Sunday, 7 October 2012

Englishman in Central Park, Manhattan

Throughout the summer there is tango in the park - Argentine tango around Shakespeare's statue just south of Sheep Meadow in Central Park, Manhattan. We are now well into September, nights are drawing in, and autumn sunshine is low as we arrive from Columbus Avenue. Within an hour, dusk will have gathered and shadows of dancers will be cast by the antique lamp stands that surround the square.

The music of Di Sarli, gentle but rhythmical, drifts across the grass as we approach on the park road. We cut north from 65th Street Transverse and follow the sound. Ahead, tangueros already circle the statue. Cast by John Quincy Adams Ward and unveiled here on the southern end of Literary Walk in 1872, Shakespeare looks down from his lofty plinth onto a hexagonal paved square. Around the base of the statue is the bag park, piled with sacks and coats, safe within the dancers' reach. Surrounding the square are benches, perfect for the cabeceo, although experience will suggest that invitation takes the place of cabeceo as the shadows fall.

As advised, we have left our best dance shoes in Harlem, and try our older pairs on the textured square. It is not as challenging as it appeared, perhaps with the seasons' tangueros polishing a little more of the concrete pavers each week. With care it it 'yes' to the pivot, the inner lanes being smoother and relatively unaffected by debris from the overhanging trees. This tanda is Laurenz - so we take to the pista to join swirling dancers as the park's pigeons take to their roosts. Here is a gentleness, the lyricism of the music being absorbed by the evening as the sun drops far away west across the Hudson.

For those visiting for the first time, arrive with a distinctive bag (so that you can spot it in the pile), a wrap, a dap of mosquito repelant (not a major issue) and maybe a folding umbrella should the weather change. Here in the park, you are a ten minute walk from the shelter of 66th Street and line 1, or Columbus Circle at Central Park South. Most women wear heels, but if you dance in flats, that's fine. I would advise the men to leave their best dance shoes at home and to wear a leather soled shoe. Bottles of water are available, but best come prepared. Should you spot the empanada tray, dip into the dollars and enjoy an authentic taste of Buenos Aires in Manhattan. During the evening, a hat is passed around for such contribution as you can afford. The organisers have real costs and make such effort that $5 per head is always welcome, although not essential, making this, no doubt, your most inexpensive dance in New York. Another tip is to arrive early (before 6.30 pm) and leave late (at 9.00 pm). The early arrivals get to chat and meet other dancers - the very best way to assure you of later tandas with your chosen tangueros. The later part of the evening is the most magical - when you feel Central Park against the skyline of Manhattan, and the warmth of the swell of dancers before leaving into the darkness and head to Central Park South, the lights, the traffic and the subway.

Unmissable are the characters of the park that seem to drop by.

Here, a grey haired woman dances silently on her own, giving an impressive lead to her invisible partner. Her life, flair and style bring a strange dignity to the square. She dances patiently, interpreting the music with joy, before she melts into the shadows until the next tanda.

Midway through the evening the quietness of Calo's 1942 Jam├ís retornar├ís is interrupted by the arrival of a strange figure. Not a tanguero, clearly, but a dancer all the same, Central Park's most prominent transvestite appears with a flurry of swishing skirts. This is 'Carmen Miranda' meets 'Gaga'.

photo by                                                                     photo by Cornelis Verwaal

With red, green and yellow beard, matching poodle and African Grey parrot, Ms Columbia is a regular visitor to tango. I decide against a cabeceo, but Ms Columbia would have almost certainly rejected it, preferring to dance with the poodle. When resting, her parrot takes a break from the swirl of tango aboard the poodle who seems quite oblivious to his presence.

After Ms Columbia's departure (she does not stay long) and Canaro's slow milongas, the evening settles into the quieteness of an autumn night. Above us to the south, the lights of the Plaza Hotel and Rockefeller Centre beyond, glint and wink in the sky. A dark cloud looms and a little rush of night air spins the crisp leaves that scatter into little pools. It is the last tanda of the evening, we change into walking shoes, and set off towards 57th Street. It is as if we have stepped away from a perpetual loop of tango, the music fading as we depart. Whilst not a classic tango venue, we leave a place of individuality, of warmth and lasting memories that are Manhattan.