Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 5

Karina Romero, New York City: tango teacher and organizer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

 

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Part 7

Brigitta Winkler, Berlin / New York: tango teacher & choreographer

Brigitta Winkler
Brigitta Winkler and her typical tango stilettos
Photo by Astrid Weiske

Brigitta Winkler, originally from Germany, is a tango globetrotter. She became involved with Argentine tango in 1980, at a time when tango was little known and not popular even in Argentina. When she first came to Buenos Aires in 1984 the Argentines couldn’t relate to her tango enthusiasm. She still went ahead to become a tango teacher, developing her own teaching method by incorporating body-mind centering and eventually turning into a highly sought-after authority. A great acknowledgement, given that the petite German broke all conventions of traditional Argentine tango. I took a workshop with her once in San Francisco, about nine or ten years ago, and was fascinated by her focus on how she incorporated basic movement into tango. I followed her on social media, but somehow we kept being in different parts of the world. When I finally met her again last February at Vecher Milonga at the Russian Center in San Francisco, she remembered me from back then. I was impressed by her memory. She was visiting San Francisco briefly on her way to a two-month stay in Hawaii. I wondered if she had become stuck on the islands and contacted her to find out how she was doing. Surprise – she was in Berlin!

After Brigitta Winkler’s abrupt return from Hawaii to her home in Berlin jetlag hit her. She had been traveling with her husband for three days.

A few days before, back in their vacation home in Hawaii, her husband had been on the phone for six hours. When he was finally able to contact the airline they arranged a complicated journey from Hawaii via Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and finally back to Berlin, Germany. Without wasting any time they packed up and left. Everything went smoothly, and to their surprise even the usual security procedures at Los Angeles Airport were lax. The scary moment came when they arrived in New York. “We were not allowed to leave the plane,” she recalls. Instead, police came on board. They then learned that one of the passengers had developed a respiratory issue during the flight and was taken of the plane. The remainder of the passengers had to remain on board, and uneasy feelings kept growing. It took one long hour until they were told to ‘leave the plane swiftly.’

Brigitta usually teaches during February and March in Hawaii, and towards the end of her stay holds a tango retreat. Then she would move on to New York where she would work for a few weeks before returning to Berlin for the spring and summer. This year everything was different. “I saw the crisis coming,” she says, “because I talked a lot with my friends in Italy who warned me.”

She told me about her special connection with Italy, particularly in the regions of Umbria, South Tyrol, and Venice. She has spent much time teaching in these areas every year. From her home in Berlin she told me over the phone how, while in Hawaii, she watched in horror how Italy went from bad to worse. When the country was in full lockdown she and her husband decided it was time to leave.

“It was so unreal, like parallel worlds,” she recalled. “There we were, in a beautiful house in the jungle on Hawaii with a view of the beach.” Meanwhile the rest of the world was falling apart, and she witnessed how friends in Italy went through hell. Even though there were no warnings by officials in Hawaii, she knew she had to cancel her immediate plans. “Hawaii responded very, very late,” she recalls. Understandably so, with much of the islands’ economy depending on tourism.

After all this turmoil and now being forced to stay at home in Berlin, how is she spending her days? First of all, she reminds me, Germany is about to slowly open up. We spoke two days before Germany loosened its restrictions on certain parts of the economy. “There is actually a lot to do,” she said, “mainly on social networks.”

She follows and contributes to several tango and support groups that have popped up since people began sheltering in place. “The isolation is the same for all of us: everybody is at home. We’re all paralyzed,” she states. But out of this isolation there has developed a sense of community spirit.

She tells me that she is trying to further process the basics that she has been teaching for tango, and is reflecting on her own values. “First of all,” she says, “tango is about grounding. And grounding is important right now for all of us to cope with the current situation. Then you should find your balance and keep it. And third, you need to listen. Only then can you take action.”

To help practice her own basics she spends her days outdoors as much as possible, mindful of social distancing. Her home is near the River Spree, where she loves early-mornings walks when only few people are out. She raves about springtime in Berlin, and emphasizes how glad she is that there is a lot of nature in Berlin. Nature gives her a lot: instead of hugging a tango partner, she encourages people to hug a tree, but not — she is quick to add — in the derogatory sense of ‘a tree-hugger’. In that respect she worries a lot about her New York friends: the ones living in small apartments, especially single mothers with children. She keeps in touch with her students back in New York City, and tries to encourage them.

