Playing it Right

Playing it Right

 

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?”

My rather direct question sparked an hour-long passionate conversation.

The first thing I learned was that making tango music is not simply a question of making a playlist the night before and then going off and playing the music. Setting the right tone for the night seems to be the bottom line. The music should be chosen not just by name or composer, but by listening to it. A good DJ decides what feeling he or she wants, and then picks the songs.

It sounded simple, but it couldn’t be the whole recipe for success. I thought of cooking — a terrain with which I’m more familiar than the spinning of tango tunes. If you just follow the recipe in your cookbook, then your favorite dish probably turns out to be okay. But once you’ve peeked over your mother’s shoulder and watched how she adds her own personal touch of flavors and spices, and how she tweaks it, you know why it has become your favorite dish.

So I tried applying that to playing tango music. I kept prodding for more information: “So how exactly do you do it? What is your recipe for success?” I got a smile and then finally I learned that DJs usually have to play the seven standard composers: di Sarli, d’Arienzo, Pugliese, Troilo, Canaro, Mores, Biagi. I interrupted: “But since these composers are so well-known and have been heard so many times, doesn’t that get lame? What about all the other thousands of tango pieces?”

I was instructed that the secret lies in how to mix them. “Aha!” I thought. “So it is just like cooking!” Apparently, people want to hear music that they know. They want to choose their preferred partner for a certain kind of music. Most DJs play the hits, but their success with the dance crowd depends on how and when they play them and how they build them up. There are different ways to work the crowd, and I have observed that some DJs do it by watching how many people are on the dance floor, watching their faces and their embraces, and noting if there are good dancers on the dance floor. You can also tell by how dancers walk off the floor.

 

I’m interested about the significance of the cortinas since I’ve noticed that a lot of people actually dance to them. That they are very important because they set the mood is what I learn next. For example, it makes sense to play an emotional cortina after an emotional Pugliese.

A good way to get people into the mood is by starting the night with something upbeat, a tanda that is not too fast. This is also a good time for the DJ to get onto the dance floor and spend the first few tandas dancing to see if the sound works.

One thing is for sure, if you’re a serious DJ, preparing for a milonga is quite a lot of work. My interlocutor, it turns out, prepares for each milonga meticulously, listening to the first minute of each song to get a feeling for it, and knows intuitively the first and the last song of a tanda before she chooses the other pieces. During a milonga, if the mood is cheerful enough, she sometimes mixes up the classic formula, which is tango-tango-tango, followed by tango-tango-waltz, and then tango-tango-milonga. Occasionally, she uses large flipcharts with the names of the composers of the tandas. And at the end of the night she goes back to the music and goes over the playlist to see what worked out.

Argentine tango music speaks to people all over the world, and most of them don’t know the words. The late tango singer Alberto Podestá supposedly said that tango never sounded foreign to him. It’s a feeling, but learning the words adds a whole new dimension. So she has made it a habit on her long drives to events to listen to one piece over and over again to learn the lyrics.

I’m impressed at how organized she appears. Apparently, it hasn’t always been like this. She recollects that in the beginning, she listened to CDs from her first tango teacher. Then she inherited a massive music collection from another big tango star, but still knew little about the music. Gradually, she worked her way into the depths of tango music, first by listening to classic tango, discovering the rhythmic music of d’Arienzo, taking notes. That’s how she discovered for example the thundering bass with di Sarli’s left hand on the piano, and that’s how she learned to identify the sound of each orchestra. And that’s how she put the tandas together — not by the names, but by their sound — for example, high sound, deep vocal, bandoneon.

Discovering tango celebrities like Stephen Brown, Michael Lovocah, and Keith Elshaw, and how they played music has opened the eyes of many DJs. For many, however, the greatest influence comes, not surprisingly, from the DJs in Buenos Aires. One American DJ told me of an experience that happened after having been asked to play the music on a Monday night at Salon Canning. The famous dancer Graziella Gonzales came in, and the DJ understandably became a bit nervous. But at the end of the night, as everybody was leaving, the DJ was introduced to Graziella who said: “So you’re the one who kept me up all night!” Apparently, the music had been played right!

