On a recent flight from the East Coast to California I was sitting next to a top commander of the Coast Guard West Coast. He engaged me in a long and lively conversation about assignments that have taken him around the world, and how he and his wife — a modern and tap dancer — enjoy traveling and exploring. When I told him how my tango dancing has taken me to various places, a surprised look came over his face and he told me how they had just stumbled upon a ‘tango house’ in the middle of nowhere, on a trip up the Pacific coast to Fort — he couldn’t remember the rest of the name, so I finished it for him — Fort Bragg, the Weller House Inn.
He looked even more surprised. Most of my tango friends in the Bay Area have been to the Weller House, I explained. Indeed, I might be the only member of the entire tango community between Portland and Los Angeles who has not been to a tango event at this historic mansion. The tango world is small, I went on coolly, news spreads quickly and tango people travel far to explore exotic and fun places.
But inwardly I cringed, scolding myself for still not having been there.
Since getting into Argentine tango I’ve met some pretty interesting people. People whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and whose fascinating stories I would have never known. And I don’t even mean the professionals — the teachers and performers who stand out anyway, and whose lives seem to be so much more interesting than those of us ‘regular folks’ with jobs and families and mortgages and so on. No, I’ve met some really interesting people among the social dancing crowd. People who one day trust you enough so they begin to reveal their own personal history, which is sometimes permeated with deep personal tragedy — or, quite the opposite, with some really thrilling life experiences — so that you inadvertently shout out ‘Wow!’ in the middle of the dance floor. People who, through their own unique experiences, have gained a particular perspective on life which reflects on how they perceive tango.
One of these is a resolute petite lady called Evelina by her tango friends, but whose real name is Evelyn Meier (which already reveals her background: Swiss-German). I picked her out of this group of special characters whom I’ve gotten to know over time because with her eighty-something years she never ceases to surprise me, often makes me chuckle, and has become a kind of a role model for me as a furiously independent lady, an astonishingly versatile and technically proficient tango and ballroom dancer, and as a meticulous observer and instructor. I also admire her creative mind and great crafting skills, which she uses artfully to provide the décor for more tango events than you can imagine.
When, a few weeks from now in the heat of the South American summer, the lights go up in the Centro Cultural Kirchner in Buenos Aires, one of the most unique music competitions will begin: the first ever International Contest for New Tango Ensembles. Ten out of an initial fifty-five orchestras from nine different countries will enter the stage of the CCK — the biggest cultural center in Latin America — to compete as finalists in a musical genre which, until not too long ago, has been seen as a thing of the past. It will be the grand finale of a week-long gathering of tango musicians who will have participated in a study program called Tango Para Músicos.
Musicians from all over the world are expected to attend six days packed with learning and playing tango. Tango Para Músicos will offer these aficionados a broad variety of classes where they will have a chance to study with some of the masters of modern tango, such as bandoneon instructor Eva Wolff, tango singing-instructor Noelia Moncada, and Exequiel Mantega who teaches orchestration. Participants can choose from eighty modules of instrument classes and fifty modular classes for arrangement, composition, production, musical training, and more. The classes are open to basically all instruments, including vibraphone, clarinet, saxophone, and, of course, all string instruments. In past years even two ukuleles have participated. Drums, on the other hand, have not been part of the course (yet). The public is invited to attend free nightly concerts, milongas, and practicas.
The ‘icing on the cake’, however, is certainly going to be the above-mentioned and much-anticipated International Contest for New Tango Ensembles.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you’re probably quite familiar with TangoMango, an extensive online community calendar that lists Argentine tango events. The site has grown to become the number one resource for tango dancers in California since it was launched over ten years ago. It’s also well known in a few other metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. But tango dancers in most other areas of the country are less likely to visit the site and may not even have heard about it. If, for example, you were to find yourself in Hamilton County, Nebraska, and wanted to discover local milongas, you’d probably end up browsing the web for the individual websites of local organizers and venues instead of searching on TangoMango, as you might have done in the Bay Area or the Los Angeles area.
In the summer of 2015 I attended a concert in Berkeley, CA, given by a young and fairly unknown tango group from Buenos Aires, Orquesta Victoria. The music they performed that night at Berkeley’s well-known performance venue, Freight and Salvage, struck me as unusual and fascinating. It had a strong message and was delivered with the kind of verve that comes from deep down inside. It was not your usual Argentine tango music. There were a few performances by local professional dancers, but their dancing just underlined the message of the music and was almost a distraction from the band’s performance. The orchestra had just arrived from Argentina on their first tour in the USA to promote an album that they had recorded by San Francisco composer, Debora Simcovich.
