The El V Story

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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.

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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.

Tango with an Ice Champion

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Evelyn Meier as a young ice skater

Since getting into Argentine tango I’ve met some pretty interesting people. People whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and whose fascinating stories I would have never known. And I don’t even mean the professionals — the teachers and performers who stand out anyway, and whose lives seem to be so much more interesting than those of us ‘regular folks’ with jobs and families and mortgages and so on. No, I’ve met some really interesting people among the social dancing crowd. People who one day trust you enough so they begin to reveal their own personal history, which is sometimes permeated with deep personal tragedy — or, quite the opposite, with some really thrilling life experiences — so that you inadvertently shout out ‘Wow!’ in the middle of the dance floor. People who, through their own unique experiences, have gained a particular perspective on life which reflects on how they perceive tango.

One of these is a resolute petite lady called Evelina by her tango friends, but whose real name is Evelyn Meier (which already reveals her background: Swiss-German). I picked her out of this group of special characters whom I’ve gotten to know over time because with her eighty-something years she never ceases to surprise me, often makes me chuckle, and has become a kind of a role model for me as a furiously independent lady, an astonishingly versatile and technically proficient tango and ballroom dancer, and as a meticulous observer and instructor. I also admire her creative mind and great crafting skills, which she uses artfully to provide the décor for more tango events than you can imagine.

I met her in Woodstock, NY, where she moved more than ten years ago after having spent most of her life in New York City. She has been a fixture of the New York tango scene for many years, both as a social dancer as well as a driving force behind countless tango events. These days, when asked, she might even still teach privately in her spacious living room (which has been a bit challenging of late after she crashed through the ceiling while cleaning up her attic, leaving the space underneath, where she teaches tango, in shambles for a couple of weeks). However, students who are not accustomed to the drill of learning basic technique and who might expect Evelyn to turn them into exquisite dancers overnight, should know about her strict credo: “I teach people according to what they can do, what their bodies can do, not what they should do.” As she formulates it: “You can’t change the limitations of your body, but you can change your attitude.”

Evelyn can often be seen sitting next to the dance floor, watching the scene intensely, following the dancers with her bright eyes in a highly interested and curious manner. Every now and then someone captures her special attention. Then, during a cortina, she approaches them with a determined, yet well-meaning and encouraging attitude. I’ve overheard her making little remarks like: “You dance beautifully! If it’s not too uncomfortable for you, I’d really like to dance with you later — if and when you feel like it!” If she gets a positive response and dances with that person, she may even make small a suggestion: “I’ve watched your dancing and I love it, but I think you would look even better if you’d …”

I’ve often wondered where she gets the guts to approach people in such a direct way. Her observations are always spot-on. Whether or not somebody has a foot pronation, falls into a step or is not on axis, has little or no flexion in the extended back leg — in her opinion, a mistake most followers make — nothing escapes Evelyn’s sharp and trained eye.

When I found out that she had been a long-time ice- and roller-skater who won four national titles in competitive free-skating, I finally understood: her early hard training has shaped her approach to dancing. Everything she learnt in these disciplines from a young age on, she rightfully applies to dancing.

‘You do not step into a movement’ is one of her basic rules in Argentine tango that she took from ice-skating. ‘You move into a movement’. It has left many social tango dancers puzzled or disagreeing with her. “But all pros agree with me and understand!” she points out. Whenever she has this discussion with a professional like Junior Cervila or Jorge Torres regarding bodyweight transference, foot placement, and its correlation to other forms of dance, they reply with an unquestionable ‘of course!’ “The way you move into a move and out of a move is similar in tango and in skating,” she continues. “Just look at a molinette, or an ocho — the figure eight in tango comes from the loops in ice skating. Just look at the loops of the ocho and how they come together — it’s the same movement!”

