We danced in the empty front parlor of his shotgun house in the Irish Channel. Alberto Paz, an Argentine gentleman of my father’s generation, said, “Find your center. Stay grounded. Let go. Be patient. Do not anticipate the direction, but once you have a direction, step with energy. Be relaxed but strong.”
His instructions on how to dance tango often struck me as advice on how to live.
“If I lean you off balance, don’t be afraid to use me as a point of support. If you keep your core strong, you are not heavy. You are only heavy if you collapse.”
And my favorite: “Stop thinking and dance.”
I have not yet learned to stop thinking, but, for certain, when I dance tango, I can’t think about anything else. It is physically and mentally challenging, constantly humbling, considered one of the most difficult dances to master. But when I focus on the dance, hints of transcendence visit from time to time. Tango teaches me to be in the moment, something I never achieved in yoga.
The Zen aspect of tango helped more than I could have imagined during the long exile after Katrina and the struggle to get home. I found some classes in Atlanta, where I evacuated, and just an occasional few-minutes’ break from the worrying kept me from going crazy. It was a relief to interact socially without having to spend hours making conversation. I got weary of talking about Katrina, and that’s all anyone wanted to talk about.
Another unexpected life lesson came with learning tango: the joy of giving up control. It made me see that letting someone else be responsible for everything for a while can be a wonderful change.
It seems that the human species has been compelled to move in rhythm with others practically since learning to walk upright. For millennia, in countless cultures, dance has been a tool of spirituality, the medium by which humans connect to gods. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his fine art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his ‘divine service.’ ”
There must be something to it. You never hear of a dancer going postal. I’ve never seen a headline reporting a disgruntled member of a ballet company showing up to Nutcracker practice and shooting the Sugarplum Fairy.
One day when I felt particularly guilty about spending money on private lessons while struggling financially, I made myself laugh with this idea: Think how much I would be spending on therapy without it.
My tango therapy with Alberto always left me feeling inspired. I looked forward to the lesson all week. And most of the hour would be spent in close embrace. Maybe if psychotherapy involved hugging, it would do more good.
After Katrina, I felt an even deeper connection to the city, and one day I mused about my two great passions, New Orleans and tango. When I first thought about it, the music and dance of Buenos Aires seemed out of place in the Big Easy. But it turns out that tango is an obvious import and a close relative of New Orleans’ own original music.
Sexy, rich in tradition, born of a multicultural mix in a colonial port city, raised in slums and brothels, shunned by proper society, feared, even outlawed. Jazz and tango. They are brothers.
Each had its ignominious beginnings around the turn of the 20th century and later became not only accepted by its detractors, but celebrated as an art form of local and national pride. Jazz and tango may even have evolved from the same seminal source, the common progenitor: the drum rhythms of African slaves.
In the mid-1800s, in New Orleans and Buenos Aires, enslaved people and free blacks congregated to drum and dance. In New Orleans, it happened in Congo Square. In Argentina, the traditional African gatherings commenced at places called tangos. The word tango, in the native Bantu language of the Africans in Argentina, meant “closed space” or “reserved ground.”
Many historians believe jazz resulted from a combination of African, Caribbean, brass band and European traditions mingling in New Orleans. In Argentina, a similar admixture of slave and immigrant populations produced tango. Jazz took on the voice of the brass instruments readily available after the civil war. Tango, heavily influenced by the polka, adopted the voice of the bandoneon, a kind of German concertina, similar to a small accordion.
Recordings of tango were first made in 1907. Ten years later, in 1917, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz record. With the new recording technology, a great cross-influence began. The borrowing of musical ideas between jazz and tango had its most beautiful moment in 1952 when Louis Armstrong recorded Kiss of Fire, a version of the classic tango, El Choclo, written by Angel Villoldo in 1905.
Another interesting bit of history regarding tango in New Orleans: In the early 20th century, the lesser known Tango Belt rivaled Storyville as a center of the sex trade. Adjacent to Storyville, in the northwest corner of the French Quarter, the Tango Belt offered music and dance along with the main attraction, prostitution.
The Encyclopedia Louisiana includes the following entry in its Louisiana Timeline:
“1914: The tango fad is sweeping the city and the nation and reaches its peak in January. The concentration of halls, cabarets, restaurants and cafés around Iberville, Bienville and North Rampart Streets are called the Tango Belt. Skirts were rising above the ankle, getting tighter, and to compensate for their restriction, were sporting tango slits.”
