It’s a grey and cold January day here on the East Coast. The holiday season is over and we are in for a couple of dark and gloomy months ahead with no distraction to look forward to: few restricted social activities, no in person dance events, no quick escaping to a warm beach. The town is quiet and other than an occasional phone call there is not much happening. It feels as if the world has gone dormant. It should be a good time to pick up where I left off before Christmas — the final editing and layout of my tango book. But I’m distracted by the news with reports about the infection rates going through the roof, as predicted, and the political developments in Washington spinning out of control.
Instead of getting back to the lonely task of working on my book, I decide to find out how others in my once very active tango orbit are doing. I pick up the phone to call the tango professionals with whom I spoke during the first phase of this pandemic. Back then, in the spring and early summer of 2020, our tango world — just as the world at large — had just fallen apart. All dancing and all tango had stopped. Instead of feeling sorry for myself because of the loss of my favorite pastime and the community it involved, I made the resolution to write about the teachers’ situation. Tango professionals all over the world were among the first ones who had to halt their business, and they were being hit especially hard. Some of the people I spoke to had switched to teaching online classes, but despite their new teaching concepts they could barely make ends meet, and were worrying how long they could survive. Others created online platforms where students and teachers alike could talk and learn more about tango and continue to enjoy some kind of social life; some were busy organizing fundraisers to supplement their income. The Europeans at least seemed to be in a slightly better financial position since the arts in those countries are supported by government funds.
Everyone I spoke to and wrote about was creative one way or another. Some were working even harder than before, others had taken a creative break and saw an opportunity to recharge and rebuild their careers. Apart from a few, most worried about their long-term future. Little did they, just like most of us, anticipate how long this crisis would drag on and how much worse everything was going to get.
Wondering how they are doing now I pick up my phone.
My first call goes to Orlando ‘Orly’ Farias in Argentina. I imagine him being in Patagonia, but to my surprise, he has just arrived in Buenos Aires. “Am feeling a little weird,” says his first text message. “I hope it’s not Covid.” He has a slight temperature. I panic and worry about him all night, but the next morning he says he’s feeling normal again.
“What are you doing in Buenos Aires?” I want to know. “I thought you had moved to Patagonia?”
“True,” he says, and tells me that he had already moved to northern Patagonia last May. “May 29, to be precise,” he adds. He describes leaving Buenos Aires as the hardest move of his life, even though he had been on the move a lot during his tango career. But once he made the difficult decision to leave Buenos Aires and his previous life behind, he felt it was a relief.
He now rents out his house on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, the very same place that was supposed to be both his new home and tango studio. He had restored and remodeled it for several years. It was to have secured his future and established him as a local tango teacher, ending years of traveling. He was about to open his doors to students from all over the world when the pandemic hit. Instead he found himself trapped and eventually forced to leave and move back to his family. They needed some help, and he is now working in the business, doing the paperwork.
The small village by the sea in Rio Negro was until recently a quiet safe place, but the pandemic has arrived here too. He tells me that the number of infections have risen from six to eighty-four in only two weeks. “People act as if there was no pandemic,” he says stunned, “just as in Buenos Aires.” People were not wearing masks or practicing social distancing the way they should.
He just spent twelve hours straight on the road to get to the capital to see his doctor for one of his regular visits. “This is my third time coming to Buenos Aires since moving to Patagonia,” he says.
What are his plans for the long-term future? I can hear him smile over the phone when he says “I don’t know. The house is rented for three years. Then we’ll see.”
Judy and Jon
Unlike Orlando, Judy and Jon have been staying at their home in Las Vegas. Other than going shopping and an occasional trip to explore the nearby mountains and parks, they haven’t left home. Here they work, teach, and produce ‘videocitos’: little instructional videos for their students. During our first conversation last year in June they told me that soon after the overall lockdown took effect they learned how to switch from teaching in person to giving online classes.
Now, so many months later, I’m touched to talk to them again and hear how committed they remain to their students. Almost surprised at themselves, they tell me that they have been teaching online for forty weeks non-stop. “It’s good for us,” says Judy.
There are no complaints and no regrets. Judy and Jon seem to have adjusted and accepted the way things are for now. When I tune into one of their Friday night tango cabarets they look as they always have: perfectly groomed and composed, and focused on what they are doing. The ‘Hola Tango Cabaret’ is a fun social event where everybody can tune in and listen or have a conversation and toast to tango and the end of the week. Judy and Jon play tunes, tell stories, give a little performance, and occasionally present guests who perform.
I get the impression that they are so absorbed by their tango projects that it leaves them little time to mourn the general plight of the tango scene. “It gives us a sense of purpose,” they say. They have redefined themselves, just as they said they would last summer. Their online schedule has been expanded to two classes a week for which no partner is required, and one class for couples, plus the private lessons for which they produce their short videos and the tango cabaret.
Given all the work that they put into these online projects four times a week, they say it would be great if they could reach more people – and get more feedback. They report that most of the time, when they ask for feedback, there is no response and it leaves them clueless. Few people seem to understand that Judy and Jon are tango professionals who make a living by teaching. Although classes are free they ask for a small donation, but few people give money, though it is needed now more than ever.
A new idea to create more income is a monthly newsletter called ‘La Mariposa’, for which, along with the Friday tango cabaret, they ask for a small monthly donation. They are hoping thereby to attract more people to become patrons and support their projects financially. The first edition of ‘La Mariposa’ was just published and I was excited to see so much interesting information in just the first issue. I admire their spirit and hard work, and look forward into tuning into one of their next online events.
Stay tuned and read in the next part of this series about Dario da Silva, Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda, and Eduardo Saucedo.
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Why haven’t I written about Maia and David before? Geographically they are two of the closest tango teachers to my East Coast home, which is where I have gradually shifted the center of my life over the past few years. On a personal level I have known these two ever since I started tango here in upstate New York. They were still dating, and Maia had just begun to teach David everything she knew about Argentine tango; he had been a dedicated salsa dancer and part-time teacher until then. I watched them moving ahead with their teaching, becoming professional teachers. Then I saw them getting married, starting a family, and moving from Newburgh further north to the Hudson Valley, closer to where I live. I became a regular at their tango events, and saw their community grow, and in return both of them supported me and my partner when we hosted musicians from Argentina. So why have I not written about them until now? The answer is simple: because they are too close. It is a delicate matter to write about people you know well. There is a personal relationship, and writing reflects a different image both of the people you write about as well as about yourself, the writer. So I approached the subject of Maia and David slowly until I at last felt confident that the time was right. Here then is my story: a couple of tango professionals in an unlikely rural area of America; a tango story in an unusual setting with a surprisingly positive take on the future of tango.
The small hamlet of Rosendale in Ulster County, two hours north of New York City, has one main street with brightly painted period buildings, a movie theatre, a bakery, a grocery store, and an eclectic café: the ‘Rosendale Café’. The latter has become the epicenter of the Hudson Valley’s Latin dance world over the past eight years. Until last March a couple from Argentina, Maia Martinez and David Salvatierra, taught a mix of salsa, bachata and Rueda de Casino every Thursday night to a remarkable crowd of about thirty students. After the class the restaurant’s floor would be cleared for a popular social dance with more people cramming into the small space; tables and chairs had to be removed. Younger and older folks of different social and ethnic backgrounds, and of different levels of dancing would mingle and rotate partners on the dance floor, especially during the Rueda — a salsa group-dance where the dance figures are called out. Many friendships would be formed that way and were carried over into people’s daily lives.
The other part of the couple’s teaching was dedicated to Argentine tango. This used to be an entirely different scene, but the tango dancers were nevertheless as loyal and dedicated to their friendly instructors as the salseros. The tango crowd was smaller and somewhat more mature. And most tango events took place not at the casual Rosendale Café, but at slightly more distinguished venues in the area. There was, for example, an elegantly converted barn at a private estate in Hudson, and a spacious dance hall in the historic building of the Arts Society of Kingston. Sunday afternoon ‘tealongas’ took place for a while at a small dance studio tucked into the charming colonial town of Beacon, until finally all tango events were moved to the J&B Dance Center, the longstanding and only surviving ballroom studio in Kingston. Tango dancers would come from near and far, even from the neighboring state of Connecticut, and some of them would drive up to two hours to enjoy some Argentine tango.
The more dedicated tangueros would take private lessons with Maia and David and lessons were usually booked well in advance. One-on-one instruction mostly took place in the privacy of their spacious apartment upstairs at the Rosendale Café, with whose owners they maintain a family-like relationship. Tango students from the area appreciated the dedication of their teachers as much as the authentic Argentine tango experience, which would be otherwise hard to find in this neck of the woods. Another advantage was the convenience of a close-by location versus the long and nerve-wracking trip into New York City.
With salsa and tango the energetic Argentines had a busy schedule — and the local dance community was kept on its toes. As well as their regular dance events, they also started the ‘Hudson Valley Tango Festival’ in 2017. This quickly turned into a major three-day event with internationally acclaimed stars such as Fabian Salas and Lola Diaz, or Junior Cervila and Guadelupe Garcia, teaching and performing. The already busy couple admitted that preparations for the festival took up a lot of their time — between six and seven months of the year — but their efforts paid off and the festival began to grow quickly and eventually attracted almost three hundred dancers. This is not to say that it turned into a profitable enterprise, as is rarely the case with most festivals, but apparently this was never their primary goal. As David explained: “The festival’s goal was to get different tango communities together and to present the Hudson Valley to different people, and to offer the Hudson Valley different talents and people from the communities around.”
