A THOUSAND WORDS | THE ACCULTURATE TANGO

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BY ROD CEBALLOS

The Northsider is proud to present a new A Thousand Words photo essay. In ‘The Acculturate Tango’ photographer Rod Ceballos covers the story of local tango instructor Aysegul Altug, photographing her dance sessions in various spots around Melbourne. This photo essay is the latest part of Rod’s ‘Dance People’ series.

 

The Acculturate Tango

 

She moves across the floor wrapped in elegance. Leading confidently, transparently, guided only when she chooses to be. Her body glides and bends in the arms of her partners. The music ends and they hold a dramatic pose, perfectly still until someone claps; their bodies relax and her smile widens. She looks to her students and explains the steps taken, helping them contort their bodies, encouraging that extra effort. And then they go again, all led by their tango teacher.

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Teaching at The Provincial Hotel in Fitzroy.

It’s hard to imagine Aysegul Altug as someone different – at least while she holds the room and guides her students forward. It’s easy to not see the Masters student in I.T software, or the young woman who didn’t speak any English a few years back. When looking at her work, it’s especially difficult to discern a girl who had never danced Tango, or much of anything else, half a decade ago.

 

Life is long and no road is perfectly straight. Aysegul knows that better than many, and she now revels in the fact. Today she studies, teaches and nurtures, far from home and everything she once imagined as her future. She does not consider her life better or worse, just whole and connected.

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“Tango is about connection,” she explains. “When dancing you might be in a room with one hundred people, all moving with their partners, and it’s a very harmonious moment. Everyone is connected. At the same time you are in a bubble, aware of the people around you, moving freely in this crowded space, but lost in the music.”

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Aysegul Altug and Juan Veron – Tango Instructors

 

Rio de la Plata, with Buenos Aires, Rosario and Montevideo as its hotspots, is the traditional home of tango. Today this dance born from African beats, European migration and local indigenous culture is danced all over the world, including Turkey. Here tango became popular as a musical form in the mid-1920s, soon to be an integral part of the new nation’s identity.

Juan Veron singing and hosting a Milonga, Wesley Anne in Northcote

Despite the popularity of tango as music, Turkish society would only become comfortable with its dance in the late 1970’s. From that point the dance quickly took hold of the social venues for the young, like the one where Dogan Altug would discover his talent for dancing. Mr. Altug stopped dancing tango once married, but the music would live on in his home and be absorbed by his daughter, Aysegul.

Mr. Sha and his dance partner. Milonga at Wesley Anne in Northcote.

Tango is emotional, yet its form and constraint makes it popular in cultures where the notion of masculinity denies a space to more flamboyant dances. It’s regarded as sensual and elegant, often showcased in Hollywood movies as a precursory display of passion. Yet tango is really about the person and what moves them forward. It’s not a promise of what’s to come, but rather the story of what has been.

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Coming to Australia in 2008, Aysegul never imagined tango would be a part of her new life. Recently married, unable to speak the language and overwhelmed by culture shock, the change was difficult. So difficult in fact that a couple of years later she would find herself living in a shared house, alone, and trying to improve her English so as to take tertiary studies. It was at that time that she accepted an invitation to dance salsa socially and was surprised to discover her inherent ability.

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“I was invited to salsa nights by a friend who was living in Melbourne for a couple of months,” she explains. “I didn’t really connect with salsa though, but I discovered I really liked dancing. So when my friend left and I stopped attending, I knew I wanted to keep dancing. That is when I remembered my father’s music, tango. It had always been around as I grew up, and it seemed the natural choice.”

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Aysegul Altug at Swinburne Tango Club in Hawthorn

Aysegul first studied up on the tango schools in Melbourne. She recalls finding seven schools at the time, and trying out at least half of them as she looked for the right place to get her started. She found different styles of teaching, choosing the one which best fitted her own vision.

In her opinion a good tango teacher is one who focuses on the connection. In her search she found teachers who focused on the steps, and this worked well for some students. Others followed a more emotive process which appealed to her. “They taught to follow, feel, and connect and it made sense to me.” she says. So she followed, felt and connected all of 2012 as a good and loyal student. And then she followed some more, studying with different people, gaining confidence in her abilities.

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Aysegul, now as the tango teacher, has worked out her own method. “I focus on technique,” she says. “But this technique leads to feeling. What we teach is body mechanisms and the dynamics of moving with someone, but it all leads to who you are and what you feel.”

So how long does it take one to become good at tango? If led well, one may take three months to learn to follow and gain some flow when moving. However, according to Aysegul, tango is really a lifelong learning process. One which she herself admits can become quite consuming.

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“I couple of years ago I went to Buenos Aires to study tango. I was alone and spoke no Spanish at all, but I needed to go,” she explains. “I had studied and learnt a lot in Melbourne, and even did some teaching assistance when visiting Istanbul, but before this trip to Argentina I was worried tango was consuming me… Then, thanks to this experience, I realized that it was fine. I understood that I should let tango consume me.”

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She returned from her trip feeling more mature as both a dancer and a person. She knew what she wanted to do with her life, and that tango would be a non-conditional part of it. Becoming a teacher was not her objective just yet, but promoting and sharing this dance was something she felt strongly about.

 

Upon her return to Melbourne Aysegul joined HSP Melbourne, a meet-up group for highly sensitive people. It’s a characteristic of this group that all members share a particular skill with the rest, thus she was asked to organize weekly tango sessions. This was her first formal foray into teaching tango as a lead instructor and set the course for things to come.

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Hernan Hernandez and Aysegul – Swinburne Tango Club instructors

At the time Aysegul also decided to do her masters in information technology and joined Swinburne University again. Finding herself welcomed by the international students’ community, she soon made up her mind to continue the work done at HSP and start the Swinburne Tango Club.

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Part of the Swinburne Tango Club

The Swinburne Tango Club is based in the Hawthorn campus, currently meeting on Friday evenings in building Sr201. The club is free and meant to connect students from different backgrounds and life styles, all willing to go through a process of acculturation similar to their teacher’s.

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“I want to share tango with everyone around me; everyone who is part of my regular life,” declares Aysegul. She explains there is a vibrant tango community in Melbourne always ready to welcome new people, but at this moment in her life she feels the need to take tango to the people instead.

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Aided by fellow instructors, Hernan Hernandez and Shebnem Tuncel, the Swinburne Tango Club is a mix of nationalities and careers, dancing and sharing till long past the official end of their sessions. These young people are keen to learn about the dance and themselves, and also to have a lot of fun.

On Monday nights Aysegul takes her tango to Fitzroy, holding beginner classes at The Provincial Hotel from 7:00 pm. Working with Argentinian tango instructor and singer Juan Veron, Aysegul shares what she knows with everyone willing to try. The class is followed by a Milonga, a session of tango music and dance compliments of Juan and his fellow musicians.

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There is tango in Melbourne, and Aysegul Altug is doing her best to make sure it’s accessible to all. She has evolved into someone different through her pursuit of dancing; become someone far more daring, stronger than she once suspected. But in the end, starting with her father and Turkey’s taste for tango, it’s evident that everything truly is connected. And by far more than a dance.

“Tango is not a dance, it’s a culture,” she tells us. “You are drawn to tango because of who you are.”

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Rod is the Northsider’s photography editor, occasional photographer and random writer of bits and pieces. His number one fan is his ten year old daughter, who thinks being published in Internet equals being famous. To see more of this work click here.

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