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Sarah La Rocca - From Tulle to Tango

by Wendy Goldberg
April 11, 2009
Stepping Out Studios
37 West 26th Street
New York, NY 10010
646-742-9400
Read an article about the All Night Milonga at Stepping Out Studios.
I had an opportunity to interview Sarah La Rocca, the petite and dynamic "Queen of the Night" who hosts Stepping Out Studios' All Night Milongas. I met her at 7:30 pm Saturday, April 11th, 2009 while she was flitting about, her fingers busy in every aspect of preperation for the 9 til 5 am night. She suggested I take the 9 pm Milonga class before the interview so I could steep myself in some content first. Also, she said she felt anxious because she still had so much to do. I happily obliged and spent a fun hour garnering the basics, twirling about.

We met up about 10:15, and sat down together in front, so she could keep an eye on the happenings. The lyrical milonga music wafted around us like a winsome breeze, as we finally got to talk.



Wendy: (turning the tape recorder on) Ok, ok here we go. Did you want to ask me about the class?

Sarah: Yeah, how'd you like the class?

Wendy: I liked it a lot.

Sarah: Good.

Wendy: The men and women were seperated for a while, then partnered.

Sarah: It's an old fashioned, traditional way of teaching.

Wendy: Speaking of tradition…when you were a little girl, did you enjoy dancing?

Sarah: Yes, I've been dancing my whole life - absolutely!

Wendy: What kind of dance did you start with?

Sarah: I started with ballet and studied many, many years…up until the time I went to College…where I studied theatre and stopped dancing completely. When I got out of College, I wanted to go back to dancing…I tried ballet but I hadn't done it in five years. I could never go back and regain what I had been, so I started looking into other things. When I studied ballet, I was a complete ballet snob…I had no interest in any other type of dance.

Wendy: Well, isn't that sometimes part of the ballet culture?

Sarah: Perhaps, perhaps. I think some dancers are interested in all forms of dance, but for me, it was a tunnel vision kind of thing. So I started experimenting with other kinds of dance - flamenco, baroque…then in graduate school my thesis advisor, who was chairman of the dance program, was really instrumental in getting me back to dancing. I got involved taking modern dance classes…

Wendy: I did some modern dance, the Martha Graham technique. Is that what you did?

Sarah: A little bit of that. I really was never in love with modern dance. Then I had a roomate who was a ballroom dancer…and it's through him that I started Tango…I didn't like it at first. Then I began to love the complexity of improvisation in it. I was crazy about it, quit my job, and went to Buenos Aries to study it. It consumed every aspect of my life. After six months, I left, came to NY…needed to work. I did a lot of studying about Argentina before I went there….the history and culture that produced the Tango…which as a foreigner, is a tough nut to crack.

Wendy: Do you think it informed the way you did the dance, after you learned about the culture…did it affect your movement, emphasis, or emotional aspects of the dance…

Sarah: It's a very interesting question…I think when you come to something as a foreigner… I will always be on the outside of it…the same as if I wanted to study Chinese Opera…

Wendy: Sometimes an outsider can see things more clearly, than an insider…

Sarah: Yes…I truly believe it's an art form, an expression, that anyone, anywhere can do, and do well…you have to dance who you are. This is true no matter what you dance. When I was in Ballet School, I was taught to dance in the Russian style…but in the end, you have to dance who you are, and where you're from…which adds a different color to everybody…

Wendy: Yes, yes…

Sarah: Also the idea is not to be cookie cutter…you want to have an authentic look and feel, and understanding…yet still be an individual…

Wendy: Yes…and be creative…

Sarah: And be creative, yeah. And have your own flavor within the tradtion. You still want to serve the form that is Tango, but you want to dance as Wendy, and I want to dance as Sarah…

Wendy: Yes…

Sarah: I don't think it's necessary for Tango everywhere to be the same…people aren't the same…there'll always be a lot of commonalities, but there are nuances and differences.

Wendy: Some people like to see the commonalities, and some like to focus on the differences.

Sarah: Yeah. I think in the Tango community we like to focus more on the commonalities.

Wendy: I understand that improvisation is an important aspect of Argentine Tango as you practice it.

Sarah: The level of improv is more in depth…in other partner dances, there are more structured or predetermned patterns of steps…than in Tango. It requires that you be very, very present to your partner.

Wendy: In the moment…

Sarah: Yes, in the moment. So there's a great deal of sensitivity and intuition that passes between the two people for it to work very well.

Wendy: Does the woman get to improvise, or does she always have to follow…

Sarah: Yes, you do…the leader is the leader, but also has to follow the follower…just like in a converstion. You steer the conversation, because you ask me the questions - but then you have to listen to my response, and base your next question on my respnse.

Wendy: Yes, yes…

Sarah: So it's very much like that. I can't just ignore you - or your question - altogether, and say something unrelated - so we follow each other…

Wendy: It's an interaction…

Sarah: It's an interaction…yeah…the structure of the dance is that the leader begins the movement, the follower does their best to interpret what it is the leader is asking…followers can embellish, and interpret the movement in a way the leader wasn't expecting. The leader has to take that, and work with it on the fly…

Wendy: Do you like to do any performing?

