-term official guidelines had not yet been set. Fortunately, apart from the time they had invested, they lost very little money. The festival venue — the Senate Garage in Kingston — agreed to move the event to a new date later in the year. At this point, however, it is almost certain that the festival is not going to happen at the new date in November either. Besides ensuring the safety of the dancers by maintaining social distancing and dancing with one partner only, the festival’s mission, which is to connect, would not be accomplished. “To make a tango event for people to dance is one thing,” they explained, “but to do a festival is something else. We’re talking about all the activities that the festival offers. People won’t come out and people won’t feel safe. We have to respect that and honor it.” And Maia added: “We care so much about the community.”

‘Community’ is a key word that comes up frequently during our conversation, primarily of course in reference to their vibrant dance community. ‘We want to create community through dance,’ as is stated like a mantra on their website. But the couple has gone beyond that and demonstrated their sense of community in other parts of life in this rural area that has become their home. Their involvement has included, for example, performing at local events and participating with their students in the annual ‘Sinterklaas Parade’ on the Kingston waterfront. They have also worked with the nearby not-for-profit ‘Center for Creative Education’ and have taught at Marist College Liberty Partnerships Program in Poughkeepsie. And at a recent peaceful march for Black Lives Matter in Rosendale they could be seen marching along with the small crowd, wearing masks and holding up a sign, their little daughter Catalina in the midst of it all as usual.

Surprisingly, as a result of their Argentine tango and Latin dance teaching, the two South Americans have become an integral part of small town life in America. What may have initially sounded like a questionable plan for their life has turned out to be one of the best choices, both on a professional and personal level — and finally for surviving relatively unscathed in the current pandemic and its associated economic hardships. In contrast to the desperate situations of some of the many tango professionals I’ve spoken to in urban areas, it is in this unlikely rural environment where I found a tango couple that seems to sail through it all with relative ease.

Obviously, with all dance events suspended, they don’t have much of an income these days. But they have adapted to their new circumstances, and emphasize that thanks to their simple life-style, few expenses, and the support of their dance community they feel that they are among the lucky ones. The dance community is now giving back what the two have given them for years. “We’re doing really well,” they said. “We’re spending a lot of time in the garden. We have friends — new neighbors actually — who also happen to have a little one, same age as Catalina, so it was such a gift. It has made a difference for us. The way we live and the quality of life we can have. A very small place, a very small community. It’s really good.”

With New York State slowly opening up in carefully calculated phases, they have been able to offer limited outdoor salsa group-classes for the past couple of weeks now. It is a far cry from the previous casual and crowded event, but it is a move in the right direction. Instead of dropping in, people now have to register in advance. Instead of dancers changing partners and rubbing shoulders on the dance floor, no more than five students at a time can participate in the class. They have to be six feet apart, bring hand sanitizer and their own water bottles, and are encouraged to wear a mask — something that is not always feasible with outdoor temperatures between 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of year. The exciting and family-like atmosphere of the old days is gone for now.

Maia summed it up: “I think what changed the most for me, especially in relation to the salsa community, [is that] we were known here because we were really friendly and everybody would dance with everybody. So when you look at it, you can think it’s devastating, it’s frustrating, everything got destroyed, got interrupted because we used to embrace everybody. And right now we’re only taking five people and no new people. Now we don’t want to welcome new people because it doesn’t feel safe to have new faces around. We’re trying to make people feel comfortable to come back to classes. It’s very important that they feel secure, that they feel safe and that they can relax instead of it being very chaotic and stressful.”

They have also resumed teaching private tango lessons. “They have their barre,” said Maia, describing with a big movement of her arms the distance. “I have my barre over there. We do technique, we talk, we dream about tango. It’s clearly a time for us to stay put and to see tango in a different way. Tango is waiting, tango is not giving up on us and we are not giving up on tango.”

Until recently they taught exclusively online. “A real interesting experience,” they said, “because we like to hug, to touch, to connect with people. So this teaching online is very different. But it’s really special that you can still connect and you can offer something and inspire.”

They then described how they realized that the need for social interaction had become an important factor for why people take online dance-lessons: “We noticed that people especially want to talk, to see how we’re doing, to talk about their day. They want to be in the presence of somebody.” The social connection, the listening and talking had always been essential in the way they were teaching before, but now, David said: “It’s a little more clear in terms of listening to the person. Whatever the reason was for the person to take a class — whether it was salsa or tango or whatever discipline — it now seems more amplified, and you kind of see it with the online lessons.”

Their role as dance instructors clearly goes beyond dancing: it fills a social gap and a mental need for human closeness. No wonder they feel under-valued and somewhat left behind by the government’s limited support for the arts in this current crisis. As Maia put it: “I think about the way the government thinks about arts. How very little we are taken care of. And how huge is our contribution. And I’m saying all the arts. We do bring a lot to the community, and we do keep them safe.”

