Early history of Mtl. tango

In my view, Argentine social club members and organizers are the ones to determine when tango was first seen and heard in Montreal. Check first with them. http://www.clubargentinomtl.net/

If you go to their website, you realize that these Montrealers live in the present. My own awareness of tango in Montreal dates back to 1984. Here’s what I know…


Early Music

My introduction to Montreal tango came via radio. In 1984 CBC radio introduced a late-night program called “Brave New Waves” hosted by Augusta La Paix. It was on this show that I first heard of Montreal’s tango music development. Quartango got some air time as did Ramon Pelinski’s Tango X 4. (http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/emc/ramon-pelinski)

In 1986 I saw Quartango in concert in Vancouver. At that time the players were Adolfo Bornstein on violin (incredible!) René Gosselin on bass (excellent!) Richard Hunt on piano (superlative!) and Romulo Larrera on bandoneon (mediocre). I clearly remember how impressed I was at the arrangements and how they made each player stand out and each tango unique. Plus Adolfo Bornstein was a delightful speaker; he was the ‘animator-host’ for the band and of the show.


Quartango had a dance couple with them for this 1986 Vancouver show. They were very good dancers and complimented the band well. They were Robert-Philippe Babin and Francine Riopel. I looked up Robert-Philippe shortly after we opened Les Ateliers Tango here. It was 1992 and we were offering same-sex tango classes. I found Robert-Philippe working as a social worker in the village. He told me that he was primarily a ballroom trained dancer but that he had a keen interest in Argentine tango because of the intuitive nature of the dance. We had a good conversation about teaching tango. He informed me that one of his tango teaching assistants in the mid-80s was Karen Simon. I couldn’t convince him back to tango at the time, and I haven’t seen him since; although I heard (from someone later) that he moved to the Eastern Townships.


Autumn 91 school brochure “en collaboration avec Le Cercle Tango de Montréal”

Early Organizations

To my knowledge, Le cercle tango de Montréal was the first tango organization in Montreal with an interest in dance; it was a not-for-profit entity. I don’t know when it was formed, but it was operational when Danielle Sturk and I moved to Montreal in September of 1990. The president of Le cercle tango was Denis Beauchamp, the secretary was Pierre Monette and the treasurer was James Harbottle. They organized occasional classes with invited guests, as well as operating the first regular milonga in Montreal: Sunday evenings at the blues bar Quai des brûmes, on the corner of Mont-Royal and St-Denis. Paul DeStrooper was more or less the animator of their evenings there. Pierre was Le cercle’s musicologist of course; he had hosted a radio program for years by this point and had written his first book on tango, entitled “Macadam Tango”. Pierre introduced Danielle and me to wonderful music artists that would inspire many of our future choreographies. Of note: Dino Saluzzi, Juan Cedron, Evan Lurie, Tango Mortale, Hugo Diaz (the harmonica one), among others.



Tango Mtl 1991


Danielle and I befriended Antonio and Lily, as we did most everyone in tango at the time. But we had never seen Lily or Antonio at Quai des brûmes and wondered why. We asked of course. Lily bemoaned Le cercle, saying she wanted her own organization and her own milonga. Since I had been quite active with the Hot Jazz Society in Vancouver in the 1970s (http://www.straight.com/music/hot-jazz-gets-reprieve) I offered Lily some advice on how to operate a not-for-profit organization by giving her ten pages of notes as to membership structure, operations, volunteers and events organization. Tango Nuestro became a legal not-for-profit entity in January or February of 1991 thanks (primarily) to the work of Maurice Bastien. (http://www.milonga.ca/tangonuestro/) Antonio Perrera became the president, with Lily Palmer and Maurice Bastien as the other required officers. The ‘grand opening’ was held at Centro Gallego on boul. St-Lauent. No Montreal music or dance talent was presented, and the show couple from Toronto left much to be desired. The evening was a bit of a disaster. It did however garner one newspaper mention, thanks to Allison Brierly. Her journalist friend Kathryn Greenaway was the only invited ‘dignitary’ to show up that night. All of Lily’s invitees were no-shows; their reserved places at tables (16) remained empty… for the entire fornicating night!! Gawd, it was embarrassing.


Les Ateliers Tango Argentin was the next entity to be formed in September 1991 (soon to be changed to Les Ateliers Tango). We also created the moniker Graffiti Tango at that time for staged shows. Les Ateliers Tango Argentin was a for-profit dance school under the direction of me and Danielle. By this time we were the hosts of Le cercle’s Sunday evening milongas at Quai des brûmes. We opened our studio with a small Sunday afternoon event, kind of like a ‘tango tea’. Pierre Monette spoke briefly on our behalf. That evening Quartango played at Quai des brûmes. Before the band started playing I got a very strange headache. I took myself to the hospital, where Danielle joined me after the show. I had a suffered a cerebral aneurism. (But that’s another story.)

