Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Our tango story

Wolf and I in 2005.
Celebrating our 20th in 2023.

Twenty years. It’s a long time, yet it seems in some ways to have gone by in a flash. 

This month, on July 25, 2023, to be exact, my partner, Wolf, and I celebrate our 20th anniversary. We're not officially married, so we don’t have a wedding date to mark, but, quite fittingly, we do have a tango date. Thanks to a video that appeared online a few years ago, we know that our very first tango together was precisely on Friday, July 25, 2003, so we mark that date as our anniversary, even though it was a few weeks later that we became romantically involved. (The video is here. The very short clip of us is at exactly 4:49; look for the young man in a white shirt and young woman in a red dress.) 

Over the years, many people have asked, wondered and speculated about how we met and how we got started in tango, so this momentous occasion feels like a good time to tell our story. 

I took my first tango course in 1997 at Graffiti Tango, one of Montreal’s first tango schools, which closed just a couple of years later. My teachers, recognizable names now but new instructors back then, were Mylène Pelletier and Mireille Painchaud. I had danced ballet for many years, was a salsa-dancing aficionado at the time and had become curious about tango after an event I had attended with a friend. I especially liked the elegance of the dance and the way the women dressed, in their slit skirts, black stockings and high heels. I also enjoyed the classes I took and might have continued, but I had a difficult work schedule that didn’t coincide with upcoming sessions, so my tango journey ended there for the time being. 

I kept working like crazy – I was doing in-house tech support, training and page layout in the newsroom at The Montreal Gazette, had started doing some freelance writing and was teaching a desktop publishing course in the Journalism department at Concordia University. Most of my free hours were spent in salsa clubs, which led to a couple of amateur performances here and there, and I also occasionally helped out as an extra in salsa classes a friend of mine was teaching. In 1998 she started renting space at a newly opened tango studio, the Académie de Tango Argentin on Saint-Laurent near Mont-Royal. There, I was introduced to owner Santiago Gimenez, who encouraged me to start tango classes again, and soon after to start working with him as an assistant teacher. And this time, I got hooked. Santiago’s encouragement and infectious personality gave me a taste and a passion for all that was Argentine tango: the dance, the history, the music and, of course, the milongas. 

That same year I took a leave of absence from work and booked a six-month trip to South America that was supposed to wrap up with a two-month stay in Buenos Aires. But luck was not on my side: The airline I had booked all my flights with went bankrupt while I was in Venezuela, and no amount of trudging around Caracas to airline offices and travel agencies could get me to Argentina without paying full price for a new ticket, which was beyond my means. So I flew back to the island of Margarita, danced salsa and partied until I had spent what money I had left and came home. 

I returned to The Gazette and to l’Académie, where I began teaching tango again and had the privilege of taking lessons with the legendary Carlos Gavito, who was touring with Forever Tango and was invited by Santiago to give workshops on several occasions. That summer, Gavito went to Toronto (which had a tiny tango community compared to ours at the time) to teach a weekend of workshops, and I had the privilege of being invited to assist him. It was an honour and I jumped at the chance, even though I was nowhere near ready. The late ’90s were a very cool time in tango in Montreal. Our city was considered the tango capital of North America, there were already milongas seven days a week, and along with Gavito, we had regular visits from such big names as Pablo Verón, whose career-making movie, The Tango Lesson, had just come out and who made (and still makes) regular visits to Studio Tango, which was downtown on Bleury back then. 

That fall I met someone and got pregnant. It became clear quite quickly that he was not interested in being a father, but I was 30, wanted kids and decided to keep the baby, even though I knew the relationship wouldn’t even last the pregnancy. The following July my son was born, and as a single mother with a demanding career I figured that once again, my tango journey was pretty much over. 

But a few months later I got a call from Mylène Pelletier, who had taken over managing classes at l’Académie, inviting me to return to teaching. Lucky to have a brother and parents willing to help out with babysitting, I once again jumped at the opportunity and re-entered my beloved tango world. Juggling motherhood, my evolving career at The Gazette (around that time I got promoted to copy editor) and two part-time teaching gigs (Concordia and tango) didn’t leave much room for salsa dancing, so that was the one thing that pretty much fell by the wayside. 

In the summer of 2003, a tango friend and singer named Stanley Colimon asked me if I would be interested in dancing with him during a musical performance he was giving at La Tanguería. He had one tango song as part of his repertoire and needed two female dancers to perform with him while he both danced and sang “Pardonnez-Moi Si Je Vous Aime,” about a man apologizing for being in love with more than one woman at a time. The dancers were Tanguería owner Laura Steinmander and myself. 

During rehearsal one day there was a guy in the studio doing administrative work on the computer. I found him kind of attractive and I could have sworn he was checking me out. Then, the night of the performance that same guy was there and during the milonga portion of the evening he invited me to dance. I remember that I thought he danced well and that when I asked his name and he replied, “Wolf,” I thought he was kidding and said, “non, pour de vrai.” It was more than a decade later that I came across a video online of that night that captured not only that first-ever dance of Wolf’s and mine but also a portion of the performance with Laura and Stanley. 

Wolf (short for Wolfgang) was a little insulted that I didn’t think his name was real, but nonetheless, over the next weeks our paths continued to cross, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, and before long we were an item. I was still teaching classes at l’Académie, where I had worked with Caroline Demers and Luis López among others, and was once again teaching with Santiago, but he was in the process of giving up teaching, so I asked Wolf, who had begun assisting with classes at La Tanguería, to teach with me. He accepted, and we continued to give classes together up until I was about six months pregnant with our daughter in late 2004. Classes shut down at l’Académie after that and once again I thought maybe my tango days were over. Not only are two kids more than twice the work of one, but it seemed I had no more tango school to go back to. 

But the summer after our daughter was born I got a call from my old friend and colleague Caroline. She had recently opened her own school, Tango Rico, in Chambly, and was looking to grow her teaching staff. So Wolf and I joined her team for a couple of sessions, then also taught some classes that Mylène was organizing in Montreal. Wolf, who has a background in fitness, had meanwhile started working at the YMCA, and he launched a beginners’ tango class at the Westmount Y. 

In January 2007 we rented space in a ballet studio in our neighbourhood, N.D.G., and launched another beginner group, followed soon after by another class in another space on another night as well as a small práctica. We began to realize that there was room and demand for tango in N.D.G. and started to dream pretty hard about opening our own school, even going so far as to register our company name, MonTango, and to visit a couple of commercial spaces. But we had two young children (3 and 7 at that time), no money to speak of and I had a solid career I enjoyed with a good salary and a benefits package that is pretty much unheard of these days. 

So our dreams remained just that – until that fall when The Gazette announced they needed to chop 18 newsroom jobs and would offer voluntary buyout packages before beginning to lay people off. Once again, we started to dream our tango dream, but it seemed too rash, too irresponsible, too impossible. So I didn’t apply for a buyout and on the last day, when I found out the colleague who sat next to me had been approved I started to cry – not because she was leaving, but because I wasn’t. That night Wolf and I had a very serious heart to heart and decided that I would go see the boss the next day and ask if they still needed to lose some bodies. They did. 

