As the days grow longer and things altogether seem to be a little more hopeful, I’m starting to make plans to return to my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. This past year I’ve been seeking shelter from crowded Oakland in upstate New York. With more space around me, it seemed a safer place to get through this terrible pandemic. With the luxury of having two homes on different coasts, in the lively years before the pandemic hit, I had the opportunity to get to know two completely different tango communities: one very large and active with different events happening every single day of the week together with many high-profile teachers competing with each other, and the other one being a rather small and more dispersed community with only a handful of local tango teachers who also teach ballroom or salsa or at local schools to make a living.
I’ve been wondering what it is like for tango teachers in these very different environments to live and work, and what it has been like to get through this pandemic? I therefore spoke last year to one couple in the Bay Area — Felipe Martinez and Ayano Yoneda — and another couple in the Hudson Valley — Maia Martinez (no relation to Felipe) and David Salvatierra. Some of you may remember their stories. Felipe and Ayano had retreated to their home in Oakland, not too concerned about their future, confident that tango was eventually going to come back. Maia and David, in the hamlet of Rosendale in the Catskill Mountains, felt lucky to have a comfortable place in the country and to be surrounded by a supportive community.
I recently followed up with both couples.
Felipe & Ayano
Back in California, Felipe and Ayano are still their same cheerful selves. For almost all last year they have been working together on Ayano’s tango poetry project: an hour-long online session where she introduces tango music to dancers. She has been hosting this twice a week with great success. For this unusual project she and Felipe have been translating tango songs from Spanish to English. Their list now includes two hundred songs. For Felipe, who is a native Spanish speaker, this has been a challenging task. But for Ayano the translation process has been an even bigger challenge since she speaks English as a second language having learned Spanish as a third language! A look at their new website — https://www.tangopoetryproject.com/ — which they created specifically for this project shows that they have mastered the translations beautifully.
After years of teaching tango dancing they felt the need to bring a different aspect of tango closer to their students. The continuing restrictions of the pandemic opened a new window of opportunity to work on tango lyrics. It goes without saying that any dancer can express him- or herself much better if he or she can relate to the music and its lyrics. This doesn’t mean that tango songs have not been translated before, but most of these songs are not known by dancers. “There is no such project anywhere and we felt the need to translate songs for dancers,” they explain. Since Felipe and Ayano are also much sought after as tango DJs they have been able to focus on their own large repertoire.
When I reach them, it is two p.m. California time but still early in the morning for them. They are both in their kitchen and Ayano is just sipping a cup of coffee. “We’re still on milonga time,” Felipe says apologetically. He is busy preparing a complicated cake from scratch while we talk, and says he enjoys baking a lot these days. They have both been cooking exclusively at home and eating healthily since last March — something they hadn’t been able to do enough while traveling so much for so many years.
When I ask them if they are still dancing they both firmly say no, but then explain: “We have tango in our lives all the time.” Aside from translating tango poetry they co-host an online-milonga on the fourth Sunday of each month together with other tango hosts from Portland. They also watch videos and listen to their vinyl collection. “We are surrounded by tango all the time,” they say, so no, they are not afraid of getting rusty because they are convinced that ‘tango is a feeling that doesn’t go away’. Admittedly, Felipe suffers from a lack of movement, but says he doesn’t necessarily attribute it to the lack of actually dancing tango.
They put the tango-poetry project on pause during January, but are going to resume in early February. Felipe and Ayano have thereby found a new purpose during the Covid crisis. They seem to be fine both emotionally and financially. I’m happy for both of them.
* * *
Maia & David
I see Maia in class once a week at the Center for Creative Education in Kingston, NY. Together with David she began teaching in-person classes there again last October. Students had to take a temperature check, wear masks, and were spaced far apart in the studio. In the beginning there was a single technique class where each student worked individually on various exercises. For a while afterwards another kind of ‘partner class’ took place in which Maia and David introduced the students to learning with a hula ring: two students would grab the ring — which was repeatedly disinfected — opposite each other. That way partner dancing could be practiced without actually being physically connected. ‘Embracing tango without the embrace’ they called it. I found it a challenging exercise, but also enjoyable. It was the closest I had been able to dance with a partner all last year. “The feedback for the (original) technique class wasn’t all that great,” says Maia. “People want to dance with a partner.”
A few weeks into the program, despite the safety measures, Maia and I both contracted the virus at the carefully spaced-out technique class. But we were both lucky and only had mild symptoms. We stayed home and recovered quickly, but classes were suspended for a while and when they resumed in January, it put a damper on the experience. Now most of the remaining students attend the class online and I am the only one in the dance studio with our teacher.
David meanwhile remains at home with their little daughter. His focus now is on his other standing leg: high-end carpentry and his art work such as painting, drawing, and making one-of-a-kind cajones (drum boxes) and chess boards. Since Maia and I are alone after the other students have signed off on their home computers we get to chat a little.
One evening as we talk about the dispersed tango-community in the Hudson Valley, she muses about tango’s comeback. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose a lot of people in tango,” she says. “Especially the older ones.”
Despite their efforts to keep this small but once lively and loyal community going, most people have disappeared from the scene. David and Maia keep reaching out, particularly to those who are alone, by calling and writing letters whenever they can. “There is a lot of need out there since so many elderly people are part of the community and they are alone,” she says. “It’s something we didn’t fully realize until now.”
Shortly before Christmas they tried to get the community together by organizing a fundraiser. It was also their first performance since the beginning of the crisis. While the majority of the audience watched online via streaming, a few people were allowed to attend in person. “It was a small, distanced audience“, remembers Maia. “Everyone enjoyed being together and seeing each other.”
They are well aware of the social function that tango has in this rural part of New York State. The culture of Argentine tango may be foreign to most locals around here, but it attracts a remarkable number of people. It gives them a place to go and socialize and dance and learn something new every week. Maia appreciates her role in this particular social environment. In order to improve her own teaching skills she is currently studying to become a certified yoga-instructor. Hopefully, as things improve, they plan to open up again. Their next big goal is to organize a small and distanced open-air milonga in the spring.
A few weeks ago I read an article in the New York Times about the dire situation of artists in this country (‘Can the Arts Bring Us Back? Yes, if We Bring Them Back First’, NY Times, January 17, 2021). The author, Jason Farago, points out the importance of the arts for us as a society and deplores the fact that artists in this country don’t get the recognition they deserve. Which is shown, for example, by the fact that freelance artists do not receive unemployment benefits, unlike most other economic sectors. Just as I had anticipated when I started to read the piece, Farago explains why France and Germany should lead as role models.
In France artists are regarded as ‘true workers’ of a socially necessary industry, but with an unusual economic organization: France provides a special artists’ unemployment program which provides freelance artists with financial support during hard times so that they can continue to focus on their artistic work rather than having to work in unrelated and often lower-paid jobs. In unprecedented times like today, this kind of financial support provides a lifeline for thousands of artists, among whom there is a large number of dancers and — to come to my topic — among whom are many tango professionals.
Apart from the financial aid, I assume it must be a gratifying feeling and a considerable boost to one’s self-esteem to be recognized as an important contributing member of society.
The January 17 NY Times article reminded me of my recent conversation with Dario da Silva, who now lives in France but who started as a tango professional in the USA, and who therefore knows both sides of the coin. I had a lengthy conversation with him and his long-time partner Claire Vivo last spring. Back in May they were forced to keep their tango school in Aix-en-Provence closed, and all their other teaching and performing gigs throughout Europe had been canceled. I followed up with a phone call in early January of this year, but not before having browsed their social media posts to get an idea of what’s been going on in their lives.
Dario and Claire
I was at first a bit envious when I saw Dario’s pictures of himself skiing in the French Alps. There he was, happily plowing through the snow on sunny slopes, while I remained at home with my ‘bubble buddies’, bravely abstaining from any kind of traveling and enduring the gloomy winter days alone in front of the fireplace.
