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Student of the Month — Maria Perez

by Lanny Udell

Maria Perez, Alma del Tango Student of the MonthDancing tango since: When it comes to dance, Maria has done it all. As a child, she studied ballet, tap and jazz, and she was on her high school’s jazz team. While in college, she became an exotic dancer to help pay her tuition. Now, some eight years later she still performs. Tango came into her life nearly two years ago.

Why tango: “I’ve been a dancer my whole life and when I saw tango I said oooh, I want to do that. It’s so beautiful and passionate,” says Maria.

Favorite part: Maria says tango is the most challenging dance she’s ever had to learn. Why? For one thing, she doesn’t like to follow, she likes to be in charge of the dance. Also, “there are very slight nuances in the cues, and subtleties which I’m learning. It’s more specific in the details than most dances,” she explains. “I’m glad nobody told me before I started that this dance was the hardest to learn or I might not have tried it.”

About Debbie & John: Maria is impressed by Debbie and John’s incredible arrangement in marriage and work. She sees their different skill sets–Debbie is the driver and John is very analytical. “I so enjoy watching them bring their dynamics to the dance floor and to their teaching. Their love for each other comes through in their dancing.”

What surprised her about tango: “I didn’t know we shouldn’t make eye contact. That surprised me but I appreciate it now,” she observes.

Alma del Tango student Maria Perez and her dog.

Maria and her pooch

Anything else? In addition to her career as an exotic dancer she has a degree in dog psychology and owns a dog walking and training business. She is also a Reiki practitioner.

Last Word: Maria is partnering with Sergio Orvalles in Alma del Tango’s December 4th student performance of Moment to Moment. Be sure to reserve your tickets!

Exotic dancer, tango dancer

Maria, exotic dancer

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Student of the Month – Nicole Tolson

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Nicole Tolson by Lanny Udell

Dancing tango since:  Nicole has been dancing tango for less than six months, and she loves it! At 15 years old, she’s Alma del Tango’s youngest student.

Why tango:  Nicole and her uncle Chalmer took a basic ballroom dance class together which included a segment on Argentine Tango. Now, “tango is my second favorite dance ever,” she says. Her first favorite? East Coast swing. Nicole’s family is very musically involved, they all play instruments and enjoy dancing.  Chalmer comes to all the classes with her.

Favorite part:  “I like the fun, social part of it,” says Nicole. “It’s like a family or a small community.” She finds tango a bit more challenging than other dances. “Anything can happen, it’s like a bunch of scattered pieces that you can put together.” She also likes that “as a follower you get to decode what the leader’s doing, and add your own thing to it. That works better with my personality.”

About Debbie & John: When Nicole first met them, she thought they were like hippies. “They talked about the energy and flow, and then I realized it’s the only way to describe it.” She dances more with John and finds him “very smooth.”

Anything else?  Nicole is a sophomore at Drake High where she is on the co-ed wrestling team and participates in track events. She’s been a runner since elementary school and started doing the long jump in middle school. Her friends think it’s cool that she dances tango. (So do we.)

Nicole-100mm hurdles-cropped

Last word: “Tango speaks for itself,” says Nicole. “I’ve made friends and even though they’re adults, it isn’t awkward.”

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Student of the Month: Francia Cifuentes

by Lanny Udell


Student of the Month Francia Cifuentes, Alma del TangoDancing tango since:  Francia grew up in Medillin, Colombia, where the legendary Carlos Gardel died. When she was growing up, her household was filled with tango music, but she didn’t think of dancing until a year ago when she was living in Sacramento

Why tango:  “I have a passion about it,” she admits. A traveling nurse, she first looks for tango, “then I look for the job,” she says. When she landed in Sacramento she thought, “OMG, I’m going to heaven.”  Francia immersed herself in the dance, taking classes six days a week for a year.

Favorite part: “The music – it’s so sensual, it touches every fiber in me,” says Francia. She loves the sound of the bandoneon and the violins. “The combination of sound goes straight to my heart. Sometimes I have to hold back the tears,” she says.  She also loves the challenge of tango. “It is so difficult – you need to think about your movement from head to toe.”

About Debbie & John: Francia loves their professionalism, the way they teach, and how they break every step into in 1000 pieces.  “They pay attention to every student and make sure everybody gets it.”

Anything else? We’re sad to say that Francia is leaving us at the end of the month. Her next nursing job is taking her to San Diego. But not to worry.  Our tanguera has found three tango venues where she can continue to pursue her passion.

Alma del Tango Student of the Month, Francia Ciguenta poseswith an image of Carlos Gardel

Francia with Carlos Gardel at the Salon Malaga, Medellin Colombia

Last word: Life as a traveling nurse can be lonely. “I go places where I don’t know anybody. Tango is the best thing that happened to me. I’ll stay in it for the rest of my life.”

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Student of the Month – Wade Spital

by Lanny Udell

Wade Spital, Alma del Tango Student of the MonthDancing tango since: Though not a newcomer to dance, Wade is fairly new to Argentine Tango, having started in April 2014. He describes himself as a fairly seasoned swing and country-western dancer with a strong background in Latin and ballroom as well. “I typically dance and/or take dance classes 3 or 4 nights a week.”

Why tango: In 1987, a friend asked Wade to take a ballroom class with her and he agreed. “As soon as I started, I really liked it,” he says. “I found that partner dancing helped me feel more connected and also enhanced my experience of both dancing and music.”

Over the years, Wade has done some American Ballroom Tango, but as Argentine Tango increased in popularity he became intrigued. “I thought I’d get around to it eventually.” Then, last year he decided, “I’m not getting any younger. I’d better learn this dance.” That’s when he went onto and found Alma del Tango.

Wade Spital, Alma del Tango Student of the Month, with swing dance partner

Wade and his swing dance partner at the Black and White Ball

Favorite part: “Because Tango is an improvised dance there’s a lot of potential for individual expression,” says Wade. While he likes all three tango rhythms, he’s partial to the Vals. He also appreciates the package offered at Alma del Tango. “I get a whole night of dancing for a very reasonable price.”

About Debbie & John: “They’re very caring and passionate teachers who really enjoy helping their students,” says Wade. “They have built something very special, I haven’t found anything else like Alma del Tango in the Bay Area.” Wade also appreciates being greeted at the front door by Dottye. “Her big smile always makes me feel welcome,” he says.

Anything else? Wade owns a machine design and fabrication business in Petaluma called Avalon Engineering. He is also a co-founder of a non-profit animal rights group in Sonoma County called Compassionate Living.  “We encourage people to move towards vegetarian and vegan diets to improve their health, lighten their impact on the environment and reduce animal suffering,” he explains. Wade also admits to being “a hopeless computer geek.”

Tango dancer Wade Spital rescues

Wade and his non-profit volunteers rescued 450 chickens that had been abandoned and transported them to a sanctuary.

Last word: When he’s not on the dance floor, Wade may be found playing the piano or guitar, hiking, or watching the sun set at the coast.


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Students of the Month – Pamela & Victoria Stuart

by Lanny Udell

Pamela Stuart and Victoria Stuart, Alma del Tango students of the month

Pamela & Victoria are Alma del Tango’s first mother/daughter students

Dancing tango since:  Pamela first took classes with Debbie and John in spring 2013, through College of Marin.  She continued in the fall of that year but due to illness she had to stop.  Now, healthy and happy, she started classes again in February.  Her daughter Victoria started taking tango classes two months ago. “I’m very green,” she says.

Why tango:  After 25 years as a professional belly dancer, Pamela was looking for a community having to do with dance. “It’s very isolating to be a solo dancer, particularly at the professional level,” she explains. “I learn so much more dancing with a partner,”

Victoria took her mother’s lead, so to speak. “When she told me how wonderful tango is, I started taking classes and learned that it has a lot of great life lessons.”

