Why I’m fighting for an inclusive tango community after years of heartbreak
A tribute to everyone that made me fall in love with tango, “my helpers”
Nicole M. Hill
“Love is at the root at everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.”
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
If you read my first piece, A Confession to the tango community, then you know how I struggled to end my birthday dance. The band leader, my dance partner, calls out to the crowd, “I need to finish the song.” No man in the room cuts in to “top off” my dance. ‘Chewy’ Suzuki taught me as a leader to never leave a lady insecure, he does not abandon me to pick up his horn and wrap the song. A helper, my angel, Michelle, steps up in her flowing velvety jumpsuit and her ever present beaming smile and eyes. I compose myself, you see leading is still a new endeavor and so is dancing in 4-inch Comme Il Faut stiletto polka dot shoes. In fact, I’ve never been able to adjust to this particular pair, the yellow leather trim peep toe does not allow my toes to spread and grip the floor properly, a beginner’s mistake choosing style over stability. I tower over the petite Michelle and flex my knees to be as grounded as possible in what feels like stilts. To this day I don’t know how female teachers lead in extremely high stilettos. I start to lead her, nothing flashy, just attempting to be clean, to have a respectable end. And despite my disappointment it was still a good night of dancing. Later I see all the wonderful pictures. Charudatta Phatak took my all time favorite picture, my birthday dance with Chewy, despite the snub that followed moments later.
But Michelle was not my only tango angel, there were other helpers too along the way. Rob Clark took the time to help me perfect colgadas as a follower and work on them as a leader. He was always lending his home for milongas or getting people together to practice. Richard Walters also built a milonga in the basement, below his office, sometimes gruff but really a teddy bear, he didn’t blink an eye when I asked to copy his entire discography. This is before streaming services and I was obsessed with the music, always running across the floor to sneak a peek at the DJ’s laptop. I had to know the song and the orchestra, Canaro, Biagi, Donato, trying not to forget titles. I lamented, why didn’t I take Spanish in school? Linda Alila did the same, we swapped career advice and lunch, for music as I seriously considered DJing. Lori Coyle actually letting me DJ at the Tango Hop in Media, untested … an act of faith, and if I didn’t move to Chicago … who knows?
Small and big acts, you never know the impact, like offering Ydwine Zanstra, a beautiful stylish tall stranger, dress tape. It was the beginning of a great friendship. “Here, I always carry tape to tango,” a lady never knows when closed embrace will lead to a wardrobe malfunction. In exchange, she gave me a sympathetic ear after many a disappointing night of sitting. She supported my leading when another female friend told me it was “nothing personal” but she was “uncomfortable dancing with a girl.” Women like Zoey Pionati, who built the Pittsburgh community, and I worked together briefly when I was first trying to lead, practicing in her living room was a start.
Most of all there was Chewy who taught me to lead through privates, supporting me in ways I can never repay. I tried learning to lead in beginners’ classes only to be asked to follow for every new man that walked through the door, despite the fact that most were passing through. After this happened again and again, I stormed out throwing my hands up five minutes into a class, my voice intentionally raised to be heard by all, “I’m here to lead, I’ve been following for years!”
If it weren’t for Chewy I would have left the scene years before. He was the teacher I was seeking, technical, precise, expressive, a tango musician grounded in a deep understanding of this music that many dancers never truly understand, who followed as well as he led. Like all great teachers he was there to empower his students.
So you never know the wonderful and generous people you will meet at a milonga or a class. And undoubtedly there were other forgotten moments, for that forgive me, they all do matter.
I was fortunate to eventually go to Buenos Aires with my mother. I was already living in Chicago and pretty much stopped dancing but I took lessons with Rod Relucio and Jenny Teters to prepare. They fit me into their busy private schedule and help me “knock off the rust”, there was plenty to polish. Those lessons and later the milonga lessons with Paola Bordon made me think, “maybe I should come back.”
I met Paola at a samba night, excited to tell a sassy Argentine lady, “I dance tango too” and I did on several occasions in fact, but I don’t think she believed me with all the fast footwork and syncopated hip movement. Not … until I showed up at her class with a noticeable samba bounce to my tango. Oh dear, as a psychologist that studied skill, expertise, and the brain, I immediately understood the impact of samba on my dormant tango. A couple classes in I led her for the first time, it felt inspired like I had never stopped and she said, “you can really lead.” Those small affirmations meant everything to me, to know a great dancer deeply rooted in the knowledge of her culture, trained herself by great masters thinks, I can dance.
Back in Pittsburgh I had a similar moment, the master Alicia Pons, looked at Yulia Zhukoff and I, and said, “you two have it,” referring to our axis. We giggled and jumped like school girls, quick to tell Chewy. High praise from a renown dancer and teacher that I admired and respected. I told my mom that we need to take lessons with her in Buenos Aires. And we did, not one, but two as she patiently help us both, taking time to meticulously work on my mother’s balance and stability, treating us more like guests and old friends in her beautiful house.
