Wednesday, 10 June 2020

My incredible shrinking world

First they closed the borders, so that it is you and the others again: Germany (low infection numbers = safe) vs. Italy (high infection numbers = dangerous). Or: Germany (strict measures until present day) vs. Switzerland (contact restrictions stopped). Europe has ceased to exist and all of a sudden its countries are separate again. 

Even worse: Germany consists of quite independent federal states and because most of the corona measures are decided on a "Bundesland"-basis, it really matters where exactly you live. You start comparing your situation with those of the other provinces: I live in the Saarland. As our regional prime minister is particularly interested in showing resoluteness, the measures here are stricter than in the neighbouring Rhineland-Palatinat. All these months, I was really envious of the relative freedom they had. They could sit on a bench in a park. We were not allowed to. In Hesse, they even were permitted to visit friends. Here, this was strictly forbidden for a long time.

Then recently, the government decided that lockdowns will be made stricter again, when there are more than 50 (in Saarland 35) infections per 100.000 inhabitants over 7 days in one immediate region. So now you start comparing the numbers in the different cities of your "Bundesland" and hope that your city’s won't go up. The "Regionalverband Saarbrücken" looks very good at the moment. Our average infection rate over the last 7 days is 1,22. Neunkirchen is more critical - they’ve got 6,83 daily infections per 100.000 inhabitants. So I hope it will not seep over. (Note how I am obsessing over such low numbers! We’re far away from the 30, have not reached this number since mid April, but I am already worried, because every single registered infection now endangers the lifting of restrictions and therefore my livelihood.)

Also, I almost never leave the flat. I have no fear of the virus, but there are only very few reasons for me to go out: there is no work, no travel, no money to spend in restaurants or with other activities, no inclination to go into stores having to wear a mask... I go out once a week for grocery shopping, occasionally to run and in the last two weeks, we’ve again taken up privates.  But our studio is in the same house. 

I spend my entire days in front of the computer screen. When I am not working on our digital versions of Caminar Abrazados, I am trying to coordinate other dance schools in our region, writing protest-letters to ministries and watching the numbers. Day in, day out observing the numbers on John Hopkins, on the site of the RKI, the WHO and some others. This is my new hobby.

In past years, the whole world seemed small, because I felt connected all over it. I travelled all year, made friends in so many different countries. The distances between us became irrelevant. Now my world is small and the others are far, far away.

Even the distance to my non-tango friends in the same city has become huge, feels unbreachable. Their lives have changed considerably less as they went on working normally all these months and have hobbies that were not prohibited. They meet colleagues, go out, earn their living. I am reduced to receiving charity and trying to sell digital products, that (I guess) most buy out of pity. They are successful university teachers or computer specialists. I am the looser artist who’d better stuck to her profession as a psychologist.

My world has collapsed. It is now only one room, one chair with the same view every hour of the day.

One day, this might disappear too. 

Note: Yes, I know that it should be "My incredibly shrinking world". But those who know me might have guessed the pop-culture reference.

