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The First Lady of Bay Area Tango


by Nancy Friedman

© 2003 Nancy Friedman



“If you’re serious about tango,” someone told me soon after I took my first lessons, “eventually you must study with Nora Dinzelbacher.”


“Eventually” came several months later. I stumbled upon one of Nora’s group classes (stumbling being my signature tango move) before a milonga at the Lake Merritt Dance Center. Frankly, I was intimidated—by  Nora’s magnificent looks (that luxuriant black hair, that commanding stance), by her reputation as a perfectionist, and by her gorgeous footwork, which put me in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s famous line (in a completely different context) about “dancing lessons from God.”


The class was a revelation—and a relief. Without ever dumbing down her instruction, Nora imparted the essential simplicity of tango as well as its elegance. And her patient critique of my dancing included some advice I’ll never forget. “Although you are connected with your partner, you must support your own weight,” she told me. “The woman always dances her own dance.”


The incarnation of that advice, Nora Dinzelbacher has been dancing her own dance for more than 30 years. As performer, teacher, Tango Week impresario, and charter member of BA Tango, she has been a true pioneer of Argentine Tango in Northern California. She is, in fact, the community’s “founding mother,” without whom it’s unlikely the Bay Area (or Sacramento, for that matter) would have so many excellent dancers, teachers, and milongas.


© 2003 Nancy Friedman

510 652-4159


“She’s the very best,” says Ed Loomis, who began his tango studies with Nora in 1994 and who now teaches tango in Sacramento. Max (Maxine) Garrett seconds that opinion. “Nora has always stayed true to herself and to her own vision of a mutually supportive community,” she says. Max, who first studied with Nora in 1988 and who today assists at many of Nora’s classes and milongas, adds: “There have been times when departing from her values might have earned her more money or fame, but she’s never been willing to do that. And here she is today—doing very well.”


The accidental tanguera


So it’s surprising to learn that Nora came to tango by accident. Born in La Paz, Entre Rios, some 600 miles north of Buenos Aires, she learned Argentine folk dances as a child but came to Buenos Aires at eighteen with the goal of becoming a radio talk-show host. When she flunked the audition—her accent was deemed too provincial—she entered the National School of Dance, studying folk dancing (but not tango) and learning to teach dance.


One day the school’s celadora (teacher’s aide) mentioned to Nora that her boyfriend was looking for dancers for a professional troupe. “Come to the show, then decide if you’re interested,” said the celadora. But Nora arrived too late and was turned away.


Time passed, and Nora forgot about the offer. Then one of her music teachers began directing a new show that embarked on a nationwide tour. When the show came to Nora’s home town of La Paz, Nora invited the company to stay at her family’s house. And it was there that she met the show’s dance




© 2003 Nancy Friedman

510 652-4159


director, Raul Dinzelbacher. “I fell in love the first time I saw him,” she said. There was just one hitch: Raul, it turned out, was the celadora’s boyfriend.


A week later, while still in La Paz, Nora received a call from her best friend.Raul is auditioning women dancers,” the friend said. “He needs one more, and he’s been trying to reach me.” “I was on vacation,” Nora recalls. “So I stupidly told my friend, ‘Can’t he wait for me?’” Her friend went to the audition instead—and got the job.


Luckily, Nora got a third chance to dance with Raul Dinzelbacher’s troupe. The show performed on an American cruise ship while it was docked in Buenos Aires, and Nora went to see the show—and Raul. “He immediately asked me if I knew how to dance tango, milonga, and chacarera. I said yes—a lie! He said, ‘If you can fit into these clothes, you’re dancing tonight.’ I said, ‘Why not?’”


As it happened, just two hours earlier Raul had broken up with his dancer girlfriend, and he needed a replacement. “If I’d thought about it for two seconds, I wouldn’t have done it,” Nora says. “I made my professional debut that night.” She was twenty years old and had never danced tango before.


On-the-job training


In Raul’s company, Nora learned choreography, costume design, stage lighting, and company management—all on the job. And she developed her teaching style. “Raul was a very good teacher, but he preferred that I deal with the dancers during rehearsals,” she says. She began performing as well,



© 2003 Nancy Friedman

510 652-4159


but never with Raul. “We didn’t become dance partners until I learned how to deal with him,” she says. “He was a workaholic and very temperamental, and so am I.”


This was the 1970s, when tango was out of favor among young Argentines. “My friends danced in discos,” she recalls. “They thought tango was low-class. They’d look at me and say, ‘Poor thing!’ But I was happy. I was on the stage every day, getting paid for doing something I loved.”


In 1986, Raul proposed a vacation—their first. It turned out to be a working vacation, performing on a cruise to the United States, but still, says Nora, “it was the honeymoon we’d never had.” When they reached San Francisco—sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge at night—they said to each other, “We have to stay here!” And they did, for six months.


