‘Life on the road’ with María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer

María, the singer, and María, the van

María, the singer, with María, the van

 

‘María De Buenos Aires’ it says in black letters on the van. It’s an older model, but well cared for and trust inspiring. All the important parts, such as its shiny wheels and fenders, look new and expensive. White, compact, and sturdy, it has been converted into some kind of multi-purpose mobile home/trailer. The initial passenger space now serves as a tiny stage dressing room or, if needed, as a bedroom. There is a clothes rack with stage costumes, a vanity, and everything the artist needs to transform herself for a grand appearance. This past year there were thirty-three of them in five months.

The driver climbs out of the cabin, stretches his legs after the long drive, and opens the rear doors to reveal a compactly packed, neatly organized system: suitcases in different sizes, duffel bags, guitar cases, a complete sound system, and even camping gear — just in case. Only he knows how to stack properly all these items which have become essential for life on the road. Everything from dishes to towels, from CDs to laptops, from extension cords to repair tools has to fit into that tight space.

‘María’ is a 1991 GMC Vandura and she has seen quite a bit of the world. As have her two passengers, María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer. The couple has been touring the American West Coast, the East Coast, and most states in between in this vehicle for about a decade. They make a remarkable pair, she being a well-known, striking Argentine tango singer-songwriter and guitarist whose talent was discovered by her late husband. Surprised, when he found out one day that it was his young wife singing in the kitchen and not, as he had assumed, someone on the radio, he urged her to train to become a singer. Encouraged by his confidence in her talent, she took his advice and has since risen to become one of the most critically acclaimed performers and innovators of Argentine tango.

Her partner on the other hand seems at first glance like the casual guy from next door, but is in fact the singer’s strong creative counterpart and at the same time acts as the duo’s super-efficient manager. He organizes and controls every aspect of the business down to the last detail. This journalist-turned-harmonica player, originally from Oakland, California, ended up by chance in Buenos Aires in the early nineties, trying to piece his life together after a failed marriage back home in the States. By coincidence he stumbled into the world of Argentine tango where he eventually found himself, the multi-facetted world of tango becoming his life.

When their paths crossed, they each had built a respectable career for themselves. María’s had already stretched over more than two decades, both as a solo artist as well as with her own trio. She had won the prestigious Carlos Gardel Award, had been nominated for a Latin Grammy Award, and had been inducted into the Tango Hall of Fame. She had performed across Latin America, the United States, and Europe — where she most memorably sang the title role in the Piazzolla opera ‘María de Buenos Aires’ for a stage production in Munich.

Kevin was a writer and photographer whose pictures of people in tango appeared in international magazines and on the covers of award-winning CDs. And he played the harmonica, an instrument he had learned to master on his own journey to the birthplace of the blues, the Mississippi delta. This small wind instrument had long been considered just a kid’s instrument in Argentina. But thanks to innovative artists like harmonica-player and composer Hugo Díaz it had been accepted as a lead instrument in modern tango, equal to the bandoneon.

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María and Kevin before a show in Charlotte, NC

blues and Argentine tango — these two musical genres began to merge when María Volonté and Kevin Carrel Footer joined forces. They labeled their new fusion Blue Tango Project. It is a work in progress: as they state on their website, a very personal and unique way of exploring and interpreting “the emotional and musical crossroads where tango and the blues embrace”. They consider their musical project a “road-centric approach to life”. This statement can be taken quite literally since, after starting their creative union at the 2008 San Francisco Jazz Festival, the couple spends the better part of every year on the road.Their new lifestyle began when they gave up their permanent home in a quaint neighborhood of Oakland. “We threw everything out!” recalls María with a sweeping arm movement. After which they prepared for their life on wheels by converting the white van into a well-equipped mobile home. From then on they would stay during the first six months of the year at their home in Buenos Aires and then spend the second half of the year in North America, with occasional engagements in Europe. The white Vandura remains parked at a safe location in Oakland after each tour and gets pulled out again in mid-summer for a thorough inspection and overhaul before it hits the road again.

