After eleven years living, dancing, teaching tango, and writing in Buenos Aires, I came home to L.A. in 2014, where I'm reconstructing my life.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
yes, set fire to frostbitten crops,
drag out forgotten fruit
to dance the flame-tango,
to live after all....
--Denise Levertov, “A Walk through the Notebooks.”
From an old diary:
It was a dark and stormy night at Schiphol Airport. Freezing cold, too. And far, far away from Los Angeles where I lived. For years I had been setting fire to frostbitten crops trying to “live, after all.” Now I had come to Amsterdam in the middle of winter to dance the flame-tango.
I had reserved a room at the Hotel Fantasia on a canal in downtown Amsterdam, which was anything but a fantastic dream. Still it was clean. I climbed the wooden staircase to my long and narrow room with an iron cot and no hot water after eight at night. Located above the breakfast room, in the morning there would be a clattering breakfast buffet of sausage, cheese and strange dark breads.
I bought nuts and a cocktail in a little red windmill bottle at the reception desk for my Christmas Eve in Amsterdam dinner. I didn’t feel alone or at all sorry for myself; on the contrary, as usual when I travel and am adventurous, I was exhilarated: a new country, a new language, new experiences and future memories.
I called a cab to take me to midnight services after looking up churches (kerk) in the Yellow Pages. Built in 1392, the English Reformed Church was a perfect place to be on Christmas Eve. It was warm and welcoming inside, but the church filled up quickly and the overflow crowd stood under their black umbrellas in the rainy courtyard. How blessed I felt to be sitting in the snug, crowded church, and I sent my thanks up to Heaven as I waited in line to take Communion.
A friend of a friend’s sister had married a wealthy jolly Dutchman, and through the kindness of strangers, I was invited to their house on Christmas Day. They picked me up at the hotel in their Mercedes and drove me around town first, so I saw the Reiksmuseum’s facade, people lined up for a Christmas concert at the Concertgebouw, the front of Anne Frank’s house, and the beautiful winter countryside full of fat cows on the way to the suburb where they lived.
After a merry family and friends dinner and gift exchange, even with presents for me, they drove me to the train station where I caught the 9 p.m. train to Nijmegen, 160 kms from Amsterdam. My hosts must have thought I was crazy as I climbed into the cold train clutching my high heeled dancing shoes and waving goodbye.
But I was in search of tango. And I had heard about the famous all night tango marathons at El Corte, Erik Jorissen’s celebrated school. Several European dancers passing through the Los Angeles milongas had mentioned Nijmegen as the best place in Europe to get a tango fix. When I had found out that there was also a tango festival in Amsterdam between the Christmas and New Year’s marathons in Nijmegen, that cinched the deal. I was going to Holland for the holidays.
The first thing I saw when I got off the train at the Nijmegen station were acres of bicycles locked in racks reflecting the dim florescent lighting overhead. I wandered out into the dark and deserted town and searched for the tango school. I was glad I had on wool pants under my short tango skirt, my hat, leather gloves, and heavy fur-lined parka.
I found El Corte almost by chance as there was no sign, only a brass knocker on the door, which was partially blocked by rucksacks, sleeping bags, boots, parkas, and bicycle helmets. As usual when I entered a tango space, I took a deep breath and paused to feel that flutter, that rush of anticipation fringed with fear. What will happen tonight? Who will I dance with? Would I go to Tango Heaven? I always knew that with tango, anything was possible.
El Corte was a modern building, still undergoing remodeling inside. It had a homey feel, with a loft and little walkways upstairs, and easy chairs and couches lounging around the several rooms. There was a kitchen with food and drink laid out. The wooden dance floor in the back had a high ceiling and dramatic lighting. The crowd was youthful, vibrant, beautiful, and could really dance. In Buenos Aires the talented young people are preoccupied and focused on becoming professional dancers so they can leave Argentina to perform and teach abroad. In Europe the young generation dance because they enjoy it.
I checked in with Eric, a congenial, friendly and funny guy with a youthful demeanor himself, who has almost singlehandedly created Dutch tango mania. He handed out plastic pins of various designs and we were to find our “match” on a partner of the opposite sex. I never found the man wearing the pink and green angel wings like mine, but as soon as I changed into my tango shoes, I began dancing and almost never stopped. I was one of only eight dancers coming from the U.S., who I didn’t know as they were mostly from the east coast. The American dancers didn’t invite me to dance that first night, but my partners included French, Swiss, Danish, and of course, Dutch dancers.
It was freezing outside, but sultry, hot and smoky on the dance floor. The hundreds of dancers were almost all Europeans and smokers. Since the floor was so crowded, dancing had to be close embrace, and it was a delicious challenge to do an intricate and emotional tango in just a few feet, on a baldosa, as the saying goes. The steps were so small and hidden, that there was little to watch from the outside, and couples were in a tango trance. The hot floor was a pheromone furnace.
The last train back to Amsterdam was at 7 a.m. but I couldn’t tear myself away even though my feet were killing me. I figured I’d get back to the hotel somehow. And sure enough, at 9:30 that morning, as the cold sun peeked weakly up from the east, there was a place in a VW beetle for me with three girls from Paris driving back into town. Luckily there were still some dregs in the breakfast room at the hotel, and I made a couple of quick sandwiches and crashed in my room. The smoke had made me sick, and so I spent the day in my iron bunk taking antihistamines, resting up for the opening of the Amsterdam Tango Magia Festival the next day.
