It was a pleasure to be able to sit down and talk to Cesar Coelho after his tango workshops in Manhattan. Despite having given an intense set of classes during the day, and needing to rest for a photo shoot early the next morning, Cesar gave up his time to walk over to a coffee shop nearby and share his insights and thoughts. The passion and openness with which he spoke was much appreciated. Cesar has an extensive background in tango, ballet and jazz. He is well known for his precision and energy on stage particularly as the lead in the Broadway show “Forever Tango”. Cesar proves to be a talented dance teacher at such a young age, driving his students to understand more than just the steps to the dance. “He is amazing,” commented one of his students, “I take his classes every time he is in town, and each time I work with him, my dancing progresses so much further.”
(Note: This interview was actually conducted and first published in 2009. Nevertheless, revisiting it, I realized that it is so well suited for this new website. And as I read it again, especially after returning from a beautiful night of tango dancing after too long, I am re-inspired by Cesar’s words and excited to share them with all of you).
I find it very effective the way you focus so much on the fundamentals in your workshops, rather than overloading students with a bunch of fancy steps. It made me want to learn more. Can you explain your reasoning behind this?
Well, tango is more than a dance. It’s a culture. We use the dance as an excuse to express what we are bringing and taking from our country, from our experiences. That’s why I really pay attention to the fundamentals.
In the very beginning, tango started as an excuse to be related with a woman- as a meeting, not as a dance. The dance came after. That’s why I’m always pushing the fundamentals onto the students.
I understand you come from a family of dancers. Considering this, along with your
view of tango as more than just steps, do you think it’s possible for someone who doesn’t have that background to learn it, to REALLY learn tango?
First, you need to understand why you are dancing. That’s why I talk a lot in the class, because people come to the class as an excuse to have fun. They don’t really know what they are doing, or what tango really is. That’s what I am always trying to explain to the students. It’s really a serious dance. It IS serious. It’s not about having fun. But once you understand the dance, you can get pleasure from it, not fun, but pleasure. It’s not about the movement. It’s more than the movement. The movement comes, and is born, from the essence. And the essence is a way of life, I mean, the way that Argentine people live. That’s why the lyrics are the way they are. That’s why the music is the way it is. You have to understand that before you can really learn tango.
You use a lot of analogies or visualizations to help explain the feeling behind the dance, especially the connections between the dancers and the music. You’ve said things like, “You have to breathe as one,” or “the couple is like the bandoneon” (the instrument often used in tango music). Could you talk a little about this?
Yes, well, we have a pattern- the music. And we are two people dancing. But you have a pyramid with the music. First we need to synchronize the level of energy that we have as a couple. If one person has more energy than the other person, the meeting is going to be impossible. So that’s why I say, “Breathe. Find yourself. Meet the energies. Equalize the energy.” And then we are going to be able to share it. Once we start to share and we equalize the energy, the music will own us. We really need to relax. Then the music will take control of us as a couple. It’s very hard to achieve that.
Coming from a family of dancers, was it already an expectation that you would become a dancer? Or was it something that you chose in the beginning?
Good question (smiles). No, I didn’t choose this in the beginning. No, no, especially not tango. My father introduced me to tango. I was very young. That’s why I didn’t choose tango then. I used to play basketball. I used to play sports. That’s what I related to. Tango was too serious for me at that age. I was fifteen years old. It was too serious and I didn’t understand how to relate with a woman, or how to even relate with a person. But once I started to understand how to relate, how to socialize, with different people, I started to understand tango. That’s the way I really got deeper into tango and I started to like it, to pay attention to it. But no, it wasn’t my choice.
But it’s true that it’s like a drug. Once you understand it, you will never leave it. You will never quit. You will take some distance. Sometimes you will get tired, you will get fed up, but then it’s going to be there. And tango will wait for you, because tango is expression. It’s going to be there, always. Even if you go away, it will be waiting.
Is it difficult to teach this dance, especially if what you are trying to teach is more than just the dance steps?
Tango as a dance is about body language. It’s very interesting to feel the energies of different people. But sometimes, because of that, you get tired, like I was tonight. I wasn’t strong enough to support all the energy that people required around me. It can be tiring if you are giving your energy, but you are not receiving enough back. Maybe you noticed that (smiles).
