by Jackie Wong
About 1-1/2 years ago, I met Valeria when I decided to take a day of tango classes at Dance Manhattan. She was teaching a very difficult move and I was impressed with the clarity of her explanations. The next time I saw Valeria was when Tango Mujer performed at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts and I thought that the solo piece she performed and choreographed was innovative. So, of course, when Ivon from Estudio emailed to tell me that Valeria was teaching at Mount Holyoke, I jumped at the chance to interview her. Valeria was very thoughtful in her interview and it became apparent to me that she has given much thought to her life and tango's part in it.
The scene Saturday March 30th. Valeria and I are sitting on the floor in a classroom at Dance Manhattan. We both have our shoes off. The environment is relaxed and energetic at the same time.
Q: Where do you teach currently?
Valeria: Dance Manhattan and Mt. Holyoke College but that's just for the semester. We are talking about future classes but that hasn't been confirmed. I also teach independently. I started in the city as an independent instructor and I kept that for my own. I rent studio space here at Dance Manhattan. It's easier because I also teach here. So I teach as part of the staff and also on my own.
Q: One thing I find interesting is that, in the workshop in Massachusetts, everyone knew your name and not your partner's. Usually it's the other way around and I was wondering if you understood the dynamics of that. How does it feel and how did it come about?
Valeria: I worked for it. I have been working always on my own. Just waiting for the perfect partnership didn't work for me. I invested my time in becoming accomplished as a dancer in a wide way which involves knowledge of the dance structure, performance skills I draw from other dance techniques, choreography, theatre, music,... you name it. Work comes from different sources and then I share it when a partner is needed.
Q: So you have several partners. How do you decide whom to partner with?
Valeria: As you know good male partners are scarce. There aren't many great tango dancers that are available at a certain time so it's difficult. Also it's hard to find someone taller than me or my height when I have heels on. But, as I have moved through the tango community, I have made connections so I know more people. Some dancers are more traditional, others more acrobatic or more social, so I look for partners according to the work I have to do.
Q: You are a strong woman. Do you have to assert yourself?
Valeria: Generally people get how you are so I don't bother to explain myself. Some people may have a problem with me and some people will like me. Sometimes I compromise and try not to put things in their face that would offend them. I'm not hiding anything ...I'm just not putting that part of me in their face. It's part of being a professional.
Q: With Tango Mujer, what has been the general reaction? Is it different in the U.S.?
Valeria: Unfortunately we can not perform in Argentina for economical reasons and I would love to show it there. I have found a difference between the American crowd and the European crowd. Usually Europeans are more open to it...I don't know why...maybe women have shaped their culture more than here. There are many reactions in America about Tango Mujer. They say "that's not tango" or "how can you do a show without men and why would you want to?"
Q: Who would say this?
Valeria: I don't know who. I think most people come to a tango show with the fantasy of seeing once more a display of really clear-cut roles of a man and woman courtship. The funny thing is that they define it as passion!!!! Yes, we don't live in a society like that anymore, our roles are anything but clear and I see many people nostalgic about a sense of safety they think they can find there. So, that is how the show should go: Tango is about passion and passion is a fierce man and a sexy woman. Nothing bad about that but for me that is not even tango, that is just money.
Q: Why aren't there men in Tango Mujer?
Valeria: When I was asked to put together a show at Symphony Space (our first gig as Tango Mujer) I had no partner I could see myself dancing with in such a prominent venue (this was a while ago, when the New York City Tango community was not yet developed so there were no really good male dancers around!) Then I asked myself, who were the best dancers, the ones I would feel motivated to dance with? They were Rebecca, Brigitte and Fabienne (Angelika joined us later). They happened to be women, the producer accepted it, I called them up, we did the show, it was a great success!. Back then that was "my" reason. Now it has developed into a need. In a women's group there is room to use tango as a code to express a very different range of emotions or even to expose tango as a mere code.
Q: Where do you dance socially?
