Tango comes to you

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

Christy portrait

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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Tango for girls only

Tango moves

The first time I attended a local milonga in Albany I noticed a small group of young girls sharing a table. They stood out because they were so much younger than most of the other dancers at the event that night. They also appeared very well-behaved for people their age and were presumably well educated. With keen eyes and obvious know-how they assessed what was happening on the dance floor and seemed very eager to get a chance to show off their skills. However, nobody asked them to dance, and their interest in what was going on around them grew visibly less. Finally one of them got up and approached the host, hands on hips: “Mister Magee, what did you tell them?” she asked briskly. A bit taken aback he replied: “I told them to ask you to dance before they had a drink and not after!” That didn’t go down well with the young ladies — nor had it with the gentlemen. They didn’t want to be told when and how they could ask the women to dance, any more than the girls appreciated the well-intended suggestion, since they ended up not dancing all night.

As it turned out, the girls were students at a prestigious private all-girls school in nearby Troy. In addition to their regular curriculum they had taken classes in Argentine tango. It had been added as one of the optional ‘practicoms’: additional classes such as horseback riding or gun shooting from which the girls could choose. The idea of instructing teenage girls in tango was quite a novelty, and initially not received with great enthusiasm by the school’s directorate. It took the school’s dance instructor, Kevin Magee, about a year and half to get his proposal approved.

“My initial proposal was to teach the girls tango with boys the same age,” he explains. “I wanted the girls to develop a positive contact with boys.” Since most of his young female students had been exclusively educated at same-sex schools, their social contact with boys was principally limited to annual high school dances at area schools.

“Do you know what happens at these high school dances these days?” Magee asks. “It’s not dancing, it’s despicable!”

He remarked how the girls would return from these so-called dance events appalled and frightened. He felt certain that through a structured couple-dance and with strict tango etiquette these boys and girls could develop a more positive attitude towards each other.

While he had no problems getting his own girl students excited about the new Argentine tango program, getting boys involved turned out to be impossible. He was puzzled when he received an explanation from the counselor of a nearby private boys’ school: “Tango is too intense for them,” she said. “The boys are too scared!” Not believing what he heard and being encouraged by the girls’ enthusiasm, Magee continued to try various approaches to get boys interested in tango.

But it was all to no avail. “The boys wouldn’t leave their environment,” he says. His last hope, a young fellow who was popular with the girls, often entertaining them with great success during lunch breaks, turned out to be a failure. When it came to the first joint tango lesson, he sat with his back to the girls, remaining frantically focused on his mobile phone, unable to face them. When finally his mother came to his rescue and escorted him out of the room, the girls simply shrugged and claimed that they had known all along that he was just a big mouth, and would not have the guts to learn how to tango.

With no options left, Magee decided to teach the girls on their own. They would have to learn to both lead and follow. To his amazement he discovered unexpected talents. During the very first lesson one of the students demonstrated outstanding abilities as a leader.

“It was a miracle to watch that girl!” He remembers, still excited. “She immediately got that stride, that cat-like walk, and she picked it up just by watching!” The shape of her embrace was extraordinary. Not only was she about to become an outstanding tango dancer, but she also went on to write her final — and very well-received — thesis about her tango experience at the school. Later on during her college studies she joined another tango class only to discover that there was no proper instruction for the leaders. “She immediately got the guys organized behind her and started teaching them herself,” Magee says proudly.

To make up for the lack of interaction with the boys and to provide them with the ‘real’ social dance experience, Magee invited the girls to the milongas that he regularly organizes for the Albany Tango Society. He needed both the school’s and the parents’ approval for these outings; furthermore, the girls had to be back at the dorms by 10 pm — rather early for a real tango night. No fewer than four adults would escort five girls at a time. The girls didn’t particularly appreciate this kind of attention, thinking it unfair that they could go out to restaurants by themselves, but were not allowed to attend a milonga without teachers and parents shepherding them. But once again they proved to be resourceful and bold. Some of them organized their own trips to New York City on weekends to get the ‘real’ experience. Following their teacher’s advice, they quickly learned which places were best for their own dance experience and how to choose the right leaders for themselves.

In the city they were exposed to dancing in close-embrace. When I hear this I’m puzzled, but then I get it. Physical contact between teacher and students is, of course, not permitted at school, not even in dance class. So Magee had focused exclusively on salon style open-embrace. That changed when he brought professional Argentine teachers Diego Blanco and Orlando Farias to the classroom. Unaware of the school’s policy and thinking nothing of it Blanco and Farias began teaching close-embrace. How did the girls react? “They were so excited!” Kevin Magee remembers, smiling. “They were not afraid at all, but rather bold.” From then on there was no turning them back to open-embrace.

“The girls matured during tango,” Magee recalls. “It was definitely a lesson for life, and they did so well, being bold and outgoing, and began to understand that boys basically function the same way as they do, being afraid of each other and insecure.” The girls managed to overcome these fears and their biased opinions. A small group of them even got together after graduation and traveled around Europe for a month, going to places like Berlin and Paris — to dance tango.

The school’s Argentine tango program has ceased for the time being, but Magee is hoping to bring it back to life sometime in the future. After all, tango can be a useful lesson for life, one that never expires.

Image by Graham Blackburn, PLATE LXXXI  Tango Moves

Festival Mania

Fall 2013 032

The pressure is on. Which tango festivals should I attend? My e-mail gets flooded every day with invitations. So does my Facebook page. Everybody I know has either lately been to one or is planning to go to one. Tango Festival in Istanbul, Tango Festival in Albuquerque, Tango Marathon in Boston, another Tango Marathon in San Francisco coming up next month, Montreal Loves Tango (well, missed that one!), and then the exotic Tango Festival in Puerto Rico, offering milongas on the beach! Last month Austin and Denver, and don’t forget to register for the one in San Diego on New Year’s Eve!

One of my long-time friends and favorite dance partners confided that he attends one festival per month. He has made a special arrangement with his employer to work overtime during three weeks of the month so he can take off during one week to travel to a tango festival. Since this eats quite a bit into his expense budget, he has found ways to travel cheaply: He stays at low-budget motels outside town and he offers his services as a taxi dancer for workshops where a shortage of leaders is a common problem.

Another dancer friend who is fairly new in the tango world told me that earlier this year she traveled all the way from rural New York State to the island of Kalamata, Greece, to attend a tango festival. – Kalamata, Greece! And then I just learned from a couple about a tango festival in Corsica that they had attended – Corsica?! Yes, they assure me, there is tango in Corsica, and a while ago they even started an annual tango festival! Since they have been actively dancing for a long time and are always up-to-date with the New York City tango scene, I trust their judgment absolutely.

Having listened to all these experiences, I’m getting the feeling that I’m missing a lot of tango fun. The times that I have attended tango festivals are rare. My first ever event was CITA in Buenos Aires. First there was the excitement of being surrounded by tango day and night. But then it quickly became tiring, to say the least, being on my feet all day and night (especially on high heels), learning and absorbing, dancing, chasing after the best partners, and still trying to look presentable after only four hours of sleep. After a week I felt like a train wreck.

Since then, the thought of planning for a festival, of deciding which workshops and which events to attend makes me feel stressed. So many great opportunities, all packed into a few days!

Never quite sure whether there will be a gender balance — meaning that having a dance partner will be guaranteed — makes me worry that a festival might be a waste of time and money. Why travel then when there is so much to do at home? With regret I keep checking my local tango calendar of events every week, knowing that I won’t be able to participate in most events, even at home. There is so much to do in my neck of the woods. Aside from our wonderful local teachers, regular classes, and milongas, there is always some visiting celebrity from Argentina passing through, offering an exciting new workshop. Lately, I’ve found myself passing on these events more and more for the sake of juggling a busy work schedule and everything else what makes up a life. So why then travel to a tango festival when there are more local events than I could attend?

Wouldn’t I be better off taking myself to a Caribbean beach and chill for a vacation? Or spending time in Europe, breathing history and art, indulging in culture and visiting family and childhood friends?

Still, with each announcement my heart starts beating faster; so much tango fun at places I would like to visit! My eyes start gleaming like the kid in the candy store. This past summer’s calendar was particularly busy, filled with tango festivals. At some point I figured it was time to stop being a festival bum. I decided to give it another try. Cautious as I am, I started on a small scale. Instead of booking a flight and taking myself to the tango festival in Puerto Rico (which sounded like all the best things in the world combined in one package: sun, beach, and tango!), I drove from my summer domicile on the East Coast to a relatively small festival in Vermont. With my partner in tow – who after so many years of tango seems a bit weary of chasing after every event – I was at least sure of not having to worry about an uneven gender balance. We set off on a Friday afternoon, driving through the beautiful countryside of Vermont, to arrive just in time for our first milonga at this small festival which had started two days earlier. The following day we took two workshops, had a blast meeting new and old friends, indulged in a lavish dinner and danced at the next milonga, only to discover on our last day that we had enjoyed ourselves so much we now wished we had arrived a day earlier!

The whole experience pretty much changed my opinion about avoiding tango festivals. As a result, I’ve concluded that I have to tailor attendance at a festival to my own needs and wishes. I don’t need to attend each and every workshop and be present at all times. I can tone it down according to what works for me. Personally that means a maximum stay of three days at a festival, no more than two workshops a day plus a milonga — but only every other night so I can get a good night’s rest in between. I love the socializing part, but I also need downtime, and the opportunity to do other things around town including some exploring on my own.

Having come to these conclusions, the pressure is off. I’m now busy scouting for the next tango festival — see you in San Diego maybe, at the end of the year!?

Glamour in the Province

On a recent hot summer night an almost surreal scene presents itself in the upstate New York hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson. Nestled among the tall trees and wide meadows of Bard College — a small exclusive private liberal arts and science school — appears a huge construction called the Spiegeltent (translated as “Mirror Tent”). This large traveling tent, constructed of wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, arrives every summer at this otherwise quiet and isolated campus, and becomes the stylish setting for exotic cabaret shows, live Jazz concerts, and dance events.

From early July through mid-August the Spiegeltent — a more familiar sight throughout Europe as well as in cities such as Las Vegas and San Francisco where it was used by Teatro ZinZanni — draws an astonishing number of people, not only from nearby smaller towns and surrounding rural areas, but also from as far away as Massachusetts and New York City. As it does tonight.

It is Total Tango night, and the stars of the evening are none other than Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne. The self-proclaimed creator of Nuevo Tango himself and his partner, along with another well-known Tango celebrity, harmonica player Joe Powers, are bringing some world-class Tango and glamour to this secluded and tranquil corner of the world.

This rare appearance of these famous Tangueros in the Hudson Valley has drawn a sizeable crowd from many smaller Tango communities in the wider area of upstate New York and Massachusetts. It is astonishing, but not unusual, for Tango aficionados in this area to drive several hours to attend an event, a workshop, or a milonga. But there are also many others, absolutely new to Tango, who are curious to find out what the hype is all about.

To someone visiting from a big and active Tango community, where on any given day an interesting event happens just around the corner, it seems quite astonishing and even a bit bizarre that a Tango legend such as Naveira would make an appearance at an off-the-map location like Bard College in upstate New York. Why, they might wonder, would someone like Naveira, who has performed and taught all over the world, make an appearance in provincial New York?

These days Tango is going through a huge revival, spreading everywhere, and not just in the United States. The organizers of the Spiegeltent shows — the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard — have long understood that, and Total Tango is now one of their most popular events. Thanks to Chungin Goodstein, who teaches Tango in the area and has been an admirer of Naveira ever since taking her first lesson with him in Buenos Aires, they have managed to get the couple to commit for a full evening of lecturing, teaching, and performing.

It should be noted, however, that Tango at the Spiegeltent has not been a blank piece of paper for other professional Tango instructors. This annual event has become quite famous, and has benefited the reputation of several other great Tangueros who have also performed here.

It all started when Ilene Marder, Tango DJ and organizer from nearby Woodstock, approached the organizers of the Spiegeltent shows some years ago with the idea of adding Tango to their program. Marder, who is highly regarded in Tango communities from New York City to Boston and beyond, as well as in Buenos Aires, invited Tango dancers such as Junior Cervila, Cristian Correa and Angeles Chañahato, Michael Nadtochi and Michelle Erdemsel, to perform at the Spiegeltent. Based in New York City, these dancers appreciated a visit to the country where an expectant audience would be awaiting. Now, with Ilene Marder’s schedule having become too busy to handle the event, Chungin Goodstein has taken over for the time being.

After an unremarkable start with a lecture about the history of Tango, this evening slowly gets into gear. Then it is time for the much anticipated lesson with the masters. But, to my surprise, it turns into a bit of a challenge: with over eighty people on the dance floor, including novices and advanced dancers bumping into each other and stepping on each others’ toes, it is difficult to get the class organized. I’m amused to notice that Naveira and Anne are struggling for a moment with the overwhelming crowd and the mix of different levels. They finally decide to do what seems to be best for both beginners and advanced dancers: teach the basics. But by the time they reach the point of introducing the basic cross, most of the newcomers are lost — and the dance floor has become a chaotic mass of confused legs and feet.

I decide not to watch any longer. I head for the counter, where since most people are now on the dance floor the line is short, and order dessert. Here I learn from the organizer that all two hundred and fifty tickets have been sold. I can’t help but think of organizers in places like San Francisco or New York where, despite a large number of dancers in the community, they have been struggling to fill up their events because so many more Tango venues have popped up. With so much competition in these places, an attendance of two hundred and fifty is almost unheard of.

When the dancing finally begins and Joe Powers — accompanied by a nice ensemble of Bard’s music students — takes the stage to charm the audience with his peerless harmonica playing, it seems that the evening is about to reach its climax. And then, after so much waiting and anticipation, Naveira and Anne walk onto the dance floor. Their performance is the ultimate reward. The seeming lightness of their dancing, the precision of their technique, and the charm of their demonstration are unprecedented. It is a glimpse of world-class Tango in this small hamlet in the Hudson Valley.

Video by Evelyn Meier:

“The Real Deal”

I’ve been dancing Argentine Tango for about six years, and all this time the music and the orchestras have remained somewhat of a mystery to me. I do understand what it takes to be a good Tango dancer and what to look for when I watch someone perform. I’m far from perfect myself, but I have learned how to walk, how to follow, how to embrace my partner, and how to look reasonably good on the dance floor. I like to express myself to the music and I do have my favorite composers, Carlos di Sarli and Osvaldo Pugliese among them, but my knowledge of Tango music hardly extends past the standard pieces that are played by DJs at most milongas. I’m embarrassed to say that after all this time my knowledge of Tango music is still very basic. There are pieces that make me want to get up and dance, and there are others that don’t speak to me at all, and that I don’t mind sitting out. At most milongas where the usual standard repertoire of Tango music is played I have to admit that I’m quite happy and content to listen and dance to the same “canned” pieces over and over again.

However, I can’t help but be amazed at how the vibe changes when a live orchestra plays. This is how it should be, I then think to myself. This is how it was in the early days of Tango when there was no recorded music, and instead the orchestras were at the center of things and were the real stars of Tango. If you’ve ever watched the YouTube video of Juan D’Arienzo conducting his orchestra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Z5qEKxfmm8) you’ll understand what I mean.

There are several accomplished Tango orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area, which I consider my Tango home base. Some of these local orchestras only started to perform after I began dancing Tango, and I’ve had the pleasure of watching their early performances and then seeing how they’ve come along, how they have progressed, and have become better and better. To start with there is The Redwood Tango Ensemble, a wonderful group of energetic young musicians who I remember from their first gigs at the outdoor Blackhawk Milonga in Danville. They’ve since become one of the most desired groups on the Bay Area’s Tango scene, having made their own recordings and having appeared at many events. Then there is Trio Garufa, a group which has been around for much longer than I have been in Tango. They are known for their remarkably versatile interpretations of Tango. There is also the well-known orchestra Tangonero, and there is the versatile Tango No. 9, whose singer, Zoltan DiBartolo, possesses not just a great voice, but also an impressive stage presence. Unfortunately they seem no longer to exist. And more recently established on the local scene is Orquestra Z, founded by long-time tanguero, Bendrew Jong.

But the one man who stands out for me, and whom I’ve been following a bit more closely over the years, is Seth Asarnow and his Sexteto Tipico. Whenever this six-piece orchestra — consisting of Seth Asarnow and Bryan Alvarez on bandoneons, Cynthia Mei and Brooke Aird on violins, Dan Highman on piano, and Chris Johnson on bass — appears and starts to play, I feel the desire to sit down and listen. Somehow, I find their music so captivating that I want to keep my mind and body totally focused on what I hear. If I get up and dance, I feel distracted from the actual pleasure of letting the music seep through me.

Seth’s vision when he started to play was to form a traditional Tango orchestra that would recapture the sound and feel of the Golden Era of Tango. I’m not sure if such a thing could ever be accomplished since we don’t really know what it was like during that time. In an interview from 2011 which he gave to the San Francisco Tango Marathon he said that “the attitude, tone, phrasing and other subtleties that you hear in the past are unlike the way people play today.” I also think we don’t know how the audience responded to the way the orchestras played and, as a result, how the interaction between the musicians and the dancers unfolded on stage. I believe that dancers in Buenos Aires in the 1940s must have responded quite differently to the music they heard than do we in the United States in the twenty-first century. And similarly, the musicians’ performance was probably quite a bit different from what we think the original orchestras sounded like, despite the efforts of groups like Sexteto to sound authentic.

There is nothing wrong with that though, I think. Each live performance is different, and depends largely on the give-and-take between performers and their audience. Consequently I’m not sure that when I listen to Sexteto that I hear exactly what an orchestra from the Golden Era of Tango sounded like. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a great pleasure to hear a group of highly accomplished musicians play together, all of whom have had musical training and all of whom play for the love of Tango.

With individual milongas being less crowded now than a few years ago, it is certainly not a good way to make a living. “There are so many events going on now in the Bay Area,” says Seth, “that you don’t see as many people at any given milonga as before. People have many more choices. And add that to the fact that after the crash things have never gotten back to where they were before.”

Seth is at this point the only professional full-time musician of the group. He is the one who selects and arranges the pieces. When we recently talked at the Verdi Club I was surprised to learn that they only rehearse together once a month. “Everybody has a daytime job,” he explains, “and it’s difficult to find the time to get together.” He himself, however, has a regular gig every week with Marcelo Puig at The Seahorse in Sausalito. Here he gets a chance to really shine. With him on the bandoneon and Marcelo on guitar, this is probably the most refined and authentic sounding live Tango music that can be heard in the Bay Area. And here again, I just want to sit and listen. I still don’t know that much about the music, the famous composers, or the pieces. But if I’ve learned anything about Tango music, it is to listen with my heart — thanks to musicians like Seth.

The full interview with Seth Asarnow for the ‘San Francisco Tango Marathon’ can be found here: http://www.sftangomarathon.com/#!seth-asarnov-sexteto/clg1

For more information about local Tango orchestras in the San Francisco Bay Area see: http://sflovestango.com/live-tango-music/

125 Years of Tango

National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs

National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs

In the northeastern part of New York State, a three and a half hour drive north of New York City and about halfway to the Canadian border, is Saratoga Springs. Once a popular health resort for the upper class with natural springs and expensive spas, it is nowadays still famous for its world-class horse races which draw a different kind of crowd to this distinguished town every summer, causing the locals to leave their lavish mansions as a playground to the moneyed aristocracy where they can relax after an exciting day at the race track and indulge in the comfort of an old world style atmosphere.

What many people don’t know is that Saratoga Springs is also the home of the National Museum of Dance. It is located in a historic building formerly known as the Washington Bathhouse in Saratoga Spa State Park, just outside town. The neo-classic building houses a substantial archive of photographs, videos, costumes and other artifacts, and in its galleries are three permanent exhibits on display as well as yearly rotating exhibits.

The most recent one is dedicated to Argentine Tango and it is called “125 years of Tango – A Walk through the History of the Dance”. The show is unique and the first of its kind in the world. It includes beautifully displayed memorabilia of famous Tango dancers: their shoes, costumes and various hats worn during performances, together with historic film clips and music recordings. It is arranged in a comprehensive and chronological order, guiding the visitor through more than a century of Tango with lots of inside knowledge and an interesting narration. It starts with early black and white photographs from the end of the 19th century in Argentina when men were practicing the then new dance on the streets and in the fields. It goes on to explain how Tango swept over to Europe and Paris where it became a sensation and then returned to Buenos Aires to finally establish itself as the embodiment of Argentinian dance. The evolution of Tango music is well documented from its early days, through what is now known as the “Golden Age” of the 1930s and 1940s, up to the so-called “Nuevo Tango”, high-lighted by clips of the composer and bandeón player, Astor Piazzolla, who was active during the second part of the 20th century.