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The costume designer

The costume designer

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.

Despite having her own preferences, her main priority remains what the client wants. “I don’t need to have my stamp on the pieces that I make, it has to work for my clients, as long as it remains sensual,” she explains. To achieve a design, she first drapes it on the stand. Before the advent of the Internet she had to send a sketch and fabric swatches to her customers by mail. Now she can do that part of the process online. She also shops online for fabrics, but despite the growing vast array of online fabric stores, finding good quality fabric has become more and more difficult. And when the client then orders a piece, she drapes it according to their body measurements. Throughout the making, as details are completed, she photographs and sends it to the client.

“That’s the advantage of custom design,” she proudly says. “The client gets the perfect size.” The value of a skilled designer is the ability to emphasize someone’s assets and minimize any shortcomings. When many of Linda’s clients come to her for the first time, they always complain about their imperfections. Other items they have ordered online arrive ill fitting, and so they eventually go to a custom designer. Instead of dwelling on what doesn’t work, Linda concentrates on their assets, such as a nicely shaped back or bust, and makes that the focus of the dress.

Of course, such precise handmade work comes with a certain price tag. It is a long way from the first moment a client approaches her with a particular idea to a finished design. There is the choice of the right fabric, the STYLING, and then the HAND finishing. Not everybody is ready to pay between $700 and $1000 for a custom-made piece, and many people often end up buying a used costume. “The problem with used dresses, which have become more and more popular, is the size,” Linda says. “Or perhaps the dress has an unexpected issue,” I add and tell her how I once witnessed a costume malfunction on stage during a performance of a high-profile tango couple in Buenos Aires. The strap on the woman’s dress tore and she had to finish her performance with one hand holding her dress in place. “I always tell my clients to rehearse in the costumes I’ve made for them,” Linda says. “That way we know if it really works comfortably”.

In the colorful world of dance Linda Ayre has found a niche, especially with Argentine tango. It’s a niche, which her set of skills fill perfectly. “Many dance-costume designers come from a background of being a seamstress,” she explains. “However, my background is fashion design.” I ask her how someone can tell the difference between a custom-made dress and one that is manufactured. “Usually you can just look at the hem line, for example,” she suggests. “A lot of dresses that are sold as ‘custom designed’ don’t even have a properly sewn hem line. It’s easy for anybody to detect that.”

She herself is an old-school designer who studied fashion design in England and worked in London’s fast paced fashion design industry for many years before moving to California. “About 5 or 6 years after I moved here, I started dancing Argentine tango. For several years I was a total addict,” she admits. Sure enough, soon after becoming involved with the dance world as a serious ‘tanguera’, she became interested in designing exclusively tango fashion. Then gradually more dances were included, but tango is still her primary emphasis.

Like everything else, fashions in tango change, and Linda is excited to see how in recent years hem lines and details change and evolve. She remarks how in the world of fashion you have to be open to everything. She likes to experiment, and would especially like to do more ‘nuevo-tango dresses, but given how ‘nuevo-tango’ is itself a particular niche within a niche, it is difficult to sell and at the end of the day she needs to make a living.

Before I leave she gives me a tour of her studio. She points out some of her costumes, explaining what is special and what was particularly challenging about this or that piece. I still don’t understand how she finds the time and quiet to focus on the creative part of her job and how she has created such a beautiful body of work. Maybe when she returns to her studio after seven o’clock this evening, I think to myself, maybe after the phone stops ringing and the business manager has gone home….

More information about Linda Ayre’s designs and her studio can be found at her website at http://www.dancedress.com. 

Photo on top: Linda Ayre in her studio.

Center photo left: During a photo shoot with Chelsea Eng.

Center photo right: Photoshoot on location in Benicia 2014 with model Barbara and singer/model/dance teacher Lynn. 

