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Tropical Tango

Stepping out, soulfully.

July 15, 2010
Barry Sultanoff

Years later, while attending a predominantly African-American school in rainy Portland, Ore., she often passed the time on chilly days by dancing during the lunch hour—much to the consternation of the Dominican nuns.

O’Keane’s precocious dancing abilities were stoked by the dance styles of the black students at her school. She loved listening and responding to their playful leads—and discovering the mysterious, unspoken connection in partner dancing.

What mattered most to Rita was not the steps, but rather that her partner danced soulfully. Style was nowhere near as important to her as this cherished capacity for partners to really dance together, from the very core of their beings.

Article Photos

Rita O’Keane of Tropical Tango and Shastro Rodella pass the codes of this dance to the next generation of tango dancers.

Since the late 1990s, Argentine Tango (not to be confused with American or ballroom tango—a different dance entirely) has spread like wildfire around the globe. One can now tango in almost any city on planet Earth—and establish instant, heartfelt connection with other dancers for whom tango is a consummate passion. Since tango is a language of steps and sensation in and of itself, it transcends all verbal-language barriers.

A good lead must develop a capacity to listen deeply. He will also be guided by tango’s unique music, in which poignant melodies lack the predictable beat of most other dances. Instead, tango music provides a general “map,” or territory, within which the dance can be expressed and enjoyed.

On Maui, O’Keane has created Tropical Tango as a kind of “dance kōkua” to help both new and experienced dancers polish their skills, as they dive into the lush territory of tango’s compelling mystique. Argentine Tango is definitely no quick study; learning the dance takes perseverance.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to excel here on Maui,” said O’Keane. “We Maui teachers (including, in particular, Shastro Rodella and Maria Materese), through our attraction to and obsession with tango, are the essential carriers of the message. We’re passing on the codes of this dance to the up-and-coming ‘next generation’ of tango dancers.”

Argentine Tango first came to Maui the early 2000s, when Laura Van Wagner and her then-dance partner, a young Argentine skateboarder, offered classes at Maui Community College (now University of Hawai‘i Maui College).

“I found these classes fun and irresistible, but then Juansie (Laura’s male lead) skateboarded away from Maui,” she said. “There was another lull.”

But the silence did not last long. Soon other teachers—at first Maui-based and then an impressive retinue of exceptionally high-quality imports—filled the void.

“These teachers helped pull me through that magical keyhole where, on the other side, I discovered the dance teacher inside of me,” reflected O’Keane.

Tango is a dance that invites and appeals to all ages—an ever-adapting dance within a basic foundation that can be expressed in intimate as well as athletically-dynamic styles.

Dancer “Jewels” Williams has become a fan of O’Keane’s classes.

“Rita has an acute awareness of how to best communicate and demonstrate the movements, so that students can learn the steps and technique without feeling overwhelmed,” said Williams.

On Maui, the Argentine Tango community is alive and well, enthusiastic and thriving. There are opportunities to dance several times each week. But be forewarned: this luscious experience of dancing tango can be addictive. There are those who toss their lives upon its grail, making yearly jaunts to Buenos Aires to savor its essence in the dance clubs there.

And then there are others who do the reverse. Anne Pieper, an orthopedic surgeon and acclaimed kite surfer from Hamburg, Germany, who visited Maui as a filmmaker’s apprentice, took her first-ever tango class with Rita.

“It was an ecstatic experience,” said Pieper. “I didn’t even come with dance shoes, but everything I needed was there for me. I plan to continue tango dancing in Germany.”

Tropical Tango offers weekly classes at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center: Sunday evening at 5 p.m. for beginners and 6:30 p.m. for advanced beginner/intermediate levels. There’s an open “practica” (dancing with guided instruction) for the Maui tango community from 7:30 to 9:50 p.m. Classes are also held on Thursdays in studio 95 (the Curves Building) in Pukalani at 6:30 p.m. for beginners and 7:45 to 9:30 p.m. for Maui community practica.

Every Friday, a Milonga (tango dance party) is held from 8:30 to 11:15 p.m. at Makawao Union Church as well as the second Thursday of each month from 8 to 11 p.m. at Casanova Italian Restaurant & Deli in Makawao.



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