Festival Mania

Fall 2013 032

The pressure is on. Which tango festivals should I attend? My e-mail gets flooded every day with invitations. So does my Facebook page. Everybody I know has either lately been to one or is planning to go to one. Tango Festival in Istanbul, Tango Festival in Albuquerque, Tango Marathon in Boston, another Tango Marathon in San Francisco coming up next month, Montreal Loves Tango (well, missed that one!), and then the exotic Tango Festival in Puerto Rico, offering milongas on the beach! Last month Austin and Denver, and don’t forget to register for the one in San Diego on New Year’s Eve!

One of my long-time friends and favorite dance partners confided that he attends one festival per month. He has made a special arrangement with his employer to work overtime during three weeks of the month so he can take off during one week to travel to a tango festival. Since this eats quite a bit into his expense budget, he has found ways to travel cheaply: He stays at low-budget motels outside town and he offers his services as a taxi dancer for workshops where a shortage of leaders is a common problem.

Another dancer friend who is fairly new in the tango world told me that earlier this year she traveled all the way from rural New York State to the island of Kalamata, Greece, to attend a tango festival. – Kalamata, Greece! And then I just learned from a couple about a tango festival in Corsica that they had attended – Corsica?! Yes, they assure me, there is tango in Corsica, and a while ago they even started an annual tango festival! Since they have been actively dancing for a long time and are always up-to-date with the New York City tango scene, I trust their judgment absolutely.

Having listened to all these experiences, I’m getting the feeling that I’m missing a lot of tango fun. The times that I have attended tango festivals are rare. My first ever event was CITA in Buenos Aires. First there was the excitement of being surrounded by tango day and night. But then it quickly became tiring, to say the least, being on my feet all day and night (especially on high heels), learning and absorbing, dancing, chasing after the best partners, and still trying to look presentable after only four hours of sleep. After a week I felt like a train wreck.

Since then, the thought of planning for a festival, of deciding which workshops and which events to attend makes me feel stressed. So many great opportunities, all packed into a few days!

Never quite sure whether there will be a gender balance — meaning that having a dance partner will be guaranteed — makes me worry that a festival might be a waste of time and money. Why travel then when there is so much to do at home? With regret I keep checking my local tango calendar of events every week, knowing that I won’t be able to participate in most events, even at home. There is so much to do in my neck of the woods. Aside from our wonderful local teachers, regular classes, and milongas, there is always some visiting celebrity from Argentina passing through, offering an exciting new workshop. Lately, I’ve found myself passing on these events more and more for the sake of juggling a busy work schedule and everything else what makes up a life. So why then travel to a tango festival when there are more local events than I could attend?

Wouldn’t I be better off taking myself to a Caribbean beach and chill for a vacation? Or spending time in Europe, breathing history and art, indulging in culture and visiting family and childhood friends?

Still, with each announcement my heart starts beating faster; so much tango fun at places I would like to visit! My eyes start gleaming like the kid in the candy store. This past summer’s calendar was particularly busy, filled with tango festivals. At some point I figured it was time to stop being a festival bum. I decided to give it another try. Cautious as I am, I started on a small scale. Instead of booking a flight and taking myself to the tango festival in Puerto Rico (which sounded like all the best things in the world combined in one package: sun, beach, and tango!), I drove from my summer domicile on the East Coast to a relatively small festival in Vermont. With my partner in tow – who after so many years of tango seems a bit weary of chasing after every event – I was at least sure of not having to worry about an uneven gender balance. We set off on a Friday afternoon, driving through the beautiful countryside of Vermont, to arrive just in time for our first milonga at this small festival which had started two days earlier. The following day we took two workshops, had a blast meeting new and old friends, indulged in a lavish dinner and danced at the next milonga, only to discover on our last day that we had enjoyed ourselves so much we now wished we had arrived a day earlier!

The whole experience pretty much changed my opinion about avoiding tango festivals. As a result, I’ve concluded that I have to tailor attendance at a festival to my own needs and wishes. I don’t need to attend each and every workshop and be present at all times. I can tone it down according to what works for me. Personally that means a maximum stay of three days at a festival, no more than two workshops a day plus a milonga — but only every other night so I can get a good night’s rest in between. I love the socializing part, but I also need downtime, and the opportunity to do other things around town including some exploring on my own.

