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…


Tango at a Golden Age


On this Friday, Waverly is taking his first ‘real’ Tango class. We’re at the Senior Center in Emeryville, CA, where Ivan Shvarts is teaching a class with basic steps and exercises. Most of his students are in their sixties and seventies, some in their eighties and even nineties. Some of them have danced for a long time and now want to learn Argentine Tango, others have no dance experience at all. Some of them come as couples, others come by themselves. Ivan makes sure everybody teams up in his class and that nobody is left without a partner. However, somehow he can’t convince Waverly to take a partner. Waverly wants to learn on his own throughout the class. “I’d be fearful for my partner,” he explains to me. “I might lose my balance and cause her to fall.” From a distance, he watches Ivan and practices by himself what he sees. He appears to be amazingly light on his feet and at the same time centered from the core, his earlier dance training clearly showing through. His teacher is thrilled. “You have to come over and talk to this guy!” Ivan exclaims to me. “You wouldn’t believe it – he is just recovering from a major stroke!”

Waverly Jenkins was 64 years old when he suffered a severe stroke. Back then, about 4 years ago, he collapsed in his home in Washington, D.C., and lay helplessly on the floor for several days. He couldn’t get up, he couldn’t walk. Half of his body was paralyzed. It took him 2 days to make his way across the floor to the phone to call his friends back home in Berkeley. But what Waverly had not realized up to that moment was that he had also lost his ability to speak. His friends were unable to understand what he was trying to say. All he could do was mumble in an incomprehensible way; he was no longer able to form words with his mouth. He had lost control over his speech. His friends 3,000 miles away realized something was very wrong and called an ambulance. He was taken to the hospital where he stayed for 35 days, receiving in-patient treatment.

From then on it was a long and steep journey through recovery. He had to learn to walk and to talk, to eat, to dress and to move around by himself. But his prognosis was good because of what he had learned in his younger years. “I was designated a ‘recovery case’,” he says, “because I was trained in ballet and Afro-Jazz when I was in my twenties. Later I trained in martial arts and received a black belt.” For his medical team that meant that Waverly’s body was able to draw on what it had learned in his younger years and that he would be able to recover from the damage the stroke had caused. They also told him that Tango was a good way to learn walking. It struck the right chord with him. He had always wanted to learn to dance Tango, and now Tango could help him to recover. What an incentive to work even harder on his prescribed therapy! “I knew the steps because I had watched a lot of Tango on YouTube,” he explains. “So when my medical team watched me walking in a walker, they didn’t know that in my mind I was actually dancing Tango.”

For Ivan Shvarts, stories like Waverly Jenkins’ should no longer come as a surprise. He’s been teaching Argentine Tango to people ranging from 50-somethings to 90-somethings since 2009 and has seen many of them go through major transformations, both physically and mentally. Some of them had been using walkers or other walking aids for years, but learned to move without them after taking up Tango. He shows me a video from one of his students at the Veterans Memorial Senior Center in San Francisco. “This 93-year old lady is one of my favorite students,” he says proudly. I’m watching a tall, well-maintained lady as she moves around the room with her walker, but who then follows Ivan to the dance floor, leaving the walker behind. She enters his embrace and begins to move rhythmically to the music, a big smile on her face.

On another video, he shows me Mr. Way, a relatively new student who is at the same time the oldest one in his classes. At 104, Mr. Way appears surprisingly agile and shows a fine sense of humor. As an American citizen who was born in Japan, he says that “they cannot decide whether I’m 104 or 100 years old. But it doesn’t matter to me!” Learning to dance a complex dance like Tango seems like just another thing to learn that he’s curious about. “I’ve been dancing for 30 years,” he explains, “but mostly Swing.” He delivers a touching little performance with his partner for the camera — proof that Argentine Tango can be danced at any age. His steps may be small and his repertoire still limited, but he dances with his heart and soul to the music and with perfect phrasing, providing the perfect frame for his partner.

Why do people come here and what are the benefits of learning Tango, even at an older age? “It gives me more flexibility”, says Irina who is one of Ivan’s Tango students and practices with her partner Derrick 3 times per week. She also does Yoga and goes regularly to the gym. Because of Tango her body now has the flexibility that she wasn’t able to achieve through any of the other exercises. “It’s so important to stay flexible as we get older,” she says. As our muscles tighten and our body shows symptoms of aches and pains that we didn’t have in our younger years, Tango can help to stay fit even at an old age.

“People get healthier and happier,” says Ivan. “I’ve been watching my older students go through tremendous transformations.” As their overall health keeps getting better, they are also beginning to have a social life that many of them were missing in previous years. Being surrounded by other Tango aficionados once a week and learning to pay attention to the way they move, they also start paying more attention to their appearance. It goes without saying that they show up for class carefully groomed and put together. “It’s so much fun to see some of the ladies digging for clothes in their closets from the 1950’s,” Ivan says, “and then getting dressed up for our milongas!”

His own mother was a passionate Tango and ballroom dancer for most of her life. After she died in 2000 at the age of 91, Ivan found a note at her bedside. She had written that she wanted him to learn to dance Tango. “She died in the afternoon,” he says, “and the next day I took my first Tango class.” He fell in love with it, traveled to Buenos Aires, took classes with some of the most famous teachers, and began teaching seniors himself after moving to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 2007. His classes gradually grew from 6 to 30 students, and now with three classes per week plus a milonga every Sunday he is quite busy. His senior Tango program which, as he says, benefits seniors and others physically, mentally, and socially, has now become a non-profit organization and offers scholarships for seniors with disabilities. Ivan lovingly named it ‘Golden Age Tango Academy’, a fine reference to the ‘Golden Age of Tango’ from the mid-1930’s to the early 1950’s which produced some of the greatest orchestras and composers, Juan d’Arienzo, Francisco Canaro, and Aníbal Troilo among them.

Ivan has been invited to teach veterans with PTSD at the War Memorial Building in San Francisco. It is a new class which is likely to receive public funding. “I already have a few students with PTSD in my class,” he says. “It is touching to see how Tango transforms them. This one guy has to take a dozen pills or so a day, each one costing around $60, and he lives a totally constrained life. The only time he can socially interact and communicate is during my Tango class once a week.”

There is also a sad perspective to working with older people. Ivan knows of seven of his students who have died over the years. “But I’d like to think that they died happy,” he smiles, “because they danced Tango until the end.”

Image: “Maud was delighted to find she no longer needed her walker.”


Argentine Tango USA: Observations from the sidelines

Pam&MichelleOkay, so the winners have been announced: congratulations to Ivan Troshhi and Yamila Viana from New York — you make the rest of us now look and feel really clumsy on the dance floor, but for the next year we will work hard on that leg extension! Everyone else has to face up to the fact that they didn’t win. Although they had spent countless hours practicing and a fortune on private lessons, shoes, chiropractors, pilates, and dance studios, and had suffered through emotional rollercoasters and self-doubts, fights with their partners, pain in their feet and in their legs and backs, traveled across the country and spent all the money they had initially saved for that trip to the Caribbean, and basically had put the whole rest of their lives on hold it just wasn’t good enough. Or so it seems.

They may have lost a competition, but they are not losers. Not in my opinion. Everybody who is brave enough to step out on that dance floor deserves respect. It takes guts to expose oneself to the critical observation not only of five judges, but also of a thousand people who all have an opinion, and all of whom are dancers and all of whom are human, and all of whom watched the competing couples with a mix of admiration and envy. And, of course, admiration was as much to be heard as mischievous comments. “He is good, but she is not up to his level,” I overheard someone in the audience whispering to his neighbor. “Watch how they are dancing,” someone else mumbled about another couple, “it’s comical!”