After two years of continual development Graffiti Tango formally announced the formation of its professional dance troupe in 1993 and began the processes to make it a non-profit, charitable organization. Oddly enough, two weeks after our announcement Tango Libre declared it was a ‘dance company’, as did Tango Nuestro. (huh??!!) Although initially denied, Les Productions Graffiti Tango was eventually granted charitable status due to some skilful legal representation by Denis Lapierre in the Federal Appeal Court. Graffiti Tango’s primary mandate was to provide development and employment for professional Montreal dance artists via our tango school, our dance evening operations, and our theatre productions. This mandate was in place since our studio inception in 1991; now it was ‘official’. By this time there were five of us living/working full-time off the avails of this body of work, plus we had several part-time dancers and/or teachers earning money from our activities. (A feat that no one has come close to repeating here, or elsewhere in North America, btw.) We had four evenings of tango happening in our basement studio at 4848 boul. St-Laurent. Thursday was a non-smoking night, Friday was ‘hot and heavy’ (lots of people, more contemporary tango recordings), Saturday was ‘Showtime’ (to develop our company members and teaching staff) and Sunday was classic tangos.


Graffiti Tango’s secondary mandate was to promote the development of Montreal tango culture by exploring contemporary dance-theatre expressions that dignified the talents of Montreal artists (in dance and music). In this way we felt (as new arrivals/immigrants (per se)) that we could contribute to Montreal and (by extension) Quebec culture. We hungrily sought out all sorts of tango influences elsewhere of course, but always in the interests of continuing to define and refine our Montreal identity, and to help develop the community in which we lived. We had no pretensions of trying to represent Argentine/Buenos Aires tango culture in any way; a fact that many of our critics ignored. Pierre Monette describes a global aspect of tango’s nature quite succinctly in his book Macadam Tango: “Jamais tout à fait à sa place, il se sent partout chez lui.” (Roughly translated this says: ‘Never quite comfortable in its own place, it makes itself at home anywhere’.) To me, people that grumble about “the real/authentic tango” are simply miserable sorts looking for attention via a ridiculous argument. Imagine hearing someone say ‘it’s not “real” ballet unless it comes from aristocratic France’; or ‘it’s not “real” jazz unless it comes from afro-Americans’. What nonsense.

Tango Libre came into being in 1993, although Geraldo and Sylvi began dancing before that. I have lots of good things to say about this organization, especially where the work of Sylvi Belleau is concerned, and I’ll get to that. But at the time, TL announced itself as a dance company as opposed to placing its first emphasis on theatre. We couldn’t understand why. Geraldo and Sylvi had scant experience as social dancers, and no experience in any other form of dance (to my knowledge). Both he and Silvi were more versed in theatre. Yet all of a sudden Geraldo named himself choreographer and artistic director of a dance company. Go figure. (And ask to see the videos!)

The Tangueria eventually made something of itself in 1993. Since mid-1991 this residential/commercial loft served Allison Brierly’s personal dance interests for the most part. But Allison left Montreal without organizing anything concrete in the venue. Others wanted this loft space and soon made something of it by eliminating the residential aspect. I don’t know which came first, la Société Culturelle Argentine Québec Canada (SCAQC) or Paul Montpetit’s Tango Bohemio. In any case, the Tangueria’s ‘bohemian’ characteristic was effectively Paul’s choice as a marketing platform. It was a good one too, because it was diametrically opposed to Graffiti Tango’s pursuit of the development of recognized professional dance artists. SCAQC’s marketing and membership platform was essentially premised on a ‘democratic’ configuration. Here again, the SCAQC was diametrically opposite to Graffiti Tango’s directorial vision that maintained there is no place for ‘democracy’ in the creation of good performance art (collaborations are fine, ‘democracy’… forget it!). Plus the SCAQC sought to represent “the real” Argentine/Buenos Aires tango culture; Graffiti Tango sought to create its own Montreal identity.