So, Viva la Tango Belt! This South American import is a spicy slice of New Orleans’ grand multicultural history. And the future? It seems 2007 may be the year for a local tango renaissance.
Ector Gutierrez, a 39-year-old native Nicaraguan who has lived in New Orleans for more than 20 years, started teaching Argentine tango recently with a new approach, bridging the gap between varying styles of the dance. Ector takes the classic forms of traditional tango and adds to them some of the energy and creativity of Tango Nuevo (New Tango).
Tango has evolved like any other living art form and changed with each generation. Tango Nuevo, the dance of the 21st century, is athletic and dynamic and thrives on the continuous invention of new and challenging moves. It does, however, stay connected to its history and the techniques developed by the original tangueros 100 years ago.
The hottest Tango Nuevo bands constantly incorporate and reinvent the melodies of classic tangos of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Some of the best synthesized, techno-tango music played in Buenos Aires nightclubs uses sampled bits of old records mixed into the sound.
Ardent traditionalists bristle at the pulsing new music, and many old-guard dancers want nothing to do with the opening and expanding physicality of Tango Nuevo, but without this kind of change, tango would become a relic. Like folk dances around the world, it might only be performed in costume for tourists. Without evolution, tango might be lost to its scratchy-Victrola, black and white, Rudolph Valentino past.
So, Viva la Tango Nuevo!
I can count on one hand the times in my life that any activity ended with a spontaneous high five. Almost all of them came in classes learning Tango Nuevo with my second teacher, Fuad Adra. Fuad is an intense dancer who delights in coming up with bizarre, new moves. He leads, in open embrace, unexpected syncopations, off-balance spins, twisted back steps between his steps and other amazing maneuvers. When I follow a difficult combination well, it is as satisfying as any three-pointer from center court could ever be.
Everybody in the world needs something that makes you want to high five, if not literally, then spiritually, something that makes your soul jump up and say “yea!” I lived too long without it.
Over many months of learning from Fuad and his partner Kathie Sanborn, they became like family. I traveled with them to California to attend a workshop with the top dancers of the new generation, the rock stars of Tango Nuevo, Chicho Frumboli and Sebastian d’Arce.
Fuad opened up a whole new world of tango, and he gave me the precious gift of high fives.
New Orleans’ newest tango teacher, Ector is passionate about both traditional and new tango. He encourages versitility and believes students should learn all styles of tango. Ector’s teaching emphasizes the connection between the two dancers and the ability to feel and express the emotion of the music, which remain the same in any style.
Sensual and philosophical, many of Ector’s sentences begin with “For me, tango is . . .” His feeling about the dance struck a chord with me. “The most important rules in tango are the rules for life.” Admiration for Ector’s take on tango is spreading far beyond New Orleans. He has been recruited to teach workshops as far away as China and Hong Kong.
Ector tells the leaders in his class that when dancing socially, a dance is like a three-minute date. For those three minutes, the man should show the woman a good time, offer his lead like an invitation, as he would open a door and wait for the lady to walk through. He should focus on her, dance with her, look at her as if she were the only person in the world. The man should not show off the advanced moves he knows, but be sensitive to her level and feel what they can do together, find what he can do to show her off. His romantic vision and open-minded approach combined with a talent for teaching makes Ector an exciting new force in tango.
Already, opportunities to tango in New Orleans happen three or four times a week. We have world-class instructors including Alberto, who studied extensively with golden-era master Mingo Pugliese, and Fuad and Kathie, who learned directly from tango superstar Gustavo Naviera. Srini Vishnubhotla, a protégé of Susana Miller, world-renowned queen of close embrace, will soon resume his Argentine tango club at the University of New Orleans. And experienced teachers of social tango, María Elena and Enrique La Motta, hold weekly classes Uptown.
Many tango-obsessed locals, like me, will drive to Baton Rouge to dance at the parties there, and vice-versa. Members of the thriving Baton Rouge community, Tango Rouge very often show up at New Orleans venues for a night of dancing, despite the long drive home. The same goes for some Mississippi followers of Hattiesburg instructor Percell St. Thomass, who drive almost two hours one-way to salida and crusada in New Orleans.
Like the city itself, tango has one foot solidly in its rich, intriguing history and one foot taking a dynamic step into the future. With Ector building a bridge across a century of tango styles, the refined yet sensual dance, born in Argentina and reborn in Paris, may have its next great rebirth in New Orleans, a historically appropriate place for it, at a good time for renaissance in the city.
And if most people are like me, we can all use some tango therapy.