22 years of Alma del Tango in Marin and 11 years in San Anselmo
by Lanny Udell
Time flies when you’re busy dancing, teaching and building a community around Argentine Tango. Just ask Debbie Goodwin and John Campbell.
This month they are celebrating 22 years of Alma del Tango, and 11 years in San Anselmo. Join the festivities on Friday, September 28, with a class, milonga, performance (by them) and live music by Seth Asarnow y su Sexteto Tipico. .
How it all began
You may know the story of how John and Debbie met at Stanford Tango Week back in 1996. It was love at first cabeceo, and since then the pair has been devoting their lives to each other and to the dance that brought them together so many years ago.
Read their story here, in our June 2013 Tango Lovebirds article
At the time they met, Debbie was working on an undergraduate degree in dance and teaching in Auburn, CA. John began commuting from Marin on weekends to be with her and they formed Alma del Tango as an umbrella for their tango activities. In 1997 they started going to Buenos Aires to study with the masters for a month each year.
In addition to Auburn, Debbie taught in Sacramento, Davis and Nevada City. While deciding on her career path, she realized that she was fascinated by the cultural aspect of social dances. Ergo, the name of their nonprofit became Social Dance Cultures with Alma del Tango as one of several programs under its auspices.
Dipping their tango toes into the Bay Area
Every other weekend, the couple went into San Francisco to dance and John introduced Debbie to the local tango community. They frequented the Club Verdi, Broadway, and the Golden Gate Yacht Club. After seven years of commuting, Debbie and John settled in Marin together. John was teaching tango classes through Tam Community Education at the time. Among his first students were Alex and Karina Levin.
“John was one of Alex’s and my first tango teachers,” says Karina. “We first took classes with him in 1999-2000, and later we studied with Debbie and John. They played a dramatic role in our development as tango dancers.”
When Karina’s life dramatically changed in 2013 with the untimely death of Alex,
“Debbie and John were the ones who embraced me and carried me through the pain. They are not only my tango teachers, they are my dear friends.”
After they married, Debbie and John took a break from teaching to concentrate on artistic endeavors. But it didn’t last long. In 2004, Debbie founded Tango Con*Fusión, the all women professional dance company. But the urge to teach grew too strong to resist, and in 2007 they started a class at Drake High, which long-time student Boyer Cole describes as “a hot night in the cafeteria with 57 students on a concrete floor.”
Dart and Dottye Rinefort got their first taste of tango the following year. “2008 marked the start of our journey into the world of Argentine Tango with John and Debbie. It was in a small, windowless room at Drake High School, filled with faces eager to learn this challenging dance. Many of those faces have continued on this journey with us and are among our treasured tango family,” says Dottye.
Dart adds: “To a non-dancer, John and Debbie’s step-by-step approach along with tons of patience and encouragement helped turn an incredibly formidable dance into an enjoyable and rewarding experience. For us, they have brought to life the rich history, music, passion and improvisational possibilities of tango.”
Building community in San Anselmo
Driven by the desire to build a tango community in Marin, Debbie and John began searching for a venue. At that point they were teaching privates in the living room of their home. They rolled up the rugs and moved out the furniture. Clearly, a studio was needed!
When they found the current space in the Knights of Columbus hall, they started renting by the hour. “I got tired of carrying in the sound equipment for every class,” John says, so they decided to rent it on a permanent basis as the home of Alma del Tango.
“We wanted a studio where people who wanted to dance well could learn and grow,” says Debbie, “and we wanted to offer programs that would enhance their experience as a community, including classes for all levels, practicas, milongas, performances, student productions and guest artists.”
To transform the space to match their vision, they had the stage built and added stage curtains. John installed video equipment, lighting and sound equipment, turning the bare bones dance hall into a tango center, the only one in Marin.
“We put a lot of time into designing the classes and making students aware of the historical context of the dance,” explains Debbie. “At the same time, we want to be cutting edge, which is why we continue to study the new developments of the dance and have visiting teachers as well.”
Deborah Loft, a long-time supporter says:
“Over the many years I have been studying tango with Debbie and John, I have seen them go from weekly classes in a generic space at Drake High, to building a community with our own studio, stage and boutique; several classes a week (sometimes with visiting dancers from Argentina), monthly milongas (often with live music), and performances. What an accomplishment! This has taken great dedication on their part, and I am so grateful that we have these resources right here in San Anselmo.”
Philip Benson became a regular at Alma del Tango in May of this year. “Alma del Tango is the jewel of Marin for Argentine Tango students and dancers, he says. “John Campbell and Debbie Goodwin are superb instructors and hosts. They have created a warm, encouraging environment in which to learn, dance and connect with others who have an interest in or passion for this unique form of communication and connection. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this wonderful community.”
For Debbie and John, the years of dancing and teaching together have been fulfilling. “Not a week goes by that I don’t learn more about teaching and gain a new appreciation of movement and helping people,” says John. “I never thought I’d have a second career as a dancer!”
Alma del Tango gave Debbie a place to pursue her creative work and to have community. “Especially with the kids away,” she says, “I love having my tango family around.”
“John and I really enjoy teaching together, that’s why I’m so happy to be back teaching the full program since recovering from my knee injury.”
Reflecting on her experience at Alma del Tango, student Errin Loveland says:
“I came to ADT in February of this year at a friend’s invitation. I had no dance experience of any kind, though I was open to whatever I encountered. I felt welcomed immediately as Debbie and John have created a warm space for those that are absolute newbies. Their own love of tango shines through, and they are eager to share what they know both technically and around the music and history of Argentine Tango. Debbie and John encourage a community atmosphere that supports learning what can be a very challenging dance. I look forward to attending for years to come. There is so much more to learn and explore.”