Teaching Liam Neeson

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There will be a special tango scene in the upcoming movie “Mark Felt”. Photo: markfeltmovie.com

 

“You have to teach Liam Neeson!” the caller urged her. It was nobody less than Marcos Questas. “He does not know one step!” he continued. Well, an urgent request by Maestro Questas from LA means you don’t think twice!

On the receiving end of the line was Karina Romero, a veteran teacher among the New York Argentine tango community. She was trying to grasp what she had just heard: she had been asked to coach one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for an upcoming movie!

Questas, a sought-after choreographer for film and television (he worked on the Latin Grammy Awards), had a problem. He had been signed as the choreographer for a prominent tango scene in a high-profile spy thriller about the Watergate scandal by Peter Landsmann — Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. He had already started rehearsing the dance scene with Diane Lane, who plays Liam Neeson’s wife in the movie. But he urgently needed an instructor at the other end of the country in New York, where Neeson lives, to train him for his part. Questas knew about Karina Romero through Carlos Copello, the grand master of tango (Forever Tango, The Tango Lesson, Assassination Tango). Being part of Copello’s circle means being part of an exclusive network of tango professionals who can trust one another.

Karina Romero accepted. And Marcos Questas could for now, and until the shooting began, relax. Then he would see if the teacher in New York had been doing a good job.

But back in New York, Karina Romero could not have anticipated what was about to happen once she agreed. The wheels had already begun to spin and she had taken on a big responsibility. How did she prepare for coaching a film star for a big budget movie, I am curious to know? Karina takes a deep breath. Then she bubbles over with excitement about those few weeks this past summer which were for her ‘a dream come true’.

The business aspect, she explains, was the first ‘wow!’ experience. “Everything happened really fast,” she remembers. Without having time to think it all over, she found herself thrown into the Hollywood business. Within minutes after talking to Questas, her phone began ringing nonstop. She received several calls from the film studio, and was sent a lot of paperwork to sign her up as the leading star’s dance coach for the production of Felt. Once that part of the deal was settled, it took just about another five minutes for Liam Neeson’s agent to call and schedule the lessons for his client. As she was about to give directions to her dance studio, the agent politely interrupted and explained that Mr Neeson was a very private person and that the lessons had to take place at his house.

Quickly rearranging her own schedule, she agreed and then ‘spent the rest of the day watching all of Liam Neeson’s movies to see how he moves’. The very next day at eleven in the morning, she found herself sitting in this ‘very big apartment’ where everybody was ‘so very nice’ to her, waiting for her famous student to arrive, a cup of tea in front of her.

“At that moment it hit me,” she tells me with her delightful accent. “I was going to teach Liam Neeson! Oh my God!” But there was no time to be nervous. She heard him approaching through the living room, and listened intently to the sound of his shoes as he moved across the floor. “I hear how strongly he walks,” she remembers, audibly smiling over the phone, “and what a connection his feet have to the floor!” As she quickly took a mental note of his characteristic steps, the door opened and the star himself appeared and greeted her.

Despite his imposing size – he is said to be six foot four — Liam Neeson turned out to be shy indeed. He thanked her politely for coming to his house and introduced himself humbly:  “Sorry, it’s going to be very hard!” Just as Questas had indicated, he had no dance experience.

So Karina started with some basic walking exercises. After the first round of walking with her new student she could feel how her own nervousness fell away. She says she settled into her role as the teacher and ‘stopped thinking about how famous he was’. Her new student on the other hand turned out to be ‘very respectful to learn’. And indeed he had a lot to learn. Not only did he have to master the basics in tango, but he also had to memorize Marcos Questas’ choreography to the piece he had chosen for the movie: Osvaldo Fresedos’ Vida Mia. “Simple,” states Karina, “but difficult for a beginner.”

Another challenge in teaching him was that the actor, whom she came to realize was a sensitive person, was initially afraid to dance. So she decided to take it slowly — “I did not want him to be in shock!” — and not think about the time pressure — she had to get her famous student ready in only fifteen hours over the stretch of three weeks.

“You need to practice!” she told him decidedly at the end of the first lesson. “We meet again tomorrow!” She also suggested that he wear dress pants and a shirt to get a better feeling for the elegant movement of the dance.

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Tango talent: Karina Romero teaching Liam Neeson. Photo by Karina Romero

By her return the following day, Mr Neeson had done his homework and practiced a lot. And he continued to be prepared for all the lessons that were to come. “He really wanted to learn,” she explains, impressed by how seriously he took his tango studies. “He was a very smart student and he really wanted to understand.” His sincere interest in learning and his disciplined way of studying were well received by his Argentine teacher. They developed an artistic connection that Karina describes as very special. “This connection on an artistic and human level was the biggest gift for me,” she says.

