INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN COOK

by

CJ Puotinen

 

Steven Cook brought new energy, patterns, and techniques to Firehouse Tango when he taught a musicality class in late 2004 and a 4-week close-embrace series in January 2005. By popular demand, he was invited back, and heíll be teaching again at Firehouse. He was a member of Chicago Ballet and Houston Ballet and was a featured dancer in ďDoonesburyĒ on Broadway.  He currently teaches movement at The Stella Adler Studio for Acting at New York Universityís Tisch School of the Arts.

          CJ Puotinen interviewed Steven Cook for Firehouse Tango in early 2005.

 

Firehouse Tango (FT): How did you become interested in tango?

Steven Cook (SC):  Iíve been a dancer all my life, a professional ballet dancer. I joined Chicago Ballet when I was 16. Now that Iím retired from that, Iím a teacher of movement for actors as well as a performer and actor.
 

          Often in productions, Iím asked to choreograph things. In 1996, I was in Edinburgh, Scotland, acting in a production of ďMerchant of Venice,Ē and they asked me to choreograph a tango for this particular version of the play. I had no idea what tango was except to know that I didnít know. I set out to do research, and I had a few addresses in New York where I could go watch tango. I used videotapes instead and did a terrible generic job of choreographing a two-minute tango scene. Iím embarrassed to remember it, but it was fine for the show, and that was the end of my tango experience.
 

          I kept the addresses, though, and a couple years later, I went to one of them and watched a milonga. The minute I saw the embrace, I got hooked right there.
 

           Iíd seen tango onstage and Iíd seen it on video, but I hadnít seen it in the milonga atmosphere. Once I started trying to do it and made a commitment to it, I just loved it. I havenít been able to stop. At the milongas in New York City, they often have a lesson before the social dance, so I was doing that for a while. Then I started taking lessons everywhere, as many as I could, every day or every evening, mostly group lessons plus some private lessons and lots of practice. I was really lucky in finding partners, good dancers who wanted to dance with me. Thatís probably where I learned the most, by practicing with partners who knew what they were doing. When teachers would come into town, I would take their workshops. Having a dance background, I wanted to be sure I had as wide a variety of information as possible.

 

FT:  So youíve done every style of Argentine tango.

SC: Well, I donít know if Iíve done every style, but thatís not for lack of trying. If thereís something out there that I havenít been exposed to, I want to know about it. I still havenít been to Argentina, but you know what? Argentina comes here. Sooner or later, all the outstanding instructors and performers come to New York. I would love to go there and see what the dancing scene is like in Buenos Aires and other places, but I really like the international nature of tango. Iíve danced it in Paris, Tokyo, Montreal, and in several states here in the U.S. Each community is so interesting. The dance is so durable that it takes on the personality of the community.  The way they dance tango in Tokyo is different from what they do in Montreal, and the way we dance in New York is different from the way they dance in Paris. Itís all still tango, but things like the way you ask someone to dance, how the DJ chooses music, how the group celebrates someoneís birthday, that whole social part of it is different. In Montreal, they do this thing toward the end of the night where they play a waltz and someone shouts out ďchanger,Ē or ďchange partners,Ē and everyone changes partner in the middle of the dance.
 

          From what I understand, itís very similar in Buenos Aires because each neighborhood has its own way of dancing and its own style. And I can see New Jersey getting its own identity in the tango world. This makes so much sense to me, the way the movement takes on its own personality. I think itís a beautiful dance, and I love that itís so durable that itís able to reflect so many cultures and styles.

 

FT: Now that youíve danced all over the northern hemisphere, where is your favorite place to dance tango?

SC: Firehouse tango!

 

FT: You passed that test!

SC: Seriously, you know how it is when youíre trying to find an address at a location thatís totally unfamiliar to you? For example, I went into this little suburb in Tokyo, and a helpful police officer was winding me down the streets. As soon as I got to the doorway, I could hear the music at the bottom of the steps Ė thatís so much fun! What I most enjoy is searching places out, finding them, hearing those strains of transporting music, and opening the door to an adventure that is familiar and new at the same time.
 

