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Berlin's tango scene struggles to stay on its feet

Blane Bachelor
July 31, 2020

The Argentine dance known for sultry intimacy is now seen by some as something quite different: a high-risk activity. In Berlin, a global tango hotspot, dancers are trying to keep their passion alive during the pandemic.

Couples dance tango at Nou Tango in Berlin
Image: Ishka Michocka

On most pre-pandemic weekends, Mona Isabelle Schröter would be thinking ahead to Sundays at Tangoloft. Starting mid-afternoon, the 450-square-meter space (4,843 square feet), a former mechanical engineering factory in Berlin's Wedding neighborhood, would come alive as one of the largest "milongas," or tango gatherings, in Berlin — and perhaps Europe.

"Everything would be illuminated with thousands of candles, there would be music and flowers everywhere," Schröter, the Tangoloft co-owner, explained during an informal tour in late May. "We would have up to 500 people every weekend from all over the world coming here to dance tango."

These days, however, dancing at Tangoloft and many other tango venues across Berlin has virtually stopped. Germany has cautiously reopened since the first wave of the coronavirus hit in spring, but for Berlin cultural institutions like tango clubs, the future remains uncertain — and it could jeopardize what many claim is the world's tango capital outside of Buenos Aires.

"Berlin is a really important melting pot for tango in the world," says Thomas Rieser, owner of Nou Tango, another prominent venue (top photo, in pre-pandemic times). "Corona has had an impact on all tango communities in the world. But when Berlin goes down, it's going to be devastating. Five years ahead, we can dance again, but if we don't have the venues, the dancers, the DJs, all of that, it will be really difficult to pick up again."

On June 3, tango dancers gathered outside the Berlin chancellery to raise awareness of their industry's struggles
On June 3, tango dancers danced outside the Berlin chancellery to raise awareness of their industry's strugglesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Berlin's tango scene in crisis

The haunting melodies of the sultry dance were born in working-class neighborhoods of Buenos Aires at the turn of the 19th century. Tango eventually caught on in European cities like Paris, London, and Berlin, where it sparked widespread interest at the Horizonte Festival in 1982.

Insiders estimate the capital's tango scene now spans tens of thousands of mostly amateur enthusiasts, as well as professional teachers, dancers, and musicians. Pre-pandemic, multiple milongas and classes ran every night of the week, and prominent events like the Contemporary Tango Festival drew hundreds of dancers from all over the world.

People fill Berlin's central train station and dance tango
In 2019, the Contemporary Tango Festival saw many dancers turn out to tango at Berlin's central train station. It's 2020 events have been canceled.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Gentsch

The last few months have been an eerie echo of that legacy, with shuttered schools, canceled milongas, out-of-work musicians and teachers scrambling to cobble together whatever income they can, and frustrated dancers — especially singles without established dance partners, who make up a significant portion of Berlin's tango community.

Scan a group's social media pages, and you're almost guaranteed to see heated commentary about singles being left out, as well as arguments over varying risk perceptions and precautions.

"People are so desperate to come back to dance," says Carlos Libedinsky, a two-time Grammy-nominated musician from Buenos Aires now based in Berlin. "Half the people are more careful, willing to wear masks, and half the people are thinking there's no risk at all."

Signs of progress, signs of loss

Some encouraging recent developments may offer reason to celebrate. Berlin's city government has continued to update rules that pertain to tango schools, such as increasing the number of couples allowed in group lessons. Public tango events are starting back up again, too, albeit with strict regulations.

The fassade of Nou Tango in Berlin
Nou Tango has put out a call for donations on its website in order to help the business stay afloatImage: Rene Löffler

In addition, single dancers are now permitted to dance with another "fixed" partner outside of their household, someone who will become their regular partner. "Which is exactly what we were waiting for, as all the single dancers have not had dance partners until now," Rieser explains. 

But many enthusiasts continue to mourn tango's pre-pandemic atmosphere. After all, the essence of a milonga is dancing with several partners into the wee hours: fleeting, intimate interactions sharing breath, movements, and music with people you may never even speak to.

"You just look into the eyes of someone else and give a sort of nod — it's a Spanish word, 'cabaceo' — and there's an agreement, just in the eyes, to share a dance," says Berlin-based filmmaker Andreas Rochholl, who is co-artistic director of the Contemporary Tango Festival

And yet, during a global viral pandemic, what makes tango so iconic and intoxicating — entwined bodies, cheek-to-cheek contact — also makes it dangerous. With an unknown timetable for an effective vaccine and its administration, it's impossible to say when — or if — some people will be comfortable gathering in groups like milongas again.

"The spirit of tango Argentino will survive, of course," Rochholl says. "But in the moment, we've lost this wild freedom to just dance. We've lost this trust. For me, this is the saddest impact."

Farewell to an iconic venue

Many in Berlin's tango community are also mourning another loss: Tangoloft's closure on July 31 after 10 years at its Wedding location. Facing a nearly double rent increase in August 2020, Schröter and her business partner, Tangoloft founder Henning Klose, decided to take a sabbatical while they search for a new permanent space. 

Mona Schröter and Henning Klose of Tangoloft
Schröter and Klose, Tangoloft's co-owners, decided to close the location due to Berlin's rising rentsImage: Mona Isabelle Schröter

"On the one hand, I think it's the best time to close, because of corona, because it's so much responsibility every month just to pay the rent," says Schröter, who is also an event planner and flower artist. "But my heart is crying. We've invested so much in that venue, and everything was running so well, and then something like corona happens." 

As of now, Tangoloft is the only major tango venue in Berlin to shut its doors; it's hard to say if others will face a similar fate.

Yet, even in these challenging times, tango devotees try to stay hopeful for a brighter future. "I can't wait to go dancing again," Schröter says. "We'll dance until the sunrise. It will be like the Roaring Twenties — you'll just want to go and go and not stop."

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