Reflections from the podium   1 comment

There was no New Orleans flag being raised, and no band to play the Saints, but the tears and the emotion were real when Sid Grant announced that couple number 20 were the 2009 US Salon Tango champions. The capacity crowd at the Stepping Out studios in Manhattan exploded in loud cheers and applause and the organizers and remaining finalists surrounded the winners in a sea of hugs and congratulations. Couple number 20 locked eyes and shared an emotional moment of pleasurable intimacy. We had never been so proud of each other. People we’ve never seen before seemed to be beaming with pride and joy.

True to form, we took the second place couple to dinner and at 4 in the morning we walked into our Brooklyn host home and left the First Place Cup on the kitchen counter and went to sleep. When we got up late the next day, we were treated to the first honest, sincere and overwhelming display of joy and admiration for what we had accomplished. This was coming from the other half of our set of friends and acquaintances, what some call the non tango friends and others consider a touch of reality.

The trip to New York in July was planned around three purposes. Valorie‘s birthday, Valorie‘s meeting with a publisher, and my secret desire to put our lifelong devotion to the tango out in the open for everyone to see, judge and criticize. Up until the moment our number was called in the semifinals, Valorie had humored me, from secretly “training” while dancing the full length of a huge dance floor in New Orleans, to showing off to friends on the outdoor deck of a magnificent estate in a remote corner of the hamlet of Kerhonkson in Ulster County, and on to the treacherous salons of Manhattan. She might not realize how good she is, or how I was betting on that to handicap and craft a come from behind victory. The much touted US championship was almost a family affair rudely dissed by the popes of New York tango who seem to have a high opinion of their dancing as long as they are not asked to put it on the line for others to judge. While the mostly local participants tried to outdo each other to show us out of towners a thing or two about dancing in the big city, we read the rules of the competition, and our winning strategy was to be the best at complying with them in every aspect.

The last few days of our New York trip we walked the city with one foot on the tango sidewalk and the other on the sidewalk where our friends in the publishing, interior design and financial world live their power point driven lives. Our friends from a pre-tango time, all immensely successful in their endeavors, treated us to delicious meals in their sumptuous mansions and made us feel so important in front of their friends that we began to like the celebrity treatment. In contrast, our best tango friend and his sidekick dutch treated us to a diner before running out like most New Yorkers do to pretend that they have something important to do.

At one milonga during a miserable rainy evening we were asked to dance after having paid the cost of admission and introduced as simple dancers. Before and after the dance, we were treated to a litany of complains from one of the organizers of the championship. We heard that people had complained about people who knew how to dance entering the competition, that it wasn’t fair to have an all Argentine professional panel of judges, and that very likely next year they’ll have American judges because the talkative senior citizen lady had perennially placed second during her ice skating days. What?? STFU.

At another milonga, the host we’ve known for years barely said hello. That evening we had the first of many puzzling acts of secrecy that followed us into our home city. People coming to the table and whispering things like, You opened a completely new side of tango for us! It was a pleasure to meet both of you! or, My teacher, my friend and I were impressed the way you dance. At home, people behaved much in the same way one approaches somebody who has had an irreparable loss. A hug, a faint Congratulations and a kiss. This in a city where people jump into spontaneous second line dancing when a crawfish makes it across the highway without being squashed. To be fair, a former disciple turned teacher and promoter managed to write in his newsletter that New Orleanians tangueros should be very proud of our beloved teachers becoming the US salon Tango champions . Later, he invited us to dance at a milonga he was playing the music for.

When it came time to crack the nuts, an eclectic number of our students and friends, plus a couple of strangers sponsored us with real money, and we went to Buenos Aires. Eventually we began to have a really great time being a part of the whole world championship there. We have our fans, both young and old. The young ones were fascinated by us. The old ones respected us. Valorie thinks that they should surround the stage with panels so the audience only see bodies from the shoulders down, showing the legs and feet of the dancers and not their  faces. Our lower half looks much younger, she says, adding that the government of Buenos Aires who funds this event is trying to brand tango. Like any advertiser, they want young, attractive faces as the poster children for the tango. They are packaging it for glamor now, trying to elevate the tango from the neighborhood social club image of the working middle classes.

Regardless, we had a blast. Valorie wore a classy black and white outfit both days, red shoes on the second day. I wore light striped trousers, white shirt with a tan tie one day, a golden tie the next. Black jacket. Red socks ala Fred Astaire, and my lucky burgundy and black shoes. We looked spiffy if I may say so. Our outfits really stood out as different, not trashy, and not corny and we were very comfortable in them too. Our look was one of classic salon dancers in the 1940’s. The first day we danced well, but the second day was even better. We worked the simulated dance floor on the stage very well. The music was great on both days. People gave us our fair share of applause, and when we came out the stage door, a whole flock of strangers congratulated us. Later we came to the realization that the strategy of following the rules to the letter in the cradle of tango that worked so well in New York, flew in the face of the alleged desire of the government to use fancy lipstick on the lips of… well you know what I mean, but…

I found out to my chagrin that the anxiety and nervousness of actually dancing on command in front of people resulted in chest pains as we took the stage on both days. It  must have been scary for Valorie fearing I might die me in her arms but she stayed in form cool as a cucumber trying not to shake in her Comme il fauts. She was my rock and I know she wanted me to have this moment, and for us to have it as the devoted tango couple we are, having dedicated our lives to preserving and fostering the tango for all these years, and doing this, seemed fitting. What’s amazing is that we were troupers and acted our parts very well, because no one saw the distress we felt sometimes. They said we looked like we were having a great time on stage (and we were!).

For us, we have already accomplished so much to be proud of and happy for but we want to go back in 2010 – thinner and healthier – we feel it is important that as mature dancers we don’t give up and keep showing our stuff. We made a statement in the preliminaries, and inspired many people. We would do it again, because we had a blast. And even though the public party line is that these championships are “fixed” and are less relevant than crawfish crossing the road unharmed, we garnered a lot of admiration and respect for even stepping up. It takes a lot of guts to show your stuff. And we are still the US champions, a fact that was proudly acknowledged by everyone we met in Buenos Aires. People were very proud of us, and we are very proud of ourselves for taking on this challenge. Oh, when the saints, oh when the saints go marching in…

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One response to “Reflections from the podium

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  1. That’s right. Don’t you dare give up. Go back this year. Though now is not the exact time due to other commitments, I keep the idea of dancing in the back of my head. One reason for that is because it seems like something I can do for a lifetime. Show me that’s true.

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