Tag Archives | Argentine Tango

The Gods of Tango, a novel by Carolina De Robertis

Book cover, The Gods of TangoReviewed by Terence Clarke, novelist, journalist and Alma del Tango board member.

Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her latest novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf.

In 1913, 17 year old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police.

With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her, Leda moves into a conventillo named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century.

A polyglot of cultures

The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.

She hears her first tango in La Rete and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.

There is, however, a problem.

Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires is the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved are those who work in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women have little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango is ridiculous to the men.

Leda comes to understand this quickly. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.

Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise—and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women—becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.

The ways De Robertis presents the confusions that arise for Dante, her fellow musicians, and her lovers, is one of the real innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of sex that Leda finds and, of course, the kinds of love that she finds.

For anyone who cares about the origins of tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. Find The Gods of Tango and Terence Clarke’s latest novel, The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, at Amazon Smile. A portion of your purchase benefits Alma del Tango.


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The story of the Milonga

Terence Clarke, writer, tango

Terence Clarke

By Terence Clarke, novelist, journalist and Alma del Tango board member.

Terence Clarke’s latest book is New York, a collection of stories, all of which take place in New York City. He and his partner Beatrice Bowles are the organizers of the milongas at The de Young Museum, the Palace of The Legion of Honor, and The Ferry Building, in San Francisco. You can see him in his role as the moderator of Alma de Tango’s video “Tango: A Romantic Ritual.”

In 1883, an Argentine writer named Ventura Lynch, who studied and wrote about tango and all its variations, described tango’s older relative, the milonga: “It is so universal in the environs of Buenos Aires that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (in Lynch’s Spanish, “bailecitos de medio pelo”), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by organ-grinders…It is danced in low life clubs, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, the soldiery, and compadres and compadritos (i.e. streetwise ruffians and gangsters).”

This was written well before the tango’s own development in the twentieth century. But the milonga was already an ancient term, and referred to music and dance that was, in the days long before Lynch, not Argentine at all.

The famous early gauchos from the Argentine pampas and elsewhere in southern South America…lonely cowboys wandering from place to place in search of work…also sought entertainment. They found it in their own “payadas,” which were verse-competitions in which a gaucho, with his guitar, would sing a verse of his own making, and a second gaucho would respond with a competing verse, an answer to the first payador’s offering. Inventive rhyming language back and forth was the goal, accompanied by guitar, with quick thinking and improvisation the method.

African influences

Some of these gauchos were black, and before 1861, the year slavery was outlawed everywhere in Argentina, many of the servants and country working class were black slaves. They had been brought to Argentina from the Niger-Congo regions of Africa, where the many Bantu languages and dialects are spoken. One theory has it that these slaves, not understanding the Spanish in which the payadas were sung, and noting how much language there was in the competitions, referred to them with the word mulonga, which is the Bantu for the Spanish palabra, or the English word.

So these payadas were a lot of talk, and with time, the competitive gatherings became known more universally throughout Argentina as milongas.

Dance was not far behind, and at first it was an individual expression, in which a gaucho (probably bottle in hand, his movements fired by drink) would dance to the payadores’ music by himself. Simple, a step to every beat of the music, rough-and-ready solo moves were the earmarks of the early milonga dance.

Sometimes, the men would dance with each other…milonga’s earliest appearance as a couples event. Later, as the music and dance moved toward the city in the nineteenth century, the presence of women became a reality (usually women of not much virtue). The phenomenon was deeply influenced by the black former slaves, whose presence in Buenos Aires made a permanent mark on the music and, especially, the dance. The best-known rhythms were the habanera and the traspié, the syncopations that we now always hear and see in contemporary milonga. Both are of African origin.

With time, the milonga became not only a music form in its own right, but also the single word that would describe a gathering of people coming together to dance. So,—¡Vamos, chicos, a la milonga! “Let’s go, guys, to the milonga!”

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Students of the Month ~ Jim Depeyster & Lynn Tompkins

by Lanny Udell

Jim & Lynn dance at Alma del Tango milongaDancing tango since:  Jim started dancing Argentine Tango in the mid 1990’s. He was living in New York at the time and after seeing a tango performance he was intrigued. In 1993 he saw an article about Buenos Aires in Smithsonian Magazine which mentioned clubs where people dance tango all night. He thought, “yeah, I’d like to go someplace where they dance tango all night.” So he started to look for a place to learn tango in New York. “I searched for a year and a half,” he says.

Lynn was living in Colorado, but the couple met in Florida when both were visiting their mothers. She moved to New York in 1997 and they started taking tango lessons together. “Fortunately, our relationship was strong enough to survive our early tango years,” says Jim.

Why tango: Jim had danced ballroom but wasn’t satisfied with it. “When I found tango, I knew there was no point in doing anything else,” he says. Lynn, who loves all kinds of dance, decided to learn tango so she and Jim could dance together.

After moving to the Bay Area they found tango in the City and danced at the Golden Gate Yacht Club and the Verdi Club. Eventually they found Gustavo and Jesica in Marin. “At the time we were volcada challenged,” says Jim, “they took us through that.”

Favorite part:  For Jim it’s about the connection and communication on the dance floor. Lynn agrees. “Touch is a basic human need,” she says, “and tango is difficult. You have to be brave to keep working at it. If it weren’t for the touch, people may not stay with it.”

