Mall milonga

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July 26, 2004 // UPDATED 2:42 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Anna Matykowski and sue rich
Anna Matykowski and sue rich

Tango society performs, teaches weekly in front of YWCA

The Tango Society of Minnesota is adding a little spice to the Downtown lunch-hour. On Thursdays, noon-1 p.m. (and sometimes a little later), Latin beats lure both professional dancers and pedestrians onto the sidewalk-cum-outdoor dance floor on 11th Street & Nicollet Mall. Some passersby -- up to 20 at a time, but sometimes just a few -- stand on the periphery, mesmerized by the whirl of a fast-twirling skirt. Others accept the outstretched hand of an experienced dancer and learn to take their first Argentine tango steps.

The group's leader, Lois Donnay, decided the square in front of the YWCA, 1130 Nicollet Mall, provided just the right atmosphere and visibility for a small, weekly milonga -- an Argentine dance party. Two-story pines shade the small plaza and a cool, metal teal bench tucked beneath their needles invites dancers to rest and pedestrians to sit and watch -- and also provides a spot for a small stereo to belt out tango-able tunes.

While the sight of red-and-black or brightly clad dancers strutting and clicking their heels on the sidewalk might strike some as odd, Donnay explained: "Argentine tango has a long tradition of outside dancing, having originated as a street dance. Dancers would tango in the dirt streets, and the skilled dancer could draw designs with the follower's feet."

Although the Nicollet Mall sidewalk is smooth compared to those of other streets, its pebbly, aggregate surface occasionally trips a turning sole. Co-instructor Daniel Larson is quick to point this out as a neophyte catches her rubber Teva sandal while attempting her first figure-eight pivot.

Clad in a black fedora, black pants and red T-shirt, Larson, who is known among the tango crowd as "El Toro" ("The Bull"), has a debonair-yet-casual demeanor. After women have watched him dip, twirl and promenade with another tango dancer -- either an established association member or a like-minded tenderfoot -- he is quick to offer a hand onto the "dance-floor."

While the music and the experienced dancers' agile moves satisfied the curiosity of more hesitant passersby on a warm July afternoon, Luz Trianna-Echeverria, 46, was game. Not long after learning to walk, tango-style ("Your feet caress the floor," Larson explained with slow, sweeping strides) the outgoing redhead was cutting figure-eights, twisting and turning under Larson's lead.

She looked so good it was hard to believe this was Trianna-Echeverria's first tango lesson. But not only was it the Colombian's first twirl with this Latin street-people's dance, it was her first time in Minneapolis: Trianna-Echeverria had just moved to St. Cloud from California after accepting a position as a Spanish teacher at the University of Minnesota-St. Cloud and was out to see the state's sights.

"It is wonderful that American people are getting to know this, getting to know Latin culture," an exhilarated Trianna-Echevierriasaid before she and her mother, who'd been waiting patiently on the teal bench, headed off for more sightseeing.

Showing off

Donnay's troupe hopes more people will give tango a try. While Donnay, who started line-dancing 10 years ago, realizes that an average pedestrian might not possess enough coordination to immediately replicate some of the more intricate foot patterns, she expresses enthusiasm about any and all effort from passing pedestrians. And as the Thursday ritual, which started mid-July, becomes more established, some pedestrians may grow more daring upon their third or fourth visit.

Niko Salgado, 21, heads up a ballroom dance society at the Univeristy of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Although he appreciated how the association was introducing tango to more "youngsters" like him, he was content to remain on the sidelines. However, should someone ask him to dance, he would accept, he said, simply "out of courtesy."

Even if gathering passersby don't jump in, the dancers are happy to put on a show. "Our intention is not so much to provide a performance, but rather a place for our membership to come and dance, enjoy the outdoors, share their passion with the general public and maybe show off their abilities," Donnay said.

Regardless of their role in the milonga, Donnay insists that everyone has the capacity to appreciate tango. According to Donnay, the dance has a universal appeal because human passion and tango are one and the same: "Tango has been called a beautiful obsession, the dance of four legs, one heart. Tango is like love...you know when it starts, but you never know how it will end."

Larson, "El Toro," takes a similar view. When instructing, he makes it clear that the dance is about a relationship between the partners, most often a man and a woman, and that the dance provides "a place where they can work things out."

Exactly how things are "worked out" on the dance-floor remains a bit of a mystery as Larson instructs his newest 30-something student to keep an eye on his chest so she can see which move will come next, or at least its general direction. Lest being led not fall so well upon feminist ears, Larson (who is married to an accomplished tango dancer) points out "Women love tango because no matter what -- it's the man's fault."

In her tight fire engine red shirt and black short skirt, 50-ish Elliot Park resident Trish Vader laughed at the truth of the statement.

"Another thing about this dance," Vader said, toying with red, peridot and amber baubles dangling from her wrist, "is that age, maturity, is a virtue."

She didn't have the time or inclination to elaborate, as she slipped off her high heels and put on soft, moccasin-like shoes for her walk home.

Arts Y

It is no mistake that the milonga takes place in front of the Downtown YWCA. "Several of the Y's missions are to advance multicultural issues and to foster the arts," Donnay said.

Karen Sterk, the Director of Health and Fitness at the Downtown YWCA said the Y has been steadily developing its arts programming, including recent art exhibits (see "A Place on the Table," page 23) and that this was, in part, why the Y gave the tango association the endorsement it needed to get permission for the weekly milonga from the Nicollet Mall Advisory Board.

Donnay hopes to grow the dances and nurture this relationship with the YWCA so that she can offer future lessons inside this facility, after the leaves begin to turn and the street dance must come indoors.

Milongas are planned to continue Thursdays, noon-1 p.m. through August. For more information about Argentine tango opportunities in Minnesota, check out www.mntango.org.