Photographer: Diane Pedersen

Inferno Tango

Conmigo ConnectHorizontal

Scene from ‘Y dance?’ by dancers of ‘Conmigo Connect’. Photo by Rachel Davidman.

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.”

The newly formed Argentine tango ensemble now consists of five members and it is called Conmigo Connect. Rachel characterizes the group as a ‘pop-up dance company’. The piece they are going to perform is called Y dance? For the music she chose five songs that “make me move” — a few are nuevo-tango pieces rather than traditional tango music. One of them is Mi Confesión by Gotan Project. It’s a song with layers of different rhythms, and since hearing it for the first time she had a vision of dancers moving to it – and one, she confesses, that makes her get up at home and dance.

“The whole piece is really an eclectic mix of five songs with a voice overlay,” she says. “The transitions between the partnering dances are linked with solo performances by modern dancer Robin Fletcher.” The partnering dance parts are not choreographed. Rachel had certain concepts in mind, particularly the concept of lead and follow. “But what I want to show more than anything else is the connection in Argentine tango.”

“Don’t expect a flashy piece,” she says. Instead of a grand Forever Tango-like show, the dancers want to share with the audience what they do, why they are doing this, and why tango is part of their daily lives, and they want to invite the audience to share their passion.

So how does this fit into the Diasporas theater festival?

“Tango is just electric,” says Giulio Perrone, artistic director and producer of the festival, smiling. “It just opens up everything. Plus,” he adds, “I like movement. “

The Disaporas festival is indeed a mix of theater, solo performances, and dance groups. It does not reflect an ethnic diaspora, but is rather, Perrone goes on to explain, ”…about people being together and wanting to work together.” It is therefore also about the connection between different forms of the art and performances, just like the message that the Conmigo Connect tango group wants to convey. It is a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary festival, whose mission is to link cultures and explore human relationships in space and time.

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Blindfolds from ‘Quantum Desire’ with Tenya Spillman, David James Silpa, Wei-Shan Lai.  Photo by Vicki Victoria

In space and time? — “Yes,” Perrone says, “this year’s production is about how we perceive space and time. This piece of experimental theater, which is also a part of the festival, revolves around ‘the quantum of the room’ — the idea that everybody is part of the room.” Quantum Desire is the second part of a trilogy based on Quantum Theory — the theoretical basis of modern physics that continues both to fascinate and inspire him to transform new ideas into the theater.

“It sounds a bit – well, experimental, right?” I ask. – “Theater here is very safe”, Perrone states, “People want theater to be linear. They want a story, and no experiments. They want nothing that leads to misunderstanding, nothing that’s circular, and nothing that’s abstract.”

Aside from being the mastermind behind the Diasporas festival, Guilio Perrone is the creator and producing artistic director of the experimental theater ensemble Inferno Theatre in Berkeley, California. He attended the respected fine-arts Accademia di Brera in his native country, Italy, where theater, since the early days of the Commedia dell’Arte, has evolved as the ‘craft of improvisation’ – nothing like the linear story-telling of American theater that Perrone almost commiseratively talks about. Having been an active part of American theater, both as a director and designer, for many years, he decided it was time for him to start his own project. He named it quite provocatively Inferno Theatre, relating, of course, to the famous epic poem by Dante Alighieri. “Inferno Theatre is a place where people can do what they want,” he explains. “Our pieces are different from consequential pieces which are designed to keep the audience’s attention. People have a shorter attention span now than in Shakespeare’s time when a play might go on for days at a time.”

Perrone has written and produced three original productions for the company every year since they started in 2010. Having successfully toured Europe with his own productions prior to starting Inferno, his ambition is to take the company overseas.

During the three-day long Diasporas festival in early May, in Berkeley, the company performs only parts of their Quantum Desire production. The piece in its entire length will be shown during the San Francisco International Arts Festival at Fort Mason from May 27 through June 5. More information and tickets can be found at http://www.sfiaf.org/inferno_theatre.