Evelyn dancing tango

A picture from more recent days: Evelyn dancing tango with Anton Person-Gazenbeek

Evelyn first began ice-skating at age four when her mother took her to the lake in Central Park, close to their home, “not the wealthy neighborhood back then that is has become now!” she remarks. Her Swiss-born mother, like a lot of women of her generation, was a fan of the legendary Norwegian Olympic figure skater and Hollywood star Sonja Henie. She wanted her young daughter, who at the time was still so little that her dog pulled her over the ice, to be like this famous champion. She signed Evelyn up for her first classes with Pierre Brunet who also taught Olympic Champion Carol Heiss. He became Evelyn’s first instructor when she was ten. (“These days they get them started at age two!” she says, looking doubtful.) At the same time she was put in tap-dance and ballet classes where, as she says, she began to understand movement. But ice-skating was not much of a recognized sport in the 1930s, and it was expensive. Her mother took a job to pay for her classes. “Then came the war and more important things went on,” she recalls. She stopped ice-skating at age fourteen, only to discover roller-skating a year later. “It was similar to ice-skating, and there were only slight changes of movement,” she explains. She trained hard to reach a higher level as a roller-skate-dancer; by age nineteen she had become a State Champion and a Regional Champion, and had taken very close second places in the American Championship.

With so many titles under her belt as a roller-skate-dancer, she went back to her first love — the ice —only to find out that she was already too old for free-skating. But her passion for the ice prevailed and instead of giving up, she transitioned into ice-dance and tracing figures which required sharp and clean edges and transitions of body weight from one foot to the other.

“What was different from free-skating,” she remembers, drawing circles in the air with her fingers, “were the jumps and leaps.” She not only had to learn to do the figures, but also to find her center, axis, and balance. “If one of those things was not in place, the whole thing was not working!” (Just as in Argentine tango, she reminds me again!) To the surprise of her teachers, she jumped higher than others “— because I was used to the weight of the rollers!” She learnt when the body had to shift, before and after a jump, together with something else very important: “The first thing you have to know in ice-skating is how to fall.” Was she ever afraid of the leaps and jumps, I want to know? She replies with what she calls her ‘Axel experience’: “When fear sets in in any kind of sport, it’s real. You can’t just ignore it. When you fight it, you fall.”

Nevertheless, the most rewarding experience in ice- and roller-skating was completing fully-rotated jumps with speed and height, and “being paired with a partner in dance to enjoy the perfect harmony of two people doing the same thing with exactness and complete trust in each other”. “In tango, I call it ‘Giving and Receiving’ rather than ‘Leading and Following’,” she says. “It’s an equal partnership — the only way to achieve proficiency.”

Evelyn stopped competing at age twenty-one for two reasons: she had to earn a living, and she wanted to move on with life. “I didn’t want to become a rink rat — somebody who does not see what’s outside skating. I was there, as they say. But then I really wanted to be an artist and a teacher.” She became an embroidery designer, one of the last ones of this artful trade, but continued to skate and dance on ice until she was forty. A few years later, she started ballroom dancing and immediately achieved gold-level. She began teacher training class and quickly learned both to lead and to follow.

Evelyn as a leader

Taking the lead

In 1992, however, she broke away from ballroom because of its exclusivity, similar to her earlier experience in ice skating, and stopped dancing completely. It took her a long time and several attempts to get into tango, but when she finally did, she was hooked. Having spent the better part of her childhood and early adult years on skates, her body has definitely absorbed a lot more than most dancers, and again she learnt at an astonishingly fast pace.

She believes, however, that you can start to dance at any age. Her fundamental approach is that ‘a person has to stand straight up from their nose to their toes!’ Nevertheless, she knows all too well how much of an effort this can be for a lot of new dancers. “After thirty-eight years on the drawing board, my body has a natural curve, and it is an effort for me to stand up straight.”

She still participates in classes and workshops, never too tired to learn more. “Never put yourself above your level, but put yourself at the lowest part,” she says. “Learning tango is a very long process — and you have to enjoy the journey.”

