It's 45 minutes into Queen City Tango's twice-monthly milonga, and my tango partner and I are nowhere near ready to join the other dancers. In a mirror-lined dance studio hung with paper lanterns at North End Studios in Burlington, half a dozen couples step, sweep and twirl counterclockwise around the room. As newcomers to the notoriously difficult Argentinean ballroom dance, we're advised to begin simply by walking — and not in the graceful, improvised steps that carry the other couples around the floor. Nope. We're standing side by side like grade-school kids on a lunch line, balanced on the balls of our feet and pacing in straight lines across the wooden floorboards.
"Just walk," David Lansky, QCT's vice president, says encouragingly as I strive to keep pace with the music and my partner's movements while holding my spine in rigid ballroom posture. Skirts twirl and heels clack on the floor around us. I wobble a few times in my stockinged feet.
The dozen or so dancers gathered at Friday's milonga (a word that refers to both the music and the place where tango is danced) are part of the Burlington area's tight-knit tango community. Similar groups have cropped up elsewhere in the state, including Stowe, Brandon, Rutland and Brattleboro. Annual events such as this week's Stowe Tango Music Festival and September's Moonlight in Vermont festival in Brandon bring international dancers and musicians to the Green Mountains.
The Burlington aficionados attend regular classes, practices and dance events hosted by QCT and sister organization TangoWise — the latter run by Elizabeth Seyler, who's taught regularly since 2007. In addition, these dancers are friends. They have potlucks. They go to regional dances together. Five of them recently took a road trip to Québec to buy custom-made dancing shoes.
Among Friday's milonga attendees are an architect, a photographer, a computer programmer, a hospice nurse, a stockbroker, a museum manager and a retired educator. Some have danced, professionally or recreationally, for decades; others began more recently. What they have in common is their love for a difficult-to-master and physically intimate dance form rooted in a culture quite different from their own.
QCT and TangoWise's organizers estimate the local tango community fluctuates between 30 and 50, with a core group of about a dozen. "It's a community of people who really care about each other and their dancing," says Darienne Oaks, a cofounder of QCT. She's also the violinist for Lotango, a Burlington-based tango, traditional French and jazz group that performs monthly at Radio Bean.
Tango classes first cropped up in Burlington in the mid-'90s, remembers Hugo Martínez Cazón, another QCT founder. The most regular teacher was Gerd Hirschmann, a German-born Rutland-area resident with a ballet and tango background. He now organizes the Moonlight in Vermont festival.
Burlington's tango scene started small and evolved organically. "Gerd was coming up once a month to teach tango, and there were maybe four or five people in the room," recalls Martínez Cazón. Though he's a native of Argentina, his interest in tango began later in life, after he'd already moved to Vermont. "[Gerd would] come back a month later, and there'd be six in the room; next month, eight. But the problem was that there wasn't a place to practice, so everybody forgot everything in the month that they didn't practice. I didn't practice."
Martínez Cazón, Oaks and fellow enthusiast Eloise Beil began meeting weekly to practice together in a yoga studio. In the mid-2000s, when Hirschmann announced that he'd no longer hold classes in Burlington, the three took up the challenge of continuing on their own. They've held classes, concerts, dances and practice sessions for nearly a decade under the QCT name; it officially incorporated as a nonprofit last year. Fostering a larger community around the dance, they say, has always been the goal.
"We try to be very welcoming to people who want to come in," Oaks says. "And QCT has helped those of us who've been with the community a long time grow as people, and grow in our understanding and our admiration of the tango."
Anyone who's heard tango's rich music or seen a pair of dancers sweep across a floor might find it easy to admire. The dance is even more impressive when you learn that most of those graceful motions are totally improvised. Unlike other social and partner dances, tango has no set steps. The leader often creates tempo, pace and steps in the spur of the moment. The follower adjusts, responding to pressure from her partner at the points where their bodies touch.
"It's a precise dance," says Seyler of TangoWise. "It's not easy. I think it's the hardest social dance to learn because it's so improvisational and so dependent on communication through body. Not everybody has the patience or the wiring for that."
If you're a beginner, as I quickly discover, it's best to forget about any flourishes or fancy footwork — mastering the tango walk is hard enough.
"It's a caress," Lansky instructs. He sweeps one foot forward, delicately tracing the floor as if stroking a lover's arm, then tilts his weight forward from his torso. His second foot naturally drifts toward his first.
I try out the move; it does help with the wobbles, though the temptation to exaggerate the gesture brings new issues. After we shuffle across the room a few more times, something happens: My feet start moving a split second behind my partner's decidedly more steady pace. Without a verbal cue or conscious decision, he's leading and I'm following. Soon after, we graduate to the dance floor, assuming tango's face-to-face hold: one arm wrapped around a partner's shoulder, the other suspended loosely at shoulder height with hands clasped. We're still just walking — the sequences that our fellow dancers execute with assurance are quite beyond us — but we kind of make our way around the dance floor.
"It always amazes me," Lansky says later, "what you can learn about your partner, and the music, just from walking."
