Where are the dancers?

 

Tango guest-houses have seen few or no guests at all this past year

Tango house
Real tango dancing is few these days which is bad for business.

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

The closing of milongas due to the Covid lockdown has been lamented a lot this past year. The absence of dancing together in a physical space and the lack of real togetherness has been painful for many dancers, mostly on a social and emotional level. But organizers, hosts, and owners of dance venues that have had to shut down have also suffered often devastating financial losses.

Little has been said about the shutdown of another vital part of Argentine tango: tango guest-houses. These used to be a welcome place to stay for visitors from out of town, offering an all-around tango experience for many traveling tangueros. Whether, as a tango aficionado, you would visit a certain place with the intention of combining a sightseeing trip with tango, or whether your sole purpose was a tango vacation at a place that offered workshops on site plus a bed for the night and a kitchen where you could share a meal with others, tango guest-houses have always been a place of community where visiting tangueros could mix and mingle with other newcomers as well as with the locals.

The social component of the ‘casas de huéspedes tango’ (tango guest-houses) should not be underestimated, says Ricarda Siebold, who until recently owned two such establishments in Buenos Aires. The German native has lived in Argentina for over twenty years, and opened her first tango guest-house, Lunallena, in 2001. At the time, she tells me, when many Argentines left the country because of Argentina’s financial crash, she and a handful of other like-minded members of the tango community stayed against all odds, and began boosting the crumbling economy by offering lodgings for tango visitors from abroad. The concept wasn’t new, but this small group of young entrepreneurs gave it a fresh twist, addressing the younger and more contemporary international tango scene. It worked, and over time they welcomed countless guests from all over the world. They took them to milongas and informed them about the tango scene and the local culture. Ricarda’s ballroom at Lunallena was spacious enough for hosting her own milongas so that her visitors ‘didn’t have to waste a week out of their precious two-week vacation’.

Tango guest-houses such as hers quickly became desirable destinations for visitors from abroad who preferred an authentic tango experience to an otherwise impersonal one at traditional lodgings. They began flourishing to the point where Siebold expanded her business by opening a second tango guest-house, Lunalila, in a distinguished neighborhood of the city. But with Airbnb moving in and attracting younger people who prefer traveling on a budget, the tango houses in Buenos Aires began to lose business. Some of them have struggled hard for the past five years.

Lunalila
Ricarda Siebold at Lunalila in Buenos Aires (Photo by Corinna Wolfien)

To make matters worse, since last March there have been no foreign tourists in Argentina — and no one knows when they will be allowed back in. All cultural locations have been closed, and only restaurants, bars, and shops are open, and in limited ways. Ricarda has been one of the luckier ones in the multifaceted tango industry; she tells me that she has been able to live off her savings. But after almost a whole year without any guests she finally had to let go of the older of her two buildings, Lunallena, which required major repair and upgrading. After the sale and transfer, which was made final on February 19th, she now has enough financial leeway to survive for another couple of months until Argentina decides to open its borders again — hopefully by October. There is currently a protocol in place for tango by the Argentine government which the city of Buenos Aires has not yet approved. As a result, outdoor milongas that are currently taking place are not always legal. No one really knows what’s legal and what’s not, says Ricarda, leaving her and others with an uncertain future.

She emphasizes how completely dependent she is on when tango will start and when tourists will be allowed in so that Lunalila can have guests again. “It is really very, very difficult to be without an income and without guests for such a long time,” she says. She still has one employee, whom she claims is essential for her business, but since there is no government support for business owners like her, this is an expense that once again must come from her savings. At the same time, the Argentine government has made no concessions on property and income taxes during the pandemic.

While Ricarda has resigned herself to letting her beloved Lunallena go, she has salvaged most of the house’s inventory for a new dance hall which she plans to open in Tigre, just outside Buenos Aires. She says that in the course of the chats and messages we kept leaving for each other she is ‘still dragging wood because we are in the process of removing the dance floor’. This will all be stored in the Lunalila tango house along with a wooden staircase, a balcony, precious old doors, and other treasures she collected over the years from fleamarkets and antique shops in Buenos Aires until it can all be used again.

“These are exhausting days,” she says, “emotionally and physically.”

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Across the Atlantic in the province of Umbria, Italy, Annette Greifenhagen and Wolfgang Sandt, owners of Villa La Rogaia, have a little more certainty. When I spoke to Annette in February she was confident that even though Umbria has endured the strictest lockdown of the pandemic they will be able to receive guests again as early as May. They need the income badly, she says, since the current year could be financially even worse than 2020.

She talks about how they had to cancel last year’s spring season, including several tango workshops. While they were very happy that most participants didn’t ask for their money back, but instead received credits for their pre-paid costs, she and Wolfgang now have to work off the vouchers from last year. It is not an insignificant amount of money since some people had paid in full.

