A Fragile Hatchery: State of U.S. Campus Tango Clubs

As an informal advisor to the Caltech Tango Club for the past few years, I have gotten a peek at the complexity of running a campus tango club.

I had lots of ideas about how to help campus clubs. Then a chat with Melodie Kao from Caltech made me realize how much more there was to learn about campus tango clubs, first.

That led to a lot of informal interviewing and chats about clubs, to some online discussion, and next to the Campus Tango Club Survey. The big learnings from this survey about campus tango clubs (henceforward just "clubs") are:

  1. Clubs are a hub of powerful positive experiences for participants

  2. Clubs are perceived almost universally as making an enormous contribution to tango in the US

  3. Clubs struggle on many fronts

  4. Clubs that have a committed, long-term local organizer-teacher struggle less

  5. Dancers are open to get more involved in supporting clubs

Below, I'll share more details about each of these findings, and you can also look deeper into actual responses if you want. 

About the survey:  It was distributed via Facebook July 26th-Aug 5th 2017. There were 131 completes representing over 50 different campus Tango clubs. 


1. Clubs are a hub of powerful positive experiences for participants

Many people who had learned in tango clubs were very clear: the club had changed their life profoundly and for the better.

  • A sense of belonging: close friends, a feeling of being at home, like family

  • Personal growth and experience of meaning

  • Stress relief from academic pressures

  • An introduction to a lifelong passion

  • Connecting with people the same age, as well as with those outside the campus bubble

  • A way of exploring creativity

  • Leadership skills

  • Networking

In their words: 

Caltech Tango Club participants and their partners at their Tango Challenge graduation at the student-organized Caltech Tango Marathon

Caltech Tango Club participants and their partners at their Tango Challenge graduation at the student-organized Caltech Tango Marathon

It was the best aspect of my college career. My second family! - University of Maryland

Friends! Great teachers, taught me to connect with people more readily from all walks of life! -Brown, Princeton

Gave me a passion, a group of friends, a goal. One of the few hobbies I have stuck with. -University of Washington

Major source for stress relief. - University of Wisconsin - Madison, University of Georgia

got me to start tango! was my only extra curricular in college. changed my life! - Columbia/Barnard, Princeton

I owe all my tango career to the GMU tango club, as well as invaluable friendships... enriched my college experience; gave me some leadership skills. - GMU

Introduced me and got me addicted to tango. Gave me a lifelong hobby. Gave me a social network when I had almost none. - MIT

introduced me to one of the passions of my life! - Columbia/Barnard, Princeton

Shown the impact of tango, communities, and personally taught me what leadership is really about. - MIT

Drastically changed my life. - UC Berkeley, UT Austin, UT Dallas, Purdue's Tu Tango Club

My University of Michigan tango club is the reason for the way my life is today. I met my spouse there, many of my closest friends, and it gave me a high quality tango education that allows me to dance at a high level and inspiring me to continue to improve my dance and contribute to others' tango experiences. It also gave me event planning skills that I use both in my (unrelated) job and tango. -University of Michigan

It brought tango into my life. It built friendships and helped build an important social circle for me as an introvert. It also helped me get to my first festival. - University of Oregon

It was stress relieving and makes me relaxed after a long day at work - University of Wisconsin - Madison

Better connection to my spouse - Purdue

Kept me sane during my Ph.D. :) -Stanford

It gave a home away from home. - UC Berkeley

2. Clubs are perceived almost universally as making an enormous contribution to tango in the US

Most people see clubs as the future of tango, the seedbed of the next generation.

The top 35 words used at least 3 times in answering the question, "What do you think is the role of campus tango clubs in the tango world? (Top of mind)"

The top 35 words used at least 3 times in answering the question, "What do you think is the role of campus tango clubs in the tango world? (Top of mind)"

  • A source of new, young, intelligent dancers

  • A source of future organizers and community leaders

  • A safe, friendly, inclusive, accessible, cocoon-like place for newbies to learn and grow

  • A unifying force that can build bridges in fragmented communities

  • Access to great spaces for tango
    (although non-officers may not be aware that accessing on-campus space can be nontrivial and expensive)

In their words:

Bringing young, curious, learning-minded people to tango at a time in their lives when they have more time than when they start to work. - Caltech, UC Berkeley, UCLA

