It was, according to tradition, an unusual evening at Taller Latinoamericano, a language school (and much more) in uptown Manhattan. Like Sinatra’s many last performances, this one was supposed to be the last performance at the Taller (they had to move, unable to pay the rent) but I know, as many people do, that it won't probably be the last one. The Taller, as it is frequently called, has survived at that same place before.
The Taller is a language school, a meeting place for unusual people eager for company, a showcase of artistic talent for people from all over Latin America, a concert hall, and a dance school. I used to joke that on a given night you could find a lion tamer, a young Japanese woman giving tango lessons, a tango guitar player from Argentina playing Brazilian songs, an obsessive painter of remarkable naïve paintings, many of which cover the Taller walls … an unending list of colorful characters.
Bernardo Palombo, its director, is an unusual talent. A native of Argentina, he is an innovative teacher of Spanish—he frequently illustrates his lessons with guitar music. He is also a talented musician and singer who has performed with leading Latin American and North American artists.
Tango is among the most performed musical styles played and performed at the Taller, so it was fitting that this event—reported to be a farewell party from this location—would only be tango dancing. Although a few dancers were Argentinean, there were many from different Latin American and Asian countries and even a couple from Africa.
While watching some old and graceful dancers, my thoughts went back to Buenos Aires where during my last trip, I had had a singular experience. I was having lunch at a popular restaurant. Concerned about my weight, I was having a small piece of chicken with a salad when I saw, at the table next to mine, an older man, perhaps in his middle seventies, having a hearty lunch. He was a thin man of normal height.
He had started with a heavy bean soup, and now he was having a huge steak with French fries and a salad accompanied by a big bottle of wine. I envied that he could have such a big lunch while I, younger than him, was also much heavier and unable to do the same.
I congratulated him on his good appetite, something not unusual to do in an informal setting in Buenos Aires, where people are much more gregarious than in other big cities.
“Well,” he said to me, “You won’t believe what happened to me.” He continued. “A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare form of rheumatism which hindered my movements. I was even unable to cross a wide street without being concerned that I would be hit by a car, since I walked that slowly.
“A friend recommended that I start dancing tango, something that I almost never did before. Although I was a bit reluctant at first, I decided to follow my friend’s advice and soon after I started dancing, I realized that I was walking with much less effort. Not only that, the more I danced the better I felt. I had started dancing a couple of nights a week. Then I was dancing every day and feeling younger, better, and losing weight in the process.
“In the beginning, my wife used to accompany me. Soon, however, she lost interest, perhaps because she couldn’t keep my pace. By common agreement, we decided that I would go to live in an apartment at the back of our house so we that could lead independent lives, but still on friendly terms. I am glad we did that because what began as a curiosity became an obsession, but a wonderful one for me.
“After a few months, I had recovered all my ability to move without pain. I also lost several pounds and made many new, wonderful friends. As a result, not only has my rheumatism disappeared, but now I can eat whatever I want without fear of gaining any weight.”
Looking at my plate before he parted, he said, “Start dancing tango, amigo, it will do wonders for you, too.”
As I recalled his advice, the last stanzas of a tango were being played at the Taller...
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a writer on human rights and public health issues.