Another positive experience for her is the fact that the Berlin tango community has united and approached the Senate with a petition for financial support. In an astonishingly swift move, the Berlin government has made funds available for artists. She tells me that she submitted her application on a Sunday and received 5,000 Euros ($5470 US) the following Wednesday.

She is also surprised how well fundraisers have been going. There was one fundraiser “that was meant to orchestrate the difference between the USA and Europe and people donated a lot.” Friends of hers have received private sponsoring, some of them as many as fifty privates in advance.

“I think that there is a lot of potential in the current situation,” she says.

She approves the lockdown and records small videos for her students in her studio. She teaches at werk36, a big dance school, that supports local dancers. In return, the dancers keep paying their dues during the crisis to keep werk36 alive. She also has started training again with her partner at the studio, having decided that they feel safe with each other. 

How does she see the future of tango? She thinks that the heart of the milonga — dancing with someone you don’t know — will be gone for a long time. For her, tango is traveling because it’s defining and essential for her life. “We gain different experiences when we travel.”

She thinks that people will continue to need intimacy and to fall in love. That’s what tango is about. She doesn’t think that these values are going to change. Intimacy will be become more valuable; it won’t go away. But the milonga is certainly going to change.

*

Teaching Liam Neeson

MarkFeltjpg
There will be a special tango scene in the upcoming movie “Mark Felt”. Photo: markfeltmovie.com

 

“You have to teach Liam Neeson!” the caller urged her. It was nobody less than Marcos Questas. “He does not know one step!” he continued. Well, an urgent request by Maestro Questas from LA means you don’t think twice!

On the receiving end of the line was Karina Romero, a veteran teacher among the New York Argentine tango community. She was trying to grasp what she had just heard: she had been asked to coach one of Hollywood’s biggest stars for an upcoming movie!

Questas, a sought-after choreographer for film and television (he worked on the Latin Grammy Awards), had a problem. He had been signed as the choreographer for a prominent tango scene in a high-profile spy thriller about the Watergate scandal by Peter Landsmann — Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House. He had already started rehearsing the dance scene with Diane Lane, who plays Liam Neeson’s wife in the movie. But he urgently needed an instructor at the other end of the country in New York, where Neeson lives, to train him for his part. Questas knew about Karina Romero through Carlos Copello, the grand master of tango (Forever Tango, The Tango Lesson, Assassination Tango). Being part of Copello’s circle means being part of an exclusive network of tango professionals who can trust one another.

Continue reading “Teaching Liam Neeson”

The El V Story

ElV-byStanleyWu-1024x683
The last milonga at El Valenciano. Photo by Stanley Wu.

 

“Where did the time go?” asks Julian Ramil, and as they both shake their heads his wife Claudia repeats: “Yes, where did the time go?” We were talking about El V, one of the best-known milongas in San Francisco and beyond, and which was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on May 30th at the very same venue where it started in 1996. However, at the time when I was talking to the Ramils in early April, El V was about to close its doors forever. It looked like the much anticipated 20th anniversary celebration was not going to happen. The proprietor of El Valenciano, the restaurant/bar/dance club which had served as the venue of this popular tango social, had decided to sell the business. The Ramils, together with other long-time tenants of the dance club, had received notice about the termination of their lease, that very afternoon of the last milonga. This meant they had to break the news to both the local and the wider tango community — and find a new venue quickly.

Continue reading “The El V Story”

Fort Bragg — Buenos Aires del Norte

Beach by Fort Bragg
For some quiet time after tango: the beaches by Fort Bragg.

On a recent flight from the East Coast to California I was sitting next to a top commander of the Coast Guard West Coast. He engaged me in a long and lively conversation about assignments that have taken him around the world, and how he and his wife — a modern and tap dancer — enjoy traveling and exploring. When I told him how my tango dancing has taken me to various places, a surprised look came over his face and he told me how they had just stumbled upon a ‘tango house’ in the middle of nowhere, on a trip up the Pacific coast to Fort — he couldn’t remember the rest of the name, so I finished it for him — Fort Bragg, the Weller House Inn.

He looked even more surprised. Most of my tango friends in the Bay Area have been to the Weller House, I explained. Indeed, I might be the only member of the entire tango community between Portland and Los Angeles who has not been to a tango event at this historic mansion. The tango world is small, I went on coolly, news spreads quickly and tango people travel far to explore exotic and fun places.

