Eduardo Saucedo: A time for reflection and new opportunities.

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Eduardo Saucedo
Eduardo Saucedo, master teacher, dancer, choreographer

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.

AB: Eduardo, thank you for this interview!

***

© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Judy and Jon redefine themselves in Las Vegas

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Judy and Jon: tango in the desert.

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.”

***

© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Raquel Greenberg: a citizen of the world, based in London

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Raquel Greenberg
Raquel Greenberg (Photo by Uzo Oleh)

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.

***

© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Tango in the Time of COVID-19, Phase Two

Christy & Eduardo
San Francisco-based Christy Cote and Eduardo Saucedo from Buenos Aires. Photo by Jason Eng.

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.  

* * *

© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Tango in the Time of Covid-19

 

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
Orlando Farias

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.

 

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 2

Andrea Monti, San Jose, California: owner, founder and director of ‘Argentine Tango USA’ the official Argentine Tango USA Championship & Festival

Andrea Monti
Andrea Monti, founder and director of the ATUSA

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.”  

*

 

Tango in the time of Covid-19, Part 3

Dario da Silva & Claire Vivo, Aix-en-Provence, France: owners of Aix-en-Tango, teachers and performers

Claire & Dario
Claire and Dario da Silva

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?”

 

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 4

Christy Cote
Christy Cote from San Francisco, Argentine tango teacher, performer, choreographer
(Photo: Tanya Constantine)

Christy Cote, San Francisco, California: tango teacher, performer and choreographer  

Christy is my ‘tango mom.’ She was my first tango teacher when I started learning tango in 2009. I had known her for many years before, when I was a student at the ballroom-dance teachers’ college at the Metronome, at the time one of San Francisco’s most respected and popular dance studios. I wasn’t into Argentine tango back then, but I kept seeing Christy at the studio and I loved watching her at our student – teacher showcases at Fort Mason. I thought her choreographies, her outfits, and her dancing were most charming. She was approachable and friendly without knowing me, and so I trusted her enough to finally take one of her tango boot-camps for beginners. I had fun and enjoyed her teaching so much that I signed up for her regular Tuesday evening classes. The rest is history. Now Christy Cote is without doubt one of the most established tango teachers in the Bay Area. She began teaching full-time in the mid-nineties, and will be celebrating twenty-five years of teaching next April. Now, however, her future, like that of other tango teachers, is uncertain.

When I last saw her in person at class in late February this year, she was observing the oncoming crisis with great concern. But she kept her classes going, despite warnings. “I didn’t want to feed into the frenzy,” she explained. But Tom Lewis, the owner of the La Pista studio where she teaches, urged her to be cautious, and recommended early on to consider canceling her classes. When the shelter-in-place order was announced in mid-March for San Francisco, she had no choice but to stop teaching.

Shortly before she had already suffered her first blow. She was about to take a group of her students to the International Tango Congress in Buenos Aires (CITA), the longest-running tango festival in Argentina. Christy was in Hawaii for her mother’s eighty-fifth birthday when her phone rang. “I was getting my hair done, my mom was getting her hair done, we were about to welcome twelve dinner guests at the hotel,” she recalled, “when Fabian Salas, the festival organizer, called and told me that they had to cancel the event.” That was two days before she was to leave for Buenos Aires. She immediately picked up her phone to inform her students and to tell them not to get on their flight to Argentina. But she had left her address folder back home in San Francisco, intending to pick it up during her layover, and now scrambled to find the phone numbers of all the participants in her group. Email, she said, would have taken too long. She managed to contact everyone, but there was one student who insisted on traveling anyway. “I had to be strong with him,” she said, “because they had lockdown already in Buenos Aires, and I told him he should stay at home.” She finally succeeded in convincing him, but one student from Canada was already in Buenos Aires. He had trouble with his accommodation and wasn’t allowed to check into his hotel. He ended up staying at a different place, but was not allowed to go out, and frantically called her for help. His situation was eventually sorted out, and after several miserable days all on his own in Buenos Aires he flew back home. Christy returned to San Francisco and kept teaching for a few more days.

