Ann Arbor's internationally renowned tango scene bounces back from COVID-19

Unknown to much of Ann Arbor is an internationally respected tango dancing community that's been hiding in plain sight for the past two decades.
Unknown to much of Ann Arbor is an internationally respected tango dancing community that's been hiding in plain sight for the past two decades.

In large part that's due to the creation of Michigan Argentine Tango Club (MATC) in 2001 by Ramu Pyreddy. 

Pyreddy had become interested in tango music after being gifted a compilation CD. Seeing Carlos Saura's 1998 movie "Tango" at the Michigan Theater inspired him to study tango dancing. However, taking tango lessons at Detroit-area studios and at The Ballroom Dance Club at the University of Michigan for four months just left him frustrated. He felt the tango dancing was too Americanized. 

"I went to Buenos Aires and was there for two weeks," Pyreddy recalls. "I took classes and it was rough. But I just went every day, every afternoon, every evening, every night. And I came back and I wanted to start a club."

On September 8, 2001, the MATC was born. Meeting at the Michigan Union, it started with one milonga (formal dance) a month and classes. With the help of Pyreddy's fellow dance instructor, Yelena Sinelnikova, attendance started ballooning. Along with more attendees, MATC enjoyed a growing reputation nationally and internationally. People came from all over the country and instructors came from all over the world to participate. Partly inspired by Saura's movie and the 1999-2000 Broadway revival of the musical "Tango Argentino," there was increased interest in tango in the U.S.
The November Community Milonga at Arthur Murray Ann Arbor.
"Classes started growing," Pyreddy says with a sense of pride. "Many people who are part of the scene now all over the country started in those classes. It's incredible how many of them from the group are still dancing tango." 

One of those early students was University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability lecturer Avik Basu. Basu started taking classes at the MATC in 2002 after a recommendation from an Argentinian friend. It took a little while but Basu was eventually hooked. 

"MATC was really the first university student club [in America] that was teaching Argentine tango at that level," he says. "It had its heyday, I think, for the first 10 years. And then tango became more and more popular in the States." 

By 2003 Basu had started DJing tango and teaching tango dancing. Since then he has DJed all over the world

"I think for me, DJing was primarily an avenue to dance at all these events," he says. 
The November Community Milonga at Arthur Murray Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor hosts at least a couple milongas a month. Typically a milonga will start with an hour-long dance class led by an invited instructor. After that the dancing starts with a visiting DJ, and things are usually going full tilt within an hour.

The Ann Arbor tango scene is a tight-knit community. After attending a couple events you will begin to see many familiar faces. The crowd itself is a very diverse mix of ages and nationalities. Don't be surprised if you hear Russian, Polish, Spanish, or Italian speakers out on the dance floor.

Marco Bruschtein has been hosting milongas in Ann Arbor on the third Saturday of each month since April 2008. After Sinelnikova asked Bruschtein about starting a community milonga, he helped organize Community Milonga's first event at Hathaway's Hideaway in Ann Arbor. He had only been dancing tango for a year but was already hooked after taking classes at MATC.

Part of what intrigued him is something that most tango dancers agree on. They love tango dancing because it is improvisational. As a longtime guitar player, that was very appealing to Bruschtein. 
Marco Bruschtein at the November Community Milonga.
"If you're out there dancing, it's like you're part of the orchestra," he says. "It's like you're jamming with the orchestra. You're listening to the orchestra and listening to your partner."

Alexa Lee has been tango dancing in Ann Arbor for 12 years and also loves the improvisational aspect of tango. Even though she had been trained in ballet and modern dance, she initially found learning tango very difficult.  But she grew to love tango's improvisational partner dancing.

"It's very hard to learn because it's all improvised," Lee says. "You learn a few basic techniques, but then you have to put it together yourself. And this is very hard to teach and to grasp at first. But that's also the thing that makes it really special in a way, because every dance is different and with every partner it's different. And that's the thing that keeps people coming back for more."

Basu concurs that teaching tango can be challenging. 

"A lot of people come in thinking that they can't do this," he says. "But I believe that everyone can dance and that is what excites me – finding ways to make it easier for people to dance in their own way, because in my mind tango isn't a uniform dance. So I try to find ways of teaching that allow people to learn technique, but also express their own individuality right from the beginning."
Jose Fernandez & Sofia Daly teaching at the November Community Milonga.
Basu adds, "It will take a couple of hundred times before it gets in your body. But then it'll feel amazing and be a really beautiful experience. And you'll be glad you put in the work to learn that."

Part of the beauty of the Ann Arbor tango community is its welcoming, supportive nature, which is essential when you're learning a beautiful but challenging form of dance. In addition to the milongas, there are many practicas (informal dances) and classes offered throughout the month.  Having friends over to your house to tango is also a common occurrence within the community. There's also an annual Tango Marathon, which draws hundreds of people from all over the country.

Ann Arbor can attract those crowds because of its reputation for having great dancers and a great community. During its first 10 to 15 years, the MATC was a destination for tango. Pyreddy remembers the Midwest as being a tango desert then, with the exception of Chicago. There were good tango scenes on the coasts, but if you were in the heartland Ann Arbor was the place to go.

The pandemic understandably brought tango dancing to a halt everywhere. There is no social distancing in one of the most intimate dances.

Some practicas resumed in late 2021, and classes at the MATC and with private instructors have resumed. But milongas didn't resume until a year ago, in November 2022. Since then, attendance at milongas hasn't quite returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the passion for tango and the community's reputation remains as strong as ever. And the dancers are slowly coming back in greater numbers.
Randy Fisher teaching at the October Community Milonga.
Lee thinks Ann Arbor's location and community members' dedication is key to the endurance of tango in Ann Arbor.

"A lot of people come and go because of the university," she says. "It's hard to lose people, but then we're always getting new people. So there's a certain energy that comes from that. Also we've been able to keep people like Yelena, Avik, and Marco, who have been involved in the community for a long time. They've kept a consistency and a kind of groundedness in our community that I think is really special here. They're still here teaching and organizing events."

Lee says that dedication has helped keep Ann Arbor's tango scene on the national map.

"When you mention Ann Arbor at tango events around the country, everyone knows about it," she says. "Which is funny because we're kind of a small town in the middle of nowhere. "

For further information on tango in Ann Arbor, check out:

Where do I dance tango tonight in Ann Arbor? Facebook group

Tango in Michigan Instagram page

Sophia and El Kronox's tango classes

Doug Coombe is Concentrate's managing photographer.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.