Yes, you said something about that to the class, briefly. And I heard you say more about it later on.
Yes. It’s really hard to teach. It requires a LOT of energy. And it depends on how you WANT to teach. Like I said to the class, I could have taught them many fancy steps- ganchos and turns and all that. It would actually be easier for me. But I want them to learn what is really important about tango, what tango is really about. But if they don’t give me the same energy, then it’s tiring. I like teaching but it is hard. If people are really listening, then it is easier.
I was telling a friend of mine about tango. He loves dancing. He does a lot of salsa dancing. I know he would really enjoy tango, but he’s turned off of it because he feels like the age group for tango is a lot older. You are very young, but it seems like tango is more geared towards an older crowd, or attracts an older crowd, especially in North America. Do you agree?
Yes, but it’s changing. It IS changing.
You think so?
Yes. It’s changing a lot. And you have to remember that tango is a cultural thing. You need certain experiences to understand tango, and some of that comes with age. You cannot understand sadness if you’ve never been sad before. If you’re a child and you’ve never been sad inside, it’s hard to understand. That’s an example. It’s the same thing with happiness, with hope, with love, with winning and losing. And tango is about expressing yourself, your experience. It’s about that. It’s the directions that you take in life. But if you are too young to have those experiences, then it’s hard to express in the dance.
Nowadays, a lot of young people get into tango. But in the beginning, maybe you are attracted by the embrace. You don’t realize what the embrace means. But you start to learn that it’s more than just touching or an embrace. As you grow, you learn. It’s the same thing as when your taste changes. In the beginning, you might eat something simple like hot dogs. And when you get older, you might not eat hot dogs anymore. Now you like a good plate of some other kind of food.
In the same way, you can be attracted by the dance first. But then you start to understand what tango really is, and after some time, something deeper will attract you.
It’s interesting for me to look at the history of tango compared to what you are teaching about it now. Tango was associated with brothels and was seen as a very seductive dance. But when YOU’RE teaching, you talk so much about respecting your partner, and finding yourself, centering yourself, gaining confidence. Can you explain this difference between the past and present of tango?
It’s the human race. It breaks up, or breaks apart. The dance too-the tango, the music, everything- it breaks apart, or some of it does. We take the elements, we polish them, and we improve our language. Tango is a language, and it has changed in some ways over time. We are not used to talking the same way we used to talk. It’s the same thing with the dance. But the PASSION is still there. The PURPOSE is still there. The ROOT is still there. The essence, the ESSENCE- that’s what is important. We don’t lose that. We can’t. And then we learn to take it further.
But society changes. And tango changes with the society. Sometimes it changes for the good. Sometimes it changes in a bad way. That’s why I’m attached to the root. I’m attached to the root because I don’t like the way that society runs, just runs with things. I don’t want that for tango. Everybody is crazy running. No, no. We want tango to help us find ourselves again.
I never got a chance to see the show Forever Tango. But I did see Volver al Sur,
which you performed in recently. I just thought it was amazing. And I read some of the articles that were written about it and your other performances. One writer in particular commented on how the common saying “It takes two to tango,” doesn’t seem to apply to you. He said that when you perform, it’s like you are dancing not just with your partner, it’s like you’re dancing with the whole audience as well. I could feel that when I was watching you on stage. You make the audience feel what you are feeling. Are you attempting to do that when you are on stage? Are you aware of the energy of the audience when you are performing or are you completely in your own world?
Good. Another good question. It’s very difficult for a professional dancer to really be inside- inside of the couple, inside of yourself- when you have thousands of people looking at you. That’s when I say that tango belongs to three. Why? Well because the leader is always in the future. He’s thinking one millisecond in the future about what he’s going to lead, and thinking about the steps he’s going to take, and how he’s going to lead his partner. The follower is in the present, because she follows, feels and she steps in the present. And the third person- the one watching or the audience- is in the past. The audience watches all that has gone on. They are not invited. They spy on the couple. They ARE spying on the couple. But you have to wake their interest TO spy. If you don’t wake their interest, they are not going to want to spy. So they are not going to watch the movement. But they really want to get IN to the couple. But they are not invited.
Is there something you do differently on stage to obtain that or to create that?
It’s really hard to achieve that point. It’s really hard to achieve it. It’s a level of energy and feeling in the soul, and it’s really hard. You won’t always achieve it. It all depends on your partner- how you match energies with her. If you match, and the music matches, the atmosphere matches, then that interest, the audience’s interest, will be born. They will want to spy. They want to get into it, but they are not invited because it’s OUR world. But we have to create that interest.
What do you do to keep developing your skills?
Tango is born in the soul. But we are using the tool that is the body. And we need to improve that tool to let the soul express. If our soul is free, but our tool is rough, it doesn’t match. So I have to take my tool- my body- further, to let my soul go further. But it’s not that I release all that, and do it by myself or keep it for myself. All that I have, I also give to my partner. All that I achieve, all that I have, I give to my partner. We need that in order to dance tango together. That’s what I push forward in my students, to really take the steps further. Then you will be able to cut them, or to make the space smaller. To make it more intimate. But you need to sharpen the tool.
Do you have a certain number of hours or time that you set aside to develop that?
I do at least one class a day, any kind of technique- ballet, jazz, anything. I need to discover, and I need to fill up my soul with different energies and to exercise my muscles.
You were saying that you were going back to Argentina after this?
And then you’re going to Paris? How do you feel about all the traveling you do?
I’m traveling all the time. This is my job and I need to do it. If you gave me the choice, I
would stay in my country. I would come here just to visit. And I would teach, when I feel like teaching. What happens when you spend a lot of time in the same city? You start to know the bad things about that city. And you start to become PART of the city. If you become part of the city, in certain ways, it’s good. But as an artist, it’s bad, because you’re not going to be original anymore. That’s why you have to come back to the root, the essence of the tango. If I stay here, I will become like “them”. And it’s not helpful for them if I become like them. I have to bring something new to my students, to the people, every time I come back here. I do love the city, but I need to refresh myself all the time.
Is Argentina always going to be home to you?
YES….Uh, no. Uhm, I’m not sure. I’m not sure.
But I am sure that tango is with me. I learn from it. And I know that tango is going to be waiting there. It’s not going to leave me. Me neither- I mean, I’m not going to leave it either. I don’t know. For the moment I am,…how do you say it? When you travel around all the time? Gypsy?
Oh yes! A gypsy! (laughs).
Yes, a gypsy. I’m traveling around all the time, and learning so much about different cultures. And it’s very interesting. In certain ways, this is very related to tango. The experiences, what I am experiencing, are the link to tango. Everyone lives this, everyone lives before the tango dance. Like the people spying into the tango. Even the music you prefer- it all depends on the colour of your soul. What you lived in your life before- your interpretation of the music will depend on this, you will match it to your experiences in life. Maybe I love Piazolla, maybe you don’t. It all depends on you. What you did before in your life.
As I said before, tango is much more than a dance. We are taking the steps as an excuse to express our feelings, TO CHAT. The steps are just simple words. And we use the words to express ourselves, to build sentences. They are words. And depending on how we use the words we are going to express ourselves in different ways.
But, this is without talking. It’s a language without talking. That’s always what I’m trying to say. And every time we have an encounter we can use the language to just have fun and talk about whatever, or we can go deeper. With tango, it is deeper. It is a language that is deeper.
I hope you understand. It’s very difficult for me to explain in English.
Actually, I was about to say that I can’t believe that even in your workshop you were apologizing for your English. You express yourself very poetically. It’s very hard to do that in a second language, but you express yourself well. I understand what you’re saying because of your words, but more than that, it’s because of the FEELING behind your words. There’s an energy that you project, even without speaking.
That is tango (smiles). That’s why I said in class that tango is not steps. It’s ONE step that never ends. Once you start, it NEVER ends. You never quit your energy. It’s there. It’s alive. Even if you are quiet, it’s there. It’s an ongoing energy between us. Sometimes we can be looking at each other, and we don’t even say a word. But a look says much more than a hundred words. In tango, a pause means much more than a hundred steps. You have tango instructors, tango dancers and tango artists. How they dance and teach depends on what they are pushing forward. I want people to understand what tango really means. It is so much more than what people think.