INTERVIEW WITH FRAN CHESLEIGH
Firehouse Tango was special even before the arrival of Fran Chesleigh, but since he became our primary instructor, Firehouse Tango classes and milonga have become more enjoyable than ever. The following interview was conducted by CJ Puotinen as background information for a forthcoming magazine article.
Firehouse Tango (FT): Tell us about yourself.
Fran Chesleigh (FC): I am a tango dancer, but in my day job I'm a commercial writer, mostly in advertising, sales, promotion, and training, both text and videos. I'm also a musician. I work with a group called Flamenco Latino, dancing mambo and playing conga and bongo drums. I also play flamenco guitar. In addition, a few years ago, I sang and played guitar with a blues band. And for about 17 years, I sang doo-wop with a group called the Revelations.
When I became involved in dancing, mambo was my first interest. I danced at the New York Palladium, which was a famous nightclub in the 40's and 50's, and also at Roseland for foxtrot, waltz and things like that. In 1959, I became an instructor for the Dale chain and later for the Fred Astaire organization. I stopped teaching in 1963, and didn't really dance again until 1985.
FT: That's a long time!
FC: Well, life intervened. I became interested in doing other things. I got married in 1966, had two sons, started raising a family, and eventually got divorced. Then I married again in 1981. Neither of these women danced, so it was after my separation from my second wife that I got back into dancing.
FT: How did that happen?
FC: A friend of mine had taken some lessons at a ballroom dance studio in Manhattan. She knew I had been a dancer, and she kept urging me to try it again. I finally agreed to take one lesson, and it was as though I had never left. I got back into dancing with a vengeance. Eventually, I started teaching at that studio, and in 1992, I left to help open Dance Manhattan with Teddy Kern and Elena Iannucci.
FT: And somewhere in the middle of all this, you discovered tango.
FC: That's right. I was fortunate enough to see the now famous show Tango Argentino 1986. The studio I was then affiliated with hired the stars of the show, legendary performers like Juan Carlos Copes, to give lessons to the instructors who were interested, so we could all learn this amazing new dance. Of course, what they taught us was stage Tango - long, involved groups of choreographed figures that we memorized and danced without rhyme or reason, regardless of the music or the space available. We all tried our best, although none of us really knew what we were doing. And we certainly didn't think of Argentine tango as a social dance.
FT: How did you discover social tango?
FC: In 1990 or so, a young man named Daniel Trenner arrived from a long stay in Buenos Aires, and came to work for our studio. He announced to us know-it-alls that we were dancing tango all wrong, that tango was a social dance, and it looked nothing like what we were doing. Daniel proposed to teach us the right way to tango; but for the most part, most of us didn't take him seriously. The truth, of course, was that Daniel really did know something we didn't. Daniel went on to be a highly respected teacher of social dance, and without reservation I credit him with bringing social tango to the East Coast, if not the entire United States.
Daniel very quickly became the nexus of everything going on in New York in tango. Without him, I don't know where Argentine tango in America would be today. Daniel had insights into tango that nobody else had, certainly nobody here on the East Coast. Daniel taught for about a year at Stepping Out. Then, he and his new partner Rebecca Shulman started teaching at one of the ballroom studios in Manhattan. Their program quickly became the one to take, if you were looking for the right way to do social tango.
Meanwhile, in 1993 I had started an Argentine tango program at Dance Manhattan. I was teaching the mostly choreographic material I had learned from Copes and the other dancers from the Tango Argentino show, because that was all I knew how to do. I had also started taking lessons with a very nice couple named Danel and Maria, in order to be able to teach my students more than I knew. I remember my dance partner, Patricia Altman, whom I was teaching at the time, saying, "I can't imagine ever actually doing this on a dance floor!" I felt the same way.
So here I was with this ramshackle program at Dance Manhattan. We learned that Danny and Rebecca were looking for a new location, and we thought (prophetically, it turns out) that it would be a great idea to invite them over to Dance Manhattan. Since then, through the efforts of Daniel and Rebecca, Dance Manhattan has developed what I think most people agree is the very best tango program anywhere, outside of Argentina.
FT: Do you teach tango anywhere besides Dance Manhattan?
FC: Yes, I am the dance director for Stardust Dance Productions. We run dance weekends four or five times a year in the Catskills. And I am also privileged to be one of the two teachers at the Argentine Consulate in New York City, where I work with Alicia Cruzado.
FT: Have you studied the tango in Argentina?
FC: Not yet. I've always been too busy, working. But I have managed to study extensively over the years with most of the fine teachers who have come here from Argentina. So I'm not too far behind, I hope.
FT: How did you come to Firehouse Tango in Paramus?