As a dance form, tango emerged at the end of the 19th century in the working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Montevideo, Uruguay. Though its origins are poorly documented, by most accounts tango's strongest influences come from European ballroom dancing and African traditions of music and dance.
The tango trend reached an international crescendo in the 1930s, when resource-rich Argentina was among the wealthiest countries in the world and Buenos Aires became a world-recognized center of culture. Tango drew on dance, music and poetry brought by the waves of immigrants that flooded Argentina's ports at the turn of the 20th century. The bandoneón, the concertina-type instrument closely associated with tango music, came from Europe. Yet the dance form that reached European audiences in turn was highly stylized.
That has resulted in a persistent stereotype — as any "Dancing With the Stars" fan knows — of tango as a highbrow dance for elegantly dressed couples, one or the other holding a red rose between his or her teeth.
"Tango was international before it was from Argentina," notes Héctor Del Curto, the artistic director of the Stowe Tango Music Festival and a renowned bandoneón player who's performed alongside tango luminaries such as Astor Piazzolla and Osvaldo Pugliese. "We raised tango in Argentina, and then every [different] style took its own wings and started to travel the world."
Tango shows dwindled when Argentina fell under military dictatorship from the 1950s through the early '80s; during that period, large public gatherings were forbidden, including ones in dance halls. A tango renaissance began after the country's transition back to democracy in 1983. By the 1990s, tango classes were cropping up all over the globe — including in Vermont — and different styles evolved.
Del Curto believes some contemporary tango styles — such as those featuring "acrobatics," likely influenced by modern dance — have "lost the essence" of the tango. By which he means "the elegant walk." But, Del Curto allows, the evolution is something to be celebrated. "I feel like all these new ventures will evolve into something even more interesting," he says.
Del Curto will perform with his orchestra and his quintet at the festival in Stowe this week; more often they're booked in venues such as Carnegie Hall and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Other top musicians playing in Stowe include Argentine pianist-composer Pablo Ziegler and cellist Jisoo Ok (Del Curto's wife). The fest also boasts North America's only bandoneón workshop and immersive sessions for classically trained musicians who want to learn tango music.
What are all these world-class tango musicians doing in tiny Stowe? Credit for their seemingly incongruous presence is due to the enthusiasm and support of a single individual: a Stowe resident named Jo Fish. He's the founder of a New York City-based nonprofit, the Argentine Tango Society, which sponsors the Stowe festival.
Through the nonprofit's publicist, Fish declined to be interviewed for this article. Citing his desire for privacy, those in the Vermont tango community also decline to provide details about his influence, though many credit Fish with enriching that community.
"He's done a lot for tango in Vermont," QCT's Martínez Cazón says simply.
Del Curto, a native of Buenos Aires living in New York City, is a friend of Fish's and initially came to Vermont at his request. The idea for the Stowe Tango Music Festival, Del Curto recalls, was born during a casual discussion. "We were having coffee, and [Fish] said, 'Let's make Stowe the capital of tango!' And I said, 'Well, if you want to, let's do it!'" Del Curto explains with a laugh. "Of course, it's something that may be completely impossible, but along the way you grow as much as you can. The goal," he continues, "is to spread the message of tango as a culture in Argentina and not the stereotype."
And tango, Del Curto adds, functions first on an interpersonal level. "You have this ... connection between two people that's not Facebook and Twitter. And people need this. And tango provides it."
"People come to tango for their own reasons," says Martínez Cazón, carefully returning his antique bandoneón to its case. "And it's different reasons for every individual." It's a few hours before QCT's milonga, and we're sitting in a red-painted room hung with Asian tapestries above Dobrá Tea in Burlington. He's just played a jaunty tango called "El Lloron" ("Crybaby"). It's one of five he's learned so far on the instrument.
For Martínez Cazón, one of the few Argentineans in Burlington's tango community, promoting this music and dance is a way to share and stay in touch with his own roots. "It's not like everyone in Buenos Aires is watching these old fogeys play tango," he jokes, after showing me a YouTube tango video with just a few hundred views. "It's a subculture in Argentina as well, and I think sometimes we don't appreciate it."
Of course, for North Americans learning tango, the draw is personal, not cultural: They may be motivated by the desire to try a new activity or master a challenging art form, an attraction to the form's physical intimacy or all of the above.
"It's about getting your brain out of it and finding that body-to-body, heart-to-heart connection with a person," offers Maggie Sherman, an artist and owner of a Burlington B&B. She's been going to tango classes several times a week for the past few years. "It's like when you learn language," she says. "I just knew that was the amount of time I'd need to put in."
The level of diligence needed to achieve even basic competency in tango may explain why contemporary tango groups (at least outside South America) are typically small and close-knit. "Lots of people like to try tango, but not many people stick with it," observes Seyler. Those who do, though, usually get hooked.
"It's precious," Martínez Cazón says. "Tango gets at very deep parts of your soul. And I think the people I know in this community very much want to share it with people. But it's like sharing a silence. It's just like that."