However, when I talked to Dario shortly after his trip, I found that you can’t take what you see on Facebook and similar sites at face value. Dario sounded very different, and was in a rather somber mood, quite unlike his usually positive attitude. The effects of his brief escape had obviously faded, and the grim reality of his situation had caught up with him. Claire, the counterpart of the once successful tango duo, was not available, but Dario tells me the pandemic has taken its toll on both of them, mentally and economically.
He described the ups-and-downs of the past year. For the first few months they were hoping that things were soon going to turn for the better. But their school had to remain closed for six months and they worried whether they would be able to ever open it again — and if so, how? The rent of the school is a big expense for them, he explained, and they needed the income from their regular class program to keep their expenses covered. After long and hard negotiations with the owner of the building they finally obtained a lower rent. With the beginning of the new school year, which in France starts in September and when in-person classes resumed at public schools, the couple were able to reopen their popular tango school.
It was a big relief for both teachers and students. “It was emotionally and financially important,” he says. Everybody was so happy, and for a while life seemed to be back to normal.
But they operated for only six weeks until France was hit by the so-called ‘second wave’ and went into another lockdown. Consequently their school had to close again. At first Dario and Claire were hoping to start teaching again by December. But the pandemic took a different course and France, just as most other European countries, is far from opening up its schools and ending its strict lockdown any time soon.
“The new lockdown is very bad,” says Dario. He mourns that for now their school is on standby, but admits that they are still better off than others: “Many [dance] schools are gone for good,” he says. On the positive side they receive government support thanks to France’s special unemployment program for freelance artists. While it helps them financially, he says that the future is foggy: “We have no visions.”
Still, the couple tries to focus on tango and keeps busy. They don’t teach online classes, but instead they produce three to four instructional videos per week which they send to their students. And Dario keeps studying the bandoneon, a skill he started to learn about five years ago: “That’s the opportunity in this lockdown, to learn something,” he says, and I can finally detect some enthusiasm in his voice.
* * *
What I learned next by talking to Christy Cote in San Francisco was a sobering example of the way many artists in the USA have to fight for themselves. Christy is an established tango teacher in the Bay Area having trained countless students over the past twenty-five years. Of the many tango professionals I have met, she used to be one of the few who didn’t have to travel to make a living. As I learned last spring, when we talked at length, she had also wisely invested in real estate, which provided her with a second financial leg to stand on. But with the pandemic both her income sources dried up overnight: teaching in person and performing were suddenly not permitted, nor was she allowed to rent her vacation units in Hawaii. While she was able to adjust her teaching to online classes and started to make a little money that way, she could do nothing about the loss of her larger income from her vacation homes.
When I try to get in touch with her eight months later, it takes two weeks until I receive a call back — an unusually long time for Christy who is known as super responsible and responsive. I’m puzzled, but when she finally calls, I begin to understand what she is going through.
Her financial situation became so precarious last summer that she couldn’t afford to live in her own place anymore. She decided to move out and rent her apartment for the next two years. In the meantime she has been staying at other people’s homes for free. Currently this is someone’s place in Millbrae south of San Francisco that is half office and half storage area. Every couple of months she goes to Hawaii to support her mother who is in her mid-eighties and needs more help. When she finally returns my call I learn she has just returned from yet another month of sharing the same small space with her mom, and is longing more than ever for her own space. Unfortunately that’s not an option right now.
She continues to teach private lessons online, but says that she makes less than half of what she used to charge with in-person lessons — by far not enough to cover average living expenses in the Bay Area. I ask her about her weekly online classes with Eduardo Saucedo, Tango Embraces, where together they introduce the people, the culture, and the history of Buenos Aires – plus, of course, tango. She says that while she enjoys the unusual format of this class, the preparation is very time-consuming, and she makes very little money from it. She does it mainly to keep people engaged and ‘to keep the spirit alive like so many others who have done an outstanding job in keeping tango going, such as Fabian Salas and Lola Diaz, as well as so many others.’
The spirit of tango is fading. Rather philosophically Christy describes the recent death of the great Juan Copes as symbolic for the end of a tango era.
“He stood for a new generation of tango,” she says, “and now he is gone.” And then we mourn more losses in our own tango community of San Francisco: Emilio Flores and Jerry Jew among them, both well-known and beloved members of the Bay Area tango community. “They were all representative of what tango stood for,” Christy says finally.
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Why haven’t I written about Maia and David before? Geographically they are two of the closest tango teachers to my East Coast home, which is where I have gradually shifted the center of my life over the past few years. On a personal level I have known these two ever since I started tango here in upstate New York. They were still dating, and Maia had just begun to teach David everything she knew about Argentine tango; he had been a dedicated salsa dancer and part-time teacher until then. I watched them moving ahead with their teaching, becoming professional teachers. Then I saw them getting married, starting a family, and moving from Newburgh further north to the Hudson Valley, closer to where I live. I became a regular at their tango events, and saw their community grow, and in return both of them supported me and my partner when we hosted musicians from Argentina. So why have I not written about them until now? The answer is simple: because they are too close. It is a delicate matter to write about people you know well. There is a personal relationship, and writing reflects a different image both of the people you write about as well as about yourself, the writer. So I approached the subject of Maia and David slowly until I at last felt confident that the time was right. Here then is my story: a couple of tango professionals in an unlikely rural area of America; a tango story in an unusual setting with a surprisingly positive take on the future of tango.
The small hamlet of Rosendale in Ulster County, two hours north of New York City, has one main street with brightly painted period buildings, a movie theatre, a bakery, a grocery store, and an eclectic café: the ‘Rosendale Café’. The latter has become the epicenter of the Hudson Valley’s Latin dance world over the past eight years. Until last March a couple from Argentina, Maia Martinez and David Salvatierra, taught a mix of salsa, bachata and Rueda de Casino every Thursday night to a remarkable crowd of about thirty students. After the class the restaurant’s floor would be cleared for a popular social dance with more people cramming into the small space; tables and chairs had to be removed. Younger and older folks of different social and ethnic backgrounds, and of different levels of dancing would mingle and rotate partners on the dance floor, especially during the Rueda — a salsa group-dance where the dance figures are called out. Many friendships would be formed that way and were carried over into people’s daily lives.
The other part of the couple’s teaching was dedicated to Argentine tango. This used to be an entirely different scene, but the tango dancers were nevertheless as loyal and dedicated to their friendly instructors as the salseros. The tango crowd was smaller and somewhat more mature. And most tango events took place not at the casual Rosendale Café, but at slightly more distinguished venues in the area. There was, for example, an elegantly converted barn at a private estate in Hudson, and a spacious dance hall in the historic building of the Arts Society of Kingston. Sunday afternoon ‘tealongas’ took place for a while at a small dance studio tucked into the charming colonial town of Beacon, until finally all tango events were moved to the J&B Dance Center, the longstanding and only surviving ballroom studio in Kingston. Tango dancers would come from near and far, even from the neighboring state of Connecticut, and some of them would drive up to two hours to enjoy some Argentine tango.
The more dedicated tangueros would take private lessons with Maia and David and lessons were usually booked well in advance. One-on-one instruction mostly took place in the privacy of their spacious apartment upstairs at the Rosendale Café, with whose owners they maintain a family-like relationship. Tango students from the area appreciated the dedication of their teachers as much as the authentic Argentine tango experience, which would be otherwise hard to find in this neck of the woods. Another advantage was the convenience of a close-by location versus the long and nerve-wracking trip into New York City.
