Eduardo Saucedo: A time for reflection and new opportunities.

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Eduardo Saucedo
Eduardo Saucedo, master teacher, dancer, choreographer

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.

AB: Eduardo, thank you for this interview!

***

© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Judy and Jon redefine themselves in Las Vegas

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Judy and Jon: tango in the desert.

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.”

***

© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Raquel Greenberg: a citizen of the world, based in London

This story is part of the ongoing series Tango in the Time of Covid-19, Phase 2

Raquel Greenberg
Raquel Greenberg (Photo by Uzo Oleh)

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.

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© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif

Tango in the Time of COVID-19, Phase Two

Christy & Eduardo
San Francisco-based Christy Cote and Eduardo Saucedo from Buenos Aires. Photo by Jason Eng.

When in early April I contemplated the idea of writing about how tango professionals were affected by the COVID-19 crisis, my hardest decision was whom not to include. I have met close to a hundred tango professionals over the years; all have a unique story to tell and all have lived an unusual life. Each would have made an interesting subject. I felt, however, that my story had to be limited to a small group. I wanted a representative range of people. In the interest of timeliness I needed quick responses to my enquiries. The result was seven portraits of tango teachers and organizers in Argentina, on both coasts of the USA, and in Europe.

Now that we’re in the fourth month of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown in the USA, it’s time to take another snapshot. After a horrible spring with so many people becoming sick and dying, it seems the spread of the virus is finally under control, at least in the USA and other parts of the northern hemisphere. The number of infections has been on the decrease. The economy is slowly opening up. But just as things started to look a little brighter, society has been pushed over the edge by demonstrations about ongoing racism. We’re taking to the streets in protest, and are often forced to abandon social distancing, one of the most important precautions to lower the risk of spreading the virus. Medical experts are now warning about another spike in the pandemic as a result of these mass gatherings and police violence.

In short, while we have started to breathe a sigh of relief, we still don’t know where this pandemic is heading. Can we continue to slowly return to a normal life? What impact does the ongoing uncertainty have on the economy, on our health, our jobs, our social life?

These are questions that make me wonder what the situation is now for tango professionals. How are they coping now after the first devastating impact of this crisis? What has changed for them? Are they hopeful about returning to their jobs? What do they think about teaching on Zoom? How do they perceive Argentine tango? Let’s take a look.  

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© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif