Tangoing Through

By Chelsea Eng

January 1, 2011, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

AS I RE-PLAY 2010 IN MY MIND, one night pops as among the most meaningful and apt to influence me in 2011. As I grieved the imminent death of a loved one, dance resolutely restored me to the world of the living.

September 30—Zack Bernstein and I had been invited to teach for the 1-year anniversary of the Tango-Contact Jam, co-hosted by founder Laura Maguire and Ali Woolwich. We were to offer a 1-hour excerpt of our 3-hour summer workshop, tangocontact: The Blurred Line Between Lead & Follow. The nascent hybrid of Argentine Tango plus Contact Improvisation is just beginning to explore its parts and learn who it is, exactly. This class we were to teach would—on the plus side—be informed by years of training and teaching experience in our respective forms, and over a year of in-studio collaboration with each other. It would also be only our second stab at co-teaching tangocontact. As I climbed the studio steps, I took a deep, calming breath. This certainly would be an adventure.

Soon to arrive was a bevy of contact dancers. Sporting comfy cotton attire, they removed their shoes, laid down and stretched on the floor. The one tango dancer I recognized from the milongas wore a suit, kept his shoes firmly on, and sat very vertical atop a bench. Quite a juxtaposition of cultures!

The class itself presented spatial challenges. Zack and I had envisioned a small group in a large studio. Instead we had a huge group in snug quarters. We amended our plan on the spot, and all seemed to gel. Co-teaching with Zack was a pleasure. There was an ease, a respectful camaraderie. His purposefulness anchored my ragged spirit to the tasks at hand. We were on the same team, and I felt grateful to have a solid partner for that one hour of class.

When it came time for the jam, though, I grew scared. Here I was, officially outside my comfort zone. I had done contact in high school and college, but since tango had dominated my post-collegiate life, I had been to only one jam. Away from other contact dancers, in a private studio, I collaborated with Zack. He became my contact security blanket. No more a confident tanguera, I re-embodied the schizo wallflower of my pre-teen years—both eager to dance and shy to hit the floor. Would these contact dancers want to dance with me? Would I embarrass myself with my rusty jam know-how? Awash in insecurity I accepted someone’s invitation. Embrace, roll, surrender… Listen, respond, propose, and listen anew… The eclectic tunes of Gaucho Gypsy Jazz fueled our dizzy journey around and through the sweat-drenched pack. I flowed, fumbled a bit, flowed again, and kept moving.

The jam itself performed a kind of alchemy. It took me in my raw state—fragile from grief—and held, guided, even launched me. An exuberant new partner careened into my hip, and I was airborne. Her bright grin transferred to my face as I flew. Welcomed, buoyant—my heart exhaled. I would stay until the end.

As a tango dancer I felt a freedom I had not felt in years. My feet were bare. No high-heeled partnering. My clothing was practical, not alluring. Line of dance vanished. High and low spaces were fair game. While contact’s rolling point morphed into fleeting embraces, my inner aesthetic perfectionist eased her grip on me.

Having glimpsed great possibilities for this merging of forms, I am keen to further experiment with tangocontact in the New Year.

Chelsea Eng will be co-teaching a Tango-Contact Jam with Zack Bernstein, Jan 17, 2011. Studio Valencia, 455 Valencia St., SF

This article appeared in the January/February 2011 issue of In Dance.

Chelsea Eng is a performer, improviser, choreographer and teacher. In 2000 she founded the Argentine Tango Program at City College of San Francisco, where she serves on the Dance faculty. She is a co-founding member of the all-woman collaborative dance company Tango Con*Fusión, now in its 7th year. tangochelsea.com