The German couple has been running their country estate in the mountainous region near Perugia for twenty-three years, offering not only tango workshops with visiting guest artists, but also art and creative classes, cooking workshops, and outdoor experiences. When La Rogaia is not reserved for such events the guest rooms in the main house and the apartments in the smaller adjacent buildings are available for vacation rentals — which is what saved the couple last year from complete financial disaster. From June on, Annette says, they slowly started to open their units for vacation rentals, and from July on they were ‘spammed by Italians’. It came as a surprise to them since usually they host predominantly foreign visitors but, given international travel restrictions, for the most part Italians stayed in their own country. “Which was good for our account,” she adds.

Annette & Wolfgang
Annette and Wolfgang dancing and teaching tango in Umbria, Italy (Photo by Amira Sandt)

They began offering tango in September under the strictest hygiene rules, meaning that only four couples per course were permitted which was less than half of what they usually offer. The main reasons were the way they had to serve food and the limited space available for social-distancing. Everybody had to wear a mask, and dancing was only permitted outside. There were no milongas, but since they told everyone so in advance, people complied with the rules.

International students and teachers from overseas, the UK, and Norway could not come because of travel restrictions. Two tango teachers from Leipzig, Germany, stepped in spontaneously to teach one workshop. They brought members of their own tango community, and since they all knew each other it was a bit easier having them in one place. Annette and Wolfgang also taught two other tango courses themselves.

But in mid-October La Rogaia had to close again. Altogether Annette estimates they made just about one-tenth of their usual revenue, running only twenty-five percent of their courses. Fortunately she and Wolfgang have other financial legs to stand on: the production of their own olive oil, of which they sold more than in previous years, and their ‘olive-tree adoption’ program, which turned out to be particularly popular as Christmas presents. Two other sources of income are Annette’s work as a licensed therapist and Wolfgang’s artwork. He sold several of his sculptural pieces last year, so with all these resources combined the couple was able to pull through.

Because of the ongoing vaccination process they are confident that they will be able to reopen on May 1st. Are they able to conduct their own Covid-testing, I want to know, and would it help them? In Italy non-professionals are allowed to conduct testing. However, people can test themselves, but not commercially. Annette says they don’t do tests at La Rogaia because the tests are only valid for twenty-four hours, and because they can’t control people’s activities between tests. She says that they appeal to people’s consciences, and so far it has worked. She believes that communicating clearly and concisely is crucial under such critical circumstances. “I think that things will get better once cross-immunity has been reached,” she concludes firmly, “probably in 2022.”

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Back in Brooklyn, New York, Elif Onural’s four-story brownstone La Cumparsita Tango Guest House has seen no tango guests at all since last March. Elif, who genuinely enjoys company and hosted tango people even while she was still busy renovating, has been pretty much on her own in this big house of hers for the past year. Although she says she never intended to run a tango guest-house as her prime business, it was a welcome opportunity to fill her home with music and like-minded people.

Turkish-born Elif is a constructional architect by profession. She purchased the mansion, which was in need of renovation, during the recession in 2008. At the same time she started dancing tango and went to Buenos Aires where she experienced for the first time the hospitality of tango guest-houses. She found that many people were too intimidated to come to dance in New York City because it was considered to be expensive and not safe. So she began offering her house to people she already knew, charging only little, because she wanted to provide a service to the community. As time passed she accepted friends of friends, and gradually the circle of people who stayed at her house grew.

The occasional rental of guest rooms created enough extra income to help pay the mortgage. Then last March she unexpectedly had to return some of the deposits she had already received. In monetary terms, therefore, the ongoing crisis has been a setback but not a devastating loss for her.

Apart from the financial aspect, she describes the pandemic as a welcome break from her versatile life. Besides working as an architect, maintaining and improving La Cumparsita, hosting tango guests, and being an active social-tango dancer herself, she is also a musician and a singer. Trying to balance all these interests became a bit much as she realized when everything came to a halt. “Up until then I was super busy and overwhelmed,” she says. “It was a great break.”

Elif Onural
Elif Onural, host of La Cumparsita Tango Guest House in Brooklyn, NY (Photo by Mohamed Abo El Wafa)

Apparently she has done a lot of soul-searching during her time alone. She tells me that she spent all last summer in her garden focused on growing vegetables. She took online courses about gardening, hot houses, and fermenting. Over the warmer months she invited many of her friends, all of whom were grateful for an outdoor space. The experience finally led her to new ideas about what she wanted to do in the future.

“Out of all this learning came a new idea to move tango to a house in the countryside,” she says, “because people want to be outside.” She has started to work on a concept for providing a space for dancers, musicians, and people who are into gardening. She is contemplating buying a large space with a farmhouse, and on building spread-out A-frame cabins with many platforms so that people can learn and feel safe at the same time. Her geographic focus is within a two-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City towards Pennsylvania because “…it’s not as cold as here,” she says laughingly. Asked whether she would then sell La Cumparsita in Brooklyn, she says she is not sure yet. In any case she doesn’t want to stop doing what she does for the community because of the virus. “I believe in community,” she emphasizes as we finish our conversation. “Community is about networking.” And as if to prove her belief, she tells me that she has already received a request from a group of shamans for holding workshops at her new place — wherever that ends up being located.

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