I love dancing at unusual places. Over the years I’ve been to a number of venues that seemed unlikely settings for social dance events such as milongas, but which later turned out to be the best and most memorable ones.
Such was the case when I was first told about what sounded like ‘Moolonga’ in Washington County, New York. My initial thought was they must have made a mistake! I understand these people live in the country, but they must know that it is called ‘milonga’. “No, no,” I was assured, “you’ve heard it right, we’re calling it ‘MOO-longa’ precisely because we do live in cow country,” explains Fred Luckey, dryly.
Nicholas Tapia and Stephanie Berg won the Official Argentine Tango USA Championship in 2014 in the Salon Tango, or ‘Tango de Pista’, category — the highest regarded category of this prestigious tango contest. The Bay Area couple had met only two years before and had quickly decided to team up. The winning title of the Tango USA Championship got them on the way to the Tango Mundial in Buenos Aires that same summer where they represented the USA to compete against numerous outstanding dancers from all over the world. Nicholas and Stephanie came in fifty-eighth — a very respectable result given that no couple from the USA has ever won a title. Last year they competed at the Tango Mundial again, not as representatives of the USA, but on their own. Once again they made it to the semifinals, but not all the way to the top. This year, they decided not to participate in the Tango Mundial, but instead to focus on building up their own dance studio and a new life near Phoenix, Arizona. After several attempts to schedule an interview with this busy and bustling couple, I finally managed to talk to them while they were driving to their new studio.
When Beatrice walked with Terence into the big foyer of San Francisco’s de Young Museum on a Friday evening earlier this summer, a hundred and fifty people were waiting in their chairs. Baffled, she turned towards the museum’s public programs director, Renée Baldocchi, and asked her: “They are waiting to watch us teach, right?”
“Yes, they are waiting for you to teach the lesson because they want to participate!” was Baldocchi’s response. For a moment, Bea gasped. This was far beyond what she had expected for their first tango lesson at the museum. What was supposed to be an experiment — teaching a beginners’ lesson of Argentine tango at one of San Francisco’s most prestigious museums — had triggered an unexpected and overwhelming response.
Most people associate tango music with a form of dance. That’s not necessarily so. Tango music can be a pure musical pleasure, an exciting listening experience, but hard to dance to.
Take for example Débora Simcovich’s compositions. If you happened to catch one of her concerts last summer in the Bay Area, performed by the acclaimed Orquesta Victoria from Buenos Aires, you will have noticed that a lot of her songs were not very danceable. They do not speak of love and broken hearts — in contrast to most of the popular tango music that we hear at dance halls and clubs, usually from a male perspective and delivered by a male singer. In her music she speaks of her own reflections on life, and she addresses issues of social or political nature. “My music has content,” she says. Her focus is on the message and she delivers it with a punch — a skill which she learned in her younger years by writing jingles for ad agencies — and she delivers the punch regardless of whether the music is danceable or not. So it’s not surprising that Simcovich’s tango music is more popular among classical concert audiences than in the world of dancers.
The other night as I drove home after what had felt like a lukewarm milonga I kept wondering why the spark had been missing. I had arrived eager to dance, had immediately spotted some of my favorite dance partners and, after chatting with some long-time acquaintances, had positioned myself strategically so that I could be seen easily and, hopefully, asked to dance. But scanning the dance floor, I could tell that the energy was low. Most couples were sitting at their tables looking bored and seemed not inclined to get up. The ones that actually did dance somehow appeared a bit strained. My favorite partners didn’t seem to be eager to make a move, and when I was finally asked for a tanda, we didn’t really connect and enjoy the dancing. Then it finally dawned on me: it was the music! The music didn’t feel right. The songs were a mismatched mix of different styles, vocals and instrumentals, Nuevo and Golden Age, no highs, no lows, and didn’t inspire me to dance. I gazed over at the DJ, a popular local teacher who frequently spins the music, but that night he seemed to be paying more attention to his peers than to what was happening on the dance floor. He just seemed to be running down his playlist without observing the dancers.
After an hour and a half or so I gave up. On my drive home I thought wistfully of one of my favorite DJs whose milongas I always enjoy. As if by magic, she gets everybody (including myself) up and has us dancing all night, providing good energy with her music. People both on and off the dance floor usually seem to have a good time. Wherever she plays the music, whether it’s at some of New York’s popular milongas, other venues outside the Big Apple, or at intimate tango festivals, her milongas guarantee a great dance experience. So when we recently met, I decided to ask her: “What is your secret to a crowded dance floor? How do you get people to dance?”