Interview with Monica Paz
As often as possible, Firehouse Tango welcomes instructor Monica Paz from Buenos Aires. She is, as Sue Dallon notes, not only beautiful, charming, warm, and wonderful but a magnificent dancer and a master teacher of milonguero style tango.
To see Monica in action, visit her website, www.tangopormilongueros.com. Click on "photos and videos" and scroll to the bottom of that section. The first video shows Monica dancing tango with Julietta Herrera and in the second, she dances a milonga with Chiche Rubetto.
Firehouse Tango (FT): Welcome, Monica, to the United States and especially to New Jersey and Firehouse Tango. We hope you had a pleasant trip from Argentina.
Monica Paz (MP): Thank you, but I didnít come directly from Argentina. Iíve been in Europe for the last month teaching tango in the Netherlands and Belgium.
FT: What was it like teaching tango there?
MP: Well, you know, my style is milonguero, but in Europe most people dance nuevo tango. Fortunately, some are interested in my style of teaching, but I would say there is more interest in milonguero tango in the U.S.
FT: Tell us how you became involved with tango.
MP: When I was a small child, my mother wanted a long playing record by Julio Iglecias. I remember going on Motherís Day with my father to a shop to buy this record, and he also bought a tango record by Julio Sosa. When we came home, my mother was very happy with the Julio Iglecias album, and my father liked to listen to Julio Sosa.
But then something went wrong with my parentsí marriage and she didnít want him in the house for a couple of weeks. That was when my father said, ďOh, Monica, please take care of my long-play because if your mother sees it, maybe she will throw it out.Ē
That was a big responsibility for me at the time. I took very good care of the record, and I listened to it a lot. My parents divorced, and then my father died while I was still a child Ė he was only 38 Ė so this record always reminded me of my father and made me feel close to him.
When I grew up, I decided to study tango. I didnít know anything about tango schools or where to go, so I chose the University of Tango because it sounded impressive. The classes were on Wednesdays and Fridays. I took my first class on a Wednesday and practiced at home on Thursday. The next day when I went back, I realized that I could not wait another five days for my next lesson, so in class I asked my partner where I could go to study tango on Saturdays. I went, and there I learned where I could go on Sundays, and on Sunday I learned where I could go on Mondays, and thatís how I filled the week. I took a tango lesson every day for two years, and the dance became a passion for me.
FT: When did you start teaching tango?
MP: After I had been studying tango for three months, or about 90 classes, several of my teachers asked me to help their beginners. Thatís when I began unconsciously teaching. At the same time my nephew, who was then six years old, was going to a school where they were planning a party, and the teacher wanted all the children to dance tango. My nephew told his teacher that I could do that, so she wanted to talk to me. I went to the school and teacher begged me to work with the children, so I taught them tango. On the day of the party they did their performance and everybody loved it. In front of all the people the director of the school said to me, ďMonica, thank you so much for your work, and I believe if you have enough time, we would like to take you on as a teacher of tango.Ē
That was my next experience as a teacher, working with very young children at the school. After a while, the city offered me a teaching position at the Cultural Center, and I was soon teaching classes there for adults as well as children. That was a very nice experience. I remember one little couple, they were brothers ages 8 and 10, and they were selected to perform at the Colon Theater, the most important in all of Argentina. I was proud of them and very excited. I remember trying to take pictures of them while they danced, but I cried all the way through their performance.
My youngest student was a little girl who was five years old when her mother came to the Cultural Center to ask me to let her daughter take my class. She said, ďI know sheís too young, but she listens to tango all the time and sheís starting to move by herself.Ē The little girl was there with her, so I said, ďOK, she can take this class today, and then weíll decide.Ē Well, she was wonderful, an immediate hit with the children, and everyone wanted to dance with her. They made her their class mascot.
FT: Whatís the main difference between teaching children and teaching adults?
MP: For me, teaching children is nicer in a way because children are so much less complicated. They immediately tell me what they like, what they want, and what they donít want. The trouble with them is their parents. If I didnít have to deal with parents, I would love to teach children all the time. Parents always want their children to be beautiful dancers, but not every child is going to be one. Their expectations are not always realistic, and that is very hard on the children. Sometimes I feel unhappy being in the middle of that situation.
Also, the children have always been very responsible with their classes, with rehearsals, and with presentations, but their parents donít always take these things seriously. At one performance, a young boy was in tears because his partner wasnít there, she never showed up, so he couldnít dance. Later, when I asked the girlís parents why she hadnít come, they said they had forgotten all about it.
Another problem is that for our tango shows I want the children to wear regular clothes, but sometimes parents want their girls to dress like show tango dancers. You know, the tango was originally associated with prostitution, and when people think of show tango, they think of fishnet stockings and revealing costumes. I donít feel comfortable when parents dress their children this way, and neither do the children, so this is another way in which parents can make my life difficult.
