Theme, Variation, and the stuff of a teenage girl’s dream

The other day my daughter was assigned a piano song. And instantly it took me back.

When I listen to the Pachelbel Canon, it takes me to a very specific moment in time. I was 14, and my father was driving me from Salt Lake to Wenatchee Washington to see my mother for the summer. I loved the piece (as I believe all teenage girls do). You see, it’s mournful, romantic, and hopeful all at the same time. It says, there is a place far away where things will be wonderful. You can’t see it, but it’s there. Anyway, I couldn’t get enough of the song. So, I took it on cassette, with me, for the long road to my mama’s house. These were the days when seatbelts and even riding inside the car were optional. You always drove straight through, because who needs a hotel when you can just lay down in the car? And you would never have imagined a movie screen on the road.

We were driving through the Blue mountains of Eastern Oregon. My dad had this little Datsun pickup truck. It only had a small bench inside the cab, so I wanted to lay in the back. Wrapped up in blankets with my little walkman, looking up at the multitude of stars in the dark night sky I played this piece over and over. It’s so completely repetitive, you would think I would have gotten tired of it, but I didn’t. Why is the song so special? It starts with the simple plucking of the violin string and a cello underneath. The other strings join in, and the piece swells. Pachelbel takes his simple theme and runs with it. Another master… Ravel. The melody and tempo stay the same throughout his Bolero, but the instruments come in one by one…each bringing to the piece their own unique personality. The beginning and end of the piece are the same, except they aren’t.  These men were genius at creating mood with one simple theme, changing it a bit, and boom….you find yourself knocked on your back.

So I wondered…how does tango use this tool? Tango certainly is repetitive by nature, so I knew the song was out there, the song that knocks me over in it’s repetition, but I couldn’t think of anything in my midnight haze. So I did what I think anyone would do. I emailed someone more knowledgeable than me. Luckily Shorey Myers seems to be a night owl as well and five minutes later there was a song in my inbox. She pointed me to the song that was  right in front of my nose. How could I have missed it?!

La Cumparsita!! Of course! Every time I hear it, there is a moment where I think…’s time! Time: time for what? In that moment I know I have to dance. The music is so stern, so exciting, and so final. It always makes my heart beat just a little bit faster. I can honestly say, I feel a little cheated if I don’t get it at the end of a Milonga. There are so many  versions of the song, but they all have the same effect. The same strong theme carries throughout the song. And it says…


The magical world of Boulder

Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anna demonstrate v...

Gustavo Naveira and Giselle Anna demonstrate volcada during the workshop on volcadas in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For most of the country, Boulder Colorado is a fantastic place to visit when you want to enjoy the outdoors. The mountains to the west of town are stunning, with the flatirons being lit up by the morning light. The nightlife is ample with its many little restaurants and bars. You might conjure up images of red brick buildings and house music thumping and pulsing out onto the street from tiny little clubs and fraternities in the wee hours of the night. This is after all a college town. So when I tell you it’s one of the top places to go for intense tango boot camp, you might say: 1. Tango in Boulder? AND 2. What exactly is Tango boot camp?

O.K. I don’t think tango boot camp is a real term, but it DOES describe what’s happening in Boulder Colorado the last week of September and  the first week of October these days. For those of us that dance tango, Boulder’s magic lies at the Avalon. That’s where we go to meet our masters of this dance. When exactly did this happen? When Gustavo Naviera and his wife Giselle Anne decided to call Boulder home sweet home. You might also ask…Didn’t Boulder just have some of the worst flooding in recorded history? Well….yes, but that isn’t enough to keep tango dancers away from Gustavo and Giselle.  You see, before they came to the states, dancers would travel  all the way to Argentina for weeks at a time just to study with them. Now all we have to do is head to Denver and brave a little inclement weather. Sounds like a no brainer to me. I can hop on a plane and be there in an hour and a half!