With salsa and tango the energetic Argentines had a busy schedule — and the local dance community was kept on its toes. As well as their regular dance events, they also started the ‘Hudson Valley Tango Festival’ in 2017. This quickly turned into a major three-day event with internationally acclaimed stars such as Fabian Salas and Lola Diaz, or Junior Cervila and Guadelupe Garcia, teaching and performing. The already busy couple admitted that preparations for the festival took up a lot of their time — between six and seven months of the year — but their efforts paid off and the festival began to grow quickly and eventually attracted almost three hundred dancers. This is not to say that it turned into a profitable enterprise, as is rarely the case with most festivals, but apparently this was never their primary goal. As David explained: “The festival’s goal was to get different tango communities together and to present the Hudson Valley to different people, and to offer the Hudson Valley different talents and people from the communities around.”
This year’s festival didn’t take place for obvious reasons. They had seen the pandemic coming since December, they told me, when during their annual family visit back home in Argentina Maia had a dream about cancelling the festival. At the time, the threat of the virus spreading to the USA seemed so unlikely that David laughed away her concerns. But the uncomfortable feeling never left them. And by the time they returned to New York in early February they were concerned enough to be among the first passengers to wear masks on their flight. It made their four-year-old daughter Catalina very uncomfortable, and she cried on the long way back.
After several more weeks of much back-and-forth they decided to follow their instinct and cancel the event, even though long-term official guidelines had not yet been set. Fortunately, apart from the time they had invested, they lost very little money. The festival venue — the Senate Garage in Kingston — agreed to move the event to a new date later in the year. At this point, however, it is almost certain that the festival is not going to happen at the new date in November either. Besides ensuring the safety of the dancers by maintaining social distancing and dancing with one partner only, the festival’s mission, which is to connect, would not be accomplished. “To make a tango event for people to dance is one thing,” they explained, “but to do a festival is something else. We’re talking about all the activities that the festival offers. People won’t come out and people won’t feel safe. We have to respect that and honor it.” And Maia added: “We care so much about the community.”
‘Community’ is a key word that comes up frequently during our conversation, primarily of course in reference to their vibrant dance community. ‘We want to create community through dance,’ as is stated like a mantra on their website. But the couple has gone beyond that and demonstrated their sense of community in other parts of life in this rural area that has become their home. Their involvement has included, for example, performing at local events and participating with their students in the annual ‘Sinterklaas Parade’ on the Kingston waterfront. They have also worked with the nearby not-for-profit ‘Center for Creative Education’ and have taught at Marist College Liberty Partnerships Program in Poughkeepsie. And at a recent peaceful march for Black Lives Matter in Rosendale they could be seen marching along with the small crowd, wearing masks and holding up a sign, their little daughter Catalina in the midst of it all as usual.
Surprisingly, as a result of their Argentine tango and Latin dance teaching, the two South Americans have become an integral part of small town life in America. What may have initially sounded like a questionable plan for their life has turned out to be one of the best choices, both on a professional and personal level — and finally for surviving relatively unscathed in the current pandemic and its associated economic hardships. In contrast to the desperate situations of some of the many tango professionals I’ve spoken to in urban areas, it is in this unlikely rural environment where I found a tango couple that seems to sail through it all with relative ease.
Obviously, with all dance events suspended, they don’t have much of an income these days. But they have adapted to their new circumstances, and emphasize that thanks to their simple life-style, few expenses, and the support of their dance community they feel that they are among the lucky ones. The dance community is now giving back what the two have given them for years. “We’re doing really well,” they said. “We’re spending a lot of time in the garden. We have friends — new neighbors actually — who also happen to have a little one, same age as Catalina, so it was such a gift. It has made a difference for us. The way we live and the quality of life we can have. A very small place, a very small community. It’s really good.”
With New York State slowly opening up in carefully calculated phases, they have been able to offer limited outdoor salsa group-classes for the past couple of weeks now. It is a far cry from the previous casual and crowded event, but it is a move in the right direction. Instead of dropping in, people now have to register in advance. Instead of dancers changing partners and rubbing shoulders on the dance floor, no more than five students at a time can participate in the class. They have to be six feet apart, bring hand sanitizer and their own water bottles, and are encouraged to wear a mask — something that is not always feasible with outdoor temperatures between 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit at this time of year. The exciting and family-like atmosphere of the old days is gone for now.
Maia summed it up: “I think what changed the most for me, especially in relation to the salsa community, [is that] we were known here because we were really friendly and everybody would dance with everybody. So when you look at it, you can think it’s devastating, it’s frustrating, everything got destroyed, got interrupted because we used to embrace everybody. And right now we’re only taking five people and no new people. Now we don’t want to welcome new people because it doesn’t feel safe to have new faces around. We’re trying to make people feel comfortable to come back to classes. It’s very important that they feel secure, that they feel safe and that they can relax instead of it being very chaotic and stressful.”
They have also resumed teaching private tango lessons. “They have their barre,” said Maia, describing with a big movement of her arms the distance. “I have my barre over there. We do technique, we talk, we dream about tango. It’s clearly a time for us to stay put and to see tango in a different way. Tango is waiting, tango is not giving up on us and we are not giving up on tango.”
Until recently they taught exclusively online. “A real interesting experience,” they said, “because we like to hug, to touch, to connect with people. So this teaching online is very different. But it’s really special that you can still connect and you can offer something and inspire.”
They then described how they realized that the need for social interaction had become an important factor for why people take online dance-lessons: “We noticed that people especially want to talk, to see how we’re doing, to talk about their day. They want to be in the presence of somebody.” The social connection, the listening and talking had always been essential in the way they were teaching before, but now, David said: “It’s a little more clear in terms of listening to the person. Whatever the reason was for the person to take a class — whether it was salsa or tango or whatever discipline — it now seems more amplified, and you kind of see it with the online lessons.”
Their role as dance instructors clearly goes beyond dancing: it fills a social gap and a mental need for human closeness. No wonder they feel under-valued and somewhat left behind by the government’s limited support for the arts in this current crisis. As Maia put it: “I think about the way the government thinks about arts. How very little we are taken care of. And how huge is our contribution. And I’m saying all the arts. We do bring a lot to the community, and we do keep them safe.”
The unfortunate choice of words about ‘essential workers’ has unintentionally opened a wound. “Arts are not essential,” she continued. “Hearing that is hurtful, even though I will never compare myself with people who save lives, because what they do is amazing and I could never put myself in their shoes. But hearing that in another context ‘art is not essential’, that word is making so much noise. And again, it’s not to compare with their value. It’s enormous what the people on the frontlines are doing. I think arts are essential, I think educators are essential; the kids are struggling, adults are struggling. If only we could rely on people playing music, on people dancing. If we could be smart. We could prepare people on how to be connected.”
And then they assured me that through the experiences of the last few months they have learned to be better prepared for a second wave: “We will have a better concept to stay connected, to have classes. We have learned how to be six feet apart. When this comes again, when the second wave comes, we will be ready. We will have classes, and even if we just sit and listen to music and look at our beautiful faces, that’s what we’re going to do.”
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
I’ve never met Valerie Kattenfeld in person. Actually, I never even knew about her until recently. We happen to be both in the same Facebook group, ‘I’m not dancing, so this is what I did instead’. It is one of the groups which emerged in the wake of worldwide lockdowns in March. Both Valerie and I expressed our befuddlement about our respective postings which had been removed by the group organizer. We then started to talk privately and it turned out that she had read some of my stories. Then she started to tell me about herself. I was both astonished and dismayed to hear her story. I couldn’t stop thinking about her hopelessly entangled situation down there in Buenos Aires. And I thought that her story, which stands for so many countless others, should be told.
Some days are better than others. The first time I talked to Valerie Kattenfeld a few weeks ago she sounded relieved. She had just successfully completed her first fundraiser and reached her goal of raising three thousand Euros. The amount would go a long way in Buenos Aires, where the Austrian-born tango lover has been living in strict lockdown since March, unable to make an income.
