COVID-19 makes for a last tango in Istanbul

Istanbul is considered the world’s second largest city for tango, behind only Buenos Aires. As the COVID-19 coronavirus descended on the city, Istanbul’s tango dancers gathered for a last dance, the Daily Beast said on Saturday.

On March 13 around two dozen people entered a smoky dimly-lit fourth floor bar, washed their hands, then began to dance the tango. “Away from the weight of an incoming pandemic,” DB said, “the event was a bubble of subversive joy. It felt intimate, dangerous. Below, Istanbul seethed. Up here, they tangoed.”

On a regular week, there are 25 milongas – social events where people meet to dance the tango – held throughout Istanbul, which is “widely known to be a tango mecca, if not THE tango mecca, outside of Buenos Aires,” an American tango lover named Monica Marks told DB.

“It’s fascinating because people have this idea about a 99 percent Muslim country, it doesn’t gel. But it’s actually huge,” Marks said.

Tango’s dominance in Istanbul can be traced to that worldwide tango revival in the 1990s after a Turkish man named Metin Yazır in Germany discovered the dance in the late 90s and trained the Turkey’s first tango teachers in the city, according to DB. 

Tango in Istanbul “tends to draw a younger, more culturally and politically contrarian [community] than a lot of other activities,” DB quoted Marks as saying. 

The dance may have flourished in the city due to “some of Turkey’s unique characteristics,” which balance “a strong community of people that are willing to touch each other in that way,” and the fact that “doing so is taboo,” DB said.

People now come to Istanbul to dance the tango, buy custom made tango shoes, or participate in large events such as a large international tango festival in early March – in which more than 300 people packed into a hall at the Four Seasons Bosphorus hotel.

On March 17, only a few days after the secret milonga, Turkey closed all social spaces. The first COVID-19 death was reported later that day. 

The sudden end to the dancing was jarring, Marks said, and the milongas of early March had been “a brilliant moment of tactile poetry right before the tsunami.”
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