They’ve been perfecting their seminars and teaching to traveling dancers for years. Now they make Boulder an even bigger draw, by bringing in other big name dancers and having their own festival. It’s quite the sight when you think about it…200 adults taking classes all afternoon and then running to their hotel rooms to change and grab a bite to eat before dancing the evening away.  Everything culminates with a big show Saturday night. I think we finally were treated to these amazing dancers at 1:30 a.m. You would think WE were all college kids. Imagine seeing Gustavo’s adult children Ariadna and Frederico dancing with their partners, then Gustavo and Giselle, and then finally seeing Chicho Frumboli and Juana Sepulveda dance. It was a show unlike any I had ever seen.

So next time you drive into Boulder Colorado, think about the rich tango tradition that is being cultivated and nourished right there at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

Do you know your history?

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!!

Oh Brigitta!

I met Brigitta Winkler almost a year ago when she came through Salt Lake to teach a workshop. I was nervous, as I always am, when I meet one of these great women of Tango. Let me describe her to you. She’s tiny…really tiny, with very long blond hair, and a lovely mild accent. When I began dancing with her, the thought ran though my head that maybe I was just too big and clumsy to be dancing with this tiny woman. Not to worry. She’s German after all! I say this because I have a German aunt, and it always seems to me that they just take the bull by the horns and run without fear. Confidence is the name of the game. Brigitta possesses that confidence, in herself as a dancer, as a teacher, and in her student as well. There is no question that she will be able to impart some portion of her knowledge into said student, and that they will come away with something of value. And, I must say, she is correct.

Yes, after that first hour with Brigitta, I decided she was one of the most fabulous people I had ever met. Her frank, no-nonsense approach to tango and the people around her was so refreshing. What can I say? I suppose I’m a disciple of sorts. I certainly would follow her into the wilderness. And why not? The woman has more experience than almost anyone around. She’s been dancing Tango since the 1980s. If you want to understand the dance, there is no better source. It is in her bones. She is a skilled follower as well as a skilled leader. Brigitta understands the code of tango better than anyone. She has worked with some of the other great women of tango to create Tango Mujer: a company made up entirely of women dancers. In it they meld tango with contemporary dance for a larger audience. She understands all kinds of movement.

What I took away after that weekend with her, was a small bit of her have no fear attitude. There are two people in this dance after all. We all have something to offer, something that we bring to the table (or in this case, the floor). Her job is to bring out the students bests qualities that will enhance their own personal dance. Brigitta works with the student on technique, but she’s not going to make us all look the same. We are all individuals. The dance that we create is just that. Something that is new and fresh every day. It is never the same, and what is my best dance one day will not be my best another. I have to recreate it every single day.  What it comes down to is being authentic. Be authentic and don’t be afraid of that. And run without fear!

Brigitta does!

Lovely Women!

Life, Love, Death, and Music

As I sit and listen to The National’s latest album for the 50th time after the other night’s twilight concert, I contemplate our humanity.

There are precious few things we actually need in life. Most of the things we think of, deal with our material needs: air, food, water, a place to sleep, clothing to protect us from the elements…but what of our soul? What makes us human? Why do we WANT to breath, move and carry on? There are so many things in life that we get wrapped up in. Our egos get the better of us and we look at life as one goal after another. Did I get good enough grades? Will I get that job? How do I get ahead? We worry about what everyone thinks of us, and are 100% certain that we are being judged by those around us.  Am I doing what I SHOULD? Should… what a word. Who invented this concept?

I always wanted to believe in something bigger. Something that wasn’t ruled by the word should, by society, by expectations: Music. This is the great equalizer. My personal belief is THIS is the way we find our humanity, our heart. When we listen to music, we feel the same feelings with everyone around us. The musician evokes feelings in us that we are afraid to face. They share parts of themselves that feel like parts of us. The parts that we love, but also the parts that we hate. We face these things together. And then, we know we aren’t alone. The energy flows from one person to the next. I think of a flock of birds… the way they fly in a formation. One changes, and they all change in an instant. There is no thought…no discussion. It just happens, almost magically. We’re part of this. We can fly in formation and change on a dime with those around us. In that moment we love, we cry, we hate, we feel joy, we hope, and we open ourselves up together. How? I don’t know. The rhythm, the melody, the lyrics, the swell, and the silence… all these things apart, and all these things together. It’s in our head, in our muscles, our voice box, our hands and in our bones. For me, as a dancer, it’s hypnotic. I’m empty and open, but I’m also full all at once.  Why pontificate about The National on a tango blog? I suppose I state the obvious when I say dance is the physical manifestation of the music. And this is MY most recent connection.

