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Student of the Month ~Gwen Sarandrea

By Lanny Udell

Alma del Tango student of the month Gwen Sarandrea Dancing tango since: Gwen fell in love with Argentine Tango in the 1990’s when she started dancing with Al and Barbara Garvey in Fairfax. She’s been dancing for more than 20 years, mainly ballroom, swing, tango and country.

Why tango: Gwen had always loved tango, but she didn’t have a comprehensive place to study. She took a 6-year hiatus from dancing, and when she came back, it was to tango only. She had moved to Bellingham, WA and found some tango classes there but “it was on a small scale,” says Gwen. “Not a big community.”

In 2007 Gwen went to Buenos Aires with a group and stayed two weeks longer than the others. “I was alone, and it was a little frightening,” she recalls. She knew people wouldn’t ask her to dance if they didn’t know her, so she hired taxi dancers and had a wonderful time. “Coming home was disappointing,” says the tanguera.

Finding tango at home: Gwen came back to the Bay Area and started looking at tango videos online. That’s how she discovered Alma del Tango. “It woke me up! So I started going to the Wednesday night classes and I’ve been there ever since.” Now Gwen attends the Level 3 and 4 classes on Monday nights. “I just love it, it’s so fulfilling.”

Favorite part: The collaboration and synergy with partners keep her coming back.

“Every partner is different, every dance is different. Some dances are fun, some are nurturing, some exhilarating, some playful, and some irreverent.”

About Debbie & John: “They should be very proud of what they’ve created—an open hearted community.” She finds both are very generous with their time, dancing a tanda with students at the Friday night practica. “The studio is based on a living partnership, and that feels good,” she says.
Gwen feels at home at Alma del Tango. “I love the community, people who are joyful in dance.”

Anything else: “I like laughing at my mistakes. Often, while dancing, we burst out laughing. I’m trying to take that into the rest of my life.”

Last word: Gwen is also a talented montage artist and has written a book on the subject, Montage Mirage Photo Tapestries, How To Create Photo Art From Your Heart. Learn more at MontageMirage.com

Wedding montage by Gwen Sarandrea

Wedding montage by Gwen Sarandrea

 

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Student of the Month ~ Laura Gish

by Lanny Udell

Tango Student of the Month Laura Gish

Dancing tango since: Laura is celebrating one year of immersing herself in Argentine tango. She had dabbled in classes before but didn’t find them satisfying. Then she met Wade Spital (a regular at Alma del Tango) at a party and he pointed her in the right direction.

Why tango: “I had been interested in Argentine tango for several years,” says Laura. “The essence of it intrigued me.” She loved the theatrical expression of tango, and the romanticism. “When I saw it performed I said, oh, I want to do that.”

Back story: As a child, Laura felt shut out from artistic expression, discouraged by her mother who was a performer. To deal with her feelings, she turned to horses. “They were my stability, they taught me everything,” she says. She bought her own horse when she was 11 years old. Shoeing horses became Laura’s passion. If she couldn’t dance, she’d do, what was for her, the next best thing.

Favorite part: “Learning tango has been an interesting journey. I’ve always picked things up quickly but tango stopped me in my tracks,” admits Laura. When she found that she had chosen the most challenging dance, she realized that she had to live in the moment. “It put me in touch with my emotional side and I accepted that I’m on a lifelong journey.”

Lady’s Tango Week in Buenos Aires

Student of the Month Laura and Veronica take a selfie

Laura and Veronica ready for the milonga

Unexpectedly, the trip brought up a lot of emotional issues for Laura–it was a very expensive therapy session, she says. At first she wanted to flee, but she stayed and pushed through her fears. “It was a big shift for me,” says the tanguera. “When I came back I felt I had the strength to be in my own shoes.”

Laura with Barbara Henry at Lady’s Tango Week


About Debbie & John:

When I started coming to Alma del Tango, I felt at home. I felt that this is the soul of tango and it’s where I want to be.

With Debbie and John, you don’t feel that it begins and ends with them,” Laura explains. “They’ve built a community and it’s very comfortable.” In addition to the Wednesday night classes, Laura has taken some privates with John. “That’s helped boost me,” she says.

Last word: “Now I feel like I’m at the beginning. I have no expectations. I’ve arrived at a place where I can let it flow without a preconceived notion of what I should be doing. Now I’m just going to enjoy myself.”