But she still had to push for fast progress. At some point she provoked the actor in him, inviting him to find his role in tango and act it out on the dance floor: “If you were a singer,” she said, “you’d be Julio Sosa. This is the voice you would be in tango.” That was the magic trick. She had him practice to some Sosa tunes and says she could see how he changed and started to connect more.

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Gabriel Missé concidently became an inspiration for Liam Neeson. Photo: Boston Tango

The big breakthrough, however, came when she introduced Mr Neeson to Gabriel Missé, one of the hottest stars of recent years in the world of Argentine tango. Mr Missé happened to be in town for a workshop series that Karina arranges every year in August. She told Mr Neeson about Missé, and he became interested and asked her to bring him along. It was obvious that both men, each one a star in his respective artistic field, clicked immediately.

Mr Neeson asked Karina to dance with Missé — a moment which she describes as ‘being in heaven’ — and noticed how he enjoyed watching their little demonstration. Next, the two men danced together. She put a tango hat on Neeson and said: “Now act!” And then in front of her eyes something magical developed: As Liam Neeson danced with Gabriel Missé, he became Julio Sosa, executing all the steps he had learned: the ‘baldosa’, the ‘cunita’, the ‘box’, and the ‘sandwichito’. “It was a dream come true!” she revels. “And I saw two big persons together!”

When their coaching sessions came to an end and Mr Neeson started to prepare for the shooting of the film in Atlanta, he thanked her profoundly, promising to make her proud. She in return threatened jokingly: “I will kill you, Liam Neeson, if you don’t dance well in the film!” She remembers being quite nervous the day when the scene was shot far away in Atlanta. Finally she received a message saying: ‘Thank you, maestra, you helped me a lot!’

Mark Felt is going to come to theaters next Thursday, September 29, and I wonder if her name is going to be in the credits? “I don’t know,” she replies. “I’m relaxed about this. I believe this experience was a gift of God. There was an artistic connection, a magic, and the magic happened in the human part, in the connection of the soul.”

Did she get invited for the opening night? No, she says, but for sure she is going to be among the first ones to watch it — with a group of her girlfriends, somewhere in New York.

 

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Fort Bragg — Buenos Aires del Norte

Beach by Fort Bragg

For some quiet time after tango: the beaches by Fort Bragg.

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. The Weller House Inn and its special tango events had long been on my list of destinations to visit. Somehow it had been easier for me to travel cross-country, and even beyond, than to take a three-hour drive from my Bay Area home up the coast. And now a stranger, completely unfamiliar with tango, had told me, almost in passing, that he had been there!

A few days later I repacked my bags and set out on the scenic drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway. The stately, multi-storied Victorian mansion stands out like a monument in the otherwise unremarkable little town of Fort Bragg, and is hard to miss. I arrived in time for the Tuesday night tango lesson and practica which takes place in the house’s big ballroom. Vivien LaMothe, the owner, happened to be in the kitchen and welcomed me, immediately offering to take me on a tour. My lucky day, I thought!

But less than half an hour into our private tour, Vivien broke some unexpected and sad news. We had barely covered the mansion’s ground floor, and I was still admiring the original woodwork and Victorian-style furniture of the guest rooms and the library, when she stopped in front of some historic photographs in the hall and looked me straight in the eye. “You know, it’s for sale,” she said gravely. I was flabbergasted. For sale? How could that be? A unique place like this? A most romantic inn with an historic ballroom? How can you let go of that? For a moment I thought she was pulling my leg.

As we climbed the stairs to the impressive Virgin Redwood Ballroom on the top floor, she explained. But I had already begun to suspect the reasons for her decision to step away from this place — and my guess was right. The huge task of managing a nine-guestroom inn with another three guestrooms in the adjacent Water Tower, maintaining a historic building, and at the same time running a busy ballroom with different dance events six nights of the week had simply become too overwhelming for her alone. “Ideally,” she summarized, “there should be two couples running this place.” Meaning two couples who would split the responsibilities of the hospitality business downstairs and the dance studio upstairs.

Virgin Redwood Ballroom

Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda dancing in the famous Virgin Redwood Ballroom.

Vivien has been successfully juggling all this ever since she took over ownership in 2011. During this time she also unexpectedly become the caregiver of her 93-year old mother, who had stepped in as her business partner until passing away in 2015. Understandably, she feels a bit burned out.

Things looked a lot easier when she first became acquainted with the Weller House Inn and became its manager. She was bursting with ideas on how to tie the ballroom into the inn’s hospitality business.

When she was hired, she proposed bringing back the glory of the unique Virgin Redwood Ballroom. It takes up the entire top floor, and was originally intended by its first owner, H. A. Weller in 1886, as a meeting hall for the local Baptist community before there was a church in town. It is built entirely of local redwood, with acoustics that are so superb that, to quote Vivien, ‘it has recording-studio qualities’. It has a dance floor that sweeps every dancer away. Vivien’s idea to host tango and other social dance events met the immediate approval of the previous managers, a couple of musicians who were open enough to let her try out new ideas. As Vivien says: “When I became the manager of the Weller House Inn, I had a short leash — and a big opportunity.”

