Dance of Fire

We danced in the empty front parlor of his shotgun house in the Irish Channel. Alberto Paz, an Argentine gentleman of my father’s generation, said, “Find your center. Stay grounded. Let go. Be patient. Do not anticipate the direction, but once you have a direction, step with energy. Be relaxed but strong.”

Dance of FireTango instructor Ector Gutierrez and Kristin Balmer.

His instructions on how to dance tango often struck me as advice on how to live.
“If I lean you off balance, don’t be afraid to use me as a point of support. If you keep your core strong, you are not heavy. You are only heavy if you collapse.”

And my favorite: “Stop thinking and dance.”

I haven’t learned to stop thinking, but when I dance tango I certainly can’t think about anything else. It is physically and mentally challenging, constantly humbling, considered one of the most difficult dances to master – but when I focus on the dance hints of transcendence visit me from time to time. Tango teaches me to be in the moment, something I never achieved through yoga.

Dance of FireChristina Vella and Steven Gurley in a tango embrace.

The Zen-like aspect of tango helped more than I could have imagined during the long exile after Hurricane Katrina and the struggle to get home. I found some classes in Atlanta – where I evacuated – and just an occasional short break from the worrying kept me from going crazy. It was a relief to interact socially without having to spend hours making conversation. I got weary of talking about Katrina, and that’s all anyone wanted to talk about.

Another unexpected life lesson came with learning tango: the joy of giving up control. It made me see that letting someone else be responsible for everything for a while can be a wonderful change.

It seems that the human species has been compelled to move in rhythm with others since learning to walk upright. For millennia dance has been a tool of spirituality in countless cultures – the medium by which humans connect to gods. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his fine art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his ‘divine service.”

There must be something to it. You never hear of a dancer going postal. I’ve never seen a headline reporting a disgruntled member of a ballet company showing up to Nutcracker practice and shooting the Sugarplum Fairy.

Dance of FireHattiesburg, Miss. dance teacher, Percell St. Thomass and partner Shellie Hubbard.

One day when I felt particularly guilty about spending money on private lessons while struggling financially, I made myself laugh with this idea: Think how much I would be spending on therapy without it.

My tango therapy with Paz always left me feeling inspired. I looked forward to the lesson all week. Most of the hour would be spent in close embrace. Maybe if psychotherapy involved hugging, it would do more good.

After returning from Atlanta I felt an even deeper connection to the city I consider my own, and one day I mused about my two great passions: New Orleans and tango. When I first thought about it, the music and dance of Buenos Aires seemed out of place in the Big Easy. However, it turns out that tango is an obvious import and a close relative of New Orleans’ own original music.

Sexy, rich in tradition, born of a multicultural mix in a colonial port city, raised in slums and brothels, shunned by proper society, feared and even outlawed. Jazz and tango – they’re brothers.

Dance of FireTango Couture.

Each had its ignominious beginnings around the turn of the 20th century and later became not only accepted by its detractors, but also celebrated as an art form of local and national pride. Jazz and tango may even have evolved from the same seminal source, the common progenitor: the drum rhythms of African slaves.

In the mid-1800s in New Orleans and Buenos Aires, enslaved people and free blacks congregated to drum and dance. In New Orleans, it happened in Congo Square. In Argentina, the traditional African gatherings commenced at places called tangos. The word tango, in the native Bantu language of the Africans in Argentina, meant “closed space” or “reserved ground.”

Many historians assert that jazz resulted from a combination of African, Caribbean, brass band and European traditions mingling in New Orleans. In Argentina, a similar admixture of slave and immigrant populations produced tango. Jazz took on the voice of brass instruments readily available after the civil war. Tango – heavily influenced by the polka – adopted the voice of the bandoneon, a kind of German concertina similar to a small accordion.

Recordings of tango were first made in 1907. Ten years later in 1917, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz record. With the new recording technology, a great cross-influence began. The borrowing of musical ideas between jazz and tango had its most beautiful moment in 1952 when Louis Armstrong recorded “Kiss of Fire,” a version of the classic tango “El Choclo,” written by Angel Villoldo in 1905.

Dance of FireNew Orleans tango instructor Ector Gutierrez and student Kerri McCaffety.

Another interesting bit of history regarding tango in New Orleans: In the early 20th century, the lesser-known Tango Belt rivaled Storyville as a center of the sex trade. Adjacent to Storyville in the northwest corner of the French Quarter, the Tango Belt offered music and dance along with the main attraction, prostitution.

The Encyclopedia Louisiana includes the following entry in its Louisiana Timeline:
1914: The tango fad is sweeping the city and the nation and reaches its peak in January. The concentration of halls, cabarets, restaurants and cafés around Iberville, Bienville and North Rampart Streets are called the Tango Belt. Skirts were rising above the ankle, getting tighter, and to compensate for their restriction, were sporting tango slits.

Viva la Tango Belt! This South American import is a spicy slice of New Orleans’ grand multicultural history. And the future? It seems 2007 may be the year for a local tango renaissance.

Ector Gutierrez, a 39-year-old native Nicaraguan who has lived in New Orleans for more than 20 years, recently started teaching Argentine tango with a new approach, bridging the gap between varying styles of the dance. Gutierrez takes the classic forms of traditional tango and adds to them some of the energy and creativity of Tango Nuevo (New Tango).

Dance of FireDancers at the 2007 Argentine Tango Extravaganza in Baton Rouge.

Tango has evolved like any other living art form, changing with each generation. Tango Nuevo, the dance of the 21st century, is athletic and dynamic and thrives on the continuous invention of new and challenging movements. It does, however, stay connected to its history and the techniques developed by the original tangueros 100 years ago.

