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Brief history of tango in Singapore

Recently someone asked these questions on another tango forum.

– How Argentine Tango was taught in initially?
– How long ago was it?
– Who were the initial group of dancers/students?
– How often milonga was held?

I think this is a great topic to kick off discussions here because of the crop of people who began learning tango in Singapore back in 1999-2000, only a handful (Kace, May, Vivien, How Meng, Louis, Zie, Karen, Janet) are still active in the community. Given that most of the current active dancers in our community probably took their first lessons as recent as 5 years ago (or less), I suppose that many of these new dancers in our community may be interested to know more about the history of tango in Singapore!?

At present the only two resources available are:

1. A brief timeline which unfortunately terminates at 2004 (
2. This is complemented by an up-to-date list on my blog (but stopping as of early 2013) of the teachers that I had direct contact with, as well as the major/regular social events which took place in Singapore.

I hope other people will chip in and share their memories, and contribute to a history which belongs to all of us.

Social scene in the early years

Up until the end of 2002, the only fixed item on the social scene come rain or shine was the practica (~8-11pm) held at the (old) Drama Centre – a small place up the hill behind Substation. Every Tuesday, between 6 and up to 14(?) people would show up and practice what we had learnt from the most recent workshops. Music was provided by a little portable CD player, playing essentially whatever took our fancy (mostly traditional tango) at the time.

The first regular (i.e. with predictable dates and held at the same venue for at least a couple of months) milonga was held at Bobby’s (under previous management) in Chijmes in early 2002. This was arranged by Karen, with DJing shared among a few people. Prior to this, other venues had been attempted but they usually did not last for more than 1 or 2 milongas.

When milonga at Bobby’s was stopped eventually, we carried on with a mid-week milonga at the Porridge Club, in a small cafe very close to Lau Pa Sat, courtesy of Justin’s (owner of Xen Bar) contacts. As I was tasked with running this milonga, this was the time when I started building my tango music collection and seriously learning about DJing. The milonga at Porridge Club ran for close to a year before the milonga moved to Xen Bar (which opened some time in 2002) in 2003.

Learning in the early years

Given the severe lack of local teachers well-versed in Argentine tango, the initial batch of students who started in 1990-2000 all received training directly from visiting teachers, principally Gladys Fernandez and her dance partner, Ricardo Gallo. The routine was simple: intensive workshops of 4-5 days (beginning on Thursday/Friday and ending on Sunday) every 3-4 months, followed by practicing and sharing in a small room every Tuesday evening, dancing to whatever tango CDs were available at the time.

More instructors were to come through Singapore from 2002 onwards. However, as at this point teachers had to come to Singapore at their own expenses, the local community had no say in who would end up in Singapore. It was a mixed bag. Furthermore, we were simply desperate to learn tango, from anyone available! 🙂 As a result, there was a large variation in dancing and teaching styles and the lack of consistency might have slowed down the progress of tango in Singapore. On the other hand, in some ways, the batch of people who started tango prior to 2003 had been exposed to more varieties in how tango was danced.

The situation of being at the mercy of whichever visiting tango instructors deciding to stop in Singapore was to change in 2007, when IXI Danza made the bold move to invite teachers directly, bearing all the financial costs. To be sure, before this, Ogie from Tango Oriental had been bringing international teachers to Singapore, but for part-timers (tango aficionados-turned-organiers) this was a first. Subsequently the maestros Javier Rodriguez, Andrea Misse and Stella Misse, as well as the famed Chinese-American teacher Hsueh-tze Lee all made repeated trips and their workshops were very successful and influential. Subsequently we witnessed a dramatic improvement in the level of close-embrace dancing in Singapore. In fact, most of the current leaders have invariably benefited from the international teachers during this period.

