Born and raised in Germany I came to California and worked as a freelance journalist for some of the most important German daily newspapers. It was here that discovered the passion of my life: dancing. I began to perform, compete, teach, all the while working fulltime as a professional translator and writer. My stories here reflect my own personal view of what’s happening in the world of Argentine tango.
The first time I attended a local milonga in Albany I noticed a small group of young girls sharing a table. They stood out because they were so much younger than most of the other dancers at the event that night. They also appeared very well-behaved for people their age and were presumably well educated. With keen eyes and obvious know-how they assessed what was happening on the dance floor and seemed very eager to get a chance to show off their skills. However, nobody asked them to dance, and their interest in what was going on around them grew visibly less. Finally one of them got up and approached the host, hands on hips: “Mister Magee, what did you tell them?” she asked briskly. A bit taken aback he replied: “I told them to ask you to dance before they had a drink and not after!” That didn’t go down well with the young ladies — nor had it with the gentlemen. They didn’t want to be told when and how they could ask the women to dance, any more than the girls appreciated the well-intended suggestion, since they ended up not dancing all night.
The pressure is on. Which tango festivals should I attend? My e-mail gets flooded every day with invitations. So does my Facebook page. Everybody I know has either lately been to one or is planning to go to one. Tango Festival in Istanbul, Tango Festival in Albuquerque, Tango Marathon in Boston, another Tango Marathon in San Francisco coming up next month, Montreal Loves Tango (well, missed that one!), and then the exotic Tango Festival in Puerto Rico, offering milongas on the beach! Last month Austin and Denver, and don’t forget to register for the one in San Diego on New Year’s Eve!
One of my long-time friends and favorite dance partners confided that he attends one festival per month. He has made a special arrangement with his employer to work overtime during three weeks of the month so he can take off during one week to travel to a tango festival. Since this eats quite a bit into his expense budget, he has found ways to travel cheaply: He stays at low-budget motels outside town and he offers his services as a taxi dancer for workshops where a shortage of leaders is a common problem.
On a recent hot summer night an almost surreal scene presents itself in the upstate New York hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson. Nestled among the tall trees and wide meadows of Bard College — a small exclusive private liberal arts and science school — appears a huge construction called the Spiegeltent (translated as “Mirror Tent”). This large traveling tent, constructed of wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, arrives every summer at this otherwise quiet and isolated campus, and becomes the stylish setting for exotic cabaret shows, live Jazz concerts, and dance events.
From early July through mid-August the Spiegeltent — a more familiar sight throughout Europe as well as in cities such as Las Vegas and San Francisco where it was used by Teatro ZinZanni — draws an astonishing number of people, not only from nearby smaller towns and surrounding rural areas, but also from as far away as Massachusetts and New York City. As it does tonight.
I’ve been dancing Argentine Tango for about six years, and all this time the music and the orchestras have remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I do understand what it takes to be a good Tango dancer and what to look for when I watch someone perform. I’m far from perfect myself, but I have learned how to walk, how to follow, how to embrace my partner, and how to look reasonably good on the dance floor. I like to express myself to the music and I do have my favorite composers, Carlos di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese among them, but my knowledge of Tango music hardly extends past the standard pieces that are played by DJs at most milongas. I’m embarrassed to say that after all this time my knowledge of Tango music is still very basic. There are pieces that make me want to get up and dance, and there are others that don’t speak to me at all, and that I don’t mind sitting out. At most milongas where the usual standard repertoire of Tango music is played I have to admit that I’m quite happy and content to listen and dance to the same “canned” pieces over and over again.
However, I can’t help but be amazed at how the vibe changes when a live orchestra plays. This is how it should be, I then think to myself. This is how it was in the early days of Tango when there was no recorded music, and instead the orchestras were at the center of things and were the real stars of Tango. If you’ve ever watched the YouTube video of Juan D’Arienzo conducting his orchestra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z5qEKxfmm8) you’ll understand what I mean.
In the northeastern part of New York State, a three and a half hour drive north of New York City and about halfway to the Canadian border, is Saratoga Springs. Once a popular health resort for the upper class with natural springs and expensive spas, it is nowadays still famous for its world-class horse races which draw a different kind of crowd to this distinguished town every summer, causing the locals to leave their lavish mansions as a playground to the moneyed aristocracy where they can relax after an exciting day at the race track and indulge in the comfort of an old world style atmosphere.