Alma del Tango student Laura Gish and her dog Stewart

Laura and her pal Stewart at Alma del Tango

Alma del Tango student Laura Gish

Laura and taxi dancer in BsAs

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Student of the Month ~ Randy Cook

by Lanny Udell

Randy is a familiar face at Alma del Tango’s advanced classes and milongas in San Anselmo.

Randy Cook Student of the Month A tanguero since 2001, he started to study Spanish and that led him to salsa. But when he saw some tango dancers perform in a 4th of July parade in Sonoma Plaza, he switched to tango. “Salsa is fun, but tango has depth,” says Randy. He began taking classes with Alisa Adams & Alejandro Oyuela at the Sonoma Community Center.

Why tango:  “I love the music, for listening as well as for dancing,” he says, citing the melting pot of sounds that infuse tango music. “There are classical elements, traces of Italian opera, Spanish music, the African influence and, of course, Carlos Gardel, the greatest tango singer, was born in France.”

On his first trip to Buenos Aires (he’s been 7 times!) Randy found that his training hadn’t prepared him to dance in the crowded milongas. There was no room for fancy patterns on the packed dance floors. So, at first our tanguero sat at a table,  watched the dancers and talked to people – a good way to learn, he says.

During his many trips to Argentina he studied with a variety of masters including Mimi Santapa, a highly respected teacher who focused on leaders, and Carlos Costes, a protégé of Juan Carlos Copes. Eventually he learned to navigate the crowded dance floors.

Randy Cook dances at Alma del Tango milonga

Randy Cook dances at a milonga at Alma del Tango

In the Bay Area, Randy has studied with a variety of instructors including Gary Weinberg and Lisette Perelle, Christopher Nassapoulous and Caroline Peattie, Felipe Martinez, and currently, Debbie and John.  “They’re excellent teachers,” he comments.

Learning to follow

In his private lessons with Debbie, Randy is learning to follow because, “I enjoy sitting back and letting someone else do the driving so I can ‘enjoy the scenery.’  Also, knowing how to follow will help me be a better leader by understanding what it’s like to stand on the other side.”

Randy explains: “The follower has more input than many realize. That makes it more of an exchange. The more receptive the leader is, the more the dance is a shared experience. Her energy, what she makes of your lead, becomes a conversation, not a monologue.”

Suggestions for dancing at a milonga

“You don’t need to be an advanced dancer to dance well at a milonga,” advises Randy.  “It’s best to keep it simple, stay in your lane, listen to the music, and hold your partner with a soft and comfortable embrace. Remember that the two of you are also dancing with everyone else in the room, so your job is to harmonize.”

Writer/producer of a tango show

Poster for show at Sonoma County librariesLast year Randy was invited by the Sonoma County Library and Friends of the Library to create a tango performance told through story and dance. He adapted a short story from an Argentine anthology, translated it, and staged it with two couples in the lead roles, with Randy as the storyteller.  Featured dancers included Pam Shreve, Jan Lok, Mirin Lew, Gerry Forcier, Dach Ver and Michael Farmer. The show was performed in five libraries to enthusiastic audiences.

Cast members, tango show at Sonoma County libraries

Cast members Pam Shreve, Randy Cook, Dach Ver and Jan Lok

Randy’s most magical tango experience

“While dancing with a portena in Buenos Aires, the orchestra was playing and she was singing the words in my ears.”

 

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Student of the Month ~ Marty Benson

by Lanny Udell

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Marty BensonDancing tango since:  Marty has been dancing most of his life, primarily swing dance. For him, dancing brings together two of his passions—sports (movement) and music. He had taken some tango classes years ago and came back to it about 14 months ago.

Back story: In May 2012, Marty was blindsided by a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis. He became paralyzed and was hospitalized for six months, undergoing aggressive treatment. Told he might not walk again, Marty was determined to get through this ordeal and stayed focused on his desire to get back on the dance floor and the ski slopes. After his release from the hospital, he began rehab in early 2013.

“Dance is good therapy,” says Marty. “I still have issues with balance but tango helps.”

Debbie Goodwin agrees:  “Studies have shown Argentine Tango to be therapeutic for all types of physical and emotional conditions. Its multifaceted movement stimulates the brain, improving coordination and balance.”

Never expecting this level of recovery, Marty’s neurologist didn’t think he’d dance or ski again.

Why tango:  For Marty, tango is the most communicative dance between two partners. “There is room for interpretation, you can really work within the structure of the music,” he explains.