The couple makes tango a central part of their exercise routine. They dance two to three times a week, primarily at Alma del Tango. “Lynn has cleverly molded this into a dinner date—dinner and tango, it’s part of our relationship,” Jim explains.

About Debbie & John: Jim first danced with Debbie at a practica at Bay West. He knew she was a teacher but didn’t know about her role as a founder and choreographer of Tango Con*Fusion. When Lynn watched Debbie dance she realized that she was not like other dancers. “She was doing something different, it’s the way she moves, the way she pushes off.”

“We gravitated toward Debbie and John as teachers,” says Jim, “and they’ve taken us over the colgada threshold.”

Anything else? In July 2017 Jim had hip replacement surgery. He wasn’t allowed to dance for six weeks. At the end of the six weeks he was on the dance floor the next day. 

Last word: When she isn’t practicing tango or enjoying a daily walk with Jim, Lynn can be found in her art studio painting portraits (people and pets) or still lifes, or on location painting in plein air. See her work here.

Painting of tango dancers by Lynn Tompkins

Dean and Raya at the Seahorse

Cat portrait by Lynn Tompkins

Cat portrait

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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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Tango Con*Fusión premieres Sex, Women & Tango at SFIAF, May 26-28

Tango Con*Fusion dancers

Tango Con*Fusion, the all women dance company, challenges the iconic images of gender roles in Argentine Tango in this boundary-breaking dance production. Directed by Debbie Goodwin, and choreographed by Debbie & cast members, the show will be presented at the San Francisco International Arts Festival at the Southside Theater in Fort Mason.

Should feminists dance tango? That’s just one of the provocative questions this exciting dance production  seeks to answer.

The mere mention of Argentine Tango conjures up the iconic image of the macho-male and hyper-feminine woman of Argentine Tango. Yet many feminists dance Tango socially and professionally. How can this be reconciled?

Sex, Women & Tango explores this issue and more, such as body image, street harassment (the piropo, or cat call), same-sex couples and social and economic equality.

Says Goodwin:

Debbie Goodwin, director/choreographer of Sex, Women & Tango

Debbie Goodwin, director

“Because of the current political climate and the objectifying
attitude toward women, Tango*Confusión is delving deeper into women’s issues. Being an all-woman dance company, I felt we needed to make our voices heard, to create something in this art form where we can bring these subjects up.”

Meet the cast of Sex, Women & Tango

The Tango Con*Fusión dancers include Mira Barakat, Christy Cote, Michele Richards, Mila Salazar, Rose Vierling, Pier Voulkos and Jasmine Worrell.

Guest artist Marcelo Molina

Also featured are International artist, Marcelo Molina of Buenos Aires, Argentina;  Jonas Aquino, Daniel Peters and Casey Young.

Scott O’Day is featured on guitar.

 Joining Debbie Goodwin on the Creative Team are Daniel Peters and Pier Voulkos

Order tickets now !

Performances are Friday, May 26, 9:30 pm; Saturday, May 27, 7 pm; Sunday May 28, 5:30 pm.

General Admission $25; Children under 18 $12.50 (PG – not suitable for young children)
Box office: www.sfiaf.org/tango_con_fusion
Southside Theater, Fort Mason Center
Phone: 415-399-9554

Sex, Women & Tango is sponsored by Alma del Tango

For more information: tangoconfusion.com 




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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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New Alma del Tango Student Dance Company Launches this Fall!

Under the direction of Choreographer Rose Vierling

Are you ready to join with some of your dedicated tango friends to learn,Rose Vierling, choreographer of the new Alma del Tango Dancers
practice and perform a choreography at special events?

If you’ve ever participated in an Alma del Tango student production, you know how rewarding the experience can be.  If not, here’s your opportunity!

Alma del Tango’s Rose Vierling has been wanting to form a student dance company for several years. She has produced performances in San Francisco for specific events, but she’s dreamed of having a company of dancers that could be ready to perform at different venues when opportunities arose.

“This would be ongoing,” explains Rose, who teaches at Alma del Tango and the Pick School in San Francisco. She is also a member of Tango Con*Fusion.

The Alma del Tango Dancers will have their first performance at La Milonga de San Anselmo – date to be announced.

“To me, the purpose of learning choreography is that it gives you a chance to work on things that will help with social dancing, technique and musicality,” says Rose.

Another benefit is the bonding that occurs among the dancers.  “It adds to a sense of community, of connecting to other people,” she adds.

“We are excited to have Rose direct a student dance company for Alma del Tango. She is creative, talented and fun – I can’t wait to see the results!” commented Debbie Goodwin.

The details

A minimum of 8 intermediate/advanced dancers are needed to launch the program.  Join with a partner if possible. If you don’t have a partner and would like to participate, contact Rose rose_vierling@yahoo.com

Tango dancers at Alma del Tango

Cast members from Alma del Tango’s production, Tango Magic

Package per person – $455 and includes:

  • 12 choreography classes in June, July and August
  • 12 group classes at Alma del Tango during that period
  • Group photo – date TBD
  • Video of performance
  • 2 tickets to the milonga for your family and friends

Are you in?
Program begins this Fall 2016

Please contact Rose today to be part of this exciting new venture!


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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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