The second time I talked to her she was wrestling with new obstacles that had developed back home in Vienna. The tenant who had sublet her apartment was unexpectedly moving out, and as a result the place had to be sold. From one day to the next Valerie had to give up much of her old life: personal things she had kept in storage, furniture, diaries, and even memories.
“I’m feeling very anxious,” she admitted. With the help of some close friends back home she was frantically organizing the cleaning out of her apartment, deciding what to sell and what to donate. In long Zoom sessions between Argentina and Austria they went through every single item. Her place in Vienna had provided a safe refuge until recently, but now she wouldn’t be able to return anytime soon.
“It feels like a final cut,” she said. “That’s why it’s going deep.”
To make matters worse, her seventy-six- year-old mother, also back home in Austria, was about to have surgery. She told me about her close relationship with her mother whom she fondly describes as generous and always supportive of her daughter’s happiness, even if it meant her moving to a continent far away. “She calls me ‘my little nest refugee’,” Valerie told me smiling. Now she felt distraught not being able to be by her side — not that she has any other choice. Like almost everyone else she cannot leave Buenos Aires. Worse, the prospects are gloomy for Argentina’s capital, which had just reversed from phase two back to phase one at the time we spoke. In the four months since Valerie has been stuck in her apartment in the Almagro neighborhood she has been unable to pursue her plan of building a new life and establishing herself as a professional in the tango world. Now the city of her dreams has turned into a trap.
She describes life in Buenos Aires these days as tough. Before the crisis she found it easy to connect with Argentines. Now everyone is concerned about their own safety. “The atmosphere of the city has really changed”, she said. “People are wearing their masks, walking in their own bubble. They don’t meet your eyes anymore.” Most of all she misses meeting people and going to the milongas. The milongas, she said, were for her like her living room. “It’s like I have lost my home.”
Everything had looked so promising when she arrived in early 2019. With no plans other than just really wanting to live in Buenos Aires she had cancelled a dance-movement workshop that she was supposed to teach in Scotland, got on a plane and took off. She recalls the feeling when the airplane touched the ground at Ezeiza Airport as a great physical sensation that went through her body, assuring her that she had made the right decision. “I felt that this was real,” she enthusiastically described the moment. “I wanted to commit to this place.”
She was ready for a fresh start in her life. An Austrian artist with a background in theater and contemporary dance, she had only two years before quit her career in Vienna’s theater world and taken off on a trip around the world. Argentina’s capital was one of her first destinations. There she discovered tango, fell in love with both the dance and the city, and vowed to come back. But before returning she went on to explore more unknown territory in the world of dance as well as human connections that would ultimately lead to her own individual approach.
Her world trip took her to India where she attended a ‘tantra festival’ — another revealing experience of the senses. She told me that it was at this point that she began to understand the importance of meeting people in ‘a really authentic way’ unlike her previous job in theater production where she created plays and staged them. “It was like packaging art as a product.” The new experience at the tantra festival reshaped the way she thought about art. From then on she became more interested in the process rather than with the production of art. “I wanted to use the tools of art to encounter people and see what the process of personal transformation could be like,” she explained.
She also developed an interest in a movement form called ‘biodanza’, which would turn into a decisive experience. The term, a combination of ‘bio’ and ‘danza’ (meaning ‘dance’ in Spanish) seems to be self-explanatory, but going a bit deeper, more detailed explanations become apparent. It is, in short, ‘a transformational movement practice’: ‘a human integration system of renewal, re-education, and re-learning of life’s original functions’. First created by Chilean anthropologist and psychoanalyst Rolando Toro Arenada in the nineteen-sixties, it has since been further developed by his followers all over the world. The goal of practicing biodanza is to reconnect with yourself through music, singing, movement, and group encounters: to experience active positive feelings and to develop self-awareness.
Valerie quickly recognized the benefits of bringing the biodanza concept into tango. Its advantages for learning tango have long been known and have been utilized both by tango teachers such as Fernanda Valdovinos as well as by biodanza instructors such as Jose Antonio Garro, who has taught the method at tango festivals. Unaware of these similiar learning strategies, Valerie started to develop her own concept which she called biotango:a mix of tango, biodanza, and tantra. With her new approach she wanted, as she put it, ‘to help people to feel the embrace in tango more, and to have more physical contact’.
In a bold move she started to promote herself as a biotango instructor. She recalled how she talked to people at milongas, teachers, regular dancers, and organizers in London where she lived at the time. It paid off: “My very first prototype of biotango was at a milonga in London,” she said. One thing lead to another, and soon she brought her method to places in North Carolina, Europe, and her hometown, Vienna. When asked about her recipe for success she said: “When you have this basic trust and you are so convinced that you belong there, you make it possible.”
Last December, while already based in Buenos Aires, she was invited to teach her biotango method at Taboe Tango Camp, an alternative tango festival in the Netherlands. She laughingly described how she wrote ‘a very charming’ letter to the organizers, telling them how much she resonated with everything she saw on their website, and that she felt they vibrated with the same energy. On the other hand she admitted that this approach would probably not work with more traditional tango festivals.
Parallel to developing and promoting her way of teaching in the alternative tango community, the rest of Valerie’s life in Buenos Aires continued to evolve around tango. The famous Estudio Dinzel soon became her home base where she took classes every day, hung out, talked, and shared mate with the others, made friends and received help in finding a place to stay. When someone told her about the Centro Educativo de Buenos Aires (CETBA), where people train to become tango teachers, she found it beneficial to study there as well. Needless to say she went to milongas every night.
She also discovered that she could continue her biodanza education in Buenos Aires at a school run by Verónica Toro (daughter of Rodolfo Toro), and her husband Raúl Terrén. She was immediately fascinated by this power couple, and felt welcomed as a family member. Fortunately, despite the corona crisis, she has been able to continue with her classes online. She is currently in the middle of her three-year education to become an offical biodanza facilitator, and is already allowed to offer courses to explore tango with the tools of biodanza.
Her own sources of income, however, have dried up. During her first year in Buenos Aires, while life was still functioning as usual, she took turns working as a school teacher, working in tourism, and working as a counselor for school children. “As a foreigner, it’s always good to work with your language,” she explained.
The organizations she worked for did the legal paperwork, and in the meantime she strove to build her own independent business in Buenos Aires by creating an ‘authentic tango tourism enterprise’. She worked hard at putting together custom-designed trips for single people, couples, and very small groups. The idea was to give people a very personal experience with visits to milongas, home style cooking and more, and she even got some of her artist friends involved. But just one day before her first client, a girl from Germany, was due to arrive, lockdown was imposed in Argentina and she had to cancel the tour. Something that had just started to flourish, was shut down from one day to the next.
“It was very disappointing,” she said, “and to be very honest,” she continued after a pause, “I was very panicked when corona crisis began.”
She knew she couldn’t sit still and wait for things to happen. So again she rolled up her sleeves and became creative. That’s how her YouTube blog called ‘We Rock Corona’ came to be. For several weeks she posted a video every day with an invitation to dance. Some of these videos were tango-related, others not. Her idea was to give people the impulse to dance at home and get the energy moving, catapulting them out of anxiety, fear, and sadness. “Because when we move, we automatically think less,” she said, “and I wanted to stop the rotation of negative thoughts that can obsess us from time to time.”
From the YouTube series came the idea of setting up the above-mentioned crowd fundraiser. The Kickstarter effort to dance for better mental health in quarantine reached its financial goal after two months. Now, Valerie said, she is at a place where she can breath and relax again. The next step is the setting up of her website (www.valeriekattenfeld.com) to offer classes.
Although she is extraordinarily busy, she misses dancing with a partner. She has managed to connect with a potential practice-partner and wants to give it a try. But unlike her he is a traditional tanguero, and they yet have to find out if they are a match on the dance floor. And she is cautious about physical contact with an as yet unknown person.