“On my first day at work,” she remembers proudly, “I already started a practica!” Hosting tango events at the Weller House Inn became a priority of her managing duties. Soon she established the regular Tuesday night tango lesson, taught by local teachers from the Mendocino tango community, followed by a practica. Then she went for bigger events, holding special tango weekends once a month with visiting teachers from all over the country and abroad. “I brought world-class dance teachers almost every month for a few years,” she recalls. The year 2011 was the peak when she printed and distributed 10,000 postcards.

Looking at some of these postcards and flyers from the past eight years, I recognize many familiar names: Eduardo Saucedo, Melinda Sedo and Detlef Engel, Ney Melo and Jennifer Bratt, Murat Edemsel and Michelle Lamb, Facundo Posada and Christy Cote, and Chris Peake and Michelle Laughlin. Many of the nearby Bay Area instructors such as Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda, David Orly-Thompson and Mariana Ancarola, Lisette Perelle, Glenn Corteza, and Nora Dinzelbacher have also been here to teach and perform, some of them several times.

“Then Seth [Asarnow] came,” she recalls. He discovered Fort Bragg while playing with his group, Sexteto Tipico, at the nearby Mendocino Music Festival, and was impressed by the local tango community. “And after he started coming, everybody started coming.” She would often find him sitting on the porch by himself, playing his bandoneon. One year, Seth brought along Pablo Motta, the famous tango double-bass player. Vivien is particularly proud of having hosted both these acclaimed musician. (Note: Seth and Guillermo Garcia are scheduled to perform again at this year’s Dancing Fools TangoFest 8 which runs from March 30 through April 2.)

What else has made this remote location so attractive for teachers? She smiles, “The lure for the teachers is a nice double-room with a jacuzzi — and that it’s close to the ballroom!” Having just admired the guestrooms with their adjacent private bathrooms — some of them with hand-painted tiles and claw-foot bathtubs — I completely understand.

When the opportunity came to buy the mansion in 2011, Vivien went for it. But then her focus shifted, and a major part of her time went into the maintenance and improvement of the house, the occupancy of the inn, and caring for her mother. And all this not to mention that she still has a teenage son. Her mother’s death at the age of 97 was a turning point. But even though she is now ready to let go and move on, she is still attached to various projects related to the house such as an extension of the dining room and finishing a guest suite in the Water Tower that has sweeping views. At the same time she wants to make sure to keep the Weller House’s role for tango and a broader social dance community alive.

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The Weller House Inn and Water Tower.

The events and ongoing activities at the Weller House Inn (affectionately called ‘Buenos Aires del Norte’ on its former website) have certainly contributed to the strengthening of the local Mendocino tango community. Vivien points to people’s active support in promoting and helping all sorts of events. As a result, Fort Bragg, commonly regarded as the ugly little sister of Mendocino, has turned into a surprising hot spot for tangueros. “We recently had new dancers coming from Chico,” she says proudly. “They got set up with local instructors and liked it so much that they come back in May.” And the number of regular dancers from the local community has grown. “We have more dancers per capita than Buenos Aires!” she laughs.

Why, apart from the flashy events with big names, does she think the tango program has been so successful? “Because I was striving for quality, with the focus on technique,” she answers. “The social tango was more important than flashy steps.”

She would still like to continue being a tango host, but at a different place and under different terms. Meanwhile, her focus is on finding a suitable buyer who is ‘dancer-friendly’ and willing to continue this new tradition.

“I have tried to be a good steward of the house,” she says, “and I would like the house to be in the hands of someone who can also be a good steward.”

Photos courtesy of Weller House Inn

Like an avalanche

Orquesta Típica rehearsal

Ramiro Gallo directing students of an Orquesta Típica

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. The response to this first-ever international contest has been far greater than the organizers’ expectations. Fifty-five orchestras from countries in Asia, Australia, the United States, and Europe had initially applied, from which only ten were chosen. The candidates were asked to present their own arrangements with at least one by a modern composer. The submissions had to be sent in by video so that the judges could not only listen to the musical presentation, but also receive an impression of each band’s stage presence. When the finalists compete live on the stage of the CCK, they are going to play in front of a jury consisting of some the most accomplished artists of the contemporary tango world: Ramiro Gallo, Diego Schissi, Julián Peralta, Juan Carlos Cuacci, and Gustavo Margulies.