An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York

An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York

In the summer of 2015 I attended a concert in Berkeley, CA, given by a young and fairly unknown tango group from Buenos Aires, Orquesta Victoria. The music they performed that night at Berkeley’s well-known performance venue, Freight and Salvage, struck me as unusual and fascinating. It had a strong message and was delivered with the kind of verve that comes from deep down inside. It was not your usual Argentine tango music. There were a few performances by local professional dancers, but their dancing just underlined the message of the music and was almost a distraction from the band’s performance. The orchestra had just arrived from Argentina on their first tour in the USA to promote an album that they had recorded by San Francisco composer, Debora Simcovich.

Simcovich herself is from Argentina, having barely escaped her home country shortly before the 1976 military coup which lead to a dictatorship that lasted until 1983. Recently she connected with this young group from Buenos Aires which plays the music that people of her generation were either not able to play or not interested in playing. Earlier this summer I became interested in Simcovich’s background and interviewed her. What I learned about her story – of being an Argentinian composer with a Jewish background and now living in San Francisco – was so captivating that we ended up talking for four hours. Needless to say, only a fraction of what I learned that evening made it into my blog: https://andreastangosite.com/2016/06/30/music-with-a-punch/.

She told me that the orchestra was in the middle of recording her second album, El Mundo is the World, and that they would return for another tour on the West Coast to promote this new album in November. When I learned later that the band was actually arriving in New York first, and spending a few days there before the major part of their tour began in California, I innocently asked if they were interested in performing in Upstate New York. Their immediate reply was “Yes!” I quickly discussed the possibility of extra performances with my partner and we agreed to look for some New York venues. The National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs was quick to host a concert this coming Friday, November 4. Equally keen was the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock, where the group will perform the following evening, on November 5. Since there is a widespread tango community in the Hudson Valley, we figured there would be enough people interested in the rare opportunity to hear a young and authentic twelve-piece orchestra from Buenos Aires. We certainly hope that enough people with an interest in Argentine tango music delivering a strong social and political message will come and listen to what is going to be predominantly a concert, but which will also offer the opportunity to dance.

It’s been a lot of work getting the word out and organizing the upcoming two concerts. Communicating with the group, which is based in Buenos Aires, hasn’t always been easy. But I finally managed to reach the orchestra’s founder and manager, Ezequiel ‘Cheche’ Ordóñez (who by the way is the grandson of chess grandmaster, Miguel Najdorf), and attempted to conduct an interview with him first by Skype and then by phone. Unfortunately, the connection between Woodstock and Buenos Aires was so bad that we could barely hear each other and we finally gave up, agreeing that I would send him my questions by email—  to which he then responded in writing.

Here is what he said:

AB: How did you discover tango for yourself?

EO: Like most young musicians in Argentina I first discovered tango through Astor Piazzolla, and then through Roberto Goyeneche, Ánibal Troilo, and Horacio Salgan.
AB: What is your actual musical background?

EO: As a youth I studied classic piano, then in secondary school I studied conducting, and then began my career working as a tango pianist. About ten years ago I began to teach myself bandoneon.

AB: How did you get the idea to form an orchestra?

EO: Like Alejandro Drago (our pianist and arranger) I had a quartet, and we both needed to find a more orchestral sound, above all with more strings.

AB: How do you select your pieces?

EO: In general it depends on the particular project we’re involved with, but we always try to keep the compositions and arrangements in line with the orchestra’s identity.

AB: What is most challenging about managing a 12-piece orchestra?

EO: Everything, hahaha! Transportation, lodging, hospitality — everything is difficult and expensive, hahaha!

AB: Have the members changed overtime?

EO: Yes, six of us have remained the same since the beginning but the rest have changed.

AB: What kind of tango do you personally prefer (traditional/modern)?

EO: Mmmm, traditional, but with more modern arrangements, but still respecting the basic tango style, above all the rhythm.

