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Dancing Cheek to Cheek Again: New York’s Tango Scene Rebounds

The concept of social distancing simply does not exist in tango. This dance born in the working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Montevideo is about intimacy, touch and the closeness of the abrazo, or embrace. There is no distance between bodies; partners lean into each other, faces and chests touching, an arm wrapped around the other’s back, communicating through fingertips and subtle shifts in weight.

This closeness — and the melancholy lilt of the music — is the draw. For many, tango dancing creates an instant connection between two people, no matter how fleeting.

“When I went to my first tango evening, I noticed that while people were dancing, they looked happy and alive — the only sad one there was me,” Hector Rubinstein, an Argentine-born cardiologist in his 80s, said recently at La Nacional, one of New York’s oldest, most atmospheric tango spots. La Nacional reopened in July, 16 months after start of the pandemic, one of the first harbingers of tango’s return to the city.

The biggest test so far of that return comes next week, when the New York Queer Tango Weekend resumes after a yearlong hiatus, Oct. 21-24. The festival, now in its sixth edition, has been scaled back, with none of the usual master classes led by international guests flying in from Argentina or Europe. Still, it will be a four-night-long traveling tango party that includes a drag milonga, a masked ball, and a milonga with live orchestra. (In tango parlance, “milonga” means two things: a fast and accented style of dance, and a place where people gather to dance.)

The organizers, longtime teachers and professional tangueros Walter Perez and Leonardo Sardella, said they hesitated before deciding to go ahead with the festival this year. But encouraged by the low number and mildness of breakthrough cases at milongas in the city, they decided to go ahead.

“The general direction in New York is to continue doing things, while taking precautions,” Perez said in a Zoom interview. “Before the vaccine, we waited, but how long are we going to wait to go back on the dance floor?”

It took the vaccines to get there. What dance could be less suited to the time of Covid, a virus carried in particles floating through the air, easily transmitted from person to person? The milonga, tango’s natural habitat, is usually an enclosed space full of moving bodies, in which partners switch multiple times over the course of long evenings, sharing a tight embrace with each new matchup.

Several people I interviewed, including the organizer of the Thursday night milonga at La Nacional, fell ill in the early days of Covid.

With its large community of Argentines, New York is a tango hub. Before the pandemic it was possible to choose between several milongas each night, just as it is in Buenos Aires. Professionals and enthusiasts commuted freely between the two cities.

That all stopped in March 2020. And the pandemic was equally disastrous for tango instructors and academies, all of which closed their doors. (A few like Triángulo and Strictly Tango NYC have since reopened; some, in search of cheaper rents, have relocated outside of New York.)

The luckier teachers, those who had residency papers, received unemployment benefits. But others, like Sergio Segura, who has an O-1 visa (for extraordinary ability) and has taught tango in New York since 2007, found themselves faced with the bleak prospect of months, maybe years without income.

Segura lost his apartment and, for a while, was forced to sleep on a student’s couch. With help from his pupils, he found a new place and began offering private lessons, first outdoors and later indoors, wearing a face shield and mask, changing his shirt before interacting with each new pupil. Just recently he has begun teaching group classes again.

“During the pandemic, we did the best we could,” Segura said. Some people held private dance parties for their friends, creating tango “bubbles” with people they trusted. More intrepid (or perhaps foolhardy) tangoers traveled to New Jersey, where a few milongas were still operating, testing the limits of state regulations about indoor gatherings.

In the last few months, thanks to vaccines and relaxed regulations around indoor gatherings in New York, the tango scene in the city has finally started to recover. A smattering of milongas opened in June and July, all requiring proof of vaccination. More reopened in September. There are now six or seven per week.

“We were waiting to see how the vaccines did with Delta,” said Gayle Madeira, an organizer of Ensueño, a Monday-night milonga that takes place in a party space behind a Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village. (Because there are no windows, the organizers have set up two industrial air purifiers.)

In July, after Emily Cheeger, a filmmaker and avid tango dancer, had a breakthrough case, she created an anonymous reporting tool accessible via a link on newyorktango.com, the city’s most widely used tango calendar. Everyone who had attended the milonga with her got tested; one person came back positive. (Both have recovered.)

Madeira, who maintains the calendar on newyorktango.com and is in constant contact with other tango organizers in the city, said she knew of only a few breakthrough infections at milongas, none of which led to serious illness or to infection clusters.

“Tango should be a case study for the effectiveness of vaccines,” said Juan Pablo Vicente, who runs the milonga La Nacional, in a phone interview.

The low infection rate is all the more impressive considering that masks are few and far between at these events. On the evenings I visited Ensueño and La Nacional, there were maybe three or four people wearing them.

“We debated a lot, and in the end, the majority decided we should not require masks,” said Artem Maloratsky, known as El Ruso and one of three organizers of Ensueño. “People have been really missing the emotional connection, and seeing people in masks feels very limiting. But if I dance with someone who is wearing a mask, I put one on, too, out of respect.”

The risk calculation is personal. Some people wear masks only when dancing with strangers. Others never wear them. “I wish more people wore them,” Lexa Roseán, a leader of the Queer Tango movement in New York and a regular at Ensueño, told me. Nevertheless, she is back on the dance floor. Roseán always wears a mask and dances only with masked partners.

For the more cautious, there are a few outdoor milongas, the best known being Central Park Tango, run by Rick Castro, a fixture of the park for the last 25 years. After being denied a permit last year, the weekly gathering returned in June, on Saturday afternoons in the small circle around the Shakespeare Statue. The last gathering of the year was in late September, but Castro is opening a second, Tango Interlude, near Wollman Rink.

Another outdoor milonga, at Pier 45 on the Hudson, started up way back in April of 2020. That one requires neither masks nor proof of vaccination. “People do what they feel comfortable doing,” the organizer, Nadia Nastaskin, said.

On a recent Saturday, 20 or so couples moved with rapt concentration in a counterclockwise motion around the Shakespeare statue in the park, lost in the pleasure of each other’s company, as classic tangos from the ’40s and ’50s wafted from a sound system. People of all ages danced together under the cathedral-like canopy of trees. Tango is a rare activity in which people of different generations mix freely, and older partners are often prized for their experience and skill.

Dancers who showed proof of vaccination or a positive antibody test from the last three months were given a red wristband and allowed to interact without masks. Non-vaccinated or partially vaccinated participants wore a yellow wristband, and had to be masked. On the day I went, everyone I saw was wearing a red wristband.

One of the dancers that day was Suki Schorer, a former New York City Ballet dancer and longtime teacher at the School of American Ballet, who moved with delicacy and precision in her silver high-heeled tango shoes. “I haven’t gone to one of the indoor milongas yet, she said after dancing a tanda, or set of three dances. “But I love to dance. I love the connection, and I love that I get to hug somebody.”

Nearby, Paulina Marinkovic, a 34-year-old Chilean climate change consultant, danced in a tight embrace and no mask, her eyes closed. “I feel totally safe here,” she said. “Tango has been such a comfort to me. I don’t think about anything but the music. It’s almost like a drugged state.”

That seems to be the general feeling among tango lovers. Attendance at the milongas has been high. People are hungry to dance together again, particularly after the loneliness and anxiety of the last year-and-a-half.

“Tango is a natural anti-depressant,” Roseán said, her voice becoming shaky with emotion. “We were in a dark place, and tango was the one thing that would have helped.”

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