The El V Story

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The last milonga at El Valenciano. Photo by Stanley Wu.

 

“Where did the time go?” asks Julian Ramil, and as they both shake their heads his wife Claudia repeats: “Yes, where did the time go?” We were talking about El V, one of the best-known milongas in San Francisco and beyond, and which was about to celebrate its 20th anniversary on May 30th at the very same venue where it started in 1996. However, at the time when I was talking to the Ramils in early April, El V was about to close its doors forever. It looked like the much anticipated 20th anniversary celebration was not going to happen. The proprietor of El Valenciano, the restaurant/bar/dance club which had served as the venue of this popular tango social, had decided to sell the business. The Ramils, together with other long-time tenants of the dance club, had received notice about the termination of their lease, that very afternoon of the last milonga. This meant they had to break the news to both the local and the wider tango community — and find a new venue quickly.

“It didn’t exactly come as a surprise,” said the Ramils, who founded the El V milonga in 1996, and who had been hosting it ever since. The building is located at a prime location in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood. Since real estate prices have been skyrocketing for a number of years, driving less-than-above-average income residents together with smaller dance and music events out of this part of town, the Ramils suspected that their Tuesday night milonga – one of the longest-running Argentine tango events in the Bay Area – would sooner or later come to an end. It was only a matter of time before the restaurant/bar would be put on the market for sale, and force them to look for a new venue, thus becoming yet another victim of gentrification. Many popular tango and dance venues, such as Studio 1924 in Oakland, and numerous other ballroom dance studios in the Bay Area, had suffered the same fate in recent years.

There had been some previous issues: since the passing away of the previous owner a few years ago and the subsequent taking over of the business by another owner (his ex-wife), the venue had not been running as smoothly as patrons had been accustomed to. Neither the dance club, which also hosted salsa and swing events on a regular basis, nor the bar could obtain a liquor license without the operation of the restaurant. So in order for the dance club and the bar to remain open for dance events late at night, the restaurant had to remain open, too. However, the tango dancers who came for the Tuesday night milonga were not so much interested in having a meal as simply enjoying a drink while focusing on having a good time dancing. Consequently, the tango crowd didn’t generate enough income for the business – a common problem with tango events that take place at restaurants or bars.

During my last visit to El Valenciano in the winter, I couldn’t help but notice that the restaurant had lost much of its appeal. The once popular authentic Spanish eatery with its Moorish-style alcoves and colorful murals had long been known for its delicious food and warm hospitality. Now it looked like it was due for a much needed make-over. Nevertheless, the Tuesday night El V milonga in the classy backroom remained as lively as ever. It was still a very popular spot where one could always encounter a particularly large number of professional and other high-level tango dancers. It was still on the ‘A-list’ for visiting Argentine tango dancers from all over the world as it had been for many years. Not surprisingly, I often found myself being asked about El V in San Francisco by dancers in far-away places such as rural New York State as well as cosmopolitan Barcelona – a phenomenon that was not expected in its humble beginnings.

“It really started just as an after-party of Verdi Club in 1996”, recalls Julian Ramil. When San Francisco became the residence of the cast of Forever Tango, people often hosted private tango events at their homes. Verdi Club, Ruvano’s and Broadway Studios were pretty much the only public places in San Francisco to dance tango. El Valenciano in those days was popular with the salsa and swing crowd. It featured a stage and a small dance floor surrounded by a semi-circle of tables and club chairs. When Julian started to hang out with a small group of tango dancers after Thursday night’s milonga at Verdi Club, he tried playing some tango tunes. Since the small tango community liked it and would ask for more, he decided to start a small milonga on Tuesday nights. Inspired by one of his favorite milongas in Buenos Aires at the time, the Almagro, Julian wanted to create a small, intimate place with a pleasant crowd and no security. He succeeded and named his new milonga Ramilonga Del Valenciano. It became the home of a tight community, “…a place where the die-hards would hang out,” he says. Somehow over time people started to refer to it as El Valenciano, then eventually El V, and that’s how it eventually became known.

The setting was certainly part of the success, but so was the music. For the first five years, Julian was the only DJ playing the tunes every Tuesday night. “I love the music and I want to share it,” he explains. Only slowly would he start to approach the idea that perhaps every now and then he needed a break and needed someone to fill in for him. That’s when he asked Glenn Corteza to take turns. Glenn playing the music was an equal success with the dancers. Over time they asked other tango DJs for whom they had high regard, and so Felipe Martinez, Christopher Nassopoulos, Rina Gendelman, and Shorey Myers also became regulars at El V.

In 2003, the popular milonga had to close its doors for a short while. But within less than a year, El V was back. By now the Argentine tango fever had spread widely, and the Bay Area tango community had grown to a substantial size. At the same time, the first local Argentine tango orchestras were founded and started to perform. Julian, a bandoneonist himself, decided it was time to take advantage of the small stage in El Valenciano’s backroom, and he invited the newly formed local orchestra, The San Francisco Tango Orchestra directed by Roman Rosso to play. In later years local orchestras such as Trio Garufa, Pablo Motta, and Seth Asarnow with his Sexteto Tipico all performed at El V, to the delight of the tango crowd. Both Julian and Claudia Ramil, being full-time professional teachers and performers, managed to keep El V on the cutting edge of Argentine tango during all those years. “It was like going to an art event,” as they described it.

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The new Ramilonga Balançoire

When they had to leave the beloved venue, and the tango community fell into mourning over the loss of the place, the Ramils seemed to be the only ones who didn’t appear distraught. They had already been looking ahead, well-prepared for a change. Within days of the announcement that this time El V was closing its doors for good, they had signed a new lease with Balancoire Restaurant and Club on Mission Street, only a few blocks from the old venue. Seamlessly, they opened their new milonga at a bigger, newer venue. Their loyal tango community followed without missing a beat. For a few weeks now the Tuesday night tango crowd can be found on 2565 Mission Street, and that’s where El V’s 20th anniversary will take place – but now under the name Ramilonga Balancoire.

 

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Highlights of the 2016 Argentine Tango USA Championship

Highlights of the 2016 Argentine Tango USA Championship

At the end there was an astonished silence when the announcement was made that two couples had tied for first place. It was a nerve-wracking moment. There was disbelief on people’s faces followed by an incredulous murmur from the audience. The two couples who had been called back — Diego Gorostiaga and Kelly Lettieri from New York, and Adam Cornett and Tilia Kimm from Boston — stepped confidently but tensely onto the competition floor. After third place had gone to Derek Tang and Rachell Lin from Los Angeles both couples had been hoping to be called as second or first place winners, but now they were asked to dance yet another round so that the judges could come to a final decision. The music began again and both couples danced with even more verve than before. Watching from the sidelines, it was impossible to tell who would grab the winner’s title. But this time it didn’t take the judges long to make their decision. Only a few minutes after the music stopped playing, Adam Cornett and Tilia Kimm were pronounced winners in the “Tango de Pista” category and awarded the title of the 2016 US Tango Championship, a roundtrip ticket to Buenos Aires where they will represent the US at the Tango Mundial 2016, and a one week stay in the city of Buenos Aires.

 

The “Tango de Pista” category — recently renamed but still better known to the general audience as “Salon” category — is probably the most prestigious category of the whole Argentine Tango Championship. Competition criteria remain the same as before, the main criterion being that feet must remain on the floor — no high kicks or fancy lifts are allowed. Such moves are reserved for the “Stage” category where this is exactly what both the audience and the judges do want to see. It’s what makes watching stage competition a lot more entertaining — especially at this year’s USA Tango Championship where the top competitors danced at a higher level than ever before. One couple, Martin Cardoso and Noelia Guerrero from Fort Myers, Florida, delivered a fiery performance with their own interpretation of Argentine tango combined with Latin dance moves. They brought the audience to its feet with a hot and spicy show of acrobatic lifts, and fast and precise footwork which earned them second place. But it was the stunningly beautiful performance of an all Argentine tango by Daniel Moreno and Amanda Accica from Detroit, Michigan, that was crowned with the first prize in the “Stage” category. They had competed last year, and this time they won the judges over completely. Their stirring, seductive, but elegant performance was touching – all the more so since Amanda’s obviously advanced stage of pregnancy did not in the least hinder the flawlessness of her dancing. In third place was another couple who are no strangers to the US Tango Championship: Roberto Peña and Jacklyn Shapiro from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They delivered a most passionate and theatrical performance, and may well become next year’s champions.

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Hot and spicy: Noelia Guerrero and partner Martin Cardoso

In the “Tango Salon Seniors” category, John Demenkoff and Diana Bradshaw from Scottsdale, Arizona came in first. This couple, who captivated everyone with their elegance, had been trained by former Bay Area residents and Salon Tango champions from 2014, Nicholas Tapia and Stephanie Berg. Second and third prizes went to two couples from Boston: Glen Sickorez and France Potvin, and Varouj Nersesian and Silvia Meyer.

At the end of the event which stretched again over four days, organizer Andrea Monti praised the smooth organization of this year’s competition which saw forty-two couples competing in the “Tango de Pista” category, and eleven couples in both the “Stage Tango” and “Tango Salon Seniors” categories. Unfortunately, since only two groups had registered with performance teams no competition could be held in this category as six groups is the minimum requirement for a competition. “Everything went even better than before,” she said, thanking her staff of volunteers for their extraordinary dedication and work. She also explained the new rules set out by the board of the “Mundial de Tango” in Buenos Aires: There are now ten judges on the panel instead of the previous six. All ten judges rotate during the four days of the competition, and all are “masters” — local judges no longer being allowed. There was, however, one exception this year: San Francisco based Christy Cote, who because of her “super professionalism” had been asked to serve as a so-called substitute judge. And once again, a designated auditor was sent from Buenos Aires to ensure the compliance of the rules and regulations.

The four day long festival – with workshops during the day, the competition and milongas with live music and performances by the masters at night – has become a fixed event and one of the highlights in the calendar and draws more and more people. Saturday night saw a sold-out house with 400 people in the audience, on Friday night the organizers counted 300, and both opening and closing nights also drew a large crowd.

All in all, this year’s competition was a great success; next year’s is eagerly awaited.

Top: Roberto Peña and Jacklyn Shapiro; foto of Tilly Kimm and Adam Cornett by Andrea Monti; all other pictures by Mary Gulick.