This year’s festival didn’t take place for obvious reasons. They had seen the pandemic coming since December, they told me, when during their annual family visit back home in Argentina Maia had a dream about cancelling the festival. At the time, the threat of the virus spreading to the USA seemed so unlikely that David laughed away her concerns. But the uncomfortable feeling never left them. And by the time they returned to New York in early February they were concerned enough to be among the first passengers to wear masks on their flight. It made their four-year-old daughter Catalina very uncomfortable, and she cried on the long way back.
After several more weeks of much back-and-forth they decided to follow their instinct and cancel the event, even though long-term official guidelines had not yet been set. Fortunately, apart from the time they had invested, they lost very little money. The festival venue — the Senate Garage in Kingston — agreed to move the event to a new date later in the year. At this point, however, it is almost certain that the festival is not going to happen at the new date in November either. Besides ensuring the safety of the dancers by maintaining social distancing and dancing with one partner only, the festival’s mission, which is to connect, would not be accomplished. “To make a tango event for people to dance is one thing,” they explained, “but to do a festival is something else. We’re talking about all the activities that the festival offers. People won’t come out and people won’t feel safe. We have to respect that and honor it.” And Maia added: “We care so much about the community.”
‘Community’ is a key word that comes up frequently during our conversation, primarily of course in reference to their vibrant dance community. ‘We want to create community through dance,’ as is stated like a mantra on their website. But the couple has gone beyond that and demonstrated their sense of community in other parts of life in this rural area that has become their home. Their involvement has included, for example, performing at local events and participating with their students in the annual ‘Sinterklaas Parade’ on the Kingston waterfront. They have also worked with the nearby not-for-profit ‘Center for Creative Education’ and have taught at Marist College Liberty Partnerships Program in Poughkeepsie. And at a recent peaceful march for Black Lives Matter in Rosendale they could be seen marching along with the small crowd, wearing masks and holding up a sign, their little daughter Catalina in the midst of it all as usual.
Surprisingly, as a result of their Argentine tango and Latin dance teaching, the two South Americans have become an integral part of small town life in America. What may have initially sounded like a questionable plan for their life has turned out to be one of the best choices, both on a professional and personal level — and finally for surviving relatively unscathed in the current pandemic and its associated economic hardships. In contrast to the desperate situations of some of the many tango professionals I’ve spoken to in urban areas, it is in this unlikely rural environment where I found a tango couple that seems to sail through it all with relative ease.
Obviously, with all dance events suspended, they don’t have much of an income these days. But they have adapted to their new circumstances, and emphasize that thanks to their simple life-style, few expenses, and the support of their dance community they feel that they are among the lucky ones. The dance community is now giving back what the two have given them for years. “We’re doing really well,” they said. “We’re spending a lot of time in the garden. We have friends — new neighbors actually — who also happen to have a little one, same age as Catalina, so it was such a gift. It has made a difference for us. The way we live and the quality of life we can have. A very small place, a very small community. It’s really good.”
With New York State slowly opening up in carefully calculated phases, they have been able to offer limited outdoor salsa group-classes for the past couple of weeks now. It is a far cry from the previous casual and crowded event, but it is a move in the right direction. Instead of dropping in, people now have to register in advance. Instead of dancers changing partners and rubbing shoulders on the dance floor, no more than five students at a time can participate in the class. They have to be six feet apart, bring hand sanitizer and their own water bottles, and are encouraged to wear a mask — something that is not always feasible with outdoor temperatures between 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of year. The exciting and family-like atmosphere of the old days is gone for now.
Maia summed it up: “I think what changed the most for me, especially in relation to the salsa community, [is that] we were known here because we were really friendly and everybody would dance with everybody. So when you look at it, you can think it’s devastating, it’s frustrating, everything got destroyed, got interrupted because we used to embrace everybody. And right now we’re only taking five people and no new people. Now we don’t want to welcome new people because it doesn’t feel safe to have new faces around. We’re trying to make people feel comfortable to come back to classes. It’s very important that they feel secure, that they feel safe and that they can relax instead of it being very chaotic and stressful.”
They have also resumed teaching private tango lessons. “They have their barre,” said Maia, describing with a big movement of her arms the distance. “I have my barre over there. We do technique, we talk, we dream about tango. It’s clearly a time for us to stay put and to see tango in a different way. Tango is waiting, tango is not giving up on us and we are not giving up on tango.”
Until recently they taught exclusively online. “A real interesting experience,” they said, “because we like to hug, to touch, to connect with people. So this teaching online is very different. But it’s really special that you can still connect and you can offer something and inspire.”
They then described how they realized that the need for social interaction had become an important factor for why people take online dance-lessons: “We noticed that people especially want to talk, to see how we’re doing, to talk about their day. They want to be in the presence of somebody.” The social connection, the listening and talking had always been essential in the way they were teaching before, but now, David said: “It’s a little more clear in terms of listening to the person. Whatever the reason was for the person to take a class — whether it was salsa or tango or whatever discipline — it now seems more amplified, and you kind of see it with the online lessons.”
Their role as dance instructors clearly goes beyond dancing: it fills a social gap and a mental need for human closeness. No wonder they feel under-valued and somewhat left behind by the government’s limited support for the arts in this current crisis. As Maia put it: “I think about the way the government thinks about arts. How very little we are taken care of. And how huge is our contribution. And I’m saying all the arts. We do bring a lot to the community, and we do keep them safe.”
The unfortunate choice of words about ‘essential workers’ has unintentionally opened a wound. “Arts are not essential,” she continued. “Hearing that is hurtful, even though I will never compare myself with people who save lives, because what they do is amazing and I could never put myself in their shoes. But hearing that in another context ‘art is not essential’, that word is making so much noise. And again, it’s not to compare with their value. It’s enormous what the people on the frontlines are doing. I think arts are essential, I think educators are essential; the kids are struggling, adults are struggling. If only we could rely on people playing music, on people dancing. If we could be smart. We could prepare people on how to be connected.”
And then they assured me that through the experiences of the last few months they have learned to be better prepared for a second wave: “We will have a better concept to stay connected, to have classes. We have learned how to be six feet apart. When this comes again, when the second wave comes, we will be ready. We will have classes, and even if we just sit and listen to music and look at our beautiful faces, that’s what we’re going to do.”
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
I’ve never met Valerie Kattenfeld in person. Actually, I never even knew about her until recently. We happen to be both in the same Facebook group, ‘I’m not dancing, so this is what I did instead’. It is one of the groups which emerged in the wake of worldwide lockdowns in March. Both Valerie and I expressed our befuddlement about our respective postings which had been removed by the group organizer. We then started to talk privately and it turned out that she had read some of my stories. Then she started to tell me about herself. I was both astonished and dismayed to hear her story. I couldn’t stop thinking about her hopelessly entangled situation down there in Buenos Aires. And I thought that her story, which stands for so many countless others, should be told.
Some days are better than others. The first time I talked to Valerie Kattenfeld a few weeks ago she sounded relieved. She had just successfully completed her first fundraiser and reached her goal of raising three thousand Euros. The amount would go a long way in Buenos Aires, where the Austrian-born tango lover has been living in strict lockdown since March, unable to make an income.
The second time I talked to her she was wrestling with new obstacles that had developed back home in Vienna. The tenant who had sublet her apartment was unexpectedly moving out, and as a result the place had to be sold. From one day to the next Valerie had to give up much of her old life: personal things she had kept in storage, furniture, diaries, and even memories.
“I’m feeling very anxious,” she admitted. With the help of some close friends back home she was frantically organizing the cleaning out of her apartment, deciding what to sell and what to donate. In long Zoom sessions between Argentina and Austria they went through every single item. Her place in Vienna had provided a safe refuge until recently, but now she wouldn’t be able to return anytime soon.
“It feels like a final cut,” she said. “That’s why it’s going deep.”
To make matters worse, her seventy-six- year-old mother, also back home in Austria, was about to have surgery. She told me about her close relationship with her mother whom she fondly describes as generous and always supportive of her daughter’s happiness, even if it meant her moving to a continent far away. “She calls me ‘my little nest refugee’,” Valerie told me smiling. Now she felt distraught not being able to be by her side — not that she has any other choice. Like almost everyone else she cannot leave Buenos Aires. Worse, the prospects are gloomy for Argentina’s capital, which had just reversed from phase two back to phase one at the time we spoke. In the four months since Valerie has been stuck in her apartment in the Almagro neighborhood she has been unable to pursue her plan of building a new life and establishing herself as a professional in the tango world. Now the city of her dreams has turned into a trap.
She describes life in Buenos Aires these days as tough. Before the crisis she found it easy to connect with Argentines. Now everyone is concerned about their own safety. “The atmosphere of the city has really changed”, she said. “People are wearing their masks, walking in their own bubble. They don’t meet your eyes anymore.” Most of all she misses meeting people and going to the milongas. The milongas, she said, were for her like her living room. “It’s like I have lost my home.”
