Tango in a time of pandemic – September 2020

September 10, 2020 § Leave a comment

In May of this year I wrote a short piece about the current pandemic and its effect on tango and the local scene. That was two months after the “official” onset of the disease and I had assumed that we were about to turn a corner. Obviously, I was mistaken and the situation has continued to worsen throughout the country. (The numbers are increasing so quickly that it would be pointless to post them but, for those interested, daily figures for infections and deaths around the world can be found here: Johns Hopkins University Covid19 Dashboard).

New York, after being the epicenter of the disease, has managed to contain the virus and is heading toward some form of renewed normalcy, but we are still limited in what we can do publicly and many businesses remain closed. In spite of the complaints of business owners, there has been little sign on the part of local and state government to relax the current restrictions. Restaurants and bars are serving again but patrons are seated outdoors—there is no indoor dining. Gyms are beginning to reopen, with restrictions in place, but all forms of public entertainment are on hold. Theaters, both live theater and movie houses, remain shuttered, although some are broadcasting online. These are half measures, attempts to fend off financial ruin, but how successful they will be remains to be seen; home viewing is no substitute for the collective experience of the large screen or the excitement of live theater or opera. Musical recitals and concerts are also off limits. Some of the museums have begun to reopen, but are using timed admissions to limit the number of visitors inside at any given time. Sports arenas are closed to all but virtual fans. It is not business as usual but it is something.

Because of the widespread loss of income, several businesses, restaurants and bars primarily but gyms as well, are suing the state for the continuing closures and there have been dire predictions about the fate of the entire restaurant industry. Forbes recently reported that 64% of the restaurant industry could be gone for good across the state by 2021 (Forbes article on restaurant closures). Statewide approximately 250,000 jobs in the restaurant industry have been lost. There are some 27,000 restaurants in New York City alone.

Where is tango in all this? Nowhere, really. Given its nature, it’s hard to see how it can resume until it is safe for the public to again gather in indoor spaces. There has been some attempt to pick up the slack through the use of “virtual” encounters: workshops, classes, and seminars conducted on Zoom or YouTube. It’s unclear how successful these have been. Although the attempts to sustain interest in the dance and keep one’s livelihood going are laudable, I am not personally drawn to online teaching using virtual platforms. Those with sufficient space at home can practice alone, of course, or engage in some form of physical exercise to stay in shape, but these are poor substitutes for partner dancing or an in-person workshop. We are human animals after all, we thrive on physical contact. On a more personal note, with the closure of the milongas, I feel less drawn to write about the dance that has become such an integral part of my life. After all, the issues and challenges that once mattered are no longer present. What is left are memories and the music and YouTube videos of performers and performances. Vicarious pleasures. Without active physical involvement, these are no longer inspirational tools and motivators but expressions of nostalgia for what was and longing for what might be.

When we will emerge from our newly restrictive life is anyone’s guess; it would be pointless to speculate on when the “reopening” will occur. Will everyone feel “safe” when a vaccine becomes available? Will a vaccine become available soon enough to avoid economic disaster and psychological exhaustion? These are questions no one can answer with certainty. But at some point we will emerge from the shadows of our grief and fear into the light of a new day. What the world will look like at that point is anyone’s guess. A lot like the present, I would imagine, but with diminished expectations. As for the local tango scene, it is unlikely that it will remain the same when it does resume. We have already lost one of our largest dance studios, the home of one of the largest monthly milongas. Some organizers and teachers have left the city for less populous but safer environs. Will the community of dancers have changed? Possibly. The tango community comprises a large number of older adults and, as of now, it is unknown how, collectively, they have been affected by the virus or if they will return. I assume that the most dedicated will be back, at least among those who have not fled the city. The community itself has always been in flux; some people leave, new people arrive. But it takes time, years really, to build a community of committed, responsible dancers. And rates of attrition among newcomers are very high; few people want to devote the time and energy that the dance requires. At some point in the future, we will learn what we have become. Until then all we can do is watch and wait.

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