What many people don’t know is that Saratoga Springs is also the home of the National Museum of Dance. It is located in a historic building formerly known as the Washington Bathhouse in Saratoga Spa State Park, just outside town. The neo-classic building houses a substantial archive of photographs, videos, costumes and other artifacts, and in its galleries are three permanent exhibits on display as well as yearly rotating exhibits.
The most recent one is dedicated to Argentine Tango and it is called “125 years of Tango – A Walk through the History of the Dance”.
“Are you trying to make me extra nervous?” She is standing in line to sign up for her very first Tango lesson. My sudden appearance seems to add to her agitation. We had been talking about this for months — and now Yvette was going to learn Tango!
Recently retired, energetic, fit, single, sociable, and a music lover, I had thought it was a great idea. For the past two years, ever since she moved in next door, she had seen me night after night leaving the house, dressed up and high-heeled, setting out for my next Tango adventure, attending classes and milongas around the Bay Area, enjoying dancing, and meeting new people. She became curious, asked me what it was like, and finally decided that she wanted to learn Tango herself.
But curious as she was, she also seemed a bit uncertain about joining a new community and taking up something as new as Tango. She came up with one excuse after another. And then there were other concerns, such as: “What should I wear? Should I lose some weight?” – “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “you’re not going to a beauty contest. Wear something nice and comfortable that allows you to move your legs.” I sighed to myself, women are so difficult! Apparently it was true, just as men in Tango had been telling me. I almost expected her to say that the class would interfere with her favorite program on TV and that therefore she wasn’t able to make it. Fortunately, it turned out that the popular show, Death in Paradise, was on Wednesday nights, and with that last obstacle removed, we got going.
On this Friday, Waverly is taking his first ‘real’ Tango class. We’re at the Senior Center in Emeryville, CA, where Ivan Shvarts is teaching a class with basic steps and exercises. Most of his students are in their sixties and seventies, some in their eighties and even nineties. Some of them have danced for a long time and now want to learn Argentine Tango, others have no dance experience at all. Some of them come as couples, others come by themselves. Ivan makes sure everybody teams up in his class and that nobody is left without a partner. However, somehow he can’t convince Waverly to take a partner. Waverly wants to learn on his own throughout the class. “I’d be fearful for my partner,” he explains to me. “I might lose my balance and cause her to fall.” From a distance, he watches Ivan and practices by himself what he sees. He appears to be amazingly light on his feet and at the same time centered from the core, his earlier dance training clearly showing through. His teacher is thrilled. “You have to come over and talk to this guy!” Ivan exclaims to me. “You wouldn’t believe it – he is just recovering from a major stroke!”
Okay, so the winners have been announced: congratulations to Ivan Troshhi and Yamila Viana from New York — you make the rest of us now look and feel really clumsy on the dance floor, but for the next year we will work hard on that leg extension! Everyone else has to face up to the fact that they didn’t win. Although they had spent countless hours practicing and a fortune on private lessons, shoes, chiropractors, pilates, and dance studios, and had suffered through emotional rollercoasters and self-doubts, fights with their partners, pain in their feet and in their legs and backs, traveled across the country and spent all the money they had initially saved for that trip to the Caribbean, and basically had put the whole rest of their lives on hold it just wasn’t good enough. Or so it seems.
The moon shines in a dark blue sky over the San Francisco Bay. From the top of the hill I can see a million lights shimmering and reflecting in the water. As I stroll down the steep and windy road, past lush gardens hiding comfortable homes, I can hear tango music softly drifting through the air. On this balmy night, the doors from the dance floor to the terrace are open. There is the faint sound of subdued talk and laughter. As I approach the tall, multi-level house and begin to climb the steep staircase, the sounds become more distinct. I’m climbing up two, then three flights, catching my breath before approaching the last one, until at last there I am. I’m gazing at a several dozen dancers swirling around the floor and, on one side of the large room an enormous buffet bearing an overwhelming amount of delicacies. It is Friday night and a wonderful event has just begun.
It is Thursday evening and Andrea Monti walks in to a popular Milonga in San Francisco. She just returned from a trip to New York where she was promoting the “Argentine Tango USA Official Festival & Championship 2015” which starts on April 2 in San Francisco. Prior to her New York trip she traveled to Los Angeles, also promoting the Festival, giving interviews about the four-day event on local and national radio and television stations, the biggest and most important of them being CBS. As a matter of fact, she says, ever since CBS discovered that an official branch of the Argentine Tango Championship takes place in San Francisco, they have been eager to report about it.