By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
American-Statesman Arts Writer
Before the 15 children at Esquina Tango can get on with their samba party, there's a little cultural quiz.
"What are the colors of the Brazilian flag?" instructor Rebekah Fowler asks the squirming, pint-size dancers, decked out in costumed glory for a parents' showcase.
"Blue, green and yellow," the children shout out, though not completely in unison, distracted as they are with their own fanciful attire. None seems to pay attention to the big paper mural the children drew the week before, a colorful interpretation of animals of the Brazilian rainforest and one of the projects they completed as part of the free summer youth camp offered by the tiny, yet thriving East Austin cultural center.
No, these festooned children just have to dance, and dance they do once Fowler starts up the charging samba music.
Dance — Argentine tango, salsa, cumbia, Brazilian street dance, bachata from the Dominican Republic — is the heart and soul of Esquina Tango, which opened three years ago. But at the nonprofit center — founded and run by Monica Caivano and Gustavo Simplis, Argentines who are partners in life and art — fostering an appreciation of Latino culture is dance's closest partner.
Soon after opening the doors to Esquina Tango in early 2008, Caivano and Simplis started adding more to the center's schedule beyond the Latin American social dance classes they first envisioned. Now, in addition to the youth summer camp, the seven-day-a-week schedule includes salsa aerobics, yoga, workshops in Latin dance choreography, a conversational Spanish class and film screenings (some specifically for children) featuring current movies from South America. Casual weekend dance parties, sometimes with live music, offer the chance for everyone to practice their moves. And to socialize.
"People may at first be interested in learning to dance tango or salsa, but then they often want to know more" about Latin American culture, says Caivano, 34. The language, film and other cultural programs "started very naturally," she says, with patrons often asking for them. "People want multiple ways to connect."
Running a nonprofit cultural center wasn't necessarily part of the plan several years ago when she began looking to rent her own dance studio.
Caivano started teaching tango professionally more than a decade ago while pursuing a theater degree from St. Edward's University. (She moved to Austin from Buenos Aires, Argentina, as a teen with her parents who are both high tech professionals.) Post-college, she continued teaching and performing tango while also working at nonprofit arts organizations.
But after years of shuffling from one rented studio to the next, Caivano wanted a space of her own, someplace permanent with dance-ready wood floors.
Simplis, who at the time worked as a mortgage broker, steered the search toward a property they could purchase. Already residents of East Austin and committed to the neighborhood, the couple found the building on the corner of Pedernales and East Third streets, a onetime church that had intermittently been leased by some performing arts groups.
Caivano and Simplis used their own money to purchase the building and fix it up, putting in a considerable amount of sweat equity, transforming it into a cozy multipurpose venue with a dance-ready floor. They painted the building bright colors — periwinkle, a vibrant red, a strong marigold — that mimic those adorning the historic buildings in La Boca, Buenos Aires' old port neighborhood and the symbolic birthplace of Argentine tango.
Helping Caivano and Simplis throughout the renovation was a regular group of supporters — loyal tango students and dancers who also shared the couples' now-solidified idea of starting a cultural center. From those supporters came the organization's first board members and donors. And in early 2008, Esquina Tango ("esquina" means corner in Spanish) opened its doors.
Now, it's the social and cross-disciplinary offerings that draw people in.
Parents Peter Bernecki and Anna Moreno have come to the children's program to watch their 6-year-old daughter, Esme, show off her new samba skills. "There's an education component to what they do here that we like," says Bernecki, who learned of the center through friends taking adult social dance classes.
"It's not just a dance class, it's a cultural exchange," says Claire Stone, who just this summer started driving her daughters Lily, 9, and Violet, 7, in from Lago Vista to take advantage of Esquina Tango's offerings. "There's no place else like it around."
After the children's class has finished, it's time for back-to-back tango classes, and adults begin to filter in as families leave.
Patrick Stallings has been dancing tango at Esquina for three years, and he now occasionally acts as DJ for milongas, or tango dance parties. "It's a very welcoming place, and it has a homey feel," he says.
After an hour or so showing the class the basic steps of Argentine tango, Simplis invites everyone to the milonga later that evening.
"Remember, tango is a social dance," he says. "At the milonga you can practice what you learned today and socialize. Socialize!"
Esquina Tango upcoming events
`Noche de Tango Vivo with GloverTango'
When: Miniclass 9 p.m. Saturday; music and dancing 9:30 p.m.
`Tarde de Documental: WasteLand'
What: Screening of 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary about renowned Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and his unique artistic collaboration with the garbage pickers of Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest garbage dump.
When: Doors 6 p.m. Sunday, film begins 6:30 p.m.
Where: 209 Pedernales St.
Cost: Suggested donation $5
Information: 524-2772, www.esquinatangoaustin.com