Pei Pei Tan is the new Member Relations Specialist at Oxygen Tango and a recent Tango Challenge graduate. She is incredibly passionate about everything Tango, caring about people and community- building, and newly addicted to asymmetrical clothing and stilettos. After just six months of dancing Tango, she can attest to the transformative power and spiritual dimension of Tango, as well as her surprising love for greeting people.
What drew you to Tango initially, and how did you discover Oxygen?
That’s a really good question. All my life I really loved social dancing, ballroom dancing. I had zero dance experience, never took ballet as a child, no dance experience, but I loved the costumes. My favorite movie was Strictly Ballroom. I was so miserable in law school; I wanted to drop out of law school and become a professional ballroom dancer; that’s how delusional I was. My ballroom experience had only been about a half dozen group classes at various community colleges over the years.
I just remember one time I was dancing with one of my law school classmates, and I felt so beautiful, and I was striving to get that feeling again.
So finally, I decided in July 2013, no more group classes for me, I’m going to go take private lessons. I went to a dance studio in Santa Monica, it wasn’t Oxygen, and I signed up for private lessons in salsa, because salsa is everywhere in LA. I thought that if I wanted to go dancing, it would have to be salsa. I was struggling with salsa, so, my instructor, Forrest Walsh, said to me: would you like to learn Argentine Tango? I think he felt that salsa was not clicking with me, and I said: sure, why not?
After that, I just kept asking for Tango. It was bye-bye salsa. I never danced another step of salsa. Every single week, I was like Tango, Tango, Tango.
I went to buy shoes at World Tone, picked up a flier for Oxygen, left a voicemail for Mitra, she called me back, I made it in time for the early bird Tango Challenge, and signed up for the Oxygen Tango Challenge sight unseen. I had never taken a class there.
I showed up on a Sunday practica that Guillaume was hosting, the Ice Cream practica, and I was scared shitless. I didn’t know if I was over dressed or underdressed. I met Scott Haller and Mitra, and she gave me a glass of wine. I saw her dancing with Yukiko, and met so many people like Reza, David Lampson, Guillaume Chaslot, Gary Love, Alex Daza, and Pez Firoozman. I started going to Tango classes six days a week, August to December. I still had my private lesson with Forrest and came to Oxygen the remaining five days a week. I watched tango movies, and read everything that Mitra wrote. I found poema, fell into the Comme Il Faut, and have nine pairs of Tango shoes. No one needs nine pairs of Tango shoes.
It was totally by chance that I found Tango. I’m forever grateful to Forrest, and to World Tone for handing me the flier; everything just came together. Work-wise, it was the perfect timing. Meant to be.
What surprised you about Tango?
I’m Chinese, and the Chinese culture is not very touchy-feely, and we were not encouraged to express our emotions, and certainly did not get hugs from our parents, hardly any compliments, so there is not a lot of tactile, physical touching. While I know that I’ve always loved hugging people, when I tell my friends about Tango and how closely held we are, it’s surprising to me that I love close embrace so much. It’s so clichéd, the connection and the nonverbal communication, the touchins, and it’s so thrilling.
I didn’t go into Tango wanting to hug people; I’m kind of antisocial; I like to knit, run, swim… these are all very solo events. But with Tango, you’re really putting yourself out there, if you put your heart and soul into it. It’s very surprising that I’m totally ok with it.
People say, I could never do that, be so close to people who I don’t know… are these strangers… do you know them? And once I danced with Fabienne, and honestly fell in love with her… there is so much coming from her, and it is not male-female… after we parted it was the same yummy feeling as dancing with a guy, which was very surprising to me.
What challenges do you face in Tango and what is it about Tango that keeps you here?
What keeps me here – I’m interning at Oxygen Tango, and so I’m very involved with the community. I’m very happy that I’m still going to Oxygen five days a week. I have a new role as Member Relations Specialist.
It’s definitely the people [who keep me here] -- Mitra, Stefan, Sharna, Fabienne, and Isaac, and my teammates. Half of our team has signed up to be continued to be involved at the school. But, also, I have to have Tango in my life, and I have to dance, and there’s no better place to do it than Oxygen, and I’m so happy.
What’s challenging about Tango… it’s thrilling to make that connection, but it’s also scary. I used to be fraught with doubts about what I was wearing, who would dance with me, will no one dance with me, will I know people, and that has quieted a lot. I am an introvert, and now I am thrust into this new role of welcoming people and greeting people, and I love just staying at home reading and knitting. I don’t go out a lot, I’m usually yawning by 9pm, so milongas are challenging for me. My stamina is a challenge for me.
What are the different kinds of relationships you have experienced with Tango friends and partners?
I love LA tango women. I think they are top-notch quality women, generous, intelligent, supportive, non-flaky, and everything I would want a girlfriend to be. And then my relationship with my Challenge teammates was so awesome; we were so lucky to find each other, it was very special.
My best friend from my Challenge team is Gary Love, the Sunday Practica host now. We just really bonded as friends, and we were supportive of each other, and my relationship was extra special with Gary. Sharna and Isaac live just three blocks away from me, and we have started having dinner, and burgers and foot massages and dim sum. Relationships come and go, they ebb and wane, and I’m just going to eat it up now. And so I’m grateful to have these friends.
We hear people say said that Tango changed their life. Has Tango transformed your life in any way? How has Tango brought happiness and meaning to your life?