Valeria: I don't very much. I hear tango all day, so by night the last thing I want to do is to hear is another tango. When I do, I know the places in New York where, if I am bored, I can lead. Sometimes I lead because there aren't many good leaders that I'm interested in following. However, I'm usually excited about leading. When I follow I have to be excited about the leader but when I lead, besides the follower, I'm excited about the improvisational possibilities. That's the biggest advantage of being a leader. As you grow and improve your tango, you find that it is more difficult to have fun but when you do, it's more intense.
Q: What do you feel your style is? In other words, what makes you different as a dancer?
Valeria: That's a beautiful question. As a choreographer, I think that it would be my vocabulary for tango. I have found a few essentials that I have only discovered in tango. I think that's one part. Also my tendency is to choreograph something that has a total tango flavor that doesn't necessarily have to be danced in couples. It could be groups, solos...I don't want to cross the line and have a boleo and say that's tango. That's not what I'm talking about.
Q: Do you mean the attitude?
Valeria: Exactly not. In any case maybe my style is about getting rid of attitude. I like presence, that is something I believe comes to you when you deal deeply with yourself and you feel an urge to put that forth. I don't think you can "work" on your presence. But I guess it comes to you if you work on everything else. Attitude is social and is somehow intentional. For instance: There is an attitude that is absolutely Argentine. I can tell when a woman is Argentine by the way she walks. Or a man because of the way he flirts. Not better not worst. Just different. I am not necessarily the best Argentine to convey the Argentiness of tango but what I understand is the essence of the movement. As a performer, I think of myself as earthly and impulsive.
Q: How does your dance translate into impulsiveness?
Valeria: Well, Rebecca always makes fun of me because we're so different. I have a little bit of a punch. (Valeria uses her hand and makes sharp short movements) Ta Ta Ta. I'm cutting maybe sharp is the word and she's more ethereal. I can also be soft so if we look at the elements, fire, water, air, earth, I am earth and water. Rebecca is air and water. Angelika is fire..pure fire. Fabienne is water. ummm and Brigitte is air.
Q: How would you characterize each element? In tango terms.
Valeria: I haven't thought of this before... hm... let's see. Air: light touch, gliding steps, no waste in the movements, nothing extra, I wish to do molinetes like air. Water: undulation, swivels, twists, contortions, wraps, boleos should be water, and the embrace should be water, sensual, present and rolling along, no stops. Water is a teaser, ochos are water. Earth is groundness, is giving your partner a sense of trust, reliability. I guess it is the most difficult to define, I feel it though ... milonga is earth, actually, playing with musicality is earth, surprising your partner with a definite line at the end of a movement, enjoying your own weight on your feet and never losing ground. I venture to say that, in my experience, some leaders don't like it much. Those for whom the biggest compliment they can give you is that you are "light" won't necessarily appreciate the qualities of earth much but, even though inside the partnership it can feel threatening, it is usually well appreciated when projected in front of an audience.
Fire is bursts of energy, is jumps, hunger, speed, height, kicks...Hm.. now I feel like making a piece about all that.
Q: How is the tango scene in the U.S. versus the rest of the world? In how they interpret tango and how they dance.
Valeria: First we will have to make a difference between NYC, because it is very cosmopolitan, and the rest of the US. In general there's a very distant approach to social dancing. Some Americans want to be cosmopolitan but all they really want is to be assured that they can "have" other cultures. Other Americans are really open to exploration. I think Americans are searching for more connection.for doing the dance for real not just for competition. Generally people here can be competitive in a very naive way. I don't see that so much in Europe. Maybe it's because the countries are much smaller and they lived next to each other for much longer, who knows....
Q: Are people more critical here?
Valeria: People don't relate well to each other. They are more judgmental and they put up defenses. Not critical. To be critical requires more thought. I feel it in my life too. Everything is so regulated even though there is so much freedom. Most of the relationships are too ruled.
Q: I have noticed that the tango schools have different personalities. How would you define Dance Manhattan's style?