What will take place at the Centro Cultural Kirchner in the heart of Buenos Aires between February 12th and 19th marks a newly-found widespread appreciation of a musical genre which, until twenty years ago in most parts of the world, was hardly noticeable. For decades tango had played only a marginal role in the multifaceted international world of music. And even before, during the first half of the twentieth century, when tango was hugely popular and danced everywhere in the United States and Europe, only a few tango orchestras existed in countries outside Argentina. Instead, most Argentine tango musicians were classically trained musicians from Europe who would travel and perform with their orchestras in the United States and Europe.

Over the past twenty years, as Argentine tango has seen a revival, especially among younger people, it has attracted more and more musicians from different parts of the world, inspiring them to form their own bands. They are eager to master this musical style and to take it back to their own countries and communities. The best place for them to learn is still right here where it all began: in Buenos Aires.

A new generation of independent artists and musicians in the capital of Argentina has picked up that trend and begun to develop Tango Para Músicos as a specific and condensed program for musicians. The program takes place once a year. It offers a packed schedule during its six-day duration. Musicians are divided into intermediate and advanced levels based on their skills. For the intermediate level, a musician needs to know how to play and read music, and demonstrate a certain mastery of their instrument. To qualify for the advanced level, a candidate needs to be a highly accomplished, classically trained musician who wants to know how to play tango. Candidates have to apply by video, and are then put into the appropriate ensemble.

The teaching method of Tango Para Músicos is based on the Método de tango. This is a collection of course books which could be best explained to people unfamiliar with the subject as the ‘bible for tango musicians’. Método de tango is the first fundamental method for playing tango music. The collection includes six separate issues for flute, violin, contrabass, bandoneon, guitar, and piano. It was first published in 2010 by Ricordi in Munich, but since 2014 it has been published by Tango Sin Fin in Argentina. Método de tango is considered the essential source for tango musicians.

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Orquesta Típica ensemble performing at Elliot Hall Chapel

One of the authors is Paulina Fain. She wrote the issue on tango for flute. Based on her experience gained writing the book, she went on to put the method of teaching tango into practice, and created the Tango Para Músicos program with her husband Exequiel Mantega. “Our mission is to teach musicians what was not written on paper,” Paulina explains. “It’s sort of the ‘decodification’ of tango. We want to teach them how to make it happen.”

To make it happen from a practical point of view, the couple founded Tango Sin Fin, a non-profit organization dedicated mainly to promoting and developing Argentine tango music world-wide. ‘Tango Sin Fin’ translates to ‘Endless Tango’. Unlike in the United States, cultural programs in Argentina can receive governmental subsidies, and so, to no surprise, Tango Sin Fin is also supported by the Argentine government and the Ministry of Culture. Tango Para Músicos runs as an independent program within Tango Sin Fin.

Paulina talks at a speed of hundred miles per minute. She is bubbling with information. I have to interrupt her passionate flow of words several times to make sure that I don’t miss anything. Her own relationship with tango began long before she started the music program or even before she wrote the book on tango for flute. It was back in the mid-nineties, when there were only about ten tango musicians in Buenos Aires, she recalls. That’s when she and other musicians of her generation started to become aware of this genre which up until then had been closely connected in their memories with the so-called ‘dark times’ of their country. Until then, they played rock-and-roll and other music imported from the United States. “But when we started to play tango, something resonated in us and it felt deeper than everything else,” she says. This young Argentine generation, after having been disconnected from its own culture by military dictatorship, had discovered its roots.

Artistic Faculty

Members of the artistic faculty of the 2016 edition after a concert at Reed College’s Eliot Hall Chapel: Paulina Fain, Eva Wolff, Hernán Possetti, Adam Tully, Sofía Tosello, Ramiro Gallo and Exequiel Mantega.

What Paulina, her husband Exequiel, and everybody around them started only a short while ago resembles an avalanche. Only four years have passed since the first Tango Para Músicos program took place in Buenos Aires, and it has met with world-wide interest and recognition. How big an interest there is among musicians outside Argentina is shown, for example, by the fact that Reed College in Portland has adopted the program. Thanks to Morgan Luker, Associate Professor of Music at Reed College, whose special interest is in contemporary tango music in Buenos Aires, musicians closer to the United States can now take advantage of the same program on the American West Coast. Not only has Luker brought Tango For Musicians to Reed College in Portland every summer for the past five years, but he’s also been able to expand the program significantly. This coming June, for the first time, a program specifically designed for composers and arrangers will be offered: Tango For Composers including none other than award-winning pianist, composer, and arranger Diego Schissi.

Just as in Buenos Aires, the public is invited to attend certain concerts for free. Dancers and others who are not playing an instrument, but who are still interested in participating, can sign up for another newly created course called Auditors Track. It teaches basic knowledge about tango and its history, and offers participants access to rehearsals.

After the successful export of Tango Para Músicos to Portland, Paulina and Exequiel will be traveling to Japan, Australia, the United States, and Europe this year, where they have been invited to bring their program to certain schools. Paulina says that they would very much like to see it established on campuses around the world. But for the next few weeks their focus will be on Buenos Aires — and on that Sunday when the lights go up on some of the best tango ensembles in the world.

