If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you’re probably quite familiar with TangoMango, an extensive online community calendar that lists Argentine tango events. The site has grown to become the number one resource for tango dancers in California since it was launched over ten years ago. It’s also well known in a few other metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami. But tango dancers in most other areas of the country are less likely to visit the site and may not even have heard about it. If, for example, you were to find yourself in Hamilton County, Nebraska, and wanted to discover local milongas, you’d probably end up browsing the web for the individual websites of local organizers and venues instead of searching on TangoMango, as you might have done in the Bay Area or the Los Angeles area.
In the summer of 2015 I attended a concert in Berkeley, CA, given by a young and fairly unknown tango group from Buenos Aires, Orquesta Victoria. The music they performed that night at Berkeley’s well-known performance venue, Freight and Salvage, struck me as unusual and fascinating. It had a strong message and was delivered with the kind of verve that comes from deep down inside. It was not your usual Argentine tango music. There were a few performances by local professional dancers, but their dancing just underlined the message of the music and was almost a distraction from the band’s performance. The orchestra had just arrived from Argentina on their first tour in the USA to promote an album that they had recorded by San Francisco composer, Debora Simcovich.
I love dancing at unusual places. Over the years I’ve been to a number of venues that seemed unlikely settings for social dance events such as milongas, but which later turned out to be the best and most memorable ones.
Such was the case when I was first told about what sounded like ‘Moolonga’ in Washington County, New York. My initial thought was they must have made a mistake! I understand these people live in the country, but they must know that it is called ‘milonga’. “No, no,” I was assured, “you’ve heard it right, we’re calling it ‘MOO-longa’ precisely because we do live in cow country,” explains Fred Luckey, dryly.
Nicholas Tapia and Stephanie Berg won the Official Argentine Tango USA Championship in 2014 in the Salon Tango, or ‘Tango de Pista’, category — the highest regarded category of this prestigious tango contest. The Bay Area couple had met only two years before and had quickly decided to team up. The winning title of the Tango USA Championship got them on the way to the Tango Mundial in Buenos Aires that same summer where they represented the USA to compete against numerous outstanding dancers from all over the world. Nicholas and Stephanie came in fifty-eighth — a very respectable result given that no couple from the USA has ever won a title. Last year they competed at the Tango Mundial again, not as representatives of the USA, but on their own. Once again they made it to the semifinals, but not all the way to the top. This year, they decided not to participate in the Tango Mundial, but instead to focus on building up their own dance studio and a new life near Phoenix, Arizona. After several attempts to schedule an interview with this busy and bustling couple, I finally managed to talk to them while they were driving to their new studio.
When Beatrice walked with Terence into the big foyer of San Francisco’s de Young Museum on a Friday evening earlier this summer, a hundred and fifty people were waiting in their chairs. Baffled, she turned towards the museum’s public programs director, Renée Baldocchi, and asked her: “They are waiting to watch us teach, right?”
“Yes, they are waiting for you to teach the lesson because they want to participate!” was Baldocchi’s response. For a moment, Bea gasped. This was far beyond what she had expected for their first tango lesson at the museum. What was supposed to be an experiment — teaching a beginners’ lesson of Argentine tango at one of San Francisco’s most prestigious museums — had triggered an unexpected and overwhelming response.
Most people associate tango music with a form of dance. That’s not necessarily so. Tango music can be a pure musical pleasure, an exciting listening experience, but hard to dance to.
Take for example Débora Simcovich’s compositions. If you happened to catch one of her concerts last summer in the Bay Area, performed by the acclaimed Orquesta Victoria from Buenos Aires, you will have noticed that a lot of her songs were not very danceable. They do not speak of love and broken hearts — in contrast to most of the popular tango music that we hear at dance halls and clubs, usually from a male perspective and delivered by a male singer. In her music she speaks of her own reflections on life, and she addresses issues of social or political nature. “My music has content,” she says. Her focus is on the message and she delivers it with a punch — a skill which she learned in her younger years by writing jingles for ad agencies — and she delivers the punch regardless of whether the music is danceable or not. So it’s not surprising that Simcovich’s tango music is more popular among classical concert audiences than in the world of dancers.