When it comes to adults, there is a big difference between Argentine tango students and students in the rest of the world. After teaching groups in Argentina for a while, I had to realize that my efforts were not going anywhere. The students didnít take the dance seriously. At the Cultural Center, the politicians who run it are more concerned with numbers, with having large classes, than they are in the quality of the teaching. Many of the students who come treat it more as a social event than a learning experience. They arenít really interested in tango, so they donít practice and they donít pay attention.
But in Europe and the United States, adults are a pleasure to teach because they are interested and motivated. They want to learn, and theyíre willing to practice. If I didnít need the money, I would exclusively teach foreign people. When I teach foreigners in Argentina or when I travel as I am doing now, my students respect me, they expect to learn something, they are ready to pay attention, and they have a feeling of making an investment in their dancing. It is absolutely a pleasure to teach them. That is the huge difference between Argentine students, who donít value their lessons, and people from other parts of the world.
FT: When you travel, such as during your recent trip to Europe or now when youíre in New Jersey, do you work with beginner students, more advanced students, or both?
MP: Yes, both.
FT: What is your favorite tango music for listening and dancing?
MP: Well, my dancing style is milonguero, and I like to dance with different partners. To tell you the truth, each leader has a different way to dance. Good leaders can dance to several different orchestras, but no one dances well to all orchestras. For example, Pugliese is very particular, and I donít like to dance Pugliese with just anyone, even when their level of dancing is very, very high. I only dance Pugliese with three partners. It has to do with the way they fit. So depending on the orchestra, I have different partners.
I like to dance Biagi, Di Sarli, Pugliese, Enrique Rodriguez, Canaro, and many more. I cannot say I have a favorite because it depends on my partner and also on my state of being. I will say that I like to choose my partners. I like to dance with the right person. In Buenos Aires, a man doesnít ask a woman to dance by coming over to her table. We do it all with eye contact. I am a follower, so I sit and look at the leader I want to dance with. If he notices me looking at him, and if he wants to dance with me, he gives me a sign, like a gesture with his head. If someone is looking at me and I donít want to dance with him, I donít make eye contact at all. Thatís enough for him to understand that Iím not interested.
But in the United States, itís different! In New York they come right over to your table and take your hand. Oh, well!
FT: What would you most like people to know about your style of teaching and your style of dance?
MP: At first when I began teaching tango, I was taking many kinds of lessons and learning many styles of dance. I started teaching open style, but I soon realized that it was more practical for people to learn milonguero tango because open style requires more room and milonguero works better on a crowded dance floor. I explain to my students that milonguero is about closeness, feeling, and a connection with your partner as well as a connection with the music. If you have the right connection as a follower, your body moves and the steps happen. You donít study steps or prearranged patterns of steps. It is more spontaneous. Thatís the main difference between open style and milonguero.
Itís very interesting. If you have not experienced milonguero style, this type of tango is difficult to understand. I would also say that it is more difficult to learn and more difficult to teach. Itís not easy to understand the meaning of milonguero. But if you give me a chance to show you how it works and how it feels, I guarantee that you will not want to dance any other style any more. This happens with my students all the time.
It happened to me in the beginning, too. Nobody told me about the different styles of tango, but I learned them by taking lessons from many different teachers. It is easy for students to feel confused when they take a lesson from an open style teacher and then take a lesson from me. They are ready to learn steps, but I am not teaching them steps. They tell me that what I am saying is contrary to what they learned from their other teacher, and I tell them that yes, itís different because itís a different technique. It is really a different dance. I ask them to try it, to approach tango without worrying about specific steps and to focus instead on feeling the music and the connection to their partner. When they try it, they really like it.
The problem with milonguero is that if you look at people dancing this way, not as a dancer but as a casual observer, what you see on the floor is not very impressive. You donít see kicks and big steps. You basically see people walking. Itís not for show, or to show off. Itís not for an audience. Itís for the couple who is dancing. Itís easy for the casual observer to assume that if the steps are more complicated, it means the dancers are better or more advanced, but that simply isnít true.
The other day I was talking with a group of followers about which style they prefer, and they all agreed that it is more comfortable to walk in a nice embrace to the timing of the music than to do many, many steps. We talked about how followers feel when their leaders are doing many steps. They said that it feels uncomfortable to be used as an instrument for an effect. That is very different from the feeling you have when you are dancing together as a couple with a connection.
This is the kind of information I like to transmit to my students. But not everyone is ready to hear this. Some students are so concerned with learning steps that my descriptions make no sense to them. In situations like that, I just wait. In many cases months or even years later, the students come back and say, ďNow I understand what you meant.Ē
FT: Youíre obviously patient and your students have an excellent instructor. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. Weíll leave you with a final question. Is your husband your favorite partner?
MP: My husband, who is a doctor, doesnít dance tango at all! He took two lessons and decided it wasnít for him. So while he is my favorite partner in life, it isnít on the dance floor!