It took 24 hours for my request to be approved. That was in November 2007. I worked my last shift in December, we found a space for our school in January and at the end of February 2008 we were teaching classes in our very own tango studio, MonTango. It felt surreal and unbelievable, and we had taken the leap against the sensible advice of my parents, my financial advisor and others. We were fully aware that failure was a big possibility, even a likelihood. But still we knew we had made the right choice. Had we not tried, we would have wondered “What if?” and regretted it forever. 

We’ve grown a lot in the years since, as teachers, dancers, partners and people. There are too many stories to tell of our experiences and adventures in everything from parenting to performing. We did finally make it to Argentina several years ago (and will return next year), we’ve studied, trained and practised and we’ve taught and organized countless classes, milongas and special events, meeting an amazing array of people along the way. 

This year, 2023, our studio celebrated 15 years in business and this week Wolf and I celebrate 20 years of tango – and love – together. Neither road has been smooth or easy and we work incredibly hard to keep it all going, but through it all, despite the hurdles, the frustrations, the injuries and, of course, the pandemic, we are incredibly grateful to be able to do what we love every day and to do it together. 

Now that I’ve told our story: I’ve been thinking of starting a new series of articles about some of the interesting characters who make up the Montreal tango community. Look for it in the coming weeks and months, and if you or someone you know has an interesting life/tango story to tell, let me know!

Enjoying my writing? Check out my author website here, with links to purchase my tango book, 25 Tango Lessons, as well as my new novel, The Curtain Lady.

Saturday, January 01, 2022

Words to live by: Practice

Solo practice is one of the best ways
to improve your dancing.

I keep coming back to this word these days.

Since I'm a teacher, I'm pretty much always reminding people to practise, but the word "practice" has underlying, deeply beneficial meanings.

As we head into Year 3 of the COVID-19 pandemic, with dance, especially social dance, being shut down to varying degrees for most of it, many people have repeatedly lamented the "death" of tango. In Montreal, indoor milongas finally reopened this past November – only to be shut down again a month later. So these days if we want to keep dancing, all we can do is practise. Then again, all dancing is, in fact, practice, isn't it?

While it's true that many social dancing events have been cancelled over the past two years, some people have found ways to continue to dance throughout the repeated and seemingly never-ending shutdowns and reopenings, following online classes with or without a partner, taking private lessons when possible and working on their own at home.

In addition to tango, I also teach yoga. I give classes, but I also take weekly classes and have a regular personal practice as well. Because yoga is a practice. That's what yogis say: We don't do yoga; we practise yoga. Unlike tango, yoga isn't primarily a social activity, so the goal of practising isn't something "other," such as going to milongas and getting to dance with our partners of choice. The goal of a yoga practice is, well, the practice itself. In addition to the ongoing improvement of that practice and the benefits it will in turn bring into our bodies and lives, such as stronger legs, better posture and perhaps a calmer mind. Hmmm. We can reap similar benefits from practising our dancing as well.

I often wish tango were seen in a similar way. Most social dancers stop taking regular classes very early, often after a year or two. The vast majority of tango dancers take a few sessions of regular lessons and then soon look down their noses at the offers of their local studios, opting to stop taking classes altogether or to only take lessons given at festivals by visiting maestros.

In group classes, most people just want to move up, up, up, rather than learning simply in order to learn. I say most people, because there are, of course, exceptions. There are those who take regular privates for years and those who actually prefer prácticas over milongas. While a system of group classes by level has proved to be the most marketable, offering students a sense of progression and accomplishment, it has the unfortunate effect of encouraging students to rush from one level to the next and to feel discouraged if the teachers suggest they repeat a course. I fondly remember one student who was only free one night a week, I think it was Tuesdays, so for years he just signed up for whatever classes we offered on Tuesday nights. It didn't matter if it was milonga, vals, an advanced course on sacadas or boleos, or Tango 1, 2 or 3; he was always there and he was always learning something.

A lot of satisfaction can be found in just making an effort. This is as true in tango as anywhere else. Positive side-effects will abound, from becoming an increasingly sought-after tango partner, to improving brain function (as more and more studies show), to maintaining good posture throughout our lifetimes.

The Oxford entry for the word "practice" includes two definitions, underlining the idea that we can practise in order to achieve a goal or simply for the benefits of the practice itself:

1. perform (an activity) … repeatedly or regularly in order to improve or maintain one's proficiency.
2. carry out or perform (a particular activity, method, or custom) habitually or regularly.

So it's clearly important to practise, but if we truly want to improve it's just as necessary to practise well. We all know the expression "practice makes perfect," but some have argued that a better saying is "practice makes permanent." This implies two things: that practising regularly will have long-term effects, but also that practising something in the wrong way will only serve to further ingrain bad habits.

We see this – and teachers lament it – all the time on the dance floor: dancers with poor technique who have been dancing in the milongas for a decade or more with little to no improvement. I see it with posture as well. Poor posture develops over a lifetime. If you sit, slouch, hunch for eight hours a day or more for 30 years, your body will gradually adopt a rounded, hunched form. If you take up something like tango and wish to improve your posture (and therefore your elegance and balance) while you dance, you will need to spend a fair amount of time practising new postural habits – on and off the dance floor. I can't tell you how often I make a remark to someone about lifting their head or chest and am met with dismissive responses like, "That's just the way I'm made." Of course I can't force someone to work on something they're not interested in working on, but I must admit that kind of remark drives me crazy. If years of daily slouching can round your back, a sustained daily practice of standing tall can certainly straighten it, at least somewhat. This would not only improve your tango dancing, but also your back strength, your breathing and your confidence.

This is not to say you can learn nothing by dancing in the milongas. Valuable skills you will hone on a crowded dance floor include floorcraft abilities like navigating and reacting on the fly, adaptability to different partners and overall improvisational prowess. Not to mention such social skills as the use of the mirada-cabeceo system and how to gracefully deal with rejection. And you can't (or at least shouldn't) get or give feedback on your dancing in a milonga the way you would in a lesson or even a serious practice session with your partner. If your technique is already great, you might reinforce it through social dancing, but if it's not, you will likely find yourself solidifying your bad habits even further.

Many tango dancers abhor the idea of solo practice, believing it to be useless – since tango is supposed to be danced with a partner – or just plain boring. One of the courses my partner and I have taught the most during the pandemic is called Tango Drills. In it, we do a few technical exercises and then teach short sequences set to music, which we repeat and combine and repeat and combine. It's a great course for COVID times, because you don't need a partner for it and it works just as well online as in person. In the summer we taught it a few times in the park and posted a video of the class online. One commentator remarked: "That's not tango, it's line-dancing." Oh, how I love it when people spout their closed-minded opinions about what tango "is" and "isn't." But that's beside the point. Which is that solo practice is one of the best ways to improve your dancing. If you can execute giros and ochos alone with great balance, style and musicality, you will not be a heavy burden on your partner because you are hanging on to them for dear life, rushing from one step to the next to avoid losing your balance or relying solely on their ability to keep time with the music. Everyone who has taken our drills classes over the past couple of years agrees: Their dancing has improved.