          I do love Paris, not because itís the best tango in the world, because it isnít. Itís just so much fun communicating with people when you donít really speak their language, so youíre constantly trying to communicate on another level.

 

FT: How do you ask people to dance in these different places?

SC: Well, it depends on the culture. In Buenos Aires, the men give a little toss of the head, and that says it all. Even here, if the music is playing and I look at you and youíre looking back, all I have to do is nod my head. You wonít be clueless and wondering what Iím doing, youíll know Iím inviting you to dance. Or I could say the same thing in words. Itís totally different in Japan. They donít do it verbally and they donít necessarily use their eyes, but when the guys ask the girls to dance, they do it with a demonstrative kind of walk up to the invitation. Now, I may be stereotyping because I wasnít there that long, but from the little I saw, I was greatly entertained. But most of the time, itís with your eyes. The woman clearly knows if youíre on your way over to her. Thereís a sense in the air. We communicate in so many ways. If she wants to dance with me, sheíll maintain eye contact. If she doesnít, her eyes will avoid me.  Iím very shy, so Iíve had a lot of practice reading body language.

 

FT: She accepts your invitation and you hold out your arms. What happens next?

SC: Ah, yes. Now we move to the next phase. Thereís a whole communication that goes on. Some followers arenít shy at all, theyíll move right in, while others stand back a bit. In ballroom style, the back is arched away from the embrace, but when youíre really relaxed in Argentine tango, you breathe into each othersí hearts, as they say. So you offer that, and you get some really subtle responses that you canít really put language to. I can take someone in an embrace and pretty much, even before taking a single step, tell you how long the personís been dancing, or what theyíre like as a dancer. I could be wrong, but I think Iím usually on target. And of course the woman is figuring out the same things about me. Itís a really interesting moment and I think itís fun to recreate that moment with someone youíve danced a lot with. Itís a way of revitalizing the connection, recreating that special newness.

          They say that when you go to Buenos Aires and the music begins, you donít start moving right away, you stand there talking a bit with your partner. Some of my favorite stories from the old days in Argentina involve using those moments to plan your dates, because the girls were heavily chaperoned and you didnít have much time for conversation. Then the music continues, and you move into the embrace. There are different cultures and traditions, and I think each milonga reflects a slightly different way of beginning.

         

FT: Do you spend some time listening to the music before you begin in order to figure out what you might do with it?

SC: Not so much listening and planning as clearing the mind and keeping myself open to the space around me, the people around me, the music, everything. I try not to decide what Iím going to do. In fact, I try to do the opposite Ė I try to get rid of any kind of plan. Thatís where you really get a kick out of doing what the music tells you. When you get the connection between the music and the partner and the space, thatís where you get the most joy. My work is stressful sometimes, in terms of directing shows and things like that, so dancing tango is a meditative time for me. I just cleanse my mind and try not think of anything. Thatís my intention, at least. I spend way too much time thinking during the rest of the cay.
 

          So to answer your question, yes, thereís a sense of waiting to connect with the music, but it isnít in terms of a plan, like a linear plan. Because I dance all night long almost every night, I might have an agenda with certain partners of things weíre working on, and then things would be different. But for the most part, I spend the first notes relaxing and letting go and waiting to see where the music takes us.

         

FT: When youíre dancing in New York City, which is where you live, do you go someplace different every night?

SC: Yes, but thatís because each night thereís a different tango venue. The tango scene keeps expanding, so now we usually have two places to go each night of the week, but Iím pretty loyal about the ones Iíve been visiting for years. If I canít dance at evening milongas that last until 1:00 a.m., Iíll practice during the day.
 

          Iíve been doing something lately with other teachers in the city, where four to six of us will get together for practice. Iím really lucky in that I have a studio where I teach acting, so we have a good practice space. We learn so much that way. The sharing of information is right at the root of the culture of tango, all the opinions of what real tango is.

 

FT: How has your own style evolved, and what is your favorite way of dancing?