Tango Para Músicos takes place from February 12 through 19 in Buenos Aires. More information can be found on https://tangoparamusicos.org/

More on the Tango Sin Fin Awards can be found here: https://tangosinfin.wordpress.com/tangosinfinawards/

Tango for Musicians at Reed College takes place from June 25 – July 2, 2017. For more information go to http://www.reed.edu/tango/

Post it on TangoMango

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.

Don’t worry, most likely you wouldn’t have much success anyway in finding an event in Hamilton County, Nebraska (or in most other states all over the country) on TangoMango, even though the county itself appears on the website’s complete list of every state’s counties. Most organizers who are not close to one of the major metropolitan areas mentioned on TangoMango’s home page are unaware of the fact that they could easily post their event for free on this user-friendly nation-wide calendar, regardless of where they’re based. Instead, most tango teachers or hosts are more likely to promote their going-ons in the traditional and time-consuming ways of either sending out E-mail newsletters to a limited number of addressees on their own mailing lists, or by going through the process of creating separate web-listings, which, for people unfamiliar with the local tango scene, are hard to find.

TangoMango is a lot easier to use and reaches a much bigger audience. It’s the most comprehensive, and at the same time the most under-utilized, web service in Argentine tango. I’m curious to find out why. According to Stuart Schmukler of the Bay Area Argentine Tango Association (which maintains the site), TangoMango receives already as many as 10,000 hits a month from all over the country — even though most people search only a limited number of locations and only a relatively small number of locations have event listings.

tangomangohome

I’m trying to guess how many more visitors would click on the site if more organizers were to post their events on this free listing-service. Stuart assumes that the fact that the site remains unknown to most tangueros in the country could be because of the limited and somewhat misleading layout of the homepage. This might lead users to believe that only the highlighted metropolitan areas shown on the homepage are covered, namely ‘San Francisco & Northern California’, ‘Los Angeles & Southern California’, ‘Chicago Area’, and ‘Miami & Southern Florida’. The link ‘Other Cities’, at the bottom of the right-hand navigation column, seems to be too small for users to start a search for possible Argentine tango events in other communities, and as a result organizers don’t bother using the site for areas other than those highlighted on the homepage.

Once you dig down into the menu that starts with the link ‘Other Cities’, however, you’ll find an amazing wealth of possibilities. The menu allows you to post and to search for events in any specific location, however small or remote your community might be. You start the search for tango events by state, then in alphabetical order of counties in that state. The number of events in any particular county appears after its name and is clearly highlighted before you even click on it to get to the details. New locations can be added by organizers posting for the first time. Stuart explains that as webmaster he continues to add new places whenever he learns about an unlisted tango community.

TangoMango is thus a continually growing search-engine for Argentine tango. What sounds a bit pedestrian in comparison to major search-engines has actually been a labor of love, created in countless hours over many years with minimal funding by volunteers of the San Francisco tango community. It originally started as a community calendar created by David Hudsness in 2006 when he was a member of the Bay Area Argentine Tango Association. When Hudsness moved away, the Tango Association took it over, moved the system to another hosting server and stabilized it.

The unique web service fit right into The Bay Area Argentine Tango Association’s mission, which is to promote Argentine Tango. The association was founded in 1995 as a non-profit educational and cultural organization with the goal of holding public Argentine tango events, which up till then had only been held in private places. It started with just ten members when the cast of ‘Forever Tango’ took up residence in San Francisco, and Argentine tango suddenly became hugely popular. The Bay Area Argentine Tango Association then began not only to organize public tango events, but also to create newsletters and a tango lexicon with etiquette and codes, becoming more or less the main resource for everything tango. At its peak the association counted as many as 500 members who paid an annual fee of $35, but membership declined as information became widely available for free over the internet. Today, the association still holds approximately five to six public milongas at Union Square in San Francisco (known as ‘Tango in the Square’), and continues to support public dance events and other outreach programs. Its main flagship is TangoMango, but few people are aware of that.

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Tango in the Square is one of the public events organized by the Bay Area Argentine Tango Association. Photo by Stan-the-Rocker.

Stuart Schmukler, who is also the association’s president, has been the site’s webmaster ever since David Hudsness’ departure, maintaining it for the last couple of years. He works on it whenever his time allows, meaning when he’s not occupied with his job as a high-tech consultant in Silicon Valley or fulfilling his various other duties as head of the association. He keeps improving the site not just by continuously adding new locations, but by also adding links for resources such as tango literature and movies. He has even built a donation page to help keep the site running.

