Dance of Betrayal in Nairobi
Story and photos by Camille Cusumano

On a volunteer program to teach tango to poor youths in Kenya, a teacher gets schooled in the ways of systemic poverty and corruption.


For more than a month I'll stare at "The Last Supper" and not think I have anything in common with that Christ, the one allegedly betrayed by Judas. The heroic-sized mural covers the back wall of St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in Nairobi where I'm teaching tango to poor Kenyan youth. It lends color and brightness to the hall, an unmaintained structure with crumbling stone floor, stained walls, and leaking metal roof.

Just beyond the church's walled yard, on hot packed Racecourse Road, the pickpockets, purse-snatchers, and shell-gamers do the betraying. Each morning, I push through the hustle, pass nodding security guards, and enter St. Peter's refuge.

Inside the decaying hall, I feel more than safe. I feel exuberant, spiritually and physically uplifted, as if that Christ who I'm told died for my sins did not do so in vain. Look at how we are keeping his beloved children, otherwise idle teens, out of trouble. And doing so by having them embrace each other in a venerable art form. I thrill to watching the smiling, entranced faces of my students.


Tango is leavening the gravity of their lives—ninety-five percent of Nairobians are squeezed onto five percent of the land. Tango elevates their pulses and their hopes. It provides an energy boost, a healthy alternative to the nasty substances that infest slums everywhere. One of my older students, Liliane, says of the tango, "I can't think of anything else. This is so healthy. It brings peace this way."

So why will two of my partners in this worthy endeavor betray me?


Teaching Tango in the Slums
Juliet and Dan are Kenyans, fluent in English and their native Swahili needed to round up the fifty students. I room with Juliet in her—let's call it "humble"—abode in Buruburu, the eastern part of Nairobi, where the colonials herded the Africans away from the interlopers' own lavish estates. The Christian colonizers did their job well. Each morning Juliet delays us as she reads Matthew 25 in the Bible, parables about virgins, goats, and sheep. I feel deep affection for Juliet and nickname her Juju even as she laughs, reminding me that "juju" is a West African word for black magic. Dan forever invokes God and insists on prayers before and after class. A civic lesson breaks up the tango class, during which they teach youth how to take responsibility for their lives. That will prove the greatest irony of all.

And here I am, the tango missionary, with Mungai, my Kenyan-American partner in this humanitarian effort. I stand in front of the class and preach, "you learn tango from the feet up and dance it from the heart down." I might have noticed early on that Juliet's dancing never rises above foot level. That she can't get the levity and feather lightness that true heart connection affords. I might have noticed that Dan's flabby body is soft and flaccid, that he feels like a boneless hulk as he tries to lead a dance he begrudgingly agreed to do. Juliet and Dan are true believers, though now I know, not in tango.


I'm too distracted and delirious with joy watching the likes of Newton and Rachel, or Samuel and Winnie. Newton flashes a gleaming smile as he strides forward and embraces me so he can show me the leg wrap he's figured out. He and others progress notably fast, learning tricks just by watching Mungai and me. They are gifted this way and seem to intuit the elasticity and pleasant tension of connection in the dance that takes two.

In that austere hall, Newton demonstrates the hydraulic lead that allows my left leg to gracefully wrap his right hip. For a fleeting moment we are acting out traditional roles in a primal dance. Then we pivot together out of the move like two carousel ponies. An innate intelligence infuses Newton's lanky six-foot-four frame to such a high degree I want to ask him, "Which of Kenya's forty-two tribes lend you their blood—Masaai? Kamba? Kikuyu? Luo?" If I were a Kenyan that would be a loaded question, given that much of Kenya's corruption, violence, and shady politics stem from rampant tribalism. I just hug Newton and offer the global sign of unity, slapping his palm in a high-five.

The Dance Returns to Africa
Tango—in Africa? It gives people pause. But the fact is that tango's very genetic material traces a clear line to blacks. "As soon as one starts digging into the origins of the tango, its black creole roots emerge," writes Yale professor Robert Farris Thompson in his book Tango, an Art History of Love. He notes, "Tango culture and tango humanism … emerged from the encounter of dance concepts from Kongo with [Buenos Aires's] cultural and social situation, involving African-born blacks, blacks born in Argentina." I stop short of attributing my students' skillful grasp of this difficult dance to their race, but as Thompson observes, tango's "strongest root is pure Afro-Argentine, a development of Kongo-style dancing, as elaborated in black dancing groups called candombes."

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