AB: Tell me how you met Debora Simcovich and how your relationship has evolved?

EO: She heard us in Bs. As. at our milonga at Café Vinilo and suggested we record her music. We listened to her work and it seemed very interesting. From there we became good friends and now we’re presenting a second album of her music.

AB: Aside from Debora’s compositions, have you recorded other tango music?

EO: Yes, a lot. The orchestra already has three other albums of traditional material as well as our own works.

AB: What is it like to perform for a concert audience versus a dance audience?

EO: It’s very different. For a concert we choose a repertoire suitable for the room, for a milonga we pay more attention to rhythm and danceable numbers.
AB: What are your expectations for the upcoming US tour?

EO: The truth is that fortunately this is already the second time we’re coming. Last year everything was marvelous: the theaters, the production, the people, everything. We’re hoping this year will be the same and we’ll be able to return many more times. I hope it works out.

Orquesta Victoria performs at the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs this coming Friday, November 4, at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased in advance at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2667881

More information about the event at the Dance Museum can be found at:

https://www.evensi.us/orquesta-victoria-at-the-national-museum-of-dance-national/187993126

Orquesta Victoria performs at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock the following evening, Saturday, November 5, at 8 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Advance tickets can be purchased at http://www.ticketmaster.com/event/000051354C12D993

More information about the concert at the Bearsville Theater can be found here: http://www.bearsvilletheater.com/events-calendar/orquesta-victoria

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.

Trio Garufa (003)

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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.

Music with a punch

Music with a punch

Most people associate tango music with a form of dance. That’s not necessarily so. Tango music can be a pure musical pleasure, an exciting listening experience, but hard to dance to.

Take for example Débora Simcovich’s compositions. If you happened to catch one of her concerts last summer in the Bay Area, performed by the acclaimed Orquesta Victoria from Buenos Aires, you will have noticed that a lot of her songs were not very danceable. They do not speak of love and broken hearts — in contrast to most of the popular tango music that we hear at dance halls and clubs, usually from a male perspective and delivered by a male singer. In her music she speaks of her own reflections on life, and she addresses issues of social or political nature. “My music has content,” she says. Her focus is on the message and she delivers it with a punch — a skill which she learned in her younger years by writing jingles for ad agencies — and she delivers the punch regardless of whether the music is danceable or not. So it’s not surprising that Simcovich’s tango music is more popular among classical concert audiences than in the world of dancers.

In Se te va la costumbre, one of her early compositions and the opening song of her 2015 album, La media cuadra inmortal, for instance, she talks about how people are getting used to being oppressed without realizing it. The song is basically a reflection of her own observations during the military dictatorship in Argentina when superficially life seemed to remain the same while political oppression and injustice destroyed the country and its people’s lives with Nazi-like methods.

The song was written more than three decades ago, but ever since she has continued to address political issues in her tango music. Listen for example to one of her latest compositions, Alberto, in which she tackles yet another controversial topic. The song is dedicated to Alberto Nisman, the Argentinian federal prosecutor who was killed in January 2015 while investigating the bombing case of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, the equivalent of the Jewish Federation in the US and umbrella organization of all the Jewish institutions in Argentina, back in 1994. The topic is highly controversial not just in Argentina. Simcovich dedicated her piece only later to Nisman, when she realized it was really about him, and then added the lyrics. Her musical composition was praised by its own merits by Orquesta Victoria, who recently recorded Alberto at a studio in Buenos Aires as part of Simcovich’s new album, El Mundo is the World. They felt it was a very powerful composition which stands by itself musically and conveys the tragedy that inspired it – so powerful that the musicians even preferred to leave out the lyrics. The tango with the lyrics, however, will be performed during the upcoming tour in November in the United States on a promotional tour for the album. Aside from ten of her original compositions, the new album also contains two classics from the 1930es which Simcovich completely recreated; she even translated the lyrics into English.