Collectively Graffiti Tango, the Tangueria and Tango Libre put Montreal on the international tango map in the mid 1990s. I believe that it was either one of GT’s hired public relations agents or perhaps Victor Swoboda, or perhaps Ann Richard that declared Montreal “the North American capital of tango” (a phrase that is still coined in media circles to this day). Montreal had three venues devoted to tango, one of which supported a professional theatrical performance troupe. No other city in North America at the time could boast the same; although a few cities in Europe were ahead of us in certain realms. However, Montreal’s initial notoriety was about to be challenged. The work of Daniel Trenner and Rebecca Schulman via The Bridge to the Tango would take social dance tango throughout the U.S.A., inspiring many in their wake. (http://www.danieltrenner.com/) Rebecca also became a founding member of the unique all-female performance troupe Tango Mujer, based out of New York City. (http://www.tangomujer.org/)

Early Performance Tango in dance and theatre in Montreal

At one point in the early 1990s Danielle and I gave some tango workshops for the modern dance troupe O Vertigo. Ginette Laurin told us that she had choreographed a tango in the mid-80s, but it was not a piece that she kept in her repertoire.

Francine Ruel wrote and performed a theatre piece entitled “Les sables émouvants” in 1987. http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francine_Ruel#Th.C3.A9.C3.A2tre  Francine became Graffiti Tango’s spokesperson from 1993 to 1996.


Wouter Brave brought his show “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” to Montreal circa 1989. I’m not even sure if that was the name of the show; but he was here for sometime and likely did a lot of workshops too.


“El Bruga y la Susana” were tango performance dancers that likely danced at many Argentinean clubs and events. Susana also danced Argentinean folk dances. More than anyone, these two will tell you about the first Argentinian tango in Montreal. We only met them on rare occasions, but we danced on the same playbill as them in October 1991.



“Tango Hors Ligne” (Off-Line Tango) was the first ‘full-evening’ show that Danielle and I produced in Montreal, June 8, 1991. At that point (after barely ten months in the city) we were financially destitute, looking for work, and contemplating returning to Winnipeg where (thanks to Arnold Spohr) we had contract offers to dance with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers. The Tango Hors Ligne show was a ‘community’ variety show; although the community at that time was comprised of only about 40 people. We didn’t use all of them of course, but several. We were told that what impressed people about this show was the program order; how well it flowed and how entertaining it was. To begin with, we opened and closed the show with two thrilling dancers that we had performed with on the same playbill at “Le jardin des arbres morts” (a dinner theatre in the East End). Luis Lopez and Roqué Herrera danced Malambo for Tango Hors Ligne! Oh man, these guys just killed it!!!

Gazette,-June-1991(2) Journal-de-Mtl---juin-1991

Our music artists for this show were Raul Jaurena (bandoneon), Zbigniev Borowisz (double-bass) Victor Sanchez (guitar) and Silvia Sabash (vocals). We invited Fabian and Roxanne Belmonte from Toronto to present a taste of ‘Tango Por Export’ from Buenos Aires (although they nearly didn’t perform because they thought they should have been billed as the “headliners” – good gawd). We had Francine Ruel, Hélène Langevin and Danielle in a sort-of dance-theatre piece with Marie-Pierre Lippens as solo violinist, Allison Brierly (dressed as a man) and me danced a milonga choreography of hers, Karen Simon and her ballroom-partner hairdresser “Cha-Cha” (Jean-Jacques Dion) ;-) danced one of my choreographies. There were (3) vignettes with me and Danielle improvising on voice-overs by Pierre Monette reading from his Macadam Tango texts, which eventually led into our principal piece Tango Tendre: a ‘blues tango’ (Milonga Triste) played by Hugo Diaz (the harmonica one). Plus I choreographed a group ‘jazz tango’ on a sultry piece by Astor Piazzolla with saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, and a wild (flyé) tango with two dancers from O Vertigo (Carole Courtois and Brad Denis). Oh yeah baby; we spanked it pretty good that night. Everybody had a great time (well, except maybe the “headline” couple from Toronto). In any case, we had people coming up to us after the show saying “we want to learn tango from you!” So we decided to stay in Montreal and started to look for a studio space where we could continue this work.


photo: Francine Gagnon

“Carlos Gardel – Retro Nuevo” was a show directed by Carlo Bengio in collaboration with Ramon Pelinski’s orchestra Metatango. It was a multi-media show at the Spectrum on June 15, 1991. The star dancing couple was Los Pampas; Laura and Pedro from New York. This couple had long been promoted here by Le cercle tango de Montréal. Also listed was “Montreal Port Tango”, which was simply a loose collection of a few couples from the community, including me and Danielle.