If it doesn’t work out, she still has plenty of ways to communicate with the outside world via the internet. The corona virus has a positive impact after all, she mused: “I usually wouldn’t communicate so much,” she said. She has found plenty of new friends online, and established new connections everywhere. Not being able to go to milongas all the time, she continues to communicate with like-minded people and is excited about their willingness to share their ideas and experiences. Valerie is going to need a lot of perseverance to get through this pandemic crisis in Buenos Aires. One can only hope that the better days outweigh the worse.
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
My very first private tango lesson was with Eduardo Saucedo. I was still a tango baby, barely one year into dancing Argentine tango, and he was a star at the tango firmament: a master teacher, dancer, choreographer, and producer of tango shows. I was attending the ‘Congresso Internacional de Tango Argentina’ (CITA) in Buenos Aires at the time, the biggest event in the world of tango during which I took a workshop with Eduardo and his then partner, Marissa. Not only was I deeply impressed by his teaching, but at the end he brought me – just as every other student in the room – to tears when he spoke about the deeper meaning of tango in life, of love and passion, and of believing in yourself. Then they both gave each of us a red rose. There wasn’t the slightest bit of sentimentality or fake feelings. Even we less emotional Northern Americans and Europeans could sense that what he had just delivered was profoundly honest and had come straight from his heart.
With my heart pounding, I knocked at Eduardo’s apartment door the following day. A distinguished blonde lady with a Swedish accent opened the door and introduced herself as Eduardo Saucedo’s manager: Kikki Rusth. She led me through the apartment to his dance studio, and my nervousness faded quickly. I remember how he took me seriously right from the beginning and took away my fear of perhaps being an inadequate or too inexperienced student. It was an eye-opening lesson in my early tango life and it gave my self-esteem a much needed boost at the time.
I met Eduardo again a few years later when he started to teach frequently with Christy Cote in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since then he has become a regular in the Bay Area, as well as in many other parts of North America. We also see him now every year in early spring when he serves as an Official Judge for the ‘US Tango Championship’ in San Francisco. He is a judge on other tango competitions, participates in tango festivals all over the world, has appeared in documentaries by National Geographic and the very sweet short documentary ‘My first Tango’. He sees himself as a cultural ambassador for his country, and was honored with the prestigious ‘Pa´que Bailen los Muchachos’ award in Buenos Aires. Eduardo Saucedo is based in Buenos Aires and that’s where I reached him — he has been living in quarantine at his home since the middle of March.
AB: It looks like over the past few months you’ve become the ‘master of tango online classes’. Regardless of sheltering-in-place, you’re busy all the time, right?
ES: Yes, I work and thanks to new technology I can relax here at home and at the same time work from home. What can we say of this time? It’s just what it is, it’s just very different this time. So yes, I’m working at home.
AB: What kind of classes do you teach?
ES: I’m teaching group classes and private lessons too. I’m glad I have a dance studio so I can teach here. I’m busy, but at the same time I have time for myself because I’m on my own here in Buenos Aires because of the corona virus. This technology really helped me to reconnect with people differently.
AB: In what way?
ES: Because they let me get into their homes. It’s not that they’re coming to the studio. I’m in the studio! But I’m in their homes. So the feeling is very different because it’s very intimate. The connection is bigger. But I have to get used to see people in little squares. [laughs]
AB: Does that mean you feel less in control than when students come to your studio?
ES: Well, the feeling is that I have to break this perception that what I see is a computer or a camera. I have to really feel that I’m really connected with them. So I have to break down this first barrier. It’s not easy at the beginning to do that with so many people. You have to learn the tools of these new platforms and then just be yourself again. You can be yourself when you’re with people in one place and you see them and you can feel what is happening around you. So I can control how I will approach a class. But when I’m teaching from home and I’m watching people on the other side, I have to learn that I can’t control the class in the same way. I have to believe in what I give and what I teach and I hope they’re listening and dancing. [laughs] I have the feeling that when I’m teaching with these new technologies, I have to speak louder. I have to make my presence bigger in the same way so they don’t get distracted because they’re at home. People are at home, so when they decide to leave, they leave. And they come back and they continue the class. In the actual class they usually stay there with you all the time.
AB: Do you structure the classes differently?
ES: First I show what I need to teach, then I tell the students to do it with me and then I watch what they’re doing. It’s harder because not everyone has the camera just capturing their whole body. The students ask and they step back, but the camera doesn’t show the feet and so you have to accept what you see. I need to be more detail-oriented, especially in group classes. I ask people to mute themselves and then I can talk and everybody can focus on what I’m teaching. At a certain point I say ‘Okay, now we can do questions. If you have a question, lift your hand. And then unmute yourself and ask the question.’ It helps other people in the class. But I can’t answer absolutely everything. That part is not difficult for me. The difficulty is to be able to see all of them simultaneously; but I’m actually getting used to it.
AB: How many students can you teach on one screen?
ES: I’m having around twenty people. That’s a pretty good group size. And then… I’m nearsighted. But we near-sighted people focus more. You can always see what’s wrong, even when it’s difficult to see objects. So when I teach, I know when the foot is not right. I can see those little details even with the students there on the screen. I kind of know if they’re doing it right or…. I don’t say ‘wrong’, but I say they need to get better in something that I’m teaching. Because one of the things that I believe is that we don’t do things wrong. We need to get better and we can improve. One teacher can have one vision about something, another can have a different vision, and I have my own vision. Because I learned the different styles in tango, I understand better what people need. When you know the other styles in tango it really helps to understand the students.
AB: Tell me a little bit about how you started tango.
ES: I come from a small village in the north of Argentina. When I was a little kid, the only TV channel we had in our village showed movies from the 1930s, 40s and the 50s, and almost all of them were about tango. So I wanted to dance. I remember being a kid; I looked at the TV and I just took the broom and I started to dance. When I started to study law at the university here in Buenos Aires there was a tango class at the University Extension. I went there. I said ‘Wow, this is my chance, this is my time’. And then the first time that I embraced my partner and I lead her into the cross, something clicked in my head and I said ‘This is for me’. I was studying law until my life turned naturally to tango. It was once a week, and it was my day to go. I don’t know for what reason, but it was that day that I had to go. And I had to dance, and I had to feel it, and I had to embrace, and I did it. And since then I never stopped.
AB: At the end of each of your lessons you always have something important to say, something that puts tango into a larger perspective. It’s like your mantra. Where does that come from?
ES: Because before I started tango, I was challenged by my own life. When I was sixteen, something happened and I almost died. The doctors didn’t know what it was. I never used drugs. We went to so many doctors. My brother is a doctor. We went to one doctor and he told me “Wait here, I’m going to talk to your brother.” And when they went to another room, it seemed like something wasn’t right. So I went and put my ear to the wall because I wanted to know what they were talking about. And the doctor said to my brother “You have to tell your family that there is no hope for this guy.” So I said to myself ‘Who is this person saying that I’m going to die?’ I was sixteen years old. I felt good, even though I was sick. But I felt I wasn’t going to die. And so I learned to believe; to believe in myself. And I want to transmit that everything that you want to do is possible. It doesn’t matter if you do small or big things. But everything that you do is important for your life. Tango helped me to communicate this idea that you have the power to decide for your life. Tango for me is a way to communicate, because I don’t think there is another dance where you communicate things in the way tango does.
AB: Did you dance other dances before you started tango?
ES: We grew up with folklore. But I was not a professional folkloristic dancer, I just danced. We’re in a country where we dance, especially in small places. I was always the little guy and I was never shy, and the others always called me to dance: “Eh, Eduardo, do it, come on, Eduardo, come here, Eduardo!” And I was always ok with it, I went to recitals and everything. When I became part of this tango world, I discovered other dances and that I could use a little bit of this and of that.
AB: What changes have you seen in tango since the corona crisis began? And do you think tango is coming back?