Sarah: I used to do a lot of performing…I was really keen on it but I gave that up a few years ago…(Sarah laughs deeply)

Wendy: So you've been at Stepping Out Studios for quite a while…so you must be happy here.

Sarah:: Yes, I'm very happy here… with the awesome Milongas!

Wendy: Are you active in building up the Tango community here?

Sarah: I teach a lot of beginners. I'm really keen on that beause I think it's immensely satisfying seeing someone go from nothing to something…

Wendy: Yes…it's a big leap…

Sarah: Yes…it's a big leap…in a short amount of time…and with my friend Sergio, we're doing a lot of projects to constantly bring new people to Tango all the time.

Wendy: Does anyone else in your family dance?

Sarah: No…nobody knows what the hell happened to me…since the time I came out of the womb, I wanted to dance and nobody can understand where I got my ability to do it, or my interest in it. When I was six years old, I begged my Mother to send me to dance school, and she said 'No…it'll just be a passing phase'… well it's nearly fifty years later and I'm still dancing…(Sarah starts giggling like a girl here)

Wendy: Anyone else in the family in the arts at all?

Sarah: I do have people in the family who work in Opera, singers, conductors, composers…my Mother was a painter…my sisters and I were raised with a strong appreciation of the arts….but it was never supposed to be your profession…it was just supposed to be something you did on Saturday night…(Sarah laughs again).

Wendy: Of course all dance involves a lot of discipline…do you think Argentine Tango requires even more?

Sarah: I think…it's more demanding than some of the other partner dances. I think Argentine Tango particularly appeals to people who really like to work on things. People who like to toil and think about it a lot…and never arrive at the point of being finished…(Sarah slows her words and gets a far away look)…it's not a quick fix…you can't learn to dance Tango in a weekend, you know?

Wendy: Yes.

Sarah: It's a long haul because there's a lot of nuances and subtleties to it…so I think it appeals to a certain kind of person.

Wendy: So is there anything else you'd like to tell me about your program here, or the direction you'd like things to go in, or your plans…?

Sarah: (laughing) In terms of teaching, and working in a studio, to me the most important thing is teaching people what the real social tango is. To improvise and to succeed in a crowded Milonga. That's what initially drew me here and after many years, that is what still holds my attention. Which is why I'm not interested in the whole performing thing…

Wendy: I like learning a routine to perform…a Rumba…a Cha Cha… a Swing…I find it comforting knowing what comes next…and the emotional shape of the whole dance…

Sarah: Cause you know where you're going to go…

Wendy: Yes…

Sarah: When I first started dancing Tango, I didn't have any experience with partner dancing. It was alarming to me not to be autonomous…you spent your whole life dancing as an autonomous being.

Wendy: Yes.

Sarah: But now what is so seductive about Tango is surrendering that - over to the leader - it's a very different kind of feeling. You have to give the leader your trust, for them to be able to do a good job - if you fight them in any way, it breaks the beauty of it. As a follower, you're still operating from a position of great strength and power - you have to surrender to have the spontaneity…and that's where the real beauty of the dance - if it's going to happen…it's hard to teach people to do. It's easier to teach someone the mechanics of leading than it is to tell you what your mindset has to be..to just relax and be in the moment, listen and respond…without judgement or over analyzing it.

It's very easy for me to put my mind in that place…I love to put my mind in that place… (laughing a lot) like I'm in charge of stuff all the time…

Wendy: You want to let go…

Sarah: Halleluya!!! (laughing)

Wendy: Let somebody else carry the reins…

Sarah: Yeah, and that's where the yummy part happens…that's where the connection happens…

Wendy: Do you have any favorite partners?

Sarah: Regular people…not stars, not teachers, just regular people. The important thing about Tango is that it's a dance that was created by regular people.

Wendy: I've noticed watching the dancers this evening, that there are a lot of happy faces…almost ecstatic…the couples seem very connected to each other…

Sarah: Yes. That's right.

Wendy: Like there's a conversation going on that's not verbal….

Sarah: Yes. That's completely accurate.

Wendy: Much more than a lot of other partner dances…

Sarah: I think that's because in Tango we stay in the embrace - with a lot of other dances, you open it up - break out of it. In Tango..

Wendy: You're right there together…

Sarah: Yeah…I hope that gives you something to work with!

Wendy: Yes! And I hope you enjoyed it.

Sarah: Yes. I feel so much more relaxed now.

Wendy: Good, good, that's what I wanted to do…

Sarah: You shifted my mind from anxiety to happy…

Wendy: See…it wasn't so hard…was it?

Sarah: So I hope you're going to stay…

Wendy Yes…to see the champions from Columbia perform…and take more pictures…

Sarah: Super…super…super!!!



I turned the tape off, and we went back to the engulfing arms of the Milonga, and the sweet embrace of the lyrical music, where time seemed to stretch out to infinity.
Sarah La Rocca, leader of the All Night Milonga at Stepping Out Studios

Sarah La Rocca, leader of the All Night Milonga at Stepping Out Studios

Photo © & courtesy of Wendy Goldberg

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