remember her, the scandalous dancer of the early 1900s, as renowned for her unconventional lifestyle as for her scantily–clad, mould-breaking dance form? At one stage in her dramatic and tragic life, (1887-1927) she was the lover of Paris Singer, the scion of the famous sewing machine empire. Paris Singer remodelled the family pile down in Devon...
and that’s where this tango tale begins, and sadly, ends.
Bring on an unlikely new player, Fernando Guidi: five years ago, this young, Argentine dancer teacher based in Exeter, organized the first tango weekend in the grand but getting grungy surrounds of Oldway Mansion. He called it Tango Feast, never imagining, I suspect, what a terpsichorean treat these long weekends would become. And not just for UK dancers.
Now when I say grand surroundings, please think Versailles – Singer modelled Oldway on the Sun King’s opulent palace. It features a double, sweeping alabaster staircase, painted ceilings, ornate mouldings and a balcony in the ballroom. A massive painting (or nowadays, copy thereof) above the staircases, shows the coronation of Napoleon’s empress, Josephine. The building’s eastern elevation with its rows of columns, is reminiscent of the Place de la Concorde. There is also a rotunda with built-in pool where the Singers used to exercise their horses, parlours with impressive fireplaces and 20ft-high French window opening onto sweeping lawns, a knot garden, a grotto with waterfall, and a gallery resembling Versailles's Hall of Mirrors.
Ahh, that gallery! I have a cherished memory of being transported to tango heaven here by one of my tango gods, David Benitez, who happened to hear a tune he wanted to dance to just as I was passing. Bliss in Bloch trainers.
Tango Feast is that kind of place. The usual hierarchy of don’t–even-think-about-cabaceo-ing-me-cos-I’m a-professional, doesn’t seem to apply. In fact, the difference in level between professionals and punters is not enormous here, as almost everyone is an experienced dancer. Better still, they all have a lot of heart. Tango Feast dancers are generous, on and off the floor. It’s the only place I’ve been to where people sit down and talk to one another, forming relationships which are cemented at every event, until Feastueros, as Fernando calls us, feel like family.
Alas, this home of the Tango Feast is no more (Fernando has another two venues he uses regularly.) The Torbay district council has sold the spectacular mansion and its grounds for development into retirement flats. The mansion itself is to become a luxury hotel. Records show that the Singer family sold it to the council for the knockdown price of £45 000 in 1946, on the understanding that it would be for public use. Does an expensive hotel and spa constitute public use? Perhaps, but I doubt the new proprietors will rent out this grandiose facility at a plebian price. Certainly not at one the tango community could afford.
Oldway Mansion is (was, SOB !) my favourite place to dance in the UK. I have felt decadent gliding around it in broad daylight; I have felt glamorous at night under the chandeliers, clandestine on the moonlit terrace, the soft air of the English Rivera wafting around my shoulders like Isadora’s silk scarf. (This fatally long accessory caused her death by catching in the open spoke wheel of the sports car she was in. It wrapped around the rear axle and broke her neck.)
Traspie-ing in Isadora’s Duncan’s footsteps at Oldway Mansion has been a dream, but it was real and I have pictures to prove it, courtesy of David Prime. I also have David to thank for the fact that my feet still haven’t forgiven me for dancing them to death. Every time my soles shrieked for rest, this merciless DJ played another irresistible tanda.
So, adios Oldway. My gratitude for the extraordinary memories go to Fernando Guidi and his team of helpers and guest teachers. Fortunately Vida de Tango uses other venues for other Feasts - these take place quarterly, so one needn't go too long without a Feastueros family reunion. Nevertheless, we shall miss Oldway; it was the stuff that tango dreams are made of.