ES: I’ve been so many years in tango and in so many communities around the world, and I think there was too much information for tango people. There was too much information about everything. There is a point where you don’t really know where you are with your tango sometimes. So this time gives us the opportunity to relearn what we want, what we miss. I’m not making generalizations, but it was like, okay, I’m going to dance here and I’m going to dance there, but there is something that I feel I don’t need… because it’s too much. I think when we return from the quarantine, we will choose better with whom we want to dance, and what we want to communicate. And what we want to give. And what we want to share. And with whom we want to share. For me as a teacher it was like a wall at first. One day you were having classes and the next day nothing. I thought ‘What? And now what?’ And then you have to absorb that information. You have to just eat it and process it. I’m grateful that I’m in a situation that I can do that, that I can take my time, a little bit of time just to process.
AB: You were traveling a lot. It seemed like you hardly ever took a break.
ES: Exactly. And then all of a sudden you say ‘Okay, there is the wall I have in front of me. Now what am I going to do?’ If I only see the wall, I don’t see the opportunities. So, well, let’s create a little ladder so I can work around this problem, so I can develop different ideas. But I have to accept that tango for now is not going to be the same. I’m not going to be able to teach people in groups, I’m not going to be able to go to dance at the milongas, I’m not going to be able to have good times and dinners and things with friends. But I think tango specifically makes you think that you need to evolve. If people don’t evolve, tango will disappear. We need to see what’s happening with this new version of tango, and then it will come back. I don’t know when. That’s the big question. I think what’s probably going to happen is the formation of small groups. Is it going to be more than that? I don’t know. Are there going to be any milongas? I don’t know. However, we need to restart and not forget how important it is to embrace in tango, to hug. I think what we’re missing is that connection. That’s why I said there was too much going on so that even when you did embrace with somebody it sometimes was just an embrace, but not a real one. I think that what it will bring — this idea that we meet again — it will be a difference in our embrace. We have to reconnect with our passion. Every time I deliver a message, it’s about passion, joy, and life and for the respect of peace and freedom in the world. Tango to me is this idea that I can embrace somebody, that I can connect with a person, with the music, and to share something very special. And I think after the quarantine that will happen more. I think it’s a lesson for every tanguero that we don’t have to hug because it’s an obligation. We have to feel it. We have to be sincere. We have to respect the other person, but we don’t have to stop what we feel, what the music tells me. Because the music is very important in this whole picture. We cannot embrace if we don’t have the music. It will be different because we talk about tango. And that’s what I value of tango, el valor de la musica.
AB: What role does the music play in your teaching?
ES: I try to show what the movement is about. Then I try to make them feel comfortable. I play any kind of music at that point. I just play something that is comfortable, something that relaxes, something that is easy because there are a lot of elements that people need to incorporate before they accept the music. They know they like something in the music, but they don’t know exactly what it is. In some way it was the same for me. At the beginning, Pugliese, di Sarli, d’Arienzo, they were all the same. It’s all tango. Okay, good, let’s dance! By nature, I think, people have some sort of idea about music, so they somehow figure it out. But when I start to incorporate the music into the movement, they don’t know exactly what it is, what orchestra it is. And then I start to tell them a little bit about the orchestra we’re dancing to. I’m just trying to incorporate the idea of all the elements together. When I just tell them to do this and that, and then that’s it, that doesn’t help. I like to guide people in a way so they can find their own tango. I can’t obligate them to dance my tango. My mission is that people discover the tango they like to dance.
AB: Do you think there is a specific type of tango music that is most suitable for this current time?
ES: You know, I’m usually a very dramatic person and I like Pugliese just as much as d’Arienzo. But there’s so much happening in our heads today. All the things you thought you had organized for yourself in your life can disappear like that. In terms of the music, I think we have to get back to basics, to di Sarli. If I’d have to choose a song, I would say Bahia Blanca or A la Gran Muñeca — something that calms me down, something that relaxes me and that is simple. I have to make my own life simple because I think everything is too much. It’s hard to understand what’s going to happen, so it’s better to be just simple, to enjoy day by day. And to feel what’s happening now will help us in the future to embrace the world and tango better.
AB: Which must be especially hard for the people in Buenos Aires where sheltering-in-place has been in effect since March and won’t be lifted until September. You used to work with people all the time and travel a lot for work. How do you deal with the isolation?
ES: I have to keep my life organized. This is my opportunity to be at home because usually I’m never at home, I’m always traveling. Ninety-five percent of my life is with people. So now I organize my days differently. Of course, I have the classes, I have work. But for the rest of the time, I get up in the morning, then I study English because my English needs to get better. I bought a book with my mandala animals, and I choose the color I feel at that moment and I paint. I cook — I like to cook. And I didn’t cook for such a long time and now I cook every day since we started the quarantine. I talk with good friends, with Kikki obviously, we’re always working together, we’re family, we’re friends, we’re business associates, so we keep working, thinking about possibilities etc. I exercise here at home three or four times a week. And once a week I go for a walk outdoors. I just need to do that. I protect myself, I don’t touch anybody, I just walk, I just want to move and feel that my blood is moving. I’m not the kind of person who can stay at home and watch TV, I’m an active person. I also read. Come Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then for me it’s weekend. Which means I have to eat differently and do things that I don’t do during the week. And believe it or not, when you organize yourself in that way, even when you are indoors, life makes sense. If you don’t organize your life and you live in a chaos, well, it’s hard. The most difficult part for me that I’m not able to practice with somebody, to dance with somebody, even with one person. But overall life is good.
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Judy and Jon are among the most unusual tango professionals I’ve ever met. I was assisting Ivan Shvartz at teaching the tango class at the Senior Center in Emeryville, CA, when one day they appeared for the first time as visiting teachers. While Ivan and I often had trouble getting our mostly elderly students’ full attention, Judy and Jon got them organized in no time. A short strong clapping of their hands, a few firmly spoken instructions, and everybody paid attention. The students understood that kind of tone, they recognized them as one of their own. Here was an American couple just like them that still understood straight talking. However, these two had broken out of their world and taken a different route by doing something unusual – tango! They had the same background, but now they lived a seemingly colorful life. The students at the senior center had clearly become curious and more eager than ever about learning Argentine tango. I still remember how during the course of that memorable lesson the seniors respectfully admired Judy and Jon.
Aside from their outstanding appearances — they sport a classy Hollywood style with Judy’s bright red hair calling for everybody’s attention — Judy and Jon look back at an extraordinary career. Tango came to them at a stage in life when most people are settling in for a quieter life style. Instead they set themselves a new goal by deciding to get better at tango and become part of the Buenos Aires tango community. One step led to another until as they say: “We were invited to perform again and again, and were urged to take the authentic tango of Buenos Aires to dancers around the world.” They eventually moved to Buenos Aires where to everybody’s surprise they became the only American couple who would successfully teach the Argentines to dance tango. And not only that, the local Porteños actually adopted this gringo couple as one of their own. Soon Judy and Jon would become regular teachers at Confitería Ideal, Cultura Tanguera Academia, and other well-known tango venues. They also performed on stage and at popular milongas such as Sunderland, Salon Canning, Gricel, and El Beso. While living in Buenos Aires they travelled regularly for teaching tours around the US.
But after ten years in the capital of tango, Judy and Jon witnessed the Argentine economy beginning to collapse and decided it was necessary to move back home to the States. They saw an opportunity for themselves in Las Vegas. While this fast-growing city in the desert of Nevada, which calls itself Entertainment Capital of the World, has been their base for the past eight years, they have been travelling to teach in nearby California, where they became regulars of the San Francisco tango community, Florida, and other places both nationally and internationally.
These days, however, the couple’s active schedule has been reduced to a quieter and more secluded life style. I browsed through their recently revamped website and Facebook pages before calling them. In one of their entries from March they described how they were preparing for sheltering-in-place. They posted pictures of a well-stocked refrigerator, vitamin pills, and declared their determination to stay fit and healthy. So how has it been working out for them?