How does she experience the sudden termination of her work? “It’s financially devastating,” she said. Tango, however, provides for only one part of her income. She owns a rental property in Hawaii which usually pays for her expenses. She hasn’t been able to rent the vacation property for weeks now, and she doesn’t expect it to be a source of income for the foreseeable future. She tells me that her property in Honolulu costs $1,600 in monthly homeowners-insurance, and that rental taxes run as high as $17,000 annually. In other words, with the arrival of Covid-19, both sources of Christy’s income have dried up at once.

Like everybody else, her calendar is suddenly blank. She had to cancel a boot-camp for advanced dancers in early May which she was supposed to teach with Eduardo Saucedo, another tango legend from Buenos Aires. Then a major dance-camp in Las Vegas for dance teachers, scheduled for mid-June, was canceled as was the International Tango Summit in Los Angeles in September. However, she is as busy as ever. She has recorded tango videos with Eduardo Saucedo and promotes them online. She wants to keep her students engaged. In May she started Zoom meetings on Tuesday evenings — the time of her regular class for the past twenty-five years. She talks to many of her students a lot, but to some others not at all, and is concerned about some whose only social contact is their tango class.

Altogether she remains very busy with her social interactions and care of her financials, applying for the new government unemployment program for self-employed individuals, PUA, the corona PPP program, and grants. She has applied for an artist grant with the City of San Francisco and recently received a check for $1,500. It made her proud to live in a city that appreciates its artists. She also helps her non-English-speaking artist friends who are often unaware of various benefits and grants.

At the time we talked, she said that she had received $7,000 in donations from her students and about the same amount in pre-paid lessons. The downside of this means that once she is able to teach again, she’ll have to teach six to eight private lessons a day to work off that money, during which time she won’t be able to earn new money. It’s a Catch-22, but she says she is very grateful for the help at this time and the amazing generosity of her students.

What does she think is going to happen to tango? “The gates are never really going to open to the way we knew it,” she thinks. Looking at the bigger picture of social dance, she said that ballroom dances have always been affected by politics. “Look at the swing, for example, it was at its height in the early 1940s, then the war came and the young men were drafted and that brought out the demise of the dance. The same happened with Argentine tango: after the fall of President Peron in 1955 tango almost disappeared. It wasn’t until decades later that it re-emerged. With the success of tango shows such as Forever Tango it became more popular all over the world than ever before. But that was twenty-five years ago,” she said, “it’s surprising that a popular dance lasts that long.”

“I never thought that tango would become that popular,” she continued. She says she thought of tango as a dance in popularity similar to the lambada or swing, both of which lasted for a few years and then disappeared. At first, she recalled, tango in San Francisco was danced by a small group, and initially she wanted it to remain small and intimate. At the time, she still had a full-time job and taught ballroom dance on the side. But with tango growing more and more, she realized the benefit of a larger community. Then she had a personal experience with cancer and decided to follow her passion to become a full-time tango teacher.

She wonders if now tango is coming to end or: “Maybe some kind of underground tango is going to develop.” It surprises me to hear such clear but pessimistic words from someone who has dedicated the past twenty-five years of her life to tango. She laughs and says she actually can’t imagine a life without tango.

*

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 5

Karina Romero, New York City: tango teacher and organizer

Karina & Jorge
Karina Romero with her partner Jorge Carmona
Photo by Camilla Galletto (9 years old)

The last time I talked to Karina Romero she had just rebuilt her career. That was in 2017, a year after she had split up with her long-time partner and husband, Dardo Galletto. She had given up her share in their successful tango studio in Manhattan, and moved out of their apartment with her two daughters Malena and Camilla, who were ten and seven at the time. She rolled up her sleeves and began teaching by herself, and turned into an organizer of tango events in and outside New York City, including participating in the renowned ‘Stowe Tango Music Festival’ in Vermont. And then she snatched up a desired teaching gig: She taught Liam Neeson, the acclaimed movie star, for a tango scene in ‘Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House’ — a major Hollywood production. In a few weeks she taught the shy actor, who claimed to have no dance experience at all, the basics of Argentine tango. It was another feather in her hat for Karina Romero, who had come on her own as a young woman from Argentina for a new life in New York twenty years ago.

