Tango in a time of pandemic — May 2022
May 16, 2022 § Leave a comment
I was hoping I wouldn’t have to write this. It has now been two-and-a-half years since it began. Initial reports, in late 2019, were optimistic and seemed to assume that the disease would flare up and burn itself out quickly. That was wishful thinking, of course, and we are entering our third year of pandemic related uncertainty. Since inception, the virus has claimed the lives of nearly a million people in the United States, the highest per-capita death rate in the world . However, unlike early 2020, we now have several effective vaccines at our disposal, which have saved countless lives and, together with mitigation efforts, have helped prevent the unchecked spread of the disease. In the United States 578,124,631 vaccine doses have been administered. By early May of this year, a little over 66 percent of the US population had been fully vaccinated . Roughly 31 percent of the population has received a booster dose. In early 2022, additional booster shots became available for those over 50 and the immunocompromised, making for four vaccinations in total of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. Uptake for the second booster shot has been low nationwide.
It is my understanding that Moderna and Pfizer are preparing to test new vaccine formulations in late May or early June of this year . These new “bivalent” vaccines are intended to provide longer-lasting protection against variants of the covid virus. If test results are promising, the companies are planning to roll out the new formulations for the fall season. It is hoped that these new vaccines will not only be more effective but also provide protection against a greater number of virus variants, known and unknown—a broad-spectrum vaccine.
It is obvious at this point that we are all exhausted and frustrated by the continued tenacity of the virus: the disease itself and its effects, the deaths, the continuous reordering of social life, the economic damage, the psychological harm, and overall sense of frustration and fear have upended common patterns of social interaction. We are all familiar with covid’s impact on our daily lives. Locally, within the microcosm of the tango community, the situation has improved over the last two years, as has the situation in the country at large. Mask mandates were recently rescinded everywhere in the city with the exception of public tranport. Most places of business have removed the mask requirement as well, although many people continue to wear them anyway (with some justification—case count numbers have been increasing over the past month). The city, and the nation as a whole, have weathered the beta and delta variants, and we are well into the omicron mutation, which now has several subvariants, with each new mutation seemingly more contagious than the last (while the impact of the virus appears to be reduced). The reduction in harm—fewer hospitalizations, fewer deaths, milder symptoms—can be attributed to the fact that a majority of the population has been vaccinated and is, therefore, protected, while many of those who have not have developed antibodies from prior covid infections. Perhaps not an ideal situation but we are in a far better situation now than we were in early 2020.
To get back to the matter at hand though . . . Most local venues have been up and running again since mid-February 2022, some of them in new locations. These include weekly and monthly milongas and weekly practice sessions, together with the occasional one-off event. As was the case in 2021, dancers must be fully vaccinated but masks are optional. Hosts and organizers have done a very good job of checking proof of vaccination and maintaining lists (in a spreadsheet or database) of vaccinated particpants to avoid having to repeatedly check credentials when people enter the milonga. It has been a simple and effective means of promoting the safety and well-being of everyone in attendance.
That being said, we are not yet out of the woods. From personal observation, I would estimate that attendance at weekly events is down across the board from pre-pandemic levels. I haven’t counted heads so I can only estimate, but in many cases, I would say that attendance is down from 25 to 50 percent. The situation is better at the larger, monthly events, but even these are drawing smaller crowds than before. The same holds true for the local prácticas. (Obviously, attendance varies from event to event and week to week, but this seems to have been the general trend since last fall.) I have asked a number of people about this and, as expected, no one has a definitive answer. Many of those who have been absent were long-time attendees of the local milongas. It is not so much that they now attend intermittently but, rather, that they haven’t returned at all, not since 2019, at least not at any of the local events I have visited (about two to three a week).
I can only speculate as to the causes. First and foremost is fear or, perhaps, caution, which has clearly kept a number of people away for the past two years. This is not purely speculation, though, because several have stated as much, primarily among the older dancers. Their reluctance to attend is well-founded and understandable, of course, but it’s still keeping them away. Then there is the absence of tourists, both domestic and foreign. This should come as no surprise. Although tango dancers seem to travel more than other social groups to attend events in other countries, tourism in general has declined dramatically, especially from other parts of the world. Domestic tourism is rising now but is nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Prior to covid all our milongas used to have a small but noticeable and very welcome number of visitors from out of town. Although the numbers were never very large, maybe a handful of dancers from out of town at an event, it always made a difference. That has not been the case for the past two years. This is starting to change, but very slowly.
