Observers of Argentine tango often think of it as a dance of seduction. Dancers of tango feel that they were seduced — not by a person, but by tango itself.
So many tango dancers, when asked how they got started, answer with some version of, “I just fell in love with it!” Dancing with people, like playing music with people, forges new and interesting friendships. Add in the glamour of immersing oneself in a different culture, and you begin to see the strong appeal of tango.
The Princeton area is rich in possibilities for learning and enjoying the Argentine tango. One of the most active is Viva Tango, a group that meets every Thursday at the Suzanne Patterson Community Center in Princeton. David Kalmus is the president, treasurer, chef, janitor, web designer, and social media coordinator, according to its website. He is also the owner of 292 Properties LLC in Pennsylvania.
As the Monroe Township resident tells it, “About five years ago, we got 12 people together and decided to start a tango club. Each person put in $200 to get things going. It takes a while to get something started — you have to stay about a year to get it into people’s minds that every Thursday there’s an event here.”
It has certainly gotten into people’s minds now. An average Thursday brings 40 to 60 dancers from all over central New Jersey to enjoy lessons with master teachers from Philadelphia and New York, and sometimes to hear live music in the Argentine tango tradition.
The scene was hopping on a recent cold night with pianist Maurizio Najt, a graduate of the Conservatoria Nacional de Musica in Buenos Aires. Najt has played at the Argentine Embassy in Washington, D.C., as well as Lincoln Center Plaza, Alice Tully Hall, and the Winter Garden. As his soulful music filled the room, the dancers enjoyed perfecting their skills on the dance floor. Cool outfits abounded — some great fedoras and a wonderful pair of two-tone oxfords on the men, and everything ranging from harem pants to fabulous ballroom heels on the women.
Kalmus emphasizes that one doesn’t have to bring a partner, and that dancers of all levels are welcome. Viva Tango also sponsors regular sessions of beginner classes, held several times during the year on Mondays. Most of the dancers who attend the Thursday evening sessions are at least intermediate level.
Viva Tango maintains an extremely informative website that includes a lengthy and fascinating section on tango etiquette. Tango, a product of another culture and moment in time, is very codified in its etiquette, especially that involving the “cabaceo” — the moment of asking another to dance. But basically, like all good etiquette, it can be boiled down to good manners, or as the website puts it, respect. The rules are: Respect the person you are dancing with. Respect the culture and heritage of tango. Respect the music and the band. And respect the people around you.
The first three Thursdays of each month Viva Tango brings in instructors to help dancers keep learning and expanding their dance skills, and the fourth Thursday always features live music.
Meanwhile, on Monday nights, across town at the Carl Fields Center on Olden Street, a group of Princeton University students and staff, plus many community members, enjoy learning from Robin Thomas.
A low-key teacher with a dry sense of humor, Thomas likes to blur the lines in the very traditional tango culture approach to gender roles. From the very first class of beginner session, Thomas has all the students experience leading and following, and the dancers who are in the role of being led are asked to dance with their eyes closed.
Thomas says it was a new development in his teaching. “Using non-gender-normative roles is absolutely new for me, and it is absolutely political. I’ve spent too much time watching men man-splaining tango to women. However, I have to say that people seem to really enjoy (the switching of roles) — it creates a great atmosphere of cooperation which I haven’t felt before. And it seems to make people learn the important things even faster. We get the followers to close their eyes precisely so they will realize that they’re not in control and that they cannot lead. A side benefit is that they often close their mouths as well as their eyes.” (Chatting too much with your partner is considered bad form in tango).
Thomas’ background is far from Argentine. He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father was an insurance broker, and his mother a housewife. The current New York City resident says he wasn’t interested in dance in his youth, but was, in his word, “obsessed” with rock climbing before the “big moment” came at age 36.
“I was married to a Russian woman, we were sitting in a Russian restaurant, and after dinner she said we should dance. I told her I didn’t know how to dance, and she told me that she would be the leader. I loved it! We started dancing all the time, but I would get so excited that I would begin to lead her, and she would get annoyed because she said I was going too fast. One day I was walking down the street, and I saw a sign for salsa classes. I didn’t know that you could take classes to learn to dance — I thought you had to just be born with the ability to dance. So I went home and suggested to my wife that we take classes.”
The new-found enthusiasm caused a lot of tension, actually, and the marriage ended in divorce. But Thomas, meanwhile, had found his true love, saying, “I got completely obsessed with dance, and for a few months tried swing, ballroom, and Argentine tango, but tango devoured and swallowed everything else. The music captured me more than anything. I started taking 16 classes a week because I had this big void in my life that I needed to fill. Within two years I’d been to Argentina three times. Within three years I was teaching and DJing tango music several times a week.”