About Debbie & John: Marty heard about Alma del Tango while taking swing dance classes at another Marin venue. He attends the Level 1 and 2 tango classes on Wednesday nights.  “Debbie and John break down the patterns very well, in an understandable fashion. Their interactions are fun…they don’t always agree but they work it out in the class.”

He also likes the building itself.  “It’s fun to go there…it’s like a clubhouse with friends to dance with. It furthers the sense of community of Alma Del Tango.”

Anything else?  Marty is the proud owner of a 1978 Cadillac Eldorado.  “1978 was the last year of the really big Caddies – America’s luxury car,” he explains. “In 1979 they began downsizing.  The ’78 still had the full-sized “three body trunk.  It’s like a ship, you don’t drive it you pilot it.”

Last word: Marty’s ultimate ambition is to dance the swango – a fusion of swing and tango. (See examples on YouTube)

Tango dancer Marty Benson with his 1978 Cadillac Eldorado

Marty Benson and his 1978 Cadillac Eldorado with “three body trunk”

 

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Student of the Month ~ Veronica Chavarria

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Veronica Chavarriaby Lanny Udell

Dancing tango since:  A relative newcomer to tango, Veronica has been dancing for about a year. In January 2015, while surfing the net she came across a Groupon for tango classes at Alma del Tango. She bought it but didn’t use it until six months later.

Why tango:  A native of Nicaragua, Veronica was exposed to Argentine tango as a young child. She has vivid memories of her grandmother who, each year, threw herself a birthday party. At midnight, all the guests took their shoes off, put a Carlos Gardel album on the record player and danced on the tile floors til the wee hours. That powerful memory has stayed with Veronica and she found herself drawn back to the dance.

Favorite part: “I love the community, the people,” says Veronica. After she had started classes at Alma del Tango she went with a friend to another venue, “but it wasn’t the same. Debbie and John have the recipe,” she says. “Alma del Tango is my happy place.”

What surprised her the most: “You mean other than it being so darn hard?” she laughs. “I had always been in control, as a single mother and in a big corporate job. In tango, I learned that I don’t always have to be in control.  Debbie said, you have to let go…just follow.”

About Debbie and John: Veronica sees them as a really happy couple, “they’re very real which makes them stand out from other couples and makes them more approachable,” she says.  “People can go up to them and ask for help.”

Anything else? Veronica hopes to go to Lady’s Tango Festival in Buenos Aires next March and combine it with a visit to her parents and grandmother who moved back to Nicaragua six years ago.

Last word: Before she felt confident enough to dance at milongas, Veronica decided to volunteer at Alma del Tango and she joined the kitchen crew. “That’s where the fun is! I love it.”

Veronica Chavarria with Maestro Eduardo Saucedo at Alma del Tango in Marin

Veronica enjoys a private lesson with guest artist Eduardo Saucedo

 

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Student of the Month – Susan Thompson

by Lanny Udell

Susan Thompson, Alma del Tango Student of the MonthDancing tango since:  Dance has always been part of Susan’s life—she studied ballet, jazz and tap in high school and college. A little over two years ago, she discovered Argentine tango.

Why tango:  After seeing Forever Tango, she was inspired to learn the dance. She had lost the three most important men in her life within a few years–her life partner of 17 years, her brother and her father. “I needed to return to my art to heal after all of this loss,” says Susan. “Dance is my creative expression in the world and tango exemplifies it.”

Favorite part: “It’s all about the connection. The other thing I like is you can play dress up. It’s part of the creativity for me.”

What surprised her the most? “How difficult it is!” After a challenging musicality class she called her mom almost in tears, “I’m flunking tango!” Susan had come face to face with her inner critic. I had to learn to silence that voice and just connect with my partner. It rears its head now and then, but I’ve quieted it to a whisper,” she says.

About Debbie & John:  When she decided to study tango, Susan wanted a local studio and found Alma del Tango on the internet.  “Debbie and John are fabulous teachers,” she says. “They know the technique so well and break it down in a way I can relate to easily.  Debbie translates it into non-dancer language so it’s easy to understand at my level.”

Deborah Loft, Debbie Goodwin and Susan Thompson at the Alma del Tango Holiday Gala

Deborah Loft, Debbie Goodwin and Susan Thompson at the Alma del Tango Holiday Gala

She likes dancing with John because “he’s an excellent leader, and he makes me feel beautiful.”

Anything else?  Susan has taken classes with visiting teachers, including Eduardo Saucedo. “He took me to another level of confidence by helping me break down some of the basics so I had a better idea of what I was doing,” she explains.