Could lack of vaccination be a factor? Before vaccinations started to become widely available, most of the local milongas were closed, along with other local events that took place in congregate settings. However, not all. Some milonga organizers continued to hold events anyway, with or without masks. When vaccinations became widely available, proof of vaccination became a requirement for attendance at New York City venues (if there were exceptions, I’m not aware of them). If tango dancers represent a subset of the community at large, it’s possible that a number of them are opposed to vaccination or simply haven’t bothered to get the covid vaccination for one reason or another. Since proof of vaccination (plus personal ID) has been a requirement for attendance at local milongas since 2021 (and some require a booster shot as well), some of the drop in attendance could be attributed to the absence of dancers who have not and will not get vaccinated. I have no idea how many people that would comprise, however.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who lives in the greater metropolitan area that prices have gone up over the past two years, especially now with the sharp rise in inflation. The economics of tango, unfortunately, are not immune to the travails of the local environment in which they operate. Between 2019 and the present, rents, including commercial rents, have gone up again (notwithstanding the amount of vacant office and commercial space in the city) and this has affected dance studios and rehearsal spaces along with everything else. Several studios have shuttered, others have managed to secure new and redesigned spaces (Stepping Out and You Should be Dancing have both relocated). All of this comes at a cost, however. So along with the return of tango in 2021-2022, came the introduction of higher prices. In some cases, entrance fees nearly doubled. Given the circumstances, the increases are understandable, organizers cannot be expected to subsidize the events they run. Still, it’s not unreasonable to assume that the price hike has had an impact on attendance, perhaps not a broad one, but for some dancers, the increased fees are a burden. When we consider that many people travel into the city from out of town (whether Westchester, New Jersey, or Long Island), we also have to include the cost of gas and tolls—both of which have gone up dramatically. A night on the town has gotten substantially more expensive. Again, I do not know if this has had a significant affect on attendance overall, but it could certainly be a contributing factor.
There has always been a certain amount of churn in the tango community—people come, people go, mostly against a steady backdrop of regular dancers who return week after week, year after year. I have no statistics to back me up but I suspect that the greatest attrition rate is among younger dancers or beginners, who may be looking toward a career, or are thinking of starting a family, or are involved in a graduate or post-graduate research program. People regularly drop out to focus on their family—they have children, get a new job, move out of the city. It’s part of the regular ebb and flow of life here, in any large city, really. Has the pandemic exacerbated this phenomenon? There were many reports in the news over the past two years of a minor exodus of people from the city to the suburbs, to upstate New York, even to other states. People left because it was safer to do so and now that they could work from home (along with the lower cost of living outside the metropolitan area), there was no real reason to stay. Some of those who migrated to less heavily congested areas of the country have returned to the city over the last six months, but some are gone for good. How many of those in the local dance community were among the emigrés? I do know that several people left the city in 2020-2021; not all of them have returned.
And then there is the matter of mortality. Personally, I do not know of anyone in the tango community who has gotten severely ill from covid or been hospitalized. Several people have been infected, of course, which is not all that surprising given the circumstances. There may have been a couple of cases of long-term illness from covid as well, but the reports have been inconclusive. It’s certainly a possibility. Be that as it may, dancers and hosts have been well organized, considerate, and disciplined when it comes to maintaining the health and safety of the tango community as a whole. In that sense we have managed to keep our own house in good order.
Where this will lead is anyone’s guess. Everyone who is reading this, at least those based in the U.S., knows that we have been experiencing an uptick in the number of reported cases, a decrease in testing, and reduced vaccination rates nationally. This has been attributed to the much greater transmissibility of the omicron variant and its several subvariants (now responsible for the majority of new cases). New York State is one of the areas of the country that is experiencing comparatively high levels of infection; the case count numbers in New York City (except for the Bronx) have moved from low to medium since April . The trend is moving in the wrong direction. On the plus side, we know that rates of vaccination among the local population are high (although it varies by age group); we also know that the virus is mutating in ways that are making it more highly transmissible. If we are lucky, the promised new vaccines will be ready by fall and will provide protection not only against current known variants but those unknown as well. Hopefully, a large enough segment of the population will have developed some degree of protection either from vaccination or infection, or both. Hopefully, breakthrough cases, when they occur, will be mild. And, if we are really lucky, the virus, however transmissible it may be, will mutate into increasingly weaker variants so that eventually we can approach it as we now do the common cold. Hopefully. Come back in the fall; we may have more information from the vaccine manufacturers by then.
1. Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. https://www.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6
4. Two days after this entry was posted, the mayor raised the threat level in New York City from medium to “high Covid alert.” See The New York Times for May 17, 2022.