Valeria: Dance Manhattan has an ambitious program for tango. I'm not sure if we achieve it but the spirit is there. Also we are not controlled about what we teach. They trust in our capacity as teachers. They just give us guidelines. We are very free in how we conduct our classes. Each person has his or her own style of teaching and we are respected that way. I wanted to be here because even though I was doing well as an independent instructor, I felt that the students weren't exposed enough to Tango. So each time I was starting almost from scratch. When people are coming just once a week it's different than when they can take four classes a week with different teachers. They are exposed much more. On one hand, it can create confusion for some students, but on the other hand, students can go on and do quite well.
The spirit is tolerant in the sense of letting everyone have their own approach to teaching. It also has diversity. For me if I had a school I would be more Russian. Even though I would like the teachers to have their own style, I would be more controlling because I am very concerned with coherence, with methodology.
Q: So, how do you feel women can be assertive in the dance?
Valeria: Just by being a good woman dancer. I think we are responsible for finding what that means to each of us. Our follower role is as complex as our womanhood but we can always turn it into martyrdom!! I think we have to stop competing to see who has more power, as a man or woman, as a leader or follower. I think that women have a very strong role.
Q: In what way?
Valeria: I think following and leading is interdynamic. If you freeze one, you kill both. I think roles are just a way to organize a shared path but there is no "pure lead or pure follow". In the sense that, even when you are working at your most responsive reaction, your most perfect follow or your clearest suggestion, your most impeccable lead, you are using all of yourself and in yourself you contain both, the lead and the follow. In your most responsive reaction there is plenty of control and intention so that the movement hits the spot but also goes beyond, sometimes even suggesting the next movement the leader will lead you into. At the same time it is well known that leaders who have impeccable lead are totally sensitive to the follower's needs. As a teacher though, I find it more challenging to teach followers because it is more in the how than in the what to do and many times the how escapes from verbal and even physical explanation.
Q: So it's not just men leading and women passively following?
Valeria: No. Even if you stay in your own role, it's not all passive or all active.
Q: What do you think is the most difficult technical aspect?
Valeria: Understanding your role in the dance and making the most out of it.
Q: How do you make the most of your role.as follower.as leader?
Valeria: I want to achieve the balance between responding to my partner's needs and my own fulfillment, well, yeah, that sounds too big, but you asked what I want, no?
Q: Is there a new direction for Tango?
Valeria: Definitely. There is a new direction and at the same time, thank God, a continued attraction to the old. So there are two directions going at the same time and I like it. The very modern approach makes leader and follower movement almost equal. The leader has to have much more flexibility and much more balance and the follower has to be much more active. That's the new Tango. I believe the ones who want to go that way will feel more and more the need to know both roles. Then there's the traditional tango. I think these traditionalists assume an important responsibility. There is a need to keep a model of good manners on the dance floor, I mean basic important things like, taking care of not hurting anyone with excessively big movements, with unawareness of the navigation in the dance floor , with dangerous kicks. Sometimes some couples look even grotesque! Also, the first thing of this dance should still be the comforting embrace, the elegant walk, the feel for the music and without these milongueros, without these guardians of the dance floor, what would we do!!!!!! Besides, it is such a pleasure to be guided smoothly and perfectly through the compositions of D'arienzo, in the arms of an experienced fellow and feel no need, no intrigue for any "pattern"...
Q: Valeria, finish this..Tango is...
Valeria: Tango is basically the only dance that explores deeply the improvisation generated from lead and follow, in how one influences the other.
In Tango, not a single step can occur without the connection.
Q: And what do you get from tango?
Valeria: I get another level of knowledge and awareness that I don't find in any other dance. The partner level is totally developed.
Q: Finally, what's tango magic like for you?
Valeria: I am with that person and that person is with me and it is wonderful. It is possible in other social dances,
but in Tango it is a must, and in other dances it could happen. On the other hand, I am with another person and that person is with me and that can be Horrible!!!
I guess that is a risk we take in life too.
For more about Valeria, please visit her website