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.

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