Having come to these conclusions, the pressure is off. I’m now busy scouting for the next tango festival — see you in San Diego maybe, at the end of the year!?


Glamour in the Province

On a recent hot summer night an almost surreal scene presents itself in the upstate New York hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson. Nestled among the tall trees and wide meadows of Bard College — a small exclusive private liberal arts and science school — appears a huge construction called the Spiegeltent (translated as “Mirror Tent”). This large traveling tent, constructed of wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, arrives every summer at this otherwise quiet and isolated campus, and becomes the stylish setting for exotic cabaret shows, live Jazz concerts, and dance events.

From early July through mid-August the Spiegeltent — a more familiar sight throughout Europe as well as in cities such as Las Vegas and San Francisco where it was used by Teatro ZinZanni — draws an astonishing number of people, not only from nearby smaller towns and surrounding rural areas, but also from as far away as Massachusetts and New York City. As it does tonight.

It is Total Tango night, and the stars of the evening are none other than Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne. The self-proclaimed creator of Nuevo Tango himself and his partner, along with another well-known Tango celebrity, harmonica player Joe Powers, are bringing some world-class Tango and glamour to this secluded and tranquil corner of the world.

This rare appearance of these famous Tangueros in the Hudson Valley has drawn a sizeable crowd from many smaller Tango communities in the wider area of upstate New York and Massachusetts. It is astonishing, but not unusual, for Tango aficionados in this area to drive several hours to attend an event, a workshop, or a milonga. But there are also many others, absolutely new to Tango, who are curious to find out what the hype is all about.

To someone visiting from a big and active Tango community, where on any given day an interesting event happens just around the corner, it seems quite astonishing and even a bit bizarre that a Tango legend such as Naveira would make an appearance at an off-the-map location like Bard College in upstate New York. Why, they might wonder, would someone like Naveira, who has performed and taught all over the world, make an appearance in provincial New York?

These days Tango is going through a huge revival, spreading everywhere, and not just in the United States. The organizers of the Spiegeltent shows — the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard — have long understood that, and Total Tango is now one of their most popular events. Thanks to Chungin Goodstein, who teaches Tango in the area and has been an admirer of Naveira ever since taking her first lesson with him in Buenos Aires, they have managed to get the couple to commit for a full evening of lecturing, teaching, and performing.

It should be noted, however, that Tango at the Spiegeltent has not been a blank piece of paper for other professional Tango instructors. This annual event has become quite famous, and has benefited the reputation of several other great Tangueros who have also performed here.

It all started when Ilene Marder, Tango DJ and organizer from nearby Woodstock, approached the organizers of the Spiegeltent shows some years ago with the idea of adding Tango to their program. Marder, who is highly regarded in Tango communities from New York City to Boston and beyond, as well as in Buenos Aires, invited Tango dancers such as Junior Cervila, Cristian Correa and Angeles Chañahato, Michael Nadtochi and Michelle Erdemsel, to perform at the Spiegeltent. Based in New York City, these dancers appreciated a visit to the country where an expectant audience would be awaiting. Now, with Ilene Marder’s schedule having become too busy to handle the event, Chungin Goodstein has taken over for the time being.

After an unremarkable start with a lecture about the history of Tango, this evening slowly gets into gear. Then it is time for the much anticipated lesson with the masters. But, to my surprise, it turns into a bit of a challenge: with over eighty people on the dance floor, including novices and advanced dancers bumping into each other and stepping on each others’ toes, it is difficult to get the class organized. I’m amused to notice that Naveira and Anne are struggling for a moment with the overwhelming crowd and the mix of different levels. They finally decide to do what seems to be best for both beginners and advanced dancers: teach the basics. But by the time they reach the point of introducing the basic cross, most of the newcomers are lost — and the dance floor has become a chaotic mass of confused legs and feet.

I decide not to watch any longer. I head for the counter, where since most people are now on the dance floor the line is short, and order dessert. Here I learn from the organizer that all two hundred and fifty tickets have been sold. I can’t help but think of organizers in places like San Francisco or New York where, despite a large number of dancers in the community, they have been struggling to fill up their events because so many more Tango venues have popped up. With so much competition in these places, an attendance of two hundred and fifty is almost unheard of.