Rachel Davidman and her Argentine tango group, Conmigo Connect, perform on two evenings of the Diasporas festival on May 6th and 7th. The festival itself runs from May 6th to the 8th in the South Community Church in Berkeley. Tickets and more information can be found at: http://infernotheatre.org/diasporas-festival-2016/

 

Claudio’s heels

Claudio’s heels

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.

Wearing high-heels changes the position of the foot and what you can do. It helps to create the elegant cat-like walk that we followers strive for. For Claudio this was not an issue. He had been doing this for a long time. So he became the first man not just to be part of a male-only couple, but also the first man to dance in high-heels in the Mundial. However, when he entered the competition stage with his then partner Esteban Mioni, two of the judges left the panel in protest.

The incident caused enough of a riot in the tango world to be picked up by some major newspapers in Argentina: La Nación, Clarín, and El País; even the New York Times in the US reported it.

I’m not sure if the tango world in Argentina even now has fully accepted the role and appearance of same-sex couples in the Mundial — or at milongas or anywhere else. During my conversation with Claudio and his partner Sidney Grant shortly before their performance at the finals of the USA Tango Championship at the end of March they explained to me how even in Argentina gay men take a more conservative position on tango than here in the US. “Tango is a dance between a man and a woman,” says Claudio. “Culturally, men only danced together to practice so they could impress the women with their skills. But they wouldn’t dance together in public. These days, you might be asked in class by a teacher to dance with another man if there is a shortage of women. But it’s just not traditional for men to dance together.” And Sid adds: “When we first met in Buenos Aires, he wouldn’t go with me to a gay tango club — he hadn’t even heard about it!”

Sid has a different take on the subject. He has pioneered in New York as a gay dancer, trying to break the stigma that surrounds men dancing together. He won the 2011 USA Tango Championship in New York with a female partner, but then started to focus on dancing with male partners only, working against what he calls ‘the machismo in dance’, especially when it comes to same-sex couples. “It’s about harmonizing and about overcoming outdated beliefs,” he says.

Sid’s and his partner Claudio’s differing perspectives on the role of all-male couples in tango, both professionally and personally, not only make their partnership special but are also a reflection of the complex views shared by the general public about same-sex couples. The very people who regard same-sex couples on the dance floor as a perfectly integrated part of the tango world may still sneer at a man who dances in high-heels. On the other hand, whenever two women are depicted dancing tango together — as has been the case in movies, on posters, or in art work — it is usually perceived as erotic and sexual.

“Tango is not about sexual relationships,” objects Sid. In this respect they both agree. “Tango transcends religion and gender. In our society, which seems to compartmentalize, we want to show that tango can overcome prejudice and outdated beliefs.”

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Infectious enthusiasm: Claudio and Sidney are stepping onto the dance floor.

They had high hopes of winning this year’s USA Tango Championship, and were excited to compete in the same city where, at the beginning of the LGBT movement, Harvey Milk was assassinated. Nevertheless, they said: “We are not rainbow-flag waving people.” Unfortunately, they were not among the top three in this year’s Salon-style category. I can’t imagine how disappointed they must have been — as were I and many others who had watched and cheered them on from the first night when they appeared on the competition floor, with Claudio tripping along in his high-heels on Sid’s arm. Their enthusiasm was infectious. The first and only all-male couple to compete in the USA Tango Championship earned extra applause from the audience. They danced beautifully and professionally as they had done many times. But it wasn’t enough.