Everything had looked so promising when she arrived in early 2019. With no plans other than just really wanting to live in Buenos Aires she had cancelled a dance-movement workshop that she was supposed to teach in Scotland, got on a plane and took off. She recalls the feeling when the airplane touched the ground at Ezeiza Airport as a great physical sensation that went through her body, assuring her that she had made the right decision. “I felt that this was real,” she enthusiastically described the moment. “I wanted to commit to this place.”
She was ready for a fresh start in her life. An Austrian artist with a background in theater and contemporary dance, she had only two years before quit her career in Vienna’s theater world and taken off on a trip around the world. Argentina’s capital was one of her first destinations. There she discovered tango, fell in love with both the dance and the city, and vowed to come back. But before returning she went on to explore more unknown territory in the world of dance as well as human connections that would ultimately lead to her own individual approach.
Her world trip took her to India where she attended a ‘tantra festival’ — another revealing experience of the senses. She told me that it was at this point that she began to understand the importance of meeting people in ‘a really authentic way’ unlike her previous job in theater production where she created plays and staged them. “It was like packaging art as a product.” The new experience at the tantra festival reshaped the way she thought about art. From then on she became more interested in the process rather than with the production of art. “I wanted to use the tools of art to encounter people and see what the process of personal transformation could be like,” she explained.
She also developed an interest in a movement form called ‘biodanza’, which would turn into a decisive experience. The term, a combination of ‘bio’ and ‘danza’ (meaning ‘dance’ in Spanish) seems to be self-explanatory, but going a bit deeper, more detailed explanations become apparent. It is, in short, ‘a transformational movement practice’: ‘a human integration system of renewal, re-education, and re-learning of life’s original functions’. First created by Chilean anthropologist and psychoanalyst Rolando Toro Arenada in the nineteen-sixties, it has since been further developed by his followers all over the world. The goal of practicing biodanza is to reconnect with yourself through music, singing, movement, and group encounters: to experience active positive feelings and to develop self-awareness.
Valerie quickly recognized the benefits of bringing the biodanza concept into tango. Its advantages for learning tango have long been known and have been utilized both by tango teachers such as Fernanda Valdovinos as well as by biodanza instructors such as Jose Antonio Garro, who has taught the method at tango festivals. Unaware of these similiar learning strategies, Valerie started to develop her own concept which she called biotango:a mix of tango, biodanza, and tantra. With her new approach she wanted, as she put it, ‘to help people to feel the embrace in tango more, and to have more physical contact’.
In a bold move she started to promote herself as a biotango instructor. She recalled how she talked to people at milongas, teachers, regular dancers, and organizers in London where she lived at the time. It paid off: “My very first prototype of biotango was at a milonga in London,” she said. One thing lead to another, and soon she brought her method to places in North Carolina, Europe, and her hometown, Vienna. When asked about her recipe for success she said: “When you have this basic trust and you are so convinced that you belong there, you make it possible.”
Last December, while already based in Buenos Aires, she was invited to teach her biotango method at Taboe Tango Camp, an alternative tango festival in the Netherlands. She laughingly described how she wrote ‘a very charming’ letter to the organizers, telling them how much she resonated with everything she saw on their website, and that she felt they vibrated with the same energy. On the other hand she admitted that this approach would probably not work with more traditional tango festivals.
Parallel to developing and promoting her way of teaching in the alternative tango community, the rest of Valerie’s life in Buenos Aires continued to evolve around tango. The famous Estudio Dinzel soon became her home base where she took classes every day, hung out, talked, and shared mate with the others, made friends and received help in finding a place to stay. When someone told her about the Centro Educativo de Buenos Aires (CETBA), where people train to become tango teachers, she found it beneficial to study there as well. Needless to say she went to milongas every night.
She also discovered that she could continue her biodanza education in Buenos Aires at a school run by Verónica Toro (daughter of Rodolfo Toro), and her husband Raúl Terrén. She was immediately fascinated by this power couple, and felt welcomed as a family member. Fortunately, despite the corona crisis, she has been able to continue with her classes online. She is currently in the middle of her three-year education to become an offical biodanza facilitator, and is already allowed to offer courses to explore tango with the tools of biodanza.
Her own sources of income, however, have dried up. During her first year in Buenos Aires, while life was still functioning as usual, she took turns working as a school teacher, working in tourism, and working as a counselor for school children. “As a foreigner, it’s always good to work with your language,” she explained.
The organizations she worked for did the legal paperwork, and in the meantime she strove to build her own independent business in Buenos Aires by creating an ‘authentic tango tourism enterprise’. She worked hard at putting together custom-designed trips for single people, couples, and very small groups. The idea was to give people a very personal experience with visits to milongas, home style cooking and more, and she even got some of her artist friends involved. But just one day before her first client, a girl from Germany, was due to arrive, lockdown was imposed in Argentina and she had to cancel the tour. Something that had just started to flourish, was shut down from one day to the next.
“It was very disappointing,” she said, “and to be very honest,” she continued after a pause, “I was very panicked when corona crisis began.”
She knew she couldn’t sit still and wait for things to happen. So again she rolled up her sleeves and became creative. That’s how her YouTube blog called ‘We Rock Corona’ came to be. For several weeks she posted a video every day with an invitation to dance. Some of these videos were tango-related, others not. Her idea was to give people the impulse to dance at home and get the energy moving, catapulting them out of anxiety, fear, and sadness. “Because when we move, we automatically think less,” she said, “and I wanted to stop the rotation of negative thoughts that can obsess us from time to time.”
From the YouTube series came the idea of setting up the above-mentioned crowd fundraiser. The Kickstarter effort to dance for better mental health in quarantine reached its financial goal after two months. Now, Valerie said, she is at a place where she can breath and relax again. The next step is the setting up of her website (www.valeriekattenfeld.com) to offer classes.
Although she is extraordinarily busy, she misses dancing with a partner. She has managed to connect with a potential practice-partner and wants to give it a try. But unlike her he is a traditional tanguero, and they yet have to find out if they are a match on the dance floor. And she is cautious about physical contact with an as yet unknown person.
If it doesn’t work out, she still has plenty of ways to communicate with the outside world via the internet. The corona virus has a positive impact after all, she mused: “I usually wouldn’t communicate so much,” she said. She has found plenty of new friends online, and established new connections everywhere. Not being able to go to milongas all the time, she continues to communicate with like-minded people and is excited about their willingness to share their ideas and experiences. Valerie is going to need a lot of perseverance to get through this pandemic crisis in Buenos Aires. One can only hope that the better days outweigh the worse.
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
My very first private tango lesson was with Eduardo Saucedo. I was still a tango baby, barely one year into dancing Argentine tango, and he was a star at the tango firmament: a master teacher, dancer, choreographer, and producer of tango shows. I was attending the ‘Congresso Internacional de Tango Argentina’ (CITA) in Buenos Aires at the time, the biggest event in the world of tango during which I took a workshop with Eduardo and his then partner, Marissa. Not only was I deeply impressed by his teaching, but at the end he brought me – just as every other student in the room – to tears when he spoke about the deeper meaning of tango in life, of love and passion, and of believing in yourself. Then they both gave each of us a red rose. There wasn’t the slightest bit of sentimentality or fake feelings. Even we less emotional Northern Americans and Europeans could sense that what he had just delivered was profoundly honest and had come straight from his heart.
With my heart pounding, I knocked at Eduardo’s apartment door the following day. A distinguished blonde lady with a Swedish accent opened the door and introduced herself as Eduardo Saucedo’s manager: Kikki Rusth. She led me through the apartment to his dance studio, and my nervousness faded quickly. I remember how he took me seriously right from the beginning and took away my fear of perhaps being an inadequate or too inexperienced student. It was an eye-opening lesson in my early tango life and it gave my self-esteem a much needed boost at the time.
I met Eduardo again a few years later when he started to teach frequently with Christy Cote in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then he has become a regular in the Bay Area, as well as in many other parts of North America. We also see him now every year in early spring when he serves as an Official Judge for the ‘US Tango Championship’ in San Francisco. He is a judge on other tango competitions, participates in tango festivals all over the world, has appeared in documentaries by National Geographic and the very sweet short documentary ‘My first Tango’. He sees himself as a cultural ambassador for his country, and was honored with the prestigious ‘Pa´que Bailen los Muchachos’ award in Buenos Aires. Eduardo Saucedo is based in Buenos Aires and that’s where I reached him — he has been living in quarantine at his home since the middle of March.
AB: It looks like over the past few months you’ve become the ‘master of tango online classes’. Regardless of sheltering-in-place, you’re busy all the time, right?
ES: Yes, I work and thanks to new technology I can relax here at home and at the same time work from home. What can we say of this time? It’s just what it is, it’s just very different this time. So yes, I’m working at home.
AB: What kind of classes do you teach?
ES: I’m teaching group classes and private lessons too. I’m glad I have a dance studio so I can teach here. I’m busy, but at the same time I have time for myself because I’m on my own here in Buenos Aires because of the corona virus. This technology really helped me to reconnect with people differently.
AB: In what way?
ES: Because they let me get into their homes. It’s not that they’re coming to the studio. I’m in the studio! But I’m in their homes. So the feeling is very different because it’s very intimate. The connection is bigger. But I have to get used to see people in little squares. [laughs]
AB: Does that mean you feel less in control than when students come to your studio?