When the dancing finally begins and Joe Powers — accompanied by a nice ensemble of Bard’s music students — takes the stage to charm the audience with his peerless harmonica playing, it seems that the evening is about to reach its climax. And then, after so much waiting and anticipation, Naveira and Anne walk onto the dance floor. Their performance is the ultimate reward. The seeming lightness of their dancing, the precision of their technique, and the charm of their demonstration are unprecedented. It is a glimpse of world-class Tango in this small hamlet in the Hudson Valley.

Video by Evelyn Meier:

“The Real Deal”

I’ve been dancing Argentine Tango for about six years, and all this time the music and the orchestras have remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I do understand what it takes to be a good Tango dancer and what to look for when I watch someone perform. I’m far from perfect myself, but I have learned how to walk, how to follow, how to embrace my partner, and how to look reasonably good on the dance floor. I like to express myself to the music and I do have my favorite composers, Carlos di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese among them, but my knowledge of Tango music hardly extends past the standard pieces that are played by DJs at most milongas. I’m embarrassed to say that after all this time my knowledge of Tango music is still very basic. There are pieces that make me want to get up and dance, and there are others that don’t speak to me at all, and that I don’t mind sitting out. At most milongas where the usual standard repertoire of Tango music is played I have to admit that I’m quite happy and content to listen and dance to the same “canned” pieces over and over again.

However, I can’t help but be amazed at how the vibe changes when a live orchestra plays. This is how it should be, I then think to myself. This is how it was in the early days of Tango when there was no recorded music, and instead the orchestras were at the center of things and were the real stars of Tango. If you’ve ever watched the YouTube video of Juan D’Arienzo conducting his orchestra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z5qEKxfmm8) you’ll understand what I mean.

There are several accomplished Tango orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area, which I consider my Tango home base. Some of these local orchestras only started to perform after I began dancing Tango, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching their early performances and then seeing how they’ve come along, how they have progressed, and have become better and better. To start with there is The Redwood Tango Ensemble, a wonderful group of energetic young musicians who I remember from their first gigs at the outdoor Blackhawk Milonga in Danville. They’ve since become one of the most desired groups on the Bay Area’s Tango scene, having made their own recordings and having appeared at many events. Then there is Trio Garufa, a group which has been around for much longer than I have been in Tango. They are known for their remarkably versatile interpretations of Tango. There is also the well-known orchestra Tangonero, and there is the versatile Tango No. 9, whose singer, Zoltan DiBartolo, possesses not just a great voice, but also an impressive stage presence. Unfortunately they seem no longer to exist. And more recently established on the local scene is Orquestra Z, founded by long-time tanguero, Bendrew Jong.

But the one man who stands out for me, and whom I’ve been following a bit more closely over the years, is Seth Asarnow and his Sexteto Tipico. Whenever this six-piece orchestra — consisting of Seth Asarnow and Bryan Alvarez on bandoneons, Cynthia Mei and Brooke Aird on violins, Dan Highman on piano, and Chris Johnson on bass — appears and starts to play, I feel the desire to sit down and listen. Somehow, I find their music so captivating that I want to keep my mind and body totally focused on what I hear. If I get up and dance, I feel distracted from the actual pleasure of letting the music seep through me.

Seth’s vision when he started to play was to form a traditional Tango orchestra that would recapture the sound and feel of the Golden Era of Tango. I’m not sure if such a thing could ever be accomplished since we don’t really know what it was like during that time. In an interview from 2011 which he gave to the San Francisco Tango Marathon he said that “the attitude, tone, phrasing and other subtleties that you hear in the past are unlike the way people play today.” I also think we don’t know how the audience responded to the way the orchestras played and, as a result, how the interaction between the musicians and the dancers unfolded on stage. I believe that dancers in Buenos Aires in the 1940s must have responded quite differently to the music they heard than do we in the United States in the twenty-first century. And similarly, the musicians’ performance was probably quite a bit different from what we think the original orchestras sounded like, despite the efforts of groups like Sexteto to sound authentic.

There is nothing wrong with that though, I think. Each live performance is different, and depends largely on the give-and-take between performers and their audience. Consequently I’m not sure that when I listen to Sexteto that I hear exactly what an orchestra from the Golden Era of Tango sounded like. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a great pleasure to hear a group of highly accomplished musicians play together, all of whom have had musical training and all of whom play for the love of Tango.

With individual milongas being less crowded now than a few years ago, it is certainly not a good way to make a living. “There are so many events going on now in the Bay Area,” says Seth, “that you don’t see as many people at any given milonga as before. People have many more choices. And add that to the fact that after the crash things have never gotten back to where they were before.”

Seth is at this point the only professional full-time musician of the group. He is the one who selects and arranges the pieces. When we recently talked at the Verdi Club I was surprised to learn that they only rehearse together once a month. “Everybody has a daytime job,” he explains, “and it’s difficult to find the time to get together.” He himself, however, has a regular gig every week with Marcelo Puig at The Seahorse in Sausalito. Here he gets a chance to really shine. With him on the bandoneon and Marcelo on guitar, this is probably the most refined and authentic sounding live Tango music that can be heard in the Bay Area. And here again, I just want to sit and listen. I still don’t know that much about the music, the famous composers, or the pieces. But if I’ve learned anything about Tango music, it is to listen with my heart — thanks to musicians like Seth.

The full interview with Seth Asarnow for the ‘San Francisco Tango Marathon’ can be found here: http://www.sftangomarathon.com/#!seth-asarnov-sexteto/clg1

For more information about local Tango orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area see: http://sflovestango.com/live-tango-music/

125 Years of Tango

National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs

National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs

In the northeastern part of New York State, a three and a half hour drive north of New York City and about halfway to the Canadian border, is Saratoga Springs. Once a popular health resort for the upper class with natural springs and expensive spas, it is nowadays still famous for its world-class horse races which draw a different kind of crowd to this distinguished town every summer, causing the locals to leave their lavish mansions as a playground to the moneyed aristocracy where they can relax after an exciting day at the race track and indulge in the comfort of an old world style atmosphere.

What many people don’t know is that Saratoga Springs is also the home of the National Museum of Dance. It is located in a historic building formerly known as the Washington Bathhouse in Saratoga Spa State Park, just outside town. The neo-classic building houses a substantial archive of photographs, videos, costumes and other artifacts, and in its galleries are three permanent exhibits on display as well as yearly rotating exhibits.

The most recent one is dedicated to Argentine Tango and it is called “125 years of Tango – A Walk through the History of the Dance”. The show is unique and the first of its kind in the world. It includes beautifully displayed memorabilia of famous Tango dancers: their shoes, costumes and various hats worn during performances, together with historic film clips and music recordings. It is arranged in a comprehensive and chronological order, guiding the visitor through more than a century of Tango with lots of inside knowledge and an interesting narration. It starts with early black and white photographs from the end of the 19th century in Argentina when men were practicing the then new dance on the streets and in the fields. It goes on to explain how Tango swept over to Europe and Paris where it became a sensation and then returned to Buenos Aires to finally establish itself as the embodiment of Argentinian dance. The evolution of Tango music is well documented from its early days, through what is now known as the “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s, up to the so-called “Nuevo Tango”, high-lighted by clips of the composer and bandeón player, Astor Piazzolla, who was active during the second part of the 20th century.

Some of the most influential composers and Tango orchestras can be seen and heard in rare video clips where visitors also get the opportunity to watch some of the greatest Tango dancers of all time. One of these is a performance by Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes from the 1960s; another is taken from a formerly popular Argentine TV show, a third depicts dancer Anton Gazenbeek practicing Tango with a stick.

The exhibition explains nicely how Tango started as a dance born on the streets of Buenos Aires with working class men often dancing with men for lack of women, and then how after conquering the salons of the upper class it became a national phenomenon, only to fall into a Dark Age after the ousting of General Péron in the 1950s before achieving a renaissance and conquering the world again in the 1980s — largely through the world-wide success of the hugely popular show “Forever Tango”.