What are some of those lessons? For Victoria it’s about learning to be in the present, and to be relaxed. “It’s impossible to predict. This dance is teaching me how to listen. I really enjoy that.”

Favorite part: Mother and daughter both like the improvisational nature of tango. “Anything can come next,” says Pamela, “and you have to be able to trust that you’ll be able to figure it out.”  Victoria had previously taken a semester of ballroom.  “That didn’t help me,” she says. “They did routines. The improv of tango is more fun.”

About Debbie & John: “I adore them beyond compare,” says Victoria.  “They’re my perfect teachers, so kind and gentle. I love how much fun they are. John understands the perfectionist part of me. Debbie understands that I’m a beginner.”

Pamela finds them amazing dance instructors. “I’ve seen changes from when I started to today. They’ve come to a new refinement in their curriculum. They’re more focused on a process that allows you to learn…continually changing and flexing within the class.”

Anything else? Victoria, an English major at COM, looks forward to participating in dance competitions. “I totally want to perform.”

Her mom is looking to advance her horizons in the dance world, socially. “That means going to events, dancing well socially, and becoming part of the community.  I want to be part of a group,” she says, “I haven’t had that in my life.”

Last word:  Victoria: “My mother is the true dancer of the family, she just cannot stop!”

Pamela:  “Watching my daughter dance is one of the most gratifying and inspiring experiences for me, both personally and as a parent.”

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Student of the Month – Sergio Orvalles

by Lanny Udell

Servio Ovalles, Alma del Tango Student of the MonthDancing tango since: Learning tango was something Sergio wanted to do, but he had put it on the back burner.  Then, last summer, while on a trip to Argentina for his school (he teaches Spanish at Branson), Sergio took some classes and was hooked. He called the Performing Arts Director at Branson and asked her to find him a tango studio. She directed him to Alma del Tango.

Why tango: Sergio has always loved dancing — he’s done salsa, hip hop and banda, which he describes as a fusion of lambada and polka.  He also has been very active in athletics, especially bike racing and running.

“But as I get older, my body doesn’t respond in the same way,” he explains, so he looked for another way to use his energy. “Tango can be athletic, sensual and fun.”

Favorite part: “What resonates with me is the more modern aspects — the turns and twists remind me of banda.”  He listens to tango music every chance he gets, especially while driving to LA to visit his family. “I’m still learning to follow the beat.”

Servio Orvalles in Buenos Aires with tango teachers.

Sergio in Buenos Aires, pictured with his tango teachers.

“I don’t want to be a robotic dancer who just does steps, that ruins the fluidity of it,” says Sergio, who is proud to announce he was just promoted to Level 2!

About Debbie and John: “I like their methodology…they provide the scaffolding,” Sergio says. He describes their classes as very participatory, not just someone lecturing at you. “They’re good at explaining, showing and providing feedback.” He especially likes that they’re passionate about what they do.

Anything else? Sergio calls learning tango a humbling experience. “I had to deprogram my body. A lot of the dances I do have hip movement so tango is different from what I was used to.”

Last Word: Sergio looks forward to tango as a lifelong pursuit. “I hope to emulate people in the studio who continue to find the fun and the passion.”

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Student of the Month –
Christianna Valentina

by Lanny Udell

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Christianna ValentinaDancing tango since:  Christianna began her tango journey a year ago after she saw Nicholas Tapia (2014 Argentine Tango Salon USA Champion) dancing at a party where she was performing as a singer/pianist.

Why tango: “Tango had been on my mind for 15 years, and when I saw him dance I thought, that’s it—it starts tomorrow,” she says.

Christianna calls herself a “dance explorer.”  While working on a dance degree in college she studied ballet, modern, African style … and performed into her late 20’s.

Favorite part:  For Christianna, it’s the feeling of connection with another person. The nonverbal communication of having to listen to each other deeply in order to move together. “It takes so much focus, you have to turn everything off to do it, so it’s a great escape.”