Wednesday, 18 March 2020

I'm so worried

I know that as a tango teacher and organiser, I should now be confident and send out positive vibes and believe me: this post will also come. Last afternoon, Detlef, Thorsten and I made plans on how to survive the complete stop of our work. I will therefore have to snap out of my temporal paralysis. But before I soldier on, I have the urge to write about my worries. If you only want to read positive things, please skip this post.
On Sunday, we had our last workshop for an indefinite time and I started to cry during our final words to the group. It was very embarrassing.
The weekend had already been difficult because of cancellations and because of the fact that we could not correct by dancing with the students, but only by "show & tell". There were also no changes of partner, every couple kept their distance to the others and I felt that although we tried our best, our teaching quality suffered.
But this was not the reason why I cried.
I wept because I could not greet and see off any of our students with the usual hug and because we do not know when we'll meet anyone again. Yes, I cannot deny my distress caused by the financial insecurity, but the relational aspects of this crisis are far more troubling. Teaching and organising tango has been my life since 2001 and it has now come to an end. In these 19 years, we've helped build an international community of dancers and friends: the encuentro scene, our students, our teacher training graduates... We've traveled so much and I feel close to many people around the globe of whom I am now cut off. For how long? Who knows!
I am also extremely unhappy because we have only taken up teaching in our hometown last year and are in the process of building a very fine thing. We’ve got super motivated and talented participants as well as assistants and helpers but now had to stop working with them in the middle of two great courses. The same goes for the intensive bootcamp. We had just finished the first module with a brilliant group and now the rest is suspended. It is so frustrating!
And social media did not help in the last weeks. Usually I enjoy communicating via Facebook, exchanging information, casually sharing a bit of your lives or just being silly. But now Facebook just upset me.
So many interactions and posts were and still are being ruled by fear and distrust and the social pressure on teachers and organisers these past weeks was immense. Anyone who held a milonga or taught a class was accused of jeopardising the public well-fare, independent of the individual circumstances. People seemed to be giving all the responsibility to organisers and teachers instead of believing in the sensible behaviour of others. Names of infected persons were openly circulated in Facebook-posts and organisers of past tango-events connected to corona-incidents were being dissed without knowing all facts. All of a sudden, everybody was an expert and tried to regulate the lives of others. My life! As if the regulations and measures by the governments as well as the media were not already draining all my energy and disturbing my sleep! As if I was not aware of the situation myself! As if I was not spending most of my days reading the sites of the WHO, the RKI and the John Hopkins institute! It has now gotten a bit better and people are talking about ways of helping organisers and teachers, but this feels a bit weird after being scared into immobility.
As a psychologist and person, I find all that very worrying. It reminds me of the AIDS panic and its impact on society in the 80s.
That's not good!
Because this tango community will not only suffer from illness caused by a virus. It will also be harmed by how we interact with each other. What do you think will happen when not only all tango activities are suspended over a long period, but tangueros continue behaving in hurtful and often irrational ways? Sure, many dedicated dancers are counting the days until they can go to the next encuentro or marathon. But do you really think, that things will just resume, where they were left off? I am not so convinced. 
This is what I worry about:
  • Many not (yet) being infected with the tango-virus will disappear and take on other activities. That concerns in particular newbies whom we and others have lovingly groomed into becoming tangueros. Without these dancers, tango schools will have to close and the communities (already deprived of advanced dancers by the international events) shrink.
  • Organisers who do not only have to cancel their events, but also refund payments will make losses because of the obligations towards venue, artists and other parties. People thus affected might not continue organising events - which is already a high-risk/little-income activity. (Ok, let's be honest: less encuentros or marathons would actually not be such a bad thing, but not at the expense of motivated individuals.)
  • Anyone living from tango has to start seeking alternative sources of income less volatile to catastrophes and difficult social interactions. Not everyone will survive on online videos. I am planning to visit the local “Arbeitsamt” (public agency of work) to check my options of returning to psychology or another line of work in the social sector. Let's see how many other tango teachers go back to being computer specialists, engineers or nurses.
  • Anyone being upset by the public discussion might turn away from tango or at least from certain persons. Sensitive people already stopped using Facebook because of this. Who wants to interact with a community that denounces infected persons and puts such a pressure on individuals?
  • People for whom tango is the only social activity and the only form of physical contact with others will feel isolated and lonely. This goes in particular for everyone living alone and for many older people. Depression rates will go up amongst those groups. Yes, people die from the virus. But they also die from depression. I am incredibly worried about that!
I know that I paint a very dramatic picture but please do not dismiss my words as the ramblings of a professional pessimist. I beg you: Let’s all behave sensibly and carefully. Dancing and hugs have an immensely positive impact on life-quality, well-being and our health. Please do not destroy these resources with fear and distrust. When everything has calmed down, you still want to be able to take your friends into the arms.
And on another note:

Friday, 28 February 2020

Tango Queens Congress 2020 - an organiser's perspective

In early 2019, when I accepted the invitation to a new Facebook group, the Tango Queens, I would never have imagined how much it would become a part of my life.