We paid for “taxi dancers” on that trip to partner us at classes and milongas. They were all wonderful. Eduardo Fernández and Hernán Robredo, consummate gentlemen and leaders with warm smiles. Christian Milano who complimented my boleos, not once but three times. Jenny Teters, I told him, “she’s the best.” Jenny and Rod worked very hard with me on them. I grew very fond of the serious often brooding, microscopically subtle, precise, slow, and elegant style of the quite tall, well height-matched Eduardo Chahoud. This was in contrast to shorter and very playful humorous style of Nicolas Ignacio Godoy. I didn’t get to talk him or sit as his table at all the first night, he was too busy flirting with all the other ladies on the trip. So it took a day or two to discover a kindred spirit.
Nicos, who’s name my mother oddly took several days to learn, is the master of milonga. He isn’t afraid to throw in a flurry of boleos in very uptempo milonga. Apparently, no one told him, as I was told, “boleos are for tango.” I love milonga, it is by far my favorite to lead, but I would be content to only follow him in this dance, he’s that good! I had been warned for years, “women don’t lead at milongas in Buenos Aires,” so with hesitation I approached Nicos about a lesson … as a lead. At first he seemed confused but then understood, “lead me,” he said. So I did. We danced a song and I eagerly awaited his assessment, holding my breath. He told me that I was good and had a strong foundation, we would work on “taking my dance to the next level.” And so we did for just one hour… but for the rest of the trip he only asked to dance milonga with me, except for the last night when I said, “please dance with my mom.”
He had already given me the greatest gift a few nights before, my favorite memory of the entire trip. We were at the very traditional Sunderland when they played a milonga set and he asked me to dance. As we approach the floor he says, “lead me.” “Are you sure?” He nods, I run away from the floor brushing past a disapproving Eduardo, who mutters something in Spanish under his breath. I rip off my heels and put on my lead shoes that I brought with me, just in case. You see I’m one to break the rules on occasion! I start to lead him, the gravity of it weighs on both of us, he’s visibly nervous. I’m thinking keep it simple and clean, remembering Chewy’s advice, “never give the follower a choice,” he wasn’t being sexist*, by that he meant be clear with your intention when you lead. Half way through, without uttering a word or changing the embrace, Nicos starts to back-lead me.
Anyone that leads tango knows that the asymmetry of the embrace factors into your execution, and now we’ve reversed it, but I immediately understand what’s happening and we don’t miss a beat. Peripherally, I see the crowd watch us with excitement, we are quite the odd couple, me a full head taller even in flats. He’s getting more fancy and syncopated by the moment. All the while giving all the credit to me, who is following him but still in the “leader position.” And then he starts in with a flurry of boleros, we laugh like children and the mad people we are. What must people be thinking? The leader is boleoing herself again and again and again and again (for the non-tangueros this is a followers’ move where you use momentum to flick your leg in a fast rotating movement. I must look loca to the people watching.) And then like all great things, the tanda is over. Later as we head home an elderly, very elegant, Argentine woman rushes to catch up with us. She grabs my hand warmly and looks me deep in the eyes, she says something, I’ll never know quite what, to enthusiastically compliment me on my dancing that night. It was more than enough, and the validation and affirmation that seemed to elude me, “I can dance!”
These people and moments have meant the world to me. Even with the feeling of rejection, I credit the dance, the connection, the embrace, all of my teachers, anyone who ever danced with me or ever said a kind word, even those that let me sit some nights out, these people, all the communities I have danced in, saved my life, and taught me something, helped me to survive and successfully complete my PhD program.
My mother, my greatest champion and tango helper threw me a graduation milonga, so proud that her daughter would be the family’s first doctor. Priorities, I scheduled my milonga date first and then crossed my fingers as I reached out to my busy four-member dissertation committee, to schedule my defense date the week before. A bold move indeed, that gave me exactly a month over Christmas to write my dissertation, all the motivation I needed to defend and “unofficially” walk in to the milonga a doctor. My defense was a success and so was my graduation milonga in Philadelphia where Chewy and his band Cuidado delighted the crowd. I was so proud when many school friends, some tangueros, some not, traveled from Pittsburgh and stayed with my family to celebrate with me. On that night plenty of men lined up from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh alike to take turns cutting in for my graduation dance! I was not alone in it all. In the excitement of it all Chewy leans in to remind me, “thank your mother.” So I did…
Quotes: “Love is at the root at everything” and “Look for the helpers” from Mr. Rogers’ and his mother respectively.
Start the conversation where you dance! Please be respectful in the comments. Clap and share if this resonated with you.
Please note, I respectfully decline to respond to comments.
This post was written in December 2018 and republished here.
*Chewy was being metaphorical, not literal here. We had many long conversations about leaders who are unclear and make the follower guess or do whatever she must do to compensate for bad/ambiguous leading. So he said, “do not give her a choice” and “be clear”. He was not talking about embellishment, expression, or controlling women. He was never controlling of women or any followers’ expression. His teacher was a woman who taught him to lead and follow, and perhaps that is why he doesn’t bring toxic masculinity to his dance. He was always demanding that I support the follower in every way. And if I couldn’t get something, he would lead it improperly on me so that I feel the difference. After all, this dance is all about feeling, connection, and respect. His short hand reminder when ever I made a mistake in the moment was to say, “never give her a choice.” But the first time he stopped to make sure I understood the metaphor and was not interpreting it as be controlling.