About Debbie & John:  “I’m in awe of them – not only as dancers, but as teachers,” says Christianna.  A music teacher as well as performer, she understands how much heart and soul it takes. “They’re always introducing new themes, bringing in guest teachers…the classes are never stagnant. They bring creativity into every aspect. I don’t think there’s anything like Alma del Tango in the Bay Area.”

In Tango Dreamscapes, Christianna will be performing a choreography, partnered by John.

Christianna Valentina dances tango with John Campbell

Christianna and John Campbell in Tango Dreamscapes

“He has the patience of a saint,” she says.  “It’s been like trying to mold a tango dancer out of
a bundle of nerves.  It’s been a real honor to work so closely with him.”

Anything else?  In addition to dancing in the upcoming show, Christianna will be a vocalist/pianist performing a soulful tango song.  Even though she has studied Spanish and Portuguese, having to learn the Argentine accent was a challenge for the tanguera.

Last word: “Tango’s taking over my life and I’m loving it!”

Christianna Valentina, vocalist/pianist in Tango Dreamscapes

Christianna Valentina, vocalist/pianist in Tango Dreamscapes

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Student of the Month – Jasmine Worrell

by Lanny Udell

Tango dancer Jasmine WorrellDancing tango since:  Dancing has always been Jasmine’s passion, but she is fairly new to tango, having started in September 2013. “I love it, and having dance in my background makes it a little easier for me,” she says.  “I jumped in with both feet. Once you discover it, it’s all-consuming.”

The back story: In high school Jasmine wanted to be a professional dancer, but her dad, a struggling artist, wanted her to study something practical. So Jasmine decided to major in business. She also fell in love with geography, focusing on how people connect with cultural geography. After graduating, she became an art teacher in a Montessori  school.  She also  has a background in business development and people management, and is a partner in Jen Pearson Design. But the lure of dance still calls to her.

Jasmine Worrell performs with the Decobelles in Gatsby Summer Afternoon

Jasmine performed in Gatsby Summer Afternoon with the Decobelles.

Why tango: “The dance is very delicate and elegant, unlike lindy hop which is high energy,” she explains. “The connection is very different.  Tango is a closer connection…you are dancing *in* the music, rather than *to* the music. And, you’re absolutely in the moment with somebody. It feels very intimate.”  Jasmine also appreciates the technicality of tango. And that it attracts people who want to make a commitment to the dance, the culture and the community. “It’s a forever learning experience.”

Favorite part:  For Jasmine, it’s the yin and yang… the softness and the angles. “It’s not just one-dimensional,” she says. “The surrender feels incredibly good; it feels special to have that with a perfect stranger.” While on a 5-week trip to Germany, Jasmine didn’t dance at all. “I realized how much I get from connecting in the embrace and how incredible that feels,” she recalls.

About Debbie & John: They don’t put on their teacher caps and then leave,” observes Jasmine.  “They stay themselves.  They are joyful, kind, patient…and incredibly generous with information and attention,” she says. “It’s been the best learning for me, to be in that environment.”

Anything else?  Jasmine performed in Alma del Tango’s 2014 student production,
“Tango Magic.” (You may remember her performance in the Wallflowers  number and the women’s choreography piece, Leonora’s Song.)

Jasmine Worrell in the cast of Leonora's Song, Tango Magic

Jasmine (back row) in the cast of Leonora’s Song, Tango Magic 2014

She will be dancing in the upcoming production, “Dreamscapes,” partnered by Jose Orellano, and in an all-women’s dance called “Femme Fatale.” (Tickets for the Valentine’s weekend show are on sale now!)

Last Word: Jasmine has been invited to join as a member/apprentice in Debbie’s new professional company, Debbie Goodwin Dance Company.

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Jasmine Worrell  “It’s a dream come true. I couldn’t be happier,” says the tanguera.

