Halfway between two busy North Naples intersections on a Saturday night, behind the pair of tango dancers painted on the front window, three sullen musicians work a keyboard, a violin and a bandoneón into the staccato rhythm of one of Argentina’s most emblematic cultural exports.
In front of them, stilettos sweep commas on the hardwood floors, as men lead with subtle movements. The closeness of the dancers belies who are partners in real life, and who is just on the dance floor. A dozen couples slink counterclockwise under dim lights.
For three years, Pablo Repun’s students have met for the weekly milonga, the traditional tango party to practice new moves, socialize, worry less about doing steps correctly, and more about the live band.
He welcomes nearly everyone at the front door with a hug or a kiss on the cheek, even if it means leaving the dance floor briefly.
“Pablo makes sure that everybody here dances,” said Dee Bennett, watching from the corner. Small tables ring three sides of the dance floor, topped by tablecloths they sewed, and roses from Bennett’s garden.
This Saturday, just after Valentine’s Day, about 50 dancers came by, from novices to the Miami tango aficionado who picks his partner up as a final flourish, propping her up on one knee at the end of song.
It’s not a tango community, they say. It’s a tango family.
“I don’t do anything by myself,” said Repun, 47. “If you come to the (milonga), if you see the tables, somebody made the tables. If you see the tablecloths, somebody made the tablecloths for us. Somebody brings the flowers. Somebody brings the snacks. It’s a community support. That’s what I like the most.”
Since 2010, the Buenos Aires-native has taught permanently out of a Pine Ridge Road ballet studio, with a fiercely dedicated corps of students from teens to octogenarians who laud his teaching ability as much as his gentle charisma.
“He just has a wonderful way with his students,” said Bennett, 87, who has traveled to Buenos Aires three times for tango tours.
Sitting the back corner of the studio, she watches the other dancers.
“I know for a lot of women, it’s the contact. To me, that’s secondary,” she observes. “For me, it’s the music ... I can get really lost in the music.”
And with that, in her knee-length fitted red dress for Valentine’s Day and higher heels than most 20-somethings would be comfortable with, she’s up on the dance floor again.
A sister’s invitation
“In my house, all the time, we would listen to tango, because my father, when he got up, he put the radio on. Every day was tango around our house,” Repun recalled.
It wasn’t until his 20s, though, that he dipped a leather-shoed toe into the idea of making tango a career.
When he returned to Argentina from two years of traveling around the continent, “I felt I had to go back to the roots,” he said. “And also, I was looking for a girlfriend,” Repun deadpans. Though that’s exactly what happened, and was the catalyst for his move to the U.S. eleven years ago.
First, however, Repun — who had a background studying physical education and music — got a leg up from family.
“One of my sisters invited me to teach at a cultural center she opened with friends,” Repun said. He fell in love with teaching. “From there I said, oh, that’s what I want.”
He met his future wife, Alicia, through tango in Buenos Aires. But after that encounter in the late 1990s, she moved to Florida. He didn’t follow. Life moved forward, until years later they reconnected in the capital city.
Alicia made connections for him in Miami even though she no longer danced. Repun was invited to teach at milongas and private houses, until a tango group offered to sponsor his visa — the one reserved for extraordinary ability in the arts. About 5,300 were issued by the State Department in 2012.
He brushes off the “extraordinary” label. But it’s what allowed him to stay, to teach, to start a tango magazine he produced from cover to close, marry Alicia, have a baby, and make a name for himself in the U.S.
“I like this culture. I love my culture,” Repun said. “So all the time, I’m trying to introduce my culture to everybody.”
A saturated tango market in Miami, and a loyal following he cultivated in Naples first through one student, then dozens, led the Repuns to move to the area last August.
No more staying at students’ homes for the weekend to teach and host milongas, or weekly commutes from Plantation that became more complicated and tiring as six-year-old daughter Uma got older. His students joke about the tango show he held at the Von Liebig Art Center one weekend night, only to return to the east coast for a marathon the next morning.
He’s carved out a small corner of a billion-dollar market.
Dance studios are projected to be a $2 billion industry in the U.S. this year, up 1.2 percent over 2012, according to California-based market research firm IBISWorld. Repun is one of about 8,200 dance businesses around the country.
The family lives and works in North Naples, where Repun teaches out of the ballet studio between the carwash to the west, and the cabinetry business to the east. His wife painted the tango mural on the front window, a pop of color on an otherwise nondescript storefront.
“We all believed that if you wanted participation, your event had to be in season,” student Ginny Markowski said during a speech at the Valentine’s Day milonga. “Things started to snowball. No longer did we need 10 people from Miami to have enough for a dance.”
There are the milongas and the group classes. The foreign language club at Lely High School raised the funds for Repun to teach a dozen students a week for a few months, and now one is applying for a scholarship to study Spanish in Argentina this summer.
Repun now hosts tango movie showings at the dance studio, and a tango book club. He and his wife are taking students to Argentina in March for a tango-focused week of shows and dancing.
The beauty of tango, Repun said, is in the improvisation.
“We have to know the basics, but from there we can improvise,” he explained. “We can mix as we want.”