Tangueando in Covid Time

In 2004, Antonio Iantorno stood on Viale Monza in Milano, handing out homemade flyers. Greeting strangers with a smile, he invited them to learn about the passion of Argentina — the tango. When his feet tired, he asked permission in upscale cafés and bars to leave leaflets for customers. Sometimes, he received a nod of approval, but often he was waived away. Antonio trudged on, firm in his desire to share the elements that make the tango a pleasure. Donning his chamois-soled dance shoes, Antonio prepared for his initial presentation. He hoped for 20 students. Imagine his joy when the tally reached 120, and his satisfaction when 48 of these random strangers signed up for lessons. So began Antonio’s career teaching the tango.

When Covid 19 struck Europe in 2020, Italy was blind-sided first. Lombardia was hit the worst. Under lock-down, group activities like tango classes were cancelled. Like everyone else, Antonio hunkered down and waited. By September, Italy was moving into phase three of coping with the pandemic. Some restrictions were lifted over the summer and now there was an attempt to bring back some sense of everyday life. Small groups could meet inside if they obeyed the antivirus rules of social distance, masks, and sanitization. Like so many others, Antonio was keen to return to work, to his tango classes. From Vancouver, I followed Covid’s path in Antonio’s world, and wondered how Phase-3 would work out for Italians. They were, after all, the canaries in the coal mine during this pandemic. I asked Antonio to record his experience in the form of emails which I share here.


10th September, Thursday
Today, we begin Thursday courses south of Milano… The restrictions are standard and basic. Each school can tighten them based on their specific needs. I teach at two facilities with similar but different rules… headache! Always the sword of Damocles over my head because a new decree based on the progress of the pandemic can always be issued. Anguish for both my desire to do what I love and from an economic point of view. I ask myself, who will have such a great desire to take a dance course, which is the antithesis of social distancing?

Before leaving home, I know that two couples have cancelled. Then, two new couples and a single woman arrive, another woman is a no-show. After my presentation, the tension dissolves. The couples have two years’ experience, and the more I explain corrections, the more they hang on my words. My partner and I conclude by dancing the Merceditas. Applause even though we haven’t danced for months. The thing that interests me most is their eyes. They speak of happiness. This is what I need. The teacher is motivated by the interest he arouses in his students. I must also say that, once started, the mask fell into the background, less important or intrusive than I thought.

13 September, Sunday
This afternoon we will perform live on Facebook for the SB Dance School. It is located within the sports centre affiliated with the famous AC Milan team. We are many and we must mask. Time goes by and we sweat in the 35-degree weather, and once inside even more. We wait our turn and then everything melts away. Tango, if studied well, is always part of you and will not leave you if you let it in, if you breathe it, if you love it. In front of the camera the thrill of dancing for students is missing. Maybe, next Thursday, if they come, I will do a little performance.

14 September, Monday
We arrive at the course and no one shows up in the first hour. Frustration, even though we came prepared for this to be a free trial lesson; knowing things can mitigate disappointment, but not eliminate it. The second hour is sadder. This morning a man called to withdraw due to his fear of Covid. He was a bit strange and moody, but at least he was sincere. A couple email they wish to start, but not until next Monday. A young girl is still smart-working from her parents’ home in Calabria. Why pay rent and more if you can stay with your parents? Right! She promises to return in mid-October. Tonight, only two couples. Students from my historical group have withdrawn. Infinite sadness. I don’t know how to face the lesson, didactically speaking. The gods of the tango have always helped me before, as well as my teacher, Gavito, from the beyond. Help me now.

We introduce ourselves. It is hot and we sweat excessively in the masks. Outside, in the gardens, the soccer school for boys is running. Parents peek in at us but do not understand what they see. I am introducing movement techniques. My feeling is that of a war movie. I am the sergeant after heavy bombardment trying to set up a platoon of the remaining soldiers so they may fight again.

The lesson ends and we drive to the other school where a small group from January awaits. I teach two variations on salida básica. These couples have studied for two years. After the first variation, I introduce the second. It’s a choreographic banality and yet all is in chaos! We go on, repeating and repeating. Towards the end of the lesson a couple asks, Maestro, it looks so easy but instead… I respond that it is an easy variant but that they are not yet focused. The best dancer is the one who always believes he is a beginner. The feeling of building on the rubble of a bombing does not leave me during the return trip. Tired and sweaty, I arrive home and eat a gelato, which gives me physical and mental freshness.

15 September, Tuesday
The course for my advanced students is cancelled. The hall is expensive to rent and the sanitation of the premises is costly. After the class, there is no opportunity for milonga practice, so it is not worth it for advanced dancers. They do not show up. It is difficult from a moral and emotional point of view to see the empty rooms – is it lack of interest or fear of the pandemic?

