My elementary school in Canada used to have theme days where the principal would hire an instructor to teach us different skills, like acting or tennis. They were low-budget workshops conducted by people in the local community, and I remember getting very excited about Drama Day and Soccer Day and Rope Obstacle Day. But there was one event that I always dreaded: Hip Hop Dance Day. Hip Hop Dance Day was the time of year when my clumsiness was put on display, when I was forced to wiggle my short arms and stomp my flat feet in front of a watching crowd of teachers and classmates. It was like gym class, but with higher stakes.
For the sheer terror of this memory alone, I was hesitant about accepting my editor’s invitation to attend a session of the Yale Tango Club’s Wednesday night Argentine tango classes. I relented only because the website promised that no experience was necessary, and because I hoped I could redeem myself with this new dance form. But tango, as I soon learned, is not a dance. It’s an addiction.
Chelsea Wells ’13, who joined the club in her sophomore year, said, “I’ve danced until my feet have gotten swollen. I like other dances, but I need tango.”
Stationed at the New Haven People’s Center on Howe Street, the Yale Tango Club runs a Beginner’s Bootcamp taught by dance instructor Robin Thomas. The club, which is run by graduate students but also open to undergraduates and local residents, has been co-run by Jessica Keiser GRD ’16 and Sigma Colón GRD ’15 since last June. Keiser credits her own initial involvement with the club to Thomas, whose charismatic teaching style makes the class both fun and effective. Having danced tango for 30 years and taught students for nine, Thomas has a virtual “monopoly” over tango instruction at East Coast universities, Keiser said.
When I arrived at the class, Thomas was just lacing up his beige suede shoes. He had a bald head and a wide smile, and he made the students laugh. He had a new dance partner for this year: Maria Elena Yvarra was raven-haired, slender and strong. She stood on her sparkling high heels like she was walking on clouds.
Many tango students have expressed their appreciation for the physical intimacy that the dance creates between dancer and partner. Ten minutes into the lesson, I found myself holding hands with two strangers at either side of me; five minutes later, I was pressing my palms against an older man’s chest. I was nervous, but everyone around me seemed at ease. After each round of dancing wherein Thomas taught us a new step, we were instructed to change partners. Eventually I learned to cling more tightly to my partner, to follow more closely the patterns of his movement instead of shying away.
Keiser explained, “Graduate student life can be particularly lonely, and [tango] is a way to find community, it’s a way to find physical touch.”
“What attracts me most to tango is the embrace,” Alexander Chern ’11 agreed. “In this embrace, you need to mutually surrender and just completely give yourself to the person you are dancing with.” Chern and his former girlfriend took classes with the Yale Tango Club as undergraduates. Omar Mejia, a New Haven resident and downtown bartender, dated one his dance partners, though the couple has since broken up. Many people start tango for the romance, imagining “a man with a rose in between his teeth,” as Chern put it. They stay for the love of the dance.
No greater proof of tango’s addictive nature can be found than in the Yale Tango Club’s founder herself. Tine Herreman GRD ’03 led the transformation of the club from a fledgling dance group in 2003 to an active social community that encompassed weekly workshops and a national festival. Today, the Yale Tango Festival is one of the largest school-run tango festivals in the country, and the club itself boasts about 100 members. Herreman is now a full-time tango DJ and organizer based in New York, devoting her time to creating tango networks in communities around the city.
“It’s not that uncommon, as far as I can tell, that someone would leave their day-job for tango,” Keiser said. “It is unlike other ‘hobbies’ in the sense that it seems to have a way of eclipsing people’s lives.”
As student passion for tango grows, so too does the size and scope of the club. In addition to Wednesday night classes and open dancing, the Yale Tango Club also holds Milonga sessions at Kelly’s Restaurant & Bar and Sunday Practilonga at “Gypsy,” the Graduate and Professional Student Center at Yale. Practilonga is for dance practice, whereas Milonga is essentially a dance party. This year, the club is also introducing Monthly Milonga at Edward S. Harkness Hall.
For undergraduates, the biggest draw of tango might be the reprieve that it provides from the stress of college life. Similar to meditation, Wells said, it washes your mind of other thoughts and refreshes your mental state. During my lesson, I understood what she meant. Many of the moves required that the woman close her eyes while she was led by the man, so several times I simply mirrored my partner’s steps only to open my eyes and find us effortlessly standing on the other side of the room. I was so concentrated on the rhythm of the dance that sharing such physical closeness with a stranger no longer fazed me. I suppose that’s how it reels you in: it takes two to tango, and only one dance to get hooked.