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Users can donate on TangoMango 

It’s extremely easy to use. “It’s a self-listing site,” Stuart explains, “and anybody can post. All you need is a user ID.” The site doesn’t even require a password. “We’ve done away with that,” he smiles. “Since most users are artists and can’t be bothered to remember such things as passwords.” By signing up for the website, you can post your own tango event in the clearly structured format that has been provided, including location, date, time and a short description. And then bingo! — once your event has been posted and goes live, it can easily be found by anybody from anywhere.

Even though the site is unique and easy to use, there have been many attempts to compete with it. Several people have tried to come up with other, supposedly better, tango calendar services, none of which have become reality. When I ask Stuart about this, he says: “I know! But surprisingly, none of these people have ever contacted us. We would have been open to new ideas, but all these people have tried to come up with something new by themselves.”

One last question: I’m curious to know where the name TangoMango came from? For the first time during our conversation, Stuart looks a bit embarrassed and admits that he doesn’t know. But then, who exactly knows where the name “Google” came from? In the end, what counts is that the name is easy to remember and that hopefully the site will continue to grow.

The site can be found at http://www.tangomango.org

The Tango Barn

The Tango Barn

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.

Fred and his wife Florence, known as Flo, are passionate tango dancers and proud owners of an old farmhouse outside the tiny village of Easton, close to the Vermont border. They have converted their historic post and beam barn, which dates back to the first half of the 19th century, into an impressive ballroom-style hall with one of the best dance floors I’ve ever set foot on — its quality is enough even to make some club owners in Buenos Aires blush. The long tables for communal potluck dinners before the milonga begins, provide a homey and comfortable feeling where strangers are easily welcome to the local tango community. Some Argentine guest artists who have stayed here – Mariana Galassi, Jorge Torres, Diego Blanco and Ana Padron, Michael Nadtochi, Orlando Farias, and Angeles Chanaha among them – have enjoyed the experience so much that they’d like to return. The reason is not only because of the barn itself, but also the extraordinary setting of this unique country property and the hospitality of Flo and Fred. “Mariana in particular loved the quiet mountain area,” reveals Fred. “She would disappear to go hiking by herself before teaching and dancing until late at night.”

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You wouldn’t think of this remote spot in rural New York as being a popular gathering place for Argentine tango dancers from near and far. How did this come about? Both Flo and Fred had lived in New York City for many years before they met – while dancing, of course — and fell in love. Soon after becoming a couple, they decided to leave the city and to move to a quieter part of the East Coast. It had to be somewhere between New York City, where Fred still has a job, and Upstate New York, where Flo’s family is rooted. Flo recalls after almost twenty years of living in Manhattan they felt the need for a quieter lifestyle. They started by scouting the area a few hours north of New York City for a new home. It took a lot of searching and quite some time before they discovered this almost forgotten abandoned farm, built probably in the early 1820s, hidden and tucked away under trees, located near what is now a dairy farm off a remote country road leading up to Willard Mountain. “I don’t remember how many places we looked at,” says Flo. “But when we finally discovered this old farmhouse, we just knew this was the right place.”

I find this hard to believe when I hear what they tell me next. When they first found it, both the farmhouse and the barn were occupied by squirrels and raccoons and in such bad shape that no local bank would consider giving them a loan. To make matters worse, the property was so entangled in bankruptcy proceedings and back taxes that it took almost two years to sort out who owned it.  After more than two years a purchase agreement was worked out with creditors and a bank in nearby Vermont approved their loan request. Finally Flo and Fred could claim the farm as their own. While admiring their persistence, I still don’t understand why they hadn’t walked away at some point during this difficult process. What was the draw? “The draw was the setting,” says Flo. “There was a feeling about it.”

barn10In the end it took them about ten years to get the house into the beautiful condition it’s in today. Step-by-step, while both of them were still working full-time, and with the help of family and friends, they turned the badly neglected building into their dream home. All that time their focus was set on the house. They didn’t dare to think about the adjacent barn – although they always fantasized about having a dance barn.

But then, just when they thought they were done and could get on with the rest of their life, Flo’s niece called from Vienna with the news that she was getting married – and that she wanted her wedding to take place at their farm! Needless to say, the wedding was supposed to include dancing. There wasn’t enough space in the actual house for dancing, so Flo and Fred rolled up their sleeves once more and got to work on the barn. “First of all we had to empty out all the old machines and equipment and piles of 25-year old hay,” recalls Fred. “You wouldn’t believe what we found in all that rotten hay!” adds Flo. The barn was lopsided and unsafe. But once again with lots of help from Flo’s family, they turned the old barn into a modernized and charming place with art work on the walls and an eclectic mix of antique and modern design elements. For the dance floor, Fred first poured a concrete base to create protection from moisture. Then he put in heat and finally installed a beech floor with used wood flooring from a military base that had been closed.

When the work was done, Flo hung up two chandeliers over the dance floor for the wedding. They give the place an almost magical touch at night. “That’s when we started calling it the Cinderella Barn,” she laughs.