I actually considered rejecting the invite because I could not relate to the name. Although I use the term in class (e.g."walk like a queen"), it somehow sounded girly and I mostly expected make-up or shoe recommendations. Yes, there are such threads, but many more serious topics were and still are being discussed in a very engaging manner. This group was indeed needed!

Very soon, the idea of a congress for women was born and I found myself in the organising team gathered by Monika Jurkiewicz, a polish dancer living in London. Monika is the founder of the Facebook group and therefore it was natural that she took the lead. Most of us did not even know each other personally and as we were spread far apart, our team met over the course of an entire year via Skype to prepare the intricate details of this ambitious project. The other team members were: 
  • Juliana Thutlwa, a German tango organiser and psychologist, who would handle the website and research about "tango visuals and imagery". Juliana was the only one whom I knew personally.
  • Carmen Cordiviola, an Argentinian powerhouse and coach living in Berlin, who'd be responsible for the feminist perspective.
  • Evren Jülide Koç, a Turkish dancer and yoga teacher, who would become our liaison to the South-Eastern hemisphere.
  • I, Melina as the local representative and co-ordinator as we choose my home town Saarbrücken as location.
As anticipated, the logistical preparations for the first TQC would become quite extensive. Although I have been organising tango events since 2001, this was an entirely new category. We needed a venue in which 3-4 different activities could be conducted at the same time, a round-the-clock catering, a main hall with a podium and complex technical setup to allow for panel discussions, lectures, big workshops and milongas. That all went far beyond the scope of a simple Encuentro, Festivalito or workshop-weekend. I was nevertheless lucky to have an experienced local team as well as the support of the location owners and we even got a small grant by the city of Saarbrücken. So all went well on the home front! 

As for the programme, our team put together a multifaceted choice of activities:
  • 5 plenary sessions for all women present: The opening activity focussing on "The Embrace" (lead by myself), a lecture "Woman in red" by Veronica Toumanova, a panel discussion about "Tango visuals and imagery" with most of the organising team members plus the psychoanalyst Rachel Seidel and the photographer Viktoria Fedirko and two sessions "Feminist Tango" lead by Carmen.
  • 7 body workshops about "Empowered Follower", "Leading for Women" and Yoga. The teachers were Mila Vigdorova & Corina "Abraztango", Veronika Toumanova, Imme Oldenburg & Ramona Steckermeier, Evren and myself.
  • A workshop about "Organisation of tango events" by me, Melina.
  • A lecture by Theresa Faus about "Women in Tango History".
  • An interesting choice of small-group discussions about "Leader and Follower roles & stereotypes", "Getting more leaders into classes & events", "Discrimination – being in the minority in Tango", "Sex & Dating in Tango", "Clothing & Gender – Stereotypical expression & expectation", "Tango & Ageing", "Sex & Abuse – the dark side of Tango", "Competition among women – how can we be more supportive?", "International Tango – cultural differences in dancing", "Women as teachers, performers, mentors" and "Women as DJs". All sessions were lead by the organising team members reinforced by Rachel Seidel.
  • And last not least there were 2 milongas with the DJs Gabriela Ioana Manea and myself.

Because I was so busy with the logistics and leading so many group activities, I unfortunately had very little opportunity to sit in as a mere participant. I regretted that because my original motivation was to bond and engage. Now I spent far too much time running between the different rooms and facilities. I would definitely take on less responsibility at another occasion. But this is not uncommon when organising a new event: it took years until I had developed a form of organisation that allows me to actually dance during our encuentros. 