This three-day tango bash was spread out over Amsterdam in different studios and venues. Famous teachers from Buenos Aires were giving workshops, and there were milongas every night. At the festival registration, we were given bad maps of the various venues, but all of the streets looked the same, especially in the darkness that descended in mid-afternoon: canals, old Dutch row houses, bicycles. I couldn’t tell one street from the other in this city lying completely below sea level.
There was very little daylight at that time of the year, only from about 9:30 to 3:00, and I was even more confused in the dark. Winter is not the best time to sightsee in Northern Europe. Somehow I found the appropriate place for the first class, but Pieter, a man I had met and danced with in Nijmegen, one of the few older than thirty and with grey hair, found me disoriented and put me on the back of his bicycle and rode me to the next workshop.
Pieter had lived in Amsterdam all his life and was an artist, as his father was before him. He used to teach art, but now he essentially did nothing. He liked tango and he danced well, but he wasn’t addicted or passionate about it. He invited me to lunch the next day, and I took a taxi to his mansion on the canal right in the heart of the city, close to the red light district.
To say I was stunned would be an understatement. He really did live in an ancient mansion, with several levels and stairs going in all directions, and dusty antiques and walls covered with paintings and objets d’art, and dead plants in dark corners. We ate in the grimy glassed greenhouse kitchen, but I could see he spent all his time in the front parlour in his worn chaise lounge easy chair. He had inherited the house, and sold off various parts of it over the years to provide himself with an income. Still, it was enormous, and I could only guess at its magnificence when he lived there as a child with his parents.
Pieter and I took the rest of the Festival classes together. He also took me to his favorite coffee houses on his bicycle, showed me the cafes where marijuana was served buffet-style, gave me a tour of the tattoo museum with a client spread-eagled on the icy floor having his full back decorated, and walked me past the prostitutes marketing their wares in the windows. I gawked as a customer left a storefront and shook hands with the fat, negligee-clad working girl in broad daylight, in front of mothers with babies and skateboarding kids, and tourists like me.
Pieter himself looked like a painting by Rembrandt; with crimson cheeks and blue eyes, Ben Franklin glasses, fuzzy lambchop sideburns, and a silver pipe, he was quintessential Dutch. A perennial bachelor, he was droll and eccentric and well-built (from all that bike riding and tango dancing) and that we found each other was my Christmas present.
The first Amsterdam milonga was in Café de Kroon on RembrandsPlein, walking distance from my hotel. I invited my new friend--my Christmas hostess. She had never danced tango before, but she enjoyed watching and some of my partners were gallant and invited her out on the floor for “walking” tangos.
The milonga finished early (one a.m.), and most dancers went on to another one in De Boksschool. But I changed my shoes and walked back to the hotel. Jet lag, fatigue and smoke were working on me, and I knew when I had to quit.
It was raining, and I was astonished by all the people on bicycles holding umbrellas, as well as bags of groceries and sometimes bouquets of flowers as they rode, occasionally talking on cell phones as well. I welcomed Amsterdam’s youthful energy, which was permissive and supportive at the same time. Old and historical, nevertheless the city had an avant-garde feeling of innovation that felt very exciting, even in the dark of deepest winter. I could only imagine what it was like in August.
The Roxy was the milonga venue the next night—a fabulous 19th century wooden movie theater turned into a trendy nightclub. The Sexteto Canyengue played on the stage, and the teachers, Gustavo & Giselle-Anne and Esteban & Claudia, performed. Crammed with over 300 people, the energy, heat and smoke were palpable.
Treacherously steep wooden stairs led up to the balcony where there was another bar, and people even danced up there between the jammed tables. Dancers climbed all over the stage and the three wooden bars to sit, to see the show, to light cigarettes. Colored lights bounced off the gray air. I was drunk on the smoke, music, and ever-replenished cocktail in my hand.
(Note: sorry to say that the glamorous and historic Roxy has since burned down.)
The following day Pieter and I hung out mostly at his house. He was getting tired by this time as well, and didn’t plan on attending that night’s milonga in Roothaanhuis, a gorgeous wood paneled dancehall that used to be a men’s haberdashery long ago. Unsurprisingly I went, and there was live music, dinner, and lots of great tangos. A polite young man walked me and his bicycle back to my hotel before he pedaled to the neighboring village where he lived.
Gearing up for the New Year’s two-day Marathon at Nijmegen, I decided to stay in a nearby hotel. It wasn’t for me to sleep in a sleeping bag on the side of the dance floor. Let the Euro Kids do that.
So I made a reservation, and New Year’s Eve I took the late train to Nijmegen. The hotel was just a short walk from El Corte, and would be a convenient place to nap and shower. The dancing wouldn’t stop for two days, and I wanted to miss as little as possible. What a way to welcome the turn of the century!
Eric had more games planned for the marathon, keeping it alive and fun right to the end. He passed out blinking red heart clips that people fastened onto their shoes and shirts and hair, and then he turned out the lights and all we could see were dancing blinking hearts. The fabulous DJ kept surprising us with unusual pieces of music, and there was always something fresh to eat in the kitchen. With over 350 dancers from all over Europe, new partners were everywhere.
So Pieter took me to Schiphol, bought me a double CD of a Dutch tango singer, and kissed me goodbye. “I won’t write,” he said, “but I won’t forget you.’
And off I went to Denmark, where I danced tango on the cold marble floor of Hamlet’s castle. I was doing my best “to live after all.”