Often, a little practice goes a long way. When I am teaching someone and I notice a jump in skill between lessons I will ask, "Have you been practising?" Their answer, almost inevitably, will be, "Yes." Even if that means they only practised for 20 minutes one time between lessons, it always shows.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the students who walk away or sit out any time we teach a solo exercise or drill during a class. I remember one particular student who just stood there watching as the rest of the group was repeating their back crosses. We encouraged him to participate, but he refused, saying, "Oh, I've already learned that." He just couldn't see the importance of repeating a thing in order to do it well. If he had tried it once and understood it, in his book that was enough and it was time to move on to something else.

These past two years with all their turmoil and unpredictability have been a time to practise many things: patience, acceptance, letting go, gratitude. Sometimes it's not easy. We've had to be patient through lockdown after lockdown and accepting of so much, from constant new normals to the wildly differing politics and beliefs of our family members, friends and acquaintances. In recent weeks, the COVID numbers here have skyrocketed, and when my dance school was shut down once again and then several family members caught the virus (including myself and despite being cautious and fully vaccinated), shutting down our Christmas plans, it was easy to feel like a victim and complain, "Why me? Why us?" But then I had my daily yoga practice, which always includes a reminder to practise gratitude, and I thought of the many things I have to be grateful for: my family, a warm home, food on the table, a healthy body that is able to fight illness, and access to vaccines that help it do so. In practising gratitude, It doesn't take long to actually feel and become grateful.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded, non-judgemental person. But everyone is judgemental, at least sometimes – even me! So what can I do about that? It's hard to change our reflexes or automated responses, and now and then I might see someone who is dressed "funny" or "wrong" and I might think, "Ew, what are they wearing?" But then I consciously remind myself not to judge people, training myself to practise being non-judgemental, even when my first reflex was a judgemental thought.

The same applies in tango. If, for example, you have a habit of lifting and tensing your shoulders when you dance, becoming aware of the tendency is a first step. You might need several reminders from a teacher as well as some practical techniques for relaxing your shoulders and placing them properly. Then you need to practise. Your shoulders will still lift and tense, but you will notice and you will correct, over and over again until you finally change your body's reflexes and holding your shoulders down becomes the new normal. This can take a long time and a lot of repetition, but eventually the work will become much less conscious until one day it becomes effortless.

Just about everything we repeat in our daily lives could be viewed as a practice, whether intentional or not. When it comes to things you would like to improve on, be it your dancing or your attitude, why not make it a conscious practice? The benefits are sure to be many and far-reaching.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Who knew dancers were so dangerous?

What does our government have against dance? I have asked this question over and over, and I still haven't received a satisfactory answer, or, in fact, any answer at all.

For a long time I thought our provincial leaders were simply oblivious to the mere existence of social dance. They are most certainly oblivious to its many benefits (more on that later). But now I have become convinced they actually do have something against it and against us. The only public mention of our neglected sector in a recent press conference announcing the loosening of Covid measures in all areas of entertainment except dance was something along the lines of, "Young people dancing in discotheques, no, we're not ready for that yet."

First of all, why is that the only image of dancing presented to us? Crowds of young, irresponsible, drunk kids grinding the night away, spreading their viruses to everyone else in the room. Believe me, I have nothing against dance clubs or discotheques, and I think it's time they be allowed to open, too, but what about the milongas (as tango nights are called), the salsa clubs, the ballroom evenings, not to mention swing, line dancing, square dancing and others. Activities where it's all about the dancing and much less about the cruising or the drinking.

Speaking of drinking, what is with the absolute ban on drinking and dancing in the same place? Since the beginning of the pandemic, the SAQs never once closed. After all, alcohol is apparently an essential service, up there with grocery stores, pharmacies and heart surgery. Even dentist appointments were cancelled early on and my March 2020 appointment with my GP still hasn't been rescheduled. But government-run alcohol sales never stopped, because what else are people to do when they can't eat out, get a haircut, socialize, go to the gym or even go for a walk after 8 p.m.? (I'm pretty sure my nightly wine consumption was responsible for most of the 15 pounds I gained in the first three months of the pandemic – despite daily yoga, dog walks and online teaching.)

Eventually, restaurants and even bars were allowed to reopen … as long as the dance floors remained closed! So when it comes to booze, it's all you want and all you can drink! But definitely no dancing!
For the purposes of health regulations, dance studios have been lumped in with gyms from the start. So my tango studio is supposed to directly and seamlessly apply the same rules laid out for weight training, running on a treadmill and aerobics classes. Meanwhile, dancing has somehow been outright demonized along with gyms in large part because of one now-infamous Quebec City gym that caused one of the worst superspreader Covid outbreaks in the country. Now, let me be clear, it was a gym. Not a dance studio. And a gym run by an outspoken anti-masker who didn't enforce any sanitary or distancing measures. So was the gym an example of how dangerous social dancing – or even gyms – can be or how dangerous an anti-vax, anti-mask, rules-flouting, irresponsible business-owner can be?

As vaccination levels increase and we look toward the end of the Covid pandemic, just about every country/state/province/city in the world is allowing social dancing again. But not Quebec. There was a tango marathon in Toronto last weekend, which dozens of dance-deprived Montrealers attended. It was advertised as a vaccinated-only event and, as far as I know, there have been no Covid outbreaks associated with it. New York City's tango scene is back in full swing, and, according to a recent New York Times article, Covid has not begun spreading in that tango community either. Almost every country in Europe (with the possible exceptions of Italy and Belgium) now allows social dancing. 

Here in Montreal, since last week, social distancing has been abandoned in restaurants, theatres, concert halls and other sectors. But not in dance studios. So you can now have more than 21,000 screaming hockey or music fans sitting side by side in the Bell Centre for hours at a time, removing their masks to eat their hotdogs and drink their beers, but dance studios are still limited to 25 teetotalling masked dancers. If you happen to have an enormous studio and are thus allowed to surpass 25 dancers, you can then allow no partner changes whatsoever and must enforce the two-metre distancing rule without exceptions. All of which, for tango dancers, means one clear thing: no milongas.

If milongas – here or elsewhere – or similar events had been responsible for some important Covid outbreaks, I would understand a little more. But as far as I know, the outbreaks continue to occur in schools, workplaces and seniors' residences. So why is it the dancers who are being punished?

In my tango studio, we reopened briefly in summer 2020 and have now been running small classes and guided prácticas since July of this year. We follow the extremely restrictive distancing/masking/vaccination rules pretty closely and have had a grand total of one student who reported having Covid in almost two years, but it was neither caught nor transmitted at our school or in our community. So where's the terrible danger in the dance world? I know I'm not seeing it.

The physical and psycho-emotional advantages of dancing are well-known. There's the exercise aspect, the socialization aspect. … In any case, the benefits are surely more significant than those of downing a bottle of wine over dinner or sitting in a movie theatre for two and a half hours (as opposed to on the couch in front of Netflix).