More changes. The school director for Tuesday calls with a new date and location. Another class in Vimodrone, just outside of Milan, begins and then is shut down due to Covid restrictions. My old Wednesday course has been evicted from a gym in another neighbourhood in Milan. My partner and I walk to a new location at Pacini No. 37, twenty minutes from my house. If this class manages to run, we will save a few euros in petrol. I try to see the positive.

28 September, Monday
Absolute beginners. Three couples and two women unattached. I have a partner for one of them. By the end of the lesson everyone wants to return except for a woman in a couple who does not wish to practice the salida básica. Some people do not give themselves time to learn. If after an hour they have not succeeded, they say, enough! This tango is not for me. The course is at risk, but then everyone agrees, even the reluctant student, to try two more lessons.

After the second hour for beginners at level two, we stop to chat with two of the students, Daniele and Melissa. Before coming to this course, they looked at various maestros on the internet. Some did wild moves, but none danced with soul or passion. They saw my video and liked my style immediately. Taking three videos to the father of one, they asked for his opinion. The father has always danced, so they valued his advice. He chose my video. Their story filled me with joy, and I told the students that these days I dance with pure energy.

29 September, Tuesday
Finally, two courses near my home. The 9 pm beginner level is one we started before Covid. Three of six students have withdrawn. Another three are expected, but not until next week. Oh, what stress. The 10 pm advanced class is my historical group, but again three women have dropped out. Now we risk having a cavaliere (male lead) and no dama (female partner). The director believes the courses will run. Let’s hope. Seeing the rooms now deserted creates a moral despondency even before the professional and economic despair. Però quanta tristezza! Un vero deserto dei tartari. (So much sadness! A true desert of the Tartars!)

The problem is that you don’t know what to hope for, you cannot plan anything, even day by day. You can’t imagine when all this will end, or if you have to abandon everything and change profession… Then, there are people like the students last night who give comfort, they hearten you. Passion! This is the key to moving forward.

1 October, Thursday
Tonight, is the 10 pm lesson in South Milan. I like this course, even though there are only five couples and it takes 25 minutes to drive each way. These students are congenial and dedicated. They ask for an extra lesson on Sunday afternoon.

Friday, we start a new course in Varedo, north of Milan, in a beautiful school. But who knows, I am becoming increasingly fatalistic, letting the river flow. I have done everything I can. Se il destino è un fiume che scorre, possano le acque portarmi qualcosa dalla sorgente alla valle. (If destiny is a flowing river, may the waters bring something from the source to me here in the valley.)

6 October, Tuesday
We expect three couples and a single woman. One couple does not show up, does not respond to my messages. A single man writes he wished to come, but he has a pain in his calf. Instead, two single ladies introduce themselves.

We start with spirit and optimism, even though I suspect it is futile. In the end the best dancer decides not to return because the level is too low, while the other whose first dance is a disaster decides to register. She says she will bring a partner next week – the feeling of trying to rebuild after a bombing. You find the bricks intact, but they don’t match. Frustrazione. In this post-lockdown, you must wash your emotions as well as your hands to prepare yourself for the next lesson.

20 October, Tuesday
New difficulties. Last night new provisions were imposed. Beginning Thursday, we have an 11 pm curfew. Tuesday lessons have been advanced by 30 minutes, and the Thursday class postponed until Saturday. My pupil, Grace, informs me that in November she will no longer accompany her partner, Marco. One thing after another. Always negative.

24 October, Saturday
Last week I started instructing the students as individuals to comply with the directives of the latest decree. Our talented students understood. They agreed to dance separately without the tango embrace. Even those who came together dance alone.

We begin slowly. The lesson picks up speed and joy. The students are attentive and, when we review the movements already learned, I see improvement. Making the lesson individual encourages the students to be more attentive. They discover mistakes and improve. A positive from the latest decree?

I pray that this pandemic passes. Teaching gives me purpose. I am important to someone. We are at risk of a new decree, perhaps focussed on areas where Covid breaks out and less on Italy in general. If that does not work, we are at risk for a second lockdown. Dio ti prego, no!!! (God, I beg you, no!!!)

25 October, Sunday
New restrictions. Cinemas, swimming pools, gyms and sports venues closed. All my classes, all cancelled, until the end of November.

There are rumours of milongas going underground. Imagine, dancing becoming an illegal act in the time of Covid. As time passed the rumours faded. The virus continued to kill, and no one could risk dancing anymore.

Antonio Iantorno has taught the art of the tango in Milan for sixteen years.
Jane Callen is a short story writer in Vancouver. She travels to Italy when the fates allow.

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