Tango pros: How are they doing now? Part 4

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I stayed in Buenos Aires last spring. My visit was cut short by the outbreak of the pandemic. I had arrived in the first days of March, not sure whether I had done the right thing by sticking to my travel plan and not sure what to expect. My plan had been to spend several weeks in Buenos Aires studying Spanish in the morning and tango in the afternoon. The first cases of Covid-19 had arrivd in the USA, but Argentina still seemed a safe place. I was naïve, as were most of us. But I had no idea how quickly the virus was going to spread, and that it in no time it would turn into a pandemic.

During the few days I ended up staying in Argentina the government moved into action quickly. So far as tango was concerned, their first step was to ban all foreign visitors from tango events. A day later they shut down all tango events, and then finally closed the borders. I had a choice: either to stay in Argentina indefinitely and be confined to my small rental apartment or to take the next flight back to the USA. I decided on the latter. My entire stay, short as it was, was overshadowed by the mounting crisis.

One of those who stayed because that was his home and lived through the turmoil of the past year in Buenos Aires is Eduardo Saucedo. Until the arrival of the pandemic he used to travel frequently around the world, teaching and performing. But suddenly his world shrank to the size of this apartment.

On the other side of the world in London, another well-known tango teacher, Raquel Greenberg, worried about the future of her business — of her entire profession. She bravely kept her tango academy going by teaching online classes. Thanks to the British government’s uneven handling of the crisis Raquel was able to open her school for a while for in-person classes. She even managed to organize a tango trip to the other end of Europe.

What follows is the continued story of two tango teachers in two cosmopolitan cities, seven thousand miles apart, living through the same crisis: what happened during the second half of 2020 to Eduardo Saucedo in Buenos Aires and what happened Raquel Greenberg in London.

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Eduardo Saucedo

Eduardo Saucedo
Eduardo Saucedo, master teacher, dancer, choreographer

When I call Eduardo in early January he sounds as happy as a clam. No wonder, after a very long and strict lockdown he is now out and about, enjoying the simple pleasures of life he had missed so much.

Buenos Aires suffered an unprecedented lockdown for more than two hundred days between March and October. The confined living situation caused a five-fold increase in depression among local residents known for their lively social life. After the lockdown was lifted, not surprisingly, people began flocking to milongas that popped up at many places in Argentina’s capital. Some of them take place legitimately: outdoors and with special permits by the administration. Others are held without permits and are frequently shut down by local police. Needless to say, dancing tango at a time when the pandemic is still raging in Argentina is at the center of a much-heated debate. The issue hits a delicate point in the memory of Argentines, since during the dictatorship tango as a place of social gatherings and potential uprising was forbidden.

Even though the reasons for the continued restrictions on social activities, including tango gatherings, are different this time, they have been just as hard to bear. And in many ways they have affected everyday life even more. The residents of Buenos Aires were only allowed to leave their homes to go shopping at the nearest store. At times a nightly curfew was imposed, strictly enforced by police.

Ever since rules were loosened at the beginning of the Argentinian summer, Eduardo tells me laughingly he has been taking ‘a looot of walks’ across town. He buys his coffee in the morning, goes for a walk, has lunch outside, and hangs out and enjoys time with a few close friends in his bubble.

But the many months he was forced to spend alone at home were not wasted: he worked on receiving a certificate in life-coaching. This was something, he tells me, he had always wanted to do.

This doesn’t mean that he has given up his tango career. He continues to teach online, both private lessons and group classes. One of these is a rather unusual class about the culture of Buenos Aires including instructions on tango technique for advanced dancers, called ‘Tango Embrace of Buenos Aires’. He tells me that he developed the concept with his co-hosts Christy Cote in San Francisco and Kikki Rusth. Furthermore, he maintains close ties with other tango communities in the USA such as the Tango Society of Boston for which he teaches a four-week online series this month. This way he also stays in touch with students in parts of the world that he used to visit frequently.

When I talked to Eduardo last summer about teaching online, he said that he appreciated some of the new benefits of teaching online, above all the fact that ‘zooming’ into his students’ living room creates more intimacy and allows for a closer relationship between teacher and student. Now he adds that his new online teaching experience was a learning process: “With teaching online you have to reorganize your mind. You have to teach with a different vocabulary.”

It seems that he is still far from teaching in person and will continue teaching online for the time being. While returning to his old tango life is not in the near future, he seems too busy to have any regrets: “It’s good to miss tango because it is going to result in a ‘reset’ in tango.” Tango will be even more popular than ever after the pandemic, he thinks.

After we talk, he packs his bags for a trip to the south of Patagonia with his friends ‘in the bubble’, for a few days exploring something new — and enjoying his new freedom.

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Raquel Greenberg

Raquel Greenberg
Raquel Greenberg went back to teaching online in London. Photo by Gustavo Piola.

After a devastating spring and summer, London started opening up in mid-August. So did Raquel with her tango academy. The church where she teaches allowed her to teach in person with all the required restrictions in place. The church was accommodating in other ways too, as Raquel adds: “They were so kind to reduce the rent.”

Months of teaching online only from her apartment finally came to an end. It was a huge relief to see her students in person, even though Raquel never missed a beat. She was one of the first tango professionals to switch to online teaching immediately when the lockdown took place last March. During our first conversation three months later she told me how she quickly learned to master video-conferencing platforms and managed that way to keep her students engaged — dancing tango as well as on a social level.

Although her students loved her online classes they were overwhelmed to be able to attend in person classes again. “It was rewarding to see all the happy faces”, Raquel remembers. She taught a reduced number of students at the space in the church. Encouraged by the success of this first step, she started to organize her annual tango retreat in Crete.

Still, there was a lot of uncertainty how the overall Covid crisis would develop in the UK and in Europe. “It was difficult to get the trip off the ground because the rules changed all the time,” she says. In the end, the group with eight students was much smaller than previous groups. The students came from France, Denmark, and England: a genuinely European experiment, given that each country had — and still has — different travel restrictions. The experience was quite different too: the trip was moved to a different time of year — from May to late September— and the overall relief of the participants at having escaped their restricted life at home and of actually being on vacation was unprecedented. The group stayed in a remote part of Crete and had to drive to get to dinner places in the evenings. She wasn’t able to participate in many of these small social outings since she continued teaching her online lessons during that time. But she rewarded herself with an extra few days of vacation by herself after all the others had left.

When she returned to London she says she felt incredibly happy, and it was almost a surreal feeling to be back in a city that had returned to life. She thought her events planned for the holiday season would still be happening and continued to promote them, investing a lot of time and money. “December is usually the busiest time of the year for me,” Raquel says. But soon after, the infectious numbers went up and everything started to shut down again. All Raquel’s events had to be cancelled.

Nevertheless, she tells me as we speak in January, she is at this point the only operating Argentine tango school in London. She firmly believes that tango will come back, but it could also mean a lot of competition for those few professionals like her who will have survived this crisis. “It’s scary to think what’s going to happen when everything opens up again,” she ponders. But ‘scary’ is the way life feels in London these days. When Raquel now walks in the nearby park to clear her mind it’s very quiet, but at the other end of the park she keeps hearing sirens and ambulances. “It’s like a science fiction movie,” she says.

Last of all I want to know if she will get vaccinated. “I can’t wait!” she says without hesitating.

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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