ES: Well, the feeling is that I have to break this perception that what I see is a computer or a camera. I have to really feel that I’m really connected with them. So I have to break down this first barrier. It’s not easy at the beginning to do that with so many people. You have to learn the tools of these new platforms and then just be yourself again. You can be yourself when you’re with people in one place and you see them and you can feel what is happening around you. So I can control how I will approach a class. But when I’m teaching from home and I’m watching people on the other side, I have to learn that I can’t control the class in the same way. I have to believe in what I give and what I teach and I hope they’re listening and dancing. [laughs] I have the feeling that when I’m teaching with these new technologies, I have to speak louder. I have to make my presence bigger in the same way so they don’t get distracted because they’re at home. People are at home, so when they decide to leave, they leave. And they come back and they continue the class. In the actual class they usually stay there with you all the time.
AB: Do you structure the classes differently?
ES: First I show what I need to teach, then I tell the students to do it with me and then I watch what they’re doing. It’s harder because not everyone has the camera just capturing their whole body. The students ask and they step back, but the camera doesn’t show the feet and so you have to accept what you see. I need to be more detail-oriented, especially in group classes. I ask people to mute themselves and then I can talk and everybody can focus on what I’m teaching. At a certain point I say ‘Okay, now we can do questions. If you have a question, lift your hand. And then unmute yourself and ask the question.’ It helps other people in the class. But I can’t answer absolutely everything. That part is not difficult for me. The difficulty is to be able to see all of them simultaneously; but I’m actually getting used to it.
AB: How many students can you teach on one screen?
ES: I’m having around twenty people. That’s a pretty good group size. And then… I’m nearsighted. But we near-sighted people focus more. You can always see what’s wrong, even when it’s difficult to see objects. So when I teach, I know when the foot is not right. I can see those little details even with the students there on the screen. I kind of know if they’re doing it right or…. I don’t say ‘wrong’, but I say they need to get better in something that I’m teaching. Because one of the things that I believe is that we don’t do things wrong. We need to get better and we can improve. One teacher can have one vision about something, another can have a different vision, and I have my own vision. Because I learned the different styles in tango, I understand better what people need. When you know the other styles in tango it really helps to understand the students.
AB: Tell me a little bit about how you started tango.
ES: I come from a small village in the north of Argentina. When I was a little kid, the only TV channel we had in our village showed movies from the 1930s, 40s and the 50s, and almost all of them were about tango. So I wanted to dance. I remember being a kid; I looked at the TV and I just took the broom and I started to dance. When I started to study law at the university here in Buenos Aires there was a tango class at the University Extension. I went there. I said ‘Wow, this is my chance, this is my time’. And then the first time that I embraced my partner and I lead her into the cross, something clicked in my head and I said ‘This is for me’. I was studying law until my life turned naturally to tango. It was once a week, and it was my day to go. I don’t know for what reason, but it was that day that I had to go. And I had to dance, and I had to feel it, and I had to embrace, and I did it. And since then I never stopped.
AB: At the end of each of your lessons you always have something important to say, something that puts tango into a larger perspective. It’s like your mantra. Where does that come from?
ES: Because before I started tango, I was challenged by my own life. When I was sixteen, something happened and I almost died. The doctors didn’t know what it was. I never used drugs. We went to so many doctors. My brother is a doctor. We went to one doctor and he told me “Wait here, I’m going to talk to your brother.” And when they went to another room, it seemed like something wasn’t right. So I went and put my ear to the wall because I wanted to know what they were talking about. And the doctor said to my brother “You have to tell your family that there is no hope for this guy.” So I said to myself ‘Who is this person saying that I’m going to die?’ I was sixteen years old. I felt good, even though I was sick. But I felt I wasn’t going to die. And so I learned to believe; to believe in myself. And I want to transmit that everything that you want to do is possible. It doesn’t matter if you do small or big things. But everything that you do is important for your life. Tango helped me to communicate this idea that you have the power to decide for your life. Tango for me is a way to communicate, because I don’t think there is another dance where you communicate things in the way tango does.
AB: Did you dance other dances before you started tango?
ES: We grew up with folklore. But I was not a professional folkloristic dancer, I just danced. We’re in a country where we dance, especially in small places. I was always the little guy and I was never shy, and the others always called me to dance: “Eh, Eduardo, do it, come on, Eduardo, come here, Eduardo!” And I was always ok with it, I went to recitals and everything. When I became part of this tango world, I discovered other dances and that I could use a little bit of this and of that.
AB: What changes have you seen in tango since the corona crisis began? And do you think tango is coming back?
ES: I’ve been so many years in tango and in so many communities around the world, and I think there was too much information for tango people. There was too much information about everything. There is a point where you don’t really know where you are with your tango sometimes. So this time gives us the opportunity to relearn what we want, what we miss. I’m not making generalizations, but it was like, okay, I’m going to dance here and I’m going to dance there, but there is something that I feel I don’t need… because it’s too much. I think when we return from the quarantine, we will choose better with whom we want to dance, and what we want to communicate. And what we want to give. And what we want to share. And with whom we want to share. For me as a teacher it was like a wall at first. One day you were having classes and the next day nothing. I thought ‘What? And now what?’ And then you have to absorb that information. You have to just eat it and process it. I’m grateful that I’m in a situation that I can do that, that I can take my time, a little bit of time just to process.
AB: You were traveling a lot. It seemed like you hardly ever took a break.
ES: Exactly. And then all of a sudden you say ‘Okay, there is the wall I have in front of me. Now what am I going to do?’ If I only see the wall, I don’t see the opportunities. So, well, let’s create a little ladder so I can work around this problem, so I can develop different ideas. But I have to accept that tango for now is not going to be the same. I’m not going to be able to teach people in groups, I’m not going to be able to go to dance at the milongas, I’m not going to be able to have good times and dinners and things with friends. But I think tango specifically makes you think that you need to evolve. If people don’t evolve, tango will disappear. We need to see what’s happening with this new version of tango, and then it will come back. I don’t know when. That’s the big question. I think what’s probably going to happen is the formation of small groups. Is it going to be more than that? I don’t know. Are there going to be any milongas? I don’t know. However, we need to restart and not forget how important it is to embrace in tango, to hug. I think what we’re missing is that connection. That’s why I said there was too much going on so that even when you did embrace with somebody it sometimes was just an embrace, but not a real one. I think that what it will bring — this idea that we meet again — it will be a difference in our embrace. We have to reconnect with our passion. Every time I deliver a message, it’s about passion, joy, and life and for the respect of peace and freedom in the world. Tango to me is this idea that I can embrace somebody, that I can connect with a person, with the music, and to share something very special. And I think after the quarantine that will happen more. I think it’s a lesson for every tanguero that we don’t have to hug because it’s an obligation. We have to feel it. We have to be sincere. We have to respect the other person, but we don’t have to stop what we feel, what the music tells me. Because the music is very important in this whole picture. We cannot embrace if we don’t have the music. It will be different because we talk about tango. And that’s what I value of tango, el valor de la musica.
AB: What role does the music play in your teaching?
ES: I try to show what the movement is about. Then I try to make them feel comfortable. I play any kind of music at that point. I just play something that is comfortable, something that relaxes, something that is easy because there are a lot of elements that people need to incorporate before they accept the music. They know they like something in the music, but they don’t know exactly what it is. In some way it was the same for me. At the beginning, Pugliese, di Sarli, d’Arienzo, they were all the same. It’s all tango. Okay, good, let’s dance! By nature, I think, people have some sort of idea about music, so they somehow figure it out. But when I start to incorporate the music into the movement, they don’t know exactly what it is, what orchestra it is. And then I start to tell them a little bit about the orchestra we’re dancing to. I’m just trying to incorporate the idea of all the elements together. When I just tell them to do this and that, and then that’s it, that doesn’t help. I like to guide people in a way so they can find their own tango. I can’t obligate them to dance my tango. My mission is that people discover the tango they like to dance.
AB: Do you think there is a specific type of tango music that is most suitable for this current time?
ES: You know, I’m usually a very dramatic person and I like Pugliese just as much as d’Arienzo. But there’s so much happening in our heads today. All the things you thought you had organized for yourself in your life can disappear like that. In terms of the music, I think we have to get back to basics, to di Sarli. If I’d have to choose a song, I would say Bahia Blanca or A la Gran Muñeca — something that calms me down, something that relaxes me and that is simple. I have to make my own life simple because I think everything is too much. It’s hard to understand what’s going to happen, so it’s better to be just simple, to enjoy day by day. And to feel what’s happening now will help us in the future to embrace the world and tango better.
AB: Which must be especially hard for the people in Buenos Aires where sheltering-in-place has been in effect since March and won’t be lifted until September. You used to work with people all the time and travel a lot for work. How do you deal with the isolation?
