The First Montauk Tango Festival

by Debbie Tuma

You’ve heard of “Last Tango in Paris?” Now there was “First Tango in Montauk.” The first, three-day, Montauk Tango Festival was held March 31-April 2, with about 100 tango dancers arriving in Montauk, including famous performers from New York City and even Argentina! And also members of the Argentine Tango Lovers of Long Island. They were all there to perform, teach and to learn this exotic and colorful dance!

Walking into South Edison Restaurant in Montauk on the first night, who would think there would be beautiful women of all ages in swishy dresses and heels, being twirled around by handsome men of all ages, on a big dance floor surrounded by a crowd of onlookers? Professional dancers were giving Tango lessons to beginners, and some more experienced couples just came to dance to the captivating Latin music provided by the deejay.

The whole idea started with Dr. Lewis Gross, a self-proclaimed Tango lover, holistic dentist in NYC, and owner of “The Gig Shack” in Montauk. He put together a long weekend of Tango dancing, lessons, and education at several different venues in Montauk.

Gross, who has been a Montauk homeowner since 1995, and opened The Gig Shack 20 years ago, has been commuting to his dental practice in the city. While there, he heard Tango music one day coming from a second floor patio in Greenwich Village.

“I was knocked out by the beauty of it, and soon it became my “community.” We hired Alfonso Triaggiani, who has been teaching dance in the Hamptons for decades, to teach Tango at Gurney’s Inn 20 years ago. And the first year I had the Gig Shack, we had it there.” Before that, Gross said he had originally danced disco at the former Studio 54 in Manhattan.

Gross decided he wanted to do an off-season tourist event and bring something different, like Tango, to the Montauk community, which needs more culture. He invited dance students from Alfonso’s dance center in Bridgehampton, as well as dance students from Argentine Tango Lovers of Long Island, led by Sherry Palencia. And he co-hosted and organized this event with Renee Rouger, a professional Tango dancer and actress from Argentina, who lives in Manhattan.

Together, they designed a three-day Montauk Tango weekend that took place at South Edison Restaurant on Friday night, at Sel Rose Restaurant on Saturday night, and at the Gig Shack on Sunday afternoon. The dance teachers, professional performers, and students stayed at the local motels.
On Friday night, Renee Rouger was on the dance floor, and explained to her audience that she was introduced to this dance by “The Goddess of Tango,” Maria Nieves. “I was in show biz, as an actress and dancer, and I hung out with the cast of “Tango Argentina” on Broadway in 1983,” she said. I always loved Tango—it reflects the drama and suffering of the working class people in Argentina.”

Sherry Palencia, President of Tango Lovers of Long Island, had come out with her students. They meet regularly to dance and learn about the Tango culture. “Our group has performed at colleges, libraries and private parties,” she said. “I always loved dance. I married a Mexican man, and later became a line dance teacher. One day I saw ‘Forever Tango’ on Broadway, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.”
She went to a Tango Festival in Argentina and learned the dance, but when she came home to Long Island, there was no place to do it. So she created her dance organization, based in Westbury and Bethpage, for the past 23 years. “I wanted to dance physically close, and also with the Tango, you experience the total body with breath and posture,” she explained.

One couple from Sherry’s Tango group, Yury Wolf-Sonkin and his wife Valerie, of Melville, were spinning around on the dance floor Friday night. “This is the most beautiful music that humanity has invented in a hundred years,” said Yury. “From the 20’s to the 50’s it was the most enticing experience in Argentina, but when the dictators came to this country, it started to disappear.” Valerie joked, “We call it Tango Therapy… socially acceptable, vertical foreplay. To dance the Tango, they say you have to be in love for at least 3 minutes.”

On Saturday night, there was big name entertainment at Sel Rose Restaurant in Montauk, with a great dance party. It featured the Pedro Giraudo Tango Quartet, a Grammy Award-winning band from Argentina, as well as famous performers as Guillermina Quiroga and Mariano Logiudice, and Arlos Rrego and Maureen Urrego, and Guillermo Merlo. On Sunday, people came to the Gig Shack for more dancing and music.

During the weekend, there was even a history lesson on Tango from John Osburn, a professor at New York University who teaches theater, literature and the art of Tango. “Tango is music, dance, song and culture,” he said. “It’s an act of nostalgia, and it’s different than any other dance because of the closeness of the embrace, and the improvisational nature of the steps.”

Lewis Gross said he hopes to develop a local dance community, with more festivals and Tango lessons in Montauk and the Hamptons in the future. For information, he can be reached at 917-855-0958.