Still, somehow, dance, dancers and dance businesses remain in a chokehold while the rest of society is allowed to open up and move forward.

To be clear: I am pro-vaccine and my partner and I have adhered to the rules both in our personal and professional lives from the start. I do not think that masking, vaccinating and taking care of my health and that of the people around me is an unacceptable infringement on my "freedom." But I do believe that we eventually need to learn to live with this virus and that if every other business and every other sector is allowed to move forward, we should be, too. 

The restrictions on dance leave me feeling excluded, forgotten, angry, frustrated and impotent. How about you?

Friday, April 30, 2021

A poem: Torn

A relentless virus
And clueless leaders
Tried to tear our passion away
But the music plays on
And our restless bodies
Can’t resist the beat and sway
We’ve shed some tears
Over friends we miss
And partners held too long at bay
But our fire burns strong
And we will live on
To dance together another day

Thursday, April 08, 2021

A poem: Gestures

I walk in, I lift my chest, I am confident
I cross the room on rubber legs and have a seat
I wave my hand to get a drink and take a sip
You lift your glass, I lift my gaze and our eyes meet

I look away, breathe in and out, look back again
My stare intent as if I weren’t feeling shaky
You nod your head, my lips curl up and you walk over
I stand, hold out my hand and let you take me

To the floor we walk together, then pause a moment
Your arms embrace me, my eyes close and we begin
I feel I know you as you send your rhythm through me
You pull me close and I can feel you from within

Your steps are clear, your timing perfect, I am smitten
As we glide around the room like lifelong mates
But your moves have much more meaning than your history
There’s only present, there’s no past, it isn’t fate

The set is over, we say thanks and maybe later
You hold my arm as you escort me to my chair
Another sip, another scan, another target
There you are, so cool and graceful over there

I sit tall, I look your way, but you won’t see me
And then you're off with someone else to take a spin
I’m disappointed but I smile and look around me
At the gestures so like mine we could be kin

This is the game, this is why we come together
To make eyes, to make connections and to dance
So I smooth my dress and stand up nonchalantly
Then I hone in, hoping this time I’ll catch your glance

(Loosely set to the melody of El Choclo.)

Friday, April 02, 2021

A poem: Sometimes, I like to watch

Sometimes, I just like to watch
Your face intense, hers passive
Your eyes on her, hers averted

Over there, her face in ecstasy
As you pull her close
And others pass by, oblivious

Lost in their own throes
Of touch, sound and feel
In their world among the rest

I see your smiles and I smile
At the pleasure you can’t hide
As the rhythm plays through you

I feel how you love his touch
While he's proud of his prowess
Both of you so happy with him

You are here, he is not
You feel his very presence
He’s forgotten you are even there

A moment of abandon
A collision. A passing apology
Tension dispersed by the beat

A thousand different steps
Expressing a single song
Countless souls sharing one passion

So unique, all of you
Engaged in a single pursuit
Two by two in the ambient light

The damp air is full
Of your sweat and devotion
I breathe it in too

Often, I am among you
Sharing your floor and your fire
But sometimes, I just like to watch

Friday, January 01, 2021

A goodbye letter to 2020

Dear 2020,

Goodbye and good riddance! I will not miss you, but that doesn't mean I didn't learn anything from you.

You were difficult, stressful, fattening and frustrating. You were full of loss, loneliness, conflict, controversy and drama. You drove a wedge between many of us as we put our feelings and opinions about you on full display. Thanks to you and with a little help from social media we publicly shared our views about politics and science, often angrily exposing thoughts and feelings like never before with friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

However, people learn a lot from adversity and I am no different. So, what did you teach me? What did I accomplish with you and thanks to you?

I learned to slow down. This was one of the hardest lessons for me. Instead of jamming as many hours of teaching, practicing, planning, publicizing, managing and running errands as possible into each day I took long walks and did long yoga practices, I read books and watched shows and movies, I cooked and gardened and spent more time with my family and my pets. Sure, I still worked, adapting my business to the new reality as it unfolded and evolved as best I could, but even with online teaching (and a brief but blessed return to in-person teaching) and managing the task of keeping our tango school afloat (staying in touch with our dancers, raising funds and applying for financial aid) the pace of my daily life dropped considerably. Slowing down is not easy for someone like me who needs to feel useful and productive constantly, but I know that it has been good for me. (Now I even wonder how I will go back to working 10-12 hour days five or often six days a week when the time comes.)

I learned to be patient and adaptable. In March 2020 I had never taught an online lesson. Nine months later I have taught about 100 of them. In March I could not imagine wearing a face mask every time I went into a public place, let alone teaching or dancing with one. Now I've done all of that countless times and hardly give it a second thought. (Do I like it? No, of course not. But I'd rather wear a mask and be able to socialize a little than stay cooped up any more than I am.) I got used to standing in line, giving a wide berth when passing people in the street and refraining from hugging my friends. Our family has adapted to the weirdness of our daughter's high school year and to all of us being home and in each other's space way, way more than we ever used to be.

I learned just how generous people can be. My partner and I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for our tango school, MonTango. There have been so many messages of encouragement and financial donations from our community during this near-total shutdown of social dance activities. In March we hoped to reopen in May, then June, then July. We did open partially in July, but it was extremely limited and quite short-lived. We had hope for a return to normal by January, but here we are on Jan. 1, shut down more completely than ever with Covid numbers worse than ever. Who knows when we will reopen at all, not to mention in any way resembling "normal?" We would not have survived this long without the support of our friends, students and dancers and we are deeply touched and humbled by that knowledge.

I learned to appreciate the little things. If nothing else, last year was a reminder to take the time to stop and smell the flowers and to take nothing for granted. I found myself regularly gaining new appreciation for my health, human touch, a tasty meal, a conversation with a dear friend, good weather, nature, the ability to walk, the presence of my family and so much more.

I learned to live for the moment more than ever. I have always believed this to be one of my qualities, but this year reinforced for me that you've really got to seize the day, because tomorrow you might not have the chance. Life is short, fragile and unpredictable. So I didn't wait when I needed a haircut or a massage, when I had the chance to teach a class or visit a friend in person, when that book-writing challenge came around, when we had the chance to spend a few days at the lake or in the mountains.

I learned to let go. Of intolerance and judgement over other people's ways of thinking, of frustration over government decisions, of impatience over everything from waiting for the end of this pandemic to waiting in endless grocery store lineups. Anger, frustration, worry, impatience: They're natural emotions, but so unproductive, even counter-productive, so it's a good exercise to notice them, avoid getting too wrapped up in them and let them go.

I learned acceptance. Similar to the previous lesson, this one manifested itself in accepting my friends and relatives both despite and because of our differences of opinion as well as accepting the reality of the day no matter how unpleasant or unbelievable. It all contributes to keeping us open-minded, flexible and, ultimately, more generous.

I learned new computer skills. More downtime meant time to learn new skills. So I taught myself to use a new DJing computer program, which I had been meaning to do for years, and, along with the rest of the planet, I learned how to Zoom.

