As Michael Scham is quick to point out, it’s not difficult to understand the appeal of tango: the elegant, smooth movements; the sensual eye contact; the romantic draw of two bodies swirling around each other. For many, tango begins and ends on the dance floor.
Not so for Scham: The St. Thomas Spanish professor has transformed his passion for tango into not only a beloved hobby but also a dedicated area of academic research and teaching. Scham also met his fiancée tangoing, and she gave birth to their son last fall in Vienna.
“I just felt an immediate connection to the music,” Scham said of his first time watching tango in Buenos Aires nine years ago. “Just seeing people dance made an impression on me; people who would never make an impression on you walking down the street, but when they started dancing they had this elegance and charm. I thought, ‘What a wonderful thing to do.’”
Two years later, Scham began taking lessons in the Twin Cities and has been dancing and studying tango ever since. His ongoing work is about the lyrics of tango songs, which “forms a poetic tradition that goes back to medieval Spain, which is my field. My current research project is on the literary context of tango lyrics all the way back to 14th century Spain,” Scham said.
“It’s a fun research project. It’s nice to combine a nonacademic passion with academic research, which is ideal in some ways,” Scham added. “It’s also a great topic for nonacademic talks. I’ve given talks on this in four or five different countries already, sometimes in academic settings and sometimes not. A lot of people are interested in tango … so to give the general public an idea of the lyrics and topics with illustrations and audio is an appealing topic for a lot of people.”
Scham’s research has taken him back to Buenos Aires for month- and four-month-long stays to dance and do research. He and his fiancée continued dancing until about the last six weeks of her pregnancy, he said, and while on parental leave in Vienna recently they danced again for the first time since their son was born. Scham also gave a talk on the figure of Don Quixote as a figure in tango lyrics.
“It really adds a nice dimension to [teaching] that makes it more relevant and real in some ways for the students, who may often see literature and poetry as abstract,” Scham said. “They see this as related to something that people do and has a living tradition in a palpable way, which can be harder when you see it just on the page.”
I caught up with Scham shortly after he returned for the start of spring semester and asked him some of our favorite Humans of St. Thomas questions while also picking his brain about a life of tango.
What’s one thing you cannot live without?
Friends and being engaged socially. That’s related to tango too.
What’s the best gift you’ve ever received?
I would just say my son. That’s what I’m most grateful for.
If you had the option to time travel, would you go forward or backward? And how far would you go?
I don’t think I would dare to go forward right now. It would be fascinating to go backward and see some figures one admires. It would be good to go to a time that still has anesthesia and antibiotics. It would be fascinating to go back to Renaissance Spain, but that would be dangerous as well. To walk the same streets where Cervantes was. … Early modern period, that’s my area, but all these beautiful landscapes you see evoked in paintings that always make me feel a little sad and nostalgic. That was part of their theme even then: the loss of great beauty in nature. That would have a great draw.
What’s the best concert you’ve ever been to?
Jane’s Addiction at Seattle Lollapalooza in 1991, I believe.
Describe your ideal day.
It’s kind of mundane: After waking up from a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast with family, doing some reading, then going for a nice walk together, bike ride or a hike. Then having a good meal together with some good wine, good conversation.
What are the coolest shoes you’ve ever owned?
My dos-por-cuatro tango shoes are very cool. They’re from this place in Buenos Aires, dos-por-cuatro, two-by-four, is the brand because that was the time signature for a lot of early tango, although a lot of them are four-by-four now. I have a very cool pair of shoes from there. Tango dancers become obsessed with shoes – men as well, not just the women.