The couple’s two lives couldn’t be more different. In Argentina’s buzzing capital “we live a typical urban life,” says Kevin. “We go to cafés, bookstores, milongas, we have dinner with friends.” It is where their creative work comes into being and where they compose and record new pieces, many of which have been inspired by their adventures on the road. Once the Argentine fall turns into winter, around July, they set out to the now summerly Northern hemisphere, touring the United States and Canada in their van, to perform at many different venues across both countries, from outdoor festivals and big stages to eclectic little bars and coffee shops in remote places. Many of their fans whom they have met on the road have become friends over the years, and commonly ask them to play at their private house-milongas, regularly inviting them to stay for a few days at their homes – which hospitality is almost always answered by an impromptu intimate performance in their living room. In fact, adds Kevin: “we almost never stay at a hotel.”

What sounds like the romantic life of two traveling bards is in fact hard work. The tightly packed Vandura can almost be seen as symbolic for the down-to-the-last-detail meticulously organized, daily life of these two musicians. My partner and I got to know them over the past year when we plunged into the adventure of preparing several gigs in upstate New York and Northern California. By becoming a small part of their five-month strenuous tour, we got a glimpse of their tightly organized life and the discipline it takes to pull off such an endeavor.

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An impromptu rehearsal during a break in Woodstock, NY

We learned that there is a strict routine at the bottom of this seemingly free lifestyle. Kevin’s meticulous planning typically begins months before the actual start of the tour. When he maps out the tour schedule, it has to follow the basic underlying rule of ‘one day driving, one day resting before a performance.’ On the day of the show, there is the usual unloading of instruments and sound equipment from the van, setting up the stage, tech rehearsal, and some rest before the show. Then a light snack during intermission and after the show, and off to bed as soon as permissible without offending their hosts, and sleeping in the morning as late as possible. This last, however, is not always an option, since their tour schedule is tight and venues are often long stretches apart. At the same time they are often so charged up after a performance that sleep doesn’t come until the early morning hours, as María once admitted to me, adding that yoga exercises before breakfast in the morning whenever possible help her to maintain inner balance. Even under the best of circumstances — meaning no delays on the road, no issues with the van, and a properly prepared team at each venue — they both agree that “the biggest challenge is getting enough sleep.”

It may seem a strenuous lifestyle, but as a look at their websites — https://mariavolonte.com and http://www.bluetangoproject.com makes clear it is a successful and enjoyable lifestyle and one that shows no sign of slowing down.

 

Photo no. one and two by Blue Tango Project

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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

 

The costume designer

The costume designer

It’s late Monday morning and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. If I had expected to find a quiet atelier with a designer absorbed in creative work, I was completely mistaken. Linda Ayre runs her own small business as a designer for custom dance costumes — and she is thus a multi-tasker. While we are talking, she is by turns dealing with an important client overseas, the building manager who insists on changing the locks that same afternoon, and some annoying internet issues — obstacles that everyone who runs their own operation has to deal with. Our conversation is frequently interrupted because of some urgent business or another, but every time she zooms right back to where we left off.

“I have to wear many different hats,” she says with a laugh when I ask her how she manages to stay on top of it all. “It’s the nature of what I do!” This applies not only to the way she runs her daily multifaceted business, but also to the nature of her profession. Her clients — Argentine tango teachers and performers, as well as Latin ballroom dancers — usually come to her with certain ideas. For example, they may need a costume for a showcase and the piece has to portray a certain feeling. Linda loves working with such special requirements, and she asks to hear the music. Only then — being a dancer herself — can she envision what the costume has to express and how it needs to flow. She likes women to look elegantly seductive, but not sleazy, and she likes styles that to seem to be showing more skin. “I prefer designing dresses that show legs and I always emphasize the importance of showing movement,” she says.

Despite having her own preferences, her main priority remains what the client wants. “I don’t need to have my stamp on the pieces that I make, it has to work for my clients, as long as it remains sensual,” she explains. To achieve a design, she first drapes it on the stand. Before the advent of the Internet she had to send a sketch and fabric swatches to her customers by mail. Now she can do that part of the process online. She also shops online for fabrics, but despite the growing vast array of online fabric stores, finding good quality fabric has become more and more difficult. And when the client then orders a piece, she drapes it according to their body measurements. Throughout the making, as details are completed, she photographs and sends it to the client.

