At first glance, the tango can be a bit intimidating. Like most ballroom dances, its florid and complex movements are usually executed with precision by professional, years-trained dancers and can leave standers-by feeling more than a bit daunted to try it themselves. Fortunately, thanks to this year’s Philadelphia International Tango Festival, a festive four-day confab that kicks off this Friday, local dance enthusiasts have a chance to add this sensual art form to their repertoire right before summer adds even more heat.
PW sat and chatted with the Narberth-raised Meredith Klein, executive director of the Philadelphia Argentine Tango School, to gain more insight.
You’ve been dancing tango for 15 years. What lead you to learn this style of dance?
Like many people, I discovered tango completely by chance but proceeded to fall completely in love with it. I was a senior at Amherst College, studying music, and a fellow music student began composing tangos. He decided that he couldn’t write tango effectively if he did not know something about the dance, so he and I went and took a few workshops together. Back in 1997, the tango community in the U.S. was quite small, but by the time tango intersected my life again in 1999 (when another friend started taking tango lessons), there were already many more opportunities to study tango and dance socially in milongas and practicas—more and less formal tango social dances, respectively. I started studying and dancing tango for real in 1999 and have been dancing ever since.
By 2005, I was no longer content to have tango be on the sidelines of my life as a hobby. I sold everything I owned and moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina for three years, where I met my dance partner, Andres Amarilla, one of the headliners of this year’s Philadelphia International Tango Festival. He and I began traveling the world to teach and perform in 2006, and tango has been my full-time profession ever since. Andres and I have been fortunate to teach together in Brisbane, Sydney, Istanbul, Gdansk, Belo Horizonte, Montreal, Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Beirut and Nicosia, Cyprus, as well as in more than 30 cities in the U.S.
In 2008, I moved back to Philadelphia and founded the Philadelphia Argentine Tango School. In addition to group and private lessons, we offer two weekly practicas, monthly milongas and occasional larger events. We have hosted three major festivals and are looking forward to our fourth, plus have brought three major tango bands from Argentina to Philadelphia: Otros Aires in 2009, Tanghetto in 2010 and the Alejandro Ziegler Quartet in 2012. We have also organized four Tango Tours to Buenos Aires.
How is Argentine tango different from traditional versions of the dance?
Argentine tango is the traditional and original version of the dance. Tango originally emerged in Buenos Aires, Argentina and simultaneously in Montevideo, Uruguay at the turn of the 20th century. Later on, it gained popularity worldwide, and imitations sprung up all over the world—Ballroom tango, Finnish tango, American tango, etc. But Buenos Aires remains the birthplace of tango and the beating heart of the contemporary tango community.
You’ve traveled the world teaching and performing tango. What are some other ways this dance has influenced your life?
Argentine tango is a great connector, bringing people from all over the world together. Since Argentine tango is a completely improvised social dance, it is possible to enjoy wonderful dances with people who are complete strangers and with whom one does not even share a spoken language in common. Tango dancers often become “connection junkies,” traveling the world to experience the dance in different cities, at different festivals, with different people. La pista (the dance floor) becomes a space where people can come together and connect, regardless of boundaries of language, religion and political beliefs. In Cyprus, for example, where I was just teaching workshops and performing in March of this year, tango dancers from the Greek and Turkish sides regularly cross the UN Green Line to enjoy each other’s milongas. These dancers most likely do not see eye-to-eye on a huge number of issues, but in the context of the milonga, they enjoy friendship, dances and camaraderie.
Tango has given me the chance to travel to a huge number of places that I probably would not have gotten to see otherwise: from Australia to Brazil to Lebanon and beyond. Through teaching, performing and social dancing tango, I have been fortunate enough to meet, literally, thousands of interesting people and learn about their countries, lives, professions and world views. These experiences have enriched my life immeasurably. I am also very fortunate to be able to host no fewer than 130 social dances yearly in Philadelphia, as well as over 250 classes and workshops, where people come together to find community, great dances and fun. It’s incredibly rewarding!
Tango can be a bit intimidating to watch. What are some tips you can give newcomers interested in learning?
The truly interesting thing about tango is not the complicated steps. Instead, it’s the focused and complete concentration that is required in order to communicate with a partner in lead-and-follow improvisation. When we teach beginners, we start by teaching them to lead and follow very simple things–back steps, forward steps, side steps–and we build slowly from there. You’d be surprised at how much joy there can be, and how beautifully one can dance the music, just using these very simple steps! Contrary to what you might think when you watch So You Think You Can Dance, Argentine tango is actually based on walking, and people of all ages can learn it. We have students currently studying at the school at all ages from 12 to 80.
Fri., May 23 through Mon., May 26, various times, prices and locations. philadelphiatangofestival.com
In Memoriam: Amiri Baraka