 

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Composer Débora Simcovich

This will be the second time that Orquesta Victoria releases an album with tango music written by Débora Simcovich. This group of twelve young, energetic, and classically trained musicians seems to have a magical connection with the Buenos Aires-born composer. She discovered the orchestra by chance one night a few years ago when helping a stranger to find her way on a visit to her native city. “There I stood suddenly,” she recalls, “listening to these young people playing tango! They were the same age that I was when I had to leave Argentina. And now they could play the music that at the time we didn’t play because people my age just were not interested in it.” It was an emotional moment for her.

But even deeper connections came to light during the following days: The orchestra’s leader, Ezequiel “Cheche” Ordoñez, turned out to be the nephew of one of Simcovich’s childhood friends — a daughter of celebrated chess grandmaster Miguel Najdorf. As a child, Débora frequently went to the Najdorf house to do her homework and to play with both daughters. On these occasions her father would see the famous chess player. Both men shared the same roots: both were Jewish and both had left their Polish home country.

She calls it intuition. “Everything in my life is intuition,” she says. “I’ve always followed my intuitions, in my compositions as well as in my life.”

She recalls how she started composing music when she was only six or seven years old and how, at the time, being too young to read or notate music, she intuitively composed in her head and then played it on her guitar and sang. That’s pretty much the way she has been doing it ever since: “I’ve always been an intuitive composer.” Then poetry entered her life. During her high school years she enrolled in playwright classes and began writing poems. But it was not until one of her early mentors, a producer at RCA records, encouraged her to ‘put music into her poetry’, that she actually started to compose her own music for her poems. Now when she composes, she says: “The music and the lyrics come together at once.”

In doing so, Débora Simcovich faces several major issues: Firstly, she is a female composer in a macho world where women traditionally don’t have a voice; they are being talked about, sung about, and they are the subject of almost every song in Argentine tango. Women dance and sing tango, but women, at least in the early days, did not write tango — and this stigma still prevails. Secondly, Simcovich is a Jewish woman in a society where anti-Semitism is still widely predominant (see the above-mentioned bombing of the AMIA), which is quite bizarre especially in the world of tango where many of the early tango musicians were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They had received their classical musical training in countries like Russia and Poland and had a great influence on the tango music of their new home country, Argentina. And finally: “People want to listen to the music that they already know,” says Simcovich. Meaning that people are not really open to new forms of Argentine tango, such as her own compositions.

 

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Buenos Aires-based Orquesta Victoria: on tour in the US again with new music by Débora Simcovich in November 2016

 

 

Still, that doesn’t stop her from doing what she feels is her responsibility as an artist. She recalls her humble beginnings as a ‘cultural ambassador’ of Argentina, touring US colleges and universities with her own tango compositions. She had saved about fifty pieces of her own work and took them with her when she left Argentina hastily on a military plane, two weeks before the military officially took over. The bizarre story of her narrow escape was a result of yet another intuitive action of hers: she had claimed to be the niece of a high-ranking officer with a mission to tour Latin America with her tango compositions. It worked. They flew her to El Salvador the following day and she gave her first concert at the Argentinian Embassy. Then she indeed was on a tango tour through several countries, sponsored by university and other cultural programs, and eventually ended up in the United States. But she soon got bored and felt misunderstood by her audiences: “People outside Argentina didn’t really understand tango,” she says. She stopped and turned towards a different career. But when, a few years later, she was asked to perform one of her songs with Dr. Loco* at a Peña, a gathering of musicians in San Francisco’s Mission District, she received such an overwhelming response that she knew: “People need it and you have to give it to them! Their lives are enhanced by my music!” It may not be as much for dancing as some of the songs of the Golden Age, but it’s certainly great tango.

 

 

*Dr. Loco’s Rockin’ Jalapeno Band is a local San Francisco band whose mission is to keep Chicano music alive.

 

All photos by Paula Abramovich