On the 20th of January Graeme Dallow, one of Wellington's founding fathers of tango, passed away. It has been a couple of months now and I still catch myself looking out for him when I arrive at milongas.
My partner Donal and I were often late arriving, and Graeme would save us a seat next to him. He was
a good friend to both of us and good fun too; his dry observations on the goings-on at tango and his acute sense of humour were tempered with a genuine kindness and generosity towards his fellow dancers. I really miss him.
I think just about everyone who dances the tango has a few ‘lost years’ when they first start, years teeming with mistakes made on the dance floor, social faux pas involving other tangueros, missteps and embarrassments, even wardrobe choices (and malfunctions) that they would rather forget. Dance styles, musical tastes, opinions on all things tango – they all change, for the better mostly. (Or so one likes to
So it is with mixed feelings that I think back to the time I first met Graeme. I was such a complete and utter newbie; gauche, uncoordinated, gullible. If a more experienced dancer told me anything, I would believe them, and do as I was told. As you can imagine, I believed a lot of bulls**t back then. Muy bad!! At one milonga I was told who Graeme was, and that I should go and ask him for a dance. So I did. First mistake: now, these days I would generally cabeceo someone, rather than ask them directly, especially someone I barely knew. Graeme, however, was a real gentleman and valiantly took me on, despite the fact that he had probably had enough dancing that night already. I remember his plaintive voice: "Just a short dance; I’m an old man, I have to conserve my energy." Second mistake: I trod on his foot. Repeatedly. I am still amazed at his equanimity through all of it, because four or five years later we were still dancing together, though I like to think we had a lot more fun later on. There were fewer stubbed toes, anyway!
Along the way there have been some rocky moments. Like the time when I finally bit the bullet and started to dance milonguero style. Till then my dance technique was founded on the premise that tango required one to keep one’s partner at bay, not embrace them. I remember during this period of, shall we say, recalibrating my dance style, we both attended a class at the Webb Street studio. We were dancing
together during one of the class rotations and I was having a few problems making the new embrace work. In my head I can still hear Graeme's words that day: "C’mon girl, give us your bosoms. Bring 'em home to daddy!" Now, coming from another man, it would have been decidedly creepy, and I might even have slapped him; but coming from Graeme, who had always behaved in a very gentlemanly fashion, it merely startled me. The "girls" and I were quite taken aback at the time, and I have to say I didn’t know if they would ever recover, but of course they (and I) did and we have gone on to foist ourselves on numerous tangueros since then.
Graeme did a great deal to support initiatives in the tango community, attending most if not all of the milongas, classes and practicas, dancing with a wide range of people, keeping those lines of communication open among all the factions and special interest groups that make up our diverse and rather fractious Wellington tango scene. He also organised a great many of the birthday parties, dinners and lunches that help make this bunch of tangueros a community. The yum chars at the Regal Restaurant on Courtenay Place were a particular favourite of mine.
Graeme's tendency to leave for home without various items of clothing is well known. Many times I have bent to retrieve my shoes, to find a woolly hat lurking under a nearby chair like a small, frightened animal.
At times he could be seen being dressed by one or several women, myself included, who gathered round to straighten his jersey, wind his scarf round his neck and plonk his hat on his head before he headed out into the night, striding off with a carefree "ciao" thrown over his shoulder.
Graeme was something of a man of mystery. His lively intelligence and sparkling wit were abundantly evident, but he was quiet about his many achievements. He had been a Chief Superintendent and Deputy
Commissioner of Police; he had also put himself through law school while working as a policeman and subsequently worked as a police prosecutor. As a teenager he had been a gymnast and performed with two of his brothers in theatres in Auckland and Wellington; he was also a martial artist and a ballroom
dancer. More than one Latin American tango dancer around Wellington first learned tango not in their home countries but here, from Graeme. They, along with many others, called him their "maestro."
Even in his eighties, when he could have rested on his laurels and taken things easy, Graeme jumped at opportunities to learn new things at tango classes, which were often taught by former students of his. He put some much younger tango dancers to shame with his open-minded, inquisitive, let's-give-it-a-go approach. I would be hard pushed to find a more humble person. I know he hated to be singled out as the focus of attention.
Graeme wanted to leave a legacy to the tango community, of solidarity and tolerance. He wanted to see a lively programme of milongas and other social events, organised by community members who coordinated their efforts for the benefit of everyone, collaborating rather than competing with each other, motivated by an interest in the common good rather than a desire for money or social pre-eminence. He wanted a welcoming place for all tango dancers, where we supported one another. He wanted to bring people together, and his most heartfelt wish was that everyone could just get along. His legacy had nothing to do with an egotistical desire to be remembered; it was to be his gift to a group of people he cared for. He could have imposed order on the community from front and centre in the generally accepted way; he is the only person I know of who had the universal respect and affection needed to do this. But he chose to do things differently.
At Graeme's funeral Greg O'Connor, the President of the Police Association, related a little anecdote that really sums up for me Graeme's way of doing things. As a young constable it fell to Greg to drive senior police officers home after they had attended functions where alcohol had been consumed. Usually the senior officer would ride home in lonely splendour in the back seat, with nary a word for the young "taxi driver." But Graeme was different: he would get into the front passenger seat and say hello, and a friendly chat about police work and life in general would follow.
For Graeme it was always about getting alongside people, not attempting to impose elaborate schemes on people or to browbeat them into submission, but rather leading by example. He believed in engaging
people in conversation and sharing observations and insights, because he was smart enough to know that you might learn something worthwhile, even from the most unlikely of individuals.
You could call it the Kiwi way of doing things; Graeme was unassuming and sometimes humble to a fault, but he knew that working alongside people and encouraging them to contribute was ultimately the most effective way to build a community that is self-sustaining, and doesn't fall apart if one or two key people leave.
Some may feel that Graeme's dream of a lively and harmonious Wellington tango community will remain just that - a dream. Perhaps there is just too much history, and too much diversity, to ever achieve that ideal. An open, tolerant community where we can all happily participate, whether as dancers, teachers, or milonga hosts, requires everyone to be self-regulating - people have to understand and accept
commonly agreed codes of conduct, not only on the dance floor but also within the community at large.
For me Graeme represented some solid old fashioned principles that are as relevant today as they ever were; and when fully explicated, they provide a good basis for a community code of conduct. In our
conversations over the past few years I recall him referring to the Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity: "Do unto others [as you would have others do unto you]." Reciprocity requires empathy: how would you feel if you were in the other person's shoes? He also quoted the principle of freedom of speech so eloquently expressed by Evelyn Beatrice Hall in her biography of Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." And I am sure that at many points he channelled Jack Nicholson in the movie Mars Attacks: "Why can't we all just get along?"
None of these principles of reciprocity, empathy or tolerance are simply about being nice, they are powerful strategies for ensuring the harmony and longevity of the group. But there has to be a genuine will on the part of the majority of community members to enter into the spirit of these principles, even if only in small ways for now. We can't all be friends, and we will never agree on everything, but coordinating our events and rescinding the bans on some individuals attending certain milongas and practicas, would go a long way towards mending fences and easing the tensions that are affecting us right now. Of course, certain behaviours should never be tolerated - bullying, harassment, sexual impropriety to name a few - and in extreme circumstances a ban may be the only option; but we have a much better chance of dealing with problems effectively if we rise above our past hurts and our egos, and find a way of communicating.
It saddened Graeme deeply to see people he cared about, so much at odds with each other; but we could honour his memory by setting things right.