ES: I have to keep my life organized. This is my opportunity to be at home because usually I’m never at home, I’m always traveling. Ninety-five percent of my life is with people. So now I organize my days differently. Of course, I have the classes, I have work. But for the rest of the time, I get up in the morning, then I study English because my English needs to get better. I bought a book with my mandala animals, and I choose the color I feel at that moment and I paint. I cook — I like to cook. And I didn’t cook for such a long time and now I cook every day since we started the quarantine. I talk with good friends, with Kikki obviously, we’re always working together, we’re family, we’re friends, we’re business associates, so we keep working, thinking about possibilities etc. I exercise here at home three or four times a week. And once a week I go for a walk outdoors. I just need to do that. I protect myself, I don’t touch anybody, I just walk, I just want to move and feel that my blood is moving. I’m not the kind of person who can stay at home and watch TV, I’m an active person. I also read. Come Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then for me it’s weekend. Which means I have to eat differently and do things that I don’t do during the week. And believe it or not, when you organize yourself in that way, even when you are indoors, life makes sense. If you don’t organize your life and you live in a chaos, well, it’s hard. The most difficult part for me that I’m not able to practice with somebody, to dance with somebody, even with one person. But overall life is good.
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Judy and Jon are among the most unusual tango professionals I’ve ever met. I was assisting Ivan Shvartz at teaching the tango class at the Senior Center in Emeryville, CA, when one day they appeared for the first time as visiting teachers. While Ivan and I often had trouble getting our mostly elderly students’ full attention, Judy and Jon got them organized in no time. A short strong clapping of their hands, a few firmly spoken instructions, and everybody paid attention. The students understood that kind of tone, they recognized them as one of their own. Here was an American couple just like them that still understood straight talking. However, these two had broken out of their world and taken a different route by doing something unusual – tango! They had the same background, but now they lived a seemingly colorful life. The students at the senior center had clearly become curious and more eager than ever about learning Argentine tango. I still remember how during the course of that memorable lesson the seniors respectfully admired Judy and Jon.
Aside from their outstanding appearances — they sport a classy Hollywood style with Judy’s bright red hair calling for everybody’s attention — Judy and Jon look back at an extraordinary career. Tango came to them at a stage in life when most people are settling in for a quieter life style. Instead they set themselves a new goal by deciding to get better at tango and become part of the Buenos Aires tango community. One step led to another until as they say: “We were invited to perform again and again, and were urged to take the authentic tango of Buenos Aires to dancers around the world.” They eventually moved to Buenos Aires where to everybody’s surprise they became the only American couple who would successfully teach the Argentines to dance tango. And not only that, the local Porteños actually adopted this gringo couple as one of their own. Soon Judy and Jon would become regular teachers at Confitería Ideal, Cultura Tanguera Academia, and other well-known tango venues. They also performed on stage and at popular milongas such as Sunderland, Salon Canning, Gricel, and El Beso. While living in Buenos Aires they travelled regularly for teaching tours around the US.
But after ten years in the capital of tango, Judy and Jon witnessed the Argentine economy beginning to collapse and decided it was necessary to move back home to the States. They saw an opportunity for themselves in Las Vegas. While this fast-growing city in the desert of Nevada, which calls itself Entertainment Capital of the World, has been their base for the past eight years, they have been travelling to teach in nearby California, where they became regulars of the San Francisco tango community, Florida, and other places both nationally and internationally.
These days, however, the couple’s active schedule has been reduced to a quieter and more secluded life style. I browsed through their recently revamped website and Facebook pages before calling them. In one of their entries from March they described how they were preparing for sheltering-in-place. They posted pictures of a well-stocked refrigerator, vitamin pills, and declared their determination to stay fit and healthy. So how has it been working out for them?
“We sequestered ourselves for eighty-four days”, they told me when I spoke to them in mid-June. “During the pandemic we felt we had to self-quarantine to help mitigate the spread of the virus.” They’ve been practicing strict social-distancing since mid-March, ordering curbside pick-up service for their grocery shopping, and avoiding most direct contact with the outside world — except for once when they had to go to an AT&T store for a new smartphone, which they did only by taking every possible precaution.
Practicing social-distancing does not mean that they have been totally homebound. Having all classes and milongas cancelled, they’ve taken advantage of their free time by exploring state and national parks in the area around Las Vegas. “Our backyard is the desert,” said Jon. And so daytime outings have become their new favorite thing to do. Judy is in charge of checking the weather forecast and a map before they decide where to go the following morning. They quickly learned to use the backdrop of their outings for their photos and videos online. “We do all the photo and video shoots ourselves,” they explained, again pointing to the fact that in doing so they strictly adhere to social-distancing — no photographers allowed. Over the course of the past three months they’ve been creating a number of new short videos. Their dance studio now primarily functions as a recording studio or ‘a creation space’.
However, these videos are anything but the conventional instructional videos. They have a surprisingly refreshing and sometimes funny take on tango, and are useful at the same time. They have topics such as ‘Pajama Tango’, ‘Hypno Judy’, ‘The Ceremony of the Embrace’, or ‘Shoelaces’. During the latter Jon falls out of a tenth floor window of a high rise building because of a shoelace malfunction. The concept of these ‘videocitos’, as they call them, started with Jon’s creative mind, said Judy. She creates the graphics and promotions and website while Jon is the videographer, and photographer, and does all the video pre- and post-production work. She told me how she always laughs even if she doesn’t agree with his ideas. “But for the most part I go along with it.”
On a social level, they started an unusual meeting group on Zoom: a weekly cabaret which they call ‘Hola Tango Cabaret Cocktails & Tango’. It’s a unique and fun way for their students from all over the world to get know each other and enjoy a leisurely hour together. The tango cocktail hour has a different theme each week. For example, on the Friday evening when I joined, everybody was asked to name their favorite movie, which triggered an excited exchange of movies, actors, and showing of memorabilia. People toast to life and dance to a list of songs that Judy prepares. That way they’ve brought their students from different parts of the country and the world together.
“We enjoy having the time to redefine ourselves,” she said. “It’s a new era for tango.”
However, despite their apparently positive attitude, I could sense there was something else which they seemed to be reluctant to talk about. I asked them why they haven’t been teaching live on Zoom like so many other tango and dance teachers in order to survive financially. I understood from their reply that they’re committed to the traditional way of tango, and that that is the reason why they’ve been reluctant to embrace the same new teaching methods as others. Jon believes that tango is about the feeling between two people in an embrace — something that doesn’t happen in the virtual space. “Tango allows two people to share an intimate moment,” he explained. It’s a creative process which evolves when two people dance together, and he emphasizes that it’s this unique moment which he enjoys. In contrast, much of the latest online teachings looks the same to him. And he doesn’t see tango, specifically milongas, coming back in the way we’ve known it in the past.
I could hear a deep sadness and asked him about it. He was quick to deny that and clarified what he had just said with a quote from Eduardo Arquimbau, the famous tango dancer: ‘Tango will never change. The music may change, the dance may change, but the tango will never change.’ “In order to understand this quote,” Jon continued, “you need to understand what Eduardo means by ‘tango’ — but that’s another story for another time.”
Despite their divided view about the new format of tango classes, they’ve adapted some online tools for their own unique way of teaching. In their private lessons they focus on technique and movement rather than steps. They ask their students first to record a video of themselves dancing to their favorite song three times. When they watch the student’s video, they focus on three things that the students can improve and later during the recorded lesson they demonstrate just that. It appears to me like a lot of preparation time, but it seems to work.
Their next big goal for the near future is to produce a new series of videos with different concepts. I became aware of their latest weekly group class where they teach tango line dancing. ‘Tango line dancing?’ I wondered. It’s a concept I know from different music genres, like country-western or swing or salsa rueda, but tango? They laughed and started to explain excitedly the concept of this new class which they call ‘El Gogotán’: “People can develop their technique by dancing with themselves.” Students can tune in and learn elements of tango technique on their own. “But even with a partner you can get excited.” They told me about several of their students who have been practicing with their partner since the beginning of the pandemic. Now they both want to be part of the tango line-dancing class. They’ve got other concepts in the making, and hope eventually to turn these too into a series of online videos.
Aside from their positive attitude there are undeniably worries about their financial future. While they assure me that they are very happy while working to creatively develop income through online work, the pandemic has been financially tragic for them. All the things they had planned for this year were cancelled. They used to go to the San Francisco Bay Area a lot and had more visits to other places in California and other states planned. One of the highlights of the past few years was the International Tango Summit in Los Angeles in September where they have taught with great success. Their calendar was full for this year, and the termination of all tango events has put them into a tight financial spot. They’re hoping that a big teaching job on a cruise in early 2021 is still going to happen, just as will other international work that had been planned. It would be their first cruise ever and they’re very excited. “If that happens,” they said, “it will get us right back.”
In the meantime, creating videos and teaching online provides them only with a fraction of what they used to make. Some of their students, they said, don’t even want to study online. They used to take privates regularly, but online lessons don’t work for them. Another common issue for tango teachers in general is the overall concept of charging for online classes. Many people who previously had no problem paying for workshops now don’t want to pay for online classes, partly because so much on the internet is available for free, partly because art generally is regarded as a free service in our society.
“It’s a new reality: we must do business on the internet instead of showing up in a community and teaching in person. We have to prepare our art as a product that we can sell,” they said.
I asked them what they thought about fundraisers. It turned out that they are strongly opposed to the idea. “It feels like begging for money,” Jon said. “I learned from my parents that you work for money.” He’s kept this attitude all his life, and even during the tough times they’re going through right now they refuse to have anything to do with GoFundMe and other fundraising campaigns.