The other night as I drove home after what had felt like a lukewarm milonga I kept wondering why the spark had been missing. I had arrived eager to dance, had immediately spotted some of my favorite dance partners and, after chatting with some long-time acquaintances, had positioned myself strategically so that I could be seen easily and, hopefully, asked to dance. But scanning the dance floor, I could tell that the energy was low. Most couples were sitting at their tables looking bored and seemed not inclined to get up. The ones that actually did dance somehow appeared a bit strained. My favorite partners didn’t seem to be eager to make a move, and when I was finally asked for a tanda, we didn’t really connect and enjoy the dancing. Then it finally dawned on me: it was the music! The music didn’t feel right. The songs were a mismatched mix of different styles, vocals and instrumentals, Nuevo and Golden Age, no highs, no lows, and didn’t inspire me to dance. I gazed over at the DJ, a popular local teacher who frequently spins the music, but that night he seemed to be paying more attention to his peers than to what was happening on the dance floor. He just seemed to be running down his playlist without observing the dancers.
After an hour and a half or so I gave up. On my drive home I thought wistfully of one of my favorite DJs whose milongas I always enjoy. As if by magic, she gets everybody (including myself) up and has us dancing all night, providing good energy with her music. People both on and off the dance floor usually seem to have a good time. Wherever she plays the music, whether it’s at some of New York’s popular milongas, other venues outside the Big Apple, or at intimate tango festivals, her milongas guarantee a great dance experience. So when we recently met, I decided to ask her: “What is your secret to a crowded dance floor? How do you get people to dance?”
It’s late Monday morning and the phone doesn’t stop ringing. If I had expected to find a quiet atelier with a designer absorbed in creative work, I was completely mistaken. Linda Ayre runs her own small business as a designer for custom dance costumes — and she is thus a multi-tasker. While we are talking, she is by turns dealing with an important client overseas, the building manager who insists on changing the locks that same afternoon, and some annoying internet issues — obstacles that everyone who runs their own operation has to deal with. Our conversation is frequently interrupted because of some urgent business or another, but every time she zooms right back to where we left off.
“I have to wear many different hats,” she says with a laugh when I ask her how she manages to stay on top of it all. “It’s the nature of what I do!” This applies not only to the way she runs her daily multifaceted business, but also to the nature of her profession. Her clients — Argentine tango teachers and performers, as well as Latin ballroom dancers — usually come to her with certain ideas. For example, they may need a costume for a showcase and the piece has to portray a certain feeling. Linda loves working with such special requirements, and she asks to hear the music. Only then — being a dancer herself — can she envision what the costume has to express and how it needs to flow. She likes women to look elegantly seductive, but not sleazy, and she likes styles that to seem to be showing more skin. “I prefer designing dresses that show legs and I always emphasize the importance of showing movement,” she says.
When Rachel Davidman and Giulio Perrone met on a flight last year from Tucson to Oakland, something between them clicked – in a creative, artistic sense. Rachel is an Argentine tango and salsa dancer; Guilio a theater playwright, designer, and director. “He was reading this book about Quantum Theory and explained to me how he wants to transform the idea of modern physics into a theater play,” says Rachel. For her part she shared with him her lifelong passion for dance both as a social dancer and as an occasional choreographer. They discovered very similar underlying experiences in dance and theater, and by the time they got off the plane, they felt they had established a deep connection.
A few months later she received a call from him, asking her if she wanted to be part of the upcoming experimental theater festival Diasporas as a tango dancer, and if she would like to put together a piece with her own group of dancers. “I was thrilled,” recalls Rachel. “It was something I’ve always wanted to do!” She carefully selected a handful of people with whom she personally enjoyed dancing and whom she trusted to share her ideas of performing an improvised piece in a rather unusual setting. “I was looking for dancers who are open-minded rather than perfectionists.”
What was it with these heels? Yes, what exactly was it that so mesmerized the audience about Claudio’s heels? He was wearing these tango high-heels just like all the other followers on the dance floor at the recent USA Tango Championship — except that Claudio Marcelo Vidal is a male dancer in high-heels. And that, apparently, was more remarkable than anything else, even for people in ‘oh-so-open-minded’ San Francisco.
Let’s get this straight: the fact that men are wearing high-heels in tango is nothing new. Even the Mundial de Tango in Buenos Aires, with its rather conservative rules, has accepted same-sex competitors since 2013, a fact which, of course, entails men in the role of followers dancing in high-heels.