Tango festivals in the time of Covid

Festival y Mundial de Baile
A picture from the past: the “Festival y Mundial de Baile, Buenos Aires” (Photo: Tango Buenos Aires)

Organizers are attempting a balancing act

After thirteen months of being almost exclusively online, Argentine tango is gradually making its comeback to the real world, that is, here, in the USA. From small private gatherings to public outdoor milongas and even some of the better known tango festivals, tango dancing in person is bit by bit becoming a reality again. The first signs could be seen back in March when a handful of festival organizers began to announce that their national events would return this summer, foremost of which were the ‘Windy City Tango Festival’ in Chicago, ‘Burning Tango’ and ‘ATUSA’ in Northern California, and the ‘Tucson Tango Festival’. These popular nationwide events which usually attract a tango crowd of several hundred or more dancers are scheduled to take place as early as June and July, despite ongoing Covid restrictions in most states. And registrations from all over the country have been going strong.

A general sigh of relief across social media platforms was palpable when the first promotions rolled out. Delighted postings —“See ya there!”, “Yay!”, “Can’t wait!”— started to pop up in tango forums and groups, a sign that tango dancers are tired of learning tango alone at home, tired of a watered down experience streaming via computer into their living rooms with no one to practice with — unless you were one of the luckier ones whose dance partner was part of your social bubble. It seems like Zoom and other virtual meeting places had had their day for the time being, at least as far as the tango world was concerned. Quite obviously, tangueros were keen to leave the reclusiveness of their living rooms and to waltz back onto a vibrant dance floor. They wanted to return to what Argentine tango is all about: embracing and connecting with a real partner.

But while many dancers have been publicly applauding the return of actual in-person tango events, the majority has remained quiet: one reason being that most people don’t usually leave comments on social media. But many remain skeptical or even opposed to tango events at this point when the world is still wrestling with a pandemic and, in spite of a fast-moving vaccination process, we in the USA still haven’t achieved herd immunity. Skeptics may not publicly express their opinion for fear of stirring up endless heated debates about the pros and cons of vaccination, mask mandates, and more. But doubts about the safety of public tango events are widespread. Many tango aficionados who in the past wouldn’t miss a single event are likely to stay away from in-person dancing for a while.

Overall the tango community remains as divided about the pandemic and everything it entails as does the rest of the world.

In the meantime, despite the complicated state of affairs the people in charge of the above-mentioned festivals (and other events not mentioned) are attempting a balancing act to bring Argentine tango back to life and at the same time provide a safe environment. In order to get permission to hold these highly visible events, they have to comply with Covid rules of their respective counties and states. This means that as of right now they require a certificate of vaccination or immunization from everyone who registers for their events. This applies not just to the attendees, but also to the teachers and volunteers working at the door and assisting during classes — meaning basically everyone who is involved in their events, all of which involves another layer of complication.

Clay Nelson
Clay Nelson at “Burning Tango”

“It’s a lot of logistics of data to accommodate everybody,” as Clay Nelson, organizer of the ‘Burning Tango’ festival in the remote town of McCloud, California, tells me. “A lot of people this year come with a partner,” he says, “but while they send the name of their partner, they sometimes forget to submit the partner’s proof of vaccination.” He expects that about sixty to seventy percent of registrants are not going to submit the required certificate of vaccination, and that in the end he will have to provide them a refund.

His biggest concern, however, is that people show up without being vaccinated and ‘cause a scene’. Such a thing wouldn’t be an unlikely scenario given Clay’s experience four years ago when he started to ask people to wear a wrist band: one couple wouldn’t, and when he insisted, the woman began to cry. Unpleasant as this incident was, with this year’s strict rules in place it wouldn’t come as a surprise if even more people were to act unruly. Clay is currently dealing with an otherwise devoted and long-time attendee of his festivals who is now accusing him of violating the Nuremberg Code which states that no human being can be forced to be part of a medical experiment. He has even gone as far as threatening to take legal action because of the vaccination requirements. Clay has been seeking legal advice and says: “A couple of friends have run it by their attorneys and they both said this guy is dead wrong in that it’s not an experimental drug and no one is forcing people to participate and that the writer might actually get counter-sued if he pursues this course of action.”

Nevertheless he is hoping that California is actually going to open up by June 15 as announced by Governor Gavin Newsom — which would be just in time before the start of ‘Burning Tango’. “It would make my life a whole lot easier,” he adds.

Jim Baker
Jim Baker, organizer of the “Tucson Tango Festival”

Jim Baker agrees. As the organizer of the ‘Tucson Tango Festival’ he also takes a firm position on any objections to Covid safety-protocols: “It’s not illegal,” he says, and continues to explain that: “it’s not discriminating because the festival is a private event. Everyone can decide for themselves whether they want to participate or not.” For this event also either proof of full vaccination at least three weeks prior to the event is required or registrants need to prove otherwise that they have reached immunity. This can be done by either showing that they have antibodies or by providing a positive test followed by a negative test. Jim himself gets both a blood- and a Covid-test every week. “I was really sick in October,” he explains. Since his recovery he has been continuously showing a higher antibody count than ‘anybody with a vaccine’ and thus was asked to participate in a long-term study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

He is aware that people who haven’t experienced what he has gone through may not understand why he strictly enforces the health regulations of the state of Arizona for his four-day event. Admittedly he was prepared for negative feedback, but fortunately so far only one person has complained. On the contrary, out of the three hundred people who have signed up, there are about twenty who previously thought they would never dance again. But with safety protocols such as proof of immunization, wearing masks, and a smaller number of participants in a much bigger space than before to provide for necessary social distancing, they feel safe enough to return to tango.