It goes into further detail by emphasizing the relevance of fashion in Tango. At the turn of the last century, when women generally wore long dresses and as a result had to take small steps, the so-called milonguero style was the way to dance Tango. When the hemline rose and women started to reveal first ankles and then knees, eventually wearing mini dresses in the 1960s, it became possible for women to take longer steps which soon led to the style known as “Tango de Salon”. Another example is the so-called “Harem” outfit of the 1920s which became a milestone in Tango fashion and is still dominant in today’s Tango fashion. A number of beautiful costumes from that era are on display.

The exhibition at the Museum of Dance was put together by the owner of this special collection himself: Anton Gazenbeek, a renowned dancer and celebrated performer in the world of Tango. Anton started collecting Tango memorabilia more than twenty years ago when he first became interested in Tango and fell in love with it.

“Most of the items I collected during the time when I lived and studied Tango in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I was looking for the really old stars of Tango: the ones who didn’t perform or teach anymore or didn’t even dance anymore. I wanted to learn to dance from them, and so I tried to find them.” What began as an innocent search by an aspiring young Tango dancer from the United States developed into unexpected connections and friendships. “When I managed to get hold of some of these people, they at first would only agree to talk to me for one hour,” Anton remembers. “Then we started to talk. Eight hours later I would leave their apartments having learned a few steps from them which they all of a sudden remembered.” Along with having learned a new step or two, Anton would also leave with countless stories of the past and usually an unexpected piece of memorabilia. “They would say, ‘Wait a minute, I think I still have this piece that I was wearing for that show, let me find it!’ And they would start digging in their closets, which hadn’t been opened in years, and bring out a hat or a pair of shoes and give it to me.” Anton gratefully took each piece and so started a sizeable collection. “I thought it would be better to show these pieces to the world instead of them ending up in a pile of garbage one day,” he says.

Not only has he assembled many of these items into a neat and respectable exhibition, he also has so much more film and audio material at his home that he is planning to create an interactive website where these clips could be played. “It’s another major project,” he says, “but I’m determined to make all this material accessible and to show it to the world.”

Until this next major project becomes reality, Tango aficionados who happen to be in the area of New York should check out “125 Years of Tango”. The exhibit is on display at the Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs until spring 2016. It’s worth a trip from the Big Apple.

For information about the exhibit see http://www.antontango.net/#!tango-exhibit

For museum information see http://www.dancemuseum.org/exhibits/

Step, step, trip …

“Are you trying to make me extra nervous?” She is standing in line to sign up for her very first Tango lesson. My sudden appearance seems to add to her agitation. We had been talking about this for months — and now Yvette was going to learn Tango!

Recently retired, energetic, fit, single, sociable, and a music lover, I had thought it was a great idea. For the past two years, ever since she moved in next door, she had seen me night after night leaving the house, dressed up and high-heeled, setting out for my next Tango adventure, attending classes and milongas around the Bay Area, enjoying dancing, and meeting new people. She became curious, asked me what it was like, and finally decided that she wanted to learn Tango herself.

But curious as she was, she also seemed a bit uncertain about joining a new community and taking up something as new as Tango. She came up with one excuse after another. And then there were other concerns, such as: “What should I wear? Should I lose some weight?” – “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “you’re not going to a beauty contest. Wear something nice and comfortable that allows you to move your legs.” I sighed to myself, women are so difficult! Apparently it was true, just as men in Tango had been telling me. I almost expected her to say that the class would interfere with her favorite program on TV and that therefore she wasn’t able to make it. Fortunately, it turned out that the popular show, Death in Paradise, was on Wednesday nights, and with that last obstacle removed, we got going.

Here she finally was. After weeks of agonizing where and when she should take her first lesson I had decided it should be Nora’s and Ed’s beginners’ class at the Allegro Ballroom. It seemed to be the easiest place to get her started: only a ten minute drive from where we both live, a convenient time — not too early and not too late on a Tuesday evening — excellent teachers, and a very friendly group of students of different ages. No more excuses, I had thought, this is a good place to get her rolling!