The unfortunate choice of words about ‘essential workers’ has unintentionally opened a wound. “Arts are not essential,” she continued. “Hearing that is hurtful, even though I will never compare myself with people who save lives, because what they do is amazing and I could never put myself in their shoes. But hearing that in another context ‘art is not essential’, that word is making so much noise. And again, it’s not to compare with their value. It’s enormous what the people on the frontlines are doing. I think arts are essential, I think educators are essential; the kids are struggling, adults are struggling. If only we could rely on people playing music, on people dancing. If we could be smart. We could prepare people on how to be connected.”

And then they assured me that through the experiences of the last few months they have learned to be better prepared for a second wave: “We will have a better concept to stay connected, to have classes. We have learned how to be six feet apart. When this comes again, when the second wave comes, we will be ready. We will have classes, and even if we just sit and listen to music and look at our beautiful faces, that’s what we’re going to do.”

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© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Dreams on hold: Valerie Kattenfeld

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Valerie Kattenfeld
Stuck in Buenos Aires: aspiring tango instructor Valerie Kattenfeld

I’ve never met Valerie Kattenfeld in person. Actually, I never even knew about her until recently. We happen to be both in the same Facebook group, ‘I’m not dancing, so this is what I did instead’. It is one of the groups which emerged in the wake of worldwide lockdowns in March. Both Valerie and I expressed our befuddlement about our respective postings which had been removed by the group organizer. We then started to talk privately and it turned out that she had read some of my stories. Then she started to tell me about herself. I was both astonished and dismayed to hear her story. I couldn’t stop thinking about her hopelessly entangled situation down there in Buenos Aires. And I thought that her story, which stands for so many countless others, should be told.

Some days are better than others. The first time I talked to Valerie Kattenfeld a few weeks ago she sounded relieved. She had just successfully completed her first fundraiser and reached her goal of raising three thousand Euros. The amount would go a long way in Buenos Aires, where the Austrian-born tango lover has been living in strict lockdown since March, unable to make an income.

The second time I talked to her she was wrestling with new obstacles that had developed back home in Vienna. The tenant who had sublet her apartment was unexpectedly moving out, and as a result the place had to be sold. From one day to the next Valerie had to give up much of her old life: personal things she had kept in storage, furniture, diaries, and even memories.

“I’m feeling very anxious,” she admitted. With the help of some close friends back home she was frantically organizing the cleaning out of her apartment, deciding what to sell and what to donate. In long Zoom sessions between Argentina and Austria they went through every single item. Her place in Vienna had provided a safe refuge until recently, but now she wouldn’t be able to return anytime soon.

“It feels like a final cut,” she said. “That’s why it’s going deep.”

To make matters worse, her seventy-six- year-old mother, also back home in Austria, was about to have surgery. She told me about her close relationship with her mother whom she fondly describes as generous and always supportive of her daughter’s happiness, even if it meant her moving to a continent far away. “She calls me ‘my little nest refugee’,” Valerie told me smiling. Now she felt distraught not being able to be by her side — not that she has any other choice. Like almost everyone else she cannot leave Buenos Aires. Worse, the prospects are gloomy for Argentina’s capital, which had just reversed from phase two back to phase one at the time we spoke. In the four months since Valerie has been stuck in her apartment in the Almagro neighborhood she has been unable to pursue her plan of building a new life and establishing herself as a professional in the tango world. Now the city of her dreams has turned into a trap.

She describes life in Buenos Aires these days as tough. Before the crisis she found it easy to connect with Argentines. Now everyone is concerned about their own safety. “The atmosphere of the city has really changed”, she said. “People are wearing their masks, walking in their own bubble. They don’t meet your eyes anymore.” Most of all she misses meeting people and going to the milongas. The milongas, she said, were for her like her living room. “It’s like I have lost my home.”

Everything had looked so promising when she arrived in early 2019. With no plans other than just really wanting to live in Buenos Aires she had cancelled a dance-movement workshop that she was supposed to teach in Scotland, got on a plane and took off. She recalls the feeling when the airplane touched the ground at Ezeiza Airport as a great physical sensation that went through her body, assuring her that she had made the right decision. “I felt that this was real,” she enthusiastically described the moment. “I wanted to commit to this place.”

She was ready for a fresh start in her life. An Austrian artist with a background in theater and contemporary dance, she had only two years before quit her career in Vienna’s theater world and taken off on a trip around the world. Argentina’s capital was one of her first destinations. There she discovered tango, fell in love with both the dance and the city, and vowed to come back. But before returning she went on to explore more unknown territory in the world of dance as well as human connections that would ultimately lead to her own individual approach.

Her world trip took her to India where she attended a ‘tantra festival’ — another revealing experience of the senses. She told me that it was at this point that she began to understand the importance of meeting people in ‘a really authentic way’ unlike her previous job in theater production where she created plays and staged them. “It was like packaging art as a product.” The new experience at the tantra festival reshaped the way she thought about art. From then on she became more interested in the process rather than with the production of art. “I wanted to use the tools of art to encounter people and see what the process of personal transformation could be like,” she explained.