I found it particularly embarrassing and sad when a friend told me about the observations of one of our top local couples in the competition, Pamela and Michelle, who by many are regarded as among the best dancers in the Bay Area. The first ever and only same-sex couple in the competition, they couldn’t help but notice some of the disapproving onlookers. Fortunately, they seemed pretty relaxed about the whole event and danced beautifully. In my opinion, they deserve a first prize just for breaking through limits. I hope that we will see them out there again next year, as we have seen some other dancers who have been competing in the ATUSA now for several years in a row. They like the challenge and they love the experience of competing and performing. And even though the disappointment was visible on their faces when they were packing up and heading home, they were determined to compete again the following year.

But there were also others. Like one of my favorite dance partners who was on last year’s winning formation team. “Why aren’t you competing this year?” I asked him. He shook his head vigorously. “Too much work,” he said. “I didn’t have a life for two months!” I was a bit disappointed at his statement, hoping he would build upon his success of the previous year and compete again. He was a good dancer when I met him a few years ago and the hard training for last year’s competition had elevated his skills to an even higher level. But I understand. Having competed in ballroom competitions on both national and international levels for years, I know what it is like. You don’t have a life. Period.

As for the couple who became champions — Ivan and Yamila — and who are now moving on to compete in the international Argentine Tango competition in Buenos Aires this summer, it seemed to me that they wouldn’t have been destroyed had they not won. They seemed to have a good time regardless of the pressure, and appeared to have enjoyed the whole event, with she laughing and smiling throughout their performances, and both of them appearing quite relaxed. I think that’s the attitude that we want to see. It’s just dancing after all.

Foto by Mary Gulick

A house filled with tango

The moon shines in a dark blue sky over the San Francisco Bay. From the top of the hill I can see a million lights shimmering and reflecting in the water. As I stroll down the steep and windy road, past lush gardens hiding comfortable homes, I can hear tango music softly drifting through the air. On this balmy night, the doors from the dance floor to the terrace are open. There is the faint sound of subdued talk and laughter. As I approach the tall, multi-level house and begin to climb the steep staircase, the sounds become more distinct. I’m climbing up two, then three flights, catching my breath before approaching the last one, until at last there I am. I’m gazing at a several dozen dancers swirling around the floor and, on one side of the large room an enormous buffet bearing an overwhelming amount of delicacies. It is Friday night and a wonderful event has just begun.

The party is a by-invitation-only milonga, hosted by Sandra Kistler and Gregory White at their exquisite home in the Oakland Hills. It started about two years ago after the couple had met and decided to open the vast space of Sandra’s house to the tango community. Their aim was to create a monthly event in the tradition of a European-style salon. “We found that a lot of people in tango don’t actually know who they are dancing with,” says Greg, “unless they already are good friends.” Add to this the fact that people don’t get together for big dinners — and the idea was born for the “houseTango”. They started to invite a number of dancers from the community for “dinner and dance” on one Friday of the month. It immediately drew not just their friends, but also a large number of tango aficionados from the Bay Area tango community. The intimate setting of a milonga at their private home — which presents itself as the perfect space for entertainment with a large dance floor, elevated stage area for musicians, a grand piano, and spectacular views of the Bay — was an immediate attraction, just as were the culinary delights.

In the beginning Greg himself volunteered as the chef, preparing an enormous amount of paella, with friends bringing appetizers, desserts, and drinks to complete the buffet. After dinner, people would get up and start to dance. Some of the local tango DJ’s played the tunes for the night. But soon, word spread, and what had started as a small, semi-private event drew more than 80 attendees every month, with people coming from as far away as San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Sacramento, and the North Bay. The couple was getting concerned on how to handle the crowd. They began to ask for a donation, and then proceeded to set a fee to cover their own expenses and to pay for the tango musicians they now had started to hire. “We were hoping that would be a better way of controlling the number of people who would attend. But the contrary happened,” explains Greg, “even more people started showing up!”

And the monthly parties are only one aspect of what has now become a much larger project called “houseTango”. “It is a community of musicians, dancers, teachers, and organizers who are related to Argentine tango,” as Greg formulates it. It includes the monthly milonga, a scholarship for promising tango dancers, and a soon-to-come website for tango dancers.

“How does the scholarship work?” I want to know. Greg explains that both he and Sandra pick an aspiring young tango dancer: somebody who is talented, and they support him or her. This month’s scholarship was awarded to Dina Zarif, a young vocal talent and beginning tango dancer who sang to piano accompaniment during the salon at the house. Sandra Kistler had acquired on behalf of “houseTango” the scholarship for Dina in the form a full-day festival pass for the upcoming Official USA Argentine Tango Championship. The certificate was presented by Andrea Monti, the organizer of the Tango Festival.

But there is a lot more to come. The next goal for “houseTango” is a comprehensive website which, according to Greg, is going to be not only an improvement of the long-existing and popular TangoMango site but also a social media site for tango dancers. People will be able to create their own profiles, post news about themselves, and search for tango events. “The site will be geo-mapped”, explains Greg, “so people can find their way conveniently to events nearby or far away.” They should also be able to see which of their friends are attending which event at any particular day, thereby making it easier to connect with their favorite dance partners. The site will have different sections for social dancers and professionals, organizers and performers. There will also be tickets for tango events on sale. “We want to make it a common marketplace for tango dancers”, says Greg, “where people can find everything without having to browse the web.” The site has its own domain name: and is already in its beta version.

And there are more plans for “houseTango”. A separate apartment in their private home will be reserved and rented for a special monthly rent to tango dancers who qualify for a scholarship. There are plans for using part of the space for yoga or pilates classes, art exhibitions and practicas. But this may not happen for a while. For now, the couple has its hands full by organizing and hosting the much beloved monthly parties at their home. “It takes weeks to prepare for each event”, says Greg, “and it always takes us a couple of days to recover afterwards.” He says it with a smile on his face though. And I can tell that they both love it, especially Sandra who glows with excitement every month as she opens the doors to her house: “That’s what this house is for”, she told me one evening as the crowd had taken over her kitchen, dance floor, the lounge area upstairs and the terraces, and all the sofas and chairs had been taken by her guests while she herself was sitting on the stairs to rest her feet for a moment, “it’s supposed to be filled with life and dance and people having a good time.”

Preparing for the Argentine Tango USA Championship 2015

Preparing for the Argentine Tango USA Championship 2015

It is Thursday evening and Andrea Monti walks in to a popular Milonga in San Francisco. She just returned from a trip to New York where she was promoting the “Argentine Tango USA Official Festival & Championship 2015” which starts on April 2 in San Francisco. Prior to her New York trip she traveled to Los Angeles, also promoting the Festival, giving interviews about the four-day event on local and national radio and television stations, the biggest and most important of them being CBS. As a matter of fact, she says, ever since CBS discovered that an official branch of the Argentine Tango Championship takes place in San Francisco, they have been eager to report about it.

Andrea Monti brought the event to the United States in 2011 and has been its main organizer ever since. Now, in its fifth year, the media is beginning to take notice and approaches her. “CBS even sent a television team to the Festival and Dance World Cup in Buenos Aires to follow the couple that had won the US Championship”, she says proudly. Winning the National US Championship is the ticket for competing at the World Tango Dance Tournament or “Campeonato Mundial de Baile de Tango”, better known as “Mundial del Tango”. That’s where the world’s best Tango dancers are competing against each other over the course of a 2-week dance marathon. Its US preliminary is still young and happens on a much smaller scale, but thanks to Andrea Monti’s tireless work it has gained respect in the Tango world of Argentina.

Seemingly tired, but passionate about the upcoming four-day event nevertheless, Andrea talks about how the Competition and the Festival, which comes along with a number of workshops and nightly Milongas, has completely taken over her life. “It’s like having a baby”, she says. “It stops everything else in your life.”

Both she and her partner at the time, Hugo “Gato” Valdéz, had the idea of bringing the Argentine Tango Championship to the United States a few years ago. They had been performing, choreographing and teaching Tango for 15 years and saw how Argentine Tango was growing in popularity in the States. Andrea had also been working for the Argentina Tango Association and served twice as a judge on the panel of the World Championship in Buenos Aires. “A very exhausting experience!” she exclaims. “The judges are evaluating 500 couples. And all of them are dancing on a very, very high level. You have ten couples to judge over the course of three songs, take notes and score them.” It adds up to 45 hours of very intense work.

But this was nothing in comparison to what she saw herself confronted with once she began to investigate the so-called “canon”, the Tango Associations’ rules and regulations for becoming the official preliminary and holding the Official Argentine Tango Competition in the US. “The Association controls everything”, Andrea explains. “From the specific kind of venue at which the competition has to be held to the fact that the teachers who train the dancers are not allowed to be on the judging panel – it’s all covered in the canon. We have to pay them for the rights to hold the competition in the US and for an auditor from Buenos Aires to watch over the event.” No wonder, she says, that there are only seven official branches of the Tango Dance World Cup in the world, Japan, England and Greece being among them. It is a huge undertaking which is costly both in terms of finances and time. “It costs us about $50,000 to hold the event in San Francisco”, she says. And that is just to cover the expenses. “And I bring work to the teachers”, she says laughingly. “Because so many people are taking private lessons to prepare for the competition.” It keeps her occupied nine to ten months out of the year, and for at least two weeks before the event she stops teaching to focus on the event. And then for two months after the completion, she is busy updating the website and wrapping it up.

She says that having been a dancer and artist it seemed an impossible task for her to become the organizer of an event on such a big scale. “I had to learn a lot”, she says, “about logistics, promotion, finances and how to work with a web designer.” In short, she had to learn to run a business. Fortunately, she was able to recruit a sizeable staff of volunteers, ten of whom have been serving on the organizing committee from the beginning on. Then there are about another 40 volunteers who help during the milongas in the evenings and the workshops during the days. But she is still the person who holds all the strings and serves as the head of all the organization. Consequently, her phone never stops ringing. What is she getting out of it? – “Satisfaction!” she exclaims with a glowing face. “The satisfaction when I see it all coming together is indescribable!”

But there must be disappointments as well? What is it like, I ask her, for the couples who lose, who come in second or third? “The elimination is cruel”, she admits. “There is a lot of drama, because everybody wants to win.” Which is very different from the way dancers compete in the World Cup in Buenos Aires: “The people there come because they want to participate. It’s about becoming a better dancer and of being part of the most important Tango event in the world. But in the US, people compete because the want to win.” Consequently, there is a lot of disappointment when couples are eliminated; there are even arguments with the judges. “That would never happen in Buenos Aires”, Andrea says. “It surprised me at first a lot when dancers started arguing with the judges here in San Francisco!” But she has learned to deal with the unruly behavior of competitors and explains to them that a competition is not always fair. The judges take a brief look of the dancers, then turn to another couple and take notes, during which they are unable to watch what’s happening on the dance floor. That way, of course, they may miss a particularly good step or only see a movement that isn’t as well performed. It’s like taking a snapshot of someone’s dancing. It can never be the complete picture of someone’s dancing skills.

Nevertheless, for this year’s Competition, 36 couples have registered for the Salon Tango category and 15 for the Stage Tango category. So far, Andrea Monti is counting on the attendance of 1,000 to 1,200 dancers, workshop attendees and spectators over the course of the 4-day event, similar to previous years. We will be curious to see who the winner is.

Hello Tango World!

This is my very first Tango post. I’m very excited! My plan is to write a new story every week about what’s interesting in the Tango world. I want this blog to be different. I hope it’s going to be interesting enough for you to come back and read every single story. Tango is a mini cosmos filled with music, dance, personal drama, passion, sadness, adventure, change. You find people of all ages, all social backgrounds, all races and all political view points. They come together because they have one thing in common: Their fascination with Tango! I hope that my blog will attract both Tango aficionados and people who know nothing about Tango. We are not as weird or different as you may think! And even if you never get into it, if you never learn the dance or never even like the music, I hope you will continue to read! And please feel free to send me your suggestions about what you may think is worth blogging about in Tango! Hope to see you around a lot!