The hottest Tango Nuevo bands constantly incorporate and reinvent the melodies of classic tangos of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Some of the best synthesized, techno-tango music played in Buenos Aires nightclubs uses sampled bits of old records mixed into the sound.

Ardent traditionalists bristle at the pulsing new music and many old-guard dancers want nothing to do with the opening and expanding physicality of Tango Nuevo, but without this kind of change, tango would become a relic. Like folk dances around the world, it might only be performed in costume for tourists. Without evolution, tango might be lost to its scratchy, Victrola, black and white, Rudolph Valentino past.
Viva la Tango Nuevo!

I can count on one hand the times in my life that any activity ended with a spontaneous high five. Almost all of them came in classes learning Tango Nuevo with my second teacher, Fuad Adra. Adra is an intense dancer who delights in coming up with bizarre, new moves. He leads – in open embrace – unexpected syncopations, off-balance spins and twisted back steps between his steps and other amazing maneuvers. When I follow a difficult combination well, it’s as satisfying as any three-pointer from center court could ever be.

Everybody in the world needs something that makes you want to high five – if not literally, then spiritually – something that makes your soul jump up and say “yea!” I lived too long without it.

Over many months of learning from Adra and his partner Kathie Sanborn, they’ve become like family. I traveled with them to California to attend a workshop with the top dancers of the new generation, the rock stars of Tango Nuevo: Chicho Frumboli and Sebastian d’Arce.

Adra opened up a whole new world of tango, and he gave me the precious gift of high fives.

Dance of FireGeneral dancing at the 2007 Argentine Tango Extravaganza in Baton Rouge.

New Orleans’ newest tango teacher, Gutierrez is passionate about both traditional and new tango. He encourages versatility and believes students should learn all styles of tango. Gutierrez’s teaching emphasizes the connection between the two dancers and the ability to feel and express the emotion of the music, which remain the same in any style.

Sensual and philosophical, many of Gutierrez’s sentences begin with “For me, tango is …” His feelings about the dance struck a chord with me. “The most important rules in tango are the rules for life.” Admiration for Gutierrez’s take on tango is spreading far beyond New Orleans. He has been recruited to teach workshops as far away as Hong Kong.

Gutierrez tells the leaders in his class that when dancing socially, a dance is like a three-minute date. For those three minutes, the man should show the woman a good time, offer his lead like an invitation, as he would open a door and wait for the lady to walk through. He should focus on her, dance with her; look at her as if she were the only person in the world. The man should not show off the advanced moves he knows but be sensitive to her level and feel what they can do together, find what he can do to show her off. His romantic vision and open-minded approach combined with a talent for teaching makes Gutierrez an exciting new force in tango.

Already, opportunities to tango in New Orleans happen three to four times a week. We have world-class instructors including Paz, who studied extensively with golden-era master Mingo Pugliese, and Adra and Sanborn, who learned directly from tango superstar Gustavo Naviera. Srini Vishnubhotla, a protégé of Susana Miller – world-renowned queen of close embrace – will soon resume his Argentine tango club at the University of New Orleans. In addition, experienced teachers of social tango, María Elena and Enrique La Motta, hold weekly classes Uptown.

Many tango-obsessed locals, like me, will drive to Baton Rouge to dance at the parties there and vice-versa. Members of the thriving Tango Rouge very often show up at New Orleans venues for a night of dancing, despite the long drive home. The same goes for some Mississippi followers of Hattiesburg instructor Percell St. Thomass, who drive almost two hours one-way to salida and crusada in New Orleans.
Like the city itself, tango has one foot solidly in its rich, intriguing history and one foot taking a dynamic step into the future. With Gutierrez building a bridge across a century of tango styles, the refined yet sensual dance, born in Argentina and reborn in Paris, may have its next great rebirth in New Orleans – an historically appropriate place for it – at a good time for renaissance in the city.  And if most people are like me, we can all use some tango therapy.

Where to dance tango in New Orleans:
• The Argentine Tango Club meets at the New Orleans Dance Academy ballet studio, 5956 Magazine St., every Fri. María Elena and Enrique La Motta teach an Intermediate/Advanced Class at 7 p.m.; Beginner Class at 8 p.m.; Open Dancing 9-11 p.m.

• Aunt Leni’s in old Algiers, 323 Verret St., Algiers Point. Open Dancing the second Tues. of every month, 8-11 p.m. More information, Jessica 366-0786;

• Club Silhouette, 3505 N Hullen, Metairie (just north of Lakeside Mall.) Tango Fundamentals with Ector Gutierrez every Sat., (beginners welcome) 3-4 p.m.; Advanced Concepts with Fuad Adra and Kathie Sanborn 4-5 p.m.; Open Practice 5-6 p.m. More information,

• The Country Club of New Orleans, 634 Louisa St. (in the Bywater.) Alberto Paz and Valorie Hart teach workshops and host dances on the fourth Sun. of every month. Class at 4:30 p.m.; Open Dancing 5:45 p.m.-’til. More information, 894-1718.

• Lucy’s Retired Surfer’s Bar in the Warehouse District, 701 Tchoupitoulas St., Upstairs. Open Dancing on the third Sun. of every month, 5-8 p.m. More information, Myra

• Planet Tango, Paz and Hart teach classes on Thurs. evenings at their studio, 808 Washington Ave., 894-1718.

• Tango en el Barrio, Joey K’s Restaurant & Bar, 3001 Magazine St., Upstairs. Wed., 7-10 p.m. More information, Denise 410-0010;

New Orleans area tango teachers and organizers:
• Fuad Adra and Kathie Sanborn,, 343-2406.
• Ector Gutierrez,, 338-5098.
• María Elena La Motta and Enrique La Motta, 887-3095.
• Alberto Paz and Valorie Hart,, 894-1718.
• Srini Vishnubhotla,, 280-3212

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