She also developed an interest in a movement form called ‘biodanza’, which would turn into a decisive experience. The term, a combination of ‘bio’ and ‘danza’ (meaning ‘dance’ in Spanish) seems to be self-explanatory, but going a bit deeper, more detailed explanations become apparent. It is, in short, ‘a transformational movement practice’: ‘a human integration system of renewal, re-education, and re-learning of life’s original functions’. First created by Chilean anthropologist and psychoanalyst Rolando Toro Arenada in the nineteen-sixties, it has since been further developed by his followers all over the world. The goal of practicing biodanza is to reconnect with yourself through music, singing, movement, and group encounters: to experience active positive feelings and to develop self-awareness.

Valerie quickly recognized the benefits of bringing the biodanza concept into tango. Its advantages for learning tango have long been known and have been utilized  both by tango teachers such as Fernanda Valdovinos as well as by biodanza instructors such as Jose Antonio Garro, who has taught the method at tango festivals. Unaware of these similiar learning strategies, Valerie started to develop her own concept which she called biotango:a mix of tango, biodanza, and tantra. With her new approach she wanted, as she put it, ‘to help people to feel the embrace in tango more, and to have more physical contact’.

In a bold move she started to promote herself as a biotango instructor. She recalled how she talked to people at milongas, teachers, regular dancers, and organizers in London where she lived at the time. It paid off: “My very first prototype of biotango was at a milonga in London,” she said. One thing lead to another, and soon she brought her method to places in North Carolina, Europe, and her hometown, Vienna. When asked about her recipe for success she said: “When you have this basic trust and you are so convinced that you belong there, you make it possible.”

Last December, while already based in Buenos Aires, she was invited to teach her biotango method at Taboe Tango Camp, an alternative tango festival in the Netherlands. She laughingly described how she wrote ‘a very charming’ letter to the organizers, telling them how much she resonated with everything she saw on their website, and that she felt they vibrated with the same energy. On the other hand she admitted that this approach would probably not work with more traditional tango festivals.

Parallel to developing and promoting her way of teaching in the alternative tango community, the rest of Valerie’s life in Buenos Aires continued to evolve around tango. The famous Estudio Dinzel soon became her home base where she took classes every day, hung out, talked, and shared mate with the others, made friends and received help in finding a place to stay. When someone told her about the Centro Educativo de Buenos Aires (CETBA), where people train to become tango teachers, she found it beneficial to study there as well. Needless to say she went to milongas every night.

She also discovered that she could continue her biodanza education in Buenos Aires at a school run by Verónica Toro (daughter of Rodolfo Toro), and her husband Raúl Terrén. She was immediately fascinated by this power couple, and felt welcomed as a family member. Fortunately, despite the corona crisis, she has been able to continue with her classes online. She is currently in the middle of her three-year education to become an offical biodanza facilitator, and is already allowed to offer courses to explore tango with the tools of biodanza.

Her own sources of income, however, have dried up. During her first year in Buenos Aires, while life was still functioning as usual, she took turns working as a school teacher, working in tourism, and working as a counselor for school children. “As a foreigner, it’s always good to work with your language,” she explained.

The organizations she worked for did the legal paperwork, and in the meantime she strove to build her own independent business in Buenos Aires by creating an ‘authentic tango tourism enterprise’. She worked hard at putting together custom-designed trips for single people, couples, and very small groups. The idea was to give people a very personal experience with visits to milongas, home style cooking and more, and she even got some of her artist friends involved. But just one day before her first client, a girl from Germany, was due to arrive, lockdown was imposed in Argentina and she had to cancel the tour. Something that had just started to flourish, was shut down from one day to the next.

“It was very disappointing,” she said, “and to be very honest,” she continued after a pause, “I was very panicked when corona crisis began.”

She knew she couldn’t sit still and wait for things to happen. So again she rolled up her sleeves and became creative. That’s how her YouTube blog called ‘We Rock Corona’ came to be. For several weeks she posted a video every day with an invitation to dance. Some of these videos were tango-related, others not. Her idea was to give people the impulse to dance at home and get the energy moving, catapulting them out of anxiety, fear, and sadness. “Because when we move, we automatically think less,” she said, “and I wanted to stop the rotation of negative thoughts that can obsess us from time to time.”

From the YouTube series came the idea of setting up the above-mentioned crowd fundraiser. The Kickstarter effort to dance for better mental health in quarantine reached its financial goal after two months. Now, Valerie said, she is at a place where she can breath and relax again. The next step is the setting up of her website (www.valeriekattenfeld.com) to offer classes.

Although she is extraordinarily busy, she misses dancing with a partner. She has managed to connect with a potential practice-partner and wants to give it a try. But unlike her he is a traditional tanguero, and they yet have to find out if they are a match on the dance floor. And she is cautious about physical contact with an as yet unknown person. 

If it doesn’t work out, she still has plenty of ways to communicate with the outside world via the internet. The corona virus has a positive impact after all, she mused: “I usually wouldn’t communicate so much,” she said. She has found plenty of new friends online, and established new connections everywhere. Not being able to go to milongas all the time, she continues to communicate with like-minded people and is excited about their willingness to share their ideas and experiences. Valerie is going to need a lot of perseverance to get through this pandemic crisis in Buenos Aires. One can only hope that the better days outweigh the worse.

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© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif