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.

Related articles:
Work hard, have fun
Quest for the truth


  1. Félicitations Andrea. C'est un bon plaidoyer pour le bon sens. Et on a en besoin pour passer au travers d'une épreuve comme celle-là.

  2. Thank you Andrea. In deed let's be happy for other peoples joy.

  3. "For many, no more social tango has meant no more social life." Very true! Tango was my main social activity. It was the one thing that balanced the solitude of working from home (which I've done for 25+ years, not merely a few months) and not seeing other human beings all day.

    Beyond that, tango was my primary physical activity. In a way it was a kind of psychotherapy, too. It was instrumental to physical and mental health.

    And after hundreds of hours of lessons, thousands of hours of practice, and tens of thousands of dollars, tango represented a considerable material investment, despite the fact that I'm just another forgettable social dancer.

    Life is less bright without packed milongas on great floors, surrounded by good friends dancing to the tandas of skilled DJs. But because tango was all of the things above for me – and because I live with my dance partner, and can practice at home and dance in the park at dawn – I'll be coming back. Tango will become all of those things once again!

    Yet I have to wonder how many people who have no partner are going to give up – including many good friends. That thought definitely saddens me.