"Mainstreaming Argentine Tango.  Okay, mainstreaming may be too strong a word, but massively expanding the audience directly and indirectly." - Yale

"To introduce tango to new dancers and thereby keeping the dance alive" -Amherst, MIT, Yale

"I think they are very important in creating a community and providing a positive space for young dancers to grow both in tango and in life." - University of Florida

Expand cultural consciousness of tango, give young people a chance to contribute in a scene they might otherwise feel left out of -ASU

Introduce students to a new way of communicating, expose them to a new way of experiencing the world (thru senses, not only thru thinking).- Stanford

Spreading the tango bug to young people, awesome cross-cultural learning and connection. -University of Pittsburgh

Recruits dedicated dancers who will take tango to other communities - Yale

Train talented young students so they spread good tango through the world. - Yale

Campus tango clubs are a gateway for students into the tango world. Sharing an activity which offers many physical and mental benefits both short-term and long-term. - BSU
 

3. Clubs struggle on many fronts

There are five big reasons why campus clubs struggle so much: organizing, promoting, retention/programming, community relations, and the problem of ensuring safety.  

"They are small and not recognized on campus. They need more outside guidance in managing a dance club that requires much more maturity and appreciation than other popular campus dances." - ASU

  • Difficulty with club organizing and management

    • Lack of continuity: students graduate, club officers turn over/burn out, inconsistent succession planning

    • Lack of officer training: Club officers lack knowledge/experience on how to lead/manage a club and operate with minimal resources/training; administration may be gappy or ineffective.

    • Dealing with university bureaucracy: Lots of red tape, complexity, time-consuming

    • Funding the club: Most students can't pay the true cost of immersing in tango, so clubs need to find funding either from university or create their own fundraisers/events. 

  • Difficulty promoting tango on campus

    • Promoting tango: Tango's hard to promote anyway, and especially in this setting - it has a lot of associations that don't resonate with young people — on a campus there are so many options and alternatives for student activities
       
    • Competing with swing/salsa/ballroom: In comparison with more well-understood dancers and popular vibrant clubs, learning tango basics can feel low energy and hard/demotivating - not fun.
  • Difficulty getting the "perfect storm" of the teachers + programming + committed members that creates a critical, self-sustaining mass

    • Finding the right teachers: Cheap, local, high quality, "low-drama," will stay around, trusted

    • Retention: Retaining club members long enough for them to start having fun with tango

    • Other priorities: Tango competes with heavy-duty academic obligations that often take priority

  • Difficulty with local tango community connection

    • Getting out to milongas: Effort/resources required to get off campus to milongas

    • Competition: Club events may be perceived as competing with local community events, can be stressful/isolating

  • Problematic individuals and incidents

    • Lack of safety for young people: Problems with predators, "creeps," or sexual harassment issues

Worth noting that these same problems are also shared by most small, community-based tango organizations - many do struggle with organizing, promotion, retention, competition, and bad seeds too. In the campus setting, these seem to be exacerbated by a context with many distractions and a continuously changing officership that has less experience managing people. 

4. Clubs who have a committed, long-term local organizer-teacher struggle less

On-campus tango exists and thrives thanks to individuals like the following, who survey participants highlighted as having contributed to the campus club movement. 

