Dance therapy: Tango and the human connection

Guillermo De Fazio and Giovanna Dan are directors, performers, partners, choreographers, and teachers who live and breathe tango. Their touring production, Tango Argentina, brings a cast of eight dancers and four musicians to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Jan. 20.

In a world starved for human connection — thanks, COVID — the sight of four couples literally dancing cheek-to-cheek may induce an emotional reaction in the Santa Fe audience. The feelings may be even stronger for the dozens of local dancers who recently lost their Tango Tuesdays, a weekly tradition since 2001, when the restaurant El Mesón closed after 25 years.

“It’s all about the embrace,” says Dan, who was raised in Los Angeles by Argentine American parents (a professional tango dancer and musician) and has been partnered with De Fazio since 2015. “Social dance is like therapy. In this digital age, we are losing a physical connection with other people.”

De Fazio says that the tango is different than other dances like salsa, merengue, and swing. “Tango is intimate. It makes you calm.”

Raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, De Fazio toured internationally for many years as part of an act with his brother. Los Hermanos Macana offered a very fast, complicated style, he says, not at all romantic. “Tango was originally a street dance, a challenge between men.” Rural Argentina has its own folk dances, its cowboy gauchos and tradition of ranching, but the story of tango is an urban one about European immigrants who arrived in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, Uruguay, en masse during the 1880s and early 20th century.

Tango, born in brothels, was considered less than respectable, was sometimes illegal, and evolved from an edgy, underground expression of sexual tension, into a UNESCO-approved cultural heritage art form — and a national pastime. “In the beginning of tango, Buenos Aires was 70 percent male,” De Fazio says. “The 30 percent who were women included 20 percent who were married and 10 percent who were prostitutes. The men danced with each other while they were waiting for women.”

Tango Argentine will offer a condensed history of the form — both musical and physical. “We’ll go through the different decades and eras of tango,” Dan says.

Music director Fabrizio Mocata, who will be at the piano, created original compositions in the spirit of these different ages of tango. “In the early days, with the immigration, came musicians from Europe who brought different instruments and created a new sound,” De Fazio says. The early dances were quite simple. De Fazio calls it La Guardia Vieja (Old School). By the 1920s, the music had grown popular, but the dance was still considered risqué. “Tango then was like twerking. My grandmother was very conservative. She didn’t go for it at all,” he says. “But she loved the music.” At that time, as music first began to be recorded, the Guardia Nueva (New Wave) featured tango that was less improvisatory, worked with notated music, and more dance structure.

Tango Argentina’s musical story will also pay tribute to Carlos Gardel, a singer who popularized tango music in the 1920s and ‘30s. “He was the Frank Sinatra of tango,” De Fazio says. “He was a huge star. Everybody was listening to his music on the radio. Tango became more romantic.”

The Golden Age of Tango was the 1940s. It became well-accepted socially. “Everybody was doing tango,” Dan says. The music was quicker, and the dance had more velocity. “You have to be chill to do it well,” De Fazio says. (“It was ‘happy’ tango,” Dan says.) In the ‘40s, a time of the Big Band in America, the tango orchestras became larger and were associated with different political parties. “There was one popular tango orchestra associated with the Peronistas, another with workers, and yet another was considered ‘high class,’” De Fazio says.

During the time of Argentina’s military dictatorship, 1976-1983, tango was once again forbidden. “It was also that way during COVID,” De Fazio says. During lockdowns in Los Angeles and Buenos Aires, the milongas (tango gatherings) went underground. There would be hundreds of people dancing at secret parties, Dan says. “It never stopped.” Dan and De Fazio avoided these gatherings, but continued to teach on Zoom, and later began to offer lessons in person, wearing masks.

“One of our students is a rocket scientist. He spends so much time in his mind, he was looking for a physical connection with his wife,” De Fazio says. “We also teach a young video game professional,” Dan says. “She’s the world champion of the game Counterstrike. If I were to generalize, I would say that people are drawn to tango when they have done something completely different in their lives, and they are looking for a physical connection to others in a way they haven’t experienced before.”

Dan was starting a tango teaching career after earning a dance degree from University of California-Los Angeles and spending years in the wings as a little girl watching her mother perform. “I’m 5’8” and in 4-inch heels ... people say I was too tall to ever find a partner,” she says. “One day I attended a workshop lead by Guillermo and his brother, and after five minutes, he says to me, ‘You’re going to be my partner.’”

He is 6’5” in socks. “I noticed right away that she had strong legs and booty,” he says. “That’s very important! In tango, the woman has to work in high heels and is often leaning way, way back. She has to be flexible but needs the support from her strong booty.”

As a duo, the real-life couple have performed in South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Known as GD Tango, they have also appeared at La Casa del Tango in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, and performed at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Symphony for a nationally broadcast PBS special. At 38, De Fazio says he no longer performs “like a break dancer,” but that’s OK.

“You can dance until you’re 100. When you have more experience, your dancing is more interesting. You’re more musical, more intellectual. Sometimes it’s not even the dance, it’s the pauses you take,” he says.

The music of Astor Piazzolla, which features a fusion of jazz and tango, revolutionized the form in the latter part of the 20th century. “It was faster, had more colors, more notes. It was richer,” De Fazio says. It was years before the dancers of the form caught up to the Italian composer’s quick rhythms. “In came lifts and tricks. Today there is a whole tango competition world.”

What is the future of tango? “It’s about regaining connections to other people,” says Dan.

“I like to look back at the time of my grandparents,” De Fazio says. “The man offers his hand to the woman ...” 

(1) comment

danis kelly

Beautifully written. We cannot wait to see and hear this show!

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