I was concerned about Karina and her girls living in the middle of New York City, the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis. When I called, she told me she had just moved to New Jersey the month before with her children and was about to marry a new partner: Jorge Carmona. She was at a safe place, she assured me, albeit jobless. Until March she had been teaching weekly at the Argentine Consulate in addition to private lessons, and was running her own monthly milonga. All that stopped when New York City shut down. This meant that she was forced to cancel some big events in the spring: a workshop series with tango master Gabriel Missé and his partner Maru Rifourcat in April, and one in May with Junior Cervila and Guadelupe Garcia. Both workshops have been highly successful, and she has been organizing them on the same schedule for the past ten years. Now Missé and Maru Rifourcat were stuck in San Francisco, unable to teach and unable to travel for their planned assignments in New York or anywhere else.

Karina’s calendar is usually mapped out for three months but now it looks bleak. Since her last milonga on March 6 she hasn’t been able to teach or work, and consequently doesn’t have an income. “It was hard before,” she says evidently distraught. “Now it’s even harder.”

We talk about her perspective as a young tango dancer in New York. She told me that when she came to New York in 2000, her dream was to have a school of her own. She wanted to teach tango, but having succeeded, she then wished she could be more: “I wanted to teach people from all over the world about the art and music and culture of Argentina.”

While she has been a successful ‘ambassador of tango’, just as she originally wanted, given the current situation her dream of a school is not likely to happen anytime soon. Instead she has applied for financial aid promised by the federal government, but has yet to get anywhere. Like so many unemployment applicants, she received the wrong application form and had to follow up with a phone call. She called the unemployment office more than twenty times and waited for about six hours. Despite the frustration she sounds positive and almost cheerful over the phone. She says she’s not too worried about money at this point, thanks to her fiancé who is supporting them. “We’re healthy, and that’s important,” she stated bravely, and finds comfort in helping her daughters. They keep her busy and she is delighted to be part of all the new things they are learning under the present circumstances. She tells me that they are on a tight schedule with their online-schooling and various art and special assignments. “They need my help right now to get through the day.” She also teaches them to send out positive messages, despite everything. Asked about whether she is thinking of teaching online, she says she is too busy. “Life altogether takes much more time these days; what used to take five minutes, now takes an hour!”

What does she think is going to happen to tango in the future? “I believe that tango will be the last thing to come back when the economy opens up again, and I think that people will be afraid. When we have a vaccine, we can come back. And even then the only option might be to teach couples: people who know each other, who are intimate with each other. Private lessons are going to be fine, but we cannot have the milonga back again soon.” She thinks that life in general is going to be hard. Despite her already full schedule, she now takes the time to practice a lot with her future husband Jorge. And she will try again to call the unemployment office.

*

 

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 6

Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda, Oakland, California: tango teachers and DJs

Felipe & Ayano
Ayano Yoneda and Felipe Martinez, a couple on and off the dance floor
Photo by Nikolay Chigirev

A close tango friend suggested Felipe Martinez for private lessons back in 2011. I immediately took to his teaching style which was very matter-of-fact. And no wonder, he had been a Primary School teacher before becoming a teacher of Argentine tango. I also got a kick out of his football — as in European football — madness. He being from Spain, Madrid, it was no surprise that he was brought up with football. And what a useful thing to be an expert about for anyone who dances tango. Because after all what would Argentine tango be without football?  I did wonder, however, why he kept disappearing so quickly after every private lesson. I soon found out that he was dating someone in the tango community: a Japanese girl called Ayano. They would become inseparable, both on and off the dance floor. She learned quickly and turned into a successful tango teacher and DJ on her own. While he would be away for weeks at a time, teaching tango on cruise ships, she would take over their classes and run their otherwise mutual schedule on her own. Each November Felipe and Ayano host the ‘San Francisco Tango Marathon,’ a hugely popular event, especially among the younger crowd. It takes months of intense preparation and once it’s over, they are both completely exhausted.

In early March Felipe and Ayano flew from Buenos Aires to Minneapolis. They had been in Argentina since the end of January, and followed from what seemed a safe distance the unfolding crisis in the United States. Argentina was not affected yet by the Coronavirus, but Felipe and Ayano were not sure what to expect upon their return to the United States. When they boarded their plane at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires on March 6, everything seemed normal. They headed straight from the Minneapolis airport to the Tango Marathon where they played music and taught workshops.