(pictured at top: Jasmine performed with the Decobelles at the Paramount
Theater in Oakland)
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Students of the Month – Antonio Sausys & Katia Dimitrova

by Lanny Udell

Alma del Tango Students of the Month, Katia & AntonioDancing tango since:  Tango was very big in Antonio’s home country of Uruguay, and his mother introduced him to the dance when he was just 8 years old. His second connection with Argentine tango was as an accordion player touring Europe with an opera company in a performance that explored the impact of tango on Parisian society.

Katia’s tango journey began three years ago when the couple started taking lessons as a way of doing a physical activity that would also connect them artistically.


 Halloween Party @ Alma del Tango

Why tango:  “I fell in love with it on a trip to Uruguay,” says Katia.  She and Antonio were in a restaurant/bar and she saw women come in with tango shoes in their bags.  “My jaw dropped. I wanted to do it,” she says. “When we started taking classes it felt like a meditation for a couple…you have to get in synch with each other…that’s the only rule.”

“In my case,” says Antonio, “I thought oh, I know tango.  But I discovered it’s one of the most challenging things I could do.  As a leader I had to learn how to move my body to induce the follower to do what I wanted. Leading requires sensitivity which can be difficult for men.”

Favorite part: For Antonio, it’s the building of intention, and a nonverbal connection. “It’s a true act of connection,” he explains, “because you know what you want as a leader and you must create the space for your partner.”

Katia  agrees.  “It’s about building a connection, and the constant reminder to relax. The more you relax the better. When I close my eyes it’s the best dance. Otherwise I lead!”

“And I struggle,” Antonio chimes in, laughing.

About Debbie & John:  “I really like them … they have a very good connection and both are very passionate,” says Katia. Antonio likes their body language communication – “it’s very precise. I like seeing them in action.  I like their passion, their love for tango.  I am very inspired by their artistry.”

Anything else? Antonio and Katia will be dancing in Dreamscapes, the upcoming student production.
“Because we travel at that time of year we’ve never been able to be in the show,” Katia explains. But this year they made a deal with Debbie:  “We told her if she’d give us the routine we’d practice while we’re away.  We’re very proud to go back to Uruguay with a piece we can show,” says Antonio.

Last word:
  Antonio sees tango as “a healthy co-dependency.”

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Student of the Month – Tanja Obear

by Lanny Udell

Alma del Tango Student of the Month Tanja ObearDancing tango since:   Tanja started dabbling in Argentine tango about 10 years ago.  She had explored a few different dances, enjoyed salsa and swing, but when she found Argentine tango, it resonated with her immediately. Tanja has spent the last seven years focused on her family and has recently re-emerged with a new fervor for her interest in Argentine Tango.

Why tango:  “For me tango is a metaphor for life,” says Tanja. “It offers joys, challenges, and opportunities for growth. In its best moments, it becomes a true spiritual experience.”

 Favorite part: Tanja loves the connection that tango offers her…to the music, to her dance partner …and to the community. She enjoys the feeling of being completely in the moment. “It’s a very passionate dance but it can also be light and fun,” she says.


Tanja with tanguero Mark Anderson at La Milonga de San Anselmo

About Debbie & John: “What I like most about John and Debbie’s teaching style is that they articulate the nuances of Argentine tango in a playful manner, so I’m able to stay focused, yet relaxed,” says the tanguera. “Debbie also teaches followers to be active in the interpretation of the music and the lead. Even though the leader is the choreographer, the follower has her own role to play.” Tanja also enjoys seeing women leading as well as following.

What do you look for in a leader: “It’s important for me that somebody really feels the music and expresses it through their dance.  While it’s important to be technically accurate, a leader who connects and feels the music, makes all the difference.”

Anything else? On October 31st, Tanja will dance with the Alma del Tango dancers when they perform for the Goldenaires in San Rafael. It’s her first time performing in front of a group.

Last word: As Activities Director at WindChime – Memory Care Community in Kentfield, Tanja finds it deeply rewarding to have the opportunity to bring the joys of music and dance to the residents.  “I find inspiration for my work in tango, the arts, and the beauty found in nature.  My greatest joy in life is my seven year old daughter.”




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