It takes two to do: In Northampton, Tango is a time-honored tradition with a twist

  • Isabelle Beaudry of South Hadley dances the tango with Marek Garlicki of Sturbridge, along with others at First Churches of Northampton. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

  • Tango dancers move about the dance floor at the First Churches of Northampton. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

  • Tango dancers move about the dance floor at the First Churches of Northampton. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

  • Belinda Craig-Quijada, left, of Northampton and Claus Schlund of Leverett dance the tango at the First Churches of Northampton. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

  • Meredyth Klotz, of Florence now living in Westerly, Rhode Island, dances the tango with Brian Spellman, also of Florence, at the First Churches of Northampton. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

  • Tango dancers Isabelle Beaudry, left, of South Hadley, with Brian Spellman of Florence, and Brian Stanton of West Springfield with Meredyth Klotz of Florence, now living in Westerly, Rhode Island, move about the dance floor at First Churches of Northampton. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER EVANS

For the Gazette
Friday, December 09, 2022

Bistro tables line both sides of the glistening hardwood floor. In their centers, where white sashes cut black tablecloths, flameless tea lights wait to be turned on. Through the speakers, an orchestra swells like it’s 1940.

Our hosts tonight are Laura Grandi and the Western MA Tango group. Our instructor? Tango maestro Guillermo Merlo.

Let’s dance.

It’s the longstanding group’s first milonga, or social dance, at their new location at First Churches of Northampton. It’s Grandi’s first milonga with the group. But everyone seems at home. Though Grandi only recently moved to western Massachusetts from Buenos Aires, Argentina, she greets everyone with a warm embrace. She is used to traveling the world to teach and perform, and she has found community everywhere. But she is happy to be settling here, where she will teach a practica every Thursday and Sunday, and take part in the monthly milongas.

Before each dance on the third Saturday of the month, a world-renowned guest teacher leads an optional class. Tonight, Merlo is visiting from Boston to teach “cadenas,” or chains of elegant movements. Thirteen attendees shadow Merlo solo. Then they pair up. In traditional tango, men lead while women follow, but here, everyone takes turns trading roles. Grandi follows Merlo to demonstrate technique, then joins the group to lead or follow where needed.

“We couldn’t pretend to have the same rules that we did in the 1940s because the way people think is not the same,” says Grandi, who loves that a popular dance steeped in tradition is evolving in spite of it, especially as tango attracts younger dancers.

Merlo says the role-swapping is beautiful and also practical, because “in a real dance, you want to dance with everybody. That is how you connect.”

In a world where conversation and connection take place largely on social media, tango resonates with all ages, says Grandi, because of the physical contact, the embrace. It demands dancers’ attention as it fosters a dialogue without words. The whole process is smooth and soundless. One is invited to dance with a “cabeceo,” or a distinctive nod from a potential leader. If interested, they follow the leader to the floor. If not, they simply look away, which signals the leader to move on. Ideally, a couple dances three tangos with one orchestra, and then switches partners to establish more connections. Any chatting takes place during song breaks. Or before the milonga.

Tonight people of all ages and levels of experience have traveled to Northampton from Canada, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Boston and Springfield. The tango community is joyfully mobile – one participant describes it as “adult camp” – and milongas, wherever they are held, celebrate something they have all come to love.

While they’re all “all-in,” their dance romances began differently. Eva Goldwater wanted to impress her college-age daughter at a parents’ weekend that featured a milonga. Was she successful? “Ehhh …” Goldwater trails off. No matter. Fifteen years later, she’s a dedicated tanguera.

Brian Stanton thought a trip to Argentina warranted learning something, and since his high school Spanish hadn’t stuck, he thought he’d try a more physical language. “I don’t have an explanation for it,” he says, “but nine years later, I’ve committed to this.” It’s doubly good, because he met his wife through dance. At their wedding last month, their first song was a tango.

Jaime Alvarez has the most dramatic back story. He has been dancing since he was able to climb on his mother’s shoes in Colombia. But he was drawn to tango, specifically, after a teen crush invited him to dance. He was only 12 and thought he had moves, but his feet got tangled in her long dress, and, well, she lost it. “To this day she has not talked to me. Can you believe it? For years I said, ‘Before I die, I have to learn how to dance it.’” Once in the United States, Alvarez learned salsa, and then mastered tango. At 83, he’s still one of the premier teachers in the area.

Tonight’s milonga has come to a close, but Grandi says not to worry: “Nowadays you can find places to dance tango in every city around the world.”

But Northampton is the place to be.

Grandi’s next class is Thursday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. The group’s next milonga is Saturday, Dec. 17 following a lesson with Fernanda Ghi. Both are held at First Churches of Northampton. Visit www.tangograndi.com for more info.

Melissa Karen Sances recently moved to Easthampton from Boston and loves telling meaningful stories about her new home. Reach her at melissaksances@gmail.com.