Susan danced in last year’s Alma del Tango student production, Moment to Moment. “I made myself do it,” she says. “My inner critic said, no, you’re gonna flunk again, but I refused to listen.”

Last word: 
“Tango is a lifelong journey, you never get to the destination,” says Susan. In September, the journey is leading her to tango in Paris, and she’s happy to follow.

Susan Thompson & cast of Moment to Moment, 2015 Alma del Tango student production

Susan and cast members of Moment to Moment, December 2015

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Student of the Month – Jason Arnold

Jason Arnold Alma del Tango Student of the Monthby Lanny Udell

Dancing tango since: Jason discovered Argentine tango in 2003. After moving to Chicago from a small town in Wisconsin in the late 90’s, he got into ballroom dance, and then salsa, as a way to meet people. While he enjoyed the sensuality of salsa, after a few years he began to find it repetitive. He happened to live three doors down from a tango studio, Tango Chicago.  And the rest is history.

Why tango: “I wanted to work the other side of my brain,” says Jason whose career has been in Finance and IT.  “Social dancing gives me the chance to get out and meet people and to express my creative side in a non-linear way.”

After Jason and his former wife moved to the Bay Area in 2009, he took an eight-year hiatus from tango. In February of this year, he felt the tango itch. He looked around for a class and found Alma del Tango.  Even though he had a strong base in tango, “I felt like I was starting from scratch,” says the tanguero.

Favorite part:  “The more I’ve learned, the more I’ve liked having the ability to develop musicality and exercise my creativity with another person,” explains Jason. He enjoys the feedback that comes from connecting with a partner, and the way she can expand the movement by adding her own embellishment.

About Debbie & John:  “I really like their teaching,” says Jason.  “The best thing is their two different thinking styles…you can listen to either one depending on your learning style.  John is more analytical like me. He can explain the moves analytically while Debbie is intuitive. She’ll say, ‘Let me dance with you and feel what you’re doing.’ She’ll point things out that I’m not thinking about. Having access to both is great.” Jason also likes that they bring in guest teachers allowing students to experience other teachers and appreciate them for what they’re good at.

Anything else? Jason advises couples who are dancing tango together that the leader should go to more classes so he stays a step ahead. “It helps to manage the relationship,” he says with a knowing smile.

Last word: My high school wallflower days are over!

Jason Arnold Alma del Tango Student of the Month with his son at a Giants game

Jason and his son at a Giants- Cubs game

 

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Student of the Month – Michelle Ly

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Michelle Lyby Lanny Udell

Dancing tango since:  As a teenager in Viet Nam, Michelle was introduced to tango in a ballroom dance class. But it wasn’t Argentine Tango. Last year, a friend invited her to the Sea Horse for an Argentine Tango class. “I was in a good mood, so I said why not? I hadn’t danced in over 20 years.” Michelle was captivated and signed up for lessons.

Back story:  “Tango fascinated me, it’s so beautiful,” she says. When she joined the class at the Sea Horse she thought, no problem, I’ve done ballroom dance before, but, “boy—Argentine Tango is not like ballroom! I was totally lost because in tango, it depends on the leader, not counting steps. It takes a tremendous amount of concentration.”  After three months, she was frustrated—“I couldn’t dance it.” But she kept going even though she was miserable. “I wondered, what’s wrong with me?”

One evening after class, a woman invited her to dance. “I didn’t know a woman could lead,” says Michelle. That woman happened to be Sylvia Goodman who told Michelle, “Don’t worry, leave it to me.”  After the tanda, Sylvia told her about Alma del Tango. Soon after, Michelle bought her first package at Alma del Tango.

Why tango:  “My passion for the dance was like a burning inside of me,says the tanguera.  She realized that in Argentine Tango, you are not stuck with a certain process. It’s about connection with the leader. So she forgot about counting steps,as she was used to doing in ballroom. “It’s more about free expression between two people,” says Michelle.  “It’s like falling in love.

You cannot be absent for a moment. If you lose that focus it’s not tango anymore.”

Michelle Ly with tango instructor David Orly Thompson at Alma del Tang, Marin

Michelle with David Orly Thompson dancing milonga at Alma del Tango

Favorite part: Even though she enjoys Latin dances she finds they’re not as rich as tango. “The expression in tango is so beautiful, so artistic,” says Michelle.  She began to buy shoes, and special clothing. “And I began to wear red to create a mood, like anybody in love doing silly things. Sooo sentimental…what can I say?”

