Tango in the age of coronavirus: How a Zoom party connects dancers across the globe

Makeda Easter
·4 min read
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L.A.-based tango instructor Yelizaveta Nersesova leads a Zoom tango event that is bringing together hundreds of dancers from around the world during the coronavirus crisis. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Some danced the tango with a partner, gracefully maneuvering around furniture in their living rooms and kitchens. Others danced the tango alone — embracing a pillow or a pink stuffed flamingo or nothing at all, their arms holding an invisible companion. And still others simply watched the dance party, smiling and bobbing along to tango classics including “Andate con la Otra.”

Like many other gatherings in the age of social distancing, the tango lovers were united via the video conferencing platform Zoom for the biweekly "Earth Virtual Milonga."

L.A.-based Argentine dancer and instructor Yelizaveta Nersesova organized the first Zoom tango affair in early April, bringing together nearly 400 friends and strangers from five countries. Two weeks later, the 4½-hour session attracted more than 600 people from 11 countries, including Australia, Spain and China.

The most recent virtual tango event featured a rotating cast of DJs and a live Portland-based musician playing jazzy renditions of songs like Bill Withers' "Lovely Day" on guitar while people danced or watched from the comfort of their homes.

Nersesova hoped to re-create the experience of a milonga — a club-like event dedicated to Argentine tango, where dancers rotate among partners. In L.A. before the coronavirus outbreak, social tango dancers could attend milongas every night of the week at venues such as Oxygen Tango School in Inglewood and the Tango Room Dance Center in Sherman Oaks.

Depending on the night and location, Nersesova said, the milongas could draw from 50 to 250 people.

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Dave Vella and Judy Barrett dance in Calistoga, Calif., during the Earth Virtual Milonga event. (Earth Virtual Milonga)

“I started playing with this idea of creating a virtual space as an experiment to see if people could draw something from it even though you don't have that same experience of being around people physically and dancing,” Nersesova said.

The tango instructor noted the difference between social tango, an improvisational and intimate walking-style dance, and the flashy, acrobatic and highly choreographed tango seen in the competition reality show “Dancing With the Stars” and films including 1992’s “Scent of a Woman.”

The social tango scene is a tightknit community of amateur and experienced dancers, singles and couples, from their 20s through 80s.

It is “quite magical,” Nersesova said. At in-person events, social tango has an established set of rules — couples moving counterclockwise in lanes, for example, or the concept of the cabeceo, a subtle head nod to invite a potential partner to dance — that guides people to "dance with anyone in any place."

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Åsa Danielsson, in Sweden, participates in the Earth Virtual Milonga Zoom event. (Earth Virtual Milonga)

Structured like the real-life event, the Earth Virtual Milonga had DJs playing a tanda — a set of several songs — followed by a brief break. Online, many danced alone during each tanda; others danced with their live-in partners. And some social etiquette rules could be broken.

At the weekend event, some dressed up for the occasion in heels and lace-up shoes, button-down shirts, patterned skirts and dresses. The main view screen rotated subjects, allowing participants to catch a glimpse into the lives of others.

Although the virtual milonga was free, Nersesova encourages donations to pay DJs and live musicians and to help cover the expense of using Zoom. (Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is an investor in Zoom.)

"DJs are such important members of the tango community, and they are definitely struggling right now," she said.

Harvey Schwartz, a 70-year-old, semi-retired applied research scientist tuned into the virtual milonga from his home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Schwartz, who danced with his pillow, began learning tango about 10 years ago.

Dancing Argentine tango relies on a close embrace and partners who sense the other's breath and heartbeat, Schwartz said. Although it’s impossible to re-create the same feeling of physical contact, sharing an experience virtually has value.

“The social fabric of this type of dance is dancing with other people,” Schwartz said. “The partner might be inanimate in this case, but I still enjoy it.”

Even with physical separation, “that doesn't mean we can't have social solidarity,” he added. An event like the virtual milonga “increases one's contact with positive, pleasurable and rewarding activities that are aligned with the life that many people in tango want to lead.”

It’s unclear when society will return to normal and the milongas will open once again. But for now, Nersesova sees the Earth Virtual Milonga as a way to keep fostering relationships and creativity in quarantine.

“There's so much anger and so much panic for people that if there's something that can transition them into the experience of joy and happiness for a few moments, that is a huge service," she said. “I'm hoping that it goes beyond tango.”