‘Walk, enjoy the music, find someone whose movements interest you, and gravitate towards them.’ In Jenney Surelia’s weekly tango classes at Kahaila Aldgate, connection and conversation are at the forefront of class. The dancers – a group of perfectly ordinary, diverse Londoners of all ages, all willing to have fun and try something new – seem shy at first, but gradually open up and relax into the music, connect with one another, and become bolder with each step. This is the transformative experience of Jenney’s tango classes – bringing strangers together, not pushing a forced intimacy on the attendees but letting them find their own feet and explore the relationship it creates.
By day, Kahaila is an ordinary (albeit visually striking) cafe in Aldgate Square, but on Wednesdays at 7pm, the tables are pushed aside and the dance floor is cleared. Jenney’s weekly class is a place to explore a social side that you never knew you had, even for just an hour. In a country that feels full of division, this is more important than ever. Ahead of the taster class – which happens on the last Wednesday of every month, at 6:30pm – One City sat down with Jenney, the warm and graceful teacher bringing something very unusual to the Square Mile.
How did you get into teaching tango?
Jenney: It began completely by accident: I studied in Paris for a year, and by chance I found a tango class. I really got into it and started dancing a lot, and I was encouraged – i.e. set up! – by my sister and a friend to teach a class, even though I’d never taught before. They organised a space in a gym without telling me until a month before! Later, in London I approached Pineapple Dance Studios to teach a beginners’ class.
Two days before my first class, the London bombings happened. I thought it was over, thinking ‘why would anyone be interested in tango when this has happened?’ But to my surprise, a small group came: they needed some kind of connective experience.
Do you think tango is beneficial for hard-working Citysiders?
Definitely – when you’re in the rhythm of the City, it’s hard to not hear the drum that beats everyday, and sometimes London feels like a place where you can’t make eye contact with anyone! It’s the complete opposite to tango, where invitations are done by eye contact. For someone who’s not used to that, it can be intimidating.
What’s really nice about tango is that not only is it meditative, but it really is an exploration of yourself. It does develop you. In order to listen to somebody, you have to know the sound of yourself, to be present. For City workers that want to come to these classes, it’s an oasis for them once a week – they’re able to tap into that. It’s not just about being social and meeting new people, and not about the sexy side of tango – and there’s plenty of people selling that – it’s about a human connection that we’re all really thirsting for. By moving your body, you open your body up, you get endorphins running, you get to stretch, but you’re not doing it by yourself. You’re doing it in relation to another person, so that is really transformative. There’s no sense of competition; our glass bubble in Kahaila becomes a cocoon. We had a girl who works in FinTech take the class and she hit the nail on the head when she said ‘it’s not necessarily what I want, but it’s what I need.’
What do you like about teaching in Kahaila Aldgate?
Kahaila is brilliant. I teach at Pineapple, which is what always comes to mind when you think of dance classes and it is a lovely place to teach, but it’s a dance studio. Rather than trying to invoke this authentic experience which everyone imagines with fishnets and fedoras (all the cliche stereotypes of tango you can think about), what I wanted to focus on was the social side and creating an environment of exploration and experimentation, which is how people used to learn before there were commercial dance schools. In Argentina, before schools, people learned tango in two ways – the men learned amongst themselves in groups, in what was called una Academia, so they could go out and dance socially without embarrassing themselves in front of women, whereas the women were taught at home. It sounds old-school – times have moved on, our culture is much more diverse and much less macho, so I wanted to put that traditional learning experience into a modern context.
I wanted to find a place that feels homely but also has room for experimentation, and we’re very flexible on the roles. It’s not just men leading, women following – that’s how it was traditionally allocated – now we have women leading men, men leading women, men leading men, women leading women – it’s about exploring what the body can do but also the relationships and feelings that come from this on both sides. We can do this here because it’s not a dance studio, it’s a cafe. It’s relaxed, social and has this beautiful view, and we’re really in the heart of the City – all this life and action is happening all around us, and we’re in a safe cocoon in the middle. For me it’s perfect.
Argentina itself is not the birthplace of tango, but more Buenos Aires and the Rio Plate area. That’s an important point to make because we begin to understand that tango came from an urban, metropolitan context. It’s got a lot in common with London. Then when we understand that this was a dance that brought people – usually immigrants – together to socialise, we can see tango was the street dance of its day. This atmosphere is impossible to copy and paste from Buenos Aires, and it would be wrong to do so. But London is a big metropolitan city with its own character and that is totally something that feeds into how we learn and dance tango here.
