Christy Cote, San Francisco, California: tango teacher, performer and choreographer
Christy is my ‘tango mom.’ She was my first tango teacher when I started learning tango in 2009. I had known her for many years before, when I was a student at the ballroom-dance teachers’ college at the Metronome, at the time one of San Francisco’s most respected and popular dance studios. I wasn’t into Argentine tango back then, but I kept seeing Christy at the studio and I loved watching her at our student – teacher showcases at Fort Mason. I thought her choreographies, her outfits, and her dancing were most charming. She was approachable and friendly without knowing me, and so I trusted her enough to finally take one of her tango boot-camps for beginners. I had fun and enjoyed her teaching so much that I signed up for her regular Tuesday evening classes. The rest is history. Now Christy Cote is without doubt one of the most established tango teachers in the Bay Area. She began teaching full-time in the mid-nineties, and will be celebrating twenty-five years of teaching next April. Now, however, her future, like that of other tango teachers, is uncertain.
When I last saw her in person at class in late February this year, she was observing the oncoming crisis with great concern. But she kept her classes going, despite warnings. “I didn’t want to feed into the frenzy,” she explained. But Tom Lewis, the owner of the La Pista studio where she teaches, urged her to be cautious, and recommended early on to consider canceling her classes. When the shelter-in-place order was announced in mid-March for San Francisco, she had no choice but to stop teaching.
Shortly before she had already suffered her first blow. She was about to take a group of her students to the International Tango Congress in Buenos Aires (CITA), the longest-running tango festival in Argentina. Christy was in Hawaii for her mother’s eighty-fifth birthday when her phone rang. “I was getting my hair done, my mom was getting her hair done, we were about to welcome twelve dinner guests at the hotel,” she recalled, “when Fabian Salas, the festival organizer, called and told me that they had to cancel the event.” That was two days before she was to leave for Buenos Aires. She immediately picked up her phone to inform her students and to tell them not to get on their flight to Argentina. But she had left her address folder back home in San Francisco, intending to pick it up during her layover, and now scrambled to find the phone numbers of all the participants in her group. Email, she said, would have taken too long. She managed to contact everyone, but there was one student who insisted on traveling anyway. “I had to be strong with him,” she said, “because they had lockdown already in Buenos Aires, and I told him he should stay at home.” She finally succeeded in convincing him, but one student from Canada was already in Buenos Aires. He had trouble with his accommodation and wasn’t allowed to check into his hotel. He ended up staying at a different place, but was not allowed to go out, and frantically called her for help. His situation was eventually sorted out, and after several miserable days all on his own in Buenos Aires he flew back home. Christy returned to San Francisco and kept teaching for a few more days.
How does she experience the sudden termination of her work? “It’s financially devastating,” she said. Tango, however, provides for only one part of her income. She owns a rental property in Hawaii which usually pays for her expenses. She hasn’t been able to rent the vacation property for weeks now, and she doesn’t expect it to be a source of income for the foreseeable future. She tells me that her property in Honolulu costs $1,600 in monthly homeowners-insurance, and that rental taxes run as high as $17,000 annually. In other words, with the arrival of Covid-19, both sources of Christy’s income have dried up at once.
Like everybody else, her calendar is suddenly blank. She had to cancel a boot-camp for advanced dancers in early May which she was supposed to teach with Eduardo Saucedo, another tango legend from Buenos Aires. Then a major dance-camp in Las Vegas for dance teachers, scheduled for mid-June, was canceled as was the International Tango Summit in Los Angeles in September. However, she is as busy as ever. She has recorded tango videos with Eduardo Saucedo and promotes them online. She wants to keep her students engaged. In May she started Zoom meetings on Tuesday evenings — the time of her regular class for the past twenty-five years. She talks to many of her students a lot, but to some others not at all, and is concerned about some whose only social contact is their tango class.
Altogether she remains very busy with her social interactions and care of her financials, applying for the new government unemployment program for self-employed individuals, PUA, the corona PPP program, and grants. She has applied for an artist grant with the City of San Francisco and recently received a check for $1,500. It made her proud to live in a city that appreciates its artists. She also helps her non-English-speaking artist friends who are often unaware of various benefits and grants.
At the time we talked, she said that she had received $7,000 in donations from her students and about the same amount in pre-paid lessons. The downside of this means that once she is able to teach again, she’ll have to teach six to eight private lessons a day to work off that money, during which time she won’t be able to earn new money. It’s a Catch-22, but she says she is very grateful for the help at this time and the amazing generosity of her students.
What does she think is going to happen to tango? “The gates are never really going to open to the way we knew it,” she thinks. Looking at the bigger picture of social dance, she said that ballroom dances have always been affected by politics. “Look at the swing, for example, it was at its height in the early 1940s, then the war came and the young men were drafted and that brought out the demise of the dance. The same happened with Argentine tango: after the fall of President Peron in 1955 tango almost disappeared. It wasn’t until decades later that it re-emerged. With the success of tango shows such as Forever Tango it became more popular all over the world than ever before. But that was twenty-five years ago,” she said, “it’s surprising that a popular dance lasts that long.”
“I never thought that tango would become that popular,” she continued. She says she thought of tango as a dance in popularity similar to the lambada or swing, both of which lasted for a few years and then disappeared. At first, she recalled, tango in San Francisco was danced by a small group, and initially she wanted it to remain small and intimate. At the time, she still had a full-time job and taught ballroom dance on the side. But with tango growing more and more, she realized the benefit of a larger community. Then she had a personal experience with cancer and decided to follow her passion to become a full-time tango teacher.
She wonders if now tango is coming to end or: “Maybe some kind of underground tango is going to develop.” It surprises me to hear such clear but pessimistic words from someone who has dedicated the past twenty-five years of her life to tango. She laughs and says she actually can’t imagine a life without tango.