But inwardly I cringed, scolding myself for still not having been there.

Continue reading “Fort Bragg — Buenos Aires del Norte”

Tango with an Ice Champion

Skater
Evelyn Meier as a young ice skater

Since getting into Argentine tango I’ve met some pretty interesting people. People whom I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and whose fascinating stories I would have never known. And I don’t even mean the professionals — the teachers and performers who stand out anyway, and whose lives seem to be so much more interesting than those of us ‘regular folks’ with jobs and families and mortgages and so on. No, I’ve met some really interesting people among the social dancing crowd. People who one day trust you enough so they begin to reveal their own personal history, which is sometimes permeated with deep personal tragedy — or, quite the opposite, with some really thrilling life experiences — so that you inadvertently shout out ‘Wow!’ in the middle of the dance floor. People who, through their own unique experiences, have gained a particular perspective on life which reflects on how they perceive tango.

One of these is a resolute petite lady called Evelina by her tango friends, but whose real name is Evelyn Meier (which already reveals her background: Swiss-German). I picked her out of this group of special characters whom I’ve gotten to know over time because with her eighty-something years she never ceases to surprise me, often makes me chuckle, and has become a kind of a role model for me as a furiously independent lady, an astonishingly versatile and technically proficient tango and ballroom dancer, and as a meticulous observer and instructor. I also admire her creative mind and great crafting skills, which she uses artfully to provide the décor for more tango events than you can imagine.

Continue reading “Tango with an Ice Champion”

Like an avalanche

Orquesta Típica rehearsal
Ramiro Gallo directing students of an Orquesta Típica

When, a few weeks from now in the heat of the South American summer, the lights go up in the Centro Cultural Kirchner in Buenos Aires, one of the most unique music competitions will begin: the first ever International Contest for New Tango Ensembles. Ten out of an initial fifty-five orchestras from nine different countries will enter the stage of the CCK — the biggest cultural center in Latin America — to compete as finalists in a musical genre which, until not too long ago, has been seen as a thing of the past. It will be the grand finale of a week-long gathering of tango musicians who will have participated in a study program called Tango Para Músicos.

Musicians from all over the world are expected to attend six days packed with learning and playing tango. Tango Para Músicos will offer these aficionados a broad variety of classes where they will have a chance to study with some of the masters of modern tango, such as bandoneon instructor Eva Wolff, tango singing-instructor Noelia Moncada, and Exequiel Mantega who teaches orchestration. Participants can choose from eighty modules of instrument classes and fifty modular classes for arrangement, composition, production, musical training, and more. The classes are open to basically all instruments, including vibraphone, clarinet, saxophone, and, of course, all string instruments. In past years even two ukuleles have participated. Drums, on the other hand, have not been part of the course (yet). The public is invited to attend free nightly concerts, milongas, and practicas.

The ‘icing on the cake’, however, is certainly going to be the above-mentioned and much-anticipated International Contest for New Tango Ensembles.

Continue reading “Like an avalanche”

An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York

In the summer of 2015 I attended a concert in Berkeley, CA, given by a young and fairly unknown tango group from Buenos Aires, Orquesta Victoria. The music they performed that night at Berkeley’s well-known performance venue, Freight and Salvage, struck me as unusual and fascinating. It had a strong message and was delivered with the kind of verve that comes from deep down inside. It was not your usual Argentine tango music. There were a few performances by local professional dancers, but their dancing just underlined the message of the music and was almost a distraction from the band’s performance. The orchestra had just arrived from Argentina on their first tour in the USA to promote an album that they had recorded by San Francisco composer, Debora Simcovich.

Continue reading “An Argentine Tango Orchestra in Upstate New York”

The Tango Barn

I love dancing at unusual places. Over the years I’ve been to a number of venues that seemed unlikely settings for social dance events such as milongas, but which later turned out to be the best and most memorable ones.

Such was the case when I was first told about what sounded like ‘Moolonga’ in Washington County, New York. My initial thought was they must have made a mistake! I understand these people live in the country, but they must know that it is called ‘milonga’. “No, no,” I was assured, “you’ve heard it right, we’re calling it ‘MOO-longa’ precisely because we do live in cow country,” explains Fred Luckey, dryly.

Continue reading “The Tango Barn”