New York Queer Tango Weekend stepped into its long-delayed sixth season after the coronavirus hiatus kept fans off the dance floor for more than a year and a half.
“It was hard,” Buenos Aires-born dancer and teacher Leonardo Sardella said of the restrictions that kept him and life partner Walter Perez from sharing their art with other aficionados in person.
“Tango people are used to contact. One big part of ourselves [was] missing.”
Given the sinuous configurations of the intimate Argentine dance—famous for its intricate and precise steps, followed by quick hip swivels and emphatic flicks of the feet, all done in a constant embrace—Sardella knew there was no way to host events and follow social-distancing guidelines.
As he and Perez made do with Zoom classes and virtual gatherings, they dreamed of the day their celebrated festival would return for four days and three nights of classes, along with the parties known as “milongas” and several dance performances.
“The idea of the festival is to be open to everybody,” said Sardella, who started tango when he was 8. “You can be a guy and you can follow. You can be a girl and lead. Two men can dance together. You can switch in the middle of the dance.”
To demonstrate the art form’s flexibility, Sardella and Perez kicked off the opening night with a beginner tango class, followed by a high-spirited drag show.
Contrary to its stereotypical image—a woman with a rose in her mouth partnered with a man leading her in a passionate exchange—tango was often danced by two men in its early days. One reason was a matter of practicality. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, men outnumbered women in some of the immigrant communities in Argentina, where the dance was popularized.
Since then, the queer tango movement—which many say began in Hamburg, Germany and Buenos Aires—has sought to recapture that easy acceptance and make it a dance anybody can enjoy, anyway they want.
Eager dancers had to show proof of vaccination before they could join the festivities inside the Bella Ciao restaurant on Mulberry Street in Little Italy. Sardella greeted people at the foot of the basement stairs dressed in knee-high stiletto boots, a black spandex jumpsuit and long, full faux eyelashes.
About a dozen students gathered for the first event, a “milonga”—which is also a style of tango—class led by Mexico City-based instructor Carlos Blanco. The intergenerational group started simply. First, without a partner, they practiced four steps that ended with one foot crossed in front of the other. Soon, they were paired. The couples moved in a counterclockwise circle, looking like a dizzying snow globe. Their leather-soled loafers and strappy heels brushed the black-and-white checkered tiles of floor.
Among them was newbie Jonah Kona, 22, who is studying concert dance at Ballet Hispanico on the Upper West Side. “I’m in the honeymoon phase with tango,” he said.
The event also attracted more experienced students. Paul Chernosky, a dance teacher and choreographer who has studied tango since 2004, and Mikael Schultz, 45, a photographer, had been longing for an in-person group event. The friends—who podded together at the height of the pandemic and practiced tango once a week—danced with graceful synchronicity.
Kristian Obcemane, 33, who works in human resources, and his partner came to a milonga for the first time. Obcemane, a tango music fan, was first introduced to the genre through films like Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 award-winning “Happy Together.”
“It’s funny. I never looked up tango classes in New York,” he said. “I’ve been here 11 years. But tonight was the night.”
When drag artists Philly Pina and Stella Progress took the floor shortly after 11 p.m., attendees young and old, novice and experienced, sang and swayed to Pina’s rendition of Selena’s “Como La Flor.”
Queer tango in New York was officially back.
Sardella and Perez teach ongoing tango classes through their Carnegie Hill-based nonprofit Friends of Argentine Tango.