SC: I love dancing with someone while I try to find their dance. That is, I love to allow them to dance in a way thatís comfortable and meaningful for them. Thatís really exciting for me. And I love using imagery.  For example, when Iím dancing with someone, Iíll try to imagine that person as a young child and see where that takes us. A lot of that comes from my acting, from my background as an actor and someone who has spent a lot of time exploring different roles. I love exploring people that way, everyone from beginners to advanced dancers.
 

          Iím really interested in style now. What Iíve been working a lot on for the last couple of years is called nuevo style, or ďnewĒ style. Thatís a horrible word for it because itís not new any more. Thereís a school of three guys, Pablo Veron, Gustavo Naveira, and Fabian Salas. They sort of have a different way of exploring tango and taking it to a new place. Some people call it show tango, and your traditionalists would say itís not tango at all. I couldnít care less what anyone calls it. Itís still dance, itís still movement.

         

FT: What makes nuevo tango different?

SC: Thereís lots of off-balance work, lots of turning, sharing axis with your partner, and breaking the embrace, which drives the traditionalists crazy Ė and for good reason, because there are certain spaces, like crowded dance floors, where you just canít do it. It wreaks havoc on floor craft. Youíre still going around each other; otherwise it turns into salsa or hustle or something like that. Youíre playing with the principles of tango in the sense of going around each other and playing in opposition to each other and using this sort of compression/decompression to generate energy and dynamics. Itís a real ride! Itís very difficult and complex, so not many people do it, but itís fantastic, and whatís really interesting about it is that itís very attractive to young dancers.

 

FT: What music do you dance to when youíre dancing nuevo?

SC: Anything. Everything. The music really affects you. Believe me, I love tradition, so I always enjoy dancing to everyone from DíArienzo and Pugliese to Piazzolla. But I can put a Beatles CD on and love it, because it changes your body dynamic, and that is so interesting to me. If you take what the woman does in the traditional milonguero style or traditional salon style of tango and have the man do all her steps while she does all the manís steps, but the man is still leading and the woman is still following. You can discover some incredible steps that way. So you just take it, turn it upside down, look at it sideways, from underneath, make it big, make it small, the way you do with any art, you explore, and music is an integral part of that because of the effect it has on the way your bodyís moving.
 

          I love working with different kinds of music, and I also find it interesting to study the lyrics of songs that have lyrics. I try to learn what the songs are about, and their story affects me. Iím also affected by English lyrics, for a single word might inspire me, while thinking about it, to make a movement happen. Thatís why I enjoy dancing to popular songs. And sometimes you fail at it, sometimes it just doesnít work at all. But I think failing is so informative. You can always learn something that helps you later.
 

          As much as I enjoy exploring the edges of tango, I try to dance the way the people around me are dancing. You try to fit into the space, and thatís why itís so important to recognize the ambiance or the atmosphere around you and work into that. Different milongas in New York have a different feeling for how they want you to dance, and I try to respect that. I usually succeed, although there have been occasions where Iíve just rebelled. But thatís unusual.

 

FT: If you could dance just one more tango and that would be it, the end, what would you do? What music would you choose, what style would you dance, and who would your partner be?

SC: I would dance close embrace, milonguero style. The DJ would play something along the lines of Pugliese or Calo or even Di Sarli. I know thatís three different composers, but I love the long lines of the melodic tango, those strains that pull on the heart strings. And who I would dance it with, well, thatís private. I suppose, because you could take that question so many different ways, because itís the last one, thereís something about passing it on to someone who would take the spirit and pass it on to the next, the next person or the next generation.

 

FT: Now tell us about your teaching career as a teacher of Argentine tango. When was that?

SC: Well, I really donít consider myself a tango instructor, Iíve really resisted using that label. Teaching the tango in New Jersey came about through practice, going out and practicing with friends who were coming into the city. Thatís how it came about. I do teach dance, thatís what I do for a living, and tango I consider my hobby. I remember one teacher from Buenos Aires said something that I thought was interesting. She said, ďTeach tango, lose tango.Ē I think thereís something to that. I want to dance it. I enjoy teaching while the lesson is going on because I learn more about the dance. Itís selfish, but Iíve really resisted teaching tango. At the same time, and Iím contradicting myself a little, Iím very proud of whatís going on with the tango in New Jersey. Iím especially thrilled with Firehouse Tango because itís so much fun.

