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Live from Argentina: Acclaimed tango guitarists to play in Northampton for dancers and music lovers alike

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By STEVE PFARRER
Staff Writer

If you go to a milonga, or social dance, to do tango dancing in Buenos Aires, you’ll likely be doing it to live music.

In western Massachusetts? No so much.

Now, though, Western Mass Tango, which has hosted tango lessons and dances in the region for years using recorded music, has scored something of a coup, booking two renowned Argentinian tango guitarists to play a June 2 dance/concert in Northampton.

Patricio “Pato” Crom, left, and Juan Villarreal will bring their Argentinian tango music to the Valley June 2 for a dance/concert at the Northampton Center for the Arts. Photo by Nicolas Foong

Villarreal Crom, the duo of Juan Villarreal and Patricio “Pato” Crom, has been touring the world for years since first forming in Buenos Aires in 2010. The two have most recently played in Europe, and this weekend they’ve opened an extended tour in the U.S.

The two guitarists — Crom plays lead, and Villarreal plays rhythm and also sings — include many traditional tango songs in their repertoire, says Laura Grandi, who leads lessons and workshops for Western Mass Tango, which rehearses weekly at First Churches in Northampton.

Ilker Ozbelli and Amanda Iglesias practice dancing a Western Mass Tango class in Northampton. The style of tango taught here is based on improvisation. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

But their guitar work is also “very much their own,” says Grandi, while conjuring the spirit and sensibility of tango in a way that can be hard to capture while dancing to recorded music.

“They are wonderful musicians … we’re very excited to bring them here,” she said during a recent dance class at First Churches.

“Tango has spread throughout the world, reaching every corner of the planet where two people are willing to immerse themselves in the mystery of the embrace,” the guitarists write on their website. “For us, the duo is a way of life.”

For arranging the June 2 gig, it helped that Grandi grew up in Buenos Aires herself and has studied tango since she was about 16. She says she got to know both Villarreal and Crom through tango circles in Buenos Aires and was able to use those connections to bring them to Northampton during their U.S. tour.

Henry Lappen, a longtime tango dancer and a board member of Western Mass Tango, says this will be the first time the group has brought live music to one of its events.

There are few tango musicians in the region, he says, and dancers who want to move to live music typically have to go to Boston or New York (or on occasion Hartford, Connecticut).

Lappen says he was actually a little uncertain at first about how effective two guitars could be in creating a strong backdrop for tango. Western Mass Tango members, for instance, have been dancing to recorded orchestral music, with strings, woodwinds and piano, some of it dating back to the mid 20th century.

Laura Grandi leads a weekly class with Western Mass Tango at First Churches in Northampton. The Argentinian native has been teaching tango in the area since late 2022. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

“But then I watched a couple of videos of [Villarreal and Crom] and I said ‘These guys are incredible,’” he said.

In fact, says Grandi, the guitar was central to the early development of tango, which originated in the late 19th century, primarily in the border region of Argentina and Uruguay, before spreading to cities such as Buenos Aires.

The June 2 dance and concert, which takes place beginning at 2 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts, will start with a “Musicality for Dancers” class, followed by about three-and-a-half hours of a music and dance; the music itself can be enjoyed by non-dancers, Lappen said.

‘She’s really revived us’

The live music event comes as Western Mass Tango has regrouped from the pandemic, which shut down any kind of dancing for months, and the loss of a couple of experienced teachers who left the area.

Lappen says some previous members of Western Mass Tango have not returned, quite possibly because of lingering concerns about COVID, especially given the close contact that’s central to the dance form.

But things began to pick up, Lappen says, after Grandi moved to the area in November 2022 and started leading weekly classes.

“Laura is a fantastic and really enthusiastic teacher who has really revived us,” said Lappen, who lives in Amherst.

Grandi has taught tango in many settings over the years. She moved to New York City earlier in 2022 before settling in Northampton in the fall. She now teaches tango at Smith College, and in Somerville and in Brattleboro, in addition to the Northampton classes.

She also offers private lessons and instruction in Pilates and other body conditioning, which she says has gained popularity among many modern tango dancers as a means to improve their performances.

She says she explored a number of dance styles when she was growing up in Buenos Aires before devoting herself to tango beginning in the late 1990s.

Henry Lappen dances with Robert Vining during a Westen Mass Tango class in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

“Tango is a social dance,” said Grandi. “It is about communicating with your partner, not with words but with physical contact.”

In an age dominated by social media and cell phones, Grandi added, “This is a different way to connect … you are having a dialogue but without words.”

At a recent lesson at First Churches, about 20 people paired off to dance to recorded orchestral music, with Grandi at times demonstrating some steps and also circling the floor to watch the dancers and offer advice, or taking a turn with one of them; she radiated energy, with frequent smiles and laughs and encouragement.

“Yes, that’s good,” she said to one couple.

She and Lappen note that a number of tango styles have evolved over the years; Western Mass Tango practices Argentine Tango, which is based almost entirely on improvisation, with one dancer taking the lead and his or her partner, the follower, responding to those movements.

“You take your cues from the music and your partner,” said Lappen.

“We learn some basic steps and movements, but after that dancers develop their own movements,” said Grandi.

And though in traditional tango men are the lead dancers, in the Northampton sessions women can take on that role, and women will sometimes dance with women, and men with men.

One dancer, who gave just her first name, Maggie, said she’s been active in many styles of dance but has found tango to have almost “a spiritual quality” in its reliance on non-verbal communication.

“I came for the dance, and I stayed because you really have to listen” to each other’s bodies, she said.

Describing herself as an “ardent feminist,” Maggie also said she at first questioned tango’s history of having men always take the lead role in dancing. But the Northampton sessions under Grandi, she added, “are much more open. I like that. And Laura is a great teacher.”

Dias Baz and Lucinda Callie, who were visiting Northampton, popped into the lesson after seeing a small sign about it taped outside the church. They chatted with Grandi and did a little dancing before stepping to the side.

Both said they’d had a few experiences dancing tango in school when they were growing up but were otherwise not that familiar with it. But Baz, who lives in Somerville, was interested to hear about Grandi’s Sunday classes there and added the information to his cell phone.

And at the end of one part of the lesson, Lappen handed out flyers to everyone about the June 2 dance/concert. “Tell everyone you know, spread the word, and let’s have a big crowd for this,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected].

Source: ValleyAdvocate.com