During their stay they met Jean-Louis and Marta LeRoux—he was the conductor of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra; she was originally from Uruguay—with whom Nora and Raul stayed in touch after they reluctantly returned to Buenos Aires. In 1988, Marta sent them a letter urging them to return to San Francisco. Tango Argentino—the first major tango stage show—had come back to San Francisco for a return engagement, and Marta predicted that tango “is going to be huge here.” This time, Nora didn’t need to be asked three times. She and Raul sold “everything we had,” and moved to San Francisco.


Twists of fate


Marta’s prediction had been accurate. Tango Argentino was a sensation, and the Bay Area public clamored for tango lessons. By the time the show left, Nora and Raul had established themselves. Their visas expired; they stayed


© 2003 Nancy Friedman

510 652-4159


anyway. (Eventually, after spending “thousands of dollars on immigration lawyers,” they won visas in a lottery. Later still, Nora applied for U.S. citizenship; her status is pending.)


Among their early Bay Area students are some dancers still active in the community: Barbara and Al Garvey, Polo Tanir, Emilio Flores (who had first learned tango not in Buenos Aires but in Los Angeles), and Jorge Allende. Classes were held in San Francisco at the Mission Cultural Center, where Nora still teaches, and at Fort Mason; and at Studio J in Berkeley, around the corner from the present-day Beat. “There were maybe 15 of us in the whole tango community in those early days,” Barbara Garvey recalls. Barbara and Al also remember a tango cabaret in the Mission District, Sociedad Gardeliana, that Nora and Raul started.


Their reputation grew, and in 1989 they got an invitation to teach at a dance week in Cincinnati. The other nine dances on the schedule were vintage dances (“I had no idea what that meant!” Nora says); Richard Powers, the event director, wanted to introduce Argentine Tango. The experiment was a success. The following year, Richard moved his dance week to Stanford University, and he asked Nora and Raul to join him.


Monday and Tuesday of Stanford Dance Week went well, Nora recalls. Then, on Wednesday, after a full day of teaching, Raul suffered a heart attack in their kitchen, and died.


Nora was devastated. “He was 40 years old—in perfect health one second, and then it’s over. There’s no way you can prepare for something like that.”


© 2003 Nancy Friedman

510 652-4159



To save her sanity, she threw herself into work. She went back to Stanford to teach, then put together a performance troupe and taught group and private

lessons. And she taught at a Seattle dance week, bringing along George Guim, a student she promoted to assistant. He remained Nora’s assistant for five or six years, then began teaching on his own.


Tango Week is born (and reborn)


In 1991, Richard Powers re-entered Nora’s life with a tempting offer: to transform Stanford Dance Week into Stanford Tango Week. Would Nora be interested in teaching? !Por supuesto! Tango Week became an institution that lasted through 1997, when Stanford’s dance department made an abrupt decision to cancel it. Not wanting to forfeit the good will that Tango Week had created over the years, Richard asked Nora if she would continue the tradition.


Determined but lacking funds, Nora turned to Bob Moretti, a former student who had become a good friend. “Bob said he needed to know how much. I hadn’t even thought about it! I called Richard and he said, ‘This much.’ I told Bob, and he said, ‘Go ahead.’”


In 1998, Nora’s Tango Week debuted at the Holiday Inn in Emeryville with Nora and Bob as co-producers. The opportunity to study with world-class maestros such as Nito and Elba, Los Dinzel, and Oscar Mandagarán attracts students from all over the United States as well as from Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Italy, and South Africa. There are also usually between 28 and 40 students from Japan.

© 2003 Nancy Friedman

510 652-4159



“Lead with your heart”

The rest of the year, Nora maintains a demanding schedule of classes (in San Francisco, at the YMCA in Palo Alto, and at the Allegro Ballroom in


Emeryville), a monthly milonga in Palo Alto, and private lessons and

workshops. (In the mid-1990s she also taught two days a week in Sacramento.) She recently added a women’s technique class to her Wednesday-night schedule at the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco.


Perhaps most importantly, Nora herself is always studying and learning—during Tango Week and on regular visits back to Argentina. “Although her teaching is always growing, she has never departed from a coherent methodology,” notes Max Garrett. “It’s based not on choreography but on communication—how to lead by transferring the follower’s weight, how to understand a lead and answer it with your body, not your arm.”


Nora herself, when asked the most important thing for a tango student to remember, says simply, “Put it in your heart. Lead with your heart, not your mind. The heart communicates in the best of all languages: body language. If you have it in your heart, you will do it sooner or later.”


Simple…yet maddeningly difficult. Fortunately for those of us in the Bay Area tango community, we have Nora Dinzelbacher to show us the way.



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