Tango Con*Fusión: Not Your Mother’s Tango

By Lanny Udell

November 1, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

“While remaining true to its heritage, this is not the tango of yesteryear; it is not even the tango of yesterday; it is the tango of today.”  Ted Viviani – Producer, Extreme Tango  

There’s nothing confusing about the vision of Tango Con*Fusión. San Francisco’s all-women dance company is laser-focused on building on the tradition of the century-old dance. The group of eight artists with eclectic backgrounds, skillfully bends the rules to explore the boundaries of Argentine Tango.

From the beginning, they have been inspired by, and have worked closely with, local and internationally known tango musicians. “The genre of tango music is vast,” says dancer/choreographer Debbie Goodwin, “and we’ve been fortunate to work with some great musicians, many of them women.”

How it all began

The women originally came together in 2004 to “play” and explore the traditional boundaries of Argentine Tango. It was a concept Debbie had thought about and nurtured for some time. “One day Debbie called me and said she had this vision of a group of women coming together to work in a collaborative effort of choreography and dance,” says Christy Cote, one of the original founders and current co-director along with Debbie.  “It would be more than just tango, but a mixing together of different dance genres.”

Debbie’s idea was to have dancers who came from modern, ballet or jazz, so it would be a fusion of these genres. “They had to be strong, independent women and be able to both lead and follow,” she explains.

In addition to Debbie and Christy, the founding members included Pier Voulkos, Chelsea Eng and Michelle Gorre. To get started, they held a two-hour workshop with Brigitta Winkler, founder of the New York company, TangoMujer, and then they were on their way.

“We decided to meet once a week and see what would happen,” says Debbie. Little did they know how far their concept would take them.

In their first major performance piece in 2004, Sola, the violinist Vanessa Montgomery accompanied the dancers onstage as they portrayed one woman’s struggle to find her place in the world. The “voice” of the violin soulfully underscored the contemplative mood of the dance. “Having Vanessa onstage with us really inspired the dancers,” recalls Christy.

Two years later, Tango Con*Fusión performed in Leading Ladies of Tango produced by Ted Viviani at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco. In keeping with the theme, Ted brought in musical director and pianist, Polly Ferman, who assembled an all-women orchestra for the occasion.

“Collaborating with them was a wonderful experience,” says Polly, founder of the all-female multi-media music and dance company, GlamourTango. “In 2009, Tango Con*Fusión performed with us at the Logan Auditorium in Chicago. They are wonderful artists, creators and friends. What else can you ask for?”

Tango composer and lyricist Débora Simcovich recalls working with Debbie and Christy in their 2015 performance with Orquesta Victoria at The Playhouse in San Anselmo. Says Débora:

“Having Christy Cote and Debbie Goodwin dance in our show was wonderful.  I remember, in particular, their intuition when they danced my tango, Hermana Mía, which I wrote in memory of one of my sisters who was recently deceased. Without any reference from me, they decided to dance in long nightgowns (one in white and one in black) and infused a sister-like spirit into their choreography. I was amazed by their acute perception of the real history that inspired this tango!”

How they work

Even though Debbie and Christy are the company’s primary choreographers, they solicit input from all members. “Each dancer brings her strength to the group. The energy is wonderful when we work together,” Christy says.

The dancers start by listening to, and understanding, the music. “We listen over and over again,” says Christy, “until we start to see how the music is formed, what moods are created, and what we feel in the music. Then we start to create the dance.”

“Tango music evokes a range of emotion…passion, drama, conflict,” Debbie adds. “Usually choreography comes forward that reflects the mood in that moment in the song.” They often collaborate with local musicians while developing a work.

“Collaborating with the women of Tango Con*Fusión on original material has been a pleasure,” says Charles Gorczynski of Redwood Tango. “They intuitively connect with the heart of the music and highlight the personal aspects from a place of deep connection, from within both a tango perspective and a broader arts mindset.”

Over the last decade, Tango Con*Fusión has performed many times with the Bay Area’s Trio Garufa. “They always bring a fresh perspective and interesting approach to the art of Argentine Tango,” says Garufa’s Adrian Jost. “It is exciting for us to see how they will interpret our music and what story they will tell with their dancing.”

Fresh from their European Debut

While the company has done seven tours to Buenos Aires, in July 2018 they made their European debut in Berlin where they performed and taught in the Berlin Queer Tango Festival. Audiences were engaged as soon as the dancers, dressed as 1930’s dandies in men’s suits complete with fedoras, came on stage to dance El Chamuyo.

“All week long, people came up to us to tell us how much they liked the show, especially the humor in the choreography,” says Debbie.

They also presented a new work, Derecho Viejo. Choreographed by Christy Cote and Rose Vierling, the dance demonstrates how Tango Con*Fusión uses gender-bending creativity to transform the iconic male/female stereotype.

Performing in Buenos Aires

The company has had many successful appearances in Buenos Aires, beginning in 2008 when they were invited to perform during the Queer Tango Festival.

“The organizer, Mariana DoCampo, invited our group as an inspiration to get more women dancing as leaders,” says Debbie. “While the men in the Queer Tango scene were dancing with each other, very few women in Buenos Aires were doing so and were even looked down upon.”

As a company of women dancers, they didn’t always find such a warm welcome. Debbie recalls when, in 2010, they were invited to perform in the CITA (Congreso Internacional de Tango Argentino) stage show. “One of the male dancers refused to perform if we were dancing, so we were uninvited,” she says. “We weren’t sure if it was because we were women or American, or both.”

“The director was left with no choice but to ask us to perform at the milonga in lieu of the more important theater show,” says Christy. “It was a huge disappointment for our company, but we made the most of it.”

“Tango Con*Fusión is an amazing example of what a great idea combined with effort and talent can accomplish,” says Max Masri, producer/composer/singer of Buenos Aires-based Tanghetto. “Our award-winning music is not your mother’s tango, and they were able to put forth a great choreography yet have the innovative approach to suit the blend of music and dance to be performed at such emblematic theatres as Zitarrosa (in Montevideo) and Salon Canning (in Buenos Aires) full of tango purists, and the Queer Milonga full of progresistas.”

Injecting Social Commentary into the Dance

“As a company of women dancers, we like to work with themes that affect women, not only in tango but in life in general,” explains Debbie.

Some examples:

Ladies in Waiting, performed to Trio Garufa’s Desde El Alma, explores the dilemma women face when there’s a surplus of followers at the milonga. In the piece, frustrated by the lack of male leaders, the dancers break the traditional code and dance with another woman rather than be stuck on the sidelines.

In Escualo, Tango Con*Fusión takes on an unusual topic: the corset. More than just an item of lingerie, they portray it as a symbol of the repression and restraint of women.

In 2017, the company presented their theater production, Sex, Women and Tango at the San Francisco International Arts Festival. “The mere mention of Argentine Tango conjures up the iconic image of the macho-male and hyper-feminine female,” says Debbie, who directed the show. “Sex, Women and Tango challenges this outdated image.” In this production, the women explore issues such as body image, street harassment, same sex couples and social and economic equality.

Looking ahead

For their 2019 season, Tango Con*Fusion is creating a new work featuring live music by Bay Area composer/musician Charles Gorczynski of Redwood Tango.

The company will celebrate its 15th anniversary with a gala fundraiser on February 2, at Alma del Tango in San Anselmo, featuring a sneak preview of their new work in progress. The final piece will debut Saturday, May 25, at the San Francisco International Arts Festival, with live music by Redwood Tango.

In July, the company returns to Berlin to teach and perform. Tours to Seattle and Portland are also on the agenda. Tango Con*Fusión looks forward to continuing to grow artistically and expanding its presence in San Francisco, the USA and the world. According to Debbie, “We are intent on delving deeper into issues affecting the position of women.”

This article appeared in the November 2018 edition of In Dance.