Now that their home state of Nevada is slowly opening up, I asked whether that provided a glimpse of hope. But Jon thinks that it’s going to be a disaster when they open the casinos and restaurants and shopping malls. “Everybody comes to Las Vegas, the whole world,” he exclaimed. “They come for gambling and partying. Start a pandemic and you get a disaster,” he concluded. For the foreseeable future the couple remains at home, practicing social-distancing and waiting for things to improve. They keep in contact with their friends in Buenos Aires where the strict sheltering-in-place started in mid-March and will most likely continue through late September. Sheltering-in-place is enforced by police and security officers, and people are fined if they go further than the nearest supermarket.
We finished by briefly talking about the wider impact of the pandemic in the USA. “We’re blessed,” Judy and Jon said. “We’ve got a roof over our head. We’re peanuts in comparison to what many others have to go through in these times.”
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Raquel Greenberg was traveling the world teaching and performing Argentine tango when I met her in San Francisco in 2011. At the time Raquel, who was born in Israel and raised in Paris, was based in Buenos Aires but spent much of her time traveling. She came to the Bay Area twice within a year and became a widely respected teacher. She taught privately and at tango schools and clubs in the Bay Area. In a relatively short amount of time she built a base of dedicated students who followed and supported her. I was attracted to her teaching because she was a well-rounded dancer. Her background is in ballet and ballroom dancing and, just like me, her heart is in Latin dance. One night we sneaked away for some salsa dancing and she had a blast. There was a rumor that she would settle down in the Bay Area. But when she left the second time, it was for good. She kept in touch with her friends in the Bay Area via her newsletters, sending updates from her new and ever-evolving tango life. To my surprise, one day I learnt that she had settled down in London! England didn’t strike me as a place that would embrace the sensuality of Argentinian tango. London, so I thought, was better known as a business-oriented, fast-paced, tough and expensive place to live. But, as I learned during my recent conversation with Raquel, London is not like the rest of England. It’s a cosmopolitan center with a lot to offer and an open-minded young international crowd. However, just as everywhere else, it all came to an abrupt end when the COVID-19 crisis hit.
Unlike most people I’ve been talking to, Raquel didn’t feel paralyzed when the lockdown was imposed on London. Instead, she took action.
“When it all started, I felt the need to do something,” she told me. “I thought of all the people who were not going to see each other.” She started to investigate the possibilities of online classes, and quickly discovered Zoom. Until then, she hadn’t even heard about the online meeting place which has since emerged as the most widely used video-conferencing platform in the world. Not always abreast with technical innovation, Raquel nevertheless quickly learnt how the video-conferencing platform works. Now she proudly claims to be one of the first tango professionals to teach online Zoom classes, and she is already well into her third month.
Her first class, which still continues, was a weekly ladies’ technique class. “Because that’s my strength.” she claimed. Her students welcomed the new concept of online classes, and tuned in from all over London. Since springtime has been exceptionally beautiful in London, many Londoners who were otherwise confined to their apartments chose outdoor locations such as their balconies or small garden spaces. Raquel feels lucky to live close to one of London’s parks and loves the open space. It allows her to do outdoor training, mostly basic exercises for balance and walking, during the lockdown.
However, the classes are not all about tango. “I’m not just teaching,” said Raquel, “but I talk a lot to my students.” She told me how they are grateful for the social interaction, and the fact that the class has catapulted them out of their loneliness. “The Zoom classes created an amazing bond,” she continued. People thanked her, and someone even went so far as to say: ‘You saved my life.’
After so much positive feedback she offered another class, this time a free music-session aimed at expanding the knowledge of tango music. “It’s more of a social meeting,” she said, “and it happens every Friday night.“
It sounds as if in some ways her students have been enjoying more social time with each other because of tango than before the lockdown. “Usually,” Raquel told me, “when I try to ask people to meet for a coffee or to go for a drink after class, they never have time. They have to get up early the next morning for work or they have to go back to work right away. They are busy all the time. People are so busy and focused on work. There never is time for socializing.” In that respect London is more like New York, she noted, not like the rest of England.
I circled back to the question that had been burning in my mind. What made her decide to leave Buenos Aires, the center of Argentine tango and the nirvana for every tango dancer, and move to London? She had lived in Buenos Aires for ten years, studied tango, turned professional, and taught as a guest artist all over the world. It looked like a great life – why did she leave?
“Living in Argentina was difficult,” she explained. “Traveling and staying at other people’s houses didn’t work anymore. I did it for ten years.”
Even though Raquel considers herself a citizen of the world, she wanted to move to a new place where she could really settle down. “I was looking for a cosmopolitan place where an artistic culture had already developed and where there was an artistic movement.” In addition it also had to be a place from where she could travel easily. “Also,” she smiled, “the weather had to be nice.” (She likes mild temperatures.) She talked about how she debated moving to Italy because she has a special connection with the country. But despite her love for Italy, she found it to be too similar to Argentina in terms of the way business is done. In the end she chose London as her base, the main reason being that business was taken more seriously there. London, however, she admits, is challenging in other ways, and it’s expensive.
“When I came to London, I didn’t have any family or friends.” she said. “Nobody knew me and nobody threw out the red carpet for me.” She started from zero on her own, and said it was difficult. “I don’t want to start the ‘women have it so much harder’ number,” she said with a quiet laugh, “but it’s definitely harder for a woman alone. It helps to have a partner.”
Raquel considers herself ‘a dancer in her body and her soul.’ She began ballet when she was six years old. As a young adult she discovered partner-dance, becoming a ballroom and Latin dancer and competitor at age twenty-one. When she discovered Argentine tango — she was watching a tango show — she knew this was it. “That’s what I wanted to do.” She quickly understood that Argentine tango was more than just a dance, and that it was about a different culture. She said she became serious about tango in 1996, and moved to Argentina to study with some of the great tangueros, among them Carlos Gavito, Osvaldo Zotto and Lorena Ermocida, and Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne.
Once she had made the move to London, she founded the Raquel Greenberg Tango Academy at three main locations in central London. I asked her whether there is a predominant age group, as in the USA, where most of the tango community is quite mature. “No,” she said, “in London it’s quite the contrary. I teach all different ages; anybody between twenty and eighty”.
She has several group classes and doesn’t employ staff teachers. Instead she relies on guest teachers and emphasizes that she only invites ‘the best of the best.’ Her guest artists have included Diego ‘El Pájaro‘ Riemer, Pablo Veron, Julio Balmaceda, and lately with Alexandr Frolov, to name just a few. Despite her full schedule in London she continues to travel for workshops all over Europe, especially in France. She has also created a tango holiday on Crete after having fallen in love with the beauty of nature of the island. She feels a strong bond with the local tango community and has taken tango students from different parts of Europe, including her own, to Crete for the past four years in May and October.
When the lockdown came in March all this changed. “Group classes stopped, privates stopped,” she said. Her two weekly milongas have also stopped. Personal traveling to workshops is on hold. Her annual two-week tango holiday which was planned for mid-May was cancelled. “It’s a lot of work behind the scenes that is gone,” she said. The UK Tango Festival & Championship, a major tango event similar to the Argentine Tango USA (ATUSA), which was scheduled for early June and in which she was involved was also cancelled. In short, all her sources of income for the foreseeable future have vanished.
At the same time, she has ongoing expenses. She continues to pay her assistant and a software consultant. To make matters worse the rent in London is payable for a year in advance, meaning that the rent for the three locations where she taught and ran her milongas is also gone. In addition the restaurant where she taught is now out of business, as is the gym where she held some of her classes. “Luckily,” she said, “the third location is at a church where they have a community spirit and haven’t been charging rent since April. “
“The British government talks about the fifteenth of June for opening up businesses like retail shops,” she said. “But now there is talk about a recession. In Britain, employees receive eighty per-cent of their salary when they lose their jobs. But eventually there will be no money left, and who knows what will happen in July? And on top of the pandemic we’re also dealing with Brexit.” she added. “We’ll see what that brings.”
Are there government programs for artists like her? I ask. She says she hasn’t been able to find any help or grants from the government for small business owners like herself. “I would have to fire myself from my own business to become eligible for the government’s unemployment program.”
On the other hand, people from the tango community have been very supportive. There have been fundraisers on Facebook like Help save the milonga,Where am I not going to dance tonight? or the Unidos Tango Festival. She was part of Unidos, which was the first online tango festival ever. It stretched for two weeks in March and early April, and featured seventy tango teachers from all over the world with online classes and presentations. “It was a very big effort from everybody,” she emphasized. She enjoyed the experience: “It was good to see that in times of a crisis people can push together to make something happen.”
She is well aware of the risk of infection among dancers, especially since some of her students became sick with the virus after traveling to Italy. Fortunately they recovered. She herself had a very bad flu in January, and thinks that’s perhaps why she hasn’t gotten the virus. Meanwhile tango professionals in England are trying to organize another online event to help make some money and keep tango going. But like so many other tango professionals, Raquel says she has no idea about the future. For now, she does what she can to keep her teaching going. But being focused so much on her current tango activities it’s very difficult for her to think about a plan B. She is in a holding pattern like everybody else. Her teaching continues but what does she think about the future of social dancing? “The milonga is the big question mark,” she said. “First of all it’s very difficult to find a venue in London. Secondly, public transportation is difficult since everybody in London uses public transit and that in itself causes a high risk of infection. And thirdly, a milonga means a lot of people in a small space.”
So for the time being Raquel is going to continue with online classes via Zoom. And her students participating from the safety of their homes.