“That’s the advantage of custom design,” she proudly says. “The client gets the perfect size.” The value of a skilled designer is the ability to emphasize someone’s assets and minimize any shortcomings. When many of Linda’s clients come to her for the first time, they always complain about their imperfections. Other items they have ordered online arrive ill fitting, and so they eventually go to a custom designer. Instead of dwelling on what doesn’t work, Linda concentrates on their assets, such as a nicely shaped back or bust, and makes that the focus of the dress.

Of course, such precise handmade work comes with a certain price tag. It is a long way from the first moment a client approaches her with a particular idea to a finished design. There is the choice of the right fabric, the STYLING, and then the HAND finishing. Not everybody is ready to pay between $700 and $1000 for a custom-made piece, and many people often end up buying a used costume. “The problem with used dresses, which have become more and more popular, is the size,” Linda says. “Or perhaps the dress has an unexpected issue,” I add and tell her how I once witnessed a costume malfunction on stage during a performance of a high-profile tango couple in Buenos Aires. The strap on the woman’s dress tore and she had to finish her performance with one hand holding her dress in place. “I always tell my clients to rehearse in the costumes I’ve made for them,” Linda says. “That way we know if it really works comfortably”.

In the colorful world of dance Linda Ayre has found a niche, especially with Argentine tango. It’s a niche, which her set of skills fill perfectly. “Many dance-costume designers come from a background of being a seamstress,” she explains. “However, my background is fashion design.” I ask her how someone can tell the difference between a custom-made dress and one that is manufactured. “Usually you can just look at the hem line, for example,” she suggests. “A lot of dresses that are sold as ‘custom designed’ don’t even have a properly sewn hem line. It’s easy for anybody to detect that.”

She herself is an old-school designer who studied fashion design in England and worked in London’s fast paced fashion design industry for many years before moving to California. “About 5 or 6 years after I moved here, I started dancing Argentine tango. For several years I was a total addict,” she admits. Sure enough, soon after becoming involved with the dance world as a serious ‘tanguera’, she became interested in designing exclusively tango fashion. Then gradually more dances were included, but tango is still her primary emphasis.

Like everything else, fashions in tango change, and Linda is excited to see how in recent years hem lines and details change and evolve. She remarks how in the world of fashion you have to be open to everything. She likes to experiment, and would especially like to do more ‘nuevo-tango dresses, but given how ‘nuevo-tango’ is itself a particular niche within a niche, it is difficult to sell and at the end of the day she needs to make a living.

Before I leave she gives me a tour of her studio. She points out some of her costumes, explaining what is special and what was particularly challenging about this or that piece. I still don’t understand how she finds the time and quiet to focus on the creative part of her job and how she has created such a beautiful body of work. Maybe when she returns to her studio after seven o’clock this evening, I think to myself, maybe after the phone stops ringing and the business manager has gone home….

More information about Linda Ayre’s designs and her studio can be found at her website at http://www.dancedress.com. 

Photo on top: Linda Ayre in her studio.

Center photo left: During a photo shoot with Chelsea Eng.

Center photo right: Photoshoot on location in Benicia 2014 with model Barbara and singer/model/dance teacher Lynn. 

Photographer: Diane Pedersen

Inferno Tango

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Scene from ‘Y dance?’ by dancers of ‘Conmigo Connect’. Photo by Rachel Davidman.

When Rachel Davidman and Giulio Perrone met on a flight last year from Tucson to Oakland, something between them clicked – in a creative, artistic sense. Rachel is an Argentine tango and salsa dancer; Guilio a theater playwright, designer, and director. “He was reading this book about Quantum Theory and explained to me how he wants to transform the idea of modern physics into a theater play,” says Rachel. For her part she shared with him her lifelong passion for dance both as a social dancer and as an occasional choreographer. They discovered very similar underlying experiences in dance and theater, and by the time they got off the plane, they felt they had established a deep connection.