About Debbie & John: Michelle looked at the Alma del Tango website and watched videos of Debbie and John dancing. Then she contacted Debbie. “I said I’d do anything to dance like her. I want so badly to be able to dance nicely like her. And John is awesome, the way he stands, his technique.” Says Michelle with a warm smile, “Alma del Tango freed me, it finally clicked. I am able to dance more and more. Without Debbie and John I couldn’t dance.”

Last word:

A day without tango makes my heart sad.”

 

 

 

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Student of the Month – Kathy Burwell

by Lanny Udell

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Kathy BurwellDancing tango since:  In the fall of 2007, well before she stepped onto a tango dance floor, Kathy booked a flight to Buenos Aires. And that set the course in motion. Early in 2008 she went to see Alma del Tango’s production of “Tango, A Romantic Ritual,” and loved it. In April, she started taking classes with Debbie and John.

Why tango: Kathy confesses it was really her friend’s fantasy to go to Buenos Aires to learn tango.  “I glommed onto that,” she says. While she had taken ballroom dance classes, she was partial to latin dances.

Favorite part: “It’s the soul of Argentine tango,” says Kathy. She likes the movement of salsa but finds the music repetitive. “Tango is rich, it goes deeper.”

Back story: Kathy met her soon-to-be-husband, Mark Lewis, at her first tangoIMG_1248
class. In 2011, the pair performed a choreographed dance in Alma del Tango’s student production, “All About Tango.”

After the show, they took a hiatus from tango. Now Kathy is back in class (unfortunately, Mark’s schedule doesn’t permit him to join her). What brought her back? “It took some time for me to realize that I wanted to pursue the dance. I had to get clear about what my intention was and once I understood that it was not to coerce or manipulate Mark to go back, I could do it. And he’s fine with it,” she says with a warm smile.

About Debbie & John: “They have soul,” says Kathy. “They’re excellent at building foundational skills. They do what seems like rudimentary exercises…and then when they perform at the end of class, your jaw drops.”

Anything else?  Kathy came back to tango to satisfy her own inner tanguera.  “Now I don’t take any other forms of dance because I can’t imagine dancing anything but tango,” she says.

Last word: Kathy and Mark are getting married in September. And yes, they’ll dance a tango at the wedding.

Read Kathy and Mark’s Tango Love Bird story

 

 

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Student of the Month – Chris Allis

by Lanny Udell

Marin tango dancer Chris AllisDancing tango since: Chris has been dancing since high school. He’s done everything from belly dance to ballet, ballroom and more. About three-and-a-half years ago he decided to make a foray into Argentine Tango and took some classes in the East Bay, then got side-tracked into ballroom. Last August he “dove back into tango” and started taking classes at Alma del Tango.

Why tango: Chris loves the improvisational nature of tango. “More than any other dance I’ve done, it’s a conversation between partners that can change moment to moment in response to the music, to what your partner does or what others on the floor are doing,” he explains.

The defining moment for him came at a Goth nightclub in San Francisco. They were playing a down tempo, lush, “shoe gazer” song and a couple was dancing Argentine Tango. “I wanted what they were having,” says Chris. “They were amazing to watch.”

Favorite part: For Chris, it’s the sense of collaboration, improvisation, and artistry of the moment. He likens tango to a work of performance art, produced one time only. “Even if you have set choreography, it still changes,” he says. He loves dancing tango to alternative music, and that it can be done anywhere—in a café or dance hall, even on the sidewalk, “anyplace you have a partner and music—or no music.”

Couple dancing tango at Alma del Tango in Marin

Chris and Maddy at Alma del Tango

About Debbie & John: Chris first met Debbie and John when they were subbing at a class at Bay West. He really enjoys their approach to teaching. “They take time with what needs to be worked on, add in some complexities, show where steps can go and how to work them into the improvisation,” he says. “They treat the arrangement of the class like a milonga, showing how to transition from what you’re doing in the studio to the social dance floor. The community they’ve created includes wonderful people in a warm and welcoming feeling.”

Anything else? “Throughout my life one of my loves in dancing has been to take dance into public spaces where you can pull people in and invite them to have a taste,” says Chris.

Last word:  An equal opportunity leader, Chris enjoys the energy of every person he dances with. He explains, “the more advanced partners inspire me to up my game, and the person who has just stepped onto the floor for the first time brings their own presence, style and personality. If they’re willing to take a chance on the floor, I’m willing to meet them there.”

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Chris Allis, swing dancing at Jack London Square

Swing dancing at Jack London Square

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