FC: I met Joe and Sue Dallon at a Stardust Weekend, where they took some lessons with me, later following up with more lessons at Dance Manhattan. At that time, Carlos and Rosa were starting a tango milonga at the firehouse in Paramus, and, of course, Joe and Sue were there every Thursday night. When Carlos and Rosa left for Paris, Joe and Sue decided to keep the milonga going, and they asked if I would be interested in teaching a class or two. I said I would, and it became a regular thing. Since then, Firehouse Tango has really mushroomed, and we're all having a great time.
FT: And it's a fun group.
FC: Oh yes, it a wonderful group! The people are from lots of diverse backgrounds, and they get together because they really love to dance, they love the opportunity to learn more about tango, they seem to genuinely like each other, and the result is down-home and sociable. It's so much fun to come here on Thursdays. I look forward to not only teaching the classes, but just hanging out with the group and interacting with the people. It's like a breath of fresh air. It's funny, I was born in Brooklyn, but I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island. There's a kind of ambience that you get that doesn't really happen in the city, of people bonding together. Whenever I'm at the Firehouse, I reminded of the way Merrick, Long Island, was when I was a kid. It's a lovely group of nice people, getting together to have a good time with each other. And new faces are always welcome.
FT: Do you have any problems with the way tango is taught today?
FC: The perennial difficulty with tango, in fact, with ballroom dancing in general, is that certain students are so impressed by movements which have been designed for the stage, they decide this is the kind of material they want to learn in order to become dance floor exhibitionists. They believe, I'm sure, that such ostentatious display will make them appear to be better dancers (which, of course, it won't). And even though any good teacher knows that this kind of thing is inappropriate behavior on the dance floor, regrettably, there are always some teachers (I use the word advisedly here) who are willing to teach this kind of stuff to anyone who wants it. So you end up with a few rotten apples, who are busy bumping into everyone in sight, while attempting to do things that have no business on the social dance floor at all.
Back in the 90's, there was a tremendous effort on the part of people like Daniel Trenner, and anyone who believed in the art of social tango, to make sure it was taught and danced as a social dance, rather than a stage performance imposed on the ballroom. As a result of Danny's influence here in the USA, the best teachers of this dance today focus their students on learning how to dance socially. If someone wants to learn to perform for the stage, this is, of course, a different ballgame. But stage dancing has no place in the social context.
FT: What trends do you see in Argentine tango?
FC: There is a very abbreviated style of tango, which is called variously milonguero style, apillado style, confiteria style, or close-embrace style. It's a highly efficient way of dancing tango that some people adopt because it's comfortable, it's very pretty, and it doesn't take ten years to learn. I don't know about the rest of the world, but in the New York area, lots of people are using this way of dancing tango as a regular, uncomplicated way to enjoy themselves. I haven't taught it yet at Firehouse Tango, but I probably will at some point.
FT: How about changes in tango music?
FC: Just as the social dance is evolving, so is the music. Tango music reached a peak of popularity during what some call its Epocha de Oro or Golden Age, which was approximately the period between the late 1930s and the late 1940s. The music during this era was for the most part very melodic and regular in its rhythm. As teachers, we often use this kind of music for beginners, who respond well to a regular, danceable rhythm. After the Golden Age, the music became more elaborate and often less regular in its rhythm. With composers like Pugliese, DiSarli, and eventually, of course, Astor Piazzolla, it went off in an entirely new direction. Whenever you see a major tango show, the music gravitates toward this romanticized, lyrical expression, which is often more rhapsodic and doesn't retain a strict rhythm.
Furthermore, there's a new wave of tango music that is popular among young people by innovative groups like the Gotan Project (which is a play on the word tango). Their music actually sounds like rock and roll to me, but the kids as well as many adults like to dance tango to it. There are other groups, too, that are trying to do new things in the context of tango. I think tango music will definitely evolve into something that no one can predict.
FT: Do you think Argentine tango is growing?
FC: Yes, I think the dance is definitely becoming more and more popular around the world. Most dances these days are losing popularity. But tango is growing. I think the idea of doing a romantic couples dance is very appealing to people all over the world. As a result, more people-even those who have no dance background at all -- are becoming interested in tango as the quintessential romantic experience. This is an unprecedented phenomenon, especially because it occurs at a time when dancing is no longer a popular mode of social interaction. From everything I can determine, Argentine tango is growing faster than any of the other dances.
FT: Last question. Do you have a philosophy about tango, or are there any final thoughts you like to share?
FC: Tango is a singular experience. Unless you do it, you can't possibly understand what it means. It's certainly true to say that we can't feel it the way Argentines can. It's their music, their dance, their expression. But tango offers a thoroughly unique way of using your body, a unique way of interacting with another person on a dance floor to some of the most glorious music ever written, and it opens a new world of social interaction that most people have never experienced before. It's as much fun as anything I can imagine doing.
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