“We sequestered ourselves for eighty-four days”, they told me when I spoke to them in mid-June. “During the pandemic we felt we had to self-quarantine to help mitigate the spread of the virus.” They’ve been practicing strict social-distancing since mid-March, ordering curbside pick-up service for their grocery shopping, and avoiding most direct contact with the outside world — except for once when they had to go to an AT&T store for a new smartphone, which they did only by taking every possible precaution.
Practicing social-distancing does not mean that they have been totally homebound. Having all classes and milongas cancelled, they’ve taken advantage of their free time by exploring state and national parks in the area around Las Vegas. “Our backyard is the desert,” said Jon. And so daytime outings have become their new favorite thing to do. Judy is in charge of checking the weather forecast and a map before they decide where to go the following morning. They quickly learned to use the backdrop of their outings for their photos and videos online. “We do all the photo and video shoots ourselves,” they explained, again pointing to the fact that in doing so they strictly adhere to social-distancing — no photographers allowed. Over the course of the past three months they’ve been creating a number of new short videos. Their dance studio now primarily functions as a recording studio or ‘a creation space’.
However, these videos are anything but the conventional instructional videos. They have a surprisingly refreshing and sometimes funny take on tango, and are useful at the same time. They have topics such as ‘Pajama Tango’, ‘Hypno Judy’, ‘The Ceremony of the Embrace’, or ‘Shoelaces’. During the latter Jon falls out of a tenth floor window of a high rise building because of a shoelace malfunction. The concept of these ‘videocitos’, as they call them, started with Jon’s creative mind, said Judy. She creates the graphics and promotions and website while Jon is the videographer, and photographer, and does all the video pre- and post-production work. She told me how she always laughs even if she doesn’t agree with his ideas. “But for the most part I go along with it.”
On a social level, they started an unusual meeting group on Zoom: a weekly cabaret which they call ‘Hola Tango Cabaret Cocktails & Tango’. It’s a unique and fun way for their students from all over the world to get know each other and enjoy a leisurely hour together. The tango cocktail hour has a different theme each week. For example, on the Friday evening when I joined, everybody was asked to name their favorite movie, which triggered an excited exchange of movies, actors, and showing of memorabilia. People toast to life and dance to a list of songs that Judy prepares. That way they’ve brought their students from different parts of the country and the world together.
“We enjoy having the time to redefine ourselves,” she said. “It’s a new era for tango.”
However, despite their apparently positive attitude, I could sense there was something else which they seemed to be reluctant to talk about. I asked them why they haven’t been teaching live on Zoom like so many other tango and dance teachers in order to survive financially. I understood from their reply that they’re committed to the traditional way of tango, and that that is the reason why they’ve been reluctant to embrace the same new teaching methods as others. Jon believes that tango is about the feeling between two people in an embrace — something that doesn’t happen in the virtual space. “Tango allows two people to share an intimate moment,” he explained. It’s a creative process which evolves when two people dance together, and he emphasizes that it’s this unique moment which he enjoys. In contrast, much of the latest online teachings looks the same to him. And he doesn’t see tango, specifically milongas, coming back in the way we’ve known it in the past.
I could hear a deep sadness and asked him about it. He was quick to deny that and clarified what he had just said with a quote from Eduardo Arquimbau, the famous tango dancer: ‘Tango will never change. The music may change, the dance may change, but the tango will never change.’ “In order to understand this quote,” Jon continued, “you need to understand what Eduardo means by ‘tango’ — but that’s another story for another time.”
Despite their divided view about the new format of tango classes, they’ve adapted some online tools for their own unique way of teaching. In their private lessons they focus on technique and movement rather than steps. They ask their students first to record a video of themselves dancing to their favorite song three times. When they watch the student’s video, they focus on three things that the students can improve and later during the recorded lesson they demonstrate just that. It appears to me like a lot of preparation time, but it seems to work.
Their next big goal for the near future is to produce a new series of videos with different concepts. I became aware of their latest weekly group class where they teach tango line dancing. ‘Tango line dancing?’ I wondered. It’s a concept I know from different music genres, like country-western or swing or salsa rueda, but tango? They laughed and started to explain excitedly the concept of this new class which they call ‘El Gogotán’: “People can develop their technique by dancing with themselves.” Students can tune in and learn elements of tango technique on their own. “But even with a partner you can get excited.” They told me about several of their students who have been practicing with their partner since the beginning of the pandemic. Now they both want to be part of the tango line-dancing class. They’ve got other concepts in the making, and hope eventually to turn these too into a series of online videos.
Aside from their positive attitude there are undeniably worries about their financial future. While they assure me that they are very happy while working to creatively develop income through online work, the pandemic has been financially tragic for them. All the things they had planned for this year were cancelled. They used to go to the San Francisco Bay Area a lot and had more visits to other places in California and other states planned. One of the highlights of the past few years was the International Tango Summit in Los Angeles in September where they have taught with great success. Their calendar was full for this year, and the termination of all tango events has put them into a tight financial spot. They’re hoping that a big teaching job on a cruise in early 2021 is still going to happen, just as will other international work that had been planned. It would be their first cruise ever and they’re very excited. “If that happens,” they said, “it will get us right back.”
In the meantime, creating videos and teaching online provides them only with a fraction of what they used to make. Some of their students, they said, don’t even want to study online. They used to take privates regularly, but online lessons don’t work for them. Another common issue for tango teachers in general is the overall concept of charging for online classes. Many people who previously had no problem paying for workshops now don’t want to pay for online classes, partly because so much on the internet is available for free, partly because art generally is regarded as a free service in our society.
“It’s a new reality: we must do business on the internet instead of showing up in a community and teaching in person. We have to prepare our art as a product that we can sell,” they said.
I asked them what they thought about fundraisers. It turned out that they are strongly opposed to the idea. “It feels like begging for money,” Jon said. “I learned from my parents that you work for money.” He’s kept this attitude all his life, and even during the tough times they’re going through right now they refuse to have anything to do with GoFundMe and other fundraising campaigns.
Now that their home state of Nevada is slowly opening up, I asked whether that provided a glimpse of hope. But Jon thinks that it’s going to be a disaster when they open the casinos and restaurants and shopping malls. “Everybody comes to Las Vegas, the whole world,” he exclaimed. “They come for gambling and partying. Start a pandemic and you get a disaster,” he concluded. For the foreseeable future the couple remains at home, practicing social-distancing and waiting for things to improve. They keep in contact with their friends in Buenos Aires where the strict sheltering-in-place started in mid-March and will most likely continue through late September. Sheltering-in-place is enforced by police and security officers, and people are fined if they go further than the nearest supermarket.
We finished by briefly talking about the wider impact of the pandemic in the USA. “We’re blessed,” Judy and Jon said. “We’ve got a roof over our head. We’re peanuts in comparison to what many others have to go through in these times.”
This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2
Raquel Greenberg was traveling the world teaching and performing Argentine tango when I met her in San Francisco in 2011. At the time Raquel, who was born in Israel and raised in Paris, was based in Buenos Aires but spent much of her time traveling. She came to the Bay Area twice within a year and became a widely respected teacher. She taught privately and at tango schools and clubs in the Bay Area. In a relatively short amount of time she built a base of dedicated students who followed and supported her. I was attracted to her teaching because she was a well-rounded dancer. Her background is in ballet and ballroom dancing and, just like me, her heart is in Latin dance. One night we sneaked away for some salsa dancing and she had a blast. There was a rumor that she would settle down in the Bay Area. But when she left the second time, it was for good. She kept in touch with her friends in the Bay Area via her newsletters, sending updates from her new and ever-evolving tango life. To my surprise, one day I learnt that she had settled down in London! England didn’t strike me as a place that would embrace the sensuality of Argentinian tango. London, so I thought, was better known as a business-oriented, fast-paced, tough and expensive place to live. But, as I learned during my recent conversation with Raquel, London is not like the rest of England. It’s a cosmopolitan center with a lot to offer and an open-minded young international crowd. However, just as everywhere else, it all came to an abrupt end when the COVID-19 crisis hit.