A few months later she received a call from him, asking her if she wanted to be part of the upcoming experimental theater festival Diasporas as a tango dancer, and if she would like to put together a piece with her own group of dancers. “I was thrilled,” recalls Rachel. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do!” She carefully selected a handful of people with whom she personally enjoyed dancing and whom she trusted to share her ideas of performing an improvised piece in a rather unusual setting. “I was looking for dancers who are open-minded rather than perfectionists.”

The newly formed Argentine tango ensemble now consists of five members and it is called Conmigo Connect. Rachel characterizes the group as a ‘pop-up dance company’. The piece they are going to perform is called Y dance? For the music she chose five songs that “make me move” — a few are nuevo-tango pieces rather than traditional tango music. One of them is Mi Confesión by Gotan Project. It’s a song with layers of different rhythms, and since hearing it for the first time she had a vision of dancers moving to it – and one, she confesses, that makes her get up at home and dance.

“The whole piece is really an eclectic mix of five songs with a voice overlay,” she says. “The transitions between the partnering dances are linked with solo performances by modern dancer Robin Fletcher.” The partnering dance parts are not choreographed. Rachel had certain concepts in mind, particularly the concept of lead and follow. “But what I want to show more than anything else is the connection in Argentine tango.”

“Don’t expect a flashy piece,” she says. Instead of a grand Forever Tango-like show, the dancers want to share with the audience what they do, why they are doing this, and why tango is part of their daily lives, and they want to invite the audience to share their passion.

So how does this fit into the Diasporas theater festival?

“Tango is just electric,” says Giulio Perrone, artistic director and producer of the festival, smiling. “It just opens up everything. Plus,” he adds, “I like movement. “

The Disaporas festival is indeed a mix of theater, solo performances, and dance groups. It does not reflect an ethnic diaspora, but is rather, Perrone goes on to explain, ”…about people being together and wanting to work together.” It is therefore also about the connection between different forms of the art and performances, just like the message that the Conmigo Connect tango group wants to convey. It is a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary festival, whose mission is to link cultures and explore human relationships in space and time.

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Blindfolds from ‘Quantum Desire’ with Tenya Spillman, David James Silpa, Wei-Shan Lai.  Photo by Vicki Victoria

In space and time? — “Yes,” Perrone says, “this year’s production is about how we perceive space and time. This piece of experimental theater, which is also a part of the festival, revolves around ‘the quantum of the room’ — the idea that everybody is part of the room.” Quantum Desire is the second part of a trilogy based on Quantum Theory — the theoretical basis of modern physics that continues both to fascinate and inspire him to transform new ideas into the theater.

“It sounds a bit – well, experimental, right?” I ask. – “Theater here is very safe”, Perrone states, “People want theater to be linear. They want a story, and no experiments. They want nothing that leads to misunderstanding, nothing that’s circular, and nothing that’s abstract.”

Aside from being the mastermind behind the Diasporas festival, Guilio Perrone is the creator and producing artistic director of the experimental theater ensemble Inferno Theatre in Berkeley, California. He attended the respected fine-arts Accademia di Brera in his native country, Italy, where theater, since the early days of the Commedia dell’Arte, has evolved as the ‘craft of improvisation’ – nothing like the linear story-telling of American theater that Perrone almost commiseratively talks about. Having been an active part of American theater, both as a director and designer, for many years, he decided it was time for him to start his own project. He named it quite provocatively Inferno Theatre, relating, of course, to the famous epic poem by Dante Alighieri. “Inferno Theatre is a place where people can do what they want,” he explains. “Our pieces are different from consequential pieces which are designed to keep the audience’s attention. People have a shorter attention span now than in Shakespeare’s time when a play might go on for days at a time.”

Perrone has written and produced three original productions for the company every year since they started in 2010. Having successfully toured Europe with his own productions prior to starting Inferno, his ambition is to take the company overseas.