Meanwhile, Thomas’ professional life as a photographer was suffering. “I was bored with what I’d been doing for 13 years. At a certain point I was offered little jobs teaching private lessons, for about a 10th of what I was earning hourly as a photographer, but the tango jobs made me so happy and photography jobs made me so unhappy that I was turning down the photography jobs.
“I remember an editor from Time Magazine asking me to do a job and me telling him that I was busy, and he asked me, ‘Robin, do you actually want to be a photographer anymore?’ And I told him I didn’t, and that was the turning point. From then on I was making hardly any money, sharing my apartment with three other roommates, but deeply happy. I started being invited to DJ at festivals around the U.S., and eventually I was also invited to teach and perform.”
As his passion developed, Thomas says he spent a few years performing and competing in tango events. But his heart was never really in that aspect of tango. “I never really enjoyed it. I hate the idea of dance competitions. I want people to learn how to connect to their partner and dance in a noncompetitive way. So I stopped performing and dedicated myself to teaching a few years back,” he says.
One of Thomas’ goals in his teaching is to get more young people involved in tango. “When I started tango I was one of the youngest ones — there were only about 10 of us who were younger than 40 — so it was my mission to get more young people into tango. One day someone from Yale took my class. She had started a club for students there. That was my first regular gig with students, and then I was invited to teach at Princeton every week, and eventually I kind of became a specialist in university tango clubs.” Thomas now also teaches at Columbia and Rockefeller universities as well as Princeton and Yale.
Ballroom dance in general seems to be enjoying a vogue on campuses the past few years. In a time when there’s a lot of talk about how separate lives have become, with social media supplanting personal encounters, young people continue to search out the intersection of other people and music. “What’s special about tango is the connection to your partner, the communication of complex movements which are improvised and not choreographed, and the beautiful nostalgic music,” says Thomas.
Thomas’ Monday evening classes are sponsored by the Princeton Tango Club. The beginner class is from 7 to 8 p.m. It is followed by more advanced sessions and then a “practica,” where students can practice together for another couple of hours. Beginners are allowed to start only during the first, second, or third week of each course—after that, it is advisable to wait for the next course to come around, which is at the beginning of each semester.
“Students are supposed to finish the 12-week beginner course before they take the intermediate class,” says Thomas. “Occasionally I will invite someone particularly talented to take the intermediate class. Sometimes people will ask if they can do so and I might let them as long as they continue to take the beginner class as well.”
Many of the intermediate students come early to take the beginner class first, just to keep perfecting their form and enjoying a longer evening of dancing. These classes are mainly Princeton University graduate students and staff, but also include undergraduates, faculty, and community members.
Many of the community members who have become fascinated by tango culture now dance several days of the week, combining the possibilities of the Princeton Tango Club on Mondays, Viva Tango on Thursdays, and a group that meets Tuesdays at the West Windsor Arts Council from 8:30 to 10 p.m. There is also a group at the Elks Club in Bound Brook every Wednesday at 7 p.m., plus weekend milongas available in Philadelphia and New York City.
The events generally follow one of two patterns. Monday nights at the university offer beginner class, followed by intermediate class, followed by practica. The Thursday nights at Suzanne Patterson Center start with a brief intermediate class and then proceed into a “milonga.”
A milonga, according to Viva Tango information, is “a social dance party for Argentine tango where you dress for the occasion, refrain from practicing or teaching any steps, and display your best tango etiquette.” The Viva Tango one includes a snack buffet. The events go on for hours, and dancers can steep themselves in this world of intense music and concentration. Milonga also refers to a type of tango and the very quick music that characterizes it.
Tango as danced in these events is much softer and less strange than one sees on TV or in the movies, where, like all competitive sports and events, showmanship and sharpness change the nature of the situation. Unlike a rehearsed competition with memorized steps, milonga dancers use their bodies and minds to respond to the music and improvise in the way jazz musicians play together. Movements are subtle, with elaborate cross steps front and back, and fascinating, unpredictable pauses when the woman pivots back and forth in tiny, partial turns.
Participants tend to describe the dance as being “very cerebral.” As Robin Buckingham, a Viva Tango participant who came to tango after many years as a modern dancer and studying ballroom dance, says, “It’s like meditation.”
Meditation with cool shoes, wonderful music, and snacks, that is.
Viva Tango, Suzanne Patterson Building, 45 Stockton Street, Princeton. Thursdays, 9 p.m., $15, 609-948-4448 or vivatango.org.
Princeton University Tango Club, Carl Fields Center. Mondays, check for schedules. $10, www.princeton.edu/~tango/classes.shtml.