Local classes began at Jitterbugs Studio at the end of 2000. This was more out of necessity to increase public awareness than anything, even though objectively some might even have called this a case of “blind leading the blind” since we were all relative beginners still at the time. The classes started when Jitterbugs opened its “new” premise at Orchard Point and the relationship continued when Jitterbugs eventually shifted to Millenia Walk and finally ended after Jitterbugs moved to Cathay. Over the years, although many students have been through the basic 8-week program, the retention rate was unfortunately very low throughout. While tango being a difficult dance might have been a factor, the teaching approach and lack of awareness of social venues might have also contributed to us seeing the small number of people to graduate to the social scene. As for the possibilities if the reverse had happened, see blog post I wrote back in 2008 (

Despite such humble beginnings, how did the Singapore tango community grow to its current size? Things were to change for the better with the injection of foreign blood – the arrival of Royce and Jean-Michel in Singapore – which I will say more in the “The transition years”.

The transition years

To kick off, I will start with something that I am very familiar with: IXI Danza.

The actual turning point occurred around 2004-2005, when Jean-Michel and Royce relocated from HK to Singapore. They turned their temporary home into a tango studio, and organised regular milongas, with frequency being close to once a fortnight. Most importantly, they brought with them the milonguero style of dancing. Prior to this, visiting maestros had started to teach close embrace; however, most of the people were comfortable to dance what is commonly known as “fluid embrace” or “open embrace”. With this came various classes and a gradual familiarity in danceable music, dancing in a smaller space and of course navigation.

Towards the end of 2005, we had just learnt that Jean-Michel and Royce would be relocating to Japan indefinitely. They had been running a very successful milonga and been a most valuable contribution to the growth of tango in Singapore. It would be a shame to lose an iconic place and furthermore the steam of the good work they had been promoting when they were in Singapore. So, after consulting with Jean-Michel and Royce, we decided that something needed to be done. To put things in context, this was during a time when seeing 20-25 people at a milonga was considered an excellent night! And not to mention a certain percentage of that consisted of beginners. Nevertheless we set out to create a hang-out place for social Tango dancers.

When the idea was thrown up among the core group of dancers, no one was willing to take it up. In the end Janet and I bit the bullet and decided to go ahead anyway. After a couple months of searching for a suitably-priced location, and some serious renovations and bargain furniture hunting, IXI Danza was opened for its first milonga on March 18 2006. This would not have been possible without Jeremy, who unfortunately is no longer active in the tango scene, to help with teaching and equipment set-up.

Teaching two nights a week.

Being fairly inexperienced at running a studio and considering it was treated as a hobby, IXI Danza was prepared for a monthly deficit. Fortunately, mainly through word of mouth, we were able to break even within the first year. Once we had figured out the routine of running milongas and it seemed like IXI Danza was becoming financially viable, Abrazos Studio came on the scene and opened its doors in October of 2006. In early 2008, due to the sky-rocketing rental (when the housing market in Singapore went balistic, prior to the world-wide financial crisis to come a year later) and our busy work, we decided to discontinue the studio after two years of sweat and hard work. Fortunately, Abrazos was there to pick up the slack with the large group of seasoned social dancers who frequented IXI Danza.

During this time, IXI ran a fortnightly milonga every Saturday. At the same time, Abrazos had weekly milongas every Friday and Saturday. This meant that in every second week, there was a maximum of 3 milongas in the same week, quite unprecedented at the time. In addition, IXI had practicas every Tuesday and Thursday. By the way, Although I had been DJing frequently at the Tuesday milongas throughout 2004-2005 Xen Bar, I was no longer able to look after it since IXI started. Since I was unable to look after the music at Xen Bar during this period, the Tuesday milonga went into a decline and was eventually stopped until it was resurrected in early 2009.

Some of the highlights during existence of IXI studio include

– Organised 3 workshops by funding three visits by international teachers: Tango Elegancia series with Javier Rodriguez and Andrea Misse and Art of Tango series with Hsueh-Tze Lee.
– Organised two largish milongas without presence of teachers: the start of the term “Milonga con Amigos” at Serangoon Country Club and the Upper Club.
– Cementing close embrace as the main form of dancing in Singapore. trend began since Jean-Michel arrived, really took hold as a stable method of dancing. I hesitate to use the word style as many people may not be aware that there are in fact many ways of dancing close together.

*Here I am using style to mean more of convention as compared to style as in fashion.

We were fortunate to have friends who have a common goal of promoting good social dancing techniques and etiquette. For that we will always be grateful.