When in early April I contemplated the idea of writing about how tango professionals were affected by the COVID-19 crisis, my hardest decision was whom not to include. I have met close to a hundred tango professionals over the years; all have a unique story to tell and all have lived an unusual life. Each would have made an interesting subject. I felt, however, that my story had to be limited to a small group. I wanted a representative range of people. In the interest of timeliness I needed quick responses to my enquiries. The result was seven portraits of tango teachers and organizers in Argentina, on both coasts of the USA, and in Europe.
Now that we’re in the fourth month of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown in the USA, it’s time to take another snapshot. After a horrible spring with so many people becoming sick and dying, it seems the spread of the virus is finally under control, at least in the USA and other parts of the northern hemisphere. The number of infections has been on the decrease. The economy is slowly opening up. But just as things started to look a little brighter, society has been pushed over the edge by demonstrations about ongoing racism. We’re taking to the streets in protest, and are often forced to abandon social distancing, one of the most important precautions to lower the risk of spreading the virus. Medical experts are now warning about another spike in the pandemic as a result of these mass gatherings and police violence.
In short, while we have started to breathe a sigh of relief, we still don’t know where this pandemic is heading. Can we continue to slowly return to a normal life? What impact does the ongoing uncertainty have on the economy, on our health, our jobs, our social life?
These are questions that make me wonder what the situation is now for tango professionals. How are they coping now after the first devastating impact of this crisis? What has changed for them? Are they hopeful about returning to their jobs? What do they think about teaching on Zoom? How do they perceive Argentine tango? Let’s take a look.
Or: The end of Tango? Seven stories from around the world.
This is the beginning of a new series about tango professionals worldwide in the current crisis of Covid-19. Their stories, and their different reactions, provide a unique snapshot of everyone’s changed reality. The sequels will appear over the next few weeks. Please stay tuned.
With the spread of Covid-19 millions of artists have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. One group in particular has been affected more than others: that of dancers and social-dance instructors, especially those involved with Argentine tango. The reason is obvious: Argentine tango is all about being close. Partners typically dance in close-embrace in a crowded social-setting called a ‘milonga.’ In short, Argentine tango is the very opposite of social-distancing and the perfect breeding ground for virus transmission. So it didn’t come as a surprise when tango venues were among the first places that had to close their doors.
I happened to be in Buenos Aires, the cradle of tango, during the fatal first week of March. Mornings I took a crowded commuter bus to my Spanish language class. In the afternoon, I took dance lessons at a tango school, and at night I would go to a milonga. While the virus was spreading from one area to another back home in the United States, Argentina —at first — seemed calm and prepared. But within a few days I could sense panic spreading. So it was no surprise when one day I was barred from continuing my tango lessons, and the next day from all tango events. Initially, the ban only affected visitors from infected regions, such as California, where I came from. But within twenty-four hours all dance schools, clubs, and tango venues were closed by government directives. My tango teachers, who until then had been rushing from lesson to lesson and from student to student, found themselves jobless overnight. There was nothing they could do.
The lockdown in Argentina continued, from the closing of schools, churches, all social gatherings, and sports. Before my return to the States I had wanted to pay a quick visit to Recoleta Cemetery, but even its gates had been locked and there were signs alerting visitors to the danger of the spreading virus. Soon after I left, everyone had to stay at home.
I managed to catch a flight back to the United States shortly before the total lockdown, and began sheltering in place on March 15. The tango world I left behind was utterly frozen. Like everybody else I watched in horror the drama unfold. Worst of all, there was little I could do to help make things better, and there was no tango to help me through this bad time. It’s true that there have been countless tango groups and online-classes on social media, trying to keep tango dancers connected. But I didn’t feel like participating. At first, I felt sorry for myself. Then I started to look closer at the faces of the tango teachers online, some of whom tried to be upbeat, but there were others who couldn’t hide their desperation. Some were asking for donations, others were selling their instructional videos online. But it was all a poor substitute for the real thing.
I thought about the tango teachers I had taken lessons with over the years. They had taught me more than tango steps; some had taught me lessons for life, some had become friends. They had been there for me and all the other students. Now it was time to be there for them.
I decided to give them a call to find out how they were really doing. I was curious to learn if their situation differed according to whether they were in Argentina, Europe, or the United States. This is a snapshot of what life is like for so many people in the world right now. Tango teachers are only a small piece of the pie, as Christy Cote said during our interview, but they are representative of almost all of us.
Orlando Farias, Buenos Aires, Argentina: performer and instructor
Orlando Farias has been traveling throughout Europe and the United States for the past two decades, teaching and performing. I first met him a few years ago when he came as a guest artist to Upstate New York. Coincidentally I saw him again shortly afterwards when he spent a week teaching in the San Francisco Bay Area. Unfortunately it turned into a short and disappointing gig for him; poorly organized and promoted. But it was a great opportunity for me to learn from him in a smaller group of people, and we became friends.
During my brief visit to Buenos Aires, I had been planning to get together with Orlando, but it didn’t happen because of my hurried departure. So instead I called when I returned home. I was not prepared to find him in such a desperate state. We used Facetime for the first few minutes before the connection collapsed, and I could see a frightened look in his face. We then switched to an audio call, and when he started to speak, his voice was somber. He said there was no work for him — nothing. At first he didn’t want to talk about himself, but about the overall declining situation in Argentina and how the economy was becoming worse by the day.
“I bought pasta for sixty pesos the other day,” he said. “And now it costs one hundred pesos.”
As it happens, his mother is staying with him. She came from Patagonia to visit in early March, and then became stuck, unable to return home because of the lockdown. On the one hand this was a good thing for Orlando since they can live on her pension, but at the same time it posed a huge risk factor.
He lives in a house outside Buenos Aires. Over the last two decades he had saved up enough money by teaching abroad to build this house. The plan was not to just live in the house, but also to add a tango studio where his students from abroad could visit Argentina and study with him. During the two year construction he didn’t have time to travel and make money, and instead invested everything into this project. Now his plans have been shattered overnight. The remainder of his savings have already been used up. He has ongoing bills to pay while prices keep rising. Fortunately his family runs a small store in Patagonia and are helping him with his expenses.
“There are government programs for freelancers like me,” he explains, “but it’s not much.” Like so many Argentines who have tried to better their situation, he made most of his money abroad, something that has now backfired. “We who worked outside Argentina didn’t pay into the government system. That’s why we’re not part of the system now.”
Orlando was born and raised in Patagonia and started Argentine folk dance back home before he fell in love with tango. He didn’t plan to become a professional, he says, it was a natural progression. “I kept practicing and I got better and better.” Soon he was asked to perform and eventually decided to move to Buenos Aires where there was a job market for tango professionals. He wasn’t even twenty years old. All of a sudden he was on stage, performing with the stars he had admired from far away. ”A dream became true,” he remembers. For a moment his voice sounds happy reveling in the past. He traveled to Europe, Japan, and the United States. He could be frequently seen teaching in Italy and then in Russia. He explains that when Russia stopped the visa requirement about seven years ago, teachers like him were able to travel freely and teach.
“In the beginning there were only few people dancing tango in Russia,” he remembers. “They were extremely dedicated, just like Germans.” The tango community in Russia grew fast. “Russia became the best place. Not only because they are determined and practice a lot, but because they are very talented.”
I asked him if he had thought about teaching online classes. He doesn’t offer any, but thinks they’re good as training. “Online classes are about moving, and exercises: things that are always important.” As for his own exercise program, he practices ‘ochos’ (stepping like a figure eight) every day at the barre in his new studio, then gets on his bike and works out at his gym. He spends a great part of his day staying connected with his students all over the world, mainly because he wants to make sure they are okay. It touches me that despite his own desperate situation he is deeply concerned about the well-being of others.
What does he think about the future of tango? “Tango is about being face-to-face and in close-embrace,” he says. “So of course, everybody in tango is at high risk and that’s why we’ll be the last ones to re-open. Everybody is now scared to touch each other. Maybe outside Argentina tango might change, but not here, no. This virus will be forever.”
He believes that this could be the end of tango as a business. Tango has played a big part in Argentina’s tourism industry, and if it ceases to exist, it could hurt millions of other people in this industry as well. But hasn’t tango survived other crises, I ask — like the military junta?
“That was a dictatorship,” he explains, “which tried to kill all the intellectuals. The intellectuals were into tango, so they didn’t allow milongas. When we went back to a democracy, tango came back. But this virus is different. It’s like cutting somebody’s leg off. Can a dancer dance without legs?”
So what is his plan? He shrugs. “It’s time to think about Plan B,” he says vaguely. “Maybe move to Patagonia, and join the family business.” And then he says something rather philosophical: “In the end, it’s our own fault. We never took care of the earth.”
Picture on top: Christy Cote and Eduardo Saucedo. Foto by Jason Eng.
Andrea Monti, San Jose, California: owner, founder and director of ‘Argentine Tango USA’ the official Argentine Tango USA Championship & Festival
Andrea Monti announced a fundraiser with the seemingly outrageous goal of $45,000. Oh my, I thought. She was trying to recover her advance expenses for ‘Argentine Tango USA’ (ATUSA), currently the biggest tango event in the United States. I closed my eyes and made the call, worried about what I would find out.