The wedding was a success, but having turned the old barn into a festive space, the question was now what to do with it? Both being dedicated dancers with not enough opportunities to follow their passion, they decided to open the barn for tango dancers and become hosts for visiting guest artists and to organize milongas. Not only that, but they also designed their own t-shirts featuring the ‘MOO-longa’ logo and two dancing cows. They raffle off the t-shirts – together with their honey from their bee hives— during milongas, and as a result the ‘MOO-longa’ shirts are all over the world. In the meantime they’re about to get into a new kind of business: a distillery, where they produce eau-de vie from their own apple trees. Do they ever get tired, I wonder? “It is a lot of work,” admits Fred. But as Flo adds: “It’s great to breathe life back into a 1820s house that today provides wonderful tango and many other special experiences.”

Photos courtesy of Flo and Fred Luckey

Life after Winning the Title

Life after Winning the Title

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.

“How does it feel not being in Buenos Aires where the Tango Mundial is taking place right now,” I want to know. They both agree that it’s okay and that they are not emotional or sad about not being part of the event this time. “Being in Buenos Aires is always a treat for us,” says Stephanie. “It’s like recharging batteries. But this time we just have too much on our plates.” Instead, Stephanie has other exciting news: she was just chosen by Arizona State University to teach the university’s prestigious Tango Club. This is a rare opportunity at an American public educational institution to bring Argentine tango to a motivated younger crowd of people who are still completely in ‘study mode’. The ASU Tango Club’s program starts with the beginning of the new school year in September. For Stephanie and Nicholas, who is going help with the teaching, it means carving out time from what had originally been reserved for building up their own dance studio, which they only began earlier this year.

Now another exciting opportunity has just come along. It’s early Sunday morning, and they are both bubbling with news and excitement. We are on a Skype call and I can watch while they are driving. The big news is that they have just been invited to audition for the highly acclaimed tango show, Arrabal, which had its world premiere in Toronto two years ago and is soon coming to New York City. “We don’t have the gig yet,” says Nicholas humbly when I congratulate them both on being selected for the audition. “For now it just means we’re not getting enough sleep!”

It seems like they are building a solid career for themselves. So many new opportunities. “Is this the result of having won the Tango USA Championship two years earlier,” I want to know. “How has winning that title changed their lives?” For the first time during our conversation they are silent for a few seconds. Then Nicholas says that it was the moment when he decided to become a full-time professional tango dancer. “I had the choice between becoming a geographic information scientist and splitting my time between that job and dancing, or becoming a professional dancer,” he says. “Since I don’t like sitting at a computer all day long, it was clear which path to choose.” Together with Stephanie, who had already been a full-time professional ballroom teacher, he went from being a part-time dance instructor to a full-time tango dancer and instructor. Since then they have competed in six major competitions and trained several of their dance students to compete. They are particularly proud of having coached John Demenkoff and Diana Bradshaw, the winners of the Senior Salon Tango category of this year’s Tango USA Championship. “We get so excited when our students are out there on the competition floor!” laughs Stephanie. “We cheer them on and we jump up and down and we shout like parents at their kids’ high school soccer match!”

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Do you recognize them? – A shot from Stephanie and Nicholas in ‘real life’.

 

Not everyone who likes to dance tango wants to become a professional. What indeed would be the point for most tango dancers of competing? Nicholas and Stephanie both become quite passionate: “Competing is an opportunity to set yourself a goal,” explains Stephanie. “People who come to us are enthusiastic about tango and they would like to have an incentive. Working towards a goal like a competition gives their dancing a tremendous boost. It’s a competition with yourself, a journey, and it forces you to push yourself.” Nicholas adds: “We look at competing in a healthy way. It encourages people to altogether take better care of themselves.”

What do they recommend for improving one’s dancing and what do they do to stay at their best? “We firmly believe in cross-training,” says Nicholas. Pilates, yoga, weight training, and ballet are part of their training regimen. And they are constantly investigating in different ways of looking at tango. Stephanie, who has been dancing ballet since childhood, also studies anatomy, using that knowledge of the human body in her teaching.

Having reached this high level of dancing, is there still anybody in the tango world from whom they can learn? “Of course, definitely!” they both agree. Aside from working on maintaining their own sophisticated level of dancing, they try to keep up with new trends in tango, which keeps changing. “We feel a need to stay on top of the industry standard, so to speak, and to break new ground all the time.” Speaking of breaking new ground, I remark on Stephanie’s noticeably blond hairstyle on stage. While most ladies choose a classic slick black Argentine tango hairstyle on stage, Stephanie turns into some kind of blond bombshell on the floor, immediately attracting attention. How did she come up with this this almost outrageous look for tango? “It’s something I’ve developed from ballroom dancing,” she giggles. “It’s not really me, anybody can look like that.” Since she is a brunette in real life, I wonder how Nicholas feels about the dramatic transformation of his partner on stage. “I don’t really see it,” he answers evasively. “I focus on feeling and connecting with her.”