First Tango Teachers in Montreal

To my knowledge, Robert-Philippe Babin was the first to offer organized Argentine Tango classes in Montreal. I saw him in 1986 dancing with Quartango; he was very good onstage. He probably taught at a ballroom studio. He told me in 1992 that one of his former teaching assistants was Karen Simon, so she might speak of the mid-1980s era (if she’s not afraid of Lily Palmer’s wrath). Danielle and I moved here in 1990. Karen was on the scene then too. She looked to us like she had a background in ballroom. We had a nickname for her at the time: “Madame Coude”, because she carried her elbows so high. (I’m not sure she was aware of this nickname. Sorry dear. :-)

Two teachers that were brought into Montreal several times by Le cercle tango to teach salon style tango and give performances were Laura and Pedro, from Queens, New York. They are primarily folk dancers going by the name “Los Pampas”. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxjs7GFwP2E) This is a lovely couple, very professional in their work and quite pleasant to work with. If you watch Paul DeStrooper dance (or his adepts) you’ll have an idea of the salon style that Pedro taught at the time. This couple stopped coming to Montreal because Pedro couldn’t speak English and their van got ripped apart at the border every time they crossed into and out of Canada.

Wouter Brave (with his partner Martine) was the first tango teacher that Danielle and I took classes with here in Montreal. I can’t remember who brought this couple here. I liked them a lot; they were competent, organized and pleasant. I haven’t been in touch with Wouter for more than twenty years, but I found an example of his work on YouTube. It’s impressive: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8M4bCvhZ2wQ). Soon after we moved to Montreal I found a classified ad in Voir and answered it. It was a woman who was looking for a partner for one of Wouter’s tango workshops. It was Francine Ruel. Her English was not very good and my French was worse. In any case, once she found out that I was married she essentially said ‘forget it’. (!?!?) Danielle and I met her at the workshop anyways, then on many occasions at Quai des brûmes. We soon became friends.


There is an unfettered bray (un braiement sans entrave) in Montreal that for more than two decades misinforms people that she (alone) was the first to teach the “real” Argentine tango here. Actually, Lily (“ma tante Louise”) Palmer has gone much further to suggest that she brought tango to Montreal. (!?!?!) What nonsense. From her own accounts to me personally in 1990, Lily-Louise learned tango from Juan Carlos Copes. This occurred in Toronto, when he was there with his show “A Rose for Mr. Tango” from December 1989 to May 1990 (ask Keith Elshaw, who was married to Christina Nieves, Copes’ sister-in-law, at the time – http://www.totango.net/talk_ke.html).

It so happens that Lily-Louise has an aberrant attachment-disorder to a nationality other than her own. This was combined with her flawed tango ‘expertise’, that revealed she was not even aware at the time of how actual, practicing milongueros in Buenos Aires and Montevideo danced and\or defined (via their technique and etiquette) the true nature of (“real”) salon tango. Up until the time when Bridge to the Tango started bringing ‘non-professional’ salon style dancers to North America in the mid-1990s, absolutely EVERYONE here was following steps and patterns passed on to them by touring performance tango dance professionals. It was a completely different dance floor in North America at the time… until we started to adapt to Bs. As. salon style.

Personally, I am only aware of classes that Lily-Louise gave with Antonio Perrera at Building Danse beginning in the autumn of 1990. The classes were unorganized and not very pleasant; Lily-Louise would berate Antonio (in Spanish) in front of everybody, and argue with him continually. And although Antonio moved with modest grace and some fluidity as a dancer, Lily-Louise did not. (Note: Lily still doesn’t dance well, even after her self-proclaimed “25 years” experience.)

4 thoughts on “Early history of Mtl. tango

  1. C’est bon d’avoir ton point de vue sur cette époque. Comme le dit André, ça ramène de nombreux souvenirs. Par contre tu finis ton historique au moment ou les Ateliers tango et Grafitti tango entraient dans leurs plus belles années. Ce serait un vrai cadeau si tu continuais ce travail.

  2. Hi Joseph,
    I accidently ran into your historical report on the montreal Tango History. I thought it to be nice to tell you what I remember.
    my first appearance in Montreal was in 87 during the dutch travelling theatre festival that went by the name of ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’. We (me, Martine and Tango Cuatro with bandoneon player Carel Kraayenhof and singer Juan Tajes) performed in the antique ‘Dance Palace’. Martine also gave some tango workshops that week.
    I came back in 89 to give workshops organised by Lily and Antonio. I skipped 90 but from 91 on I visited montréal to give workshops for about 10 years, first organised by Lily, later on by Paul Monpetit.
    My last visit was in 2000 when I brought a small version of my show Tango Rango to Montreal involving among others Claudia Codega & Esteban Moreno.
    If your interested in seeing more of my choreographies from the nineties check: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIsVbAsrWU4. Or look for Wouter Brave on you tube, there is lots of my work there.
    Take care and kind regards,
    Wouter Brave

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