What would you say to someone who might want to try tango but is a little bit shy?
It’s frightening, and as Brits we’re not used to getting up close and dancing intimately, but you do choose the intimacy. This is what’s really nice, if you’re able to see beyond the stereotypes you’ll find there’s a whole spectrum of creativity and inspiration, but you’ve got to be present. If you were having a conversation with someone, you would either be engaged or disengaged. I’d encourage people to think of it in that way, and not to feel like people are scrutinising you. Even people who come from other dances (salsa, ballet, contemporary) see very quickly that this is not just dance steps. You’re not learning choreography. I give you an idea and we have fun and play with it.
Ultimately, you’ve got to want to do it – I don’t want people to come to class unless they want to do it. You don’t need to be a fantastic dancer to dance tango. I’ve heard ‘I’ve got two left feet’ and ‘I can’t dance’ a lot, and those tend to be the people who really enjoy the classes as it’s improvisation, you’re not learning choreography. I’m trying to give you tools to have fun and play with.
A famous musician once said: “the tango is waiting for you,” and without wanting it to sound too creepy, it is. Like anything, it’ll happen at the right time for you. But it’s up to you to take the chance.
A lot of people might only know of tango after seeing it on Strictly, and seeing that intensity with a partner – they might have ideas about what tango looks like and worry they’re not at the same level.
Well, I’m not one to say that Hollywood gets tango right but if anybody did Hollywood tango well, it’s Al Pacino. It wasn’t because he dances particularly well, but it’s because he got the idea: it’s about having a conversation with your partner and if the conversation goes adrift, you just bring it back in. The idea is to stay with your partner, not doing what is technically right and technically wrong. Through that you can create a safe space which creates trust and openness, and possibilities.
Anybody can come and try it, you don’t have to be an experienced dancer, but you’ve got to be open to it. You’ve got to be willing to try. It’s a really relaxed environment, not a hunting ground, and I really like that about Kahaila. It is very open and inclusive, and a really good way to get an idea of what tango is beyond Strictly. It’s great that tango has been showcased on TV and at the beginning it brought so many people to classes. But the tango I know and have lived with for the last 20 years is a more subtle animal. It’s a practice you build up with time – quite different to what you see on Strictly. It’s less important how tango looks, than how it feels, and if you can understand that then you’re on the right track.
If you’d told me 20 years ago ‘you’ll be teaching tango’, I would have said ‘what’s tango?’ Whereas now, through it I’ve learned languages, I’ve learned things about myself. I used to be very awkward when I first started dancing, I wasn’t comfortable with being physical with other people, and tango doesn’t necessarily pull that shyness out of you but it does encourage you to open up.
What’s your favourite cultural spot in London?
The Tate is amazing, there’s so much going on there. The free tours run by their volunteers are worth a visit. I love museums and galleries in general. We’re so lucky in London, we’re spoilt for choice and we don’t always realise that until we’re in different places. I went to St Paul’s Cathedral properly for the first time a couple of months ago and I was struck by how beautiful it is. I’ve taught in Italy and have seen my fair share of classical cathedrals, but St Paul’s is breathtaking – and you can climb it!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt, and what advice would you give to someone who wanted to teach tango (or similar)?
Balance is really important. You should be able to sustain yourself by doing different work outside of your passion, that’s a practical thing to do. You do need to work a lot at finding something that is authentic to what you do. I don’t tick the boxes of a typical tango teacher; I’m not Argentinian, I’m an East African Indian, London-born woman who teaches tango by myself. Many people might think I shouldn’t be doing it – but I am. There should be more people learning it, and if they see that a London-born, Indian woman who is teaching and has been to Buenos Aires and is trying to connect to this culture that is entirely unrelated to the cultures she has grown up with, then anyone can do it.
Tango is not the same in London, or Paris, or Buenos Aires, and it shouldn’t be – it should have a local flavour, and that’s what makes it real. So have respect for the art form, and don’t be afraid to be yourself. Being real and authentic also means doing the work. Learning doesn’t stop just because I teach and I love that. I take inspiration from everywhere: my students; my own teachers and peers; other dance forms; art. Never stop learning and having fun with it.
Tango classes are held every Wednesday 7-8:30pm in Kahaila Aldgate (Aldgate Square) followed by a práctica until 9:30pm (£15 pp). On the last Wednesday of the month, there is a free taster session at 6:30pm (must be booked in advance). Click here for more info about Jenney and her classes.
Enjoy an audio taste of tango: https://www.tasteoftango.co.uk/tastes/
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