I’m not sure whether to believe that or not, but since they have reached their destination, we have to end our conversation and say our goodbyes. Now I’m more curious than ever to see where this energetic young couple is going to go…

 

 

 

 

 

Ambassadors of Tango

Ambassadors of Tango

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.

After taking a deep breath, Beatrice and Terence, both long-time tango dancers, got to work: they stepped onto the floor and invited people to join them. Their plan had been to simply teach the tango eight-step basic, not expecting that many of these first-time tango students would really be able to manage it. But at the end of the lesson almost everybody danced the basic eight-step, some actually quite well, others in some kind of… well, let’s call it ‘freestyle’. But best of all, all those one hundred and fifty people who had been waiting in their chairs, including children, stayed through the end, creating a happily whirling and twirling mass. “It was such a wonderful thing that everybody was out on the dance floor, old and young, and even children.” Beatrice raved. “It was a huge success!”

Beatrice Bowles and Terence Clarke consider themselves ‘Ambassadors of tango’. In real life, they are writers. Beatrice does audio recordings, the latest one being a children’s book with music titled The Girl Who Said NO! Terence is the author of nine books, the most recent a novel titled The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro. Both love dancing tango because, as they express it, “tango is a perfect balance for the mind and the body…with considerable soul thrown in.”

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Ambassadors of tango: Beatrice Bowles and Terence Clarke have been bringing the hugely popular public milongas to the de Young for many years.

With the lesson ending, the actual big event of the night, the milonga with live music by San Francisco’s Trio Garufa, began. A sizeable number of the Bay Area’s Argentine tango community appeared and danced along with some of the newly converted dancers who had stayed after the previous tango lesson. Trio Garufa has been Beatrice’s and Terence’s orchestra of choice ever since they started organizing the free Argentine tango event at the de Young ten years ago. “Trio Garufa’s tango music speaks to people both in and outside of tango,” says Beatrice. “They keep getting better and better in tying people in.” After all, the actual mission of the tango night at the de Young is to get tango more attention — and a boost for the museum. “People get to see the priceless treasures of the museum,” she continues. “And many of them get exposed to Argentine tango for the first time.”

What seems like an odd mix has actually been a successful relationship right from the beginning. The tango event attracts people who otherwise would not come and see an exhibition at a museum. But when Beatrice and Terence initially approached the museum, they were not sure at all how their proposal for a tango event at the de Young would be received. They were prepared to encounter the same barriers they had first met at the Ferry Building where they were by now running a free tango event. “Our initial idea had been to bring a milonga to a public place,” explains Beatrice. Since she knew the people who ran the iconic Ferry Building, she and Terri asked them what they would think about a tango event. At first, the Ferry Building’s management was skeptical: how do food and wine and restaurants tie in with tango? Somehow the couple managed to convince them. And to their own surprise, the Friday night milonga was immediately a huge success. A lot of tango dancers showed up, and even though they didn’t consume any wine or much food, the people who run the Ferry Building understood that the event attracted a lot of attention to the place. It has been a regular annual event ever since.

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Girls love tango too!

Next, being both museum lovers, they thought of a similar event at the de Young. They had carefully laid out their strategy of how to propose the idea over lunch to the then head of the museum, John Buchanan (who since has passed away). But already after Terri’s second sentence — ‘we are thinking of a tango event’ — Buchanan interrupted him with a full-hearted ‘yes!’

“He was a very open-minded person who understood that the museum could benefit from such a free public event,” says Beatrice. What made it a lot easier this time was the fact that the museum had a small budget making it possible to pay Trio Garufa as well as Terry for DJing. Not sure what turnout to expect, they were astonished that so many people showed up for the very first event. The magical combination of music and museum seemed to have worked. At some point Beatrice, who is a passionate photographer, went to the balcony upstairs and looked down at the crowd which, as she remembers it, looked like ‘a black-and-red peony’.

The combination of live music and dancing is apparently a festive and successful way of bringing people in. But organizing and promoting the event took a lot of work: for the first few years the couple printed flyers and handed them out wherever they went; they created e-mail lists; used social media; and did a lot of different PR. Now that word has spread, most of the PR is done by the de Young’s public program director, Renée Baldocchi, and by continuing word-of-mouth. “We’ve got the whole organizing pretty much under control by now,” explains Beatrice. But they don’t want to stop here. Their next project after the annual spring/summer event at the de Young and tango on Valentine’s Day at the Ferry Building, is to host tango on Thanksgiving Day at the de Young’s sister museum, The Legion of Honor. But that’s not the end of it by far: “We could also envision organizing tango at a museum in New York,” smiles Beatrice. “Or in Paris or in Venice! Who knows?”

Pictures courtesy of Beatrice Bowles.