Culture

The Argentine Tango Foundation Battles Parkinson’s On The Dance Floor

Tango class Buenos Aires

Leaning back to get a wide view shot on her cell phone, Verónica Alegre filmed the afternoon milonga. She smiled—watching several minutes of steps back and forth around the room while her students moved in closer to one another, sometimes cheek to cheek, emulating the famous tango embrace. Her students were swaying to the rhythm, lifting up a foot at the end of a beat, and stepping in coordination underneath the mix of soft blue and red light from the chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

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It was a Tuesday afternoon at Fundación Tango Argentino during Alegre’s dance therapy class for people with Parkinson’s disease. They were learning how to dance tango at the unassuming studio between the Palermo and Chacarita neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Around a dozen older men and women attended the class each week. Some arrived alone while other arrived with their spouse, one of their adult children, or a healthcare worker. Alegre bounced from couple to couple, helping with their posture, making the right steps, and often jumping in to dance with her students to encourage them to keep dancing.

The foundation is a non-profit organization which promotes the artistic, educational, research, social, and therapeutic aspects of tango. It offers different types of tango classes, holds different events, and promotes research for the social and cultural growth of tango. Alegre’s dance therapy class is one aspect of the foundation that has been in place since 2008, when the foundation opened.

“Actually, it seems to me important that they develop their movement in classes, in workshops and in groups, where they can experiment with their movement,” said Alegre. “They can coordinate together to experiment with their movements so as to erase any limits they might have in their minds.”

Alegre, 42, has been dancing tango for 22 years, learning from several different teachers in milongas, which is the name for the clubs where people go to dance tango. She enjoyed all of her classes and teachers, and never took a class without purpose. She’s been teaching tango classes since the late 1990’s, and after living in Ireland from 2005 to 2008, she returned to Buenos Aires inspired to learn about and offer dance therapy classes. She recognized that people with Parkinson’s were still able to walk, work, and so on, but she wanted to create the space for them to stay active through the art of tango.

After warming up with breathing exercises and stretches in the neck, back, and legs, the dancing portion of the class began. They started with small steps and moved into long, quick steps. Orchestral tango music blared throughout the room, and sometimes Alegre would sing along under her breath the tunes from composers like Carlos di Sarli, Francisco Fiorentino, Aníbal Troilo, Edgardo Donato, and others. Music would play for 30 seconds to a minute, but after Alegre taught a new step, they would dance for an entire song. By the end of the song, they had forgotten their back pains, trembling hands, or often the difficulty to get to a seat at the beginning of class.

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The class could be for anyone; regardless of if they have Parkinson’s or another medical problem, but typically, everyone who attends the class has Parkinson’s apart from an occasional spouse or healthcare worker. Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder which develops at different rates. You can live with it for many years. Parkinson’s stops production of dopamine, a chemical released by neurons that sends signals to other nerve cells. Without it, even the most basic of body movements become increasingly difficult to regulate.

Some of the symptoms include trembling in hands, arms, legs, jaw, and face, stiffness, slowness of movement, imbalance, and poor posture. Despite these physical barriers, similar to the mental barriers some of the students may face, a doctor told Alegre that people with Parkinson’s do not technically have restrictions on what they can do. With that advice, she learned about dance therapy by practicing to teach the class and adapted what she already knew from teaching tango for several years.

One of the students, Jorge Rodriguez, 78, started taking the classes in April of this year. Over one year ago, he started to notice his hands were trembling uncontrollably to the point where he could not sign his own signature. He didn’t know why, but speculated that it was from working in an office at a computer for many years. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but the medication he takes for the disease makes him tired all the time.

Despite this, he wakes up every morning at 7 am, eats breakfast, and walks 5 kilometers a day to stay active and prevent the symptoms from worsening. A friend told him about Alegre’s class, and he decided to try it out even though he has always considered himself a horrible dancer, with “stiff legs, like a tree,” he described.

Alegre assures him this isn’t true; he just has to keep practicing. Rodriguez says, so far, he finds her to be a very accessible professor, dedicated to her work.

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Before the dancing even begins, the group slowly arrives—Argentine style—drinking a coffee and chatting. On the 76th birthday of Luis Tikal, who sometimes has to arrive by ambulance with a healthcare worker to dance with him, everyone sat around the wooden tables passing time before class started. Someone brought a big layered cake, sliced into a dozen pieces to celebrate.

Norma Palermo, 80, has been going to Alegre’s classes for over two years. Her favorite part, and the most important for her, is being able to socialize with people.

“Some of the people, particularly the men, can’t walk well when they come to class, but when the music turns on, they dance without even thinking or realizing it,” said Palermo. The music motivates and moves her.

Tango as an art form has a long, complicated history in Argentina. As far back as 1880, tango began to appear in Argentina. The dance and the music evolved throughout the 20th century, but its influences are from African, European, and Indigenous people. Tango was originally danced in brothels and often between two men. Later, it spread to Paris, where it started to be considered a dance of the high-class, especially since the people of Paris were more open to the risqué moves of tango, like the embrace and closeness of bodies.

Pablo Ziegler, an Argentine composer based in Buenos Aires and New York City, described tango like this: “the shape of tango is made up of moments: a swift sudden entrance, a sweep of the feet, an advance, a retreat, a halt and a start, a displacement of hips, and a freeze, as if hanging in the air.” Ziegler, now 71 years old, is one of the composers responsible for the pioneering of nuevo tango, which developed in the 1980s, alongside Astor Piazzolla, another famous Argentine composer. Nuevo tango incorporates new dance elements and genres, breaking the traditional rules of tango, like the embrace.

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There was a huge gap in the evolution of tango from the 1960s until nuevo tango started to develop. Just after the turn of the 21st century in 2001, Argentina experienced a major economic crisis. Tango started to come back around that time because people felt that tango would help to rediscover their national identity, as described by Edgardo Dieleke, a professor at Universidad de San Andrés in Buenos Aires with a PhD in literature from Princeton University.

While much of tango is an art form—music and dance—tango in its history had always been a social part of the life in Argentina. Now, tango and milongas can often feel exclusive and overspecialized if you don’t already know how to dance. That is what Damien Boezas de la Torres, 39, wanted to change when he opened Fundación Tango Argentino in 2008. He wanted to link tango to the social aspect of it, not only the artistic part.

Alegre started teaching the dance therapy class in 2008, the same year the foundation opened. The idea arose outside of another milonga in the city when Torres and Alegre were taking a smoke break—neither of whom smokes now. She had recently returned from Ireland, inspired to learn about dance therapy and offer this class. Torres told her he had the place where she could do it.

Eight years later, the class which was dreamed up and made a reality by mere chance was about to begin once more. Alegre went through a few messages in her phone announcing to the class that someone’s latest family member was just born. She also gave the prognosis on her assistant’s cold (since she had missed the week before but had returned), and that another person would be back in class next week. Updates were given on anybody who wasn’t there, and if there was a first-timer, they were introduced to the class right away.

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The past two years, Alegre wakes up at 6:30 am. By the time she arrives to the afternoon class at 5 pm, she’s depleted. But when class is over, she feels much better—similar to the way the students feel.

“I arrive very exhausted, and when I finish, I finish better,” she said. “They give me something very strong that, after I finish, I have lots of energy.”

Me enchufan,” she added. Basically, her students recharge her battery. They give her energy. They give her life again.

Article by Sydney Pereira