I learned to cook new dishes. I, too, baked much bread, not to mention cookies, cakes and pies and I tried lots and lots of new recipes, some more successful than others and many of them vegan. I've been a vegetarian and occasional vegan for several years. By the way, this month I'm joining the Veganuary movement, so no animal products at all for the next 31 days (and maybe longer)!

I learned to write again. My initial return to writing after a decade-long hiatus was six years ago in 2014, when I started writing this blog. In 2017 I set myself the ambitious goal of writing 20 blog posts in a single year – and I accomplished it. Then my writing dwindled again for a couple of years. This year saw me publish eight new blog articles and several French translations. Then, in November, I joined the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge and wrote 50,000 words of a novel in 30 days. A week and another 20,000 words later I had finished my first draft and now I am 80% of the way through my first rewrite. Whether my novel will ever be published I don't know, but just finishing it is a big accomplishment of a lifelong goal, so, yay me!

So, there you have it, 2020, ten valuable lessons you taught me. Thanks for all of them and I'll surely never forget you, but it was definitely high time for us to go our separate ways.



Thursday, October 22, 2020

Tango terminology

A guide to some of the most common vocabulary used in Argentine tango. This list is an ongoing work-in-progress. Feel free to send me questions, corrections or suggestions.

Hug. The tango embrace or arm position and hold. Dancers can use an abrazo abierto, or open embrace, maintaining some distance between the upper bodies, or an abrazo cerrado, or close embrace, with contact between the partners' torsos. Close-embrace dancing is more difficult to master for most, but also tends to be the preferred choice for high-level social dancers.

Adelante. Forward.

Adorno. Adornment, embellishment or decoration. Footwork or flair added by either partner during paradas and pauses or between actions.

Apertura. Aperture or opening. Used to describe a salida to the side, specifically to the leader's left. See Salida.

Argentine tango. Synonymous with tango, the music and accompanying dance that originated in Río de la Plata, the port cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay, more than a century ago. We specify Argentine tango to differentiate it from the tango danced in ballroom dancing, which has been drastically transformed into something very stylized and showy as well as regulated for competition. 
Click here to see an example of ballroom tango.

Arrastre. Drag. See Barrida.

Atrás. Backward.

Balanceo. Rock step. Useful for avoiding collisions, playing with rhythm and making direction changes in small spaces. May also refer to a subtle shifting of weight from foot to foot in place and in time with the music at the beginning of a dance. Also called Cadencia.

Baldosa. Tile. See Cuadrado.

Barrida. Sweep. One partner’s foot makes contact with the other’s foot then moves it to a new position on the floor without losing contact. Also called arrastre, or drag.

Basic step. See Paso básico.

Boleo. Sometimes spelled voleo. A move where the free leg does a backward, forward or wrapping projection or kick, usually in response to a change of energy or direction, most often a change of pivot. The word probably comes from boleadoras, a type of throwing weapon made of weights on the ends of cords, once used by gauchos to capture animals by entangling their legs and now used as a percussive instrument in a type of Argentine folkloric dance. Some argue that voleo is the correct spelling, deriving from the word volear, to throw or "volley" as with a ball. Note that it is never spelled (or pronounced) “bolero,” which can refer either to an entirely different genre of Latin music and dance or to a short jacket modelled after those worn by Spanish bullfighters.

Cabeceo. Nod. From the word cabeza, meaning head. It refers to the traditional, non-verbal look-and-nod technique for selecting dance partners from a distance in milongas. Also see Mirada. For more on the cabeceo, read my post about milonga codes and etiquette.

Cadencia. See Balanceo.

Calesita. Carousel. A figure in which the leader walks around his partner while keeping her pivoting on her supporting leg.

Candombe. A type of dance originally danced by the descendants of black slaves in the Río de la Plata region and still performed in Montevideo, Uruguay. Music of African origin with a marked rhythm played on a kind of drum called a "tamboril.” It survives today as a rhythmic background to certain milongas. See a musical performance of the modern-day candombe, "Tango Negro."

Canyengue. An old style of tango from the very beginning of the 20th century. The music from this period had a faster or peppier 2/4 tempo so the dance had a rhythmic flavour similar to that of modern milonga. A very close embrace was used as well as some unique posture, embrace and footwork elements. Watch an example of canyengue dancing here.

Caminata. Walk. Generally considered the true basic step of Argentine tango. Great dancers are appreciated for the quality of their tango walk above all.

Colgada. Literally, it means hanging or dangling. In tango, it is a type of off-axis movement in a "V" position, where the couple's feet stay close and the upper bodies move away. The balance of the two dancers is based on counterweight, which they exert together in opposing directions.

Cortina. Literally, it means curtain, but it describes the 30-to 60-second clip of non-tango music used to break up musical tandas or sets.

Cruce. Cross. Refers to the basic crossed position used most often by the follower, in which the left leg crosses in front of the right. Not to be confused with Cross system.

Cuadrado. Square or box step. Sometimes called baldosa, or tile. A basic, six-count sequence made up of forward, backward and side steps.

Enganche. Any leg-around-leg hooking action. Similar to and often interchangeable with gancho. Also see Gancho.

Enrosque. Screw. An adorno in which one pivots in place while the feet are crossed. Often done by skilled leaders during giros.

Follower. The partner dancing what was traditionally the woman’s role. Today we find non-traditional couples on most dance floors, so in the interest of inclusiveness and political correctness as well as to simply reflect modern realities, there has been a general movement to stop using the terms "man" and "woman" altogether within the context of tango dancing roles and to always use the gender-neutral "leader" and "follower." The problem is, these limited words are pretty faulty descriptions of what the two roles are all about. They make it sound like the leader is the dominant partner and the follower is passive, even submissive. The terms really do not describe what truly happens between the two partners. The much more complex process goes something like this: The "leader" invites the "follower" to execute a movement; the "follower" executes the movement he or she felt and the "leader" follows his or her partner through the completion of that movement – whether or not it was the movement he or she intended – and the whole process starts again. An experienced follower can even influence the leader's choices by adding adornos and her own musical interpretation. Some go so far as to argue that the follower is in fact the real leader, because regardless of the leader’s original intention, he (or she) has to follow through on his partner’s actual interpretation and execution of the lead. Also see Leader.

Gancho. Hook. A move wherein you hook or catch your partner’s leg with your own. Note that it’s a “gancho” and not a “gaucho.” A gaucho is an Argentinian cowboy.

Giro. Turn. One partner, usually the leader, turns more or less on the spot while the follower does a molinete, or grapevine, sequence around him (or her). Also see Molinete.

Lápiz. Pencil. Circular embellishments “drawn” on the floor by either partner.