Fotos by Mary Gulick

Highlights of the 2016 Argentine Tango USA Championship

Highlights of the 2016 Argentine Tango USA Championship

At the end there was an astonished silence when the announcement was made that two couples had tied for first place. It was a nerve-wracking moment. There was disbelief on people’s faces followed by an incredulous murmur from the audience. The two couples who had been called back — Diego Gorostiaga and Kelly Lettieri from New York, and Adam Cornett and Tilia Kimm from Boston — stepped confidently but tensely onto the competition floor. After third place had gone to Derek Tang and Rachell Lin from Los Angeles both couples had been hoping to be called as second or first place winners, but now they were asked to dance yet another round so that the judges could come to a final decision. The music began again and both couples danced with even more verve than before. Watching from the sidelines, it was impossible to tell who would grab the winner’s title. But this time it didn’t take the judges long to make their decision. Only a few minutes after the music stopped playing, Adam Cornett and Tilia Kimm were pronounced winners in the “Tango de Pista” category and awarded the title of the 2016 US Tango Championship, a roundtrip ticket to Buenos Aires where they will represent the US at the Tango Mundial 2016, and a one week stay in the city of Buenos Aires.

 

The “Tango de Pista” category — recently renamed but still better known to the general audience as “Salon” category — is probably the most prestigious category of the whole Argentine Tango Championship. Competition criteria remain the same as before, the main criterion being that feet must remain on the floor — no high kicks or fancy lifts are allowed. Such moves are reserved for the “Stage” category where this is exactly what both the audience and the judges do want to see. It’s what makes watching stage competition a lot more entertaining — especially at this year’s USA Tango Championship where the top competitors danced at a higher level than ever before. One couple, Martin Cardoso and Noelia Guerrero from Fort Myers, Florida, delivered a fiery performance with their own interpretation of Argentine tango combined with Latin dance moves. They brought the audience to its feet with a hot and spicy show of acrobatic lifts, and fast and precise footwork which earned them second place. But it was the stunningly beautiful performance of an all Argentine tango by Daniel Moreno and Amanda Accica from Detroit, Michigan, that was crowned with the first prize in the “Stage” category. They had competed last year, and this time they won the judges over completely. Their stirring, seductive, but elegant performance was touching – all the more so since Amanda’s obviously advanced stage of pregnancy did not in the least hinder the flawlessness of her dancing. In third place was another couple who are no strangers to the US Tango Championship: Roberto Peña and Jacklyn Shapiro from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They delivered a most passionate and theatrical performance, and may well become next year’s champions.

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Hot and spicy: Noelia Guerrero and partner Martin Cardoso

In the “Tango Salon Seniors” category, John Demenkoff and Diana Bradshaw from Scottsdale, Arizona came in first. This couple, who captivated everyone with their elegance, had been trained by former Bay Area residents and Salon Tango champions from 2014, Nicholas Tapia and Stephanie Berg. Second and third prizes went to two couples from Boston: Glen Sickorez and France Potvin, and Varouj Nersesian and Silvia Meyer.

At the end of the event which stretched again over four days, organizer Andrea Monti praised the smooth organization of this year’s competition which saw forty-two couples competing in the “Tango de Pista” category, and eleven couples in both the “Stage Tango” and “Tango Salon Seniors” categories. Unfortunately, since only two groups had registered with performance teams no competition could be held in this category as six groups is the minimum requirement for a competition. “Everything went even better than before,” she said, thanking her staff of volunteers for their extraordinary dedication and work. She also explained the new rules set out by the board of the “Mundial de Tango” in Buenos Aires: There are now ten judges on the panel instead of the previous six. All ten judges rotate during the four days of the competition, and all are “masters” — local judges no longer being allowed. There was, however, one exception this year: San Francisco based Christy Cote, who because of her “super professionalism” had been asked to serve as a so-called substitute judge. And once again, a designated auditor was sent from Buenos Aires to ensure the compliance of the rules and regulations.

The four day long festival – with workshops during the day, the competition and milongas with live music and performances by the masters at night – has become a fixed event and one of the highlights in the calendar and draws more and more people. Saturday night saw a sold-out house with 400 people in the audience, on Friday night the organizers counted 300, and both opening and closing nights also drew a large crowd.

All in all, this year’s competition was a great success; next year’s is eagerly awaited.

Top: Roberto Peña and Jacklyn Shapiro; foto of Tilly Kimm and Adam Cornett by Andrea Monti; all other pictures by Mary Gulick.