Some of the most influential composers and Tango orchestras can be seen and heard in rare video clips where visitors also get the opportunity to watch some of the greatest Tango dancers of all time. One of these is a performance by Maria Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes from the 1960s; another is taken from a formerly popular Argentine TV show, a third depicts dancer Anton Gazenbeek practicing Tango with a stick.

The exhibition explains nicely how Tango started as a dance born on the streets of Buenos Aires with working class men often dancing with men for lack of women, and then how after conquering the salons of the upper class it became a national phenomenon, only to fall into a Dark Age after the ousting of General Péron in the 1950s before achieving a renaissance and conquering the world again in the 1980s — largely through the world-wide success of the hugely popular show “Forever Tango”.

It goes into further detail by emphasizing the relevance of fashion in Tango. At the turn of the last century, when women generally wore long dresses and as a result had to take small steps, the so-called milonguero style was the way to dance Tango. When the hemline rose and women started to reveal first ankles and then knees, eventually wearing mini dresses in the 1960s, it became possible for women to take longer steps which soon led to the style known as “Tango de Salon”. Another example is the so-called “Harem” outfit of the 1920s which became a milestone in Tango fashion and is still dominant in today’s Tango fashion. A number of beautiful costumes from that era are on display.

The exhibition at the Museum of Dance was put together by the owner of this special collection himself: Anton Gazenbeek, a renowned dancer and celebrated performer in the world of Tango. Anton started collecting Tango memorabilia more than twenty years ago when he first became interested in Tango and fell in love with it.

“Most of the items I collected during the time when I lived and studied Tango in Buenos Aires,” he says. “I was looking for the really old stars of Tango: the ones who didn’t perform or teach anymore or didn’t even dance anymore. I wanted to learn to dance from them, and so I tried to find them.” What began as an innocent search by an aspiring young Tango dancer from the United States developed into unexpected connections and friendships. “When I managed to get hold of some of these people, they at first would only agree to talk to me for one hour,” Anton remembers. “Then we started to talk. Eight hours later I would leave their apartments having learned a few steps from them which they all of a sudden remembered.” Along with having learned a new step or two, Anton would also leave with countless stories of the past and usually an unexpected piece of memorabilia. “They would say, ‘Wait a minute, I think I still have this piece that I was wearing for that show, let me find it!’ And they would start digging in their closets, which hadn’t been opened in years, and bring out a hat or a pair of shoes and give it to me.” Anton gratefully took each piece and so started a sizeable collection. “I thought it would be better to show these pieces to the world instead of them ending up in a pile of garbage one day,” he says.

Not only has he assembled many of these items into a neat and respectable exhibition, he also has so much more film and audio material at his home that he is planning to create an interactive website where these clips could be played. “It’s another major project,” he says, “but I’m determined to make all this material accessible and to show it to the world.”

Until this next major project becomes reality, Tango aficionados who happen to be in the area of New York should check out “125 Years of Tango”. The exhibit is on display at the Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs until spring 2016. It’s worth a trip from the Big Apple.

For information about the exhibit see http://www.antontango.net/#!tango-exhibit

For museum information see http://www.dancemuseum.org/exhibits/

Step, step, trip …

“Are you trying to make me extra nervous?” She is standing in line to sign up for her very first Tango lesson. My sudden appearance seems to add to her agitation. We had been talking about this for months — and now Yvette was going to learn Tango!

Recently retired, energetic, fit, single, sociable, and a music lover, I had thought it was a great idea. For the past two years, ever since she moved in next door, she had seen me night after night leaving the house, dressed up and high-heeled, setting out for my next Tango adventure, attending classes and milongas around the Bay Area, enjoying dancing, and meeting new people. She became curious, asked me what it was like, and finally decided that she wanted to learn Tango herself.

But curious as she was, she also seemed a bit uncertain about joining a new community and taking up something as new as Tango. She came up with one excuse after another. And then there were other concerns, such as: “What should I wear? Should I lose some weight?” – “Don’t worry,” I assured her, “you’re not going to a beauty contest. Wear something nice and comfortable that allows you to move your legs.” I sighed to myself, women are so difficult! Apparently it was true, just as men in Tango had been telling me. I almost expected her to say that the class would interfere with her favorite program on TV and that therefore she wasn’t able to make it. Fortunately, it turned out that the popular show, Death in Paradise, was on Wednesday nights, and with that last obstacle removed, we got going.