I have known Andrea personally since I interviewed her for one of my first tango-blog stories back in 2015. At the time she was in the midst of a promotional tour for ATUSA, a four-day event with hundreds of competitors and over a thousand spectators which she had started in 2010. I remembered how she told me how much time, effort, and money she had put into this festival every year. I got to know her as a hardworking and passionate organizer; as someone who would follow up on every single detail. She had gathered a team around her that would loyally work for months to make the event happen every April. Tensions would often run high, but each year turned out to be more successful than the previous one, especially when a few years back her new husband and partner, Adrian Durso, joined her organizational team. Andrea had successfully received official approval by the City of Buenos Aires for ATUSA as a branch of the annual ‘Mundial Del Tango’, the tango world-championship in Buenos Aires, where as many as seven hundred international tango couples compete. Now ATUSA was about to celebrate its tenth anniversary; even bigger than previous ones.
“We did a huge campaign for this year’s event,” Andrea told me over the phone. They had the entire website professionally revamped, invested for months in promo ads in social media, tango magazines and other publications, sent out fifteen thousand postcards and hundreds of posters. Then they hired two tango orchestras, a singer, ten maestros, DJs, and judges, some of them from as far away as Buenos Aires. Not only would they have to be paid for their work at ATUSA, but their expenses had to be covered. This included airfares and accommodations at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Hotel in San Mateo County where the event is held. Altogether she had hired twenty-five people for the event.
“We also invited previous champions to perform together,” Andrea continued. The ‘Champions’ Gala’ was supposed to be one of the highlights, and she had hired a choreographer specifically for this. It was easy to see how quickly $45,000 in advance expenses had accumulated, a sum which represented only about half of the total cost. This year two hundred dancers had registered to compete in different categories from ‘Tango Salon’ to ‘Stage Tango.’
“It’s very disappointing,” she said sadly. “Adrian and I worked so hard for an entire year.”
She had begun with the design for this year’s event at the end of May 2019, and only paused briefly during the month of August when she was busy taking her champions from ATUSA to the ‘Mundial del Tango’ in Buenos Aires. Last September she began the registration process and the campaign. In early March she saw how the situation was becoming worse. She held on to her plan, not wanting to cancel. “I’m in the middle between the competitors and the audience,” she explained. “I have a responsibility to the community.”
So she sent out messages on social media, assuring everyone that the event was going to happen in early April. With the competitors in mind she said: “I didn’t want to cancel one year of work, training, time, expenses.” She knew about the hardships every competitor goes through in preparation for a competition. Her husband, on the other hand, who acts as Artistic Director, saw where this was going and tried to prepare her.
Then in early March, the county issued a recommendation to cancel events with more than two hundred participants, then one hundred, then ten. Nonetheless there were many competitors who wanted to compete anyway. Some suggested competing without a live audience. On March 15, California announced the shelter-in-place order. Now Andrea had no choice but to cancel the much anticipated ATUSA 2020.
After that she spent the next two weeks crying a lot.
On top of her own huge disappointment she then had to deal with the financial loss. Most of the advance payments had come out of her own pocket. The biggest chunk went to the event venue: the San Francisco Airport Marriott Hotel. When I asked if she had recouped her down-payment, she said it took weeks of negotiating. “They were hostile at first,” she said. “They kept saying: ‘Oh, so you’re canceling,’ and they treated it just as any other kind of cancelation.” She insisted that this virus was an Act-of-God and that she had no choice but to cancel. They finally agreed to refund part of her advance payment.
Then there were the expenses for the teachers and the judges, plus the competitors’ registration fees. Fortunately, and to her big surprise, many of the competitors donated their money for next year’s competition.
I asked what she envisioned when she started ATUSA ten years ago. She said she had wanted to do something different from other tango festivals; she wanted a festival where the tango community could participate more. “I was a judge in the big Buenos Aires championship first,” she says, “and from there I got the idea to bring this to the United States. Everybody thought I was crazy!” It was a huge undertaking both on a practical as well as a financial level, and she didn’t have much support in the tango community back in Argentina where the traditionalists were opposed to her plan to take an event abroad which identifies Argentine culture. She said she didn’t have the funding at first, but after receiving some limited support she was able to organize the first official tango championship in San Francisco. She knew she needed a festival to pay for the expenses of the championship.
What did she set out for when she started this? “My goal was to promote Argentine culture and tango,” she explained. She saw the competition as an opportunity for the community to participate in ways other than taking lessons and watching shows. “This is also important,” she said, “but I thought there should be more.”
Now what does she think about the future of tango; how is this crisis going to affect tango? She replied: “You have to consider that the majority of people in tango — at least in this country — is older, and the virus affects older people.” She is sure that it’s going to take a long time until tango comes back, but she has a positive outlook and thinks that at some later point we will go back to tango. “Maybe we’re going to wear masks. Maybe it will be possible that one teacher works with one couple, but can’t touch the students. We can’t have direct contact until we have a vaccine. Tango is so popular all over the world. We’ll be fine. If not, we’ll see.”
In the meantime she and her husband are back to training and practicing. They began offering two online-classes a week and producing online-videos. “It’s a lot of work,” she said, “it takes about ten hours for a thirty-minute video. I’m very busy.”
Dario da Silva & Claire Vivo, Aix-en-Provence, France: owners of Aix-en-Tango, teachers and performers
I had heard a lot about this couple in the South of France. They had started a vibrant tango community out of nowhere in New York’s Capital Region in the early 2000s, then moved to southern Europe where their career took off. With a flourishing tango school and performances all over Europe, they have made a name for themselves in the world of tango. I was curious to find out what their situation in France was like.
“The first week, we were just relaxing,” said Dario over the phone. The second week, they started practicing. Claire began to take online-yoga and Pilates classes. But by the second half of April they were worried. Could they keep the school open? They don’t know about the future. “We have dark thoughts and are not sure what to do if we can’t open the school by September,” they said. In the meantime, like many others, they began to teach free online classes.
Claire’s and Dario’s business consists of two parts. One is their tango school Aix en Tango, which they opened in 2011 in Aix-en-Provence, a well-known tourist destination in southern France. They say they have about two hundred and sixty regular students, eighty of whom are from nearby Toulon. They teach eleven group classes a week. Together with special workshops this amounts to almost three hundred and twenty students a year.
The second part of their business consists of traveling as guest artists all over Europe to perform and teach. Last year, for the first time, they had fewer trips, but for 2020 their calendar had filled up. But since March, one after another, the trips were canceled. “The virus hit us really, really hard,” said Dario.
I asked them about their future. Given the uncertainty they said they try not to think about the long-term. “What would we do?”’ they asked. “We are tango teachers. We have invested in our business for a long time.”
For now, they focus on reopening the school and touring throughout Europe. They spend their days practicing and rehearsing, and they keep in touch with their students. They also spend a lot of time with Mia, their ten- year-old daughter, who when younger suffered from leukemia and twice went through difficult treatment. The French health-care system made it possible for Mia to receive the best care. “Had we stayed in the United States, we’d be bankrupt by now,” said Dario.
What about the social benefits in their current situation, I wanted to know. They say that they’re eligible for government support, which would be eighty percent of their regular income. However, Claire explained, this applies to employees, and it’s not clear whether as owners of their school they qualify for this kind of support. In any case, the administration in France has been slow to pay out. “The President keeps promising to help us so we can pay ongoing bills, but so far we haven’t received anything.”
They are now at the lowest point of their professional lives. Almost twenty years of ongoing success have come to an abrupt end. Dario’s tango career started in the early 2000s, when he traveled from Argentina to Albany, New York to teach tango. Argentina was in the midst of a major economic crisis and Dario’s objective was to make more money than he could at home. He had begun a tango community in New York’s capital region when Claire walked into one of his classes. She became one of his students, then his dance partner, and eventually his wife. When they wanted a family, it was clear that they would have to move to Europe.
Claire was from Paris, where her family still lives, and Dario’s parents had moved from Argentina to Spain. They started first in Barcelona, but: “Barcelona was hard,” said Claire. The tango community was not well organized; they found it difficult to connect with people and to find their market. They were soon working more across the border in France, and after three years decided to move. The move paid off. “We had the work planned before the move,” they said. They ended up working seven out of eight weekends and soon decided to open their own school.
But tango has changed. These days there is more competition and it’s not as easy to make a living as a tango teacher. “Everyone who has taken classes for ten years is trying to become a teacher,” said Dario. “To be competitive you have to speak at least three languages, travel a lot, and be well organized.” Nevertheless their tango career remained intact and profitable — until now.
Their biggest worry is the overhead for the school. They explained that their teaching schedule follows the French school-year, which begins in mid-September and ends in mid-June. Their students pay by the trimester, so they were covered until the end of March. But by the beginning of April the steady payments dried up and they had to start using their own money to pay for the rent: 3,000 Euros ($3,246 US) a month for their three hundred square-meter studio. They considered starting a fundraiser in order to help cover expenses. But fundraisers are not as common in France as in the United States, and the outcome is unsure.
When I talked to Claire and Dario the French government was planning to open certain businesses starting May 11. “We are at high risk,” they said,” and it’s not clear when we’re going to be able to open the school again.” They were hoping for mid-July. “If we don’t start in September we’ll have to think of something else,” said Claire. And then added with some sarcasm: “Now we’re in the strawberry season. Perhaps I should pick strawberries?”