With astonishing foresight and optimism, Jim started already at the beginning of this year with the preparations for the festival. He appears well-informed and says he stays abreast with the development of the pandemic by consulting regularly with close virus-expert friends and the CDC’s ‘Arizona Tracking Program’. “I knew that by the end of May half the population would be vaccinated,” he tells me. “If there is a variant or the vaccine doesn’t have a long-term effect or if people who have recovered have no more antibodies, this will be the time when it’s safest.” If anything goes backwards, he suspects, it will be at the end of the year. But the way things have been going, Jim feels comfortable today that he will have zero restrictions by the time of the festival on the first of July .

Marcos and Ruta Maria
Tango professionals Marcos Questa and Ruta Maria from Los Angeles

However, while he is admittedly more relaxed about the whole event because he doesn’t need the funds to live off (he earns a living as a finish designer), full-time tango professionals such as Marcos Questa and Ruta Maria whose livelihood could be at stake if their event goes wrong remain cautious. This high-powered couple from Los Angeles has therefore decided to wait and cancel their ‘International Tango Summit & Argentine Tango World Cup’ for the second time in a row. For one thing, they say, it takes more time to prepare than they had. They say that they need about two years to get everything in place for their new festival which began only in 2018. The ‘Tango Summit’ is a unique and large-scale Pro/Am competition and festival, similar to the concept of grand international ballroom competitions, but ‘still respecting the rules and codes of Argentine tango’. The festival has grown by a staggering 40% every year since it first started, but after last year’s cancellation, and other huge losses of 2020, the odds seemed to be too high, and the couple didn’t want to risk another loss.

In addition, as Ruta and Marcos point out, the amount of extra work and the complications that would have been involved in applying the ever-changing required Covid safety regulations would have been too much to handle— considering also that many attendees come from abroad where different rules and restrictions are in place and from where new variants could be brought into the USA. Altogether it would have been an impossible task to manage for the couple so that everybody’s safety would be guaranteed.

Instead of trying to make up for the cancellation of the festival and other losses from this past year by teaching online, they made a decisive break: “We took the opportunity to step back,” they say. They quit teaching for the time being, closed both of their studios in Los Angeles, and have been focusing on their creative work. Both were vaccinated early on and are still being tested regularly, despite already having been infected with the virus last March. They remain vigilant, and even though they are ‘firm believers in one-on-one teaching’, as they put it, they waited until very recently to teach their first small group-lesson with students whom they have been close to and whom they trust. “When the one-on-one transition started,” they say, “we tested every two weeks.” They required the same from their students. “We feel we have a sense of responsibility to our students.”

They think they are not ready for touring and performing and committing to one-on-one appearances at bigger festivals and events. Instead they are preparing to spend the next few months at their home in Buenos Aires where tango remains quite alive, despite all claims to the contrary; it sounds like they are reinventing themselves. Shortly after we spoke, however, they agreed to teach and perform at the more intimate ‘Burning Tango’ festival in June.

Rod and Jenny
Rod Relusio and Jenny Teters, organizers of “The Windy City Tango Festival”

With more tango professionals such as Marcos Questa and Ruta Maria being reluctant to return to tango festivals, I wondered if it was difficult to convince teachers to come to the ‘Windy City Tango Festival’ in Chicago. “Quite the contrary,” says Rod Relucio, one of the organizers. “Teachers were very excited to come to this year’s festival and all of them got vaccinated. As was the reaction of the tango community overall,” he continues: “It’s been overwhelming.”

Still, for this year’s ‘Windy City Tango Festival’ Rod and his partner Jenny Teters had to apply the same Covid regulations as other festivals. So far there is one difference: attendees have the option to provide a negative Covid-test no older than one day before they arrive. This is the same rule as for travelers to and from Europe, and the couple deemed it safe enough to apply to their own event: “I thought that if they’re allowing it, then it’s safe for us,” says Rod. However, when I asked him how he wants to control where people go between workshops, he said he was going to contemplate this aspect and that he might have to change his policy to that of daily testing during the duration of the festival. It should be simple, he thinks, because the testing system will get easier over time, and that by July people will be able to be tested at many different places with results within hours.

Rod has been pleased with the compliance of the majority of respondents. So far only about 1% have not wanted either to take a test or be vaccinated. “I told them I’m not going to try to change your mind or what you believe in. I just support what you believe in, but you have to support us in not allowing you to come to our festival,” he says. ”We can’t have people who don’t take the test or do not get vaccinated. There will be no exceptions: They say things like ’You know me’. But it’s not up to me, it’s to show that you’ve done your duty. And to me it’s really important for us not to be any part of spreading it.”

By June, according to the overall prediction, 75% to 80% of the population in Illinois will have been vaccinated, and then the state will open up again. If things keep going the right way Rod hopes that even the mask mandate will no longer be required — and dancing at his festival would be almost back to normal.