• Born in a River

    Embassy of Uruguay

    The Embassy of Uruguay. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    "Tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still encloses, as does all that which is truthful, a secret,” wrote Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges.

    On the second floor of the Embassy of Uruguay on I Street NW is a large nondescript room that is used for photography exhibits, guest lecturers, the usual diplomatic cocktail receptions. And on select Tuesdays since late winter, it's there my partner and I have been learning to tango.


    There are few tools of cultural diplomacy quite like tango. Originating in the poorer districts of Buenos Aires and Montevideo along the Río de la Plata basin, the music, dance, and poetry of tango are now listed on the UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, a nomination put forth by both Argentina and Uruguay. The origins of tango were heavily influenced by Candombe, another honoree on the UNESCO list, which originated in Uruguay by the descendants of enslaved Africans, more than 200,000 of whom arrived in the twin ports of Buenos Aires and Montevideo between the 16th and 19th centuries. Meetings of the community were known as "tangos." Along with local Indigenous influences, as well as later contributions by immigrants from Europe, these cultures merged to create a distinctive, new, cultural identity.


    Tango at embassies isn't a new concept; although for many years, the Argentina embassy and its gorgeous historic ballroom have cornered the market. But the Embassy of Uruguay has as much claim as its neighbor on wide-eyed students envisioning themselves moving gracefully in one of the world's most sophisticate dances.


    And the embassies of the two countries that share claim to tango share something else - an enigmatic instructor.

    A photography exhibit showcases Uruguayan democracy. Photo of the exhibit by Luis Rivas, provided by the Embassy of Uruguay.

    Uruguay, officially the Oriental Republic of Uruguay, named for its placement on the eastern, or "Oriental" margin of the Río de la Plata, is the second smallest country in South American (following Suriname) buffeted by Brazil and Argentina. “On the map, surrounded by its large neighbors, Uruguay seems tiny,” writes contemporary Uruguayan historian and novelist Eduardo Galeano. “But not really. We have five times more land than Holland and five times fewer inhabitants. We have more cultivable land than Japan, and a population forty times smaller.”


    The CIA World Factbook lists Uruguay as "the size of Virginia and West Virginia combined; slightly smaller than the state of Washington."


    Uruguay leads as one of four full democracies in the Americas, according to the Democracy Index 2020, published by The Economist, and the only one in South America in 2021. According to Freedom House, "Uruguay has a historically strong democratic governance structure and a positive record of upholding political rights and civil liberties while also working toward social inclusion."


    The United States recognized the independent state of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay on January 25, 1836, following Uruguayan independence from Spain in 1811, its subsequent annexation by Brazil until 1825, and a three-year federation with Argentina that ultimately led to their status as a fully independent nation. The US and Uruguay formally established diplomatic ties in 1867. The American Legation in Montevideo opened on July 6, 1870, and in 1941 its status was elevated to an embassy. Since the 1970s, the Embassy has also maintained an ambassador's residence in Potomac.


    Before the building on I Street become the home of Uruguayans in Washington, it was the home of the Cornelia Yuditsky School of Creative Art. Martin Puryear, an artist and former student, later recalled of Yuditsky, "She had books and paints and still lifes set up on the tables. No talking was allowed. She was warm and very kind, and she took the children seriously. She didn't really teach, but she'd walk around the room and critique what you were doing. I still can hear her saying, 'Sometimes, some days, things do not go well. This is such a day.'"


    In keeping with this tradition of fostering creative expression, in February 2020, the embassy began offering lessons in its intangible cultural heritage. But, as Ms. Yuditsky foretold, some days, things did not go well. Shortly after the classes began, a global pandemic silenced the music.


    In March 2022, students all still wearing masks, it began again. And that's when we met Luis Angel.


    Tango instructor Luis Angel is part-historian, part performance artist.

    Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    "Tango was born in a river, between Buenos Aires and Montevideo," Luis Angel tells his group of enthralled students one Tuesday evening in the Embassy of Uruguay. "In this little place in between."


    Luis is a dapper man with salt and pepper hair and twinkling eyes that show the Irish on his mother's side. He begins every class by explaining that he is an Argentinian, not a Uruguayan, but that tango is a dance with a history shared by both countries and now danced in countries around the world. His classes are part history lesson, part dance lesson, and, usually, much laughter. Luis Angel has spoken of the history of tango, and given lessons or a performance, at the United Nations and the State Department, the Kennedy Center and the Strathmore, and many more. This summer, he went to Reno, Nevada, to give an oral history, dance lesson, and performance to a group of retired US military officers.


    Although he grew up with tango, (his father was a well-known Argentinian folk singer and recording artist and his mother danced tango), Luis Angel drifted away from tango for many years. He had originally come to Washington, D.C. as a tourist and, discovering he liked the States, accepted a job offer in Anchorage in his then-profession, computer engineering. (He holds a master's degree in the field although he's quick to say modestly that it's "only an executive master's.")


    When he returned to Washington, he found he yearned for a connection to his home and culture. With the help of a then-girlfriend who was a gifted tango dancer, he sought out tango as a means of rediscovering his roots, only to discover that everything he had known had changed.


    "There was a part of my life where I was away from tango music, I was more into pop music," he tells me as we sit on folding chairs in the embassy dance space one summer evening before class. "When I got back to tango around 2000, I said where is my home? This is not the tango I remember."


    "It was a transition," he says. "I missed the transition of the tango."

    Students Olivia Gyapong and Ian Clark Angel. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla is the reason for that transition. Born in Mar del Plata, Piazzolla was raised in both Argentina and New York City. It was in the latter, inspired by local musicians and his own classical training, that he began composing nuevo tango, traditional tango music infused with classical music and jazz, creating his own distinctive style. It wasn't always well-received by tango purists.
    "Argentina is a strange country," Piazzolla once said. "You could change anything — the law, the money, 20,000 presidents. Just don't change the tango."
    But as he began to integrate with tango communities in Alaska, Beijing, Vienna, Shanghai and others, Luis Angel began to understand, and appreciate, this new style of tango. A fusion, he calls it.
    He never expected to start teaching, but first a few friends asked, and then they asked him to teach their friends, and suddenly groups of people Luis Angel didn't know wanted to learn from him. Now it's his full-time profession, ranging from teaching classes like ours, to pop-up workshops and speaking engagements, to private lessons. When asked if he feels he gave up computer engineering for tango, he's very zen about it.
    "I don't know if I gave it up. I go with the flow. That's how I manage my life. I can persuade my path but it's one thing when something is meant to be for you, or another when you push it," he tells me. "My life took me to computers so I did computers. Then it takes me to tango so I do tango."
    Luis Angel teaches the traditional form of tango. It's easier to learn and then adapt to other forms than vice versa, he says.
    "The music of nuevo tango is more fluid and because it's more fluid, it's more elastic, the dancing itself, so it's softer, this change," he says. "If I tried to dance with all this fluid movement to traditional music, it's going to be hard. But traditional dance with fluid music is going to work because the root is there, the sense is there."
    The sense may be there, but after more than half a year, none of us are fluid in either the traditional or the nuevo version of the tango, save for the few ringers in the class who step in to support a dancer who's struggling or one who is sans partner for the evening. But the point of the class isn't actually to become excellent tango dancers, although that would be a lovely outcome. It's to explore the country's history, and culture, and to nibble on Alfajores de Maicena, and to come out with a better understanding of Uruguay than we had before.


    "Whenever people applaud at the end of class, I say no. Do not thank me," Luis Angel says. "I thank you for wanting to learn about my culture."

    Luis Angel shares the history of the tango before dance lessons begin at the Embassy of Uruguay. Photo by Molly McCluskey.