Dancing Cheek to Cheek Again: New York's tango scene bounces back

The concept of social distancing simply does not exist in tango. This dance, born in the popular districts of Buenos Aires and Montevid...


The concept of social distancing simply does not exist in tango. This dance, born in the popular districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, speaks of intimacy, touch and proximity of the abrazo, or of the embrace. There is no distance between bodies; partners lean over each other, faces and chests touch, one arm wrapped around the other’s back, communicating through fingertips and subtle weight changes.

This closeness – and the melancholy melody of the music – is the draw. For many, the tango dance creates an instant connection between two people, however fleeting it may be.

“When I went to my first tango night, I noticed that while people were dancing they looked happy and alive – the only sad one there was me,” Hector Rubinstein, a cardiologist, said recently. of Argentinian origin in the 1980s. La Nacional, one of New York’s oldest and most atmospheric tango spots. La Nacional reopened in July, 16 months after the start of the pandemic, one of the first warning signs of the return of tango to the city.

The biggest test to date of this comeback will take place next week, when the Queer Tango Weekend in New York resumes after a one-year hiatus, October 21-24. The festival, now in its sixth edition, has been scaled down, without any of the usual master classes led by international guests from Argentina or Europe. Still, it will be a four-night traveling tango night that includes a drag milonga, masked ball, and milonga with live orchestra. (In tango parlance, “milonga” means two things: a fast, accentuated style of dance, and a place where people gather to dance.)

Organizers, longtime teachers and professional tangueros Walter Perez and Leonardo Sardella, said they hesitated before deciding to hold the festival this year. But encouraged by the low number and the mildness of the breakthrough cases in the city’s milongas, they decided to go ahead.

“The general direction in New York is to keep doing things, while taking precautions,” Perez said in a Zoom interview. “Before the vaccine, we were waiting, but how long are we going to wait to get back on the dance floor?”

It took the vaccines to get there. What dance could be less suited to the era of Covid, a virus carried in particles floating in the air, easily transmitted from person to person? The milonga, the natural habitat of tango, is usually an enclosed space filled with moving bodies, in which partners change several times over long evenings, sharing a close embrace with each new confrontation.

Several people I interviewed, including the organizer of the Thursday night milonga at La Nacional, fell ill in the early days of the Covid.

With its large community of Argentines, New York is a tango hub. Before the pandemic, it was possible to choose between several milongas each evening, as is the case in Buenos Aires. Professionals and enthusiasts circulated freely between the two cities.

It all came to a halt in March 2020. And the pandemic has been equally disastrous for tango instructors and academies, all of which have closed. (Some like Triangulo and Strictly Tango NYC have since reopened; some, in search of cheaper rents, moved outside New York.)

The luckiest teachers, those with residence permits, received unemployment benefits. But others, like Sergio Segura, who has an O-1 visa (for extraordinary ability) and has been teaching tango in New York City since 2007, have faced the grim prospect of months, if not years, with no income.

Segura lost his apartment and, for a time, was forced to sleep on a student’s couch. With the help of his students, he found a new place and began offering private lessons, first outdoors and then indoors, wearing a face shield and mask, changing his shirt before interact with each new student. Most recently, he has started teaching group classes again.

“During the pandemic, we did our best,” Segura said. Some people organized private dance parties for their friends, creating tango “bubbles” with people they trusted. More intrepid (or perhaps reckless) tangos made their way to New Jersey, where a few milongas were still operating, testing the limits of state regulations on indoor gatherings.

In recent months, thanks to vaccines and relaxed regulations around indoor gatherings in New York City, the tango scene in the city has finally started to recover. A handful of milongas opened in June and July, all requiring proof of vaccination. Plus reopened in September. There are now six or seven a week.

“We were waiting to see how the vaccines behaved with Delta,” said Gayle Madeira, organizer of Ensueño, a Monday night milonga that takes place in a party space behind a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village. (Because there are no windows, the organizers set up two industrial air purifiers.)

In July, after Emily Cheeger, a passionate filmmaker and tango dancer, had a breakthrough case, she created an anonymous reporting tool accessible via a link on newyorkango.com, the city’s most widely used tango calendar. Everyone who attended the milonga with her was tested; one person came back positive. (Both recovered.)

Madeira, which maintains the calendar on newyorktango.com and is in constant contact with other tango organizers in the city, said it was only aware of a few breakthrough infections in milongas, none of which have leads to severe illness or clusters of infection.

“Tango should be a case study for the effectiveness of vaccines,” Juan Pablo Vicente, who heads La Nacional milonga, said in a telephone interview.

The low rate of infection is all the more impressive since there are few masks during these events. On the evenings I visited Ensueño and La Nacional, there were maybe three or four people wearing them.

“We debated a lot, and in the end the majority decided that we shouldn’t demand masks,” said Artem Maloratsky, known as El Ruso and one of the three organizers of Ensueño. “People have really missed the emotional connection, and seeing people in masks is very limiting. But if I dance with someone who wears a mask, I put one on too, out of respect. “

The risk calculation is personal. Some people only wear masks when dancing with strangers. Others never wear them. “I wish more people would wear them,” Lexa Roseán, leader of the Queer Tango movement in New York City and Ensueño regular, told me. Nonetheless, she is back on the dance floor. Roseán always wears a mask and only dances with masked partners.

For the more cautious, there are a few outdoor milongas, the most famous being Tango of the central park, run by Rick Castro, a park staple for 25 years. After being denied a permit last year, the weekly gathering returned in June, on Saturday afternoon in the small circle around Shakespeare’s statue. The last gathering of the year was at the end of September, but Castro opens a second, Tango Interlude, near Wollman ice rink.

Another outdoor milonga, at Pier 45 on the Hudson, began in April 2020. This does not require a mask or proof of vaccination. “People do what they feel comfortable doing,” said organizer Nadia Nastaskin.

On a recent Saturday, about twenty couples moved with intense concentration in a counterclockwise motion around the statue of Shakespeare in the park, lost in the pleasure of each other’s company, while classic tangos from the 40s and 50s floated from a sound system. People of all ages danced together under the canopy of cathedral-like trees. Tango is a rare activity in which people of different generations mix freely, and older partners are often valued for their experience and skills.

Dancers who showed proof of vaccination or a positive antibody test in the past three months were given a red bracelet and were allowed to interact without a mask. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated participants wore a yellow bracelet and had to be masked. The day I went there, everyone I saw was wearing a red bracelet.

One of the dancers that day was Suki Schorer, a former New York City Ballet dancer and longtime School of American Ballet teacher, who moved delicately and precisely in her silver high-heeled tango shoes. “I haven’t been to any of the indoor milongas yet,” she said after dancing a tanda, or three-dance ensemble. “But I like to dance. I love the connection and I love being able to kiss someone. “

Nearby, Paulina Marinkovic, a 34-year-old Chilean climate change consultant, danced in a tight, maskless embrace with her eyes closed. “I feel totally safe here,” she said. “The tango has been such a comfort for me. I don’t think of anything other than music. It’s almost like a drugged state.

This seems to be the general feeling among tango enthusiasts. Attendance at milongas was high. People want to dance together again, especially after the loneliness and anxiety of the past year and a half.

“Tango is a natural anti-depressant,” Roseán said, her voice turning shaking with emotion. “We were in a dark place and the tango was the only thing that would have helped.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Dancing Cheek to Cheek Again: New York's tango scene bounces back
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