 

FT: Do you do the other Argentine dances, the waltz and milonga?

SC: Sure, of course, I consider them all part of the same thing. The steps are basically the same, just to different kinds of music. I absolutely enjoy the waltz and milonga as much as the tango. Iíll dance every song every night, and thatís not very Argentinean. From what I hear, youíre supposed to sit out and wait for your special moment. Well, thatís a cultural thing. My special moment is any moment the music is playing. Iíll dance to anything. Iíll dance to words, a poem, someone reading something, because I love the challenge of it. So yes, I love waltz, love the 3/4 rhythm, I always have. The milonga, I love the rhythm and the challenge of it. I also like to listen to the melody and dance to the melodic strains of the milonga without being a slave to the rhythm. Itís like playing an instrument against the rhythm and not doing the step on every beat. Itís fun dancing them traditionally and also playing around with them and seeing what other things can be done.

 

FT: Putting on hold the fact that you donít consider yourself a tango teacher, what is your philosophy of teaching tango? Like in a beginner class, where you want to introduce the dance and maybe emphasize one or two things, what do you focus on? Whatís the most important thing to start with?

SC: Connection. Thatís the most important thing Iíd want to get across. Making a connection, walking with that connection, thatís the main thing. The connection is to everything that touches tango Ė the music, the space around you Ė but in a beginner class I would focus on the connection with the partner. I would use walking and the close embrace as a starting point. Finding a comfortable embrace is the main thing.
 

          In terms of philosophy, itís really one class at a time for me. Teaching as much as I have, not tango but things like other dances and movement for actors, Iíve learned that itís all about being prepared and listening to what the people want. That means not having a prearranged lesson plan but a flexible attitude, so I can teach things that keep the students engaged and interested while at the same time starting them off with posture, movement, and connection, things that will stay with them and that they can build on.
 

          Now Iíll change my answer a little and say that the main thing Iíd like to get across to people is a love of the dance, communicating my passion for the tango and hoping that they will develop a passion for it. Itís a complex dance that takes a while to learn, so it takes a while to get rewards from it. Itís a hard dance to do once a week. To do it well, you have to let it become part of your life. Itís not right for everybody, I realize that, but if thereís some way that I can encourage people to become emotionally involved with the dance, with the music, with their partner, with the whole experience of tango, if they can begin in that first lesson to feel the passion, then that would be a successful class.
 

          But the new style, or nuevo tango, has a whole different terminology and a whole different way of looking at the dance. I love teaching that. Itís still about connection, but everything else about the class would be slightly different. Ultimately, youíre talking about two people reacting off of each other, and thatís where the improvisation comes from.
 

          There are so many different embraces that you can play with, and I use them all, I like them all. At Firehouse Tango, I emphasize the close embrace.

 

FT: Do you have a favorite instructor, someone who has influenced your dancing more than anyone else?

SC: I would say Eric Jorgenson, who lives in Holland and teaches two or three times a year in New York. He teaches about movement so well, so comfortably, as opposed to teaching steps or patterns. Steps are what attract most tango students, and I have to admit, I love getting new steps. But Eric has an entertaining and thorough way of explaining the energy of the movement and how you create and react to the lead and follow. Heís one of the best in that. I also love his style. He has a very elegant look. He also has a really playful approach to the dance. I love his passion and drama a lot, but I love the humor, too. Heís not rigid at all, and you never come away from his classes with the feeling that this is the only way to do tango, or the only right way. You see that in tango and also in the ballet world, like the Russian dancers who believe the only way to do ballet is Russian, while the French say the only way to do ballet is French. Itís nice to have confidence in your syllabus and your school, but movement belongs to human beings, and itís a joyous thing to do from beginning to end. Iím always afraid of people who are completely dogmatic, who say theirs is the only way. I love people who explain that here is a quality, now see what you can do with it. Thatís so much easier said than done, but Eric does a very good job of that while teaching specific patterns. I met him during my first year of dancing tango, so Iíve been influenced by him all along.
 