This is why the following observations are more from an organiser's and teacher's perspective. Those who were "only" participating had the chance to develop a more emotional connection to the whole process compared to someone who is on the clock. I nevertheless would like to share some impressions:

I found it astonishing how harmonically and constructively 120 women of different age-groups, cultures, sexual orientations and tango backgrounds interacted. There were differing opinions and not everyone felt a deep "sisterhood", but the general benevolence created a very special atmosphere that was different from every other tango event. I have been leading Ladies-Only-Seminars for many years. They have a similar feel, but the sheer number of congress participants had a very uplifting and empowering effect that is impossible to create in a smaller group. It also allowed us to experience two milongas in which men were not missed. I hope it convinced everyone present, that we need never complain about too few male leaders with such a potential of lovely dancers right at hand!

As a teacher, I am super proud that so many of my students and numerous of my teacher-training-graduates took part in the congress, either as participants or as helpers, teachers and speakers. Over the past few years, many of them have not only worked on their leading skills, but have also participated in building a network of women in tango. From their personal feedback I can tell, that their motivations and connections have been reinforced through their experiences at the congress.

Before and after the congress, there were quite a few critical voices, in particular when it came to excluding men. I understand the fears beneath some of the critics' accusations, but can assure them that the "safe space" created by the congress was at no time abused for bad-mouthing men or for resorting into mere complaining. Most of the time, we did not even think about men. Discussions and talks were either referring to one's owns feelings or a more general perspective trying to understand the female situation in tango. We also did not burn bras or hold other rituals that are connected to hard-core-feminism. Actually during one of the plenary activities, only very few women raised their hands when being asked if they understand themselves as feminists. I feel that what matters aren't labels but the wish to stand on your own feet and be self-determined without having to put the blame on "the men". The red thread in all discussions, workshops and talks was that we've all got it in us to change our situation to the better!

But besides all these empowering words and the fact that women can be as good leaders as men (in all fields) we cannot deny that there is still a technological bias that makes many women dependant on men. We discussed this when it came to women as djs. There are still quite a few female djs with very little technical know-how who rely on their "guys" being present. A limited technological focus can also be an advantage because it makes women concentrate on what is important: creating a flow and playing nice music instead of obsessing about nerdy sound-quality-details. But for our congress, it also meant that we could not do without male help. After a quite desperate search, a good friend of mine volunteered to travel from afar and be there over the whole weekend as our sound-person. I have to admit: My logistical team anyway included my sweetheart who - as a non dancer - acts as the chief logistics-person at all our Tangokombinat events. Having such an experienced help in the background allowed me to actually conduct the content-sessions I was responsible for. Our technical advisor on the other hand actually was "in the room" during some of the sessions because of the complex technical setup. He did super in being invisible and I don't think that any woman was disturbed by his presence, but still: more radical voices could argue that a female congress should not have to rely on male help. 

I am not one of them because I do believe that we anyway have to cooperation to make our tango world better. Independence is important, but no one lives in a vacuum. This is why I also think that there should be future events that include male dancers. Most likely not the next one and maybe not under this label, but ultimately some important discussions should not be held without this significant minority in tango.

Out of personal reasons, I will not be participating in the organisation of the next Tango Queens congress. I hope to be there as a participant or - if the new team decides so - as a teacher/speaker and I will certainly follow the development with geat interest. 2020 was just the beginning of something wonderful and necessary. I am looking forward to what comes next!

Information about location and staff: 
The first Tango Queens Congress took place on January 24-26, 2020 in Saarbrücken Germany. The venues were the Acting and Arts school, the space of photographer Jean Laffitau and the Tangokombinat studio. All local helpers were Tangokombinat members or students of the acting school who were co-ordinated by Thorsten Janes. I would like to mention Estrella Ina in particular who produced the great wall-tattoos. The sound-specialist was Gregor Killing, dj and dedicated tanguero. I would like to thank all of them. Without you, it would not have been possible!

Photos in this post:
Photos 1-3 are by me and show three different setups of the location: Milonga (with tables), opening activity (no tables, but space to move on the floor) and plenary discussion/lecture (in this case lecture by Veronica).
Photos 4 + 5 are by Viktoria Fedirko and show me leading the dj-discussion and teaching an empowered followers class. 
Photo 6 shows the wall-tattoo and is by myself.