During the three-day long Diasporas festival in early May, in Berkeley, the company performs only parts of their Quantum Desire production. The piece in its entire length will be shown during the San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason from May 27 through June 5. More information and tickets can be found at http://www.sfiaf.org/inferno_theatre.

Rachel Davidman and her Argentine tango group, Conmigo Connect, perform on two evenings of the Diasporas festival on May 6th and 7th. The festival itself runs from May 6th to the 8th in the South Community Church in Berkeley. Tickets and more information can be found at: http://infernotheatre.org/diasporas-festival-2016/

 

Claudio’s heels

Claudio’s heels

What was it with these heels? Yes, what exactly was it that so mesmerized the audience about Claudio’s heels? He was wearing these tango high-heels just like all the other followers on the dance floor at the recent USA Tango Championship — except that Claudio Marcelo Vidal is a male dancer in high-heels. And that, apparently, was more remarkable than anything else, even for people in ‘oh-so-open-minded’ San Francisco.

Let’s get this straight: the fact that men are wearing high-heels in tango is nothing new. Even the Mundial de Tango in Buenos Aires, with its rather conservative rules, has accepted same-sex competitors since 2013, a fact which, of course, entails men in the role of followers dancing in high-heels.

Wearing high-heels changes the position of the foot and what you can do. It helps to create the elegant cat-like walk that we followers strive for. For Claudio this was not an issue. He had been doing this for a long time. So he became the first man not just to be part of a male-only couple, but also the first man to dance in high-heels in the Mundial. However, when he entered the competition stage with his then partner Esteban Mioni, two of the judges left the panel in protest.

The incident caused enough of a riot in the tango world to be picked up by some major newspapers in Argentina: La Nación, Clarín, and El País; even the New York Times in the US reported it.

I’m not sure if the tango world in Argentina even now has fully accepted the role and appearance of same-sex couples in the Mundial — or at milongas or anywhere else. During my conversation with Claudio and his partner Sidney Grant shortly before their performance at the finals of the USA Tango Championship at the end of March they explained to me how even in Argentina gay men take a more conservative position on tango than here in the US. “Tango is a dance between a man and a woman,” says Claudio. “Culturally, men only danced together to practice so they could impress the women with their skills. But they wouldn’t dance together in public. These days, you might be asked in class by a teacher to dance with another man if there is a shortage of women. But it’s just not traditional for men to dance together.” And Sid adds: “When we first met in Buenos Aires, he wouldn’t go with me to a gay tango club — he hadn’t even heard about it!”

Sid has a different take on the subject. He has pioneered in New York as a gay dancer, trying to break the stigma that surrounds men dancing together. He won the 2011 USA Tango Championship in New York with a female partner, but then started to focus on dancing with male partners only, working against what he calls ‘the machismo in dance’, especially when it comes to same-sex couples. “It’s about harmonizing and about overcoming outdated beliefs,” he says.

Sid’s and his partner Claudio’s differing perspectives on the role of all-male couples in tango, both professionally and personally, not only make their partnership special but are also a reflection of the complex views shared by the general public about same-sex couples. The very people who regard same-sex couples on the dance floor as a perfectly integrated part of the tango world may still sneer at a man who dances in high-heels. On the other hand, whenever two women are depicted dancing tango together — as has been the case in movies, on posters, or in art work — it is usually perceived as erotic and sexual.

“Tango is not about sexual relationships,” objects Sid. In this respect they both agree. “Tango transcends religion and gender. In our society, which seems to compartmentalize, we want to show that tango can overcome prejudice and outdated beliefs.”

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Infectious enthusiasm: Claudio and Sidney are stepping onto the dance floor.

They had high hopes of winning this year’s USA Tango Championship, and were excited to compete in the same city where, at the beginning of the LGBT movement, Harvey Milk was assassinated. Nevertheless, they said: “We are not rainbow-flag waving people.” Unfortunately, they were not among the top three in this year’s Salon-style category. I can’t imagine how disappointed they must have been — as were I and many others who had watched and cheered them on from the first night when they appeared on the competition floor, with Claudio tripping along in his high-heels on Sid’s arm. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The first and only all-male couple to compete in the USA Tango Championship earned extra applause from the audience. They danced beautifully and professionally as they had done many times. But it wasn’t enough.

