The El V Story

ElV-byStanleyWu-1024x683

The last milonga at El Valenciano. Photo by Stanley Wu.

 

“Where did the time go?” asks Julian Ramil, and as they both shake their heads his wife Claudia repeats: “Yes, where did the time go?” We were talking about El V, one of the best-known milongas in San Francisco and beyond, and which was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on May 30th at the very same venue where it started in 1996. However, at the time when I was talking to the Ramils in early April, El V was about to close its doors forever. It looked like the much anticipated 20th anniversary celebration was not going to happen. The proprietor of El Valenciano, the restaurant/bar/dance club which had served as the venue of this popular tango social, had decided to sell the business. The Ramils, together with other long-time tenants of the dance club, had received notice about the termination of their lease, that very afternoon of the last milonga. This meant they had to break the news to both the local and the wider tango community — and find a new venue quickly.

“It didn’t exactly come as a surprise,” said the Ramils, who founded the El V milonga in 1996, and who had been hosting it ever since. The building is located at a prime location in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. Since real estate prices have been skyrocketing for a number of years, driving less-than-above-average income residents together with smaller dance and music events out of this part of town, the Ramils suspected that their Tuesday night milonga – one of the longest-running Argentine tango events in the Bay Area – would sooner or later come to an end. It was only a matter of time before the restaurant/bar would be put on the market for sale, and force them to look for a new venue, thus becoming yet another victim of gentrification. Many popular tango and dance venues, such as Studio 1924 in Oakland, and numerous other ballroom dance studios in the Bay Area, had suffered the same fate in recent years.

There had been some previous issues: since the passing away of the previous owner a few years ago and the subsequent taking over of the business by another owner (his ex-wife), the venue had not been running as smoothly as patrons had been accustomed to. Neither the dance club, which also hosted salsa and swing events on a regular basis, nor the bar could obtain a liquor license without the operation of the restaurant. So in order for the dance club and the bar to remain open for dance events late at night, the restaurant had to remain open, too. However, the tango dancers who came for the Tuesday night milonga were not so much interested in having a meal as simply enjoying a drink while focusing on having a good time dancing. Consequently, the tango crowd didn’t generate enough income for the business – a common problem with tango events that take place at restaurants or bars.

During my last visit to El Valenciano in the winter, I couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant had lost much of its appeal. The once popular authentic Spanish eatery with its Moorish-style alcoves and colorful murals had long been known for its delicious food and warm hospitality. Now it looked like it was due for a much needed make-over. Nevertheless, the Tuesday night El V milonga in the classy backroom remained as lively as ever. It was still a very popular spot where one could always encounter a particularly large number of professional and other high-level tango dancers. It was still on the ‘A-list’ for visiting Argentine tango dancers from all over the world as it had been for many years. Not surprisingly, I often found myself being asked about El V in San Francisco by dancers in far-away places such as rural New York State as well as cosmopolitan Barcelona – a phenomenon that was not expected in its humble beginnings.

“It really started just as an after-party of Verdi Club in 1996”, recalls Julian Ramil. When San Francisco became the residence of the cast of Forever Tango, people often hosted private tango events at their homes. Verdi Club, Ruvano’s and Broadway Studios were pretty much the only public places in San Francisco to dance tango. El Valenciano in those days was popular with the salsa and swing crowd. It featured a stage and a small dance floor surrounded by a semi-circle of tables and club chairs. When Julian started to hang out with a small group of tango dancers after Thursday night’s milonga at Verdi Club, he tried playing some tango tunes. Since the small tango community liked it and would ask for more, he decided to start a small milonga on Tuesday nights. Inspired by one of his favorite milongas in Buenos Aires at the time, the Almagro, Julian wanted to create a small, intimate place with a pleasant crowd and no security. He succeeded and named his new milonga Ramilonga Del Valenciano. It became the home of a tight community, “…a place where the die-hards would hang out,” he says. Somehow over time people started to refer to it as El Valenciano, then eventually El V, and that’s how it eventually became known.

The setting was certainly part of the success, but so was the music. For the first five years, Julian was the only DJ playing the tunes every Tuesday night. “I love the music and I want to share it,” he explains. Only slowly would he start to approach the idea that perhaps every now and then he needed a break and needed someone to fill in for him. That’s when he asked Glenn Corteza to take turns. Glenn playing the music was an equal success with the dancers. Over time they asked other tango DJs for whom they had high regard, and so Felipe Martinez, Christopher Nassopoulos, Rina Gendelman, and Shorey Myers also became regulars at El V.

In 2003, the popular milonga had to close its doors for a short while. But within less than a year, El V was back. By now the Argentine tango fever had spread widely, and the Bay Area tango community had grown to a substantial size. At the same time, the first local Argentine tango orchestras were founded and started to perform. Julian, a bandoneonist himself, decided it was time to take advantage of the small stage in El Valenciano’s backroom, and he invited the newly formed local orchestra, The San Francisco Tango Orchestra directed by Roman Rosso to play. In later years local orchestras such as Trio Garufa, Pablo Motta, and Seth Asarnow with his Sexteto Tipico all performed at El V, to the delight of the tango crowd. Both Julian and Claudia Ramil, being full-time professional teachers and performers, managed to keep El V on the cutting edge of Argentine tango during all those years. “It was like going to an art event,” as they described it.

Balancoire_Ramilonga

The new Ramilonga Balançoire

When they had to leave the beloved venue, and the tango community fell into mourning over the loss of the place, the Ramils seemed to be the only ones who didn’t appear distraught. They had already been looking ahead, well-prepared for a change. Within days of the announcement that this time El V was closing its doors for good, they had signed a new lease with Balancoire Restaurant and Club on Mission Street, only a few blocks from the old venue. Seamlessly, they opened their new milonga at a bigger, newer venue. Their loyal tango community followed without missing a beat. For a few weeks now the Tuesday night tango crowd can be found on 2565 Mission Street, and that’s where El V’s 20th anniversary will take place – but now under the name Ramilonga Balancoire.

 

Advertisements

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.

Weller House

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

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.”

barn6

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

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.”

Beatrice&Terence

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.

Trio Garufa (003)

GIRL Tango (002)

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.