Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 6

Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda, Oakland, California: tango teachers and DJs

Felipe & Ayano
Ayano Yoneda and Felipe Martinez, a couple on and off the dance floor
Photo by Nikolay Chigirev

A close tango friend suggested Felipe Martinez for private lessons back in 2011. I immediately took to his teaching style which was very matter-of-fact. And no wonder, he had been a Primary School teacher before becoming a teacher of Argentine tango. I also got a kick out of his football — as in European football — madness. He being from Spain, Madrid, it was no surprise that he was brought up with football. And what a useful thing to be an expert about for anyone who dances tango. Because after all what would Argentine tango be without football?  I did wonder, however, why he kept disappearing so quickly after every private lesson. I soon found out that he was dating someone in the tango community: a Japanese girl called Ayano. They would become inseparable, both on and off the dance floor. She learned quickly and turned into a successful tango teacher and DJ on her own. While he would be away for weeks at a time, teaching tango on cruise ships, she would take over their classes and run their otherwise mutual schedule on her own. Each November Felipe and Ayano host the ‘San Francisco Tango Marathon,’ a hugely popular event, especially among the younger crowd. It takes months of intense preparation and once it’s over, they are both completely exhausted.

In early March Felipe and Ayano flew from Buenos Aires to Minneapolis. They had been in Argentina since the end of January, and followed from what seemed a safe distance the unfolding crisis in the United States. Argentina was not affected yet by the Coronavirus, but Felipe and Ayano were not sure what to expect upon their return to the United States. When they boarded their plane at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires on March 6, everything seemed normal. They headed straight from the Minneapolis airport to the Tango Marathon where they played music and taught workshops.

There was still confusion surrounding the Coronavirus during the event, said Felipe. Minneapolis at the time had no cases of infection, but the bad news kept coming, especially from the Bay Area where Felipe and Ayano are based. They were going to return to Oakland after their Minneapolis gig, but they knew that they were heading into a hot spot with many cases of infections. And then there was the cruise ship Grand Princess waiting off the shores of San Francisco with twenty-one infected among the three-thousand five-hundred passengers on board.

Teaching Argentine tango on cruise ships has been a big part of Felipe’s work over the years. Cruises constitute a part of his annual income. Plus, he gets to travel the world and go to places he has always dreamed of. Even though his job requires that he spends much of his time indoors, he is actually very much an outdoor person: someone who enjoys climbing mountains and exploring nature. In every port he would get off the ship and start exploring, soaking in new impressions and recharging before getting back on board, to teach and dance tango all night.

Felipe realized that this was not going to happen this year. The Tuesday after they returned to Oakland he and Ayano went dancing at El V, one of their favorite milongas in San Francisco, especially popular with tango teachers. It would be their last milonga. After that, everything was canceled: private lessons, classes, and workshops. The Grand Princess in the meantime docked at the Port of Oakland, and became the focus of an unprecedented health crisis, only a few miles from their home. Felipe and Ayano’s cruise to Japan was canceled in February. As expected, two other summer cruises in Europe were canceled in May.

Since their gig in Minneapolis they’ve had no work. It’s no surprise. “We’re at the highest risk with the lowest necessity,” he states matter-of-factly. “We will be the last ones to be reactivated. The mixing of people at any kind of tango event makes a perfect breeding ground for any kind of virus.”

However, when I spoke to him in late April, he told me that he felt a sense of relief. “We usually run a crazy schedule and have to be super organized all the time. We never take a vacation. When we travel, it’s always for work or family.” Felipe’s family lives in Madrid, Ayano’s in Japan. Now, for the first time, they have time off. They practice yoga and cook a lot. Cooking is their next favorite thing in the world after tango, and they like to share the results with their friends on Facebook. “It’s kind of a relief to have time for one or two months,” he said. They tried to keep a positive attitude about their finances and said that they had tightened their budget. Thanks to the support of the tango community and their ability to live a frugal lifestyle, they think they can live off their savings for a while.

In the meantime they are online regularly with friends and students from all over the world. Ayano came up with the idea of an online tango-poetry project where she broadcasts music and lyrics in tango. They say it’s something dancers don’t pay enough attention to. Felipe has also participated in teaching an online seminar on tango DJing. And they helped promote Unidos Tango, an online festival where artists have donated their classes to help tango workers around the world in dire need, and who have requested solidarity. He repeats that they don’t live an expensive lifestyle and can get by on little.

Asked about whether they are going to teach online tango classes, he says they don’t like the idea themselves. Even though it may be good for the drill, it’s not the real thing. People have also offered to pay them in advance for private lessons, but they politely declined.

Half joking he adds that he’s still on ‘milonga time’, meaning he is awake all night and goes to sleep in the morning, sometimes as late as nine or ten a.m.

I asked him if he had a vision at the beginning of his tango career. He says he didn’t, but that it developed organically. He was already in the United States working as a full-time teacher, and people were asking him more and more to teach Argentine tango. So there was no plan, he just followed the demand of the market and what he enjoyed. Of course it was a bit scary, he admits. But when he finally made the leap, it was an ‘empowering feeling of having your own schedule and control over your working life.’

His take on the future of tango is surprisingly relaxed. “I don’t think that tango is going to change,” he says. He remembers the bird flu in 2013 while he was in Buenos Aires. The dancers stayed away for a while, then they came back, washed their hands excessively, and went back to business as usual. And then he adds that at this point he is actually more worried about society at large. “They don’t manage the crisis appropriately. The economic and social impact of this crisis could get a lot worse.” That, he thinks, is much more to worry about than tango.


Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 7

Brigitta Winkler, Berlin / New York: tango teacher & choreographer

Brigitta Winkler
Brigitta Winkler and her typical tango stilettos
Photo by Astrid Weiske

Brigitta Winkler, originally from Germany, is a tango globetrotter. She became involved with Argentine tango in 1980, at a time when tango was little known and not popular even in Argentina. When she first came to Buenos Aires in 1984 the Argentines couldn’t relate to her tango enthusiasm. She still went ahead to become a tango teacher, developing her own teaching method by incorporating body-mind centering and eventually turning into a highly sought-after authority. A great acknowledgement, given that the petite German broke all conventions of traditional Argentine tango. I took a workshop with her once in San Francisco, about nine or ten years ago, and was fascinated by her focus on how she incorporated basic movement into tango. I followed her on social media, but somehow we kept being in different parts of the world. When I finally met her again last February at Vecher Milonga at the Russian Center in San Francisco, she remembered me from back then. I was impressed by her memory. She was visiting San Francisco briefly on her way to a two-month stay in Hawaii. I wondered if she had become stuck on the islands and contacted her to find out how she was doing. Surprise – she was in Berlin!

After Brigitta Winkler’s abrupt return from Hawaii to her home in Berlin jetlag hit her. She had been traveling with her husband for three days.

A few days before, back in their vacation home in Hawaii, her husband had been on the phone for six hours. When he was finally able to contact the airline they arranged a complicated journey from Hawaii via Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and finally back to Berlin, Germany. Without wasting any time they packed up and left. Everything went smoothly, and to their surprise even the usual security procedures at Los Angeles Airport were lax. The scary moment came when they arrived in New York. “We were not allowed to leave the plane,” she recalls. Instead, police came on board. They then learned that one of the passengers had developed a respiratory issue during the flight and was taken of the plane. The remainder of the passengers had to remain on board, and uneasy feelings kept growing. It took one long hour until they were told to ‘leave the plane swiftly.’

Brigitta usually teaches during February and March in Hawaii, and towards the end of her stay holds a tango retreat. Then she would move on to New York where she would work for a few weeks before returning to Berlin for the spring and summer. This year everything was different. “I saw the crisis coming,” she says, “because I talked a lot with my friends in Italy who warned me.”

She told me about her special connection with Italy, particularly in the regions of Umbria, South Tyrol, and Venice. She has spent much time teaching in these areas every year. From her home in Berlin she told me over the phone how, while in Hawaii, she watched in horror how Italy went from bad to worse. When the country was in full lockdown she and her husband decided it was time to leave.

“It was so unreal, like parallel worlds,” she recalled. “There we were, in a beautiful house in the jungle on Hawaii with a view of the beach.” Meanwhile the rest of the world was falling apart, and she witnessed how friends in Italy went through hell. Even though there were no warnings by officials in Hawaii, she knew she had to cancel her immediate plans. “Hawaii responded very, very late,” she recalls. Understandably so, with much of the islands’ economy depending on tourism.

After all this turmoil and now being forced to stay at home in Berlin, how is she spending her days? First of all, she reminds me, Germany is about to slowly open up. We spoke two days before Germany loosened its restrictions on certain parts of the economy. “There is actually a lot to do,” she said, “mainly on social networks.”

She follows and contributes to several tango and support groups that have popped up since people began sheltering in place. “The isolation is the same for all of us: everybody is at home. We’re all paralyzed,” she states. But out of this isolation there has developed a sense of community spirit.

She tells me that she is trying to further process the basics that she has been teaching for tango, and is reflecting on her own values. “First of all,” she says, “tango is about grounding. And grounding is important right now for all of us to cope with the current situation. Then you should find your balance and keep it. And third, you need to listen. Only then can you take action.”

To help practice her own basics she spends her days outdoors as much as possible, mindful of social distancing. Her home is near the River Spree, where she loves early-mornings walks when only few people are out. She raves about springtime in Berlin, and emphasizes how glad she is that there is a lot of nature in Berlin. Nature gives her a lot: instead of hugging a tango partner, she encourages people to hug a tree, but not — she is quick to add — in the derogatory sense of ‘a tree-hugger’. In that respect she worries a lot about her New York friends: the ones living in small apartments, especially single mothers with children. She keeps in touch with her students back in New York City, and tries to encourage them.

Another positive experience for her is the fact that the Berlin tango community has united and approached the Senate with a petition for financial support. In an astonishingly swift move, the Berlin government has made funds available for artists. She tells me that she submitted her application on a Sunday and received 5,000 Euros ($5470 US) the following Wednesday.

She is also surprised how well fundraisers have been going. There was one fundraiser “that was meant to orchestrate the difference between the USA and Europe and people donated a lot.” Friends of hers have received private sponsoring, some of them as many as fifty privates in advance.

“I think that there is a lot of potential in the current situation,” she says.

She approves the lockdown and records small videos for her students in her studio. She teaches at werk36, a big dance school, that supports local dancers. In return, the dancers keep paying their dues during the crisis to keep werk36 alive. She also has started training again with her partner at the studio, having decided that they feel safe with each other. 

How does she see the future of tango? She thinks that the heart of the milonga — dancing with someone you don’t know — will be gone for a long time. For her, tango is traveling because it’s defining and essential for her life. “We gain different experiences when we travel.”

She thinks that people will continue to need intimacy and to fall in love. That’s what tango is about. She doesn’t think that these values are going to change. Intimacy will be become more valuable; it won’t go away. But the milonga is certainly going to change.