I introduce her to the instructor, Ed, who that night teaches the class without Nora — “It’s her birthday today and I told her to take some time off,” he explains — and who, after learning that this was my friend’s very first Tango lesson, kindly promises to take extra care of her. He lines up the group of students and begins with basic walking exercises: “Right, left, right, left,” in time to the music. Yvette gets into the last row and follows along. I watch her proudly. She’s standing up straight, and staying on the beat. So far, so good. When the group reaches the big mirror at the opposite end of the dance floor, Ed has them walk backwards. I see my friend getting confused for the first time, quickly glancing to the other students for a clue. Should she start on the left or on the right foot? Walking backwards without somebody to hold on to is not as easy as walking forward. She hops from one foot to another, then falls into step with the group. When Ed raises his arms to Tango position, Yvette gets confused again — left arm up or right arm up? Ed watches in the mirror as his new pupil struggles, then turns around and comes up to her to explain: “Right arm up for the follower — imagine yourself with a partner!” Ah, okay, but of course! After explaining the importance of keeping the heels together, he splits the group into leaders and followers. “Everybody, please take a partner!” For a second, I can see her shrinking. And I can see what’s going on in her mind: How do I find a partner? What if nobody wants to dance with me? What if I’m the only one left out? I know that feeling of incompetence that keeps creeping up in such situations, of not being wanted, of being the oddball in the group. For someone completely new to a dance class, this can be the moment when they experience personal failure and decide never to come back. I hold my breath. My friend is not shy, but what is she going to do if she doesn’t find a partner?

Fortunately it’s a friendly class, and one of the men walks up to her and asks if she wants to be his partner for the first couple exercise: the ‘eight-count step with salida’. I breathe a slight sigh of relief; another hurdle overcome. I really want her to like this class and get into Tango!

Being passionate about this dance always makes me want to share my wonderful experiences with other people. But over time, of course, it’s easy to forget the struggles involved at the beginning: the disappointments and the setbacks. Now, watching my friend in her first class, I’m reminded that it hasn’t always been easy even for me to continue to learn and improve.

Ed is building up the basic exercises into small patterns and figures. Here and there he emphasizes particular techniques. I can see that it’s becoming too much information for my friend to absorb. She is wrestling with her partners, getting tense. After half an hour of the class, she walks over to me and sits down. “I love it!” she exclaims. “But it’s getting complicated. And my leg hurts.” Ed comes over from the dance floor, shaking his finger. “I only teach for one hour,” he jokes, “there’s no time to sit down.” He takes her gently into an embrace, gets her to relax, adjusts her posture, shows her how to cross, and how to step. I’m beginning to have doubts. Is she still going to like it in another half hour from now? It’s a lot of learning and absorbing.

She is not easily defeated. “I’m going to take some privates,” she decides, “then I’ll join this class again and I’ll be up to speed!” Yes, right, I’m thinking to myself. How can I explain that it takes time and lots of practicing to learn Tango? I don’t want to disagree with her, but I also don’t want to discourage her. How can I convince her to continue taking group classes and to practice as much as possible? I’m looking for some backup from some of the advanced students who are beginning to arrive  for the next class. Randall walks in and I introduce him to Yvette. “Do you remember when you started Tango?” I ask him, hoping for some support. “Yes, it was horrible,” he exclaims. “Just horrible! It took me three years to get the basics and even longer to go to a milonga!” Not very encouraging. I can see Yvette’s face darkening and I’m sure she has definitely lost interest.

Will she be back or not? I don’t know, since I’ve been out of town for the past week and haven’t been in touch. Has anybody seen her in class? Did I succeed in getting someone new into Tango?

— to be continued…

Tango at a Golden Age


On this Friday, Waverly is taking his first ‘real’ Tango class. We’re at the Senior Center in Emeryville, CA, where Ivan Shvarts is teaching a class with basic steps and exercises. Most of his students are in their sixties and seventies, some in their eighties and even nineties. Some of them have danced for a long time and now want to learn Argentine Tango, others have no dance experience at all. Some of them come as couples, others come by themselves. Ivan makes sure everybody teams up in his class and that nobody is left without a partner. However, somehow he can’t convince Waverly to take a partner. Waverly wants to learn on his own throughout the class. “I’d be fearful for my partner,” he explains to me. “I might lose my balance and cause her to fall.” From a distance, he watches Ivan and practices by himself what he sees. He appears to be amazingly light on his feet and at the same time centered from the core, his earlier dance training clearly showing through. His teacher is thrilled. “You have to come over and talk to this guy!” Ivan exclaims to me. “You wouldn’t believe it – he is just recovering from a major stroke!”

