In 1989, I learned just how much I love history from my most memorable high school teacher, Mr. Felt. That was the year the Berlin Wall fell. It was also the year I learned how awesome Jimmy Carter is. Bush Sr. was president at the time. Carter had quietly gone on doing work on his farm, and work for Habitat for Humanity. He hadn’t yet won the Nobel Prize for peace. He was a conservationist, he believed in equal rights for women, he believed in racial equality, and he sought peace. Let me tell you, these were not things normally talked about in Utah in the 1980s. Mr. Felt’s passion for history and Carter, brought this man to the forefront of my consciousness, and forever created a place in my heart for the past president and still great man. Why am I talking about Jimmy Carter? History. It has to do with Wasatch Tango’s somewhat mysterious beginning. At least it was mysterious to me, and possibly most of us that joined this community after the 1990s or early 2000s. I truly am fascinated by a good story. History has the best ones. And I must say, there’s one here!
I have to thank Steven Payne for bringing this period of Wasatch Tango to life for me. He briefly came up in conversation with my dance partner Nicholas one day. And then another day, not more than a week later, his name came up outside my realm of Tango. I was at an elementary school carnival of all places. I knew right then and there the universe was telling me to talk to him. And I was right. The man is a story-teller!
Steven and his wife Jane began their tango journey in 1997 at church. My first thought: What?! I’m not catholic, so I don’t understand all the significance in the mass, but that day the priest decided to compare the holy trinity to a couple dancing tango…the man, the woman, and the music. This image resonated with Jane. She had just finished her BFA in modern dance. After mass, a woman named Teresa Shultz seized the moment! She jumped up in the announcement period and said she was a tango dancer. She was bringing a man named Andre Gene Sampson from Seattle to do a workshop and the workshop was that very night!! Teresa was from Denver and was here doing her medical residency, but we had no tango , no teachers…..nothing. Through sheer willpower she and her friend Sue Jones studied videos and practiced by themselves. Finally, they were able to bring Andre here to teach a workshop. And she was determined to make it a success. She hunted down Steven and Jane specifically after church. Their first thought? This woman is crazy. You see, they didn’t know Teresa personally, and Jane had just had their first baby. Teresa persisted….it will be fine, I will watch the baby, etc… So, they agreed. Well, Benjamin, a normally calm and relaxed baby would have none of it. He cried the whole way there. So they ditched their plans to try tango and went home. Game over! Not so. Teresa, in her persistent manner, called Steven…what happened, is everything ok, and so it continued. At this point, Steven is sure…Teresa really is crazy, but so very sweet and earnest. Oh, if non tango dancers could only understand our passion for this dance! Anyway, Teresa told Steven that Andre was still here and please come take a private lesson! Money was an issue for them, but Teresa so wanted them to take this lesson that she offered the lesson for the price of the workshop. Steven and Jane relented, and with baby in tow, they went to their private lesson. They had zero experience with tango dancing. So everything Andre said and did was as if in the mist. They had a lovely time, and found it fascinating, but after their 3 hour lesson they went home and didn’t come back for an entire year.
Meanwhile, Sally Potter came out with a little movie. The Tango Lesson. Steven and Jane had an epiphany! Ah… that’s what he meant. Everything clicked with them, and they decided that they had to go back. They contacted Teresa and found out there was a regular pracitica by then, in a dingy dance studio on 11th east. Steven remembers there were about 5 people there at that first practica they walked into. He can’t remember everyone, but they included Sue, Brian Salisbury, and another woman….Lynne Butler.
This is it. This is how it all began. This dingy little dance studio is where Wasatch Tango was born. Where it became a community, and not just 2 or 3 people. The small group began making pilgrimages to Denver to get their fix with live teachers. There was a man in Denver named Dave Schmitz. He regularly housed Balkan folk dancers, and had created a boarding house of sorts in his home for traveling dancers. With open arms, Dave welcomed the group of Salt Lake pioneers. It all sounds so bohemian to me. Through Dave, our early dancers were able to meet people like Tomas Howlin and bring them here to our little city. He loved educating the new dancers about tango music as well, waking them with loud early morning drills about the music. This is after long nights of dancing no less.
Gradually, through these last years of the 20th century, dancers were added. People like Barbara Zakarian, who brought with her discipline and body conscious movement. Nicholas Walker decided to make Utah his permanent residence after spending several winters here. Nicholas had trained in NYC, so when he moved here, it was the first time we had a local teacher. Soon after that Mark and Lorraine Christensen brought their talents and dedication to the community. Dancers come and go. Steven says it was always a struggle in the beginning. They struggled to get new dancers and to keep dancers, and sometimes it still feels that way. But, I think we don’t realize how far we’ve come. When we walk into a milonga with 30 people, or even 15, we can look around the room and see a room full of people who have become a part of our lives. And it’s not just 5 or 6 anymore.
Pioneers are a BIG deal here in Utah. And these are ours. Where are they now?
Teresa Shultz married toward the end of her residency here in Salt Lake. Then, later moved back to Denver to start her own practice. Steven says she didn’t do a lot of dancing in those last days here, but I like to think that this woman with heart and passion found dance again in Denver.
Sue Jones is the woman that our oldest Milonga is named after. I hope we have the fortitude to keep it going strong. It’s part of her legacy.
Brian Salisbury continues to dance and plays live tango music for all dancers to enjoy.
Lynne Butler runs the popular monthly milonga, Milonga Buen Onda, at Avenues Yoga with a couple other lovely ladies.
And my historian? Well, Steven Payne went to the Tango Mecca of the Western United States in 2002, when Jane started her medical residency in Portland. They ended up staying. They continue dancing Tango and Steven continues to teach private lessons while raising 3 kids. He has also picked up a new hobby to compliment his tango dancing… surfing.
Now…tell me that wasn’t better than fiction!!