          I love sharing information, and I always enjoy taking a beginner class with different instructors. I like to see how people break the dance down. I love Carolina and Diego for that reason. I studied with them in my first year, too, and it would be really remiss not to mention them at the top of the list. Theyíre wonderful people, theyíre wonderful dancers, and they have a wonderful way of explaining movement. I went to them twice a week for a long time, and I really miss the milonga they used to have every Tuesday evening.

 

FT: Do you have a favorite partner?

SC: Yes, several! What they have in common is that theyíre all interesting, and theyíre really good people. Itís not about how well you dance, by the way. Some of my most enjoyable moments in tango took place in the first month that I danced it, and Iím constantly looking to get that spark again, that sense of something exciting, that discovery of a connection. Some of the people that Iíve had my most absolutely favorite dances with and danced a lot with are the same people that Iíve had some of my worst dances with. Thatís just part of having a dance relationship.
 

          There are so many considerations and variables in defining a favorite. Like you might be dancing for the first time with someone youíve been watching for quite a while but never had the courage to ask them to dance, and now the moment is at hand. Or there might be someone who totally surprises you. I danced in October with a woman who was eight months pregnant, and oh my, that was a trip! A superbly enjoyable dance. So while I love the question, itís difficult to answer because everything is so circumstantial.

 

FT: Is there anything youíd like to say in closing, either about tango or about Firehouse Tango?

SC: Yes, there is. I mentioned that no matter where you go, each milonga is different. I love the way Firehouse Tango is developing, and my advice to everyone involved with it is not to change anything. They have a really nurturing atmosphere, they take care of you, they feed you, they give you recipes, they train you in all kinds of aspects of tango, they encourage you to practice, and theyíre so communicative! Theyíre so organized in their newsletter, and its main contributors, Fran Chesleigh and Sue Dallon, are both really good writers. I think their descriptions of whatís happening reflect the ambiance of the classes and the milonga very well, everything just kind of spills out. And thatís exactly the way it should be. One goes there and one is welcomed. The first time I went, I was incognito, they had no idea who I was, I was just a new face walking in off the street. Because I was new, they were on top of me the whole time, making sure I got to dance. I think thatís very New Jersey! New York is so crowded, you donít interact that way in the city. It doesnít mean that youíre mean or not friendly, but for someone coming in from the outside, the New York milongas arenít as warm and welcoming as the Firehouse. People can belong to cliques. In Paris itís certainly that way, too. It takes a while to get to know them, and it never happens in one night. But at Firehouse Tango, you can connect with just about everyone right away. If the same people are running it in ten years, I have every confidence that they will still be bending over backwards to make everyone feel welcome, that they will still be nurturing everyone who shows up. They seem to have an odd need to be welcoming.
 

          And everything they do seems to spin off into extracurricular stuff, like the writing, the newsletter, the food, the atmosphere. Go over the top, thatís my motto. Go for it!
 

          As for future classes at Firehouse, Iím looking forward to coming back this year, next year, and long into the future.

 

FT: Is there anything in the world of tango that you havenít yet done, that youíd like to do?

SC: Go to Buenos Aires. Dance in Berlin. Dance in Amsterdam. And Iíd love to dance in Portland, Oregon, which is becoming a center of tango activity on the West Coast. The Oregon people come here to New York, and whenever they do, I love to get together with them. Theyíre young and enthusiastic, like theyíre the next generation of tango dancers and instructors. Seattle and San Francisco are part of that ferment, too. The whole West Coast is really strong. Denver has a nice community, too, and there I have danced. I wouldnít necessarily put Buenos Aires first, itís just one of the many places Iíd like to go. And I always want to go back to Paris and Montreal. See? I canít make a decision. For now Iíll just keep dancing in New York with an occasional visit to Firehouse Tango, and that will keep me happy.

 

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