A few days ago Maestra Dana Frígoli announced by youtube video that DNI, the school she founded with Pablo Villarraza, where Duro and I trained in Buenos Aires, will not reopen.
A few days before that, Mona Isabelle announced definitively that Tangoloft would leave the Gerichtstraße location.
I know that these two powerful women will create beautiful new gifts to share with us. And I feel empathy for the stress of responsibility they have held in building these spaces and sustaining them through years of unknowns, not only the current one. And I feel grateful that they have been able to come to peace with relinquishing that responsibility, rather than endure continued risk. I know that while they mourn, they will also receive some much-needed spaciousness and this will allow their personal evolution, which, in the case of such visionary leaders, benefits us all.
These two women braved ongoing personal and political trials to show us what is possible. They dared to take territory and to illuminate it with joy and generosity. Their visions have changed the landscape. Not only the landscape of milongas, but the landscape of our artistic expression, our bodies, the looks we wear on our faces, and the use of our hearts.
Thank you, Dana Frígoli and Mona Isabelle.
The next phase of tango will be different. We will be more grateful for it. We will understand its fragility. And we will pay more attention to the economics.
To build the future, we need to understand our past.
Tango’s economic culture has two important influences.
First is the peculiar mix of graciousness and pride which shapes Argentine professionals. Business culture in Argentina is always extraordinarily hospitable. Tango teachers and performers inhabit a massive gap between status as celebrities and insecure pay as freelancers. We cover this gap with glamour and evasion. Our students and friends pretend that they can’t do the math.
Second is the extra-Argentine history of building tango as a community-service project in which until recently, most milonga organizers were happy to break even, and most teachers had a real job to subsidize their tango career.
These two influences had the result that we don’t use business terminology like customer, client, sales, business strategy, or marketing. This doesn’t just affect how we talk, it also affects how we think about what we are doing. (Among other things, it means that many of us pathologically blame our marketing and pedagogic failures on student laziness.)
Only a few extraordinary Tango people like Dana and Mona developed models that could sustain full-time, full-service venues, comfortable, warm tango “homes” where our community could flourish in ways that temporary space never cultivates.
Dancers paid for lessons and events, but rarely paid the real cost. Mona’s space was subsidized by weddings and event rentals. Dana’s school was subsidized by the dreams of young artists, her underpaid junior teachers who did almost all of the work.
Most tango teachers and events scraped by on subsidized community and church spaces, black cash transactions, volunteer labor, touring without work visas, and students driving us and hosting us in their homes and donating all manner of services.
The Distance washed away our rhinestones.
Our students pay for online classes to be sure we can pay the rent and eat. Organizers and professionals scramble to build digital payment infrastructure to accept gifts of solidarity. Those giving reflect on how much they have gained from tango professionals, and how little they have paid.
Getting more honest about the exchange, about tango professionals’ wages and costs, and about students’ and dancers’ benefit and means is good and necessary.
Innovations around new business models and even new products are welcome from all. For example: Now that people are only dancing privately, teachers could charge a fee for organizing their students into groups of 4 couples for home practice and milongas.
And we face a much more significant challenge.
Our tango depends on the health of a global culture. Your dance depends not only on the survival of your teacher and a few local milongas. It depends equally on teachers and milongas in faraway places encouraging and training dancers you hope meet somewhere someday.
The future of tango depends not only on solidarity with our own teachers and organizers, but with attention to the whole industry. The loss of DNI not only affects people who like to go there, or some day hoped to. It’s a blow to the global supply chain.
Unlike the airline industry, we will not receive a government bailout. But unlike the airline industry, professionals and clientele are not in an adversarial relationship. This gives us the challenge and opportunity to design a truly collaborative economic system.
Students and dancers should urge their professionals to abandon the feudal rivalries which have organized most local communities’ scenes and to collaborate on right-sizing:
- How many milongas and classes can this community sustain?
- How can space be secured and shared to support the events we need?
- How can we collaborate to research and develop effective marketing to bring new dancers to tango?
Your teachers need more than your digital payment. They need your imagination and insistence that tango grow up and act like a business.