 

Tango comes to you

An interview with Christy Cote who celebrates her 20th anniversary as a tango teacher

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A most popular tango teacher: Christy Cote (Photo by Shell Jiang)

In January 1996 Christy Cote made a decision that would change her life forever: she quit her daytime job and became a fulltime professional Argentine tango teacher. She had fallen for tango when the legendary “Forever Tango” show arrived in San Francisco in 1995. She was completely captivated and ushered to see every single show for free for 56 performances after that. Twenty years later Christy Cote is now one of the most popular and successful tango instructors in the country. Among her prestigious mentors and partners she can count tango legend Carlos Gavito and stars like Pampa Cortes, Facundo Posadas, Daniel Lapadula and Eduardo Saucedo.

While San Francisco remains her home base, she has taught and performed all across the USA and even in Buenos Aires. She has appeared repeatedly as a teacher and performer at the world’s premier Argentine tango festival, CITA in Buenos Aires. She is one of the founders as well as a performer and choreographer of the all-female tango performance group “Tango Con*Fusion.” She has created her own teaching method, which has been published by Dance Vision, together with instructional videos, and has recently started her own “Associate Teachers Program.” She is also the creator of a highly successful series of Tango Boot Camps.

I was lucky enough to catch her at the “Tango USA Championship” while she was waiting to be called to the judges’ panel, and this is what she revealed about her long and astonishing career:

Question: How do you feel about judging other dancers at the championship tonight?

Christy Cote: When I was asked to be on the judging panel for the first championship back in 2012, I didn’t like it at first. But it got better and now I enjoy it. When people compete, they do it because they want to be judged. It’s different from social dancing and performing. I used to compete in ballroom dancing, so I know what it’s like.

Q: How did you first get into ballroom dancing?

CC: I was actually a jazz dancer, but then in the seventies disco became popular and I got interested in partner dancing. So one day I walked into an Arthur Murray studio on Sutter Street and they gave me a twenty-minute private lesson for free. Then they said they were looking for ballroom teachers, and next thing I knew I enrolled in their teacher training and became a ballroom teacher.

Q: If you liked it that much, why did you drop ballroom and go into Argentine tango?

CC: As they say, tango comes to you! At the time when that happened, everything changed for me: I broke up with my boyfriend, I broke up with my ballroom dance partner, Larry, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had no idea what would happen to me, I thought I was going to die. So I gave everything up – my daytime job, my ballroom dancing – and I took the leap. Then something new started to emerge. I went to Argentina from October 1995 to March 1996, and after I came back from that trip, I met Carlos Gavito. He became my mentor, but I didn’t believe a lot of what he told me.

Q: Like what?

CC: For example, he said: “Train your partner.” I didn’t believe that. Since then I’ve trained about four of my professional partners, including Darren Lees – who I never thought would become my professional partner – and Eugene Theron.

Q: Wasn’t it a scary move to leave your previous life behind?

CC: I was never scared of the future, certainly not at that time when I had breast cancer. I felt I had nothing to lose. I lived in the moment. At the time, I partnered up with Pampa Cortes. New things just emerged. Before, I had always thought that I needed a day-time job and the security. And there I was all of a sudden, no longer driving a company car, no longer going out to high-end restaurants, no more fancy vacations. I don’t need all of that anymore. A vacation from what? I love what I’m doing!

Q: Times have changed since the mid-nineties. Tango has become widespread and there a lot more teachers and milongas everywhere. And the economy has changed, expenses are much higher. What would you tell someone today who wants to get into tango as a professional?

CC: Times have certainly changed and the competition is tough. I was at the right place at the right time. But if you’re passionate and if you believe in yourself, do it. Of course, I wouldn’t start out in a place like the Bay Area where there are so many good teachers. But if you can go to a small town anywhere in the US, then go for it. You can still make it, absolutely.

Q: What was the tango scene in San Francisco like when you first started?