When I started running marathons, everyone said running a marathon is life-changing, and I would disagree, it never changed my life. Or people say buying a Vitamix blender will change your life. And I found it all false. Nothing will change your life, not a trip to Australia, not a self-help book, whatever. But Tango in my life…. you know, I’m going to be inarticulate… it’s hard to articulate how it has changed my life. I stopped running. And I don’t miss it. But I cannot imagine not having Tango in my life, ever.
It’s been a really awesome thing for me, but I also think it’s because Oxygen is so special. I’ve heard it so many times, from so many people, and in the beginning I tried not to buy into it, I didn’t want to drink the Koolaid. But I know I’m so lucky, the way they teach and emphasize feeling and connection over this fancy step and embellishment. I don’t know if people realize how special it is, or how much knowledge, history, and experience the teachers really have and try to pass through to us. It’s a very special place. I’ve heard from people, that when they go elsewhere, they appreciate Oxygen even more. Mitra is so happy, positive, so full of love, and having that in your life, even if just 1/100th off on you, it’s great.
You’d have to ask my work colleagues if I’m different. Oh, I do dress differently. I wear asymmetrical clothing and dangling earrings and halter tops. It always used to be corduroy pants and comfortable shoes. It’s definitely changed the way clothes feel on me. I think that’s superficial, but I don’t think Sharna would say that’s superficial—changing the way you dress. I feel like the emotional and creative part of me is getting tapped into; I was an economics major and went to law school and I’ve always been very brainy, and it’s helping me to just dance and relax. It’s hard for me to turn off the “what next?” button and “am I doing it right?” and “is my side step too small”? So I’m just tapping into the feeling part of me.
Some people say there is a spiritual dimension to Tango – is there? Have you experienced that?
Definitely. I’ve definitely read about it, and I experienced my version of it on my first day of Oxygen. I didn’t know where the step began and ended, and I knew I could just dance and follow, and I wasn’t thinking at all.
The moment when I realized I wasn’t thinking, I would literally stumble. I don’t know if it was spiritual; it was definitely non-analytical. And I just loved dancing with this guy. It was just walking and pausing, and I felt that wonderful. It was such a gift. I definitely think it is spiritual, the coming together of two souls that are willing to open up, and let you come in, and glimpse and share something really beautiful. It’s fun to laugh and play around with your partner, too. I don’t want to make it seem like if you’re not having that spiritual “I don’t know who’s leading and who’s following” experience, then it’s subpar; I think dancing and playing around and giggling with your partner is also really, really fun.
Some people say Tango is a little bit sexy. Do you agree or disagree?
I have to admit I’ve read a lot of articles about this, and a great article by Sharna Fabiano. Sensual just means “of the senses” yet when you say sensual, people are going to think sex. Yes, it can be very sexy, and for the non-tango dancer, they see the gaze between the man and the woman, and the performance tango, and it’s all about sex. So my non tango dancer friends might be worried that I’m falling into this ‘sex thing’. I’m sure some people would say it’s sexy, in my backless top and form-fitting skirt, with the hot shoes, but it’s such a superficial definition of it. I can see what people are saying, but to me it’s just so much more.
What has the Oxygen Tango community brought to your life?
It has brought so much. It’s such a special place, and the Oxygen milongas are very special. At first I thought I loved Oxygen milongas merely because it’s my home, and it’s not a stressful thing because I’m familiar with the floor space and the parking, but I’ve heard from so many people that the Oxygen milongas are very special in terms of feeling and connection and loving Tango. Community is such an over-used word.
I am very familiar with community, because I have my running family, my knitting family, my swimming family, my work family, and in LA it’s so hard to connect and meet up, and there are six different cars converging on one place to have dinner. It’s not like New York, or Portland, or Taiwan, where public transport is so easy. But the Oxygen community is very real.
I help out at the front desk with registration, and I love seeing these people come into class. I’m so happy to shake their hands and welcome them. It’s really nice. Who knew I’d love greeting people? It’s been very special to me.
How do you envision the school changing and growing in the future? What do we need to make those visions happen?
I totally see it moving from a two co-founder centric philosophy and model, to definitely something more community-based. Mitra and Stefan used to host all the practicas, run the milonga, teach, dj, administrate, and now there is a milonga committee of three people, a practica committee, and member relations with four people manning registration and day to day classes. This new structure will get the school running, without the fitful starts and stops based on two people’s schedules. This way the school will start running smoothly, and start running itself. We all have our skills and talents.
My strength is not the big picture, policy thing. I’m a really good soldier; I will do it right and on time, if you tell me to do something.
I see the movement toward more people having a huge stake and invested interest, so that the school can grow and be sustainable. I’m really honored to be a part of the Oxygen community. I love it.
Pei Pei’s basic tango stats:
Dancing since… mid-July, intensely since September 7th, 2013
Favorite orchestra… Di Sarli
Lead/follow/both? … Follow primarily; trying to learn to lead a little bit
One word description of your cabeceo… Thrilling! (for me)… a shot through my body with the eyes…
Holly Darling spent three years immersing herself in the LA Tango scene and learning at the Oxygen Tango School before relocating to Auckland, New Zealand, where she is currently dancing Tango socially at night and working on her dissertation by day. She is a graduate student studying education policy and programs and former high school teacher.