Here she finally was. After weeks of agonizing where and when she should take her first lesson I had decided it should be Nora’s and Ed’s beginners’ class at the Allegro Ballroom. It seemed to be the easiest place to get her started: only a ten minute drive from where we both live, a convenient time — not too early and not too late on a Tuesday evening — excellent teachers, and a very friendly group of students of different ages. No more excuses, I had thought, this is a good place to get her rolling!

I introduce her to the instructor, Ed, who that night teaches the class without Nora — “It’s her birthday today and I told her to take some time off,” he explains — and who, after learning that this was my friend’s very first Tango lesson, kindly promises to take extra care of her. He lines up the group of students and begins with basic walking exercises: “Right, left, right, left,” in time to the music. Yvette gets into the last row and follows along. I watch her proudly. She’s standing up straight, and staying on the beat. So far, so good. When the group reaches the big mirror at the opposite end of the dance floor, Ed has them walk backwards. I see my friend getting confused for the first time, quickly glancing to the other students for a clue. Should she start on the left or on the right foot? Walking backwards without somebody to hold on to is not as easy as walking forward. She hops from one foot to another, then falls into step with the group. When Ed raises his arms to Tango position, Yvette gets confused again — left arm up or right arm up? Ed watches in the mirror as his new pupil struggles, then turns around and comes up to her to explain: “Right arm up for the follower — imagine yourself with a partner!” Ah, okay, but of course! After explaining the importance of keeping the heels together, he splits the group into leaders and followers. “Everybody, please take a partner!” For a second, I can see her shrinking. And I can see what’s going on in her mind: How do I find a partner? What if nobody wants to dance with me? What if I’m the only one left out? I know that feeling of incompetence that keeps creeping up in such situations, of not being wanted, of being the oddball in the group. For someone completely new to a dance class, this can be the moment when they experience personal failure and decide never to come back. I hold my breath. My friend is not shy, but what is she going to do if she doesn’t find a partner?

Fortunately it’s a friendly class, and one of the men walks up to her and asks if she wants to be his partner for the first couple exercise: the ‘eight-count step with salida’. I breathe a slight sigh of relief; another hurdle overcome. I really want her to like this class and get into Tango!

Being passionate about this dance always makes me want to share my wonderful experiences with other people. But over time, of course, it’s easy to forget the struggles involved at the beginning: the disappointments and the setbacks. Now, watching my friend in her first class, I’m reminded that it hasn’t always been easy even for me to continue to learn and improve.

Ed is building up the basic exercises into small patterns and figures. Here and there he emphasizes particular techniques. I can see that it’s becoming too much information for my friend to absorb. She is wrestling with her partners, getting tense. After half an hour of the class, she walks over to me and sits down. “I love it!” she exclaims. “But it’s getting complicated. And my leg hurts.” Ed comes over from the dance floor, shaking his finger. “I only teach for one hour,” he jokes, “there’s no time to sit down.” He takes her gently into an embrace, gets her to relax, adjusts her posture, shows her how to cross, and how to step. I’m beginning to have doubts. Is she still going to like it in another half hour from now? It’s a lot of learning and absorbing.

She is not easily defeated. “I’m going to take some privates,” she decides, “then I’ll join this class again and I’ll be up to speed!” Yes, right, I’m thinking to myself. How can I explain that it takes time and lots of practicing to learn Tango? I don’t want to disagree with her, but I also don’t want to discourage her. How can I convince her to continue taking group classes and to practice as much as possible? I’m looking for some backup from some of the advanced students who are beginning to arrive  for the next class. Randall walks in and I introduce him to Yvette. “Do you remember when you started Tango?” I ask him, hoping for some support. “Yes, it was horrible,” he exclaims. “Just horrible! It took me three years to get the basics and even longer to go to a milonga!” Not very encouraging. I can see Yvette’s face darkening and I’m sure she has definitely lost interest.

Will she be back or not? I don’t know, since I’ve been out of town for the past week and haven’t been in touch. Has anybody seen her in class? Did I succeed in getting someone new into Tango?

— to be continued…