Waverly Jenkins was 64 years old when he suffered a severe stroke. Back then, about 4 years ago, he collapsed in his home in Washington, D.C., and lay helplessly on the floor for several days. He couldn’t get up, he couldn’t walk. Half of his body was paralyzed. It took him 2 days to make his way across the floor to the phone to call his friends back home in Berkeley. But what Waverly had not realized up to that moment was that he had also lost his ability to speak. His friends were unable to understand what he was trying to say. All he could do was mumble in an incomprehensible way; he was no longer able to form words with his mouth. He had lost control over his speech. His friends 3,000 miles away realized something was very wrong and called an ambulance. He was taken to the hospital where he stayed for 35 days, receiving in-patient treatment.

From then on it was a long and steep journey through recovery. He had to learn to walk and to talk, to eat, to dress and to move around by himself. But his prognosis was good because of what he had learned in his younger years. “I was designated a ‘recovery case’,” he says, “because I was trained in ballet and Afro-Jazz when I was in my twenties. Later I trained in martial arts and received a black belt.” For his medical team that meant that Waverly’s body was able to draw on what it had learned in his younger years and that he would be able to recover from the damage the stroke had caused. They also told him that Tango was a good way to learn walking. It struck the right chord with him. He had always wanted to learn to dance Tango, and now Tango could help him to recover. What an incentive to work even harder on his prescribed therapy! “I knew the steps because I had watched a lot of Tango on YouTube,” he explains. “So when my medical team watched me walking in a walker, they didn’t know that in my mind I was actually dancing Tango.”

For Ivan Shvarts, stories like Waverly Jenkins’ should no longer come as a surprise. He’s been teaching Argentine Tango to people ranging from 50-somethings to 90-somethings since 2009 and has seen many of them go through major transformations, both physically and mentally. Some of them had been using walkers or other walking aids for years, but learned to move without them after taking up Tango. He shows me a video from one of his students at the Veterans Memorial Senior Center in San Francisco. “This 93-year old lady is one of my favorite students,” he says proudly. I’m watching a tall, well-maintained lady as she moves around the room with her walker, but who then follows Ivan to the dance floor, leaving the walker behind. She enters his embrace and begins to move rhythmically to the music, a big smile on her face.

On another video, he shows me Mr. Way, a relatively new student who is at the same time the oldest one in his classes. At 104, Mr. Way appears surprisingly agile and shows a fine sense of humor. As an American citizen who was born in Japan, he says that “they cannot decide whether I’m 104 or 100 years old. But it doesn’t matter to me!” Learning to dance a complex dance like Tango seems like just another thing to learn that he’s curious about. “I’ve been dancing for 30 years,” he explains, “but mostly Swing.” He delivers a touching little performance with his partner for the camera — proof that Argentine Tango can be danced at any age. His steps may be small and his repertoire still limited, but he dances with his heart and soul to the music and with perfect phrasing, providing the perfect frame for his partner.

Why do people come here and what are the benefits of learning Tango, even at an older age? “It gives me more flexibility”, says Irina who is one of Ivan’s Tango students and practices with her partner Derrick 3 times per week. She also does Yoga and goes regularly to the gym. Because of Tango her body now has the flexibility that she wasn’t able to achieve through any of the other exercises. “It’s so important to stay flexible as we get older,” she says. As our muscles tighten and our body shows symptoms of aches and pains that we didn’t have in our younger years, Tango can help to stay fit even at an old age.

“People get healthier and happier,” says Ivan. “I’ve been watching my older students go through tremendous transformations.” As their overall health keeps getting better, they are also beginning to have a social life that many of them were missing in previous years. Being surrounded by other Tango aficionados once a week and learning to pay attention to the way they move, they also start paying more attention to their appearance. It goes without saying that they show up for class carefully groomed and put together. “It’s so much fun to see some of the ladies digging for clothes in their closets from the 1950’s,” Ivan says, “and then getting dressed up for our milongas!”