CC: For the first few years there were only about twenty or thirty tango dancers. There was Nora [Dinzelbacher] who had already established part of the tango community in the Bay Area, and there was Victor Menendes, and there was Carlos and Elaine. Then more and more dancers started to show up, and at first I didn’t like it! I liked the small community and I didn’t like seeing it grow, I thought that’s all there is and it stays that way. But I learned to open up to the fact that the community was growing and many more new people started coming in.

Q: So many dancers go through a transition from first excitement to becoming frustrated.

CC: I know that feeling. I think it’s similar with wine lovers. At a lower level you’re all enthusiastic and you try everything. Then you get to the other level and you become picky. You walk into a milonga and you expect your favorite music to be played and to dance with your favorite partners. If it doesn’t happen, you get frustrated. But you can’t blame it on others. You have to be open and change your own attitude, be positive.

Q: What do you like most about your “job”, if one can call it like that?

CC: The teaching part!

Q: Not the flashy performances? Why is that?

CC: Because I understand more and more about the dance and I love sharing that understanding with my students. But then I’m also more than just a tango teacher. Often I find myself in the role of a psychologist or a friend. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve asked a student just how his or her day was and they broke into tears and spilled out all of their problems. Then I suggest that we just sit down and have a cup of tea and talk.

Q: Aside from the mentoring part of your teaching, what do you consider most important? Could you name three basic elements every student has to learn?

CC: Yes, I call it the “recipe of success for the dance floor.” First of all, feel it — get the music that is danced. Then it’s the walking and the embrace, the 100% intimacy with your partner. And finally the culture of Argentine tango. It’s not just a dance. That’s why I think every dancer should travel to Buenos Aires, to get that sense of that culture.

Q: You started teaching “Tango Boot Camps” in 2007. It’s a very successful and intense 16-hour tango workshop. You teach the advanced boot camp with George Garcia or Eduardo Saucedo and the beginners’ boot camp on your own. Whose idea was it to teach tango in boot camp style?

CC: My mother’s! She was in the Navy, as a nurse, and I think she liked that drill. But then my teaching partner George Garcia taught tango boot camps in Hawaii. We hooked up and started teaching boot camps in the Bay Area. It became an immediate success.

Christy & Eugene 1

Striking a pose: Christy with partner Eugene Theron (Photo by Tanya Constantine)

Q: Your career is an endless string of highlights. Could you name just a few?

CC: There are certainly two highlights that stand out in my memory. They both involve Gavito. One was when I danced with him at the opening of “Tango Nada Mas” [a tango club] fifteen years ago in Chicago. The other one happened at one of his performances at “Tango by the Bay.” His partner, Marcela, couldn’t make it to the performance that night. I was sitting in the audience, not expecting in the least to dance. I had a knee injury at the time and had told all of my friends that I couldn’t dance for a while. Then Gavito came on stage and said that because Marcela was sick, he would like to invite me to do the performance with him! I was shocked, but couldn’t possibly refuse to dance with him. It was such an honor! After the performance I had to go to the emergency room to get treatment for my knee!

Q: What is your resolution for the future?

CC: To stay healthy and to continue with Jazz dance!

Q: Would you say that Jazz dancing has improved your tango dancing and vice versa?

CC: Absolutely! It has helped me so much with performing — the theatrical and projecting aspects of it. And I would also recommend to every ballroom dancer to take up tango. You learn so much about the music and the feeling.

Q: You sound so completely happy and fulfilled. Isn’t there anything you would really wish you could do?

CC: Sit back, have a cup of coffee, meet friends, read a book. I never have enough time for that!

Q: What is it that you least like about what you’re doing?

CC: Dealing with e-mails and text messages! Again, I just don’t have enough time to keep up with everything! At this point, I have about 300 unanswered e-mails in my inbox, and I hate it! I like being organized and getting things done, but despite all the new and different ways of communication, I’m just less able to stay on top of it!

Q: When do you think you are going to retire?

CC: Retire from what? I’ve got nothing to retire from!