Fabienne Bongard is a bastion of tango knowledge and history, combined with a keenly creative, sensitive, and accessible style of teaching. She delights in breaking down steps into bite-size chunks, and then leading her students into magically whirling those pieces together, so that they really feel like they are dancing, all by the end of a fun-filled and lighthearted class. In this interview, she shares her perspective on learning Tango, as well as her experiences learning from some of the great milongueros, and how she hopes women will never have to sit out a tanda when the music inspires them to dance!
When did you start dancing Tango?
I started Tango via ballroom. In ’85 Tango Argentino came to Broadway, and the stars started to teach at ballroom studios. These Broadway Tango stars did tell us that the most important and difficult thing was walking, but we all wanted to do the fancy things they were doing on stage. Obviously the level of dancing was horrible as a result. There was no line of dance to speak of, and many arguments on the dance floor.
I had a a fantastic Latin and Ballroom teacher, Peter DiFalco. He instilled in me the importance of focusing on the follower, even though the focus was still mainly on choreographed moves.
I knew there must be a way to make it social, but I didn’t have the tools. A month later, Daniel Trenner arrived at the studio. He had this great method of teaching, very clear, very organized. And I thought, my wishes were answered! And with him came Rebecca, his partner.
Daniel told everyone they had to lead and follow, and as a result, everybody led, everybody followed. It immediately created a different type of dynamic – there was no finger pointing, no more “Gancho Gancho now!” We helped each other.
There were three of us on the Wednesday night practice. And he brought musicians and old Tangueros that were living in Queens. And then we started having events – every Thursday live music, which was a big event. The musicians were wonderful, classically trained, and played their own compositions, in the style of Piazzola. I think maybe some old milongueros talked to them about changing their music to be more accommodating to dancers.
The following year Rebecca and Daniel came back from Argentina and they were dancing close embrace, in the style of Tete and Maria. Seeing that style of dancing made my heart race! It was a huge influence, and I worked a lot on that style. The next time I went to Argentina, I worked on that with Tete. I have zillions of tapes of Tete and I dancing, but it’s just half of us – our legs and feet only – because the room was small and we used the zoom lens to capture everything up close. I studied the vals with him, because he loved it and I really loved the vals.
Who were your most influential teachers?
Daniel Trenner – he was consistently influential, especially since he was mostly around in New York. In Argentina, Gustavo Naviera was also a great influence. Mingo Pugliese too – he had this method of turns, along with his son, Pablo Pugliese. I was also able to study with Pepito, who was known as ‘the king of milonga’. We even did a little demo together, and at the end he told the group that we had practiced for six years and that is why we danced so well together. Talk about a gracious man!
Fabienne dancing with Nito GarciaIn Argentina, I worked a lot on the vals and milonga, because I was responsible for establishing the vals and milonga program at Dance Manhattan. So when I went to Argentina, I went to look for those people, like Manolo, Pepito, Omar Vega. That was in ’94-’95-’96.
In ’96 Brigitta came to New York, and she and I started to practice, and share some classes in close embrace. We worked so much together, and she shared with me the passion for close embrace.
How has Tango changed over time?
In 2000 it started to explode. There were more shows, there was Gavito, there was Forever Tango. There were a lot of other teachers from Argentina coming to Dance Manhattan, like Pablo Pugliese and Mariela Franganillo.
It seems that Tango goes in waves, sometimes more experimental, sometimes more athletic, the ganchos leave completely and there are other things that take over, like the colgadas and volcadas, and then the ganchos come back!
In Tango Mujer, we would get excited about a new step, and Brigitta would say, “oh I learned that ten years ago.”
Many steps were not considered correct, and now they are definitely considered correct, and have expanded. Like the single axis turn. It used to be that you could never invade the follower’s space and tilt her off her axis. My theory is that these things are born of accident, and somebody says, “Oh this was cool! Let’s repeat it!”
Sometimes steps are invented or expanded through a follower’s embellishment, that the leader sees and realizes it looks nice, and is inspired to lead that embellishment somehow.
What do you notice about Tango today?
I think in general, people are better at navigating crowded dance floors, being more civilized and respectful of the tradition. Since when I first got to LA in 2006, there has been so much progress in the music being played at milongas, which makes a huge difference in the flow of the dance. The music has become so much better. It’s exploding in its own way.
Also, the “fancy” steps are more integrated into the overall dance, more sparse, and musically driven, rather than just arbitraily thrown in. This is proof of maturation and greater expertise.
What are you exploring nowdays in Tango?
I enjoy figuring out ways to explain things better and make them more accessible to different levels and abilities.
Also, to me what a good dancer does, is to reveal a detail in the music which might have been missed. One of my primary goals is to give dancers simple tools for more musical and choreographic improvisation.
Also, I like so-called mistakes!
Learning tango can feel overwhelming and confusing. What should people learning Tango now keep in mind?
First and foremost, be patient with yourself and gracious to your partner. Then always go back to the skeleton of the dance, which is the follower’s part. It’s also important to be in the moment and to check in, and to ask the question, “how is my partner doing and feeling?” So, in essence, stay in the moment, and have a relatively short agenda.
A second important piece is to give yourself the time to watch other people dance to develop a sense of the aesthetic of the dance.
A third important point is to give yourself the time to listen to the music a lot!
Ultimately, it’s important to follow a lot – and do both roles.
How have you been instrumental in Tango education involving both roles?
It has been essential for me, all along, to be doing and teaching both roles. Back in New York, many years ago, I taught a men’s only class, where they worked on both roles – and I saw how it created more sensitive leaders.
Personally, I have experimented a lot with both roles, performing in Tango Mujer, which was incredibly valuable. To continue this here in LA, I established a women’s class which went on for a long time.
Of course at Oxygen, it’s really taking off. Right now, with the Tango Challenge, all of the Challengers have been feeling very strongly about the value of doing both roles.
They felt they would have been robbed of something crucial, if they hadn’t learned both roles. This was so gratifying, because it was something I wanted all along. I was jumping up and down when they said that!
Women leading socially is not at the point where it is widely accepted here in LA, but it’s on the verge. People have to see it, and see it done well, to be convinced. Women have the potential to become great leaders because of their experiences following different expressions of the music.
I think the convincing is going to be one woman leading another, and giving that follower a great time. And then that follower will want to learn to lead too. So it will snowball eventually.
Why do you think it is valuable for women to lead?
Dancing in Central Park with Andrea VersenyiI want women to have the choice. I want them to be sitting only because they are talking with their friends, or they are giving their feet a rest, or they are watching other dancers. But when the music speaks to them, they can get up and dance!
It would be great if, when people get up to dance, the question they ask is, “would you like to lead or follow?”
That would be great! So, where can Tango students find you these days?
Monday nights at Oxygen, and I’m very active with beginners in the Tango Challenge. I am also teaching a semi-private class on Sunday mornings in Silverlake. It is a fun class where we PLAY albeit seriously... improvise and explore different aspects of tango! On the 4th Friday of the month, I co-host Libertad with Anahid Keshishian. It's a very fun and easy-going Practi/Milonga at Atwater village.