Tango Lives in Brattleboro

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(Host) Argentine tango originated in Buenos Aires in the late 1800s. It was danced in boarding houses and bars by men who practiced together until they were good enough to attract a female partner. In the ’30s and ’40s, it was popular with European sophisticates.

And now it’s turned up in southern Vermont, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) It’s a chilly Sunday in late winter, the drabbest time of year in Brattleboro. But in the River Garden, a Main Street public space, things are getting steamy:

(Sound of tinny record music, laughter shuffling feet.)

(Keese) It’s the monthly milonga, a social gathering sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Argentine Tango Society.

There are dancers young and not so young, in flowing pants and high heels. They embrace and attempt to move in tandem. They’re trying to learn what has been described as the world’s most romantic dance:

(Feuer) “As you’re doing this, as I’m stepping on my left , because I’m connected with her I’m inviting her to step on her right.”

(Keese) Willie Feuer is today’s dance instructor. He and his partner Susan Matheke are professional dancers who’ve traveled from Connecticut for this lesson. It starts with walking:

(Feuer) “All of tango is really built around the idea of walking – walking in time to the music with a partner…. So it’s not just yourself walking, but you’re walking with a partner and you’re trying to communicate to your partner where you would like them to walk.”

(Matheke) “You want to find that moment of communication, which is exhilarating when you find that communication between you and the partner and the music. That’s what the tango is about.”

(Keese) Of course there’s more to it than that. Many of the 25 or 30 people dancing here today travel long distances for tango lessons or milongas like this one. They dance in Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire.

Gene Eckhoff is one of the instructors in the weekly Tuesday night class here. Eckhoff tangos anywhere from three to five nights a week, teaching, learning or just practicing:

(Eckhoff) “It takes some time to learn, but it’s very rewarding. It’s a dance that is completely improvisational….”
Judith Schwartz, a garden designer from Marlow, New Hampshire is the founder of this local tango society. A longtime contra dancer, Schwartz had little interest in the sort of stylized, unspontaneous tango she’d seen in old movies. Then she saw a film called “The Tango Lesson,” a love story about Argentine tango. She took a few lessons and was hooked:

(Schwartz) “The tango that most people are familiar with is stage tango which is very macho and erotic, very overt…. And the Argentine social tango is a very soft and warm, inclusive embracing dance. And there’s just something very special feeling about it.”

(Keese) But to learn tango, you’ve got to dance. So last fall, with help from other tango lovers, Schwartz organized the Brattleboro dances and lessons and practices. She spread the word that singles and beginners were always welcome.

Later on, singer-guitarist Molly Melloan arrives and the live music begins:

(Sound of live music, shuffling feet and laughter.)
(Keese) The song is technically not a tango, but the dancers don’t seem to care. With torsos pressed close, they walk forward. They embellish their moves with seductive footwork. A woman in red heels – a physician, it turns out – drapes a leg playfully around her partner’s calf. John Wyndham, a retired computer scientist, dances with his wife, who’s a former schoolteacher.

Wyndham composes tangos for the accordion. He couldn’t be happier that the dance is making a comeback:

(Wyndham) “It’s just captivating, that’s all. You suddenly feel you have the soul of an Argentinian and you didn’t even know it.”

For Vermont public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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