My hope is that we listen to our bodies more. We listen to music together. And we dance… dance to  music, as much as we can.  Whatever that may be, as long as we love it. This is the gift we give to ourselves.

A little taste.

When she walks into the room

The life of a professional tango teacher means spending a lot of time on the road. They travel from city to city teaching at workshops and festivals around the world. They go to exciting places like Barcelona, Montreal, New York, and Salt Lake City. OK, Salt Lake is nothing like those other cities, but at least we have a huge Tango community. Mmmmm…not really. So, what could possibly bring a world class teacher to us? First, dedicated community members that work to bring them here. And second, dedicated teachers. These teachers are dancers that love this dance and want to share it with all of us…whether we are part of a small community or part of a large community doesn’t matter.

A taste of our most recent traveling instructor, Cecilia Gonzalez. She was just here this past weekend, and I have to say that every time I see her, I realize just how incredible she is. Cecilia has that intangible something that takes over when she walks into the room. It’s an energy, and it radiates. Everything she does seems completely effortless and natural. And the woman stands on her own! She is a beautiful follower, but make no mistake, she is a skilled leader.  I’ve taken a lesson with her on her last 2 visits, and both times I blurted out how nervous I was at the prospect of one on one attention from her. This just made her laugh, because even though Cecilia has “it”, she isn’t one to show “it” off. When I think about it, showing off isn’t effortless or natural.

The interesting part for me this time was getting to know Cecilia better. She shared a funny story about life on the road and the crazy things that can happen when running from one city to the next. Not my story so I won’t be sharing it, but suffice it to say, it takes a good sense of humor to lead this lifestyle. I found out Cecilia speaks 5 languages (at least that I know of). And these are things you can only learn when you are willing to sit down on a sofa next to her and have a conversation at a milonga on a Saturday night. It was a fun weekend with an awesome dancer.

So, enjoy this video of Cecilia! I see her doing so many of the very things she suggested to me. Lovely!

No we don’t compete

Whenever I go out and mention I’m a tango dancer, I always get the question “So do you compete”?  That’s understandable…given what’s shown on television.

This is generally a persons first thought or experience with Argentine Tango, at least in the U.S.

Now I’m not here to say that what’s on television is bad. It’s a venue that’s created a lot of  interest in ballroom, latin dance, and tango in general. What they do takes tremendous training and skill.  And I personally LOVE a good show.  But competition tango and tango as a social dance are two different beasts.

Here is a couple that I think of when I want to watch dancers that are skilled and beautiful.

Ok… I know what your thinking. Your thinking “Who is the guy in the pajama bottoms and who are all those people watching”? I suppose I should preface what I say about this video by saying that this is in no way a traditional piece of music. But I’m a fan of using all kinds of music in tango and you can still see the differences, so I’ll go with it. This couple, Chicho and Jauna, are 2 of the most famous tango dancers in the world right now. People take tango trips just to study with them. All those people pounding on the floor are students. So what do I love about this video? What’s different? First of all, this was the 7th piece of the night. They performed six other awesome dances that same night. But what’s really special? Improvisation… They are listening to the music and dancing to it. It’s not choreographed, so there’s a natural give and take between the two. This is the show I want to see. It’s beautiful, and they’re having fun. I just find it more accessible and frankly more appealing. And, I think if I thought some guy was going to spin me above his head like the couple in the first video, I’d have a heart attack or I never would have given it a try in the first place.

Tango doesn’t have to be so serious. It’s fun, inventive, playful, and I could go on with about 20 more adjectives. I’ll just leave it at that. Enjoy!