Fotos by Mary Gulick

Tango comes to you

An interview with Christy Cote who celebrates her 20th anniversary as a tango teacher

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A most popular tango teacher: Christy Cote (Photo by Shell Jiang)

In January 1996 Christy Cote made a decision that would change her life forever: she quit her daytime job and became a fulltime professional Argentine tango teacher. She had fallen for tango when the legendary “Forever Tango” show arrived in San Francisco in 1995. She was completely captivated and ushered to see every single show for free for 56 performances after that. Twenty years later Christy Cote is now one of the most popular and successful tango instructors in the country. Among her prestigious mentors and partners she can count tango legend Carlos Gavito and stars like Pampa Cortes, Facundo Posadas, Daniel Lapadula and Eduardo Saucedo.

While San Francisco remains her home base, she has taught and performed all across the USA and even in Buenos Aires. She has appeared repeatedly as a teacher and performer at the world’s premier Argentine tango festival, CITA in Buenos Aires. She is one of the founders as well as a performer and choreographer of the all-female tango performance group “Tango Con*Fusion.” She has created her own teaching method, which has been published by Dance Vision, together with instructional videos, and has recently started her own “Associate Teachers Program.” She is also the creator of a highly successful series of Tango Boot Camps.

I was lucky enough to catch her at the “Tango USA Championship” while she was waiting to be called to the judges’ panel, and this is what she revealed about her long and astonishing career:

Question: How do you feel about judging other dancers at the championship tonight?

Christy Cote: When I was asked to be on the judging panel for the first championship back in 2012, I didn’t like it at first. But it got better and now I enjoy it. When people compete, they do it because they want to be judged. It’s different from social dancing and performing. I used to compete in ballroom dancing, so I know what it’s like.

Q: How did you first get into ballroom dancing?

CC: I was actually a jazz dancer, but then in the seventies disco became popular and I got interested in partner dancing. So one day I walked into an Arthur Murray studio on Sutter Street and they gave me a twenty-minute private lesson for free. Then they said they were looking for ballroom teachers, and next thing I knew I enrolled in their teacher training and became a ballroom teacher.

Q: If you liked it that much, why did you drop ballroom and go into Argentine tango?

CC: As they say, tango comes to you! At the time when that happened, everything changed for me: I broke up with my boyfriend, I broke up with my ballroom dance partner, Larry, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had no idea what would happen to me, I thought I was going to die. So I gave everything up – my daytime job, my ballroom dancing – and I took the leap. Then something new started to emerge. I went to Argentina from October 1995 to March 1996, and after I came back from that trip, I met Carlos Gavito. He became my mentor, but I didn’t believe a lot of what he told me.

Q: Like what?

CC: For example, he said: “Train your partner.” I didn’t believe that. Since then I’ve trained about four of my professional partners, including Darren Lees – who I never thought would become my professional partner – and Eugene Theron.

Q: Wasn’t it a scary move to leave your previous life behind?

CC: I was never scared of the future, certainly not at that time when I had breast cancer. I felt I had nothing to lose. I lived in the moment. At the time, I partnered up with Pampa Cortes. New things just emerged. Before, I had always thought that I needed a day-time job and the security. And there I was all of a sudden, no longer driving a company car, no longer going out to high-end restaurants, no more fancy vacations. I don’t need all of that anymore. A vacation from what? I love what I’m doing!

Q: Times have changed since the mid-nineties. Tango has become widespread and there a lot more teachers and milongas everywhere. And the economy has changed, expenses are much higher. What would you tell someone today who wants to get into tango as a professional?

CC: Times have certainly changed and the competition is tough. I was at the right place at the right time. But if you’re passionate and if you believe in yourself, do it. Of course, I wouldn’t start out in a place like the Bay Area where there are so many good teachers. But if you can go to a small town anywhere in the US, then go for it. You can still make it, absolutely.

