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.

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Teaching Liam Neeson

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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.

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The El V Story

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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.

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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.

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Tango with an Ice Champion

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Life after Winning the Title

Nicholas Tapia and Stephanie Berg won the Official Argentine Tango USA Championship in 2014 in the Salon Tango, or ‘Tango de Pista’, category — the highest regarded category of this prestigious tango contest. The Bay Area couple had met only two years before and had quickly decided to team up. The winning title of the Tango USA Championship got them on the way to the Tango Mundial in Buenos Aires that same summer where they represented the USA to compete against numerous outstanding dancers from all over the world. Nicholas and Stephanie came in fifty-eighth — a very respectable result given that no couple from the USA has ever won a title. Last year they competed at the Tango Mundial again, not as representatives of the USA, but on their own. Once again they made it to the semifinals, but not all the way to the top. This year, they decided not to participate in the Tango Mundial, but instead to focus on building up their own dance studio and a new life near Phoenix, Arizona. After several attempts to schedule an interview with this busy and bustling couple, I finally managed to talk to them while they were driving to their new studio.

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Ambassadors of Tango

When Beatrice walked with Terence into the big foyer of San Francisco’s de Young Museum on a Friday evening earlier this summer, a hundred and fifty people were waiting in their chairs. Baffled, she turned towards the museum’s public programs director, Renée Baldocchi, and asked her: “They are waiting to watch us teach, right?”

“Yes, they are waiting for you to teach the lesson because they want to participate!” was Baldocchi’s response. For a moment, Bea gasped. This was far beyond what she had expected for their first tango lesson at the museum. What was supposed to be an experiment — teaching a beginners’ lesson of Argentine tango at one of San Francisco’s most prestigious museums — had triggered an unexpected and overwhelming response.

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