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

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