Leader. The partner dancing what was traditionally the man’s role. There has been a general movement to stop using the terms "man" and "woman" altogether within the context of tango dancing roles and to always use the gender-neutral "leader" and "follower." The problem is, the terms really do not describe what truly happens between the two partners. The much more complex process goes something like this: the "leader" invites the "follower" to execute a movement; the "follower" executes the movement he or she felt and the "leader" follows his or her partner through the completion of that movement – whether or not it was the movement he or she intended – and the whole process begins again with the next action. Interestingly, the terms "leader" and "follower" are not really used in Spanish. When referring to the partners, much of the time Spanish-speaking teachers stick to "hombre" (man) and "mujer" (woman), which, while not gender-neutral, don't restrict the partners to one active and one passive role. When referring to the action of the man or leader they say "marcar," which means to mark or indicate, not lead. The woman or follower "acompaña" (accompanies) or "se deja llevar" (lets herself be led), which implies that it is her choice and has a less passive implication. Also remember that at the beginning of the 20th century, when there were many more men than women in Argentina, men learned tango together, practicing and mastering both roles before having the privilege of dancing with a woman. Also see Follower. 

Marca. Mark. The lead.

Milonga. Because this word has a triple meaning, it can be confusing for novices.
  1. One of the three musical genres that make up Argentine tango: tango, milonga and vals (waltz). Milonga music is in 2/4 time. (Tango music can be in 2/4 or 4/4 and vals is in 3/4.) Milonga has a very rhythmic, strongly accented beat, often contains an underlying "habanera" rhythm and is generally faster and more joyful than tango music. It has its own dancing style to go with it, in which dancers avoid pausing, mostly stay in parallel system and often use double-time steps, referred to as milonga traspié. Milonga dancing uses the same basic elements as tango, with a strong emphasis on the rhythm, and figures that tend to be less complex than many of those used in tango. 
  2. The name given to any venue dedicated to Argentine tango, usually a dance school that also holds such dancing events as prácticas and milongas.
  3. The name given to Argentine tango social dancing events.
So you get all dressed up to go dancing at a milonga, where you will hear and dance to milonga.
Click to watch my partner and I perform a milonga at our milonga.

Milonguero/Milonguera. A dancer who frequents milongas (as opposed to a stage dancer, for example). Generally this label is reserved for dancers of a certain level. Milonguero can also refer to an old style of tango dancing wherein the couple held such a close embrace that the follower couldn't really turn her hips, which gave birth to figures in which pivoted ochos are replaced by crosses, such as the ocho cortado and ocho milonguero.

Mirada. Look. Paired with the cabeceo it completes the traditional look-and-nod system for selecting dance partners in the milonga. Also see Cabeceo. For more on the cabeceo and mirada, read my post about milonga codes and etiquette.

Molinete. Literally, it means windmill, but in dance it translates as grapevine. Made of the step sequence forward-side-backward-side (or sometimes forward-together-backward-together), it is most often danced in a circle by the follower around the leader to make a giro. Also see Giro.

Ocho. Eight or figure-eight. A combination of pivots with either forward or back steps, which, when done in pairs, draw a figure-eight shape on the floor. There are several variations of ochos:
  • Ocho adelante. Forward figure-eight.
  • Ocho atrás. Backward figure-eight.
  • Ocho cortado. Cut figure-eight. The forward pivot is interrupted to produce an abrupt sideways rock step followed by a direct return to the cross.
Parada. Stop. The leader halts the follower's action, simultaneously placing his foot against hers. Often used in combinations with the sandwich. Also see Sandwich.

Paso básico.
Basic step. While the real basic step in Argentine tango is generally considered to be the walk, this eight-count structure has been used as a basic teaching sequence for decades. It is a remarkably controversial little sequence. Still used by many instructors, it is shunned by others. Supporters believe it is a useful pedagogical tool that contains essential elements including forward, back and side steps as well as the cross; detractors say it is pointless to teach a “basic step” that dancers will either not use as-is in real-life social dancing or upon which they might become dependent, thus never learning to improvise properly.

Práctica. Practice. A tango-dancing event that is much less formal than a milonga. Floorcraft and following the ronda are generally less strictly adhered to or enforced during prácticas, so dancers can work on their moves and technique, and talking while dancing is tolerated. It is usually suggested that tango students attend prácticas for a while before moving on to milongas. During a práctica, teachers may or may not be present and may or may not lead the practice by suggesting or teaching exercises or figures.

Rebote. Rebound. A rock step wherein the dancers rewind a step by pushing against the floor to go back to the previous position.

Ronda. Literally, it means round. In tango, it is what we usually call the “line of dance” in English. The ronda in tango always circulates in a counter-clockwise direction around the dance floor. Couples are expected to follow the general flow of the dancers ahead of them, resisting the urge to cut ahead of slower-moving dancers or to stay in one spot blocking traffic while the others keep moving forward. On larger dance floors there can be several rondas at a time, one at the outer edge of the floor, generally reserved for more experienced and disciplined dancers, and up to three more smaller rounds inside, like lanes on a racetrack. It is bad form to zigzag haphazardly from one ronda to the next; lane changes should be made sparingly and with caution. For more about the ronda, read my post about milonga codes and etiquette.

Sacada. From the verb "sacar," which means to remove. In tango, one partner steps right into his or her partner’s space, seemingly forcing the partner to switch places and sometimes provoking an embellishment by the other person if there was contact with the recipient's free leg.

Salida. Literally it means exit, but it actually refers to the opening step of a dance or a sequence. 

Sandwich. Also referred to as the sanguche, sanguchito or mordida (bite). During a parada, one partner sandwiches the other’s foot between his or her own. See Parada.

Sistema cruzado. Cross system. Refers to the walking relationship between the two partners. When the leader walks in line with his partner, we call it "parallel system" – basically just the normal walking system with the partners in step with each other, but on opposite legs: leader's left to follower's right or vice-versa. In cross system, the two partners are in fact stepping with the same leg – left to left or right to right. At least 50 percent of figures use the cross system. Ochos, for example, most often take place in cross system. Also see Sistema paralelo.
Sistema paralelo. Parallel system. Refers to the walking relationship between the two partners. When the leader walks in line with his partner, we call it "parallel system" – basically just the normal walking system with the partners walking in step with each other, but on opposite legs: leader's left to follower's right or vice-versa. In parallel system, each partner is the mirror image of the other. Also see Sistema cruzado.

Tanda. A set of songs for dancing. Generally, tandas are three or four songs long. (They used to sometimes be as long as five, but that is rare these days.) They will be of one particular genre (tango, milonga or vals) and are most often all by the same orchestra from the same decade (or even the same year) and perhaps even with the same singer. Tandas can also be compiled of songs by different orchestras with a similar sound and feel. In a milonga, the format is generally as follows: two tandas of tango, one tanda of vals, two tandas of tango, one tanda of milonga and repeat.

Tango. The music and accompanying dance that originated in Río de la Plata more than a century ago. Also see Argentine tango. 

Tanguero/tanguera. A tango dancer, tanguero for a man, tanguera for a woman.

Vals. One of the three musical genres that make up Argentine tango: tango, milonga and vals (waltz). Vals music is played in 3/4 time. (Milonga is in 2/4, while tango music can be in 2/4 or 4/4.) Dancers use the same steps and technique in vals as in tango, but tend to select quicker, more rhythmic figures that flow, rock and turn in order to express both the feeling and rhythmic structure of the music. They use the first beat in the measure as their basic walking beat, adding accelerated steps or adornos on the second and/or third beats as they wish. See an example of vals dancing here.

