Tango in New Orleans

23:30 September 17, 2015

Characterized by complex dance steps and an intimate embrace, and performed with dramatic flare, tango is mesmerizing to watch, yet difficult to master. “I enjoy the challenge of performing the dance and engaging the other dancer. It’s the satisfaction of a job well done,” says Ector Gutierrez, a local tango instructor.

Though Gutierrez studied Argentine tango in the United States and Buenos Aires under internationally renowned tango masters, he was not immediately enthralled by the dance. In fact, he admits that it seemed quite boring.

After trying such styles of dancing as swing and salsa, Gutierrez came across his first tango lesson at Le Chat Noir. “I really had no desire to dance it,” says Gutierrez, so he simply watched. But once he attempted to perform the steps, he realized that the dance is more intricate than it appears. Gutierrez quickly decided that this was an endeavor he wanted to undertake. All of the dancing that he had practiced up until that point involved a structure, while tango seemed more improvisational. “That is what intrigued me the most,” recalls Gutierrez.

Since that lesson, he has performed tango in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Buenos Aires, among other exotic locales. In addition to traveling for dance events, Gutierrez offers both group and private tango lessons in New Orleans.

His classes take place on Tuesday and Friday evenings in the First Presbyterian Church Hall, on the corner of Jefferson and South Claiborne. Gutierrez and his dance partner, Argerie Villalobos, patiently guide dancers through complicated steps while offering suggestions.

“She’s very talented,” Gutierrez says of Villalobos. While most dancers may take weeks to discover their comfort level, Villalobos let her guard down immediately.

Gutierrez claims that finding the ability to compose oneself and delicately glide across the dance floor is indeed a common obstacle for beginners. “For me, it was a contradiction to think of relaxing while still engaging my muscles,” says Gutierrez. “It doesn’t come easy.”

But Villalobos relishes the state of meditation she experiences while dancing. She describes tango as “a lot of sleep-dancing, if you can imagine such a thing.”

As a skilled instructor, Gutierrez must adjust his style of dancing to match each student’s ability. “My approach to teaching is more of a personal journey.” Gutierrez helps his dancers secure the right embrace and tempo, so that they can determine what works best for them. “It’s my job to be sensitive to what they want,” he adds.

Tango dancing begins with the desire to learn. Gutierrez believes that “the desire makes us move.” The steps are then expressed through nonverbal communication.

But he acknowledges that some beginners learn more quickly than others. “There are dancers who didn’t know they were dancers. They come to the class and they discover that they can dance,” Gutierrez says of the students who seem to have a knack for tango. For some, finding the ability to gracefully perform the movements may take a few lessons, while others require frequent repetition that takes place over the course of several months.

And so you think it takes two to tango? Well, yes, it does. But the lessons do not require you to bring a dance partner. I arrived to my first class solo, as did many other students. The auditorium was full of an eclectic group of beginner dancers, including a sophisticated couple, a few young ladies from Tulane, and a businesswoman from Missouri.

Gutierrez claims that his students come from all walks of life, adding that “It’s not unusual for an influx of students to appear after an episode of Dancing with the Stars. People are inspired by what they see.”

We began our Tuesday lesson by learning the proper form and posture, and rehearsing basic tango steps. Then Gutierrez and Villalobos performed a dance, gracefully floating across the floor. This was followed by a practica, which allowed students to dance with each other and the instructors, as fervid music filled the auditorium.

Although I felt a bit awkward at first and stepped on the toes of unassuming dance partners, Gutierrez and Villalobos quickly encouraged me to keep trying.

“The most significant change I noticed in myself was patience,” says Gutierrez of his early dancing days. “I became a listener.” While learning the moves may be frustrating, the result is worth the efforts. “The rewards are big,” affirms Gutierrez.

Though the Friday night classes consist of many intermediate dancers, Gutierrez welcomes students of various skill levels. The night begins with a brief rehearsal, but it is followed by a milonga or a party, rather than a practica. The scene, which is meant to resemble the milongas in Bueno Aires, is more formal.

After the man signals a dance invitation to a woman by a simple nod of the head, the two then meet in the middle of the floor to tango. Under the dim lights, couples perform silky dance steps as music plays, while others mingle over wine and cheese.

Aside from the tricky steps and code of etiquette, clothing is also important. The men typically wear loose fitting garments while the ladies arrive in dresses, or an ensemble that consists of a tunic and leggings – complete with dazzling tango shoes. I quickly discovered that selecting the right type of shoe (one that combines comfort and style) is key.

“Tango shoes are designed to step backwards and give your feet the support they need,” notes Villalobos, adding that they “should have a smooth sole and support around your ankles.” Gutierrez also advises dancers to wear comfortable shoes, because in tango, dancers should aim for smooth, cat-like movements, rather than choppy steps.

But the most important component of tango is embracing the moment. “It’s not about the steps, or how many moves you know, it’s about how well you execute them with your dance partner,” states Gutierrez.

This is accomplished by breaking down personal barriers and finding a degree of trust. “Being so close to someone they don’t know is uncomfortable for many dancers,” explains Gutierrez. It is important to overcome the intimacy factor, which may take hours or months. “Once you move past that obstacle, then you start dancing,” says Gutierrez.

“I can persuade most women by saying ‘Give me three minutes,’” he expounds. “Remove your wall for three minutes.” At that point, he is usually able to guide the dancer to her comfort level. “Once that trust is built, then we can start dancing.” He notes that there is little that a dancer can do until their guard is let down. “It’s almost like buying time.”

I followed Gutierrez’s advice and attempted to dance for the rest of the night with an open mind, leaving my worries from the day aside. I finally found myself in the trance-like state that Villalobos described and enjoyed the soulful music that surrounded me.

By the end of my lessons, I did not exactly master the tango, but I discovered other valuable rules that can be applied to both dance and life. Most importantly, I learned how to take deep breaths, relax, and trust. Because in tango, you have to believe that you’re in good hands and just keep going.

For more information on lessons with Ector Gutierrez, visit ectortango.com.

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