His own mother was a passionate Tango and ballroom dancer for most of her life. After she died in 2000 at the age of 91, Ivan found a note at her bedside. She had written that she wanted him to learn to dance Tango. “She died in the afternoon,” he says, “and the next day I took my first Tango class.” He fell in love with it, traveled to Buenos Aires, took classes with some of the most famous teachers, and began teaching seniors himself after moving to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 2007. His classes gradually grew from 6 to 30 students, and now with three classes per week plus a milonga every Sunday he is quite busy. His senior Tango program which, as he says, benefits seniors and others physically, mentally, and socially, has now become a non-profit organization and offers scholarships for seniors with disabilities. Ivan lovingly named it ‘Golden Age Tango Academy’, a fine reference to the ‘Golden Age of Tango’ from the mid-1930’s to the early 1950’s which produced some of the greatest orchestras and composers, Juan d’Arienzo, Francisco Canaro, and Aníbal Troilo among them.

Ivan has been invited to teach veterans with PTSD at the War Memorial Building in San Francisco. It is a new class which is likely to receive public funding. “I already have a few students with PTSD in my class,” he says. “It is touching to see how Tango transforms them. This one guy has to take a dozen pills or so a day, each one costing around $60, and he lives a totally constrained life. The only time he can socially interact and communicate is during my Tango class once a week.”

There is also a sad perspective to working with older people. Ivan knows of seven of his students who have died over the years. “But I’d like to think that they died happy,” he smiles, “because they danced Tango until the end.”

Image: “Maud was delighted to find she no longer needed her walker.”



Argentine Tango USA: Observations from the sidelines

Pam&MichelleOkay, so the winners have been announced: congratulations to Ivan Troshhi and Yamila Viana from New York — you make the rest of us now look and feel really clumsy on the dance floor, but for the next year we will work hard on that leg extension! Everyone else has to face up to the fact that they didn’t win. Although they had spent countless hours practicing and a fortune on private lessons, shoes, chiropractors, pilates, and dance studios, and had suffered through emotional rollercoasters and self-doubts, fights with their partners, pain in their feet and in their legs and backs, traveled across the country and spent all the money they had initially saved for that trip to the Caribbean, and basically had put the whole rest of their lives on hold it just wasn’t good enough. Or so it seems.

They may have lost a competition, but they are not losers. Not in my opinion. Everybody who is brave enough to step out on that dance floor deserves respect. It takes guts to expose oneself to the critical observation not only of five judges, but also of a thousand people who all have an opinion, and all of whom are dancers and all of whom are human, and all of whom watched the competing couples with a mix of admiration and envy. And, of course, admiration was as much to be heard as mischievous comments. “He is good, but she is not up to his level,” I overheard someone in the audience whispering to his neighbor. “Watch how they are dancing,” someone else mumbled about another couple, “it’s comical!”

I found it particularly embarrassing and sad when a friend told me about the observations of one of our top local couples in the competition, Pamela and Michelle, who by many are regarded as among the best dancers in the Bay Area. The first ever and only same-sex couple in the competition, they couldn’t help but notice some of the disapproving onlookers. Fortunately, they seemed pretty relaxed about the whole event and danced beautifully. In my opinion, they deserve a first prize just for breaking through limits. I hope that we will see them out there again next year, as we have seen some other dancers who have been competing in the ATUSA now for several years in a row. They like the challenge and they love the experience of competing and performing. And even though the disappointment was visible on their faces when they were packing up and heading home, they were determined to compete again the following year.

But there were also others. Like one of my favorite dance partners who was on last year’s winning formation team. “Why aren’t you competing this year?” I asked him. He shook his head vigorously. “Too much work,” he said. “I didn’t have a life for two months!” I was a bit disappointed at his statement, hoping he would build upon his success of the previous year and compete again. He was a good dancer when I met him a few years ago and the hard training for last year’s competition had elevated his skills to an even higher level. But I understand. Having competed in ballroom competitions on both national and international levels for years, I know what it is like. You don’t have a life. Period.

As for the couple who became champions — Ivan and Yamila — and who are now moving on to compete in the international Argentine Tango competition in Buenos Aires this summer, it seemed to me that they wouldn’t have been destroyed had they not won. They seemed to have a good time regardless of the pressure, and appeared to have enjoyed the whole event, with she laughing and smiling throughout their performances, and both of them appearing quite relaxed. I think that’s the attitude that we want to see. It’s just dancing after all.

Foto by Mary Gulick