Unlike most people I’ve been talking to, Raquel didn’t feel paralyzed when the lockdown was imposed on London. Instead, she took action.
“When it all started, I felt the need to do something,” she told me. “I thought of all the people who were not going to see each other.” She started to investigate the possibilities of online classes, and quickly discovered Zoom. Until then, she hadn’t even heard about the online meeting place which has since emerged as the most widely used video-conferencing platform in the world. Not always abreast with technical innovation, Raquel nevertheless quickly learnt how the video-conferencing platform works. Now she proudly claims to be one of the first tango professionals to teach online Zoom classes, and she is already well into her third month.
Her first class, which still continues, was a weekly ladies’ technique class. “Because that’s my strength.” she claimed. Her students welcomed the new concept of online classes, and tuned in from all over London. Since springtime has been exceptionally beautiful in London, many Londoners who were otherwise confined to their apartments chose outdoor locations such as their balconies or small garden spaces. Raquel feels lucky to live close to one of London’s parks and loves the open space. It allows her to do outdoor training, mostly basic exercises for balance and walking, during the lockdown.
However, the classes are not all about tango. “I’m not just teaching,” said Raquel, “but I talk a lot to my students.” She told me how they are grateful for the social interaction, and the fact that the class has catapulted them out of their loneliness. “The Zoom classes created an amazing bond,” she continued. People thanked her, and someone even went so far as to say: ‘You saved my life.’
After so much positive feedback she offered another class, this time a free music-session aimed at expanding the knowledge of tango music. “It’s more of a social meeting,” she said, “and it happens every Friday night.“
It sounds as if in some ways her students have been enjoying more social time with each other because of tango than before the lockdown. “Usually,” Raquel told me, “when I try to ask people to meet for a coffee or to go for a drink after class, they never have time. They have to get up early the next morning for work or they have to go back to work right away. They are busy all the time. People are so busy and focused on work. There never is time for socializing.” In that respect London is more like New York, she noted, not like the rest of England.
I circled back to the question that had been burning in my mind. What made her decide to leave Buenos Aires, the center of Argentine tango and the nirvana for every tango dancer, and move to London? She had lived in Buenos Aires for ten years, studied tango, turned professional, and taught as a guest artist all over the world. It looked like a great life – why did she leave?
“Living in Argentina was difficult,” she explained. “Traveling and staying at other people’s houses didn’t work anymore. I did it for ten years.”
Even though Raquel considers herself a citizen of the world, she wanted to move to a new place where she could really settle down. “I was looking for a cosmopolitan place where an artistic culture had already developed and where there was an artistic movement.” In addition it also had to be a place from where she could travel easily. “Also,” she smiled, “the weather had to be nice.” (She likes mild temperatures.) She talked about how she debated moving to Italy because she has a special connection with the country. But despite her love for Italy, she found it to be too similar to Argentina in terms of the way business is done. In the end she chose London as her base, the main reason being that business was taken more seriously there. London, however, she admits, is challenging in other ways, and it’s expensive.
“When I came to London, I didn’t have any family or friends.” she said. “Nobody knew me and nobody threw out the red carpet for me.” She started from zero on her own, and said it was difficult. “I don’t want to start the ‘women have it so much harder’ number,” she said with a quiet laugh, “but it’s definitely harder for a woman alone. It helps to have a partner.”
Raquel considers herself ‘a dancer in her body and her soul.’ She began ballet when she was six years old. As a young adult she discovered partner-dance, becoming a ballroom and Latin dancer and competitor at age twenty-one. When she discovered Argentine tango — she was watching a tango show — she knew this was it. “That’s what I wanted to do.” She quickly understood that Argentine tango was more than just a dance, and that it was about a different culture. She said she became serious about tango in 1996, and moved to Argentina to study with some of the great tangueros, among them Carlos Gavito, Osvaldo Zotto and Lorena Ermocida, and Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anne.
Once she had made the move to London, she founded the Raquel Greenberg Tango Academy at three main locations in central London. I asked her whether there is a predominant age group, as in the USA, where most of the tango community is quite mature. “No,” she said, “in London it’s quite the contrary. I teach all different ages; anybody between twenty and eighty”.
She has several group classes and doesn’t employ staff teachers. Instead she relies on guest teachers and emphasizes that she only invites ‘the best of the best.’ Her guest artists have included Diego ‘El Pájaro‘ Riemer, Pablo Veron, Julio Balmaceda, and lately with Alexandr Frolov, to name just a few. Despite her full schedule in London she continues to travel for workshops all over Europe, especially in France. She has also created a tango holiday on Crete after having fallen in love with the beauty of nature of the island. She feels a strong bond with the local tango community and has taken tango students from different parts of Europe, including her own, to Crete for the past four years in May and October.
When the lockdown came in March all this changed. “Group classes stopped, privates stopped,” she said. Her two weekly milongas have also stopped. Personal traveling to workshops is on hold. Her annual two-week tango holiday which was planned for mid-May was cancelled. “It’s a lot of work behind the scenes that is gone,” she said. The UK Tango Festival & Championship, a major tango event similar to the Argentine Tango USA (ATUSA), which was scheduled for early June and in which she was involved was also cancelled. In short, all her sources of income for the foreseeable future have vanished.
At the same time, she has ongoing expenses. She continues to pay her assistant and a software consultant. To make matters worse the rent in London is payable for a year in advance, meaning that the rent for the three locations where she taught and ran her milongas is also gone. In addition the restaurant where she taught is now out of business, as is the gym where she held some of her classes. “Luckily,” she said, “the third location is at a church where they have a community spirit and haven’t been charging rent since April. “
“The British government talks about the fifteenth of June for opening up businesses like retail shops,” she said. “But now there is talk about a recession. In Britain, employees receive eighty per-cent of their salary when they lose their jobs. But eventually there will be no money left, and who knows what will happen in July? And on top of the pandemic we’re also dealing with Brexit.” she added. “We’ll see what that brings.”
Are there government programs for artists like her? I ask. She says she hasn’t been able to find any help or grants from the government for small business owners like herself. “I would have to fire myself from my own business to become eligible for the government’s unemployment program.”
On the other hand, people from the tango community have been very supportive. There have been fundraisers on Facebook like Help save the milonga,Where am I not going to dance tonight? or the Unidos Tango Festival. She was part of Unidos, which was the first online tango festival ever. It stretched for two weeks in March and early April, and featured seventy tango teachers from all over the world with online classes and presentations. “It was a very big effort from everybody,” she emphasized. She enjoyed the experience: “It was good to see that in times of a crisis people can push together to make something happen.”
She is well aware of the risk of infection among dancers, especially since some of her students became sick with the virus after traveling to Italy. Fortunately they recovered. She herself had a very bad flu in January, and thinks that’s perhaps why she hasn’t gotten the virus. Meanwhile tango professionals in England are trying to organize another online event to help make some money and keep tango going. But like so many other tango professionals, Raquel says she has no idea about the future. For now, she does what she can to keep her teaching going. But being focused so much on her current tango activities it’s very difficult for her to think about a plan B. She is in a holding pattern like everybody else. Her teaching continues but what does she think about the future of social dancing? “The milonga is the big question mark,” she said. “First of all it’s very difficult to find a venue in London. Secondly, public transportation is difficult since everybody in London uses public transit and that in itself causes a high risk of infection. And thirdly, a milonga means a lot of people in a small space.”
So for the time being Raquel is going to continue with online classes via Zoom. And her students participating from the safety of their homes.