There was still confusion surrounding the Coronavirus during the event, said Felipe. Minneapolis at the time had no cases of infection, but the bad news kept coming, especially from the Bay Area where Felipe and Ayano are based. They were going to return to Oakland after their Minneapolis gig, but they knew that they were heading into a hot spot with many cases of infections. And then there was the cruise ship Grand Princess waiting off the shores of San Francisco with twenty-one infected among the three-thousand five-hundred passengers on board.

Teaching Argentine tango on cruise ships has been a big part of Felipe’s work over the years. Cruises constitute a part of his annual income. Plus, he gets to travel the world and go to places he has always dreamed of. Even though his job requires that he spends much of his time indoors, he is actually very much an outdoor person: someone who enjoys climbing mountains and exploring nature. In every port he would get off the ship and start exploring, soaking in new impressions and recharging before getting back on board, to teach and dance tango all night.

Felipe realized that this was not going to happen this year. The Tuesday after they returned to Oakland he and Ayano went dancing at El V, one of their favorite milongas in San Francisco, especially popular with tango teachers. It would be their last milonga. After that, everything was canceled: private lessons, classes, and workshops. The Grand Princess in the meantime docked at the Port of Oakland, and became the focus of an unprecedented health crisis, only a few miles from their home. Felipe and Ayano’s cruise to Japan was canceled in February. As expected, two other summer cruises in Europe were canceled in May.

Since their gig in Minneapolis they’ve had no work. It’s no surprise. “We’re at the highest risk with the lowest necessity,” he states matter-of-factly. “We will be the last ones to be reactivated. The mixing of people at any kind of tango event makes a perfect breeding ground for any kind of virus.”

However, when I spoke to him in late April, he told me that he felt a sense of relief. “We usually run a crazy schedule and have to be super organized all the time. We never take a vacation. When we travel, it’s always for work or family.” Felipe’s family lives in Madrid, Ayano’s in Japan. Now, for the first time, they have time off. They practice yoga and cook a lot. Cooking is their next favorite thing in the world after tango, and they like to share the results with their friends on Facebook. “It’s kind of a relief to have time for one or two months,” he said. They tried to keep a positive attitude about their finances and said that they had tightened their budget. Thanks to the support of the tango community and their ability to live a frugal lifestyle, they think they can live off their savings for a while.

In the meantime they are online regularly with friends and students from all over the world. Ayano came up with the idea of an online tango-poetry project where she broadcasts music and lyrics in tango. They say it’s something dancers don’t pay enough attention to. Felipe has also participated in teaching an online seminar on tango DJing. And they helped promote Unidos Tango, an online festival where artists have donated their classes to help tango workers around the world in dire need, and who have requested solidarity. He repeats that they don’t live an expensive lifestyle and can get by on little.

Asked about whether they are going to teach online tango classes, he says they don’t like the idea themselves. Even though it may be good for the drill, it’s not the real thing. People have also offered to pay them in advance for private lessons, but they politely declined.

Half joking he adds that he’s still on ‘milonga time’, meaning he is awake all night and goes to sleep in the morning, sometimes as late as nine or ten a.m.

I asked him if he had a vision at the beginning of his tango career. He says he didn’t, but that it developed organically. He was already in the United States working as a full-time teacher, and people were asking him more and more to teach Argentine tango. So there was no plan, he just followed the demand of the market and what he enjoyed. Of course it was a bit scary, he admits. But when he finally made the leap, it was an ‘empowering feeling of having your own schedule and control over your working life.’

His take on the future of tango is surprisingly relaxed. “I don’t think that tango is going to change,” he says. He remembers the bird flu in 2013 while he was in Buenos Aires. The dancers stayed away for a while, then they came back, washed their hands excessively, and went back to business as usual. And then he adds that at this point he is actually more worried about society at large. “They don’t manage the crisis appropriately. The economic and social impact of this crisis could get a lot worse.” That, he thinks, is much more to worry about than tango.

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