Hi, My Name is Amy, Sociologist, And I'm a Tango Dancer

Interview with Holly Darling

photo by John RaynesAmy Zhou is one of the first longstanding attendees of Oxygen Tango’s torture technique class, and credits the tough love behind these classes for her growth as a dancer. To support and encourage future Oxygen Tango members and students, she helps create the monthly milonga, invites world-class djs every month, and runs the Twitter feed at Oxygen Tango. You can usually find her madly practicing turns at every Tuesday practica.

What drew you to Tango initially, and how did you discover Oxygen?

I first heard about Tango from one of my TA’s in college, who was the president of the UCLA Tango Club at that time. I asked him about it, and he started sending me emails. It was right after spring break when there wasn’t much to do, so I went and people were really nice. I thought it was fun. The next day I went to the UCLA Tango Club milonga after one day of Tango!

photo by Andre AndreevI can’t recall any significant reason for starting Tango. I didn’t start because I had a deep desire to Tango. I didn’t know anything about Tango or how it looked. I just happened to hear about it, went with it, and really liked it. I don’t know what it was that I liked so much. I had just started dancing and I probably didn’t hear music for at least a year. I just remember enjoying myself, so I kept going, and didn’t stop. That was maybe six years ago.

The first time I had met Mitra and Stefan was after a performance they gave at a UCLA milonga. The first song they danced to was an artistic interpretation of Tango.

They didn’t embrace each other immediately and danced super slow, like half time to the entire song. I remember asking, who are these people?

At that point I had been dancing for about two years and thought I knew a lot about the tango world. But I had never seen anyone dance like that. It was kind of weird, but in a good way. It caught my attention. I thought they were really good.

I went to a Thursday night practica because one of my tango friends was convinced that I would get along with Mitra and Stefan. I was surprised because no one was really there! Stefan was so helpful. He had just met me and was trying to teach me this crazy gancho. They were so open with sharing their knowledge.

After I graduated from UCLA, I didn’t have a regular place to take Tango classes, so I went to Oxygen to take the technique class. It was such a humbling experience.

I walked in feeling like I already knew how to dance, but was in for a rude awakening. I really sucked. There was no sugar coating it. They’re not going to tell you your ocho is great when you’re falling over, and sometimes I think you need that to get better.

I remember going to those torture classes every week, and re-learning things I thought I knew, like how to take a side step, or do an ocho. I had to stand up and do it by myself without help. They were always very encouraging, but also honest and pushed me to work on my dancing.

What surprised you about Tango?

The first time I danced in close embrace was definitely surprising. It took a lot of adjustment to be okay with being so close with strangers.

What challenges do you face in Tango?

Dancing itself is challenging; there is always something to work on. But the social aspect of Tango can be challenging as well. I always have to brace myself for before I travel to a festival. It can be disorienting for me. I think I’m kind of an introvert, so it takes a bit more effort to get ready for something so social.

photo by Laura Mingo at MingotographyI think another challenge is forming good partnerships. Giving and receiving feedback is not easy, and having the right communication technique helps. I remember when I went through the pilot program for the Tango Journey and we were required to find a practice partner. Stefan had written a whole document about how to practice with a partner. It was so detailed -- how to tune in, being aware of your thoughts, choosing material to work on, how to give feedback, and thanking your partner.

Working on tango can be very challenging and frustrating. I think that having a positive way of communicating and giving feedback keeps the practice partnership healthy and fun.

What has the Oxygen Tango community brought to your life?

Tango has opened me up to new friendships and connections. I have met a lot of really great people in Tango that I don’t think I would have otherwise known. It’s exciting to have friends outside of my normal social network, from different backgrounds, ages, professions, and so on. I think Tango provides a space and opportunity to meet a lot of wonderful people.

What are the different kinds of relationships you have experienced with Tango friends?

I’ve developed many great friendships through tango. But I don’t think my Tango friends are necessarily different from other friendships. While we meet in Tango, I think that the process of forming a friendship is quite similar. It can be really fun to share the same hobby and be able to chat about that. But on a more fundamental level, like friends in general, we enjoy spending time together and we care and support one another.

Some people say there is a spiritual dimension to Tango – is there? Have you experienced that?

I think there are moments in the dance that are really special. It’s those times when you are really present with another person. For those twelve minutes, you’re completely focused on the human being in front of you.

I think in this society, it can be rare to put so much attention into something. We’re always working, multi-tasking, on our smart phones, thinking about one thing or another. For me, there is something special about having those moments when you’re so focused and giving a lot to each other.

How are West Coast Tango dancers special?

photo by Laura Mingo at MingotographyWe emphasize the cross. We cut the cortado. We really dig the music. ;)

How do you envision the school changing and growing in the future?

The school has grown so much over the past few years. Thinking back to my early experiences, there have been huge changes. Now there are special programs, guest teachers, and lots of students.

I think it’s unique that the school puts a lot of attention to different aspects of tango – dancing, learning the other role, music, and community organizing. There’s also a structure to help new dancers incorporate into the tango community, which is something that most of us just stumble into.

More recently, Oxygen has become a real community effort. Oxygen members contribute in different ways, such as organizing a milonga or being “tango bears” and supporting new dancers. I think the school is growing in a positive direction, and I’m exited to see what the future holds!

Amy’s basic tango stats:

Dancing since… 2008
Favorite orchestra… D’Arienzo
Lead/follow/both?... Both
One word description of your cabeceo… lighthearted