Teaching Liam Neeson

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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!”

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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.”