The couple: Monica Caivano and Gustavo Simplis, founders of Esquina Tango, Austin’s center for tango and Latino culture.
The mission: Get you “out in the street dancing.”
The commitment: “When I moved to Austin, only three other people danced tango.”
Top 3 ways they’ll change your life:
- Plug into one of Austin’s most vibrant social scenes.
- Deepen your connection to Latino culture.
- Perfect your smoldering-passion look.
In sum: In a word association game, we’d all shout out “sexy!” to describe tango – but who knew it was so social? Experience the friendship and rich culture behind one of the world’s most passionate dances: Clamp a rose between your teeth and tango forth.
Behind the scenes
It is 6:37 p.m. and I am doing the twist. But Chubby Checker is not wailing in the background, nor am I an extra in Season 1 of Mad Men. I’m in a renovated church in East Austin, following two dance instructors with thick Argentine accents.
Every Thursday night, Esquina Tango offers beginner and intermediate tango classes, followed by a free social dance called a milonga. The table in the corner is cluttered with bottles of wine and cheese plates, toted in by dancers. Judging by the growing inventory, it’s going to be a good time. For now, we beginners are focused on learning basic steps.
“Relax!” Monica Caivano reminds us. In addition to being our instructor, she is the cofounder of Esquina Tango. “Life is serious enough. We should be able to learn and have fun at the same time.”
This is one of Caivano’s catchphrases. When we get a little too stern – when I find myself apologizing reflexively to every new partner – she will offer another: “If you can walk, you can dance. Smile!”
Gustavo Simplis, her cofounder and co-instructor, bursts into a 100-watt grin in example.
Move the couch and dance already
Back in 1996, Caivano and Simplis were just a couple of Argentine immigrants in Austin, a few displaced tangueros looking to connect with others.
After an exhaustive search of Austin, a 17-year-old Caivano found her community. It was just four persons strong, including her.
As it turned out, though, that was all it took: “We started dancing in each other’s living rooms,” Caivano recalls. A year later, she began teaching.
And that was the birth of the Austin tango community.
This was the late ‘90s. Within a few years, the tanguero population outgrew their living room carpets, spawning a Thursday dance at West Austin’s Cipollina bistro. Today, throughout Austin, you can find an event almost any night of the week.
Along the way, Caivano and Simplis partnered to teach around town. But to truly follow their passion, they needed a center.
“The dance is not only the steps,” Caivano says. “There’s a cultural context – the language, the customs. We wanted to create a social place.”
Don’t cry for them, Argentina
Although they met in Austin, both Caivano and Simplis are from Buenos Aires. Caivano says they were both drawn to East Austin because it reminded them of their roots. There, on the corner of Pedernales and 3rd, they found the old church that is now Esquina Tango’s headquarters.
“The whole tango community helped us remodel,” Caivano says. “People held fundraiser milongas in their homes to help us get the floors.” Volunteers plugged holes in the walls, refinished the wood floors, and drenched the former church in vibrant reds and golden yellows.
Esquina Tango officially opened in 2008. Since then, Caivano and Simplis have added samba, salsa aerobics, zumba, and yoga, among other classes. They hold a milonga at least once a week; sometimes twice. At the request of students, Simplis leads language classes in a back room. Every other week they do a Noche de Pelicula, a movie night featuring a Latino documentary. They hold special events on a regular basis, with the help of volunteers and interns.
“Without knowing it, we created a cultural center,” Caivano says. “It grew organically from our love of tango.”
Caivano and Simplis are also the parents of toddler Beto, all smiles and chubby legs. (“Is he your first child?” I ask Caivano. She smiles and flutters a hand at the Esquina Tango space. “This is my first.”) Beto barrels around the center with all the vigor you might expect from a pint-sized tanguero. Soon, he’ll be big enough to join one of the center’s newest offerings: a free dance party for kids.
“It changes people”
So in the end, what Caivano and Simplis have built is not just a place to learn tango – they have created a portal into a community, a culture, and a lifestyle.
“It changes people,” Caivano says. “They make friends. Some people redo their houses so they can dance. It gets people healthy and keeps them active. It provides a place for people of all ages – college students, who find their groove with tango, to senior citizens. People from this neighborhood. People from as far away as 620.”
While Simplis and Caivano’s home address is technically next door, they spend most of their time either at the center or doing things for it. Simplis deejays the milongas, and leads free tango lessons at Café Medici downtown on Mondays. Caivano is devoted to teaching – says she’ll never give it up; she learns too much and loves it too much. On any given day, Esquina Tango holds three classes.
“The place has a life of its own,” Caivano says. “Yes, we are the hosts. But the people make it alive.”
Aren’t they exhausted?, I ask. They puzzle over this for a moment, before shrugging. “When it’s your baby, you do it because it’s your baby,” Caivano finally says affably. I might as well have asked if Beto exhausts them: Of course he does, but what of it? Is there anything better than being exhausted by something you love?
“We see the people happy. We see the improvement, the transformation,” Simplis chimes in, chewing on each syllable in his thick accent. As he works out his English translation, he draws out a long ehm, the Buenos Aires equivalent of our um. “You see these guys come in. And a month later, you see a dancer.”
“I love how this center provides a place for people to be themselves, get away from stress, and meet other people,” Caivano adds. “As they learn, there is a very valuable cultural aspect that opens their heads, and it opens our heads, too.”
Towards the end of our lesson, Caivano and Simplis show us a few intermediate steps.
“This may seem hard,” Caivano says, entwined in Simplis’ arms, “but keep practicing, and you will be surprised at how normal it will feel after just a few hundred times.” They burst into giggles.
As more dancers trickle in, adding their offerings of wine and food to the milonga refreshment table, Caivano wraps up.
“We hope that you will love tango and come back.” She looks with mock nonchalance at Simplis, who is beaming at us. “I think I like it. I think I’ll come back. How about you?”
Visit esquinatangoaustin.com online for information about Esquina Tango classes, special events, and tango in general. Friend them on Facebook. For more tango events throughout Austin, visit tangoaustin.org.