Artists Can Eat, Too – Tango Round Table

On Sunday, August 16th, I had the privilege to listen to a discussion about tango, a welcome reprieve from a mentally taxing week. The discussion was held by dancers and teachers of Argentine tango from the U.S. and abroad, and no stone was unturned during the discussion. Hearing that seasoned professionals have faced the same ambiguity that I have faced in this pandemic was comforting, and each woman was given time and a safe space to speak candidly about their struggles. As I tuned in, the thought crept in that a permanent adjustment would have to be made to this unfamiliar virtual reality. I decided to take my usual approach to the dread I’ve been feeling all of quarantine: I sipped my coffee and sat with it.  

The discussion began with an introduction to the panel by Kristina McFadden and one by one, each woman shared what brought them to the dance floor. For Michele, it was the music that stirred her to drop everything and begin her life with dance in Argentina. Sonja was first an actress, but soon fell in love with tango. Melina saw that tango in Germany was dormant, so she worked to establish its presence within her community. Carol wanted to show the true nature of milongas to dancers of all levels. Finally, Pooja wanted to “reenergize” the tango scene in Austin, Texas. All of these women are unique, but they all shared one commonality, and that is their compassion for their community. Even with knowledge of the risks involved, they were ready to take the plunge.  

Kristina mentioned that “tango is not a transactional product,” and nothing has ever made more sense in regards to dance, as it is a working relationship between the teacher and the students. Michele said there is a vital element of “trust” that needs to be established in order for the community to grow and thrive. I agree with this, because when a student loves their teacher, word travels quickly, and that’s how class sizes grow and students stay. 

Kristina then asked each woman what their experience within their community is. Sonja, from Belgrade, said that is not just a group of professionals, rather, it is a wide range of abilities that needs to be catered to. Pooja chimed in, “It’s not just dancers, it’s different people that can offer different skillsets to fulfill different needs.”  

Melina discussed the importance of teacher training and how that gets lost when egos are involved. Someone in her past asked her, “Why are you training teachers? Aren’t you building your own competition?” 

To this, she replied, “It’s ridiculous. Everyone can contribute something.”  

The sentiment arose that tango is “not as exclusive” as it once was, as teachers across the nation and abroad are taking the time to further their education. It is a dream to learn from the legends, but times are certainly changing, and everyone is learning new skills. This is helpful to teachers that are not taken seriously because of their age. If the education and the skill level is there, it’s there, and no one can take that away.  

Sonja believes in separating levels at first so that there is no intimidation for beginners. It is not a rare occurrence to see beginners to dance and fitness classes take one class, only to never to be seen or heard from again. Maybe the teacher is not catering to the population as a whole, and is only challenging professionals or those perceived to have promise. In a large class, it could simply be a matter of the time, and lack of it, needed to address every single student in the class.  

The topic of pricing came up, and Carol mentioned that if it’s $14 to go to the movies, then a milonga can easily and rightfully be $25. There is the cost of the space to consider, the live musicians, and the wine and tapas provided to refresh the guests. There is even pressure when trying to decide how much to charge for a class, especially at this time. Artists are treated every day as if their work can be compensated with recognition and an Instagram feature. Unfortunately, likes and comments will not pay the rent and buy groceries, and a service deserves proper compensation.  

Melina emphasized the importance of not undervaluing yourself as an artist, as it took her 10 years to strike the balance between being there for the community and being able to eat. She offered these sage words that all artists should stand by: “adapt, but do not undercut.” 

Tango in the pandemic has changed, but these women have adapted immediately.  

Melina said, “We had to become active right away.” She decided that a virtual education was the only option, and was able to create classes and workshops for digital consumption. Some small classes were conducted in person at first, and though she worked hard to prepare for them, students still opted to stay home. 

This experience for them has been anything but uncomplicated, but I think artists are accustomed to working with the bare minimum and thinking outside of the box. How many teachers can say that every space they have taught, rehearsed, and performed in could pass building inspection?  

Though it will be imperfect, the journey forward is totally possible. 

About Gina Palumbo

Gina Palumbo is a native of Philadelphia and has a passion for the arts. She has received her B.A. in Dance from DeSales University in Center Valley. She has been spending post-graduate life practicing ballet and yoga, as well as working in a library as an assistant. She resides in Northeast Philadelphia with her mother Joanne, her brother Anthony, her Nonna Carmela, and her pet bunny, Phyllis.

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