Abraham Taicher | Acacia Crouch | Adam Cornett | Alex Bain | Alex Krebs | Alper Ungor | Amelia Stahl | Amy Zhou | Angela | Ashlee Murphy | Ayano Yoneda | Bruna Z | Cameron Voloshin | Carlos Moreno | Caroline Peattie | Catherine Valentine | Christian Wheelihan | Christopher Nassopoulos | Cristina Ladas | D'Artagnan Horner | Daniel Trenner | Daniela Borgialli | Darcy Hackley | Dennis Magoya | Derek Somo | Eizabeth Morin | Elizabeth Lee | Elizabeth Sanger | Elizabeth Wartluft | Ellen Gwozdek | Eray Yuksek | Eric Lindgren | Eunha (Hannah) Kim | Felipe Martinez | Gabi | Henry Finklestein | Homer Ladas | Inja Vojnovic | Irene Zolotukhin | Isaac Oboka | Ivan Lopez | Jacqueline Eibey | Jaimes Friedgen | Jake Spatz | James Kang | Jason DeSalvo | Jennifer Bratt | Joe Grohens | Joe Leonardo | Joe Yang | Jonas Aquino | Juliet McMains | Jun Yi | Kasia Roig | Kat Gorsuch | Kaussik | Ken-Hou Lin | Kirill Shklovsky | Lauren Kendrick | Liz Williams | Logan | Lori Coyle | Mack Kerker | Marco Antonio Licon | Marco Licon | Marco Mambelli | Melodie Kao | Michelle Badion | Miesha White | Mitra Martin | Nathan Sears | Ney Melo | Nick Tapia | Nicolas K | Nieka White | Pamela Slavsky | Peace Sangtawesin | Rachel Lidskog | Ramu Pyreddy | Rebecca Rorick Smith | Richard Powers | Robin Thomas | Rommel Oramas | Ryan Mack | Scott Boddye | Sharna Fabiano | Shu Li | Stella Hao | Stephanie Berg | Steve Slavsky | Tilly Kim | Tine Herrenan | Tomas Howlin | Tommy Smith | Trista Brophy | Viktoria | Yimeng | Yomei Shaw | Ziyan Zhu

There are probably many, many many more people who have contributed enormous amounts of energy and dedication to fostering tango clubs. To all those mentioned and unmentioned -- thank you!!!


 

Something special: ASU Tango Club

As I read the responses, it became clear to me that some clubs have been incredibly lucky to have deeply, deeply committed local facilitators who devote intensive energies to the club over the long term.

While this happens in many communities, I was struck by the passion and emotion shared by members who had been part of ASU Tango Club and the gratitude they had for what ASU faculty member and dance teacher Daniela Borgialli created. 

It brought more meaning into my life - ASU

It has helped me find balance - ASU

It was my family during undergrad. I met my closest friends there, and I fell in love with tango there because the social aspect was so fun and welcoming.  - ASU

Tango club changed my life. My entire social life and extracurricular experiences were centered around it. I chose to study abroad in BA because of tango club - ASU

It was a huge place of belonging and family when I was in college. - ASU

Friends, a community, a creative outlet, a place to decompress, travel opportunities, networking - ASU

It's made me more social and find a way to enjoy my free time out of my house. - ASU

Tango club gave me family and friends that proceeded to hold onto for years even after I wasn't dancing as much - ASU, Caltech

Immensely, key to personal growth - ASU

You can read more about how it was set up and gets some clues on what made the ASU Tango Club so powerful on Daniela's blog here. It would be lovely to hear stories from other dedicated club organizers like this and pool/share insights, knowledge, and best practices! 


5. And, dancers are open to get more involved in supporting clubs!

It was exciting for me to see how much untapped energy and potential there is in the community in the form of dancers who are willing to get more involved in supporting tango clubs. Check it out! 

Are you open to getting more involved in supporting campus tango clubs?

Are you open to getting more involved in supporting campus tango clubs?

Soo...that's the state as I see it, based on a small, nonscientific online survey combined with personal experiences and conversations with people I know. I would welcome anyone who has time to do a more rigorous or detailed follow up to this. 

By the way! Those who completed the survey were mostly pretty dedicated and committed tango dancers. 57% of the people who filled out the survey have been dancing for more than 5 years. 69% of them dance at least once a week. 47 DJs, 62 organizers, and 50 teachers were represented.

How long have you been dancing? 

How long have you been dancing? 

How often do you dance? 

How often do you dance? 

Which have you done in tango? 

Which have you done in tango? 

What could we do as a community to help campus tango clubs? 

In the process of doing this research, I've definitely realized how much I owe to campus tango clubs and the people who power them. So many of my favorite dancing friends started in that environment! And so many events I've cherished never would have happened without the force of campus tango clubs.  

I've also learned about initiatives to help clubs. One is Stella Hao's University Tango Clubs Facebook group, dedicated to connecting university clubs across the US. If you're a tango club organizer, you could join and share your needs/questions or solutions/resources with fellow organizers. Please do share in comments below any other other resources you know of that could help campus clubs!  

What could we do as a community to help campus tango clubs? How can the dancers who are willing to get involved help?

Share your thoughts below, or on Facebook, or start a conversation with someone in your community who might be up for exchanging about this.