Volcada. Literally, it means overturned or tipped over. In tango, it is an off-axis move in which the follower leans forward, supported by the leader's torso or arms. Usually the forward “fall” is accompanied by a sweeping adorno of the follower’s free leg.

Voleo. See Boleo.

Thursday, August 06, 2020

The limits of freedom

Leaders and followers have lots of freedom
in the dance – within limits.

There has been a lot of talk about freedom lately. What we are free to do and not do, what we are free to wear and not wear, where we are free to go and not go.

I am a great believer in freedom. Freedom of choice, of expression, of religion. But freedom in a civilized society does not mean we get to do whatever we want. Society has rules and laws that we are obliged to follow or we suffer the consequences. We are “free,” yes, but within limits. We are not free to kill people. We are not free to physically assault people. We are not free to steal from others. We are not free to drive erratically at any speed we please, to smoke anywhere we want or to throw our kids in the back of the car with no safety seats or belts. Generally, people accept these kinds of limits. Sometimes some of us see certain limits as unjust and fight for change. That is how women earned the right to vote and homosexuals earned the right to marry, for example. But even when we see certain limits as wrong, most of us accept that it is normal to have some limits put on our freedoms. Being free does not mean we can do absolutely anything, because just about everything we do affects those around us.

In tango, the idea of freedom – or lack thereof – comes up a lot, particularly in the follower role. Tango observers and novices often see the dance as a dominant-submissive or active-passive relationship, but this is a misconception. Part of the misconception comes from the very terms “leader” and “follower,” which are misleading and problematic labels, in my opinion. (You can read more about this in my Troublesome Terminology post.) The most obvious limits to the follower’s liberty are those established by the leader, but the follower role is far from passive and, in fact, the more skilled we followers become the more we realize that in fact we are quite free inside the structure established by our partner, the music and the space in which we are dancing. If we just throw our legs around randomly and express the music however it moves us with little attention to what our partner is suggesting we may feel free, but we are not dancing within a partnership, therefore we are not really dancing tango. Finding our freedom inside the structure imposed on us is in fact one of the fun and rewarding challenges of the follower role in tango.

Leaders also have limits. They, too, must follow and adapt to their partners as well as the music and the flow of the dance-floor traffic. If they just lead anything they want, ignoring the readiness of their partner, the particularities of the music or the presence of the other dancers, they could call that an expression of their freedom, but it would also be inconsiderate to and unpleasant for everyone else involved.

Is it an infringement on our freedom for us to be expected to limit our moves to those that respect our partners, the music and the other dancers? Or are those expectations reasonable if we are all to be part of the society that is a milonga?

I believe that often when dancers feel limited or confined by such factors as rhythm, flow or partner it is not really a question of freedom or lack thereof, it is a question of difficulty and resistance to working on something that is, quite frankly, hard. Especially for leaders, learning to follow the flow of the dance floor, which includes staying in your lane, maintaining a consistent distance from the couple ahead of you and adapting to constantly changing situations, is one of the most difficult parts of learning to tango. You’ve finally figured out how to string some moves together and lead them clearly to a partner, then you go to your first milonga and can’t do half of them because you are constantly having to stop, slow down and change your plan according to what is happening all around you. It’s frustrating, for sure, but it’s a necessary part of the learning process. It’s not about freedom, it’s about respect. Tango is a social dance, which means we are not dancing alone and we are not dancing uniquely for our own personal pleasure. In a class, a práctica or a milonga we are part of a society, so we cannot be overly individualistic, disregarding what effect our actions might have on those around us.

It’s an over-used comparison, but when you are driving on the highway do you back up against traffic, lane change without looking first, drive at any speed you please and zigzag back and forth every time there’s a car ahead of you? Probably – hopefully – not. And you probably don’t complain that it’s an infringement on your freedom to avoid doing those things. You accept that in order to have the privilege of being allowed to drive you have to take on the responsibility of following the rules of the road. Similarly, learning to dance within tango society is difficult, but don’t use your personal freedom as an excuse for not tackling the tough part of the job.

When dancers roll their eyes impatiently if teachers insist that they listen to and follow the beat of the music, are they really protesting a lack of liberty to dance how they want and just execute their fancy moves, or is it an excuse because it is difficult to learn musicality if it doesn’t come naturally?

Liberty has limits. Sometimes those limits are annoying. I know I was annoyed when I had to wait six months and pay hundreds of dollars for a permit to change the balcony railings on my house. “It’s my house and I should be able to do what I want with it!” I said in frustration more than once. While I maintain that the long wait and hefty fees were out of proportion with such a minor change, the need to apply for permits does exist for good reason. Should I be allowed to build up my house so it blocks the view and sunlight of all my neighbours? Or install a giant pornographic statue on my front lawn? Limits to our freedom are normal, because my freedom should not create great discomfort or danger to you. When we are part of a collective whole, and we are, it’s just selfish, immature and naïve to think that liberty means the right to just do whatever we want. Sure some limits are unfair, and we can and should work to change them when they are outright wrong or outdated. But to make sure the big issues get taken seriously, we should make sure we are not just reacting in frustration to our own minor inconveniences when we cry freedom.

Another issue that is currently front and centre both inside and outside tango is personal hygiene.

Going back to pre-COVID times, people were certainly free not to wash their hands after using the toilet. They wouldn’t be arrested for not doing it. But I think most dancers would agree that it’s unhygienic, disrespectful and, well, gross not to, especially in tango, where you’re going to hold countless other dancers’ hands with your germy ones. People are also free not to brush their teeth or wear deodorant. But in tango society, where its members spend most of their time in very close contact with each other, hand-washing, teeth-brushing and deodorant-wearing are really the bare minimum in terms of acts of respect when it comes to hygiene habits.

Now, in COVID times, there are stricter hygienic measures in place everywhere for much more urgent health reasons. Everyone is being told to wash their hands more thoroughly and often than ever and to wear masks to help protect not the comfort but the health and safety of those around us. And a surprising number of people are getting up in arms about this being an infringement on their freedom. Well, yes it is. Just like other safety regulations like not smoking in offices and restaurants, wearing a seatbelt in your car and not bringing weapons into a school or an airplane. These are all infringements on our personal freedoms, but they are for the health and safety of everyone.

I remember a few years ago a dancer I knew had decided to drastically change his lifestyle. He gave up his house and his career to follow a path of yoga, meditation and nomadic living. We didn’t see him for many months and then one day he showed up at tango barefoot and bushy-bearded in a tank top, his hairy and, frankly, very strong-smelling armpits on full display. “People’s odours don’t offend me,” he mentioned at some point. (Perhaps he had overheard someone comment on his?) Truly, I respect that. I am more non-conformist than conformist and I sure believe people should pretty much be allowed to dress how they like and choose not to wear deodorant if they don’t want to. But what about at a milonga? He danced with a couple of women who then complained to my partner and me about his smell and we were torn: Do we ask him to leave for the comfort of others or do we respect his freedom to wash and dress as he pleases? In the end he didn’t stay long anyway and we haven’t seen him since, so we never did have to tackle that particular dilemma.