Q: What was the tango scene in San Francisco like when you first started?

CC: For the first few years there were only about twenty or thirty tango dancers. There was Nora [Dinzelbacher] who had already established part of the tango community in the Bay Area, and there was Victor Menendes, and there was Carlos and Elaine. Then more and more dancers started to show up, and at first I didn’t like it! I liked the small community and I didn’t like seeing it grow, I thought that’s all there is and it stays that way. But I learned to open up to the fact that the community was growing and many more new people started coming in.

Q: So many dancers go through a transition from first excitement to becoming frustrated.

CC: I know that feeling. I think it’s similar with wine lovers. At a lower level you’re all enthusiastic and you try everything. Then you get to the other level and you become picky. You walk into a milonga and you expect your favorite music to be played and to dance with your favorite partners. If it doesn’t happen, you get frustrated. But you can’t blame it on others. You have to be open and change your own attitude, be positive.

Q: What do you like most about your “job”, if one can call it like that?

CC: The teaching part!

Q: Not the flashy performances? Why is that?

CC: Because I understand more and more about the dance and I love sharing that understanding with my students. But then I’m also more than just a tango teacher. Often I find myself in the role of a psychologist or a friend. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve asked a student just how his or her day was and they broke into tears and spilled out all of their problems. Then I suggest that we just sit down and have a cup of tea and talk.

Q: Aside from the mentoring part of your teaching, what do you consider most important? Could you name three basic elements every student has to learn?

CC: Yes, I call it the “recipe of success for the dance floor.” First of all, feel it — get the music that is danced. Then it’s the walking and the embrace, the 100% intimacy with your partner. And finally the culture of Argentine tango. It’s not just a dance. That’s why I think every dancer should travel to Buenos Aires, to get that sense of that culture.

Q: You started teaching “Tango Boot Camps” in 2007. It’s a very successful and intense 16-hour tango workshop. You teach the advanced boot camp with George Garcia or Eduardo Saucedo and the beginners’ boot camp on your own. Whose idea was it to teach tango in boot camp style?

CC: My mother’s! She was in the Navy, as a nurse, and I think she liked that drill. But then my teaching partner George Garcia taught tango boot camps in Hawaii. We hooked up and started teaching boot camps in the Bay Area. It became an immediate success.

Christy & Eugene 1

Striking a pose: Christy with partner Eugene Theron (Photo by Tanya Constantine)

Q: Your career is an endless string of highlights. Could you name just a few?

CC: There are certainly two highlights that stand out in my memory. They both involve Gavito. One was when I danced with him at the opening of “Tango Nada Mas” [a tango club] fifteen years ago in Chicago. The other one happened at one of his performances at “Tango by the Bay.” His partner, Marcela, couldn’t make it to the performance that night. I was sitting in the audience, not expecting in the least to dance. I had a knee injury at the time and had told all of my friends that I couldn’t dance for a while. Then Gavito came on stage and said that because Marcela was sick, he would like to invite me to do the performance with him! I was shocked, but couldn’t possibly refuse to dance with him. It was such an honor! After the performance I had to go to the emergency room to get treatment for my knee!

Q: What is your resolution for the future?

CC: To stay healthy and to continue with Jazz dance!

Q: Would you say that Jazz dancing has improved your tango dancing and vice versa?

CC: Absolutely! It has helped me so much with performing — the theatrical and projecting aspects of it. And I would also recommend to every ballroom dancer to take up tango. You learn so much about the music and the feeling.

Q: You sound so completely happy and fulfilled. Isn’t there anything you would really wish you could do?

CC: Sit back, have a cup of coffee, meet friends, read a book. I never have enough time for that!

Q: What is it that you least like about what you’re doing?

CC: Dealing with e-mails and text messages! Again, I just don’t have enough time to keep up with everything! At this point, I have about 300 unanswered e-mails in my inbox, and I hate it! I like being organized and getting things done, but despite all the new and different ways of communication, I’m just less able to stay on top of it!

Q: When do you think you are going to retire?

CC: Retire from what? I’ve got nothing to retire from!