Dreams on hold: Valerie Kattenfeld

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

Valerie Kattenfeld
Stuck in Buenos Aires: aspiring tango instructor Valerie Kattenfeld

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.

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© 2020 by Andrea Bindereif