In tango we get really close to others. People’s odours do offend a lot of people, and if you’re going to dance in close embrace with other people, most of those people probably don’t want to smell your three-day-old sweat and feel your damp body hair glued against their skin. If you refuse to take other people’s comfort into consideration, while you may be expressing your own freedom of choice, you are also disregarding the freedom of those around you to enjoy a pleasant environment.

Having to follow our partner, time our steps to the music and respect the space of the other dancers all inhibit our freedom of choice and movement on the dance floor. But if we don’t do those things we are disregarding everyone else on the floor as well as the dance itself. And if we go too far, the managers of the establishment should feel free to ask us to leave.

Tango society is always a reflection of society at large, and the aforementioned parallels regarding freedom within confines have been standing out to me lately. In tango as in life we are free to move and to express ourselves, but that freedom is limited by a structure that we must respect or we will not have tango, we will have chaos.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

What tango means to each of us

How long can technique classes and masked prácticas stand in for the tango that once was?

Lire en français

Of all the activities that have been affected by the current COVID pandemic, social events have been the hardest hit, including tango.

For those of us who work in tango, especially those who make our living from it, it means our livelihood has been taken away and our immediate financial future looks grim. Many tango professionals are rethinking their careers. Schools and milongas around the world have closed and some teachers are seeking out job training in other fields.

Social dancers, too, have spent their time away from tango re-evaluating their relationship with the dance. For many, no more social tango has meant no more social life. For all of us, it has reduced or eliminated the activity we are most passionate about. Some dancers are sitting it out until things are back to pre-COVID normal. Others are using the time to learn and practice however they can, hoping to be better dancers than ever when social events return. Still others, those who already struggled with tango's complex social side, have decided they will make this pause permanent.

During lockdown, when we could only go out to buy groceries or walk the dog (if we were lucky), the only options available in tango, pretty much planet-wide, were online. Many teachers, myself included, jumped on the Zoom bandwagon, hosting virtual classes for singles and couples. On social media, some people shunned such offerings. “That’s not tango,” some lamented. “I would rather not dance than dance without a real embrace,” others insisted. Who can blame them? Especially for those who don’t live with a tango partner, a lesson on a computer screen is no replacement for warm abrazos in a bustling milonga.

But for my partner and me, whose vocation it is not just to provide fun tango events but also to give people the tools to dance well so that when they go to the fun events they dance ever better and enjoy themselves even more, we saw it as an opportunity to get people to take time to work on their technique and up their skills.

Of course as full-time teachers and studio owners we have a different perspective from that of your average milonga-going social dancer. But then again, we teach because we believe in learning. And we believe learning is not just the means to the end that is the ability to hold your own in a milonga; we also believe working hard and improving your dance skills are rewarding in and of themselves. (You can read my blog post on the subject here.) After all, my partner and I are so passionate about tango we made it our life’s work, yet we spend a lot more time learning, practicing and teaching than we do dancing socially.

In any case, some students did join our online classes, sticking with us through our own learning curve of online teaching, in some cases until this day. Some – both solo and partnered students – found the classes extremely helpful, were motivated to practice between lessons and have made noticeable improvements. Sure, the feedback we can give through a small screen is limited and the hands-on help is nonexistent, but there’s still lots to be gained from diligent practice … with a coach to guide you through it.

Another thing I did during lockdown was to join a community of neotango DJs who set up livestreamed online “milongas.” Of course they weren’t really milongas, they were more of an Internet radio show. Is it the same to DJ for an unseen audience as it is for live dancers? Of course not. But it was pretty cool to know that people were listening to my music live all over the world, from North America to Europe to Australia. And you could chat with them as they listened, which was fun and different and allowed us to connect with tango people from other communities. Surprisingly, I saw some angry exchanges on Facebook among some of those who had been involved in the project and dedicated to the cause of keeping tango – specifically neotango – alive and those who wanted nothing to do with it. For sure those who participated in online DJing events were happy to share their music and chat about it, while giving and getting their musical fix to some extent at least. But again, for some it felt like a poor replacement, period. Why listen to tandas if you can’t dance to them? Both perspectives are understandable, for sure. What was less understandable to me was that there would be fighting and defensiveness over such an issue. Why criticize someone for offering a service just because you don’t want to use it? And why criticize someone for not wanting a service you offer?

Here in July in Montreal, the COVID curve has flattened somewhat and the city has progressively deconfined (too carelessly in my opinion, but that’s not the subject here). First, stores reopened and small outdoor gatherings were permitted. Then daycares, day camps and outdoor sports opened. Therapeutic and esthetic services, such as dentists, physiotherapists, massage therapists, manicurists and hairdressers went back to work. Restaurants and bars reopened. And, finally, gyms, indoor sports and, yes, dance studios. But.

With good reason, all of these are limited. Masks are either required or strongly recommended for most indoor activities and attendance limits and distancing guidelines are still in place. For tango, that pretty much means for now it is a couples-only activity. At our studio we have a couple of technique classes for solo dancers on offer and for the rest, people must come with their own partner and there are no partner changes in any of our classes or practices. The number of participants is also greatly reduced so we can ensure physical distance on and off the dance floor. So no more milongas with 50 or 100 people milling about. Currently our busiest activity is a short guided práctica we limit to eight couples, or 16 people, all of whom wear masks.

This makes me sad, because even though I am one of the lucky ones to have my very own very excellent tango partner, I have never seen tango as a couples’ activity. It’s a social activity. We dance it in couples, but we share it with all our tango friends. I’m pretty sure more people go to milongas as singles than couples, and even those who do show up as a pair usually change partners almost as much as anyone else. We all know that changing partners improves our lead-follow skills and keeps things fresh. I felt a pang of guilt when I announced a couples-only activity on Facebook and someone reacted with a sad face. But it’s couples-only or nothing at all and we prefer to do something than nothing. And you know what? It’s still a social activity. Everyone there is sharing their love of the music and the dance. They introduce themselves from behind their masks and have a chat – at a distance – sharing their experiences about how things were, are and will be. So while it’s not the same tango we were dancing a year ago, it is still tango and it is still a good time.

My partner and I, along with many others, fear “back to normal” will not come for a long time. Some people predict it will be a year or two before we are back in packed milongas changing partners at will. I, optimistically, estimate at least six months more of couples-only and mask-wearing. So we try to evolve with the situation and make tango what it can be for now: a set of online tandas, a technique class, a practice session for couples, a thoughtful blog post. Some dancers are happy for whatever tastes they can get and will enjoy the small pieces while they wait for the whole to return one day. Some dancers want the full package – crowded floors, a selection of partners, uncovered faces – or nothing at all.

So what is my point? That tango, for me, is not just one thing and it is not all or nothing. But if that’s what it is for you, that is your experience and it is as valid as any other. And just as I will not judge you for what you can’t bring yourself to participate in, you should not judge someone else for making tango whatever it can be for now.

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