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Dancing Away Her Sorrows: Tango instructor Ilona Glinarsky

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Ilona Glinarsky.

It takes two to tango, but it also takes a good teacher to make sure you’re doing it right. Ilona Glinarsky, originally from Kiev, Ukraine, is that teacher. She offers several classes each month, in venues that range from the Beach Cities to El Segundo and Playa del Rey.

Glinarsky grew up in the former Soviet Union and was trained, from the age of four, to be a classical pianist. If we’d have asked her what she thought she’d be when she was older, she’d have said a music teacher.

Fate had something else in mind. When her mother emigrated to New York in 1979, Glinarsky, who was 16 at the time, chose to go with her.

Getting acclimated to life in the U.S. wasn’t easy. Her mother had married the wrong man, Glinarsky says, “and me, being with them without any of my relatives or friends, leaving the country, not speaking the language – it was really rough.”

As she phrases it, “growing up in the Soviet Union was like growing up in a Catholic school without God,” even though her ticket to America came about because she was deemed a Soviet Jew in a country without religious freedom.

Under Communism, Eastern Europe was a different animal altogether. There weren’t many luxuries, and while salaries were low the government subsidized many cultural events (try being poor in America and scoring good seats to the opera), making them affordable. “Education was highly revered,” Glinarsky says, “and culture in general. We were all exposed to it.”

To deal with her alienation in a new country that she did not yet comprehend, Glinarsky sought comfort in spirituality, turned to Christianity, and became a missionary. Two years later, in 1981, she moved to Los Angeles. She attended college and majored in psychology, and then got her Masters in Spiritual Psychology. At 20, she married, and thereafter began a family.

A tangle before tango

It’s beginning to seem like tango has disappeared beyond the horizon. But wait a second, it’s coming back into the picture. Glinarsky first discovered salsa, and “my life got transformed.”

We’ve fast-forwarded a dozen years and Glinarsky is now 33, recently divorced, and a full-time mom. Oh, oh, not so good, and on top of it her mother has been diagnosed with cancer.

“All of that was happening at the same time,” she says. “I had to fill in the evenings when I didn’t know what to do with myself.” And so, stopping in at one of the South Bay adult schools, Glinarsky enrolled in her first salsa class. “It was exactly what I needed at the time. It counteracted all the sadness and all the loses and all the challenges that I was going through because it made me play hard. You don’t just dabble in it, you’re really fully immersed.”

It was like being re-connected, plugged back in, and it also allowed Glinarsky to reclaim her femininity: “When you’re unhappy in marriage, you grow numb.”

While taking classes at Third Street Dance in Los Angeles, Glinarsky looked in on a tango class, and found herself intrigued. As the novelist Carlos Fuentes has written, “The tango tells a tale of frustrations, nostalgia, fragilities, insecurities.” When an embracing couple dances the tango, he added, “they realize both an individual and a shared destiny, and the impossibility of controlling it – hence the composer Santos Discépolo’s fitting description of the tango as ‘a sad thought that can be danced.’”

Glinarsky saw the pain, the loss, the nostalgia, but also romance and love. “Even without knowing the lyrics, it conveys all these emotions.” And the music, ah the music, simply resonated with her. “Tango for me felt like coming home.”

Photo of dancers from “Tango Amor,” a coffee table photography book by Gayle Goodrich. COURTESY OF GAYLE GOODRICH

Photo of dancers from “Tango Amor,” a coffee table photography book by Gayle Goodrich.

An emotional spectrum

Classy tango shows have often passed through Los Angeles, and it’s like watching highly-charged theater.

“The majority of people see it onstage,” Glinarsky says, “and they fall in love with the drama, with this very overt passion display.” However, that’s an exaggeration. “Passion is not always displayed overtly: Passion is sometimes a fire deep inside and sometimes you don’t scream it. It’s very subtle. Sometimes you can only sense it through looking at somebody’s eyes, or feeling it in their embrace. That’s kind of what tango is really about – passion that’s internal.”

Tango originated as a street dance, not a stage dance, emerging from the poor immigrant neighborhoods of Buenos Aires in the late 19th century. It’s also a melting pot of influences – Polish polkas, German marches, plus the Argentine milonga, the Cuban habañera, and many others.

Tango, as Glinarsky further elaborates, “is a deep internal conversation that connects two people who are very often complete strangers – which is the power of social dance, to connect people that would otherwise maybe never speak to one another, and discovering the person beyond words and beyond anything that’s superficial. Beyond their religious beliefs, political beliefs, how much money they make. Two people come together and they connect on this very deep level and they share those few moments when they’re dancing together, and their intention is to make that unforgettable. That’s all that matters. It’s like when they say, ‘You dance like no one is watching,’ that’s really how tango is.”

Tango is a universal language, and once one learns it, Glinarsky says, we can go anywhere in the world and dance it with anybody else. It fits into the smallest suitcase.

Medicinal values

And so the tango turned around Ilona Glinarsky’s life.

“It not only enriched my life, but it taught me everything from relationship skills to life skills, to helping me communicate with people, to relate to people, and how to connect with people that I would never have spoken to in my previous life.”

She’s now been teaching tango for ten years.

Let’s not forget Glinarsky’s degree in Spiritual Psychology. “I am also a life coach who works with singles and couples, utilizing tango as a tool for developing better connection and communication skills, facilitating personal growth and healing. My goal is to do lots more of this work in the future.”

The key word here may be healing.

“People turn to dance like this for healing,” Glinarsky says. “There’s something to be said about dancing for hours in a beautiful, intimate, close embrace. It’s not sexual, it’s just really intimate. Now you also learn the distinction between sexuality, sensuality, and simple closeness and intimacy in a very different light – which so many people confuse completely.

“As a dancer, you really learn how to share yourself in a very deep way with someone in whom you have absolutely no interest in any other way, but whom you cherish and revere as a person.

“This is a dance where it just blurs all the age differences,” Glinarsky says, and she offers a poignant example: “One of my dearest friends is about 87 years old, who travels around the world non-stop, and dances with anyone from 20 years old to whatever. And women close their eyes and just get lost because he knows how to embrace a woman. It’s that simple. How do you convey that to someone unless they’ve experienced it?”

Ilona Glinarsky offers a monthly tango event that includes a free introductory lesson to all with “left feet,” on the first Sunday of each month, at Milonga LAX, Elks Lodge, 8025 W. Manchester Blvd., Playa del Rey. It draws dancers from all across Los Angeles.

Weekly tango classes, and an informal milonga (this is what Argentine tango dance events are called), take place on Wednesday nights at the Hacienda Hotel, 525 Sepulveda Blvd., Manhattan Beach. Open to the public.

Upcoming: The L.A. Tango Marathon (also known as The Endless Summer Tango) takes place from May 22 to 25 at the Elks Lodge, 8025 W. Manchester Blvd., Playa del Rey.

Beach Milonga takes place on Sunday, May 25, from 12 noon to 3 p.m., at the Manhattan Beach Pier.

Information: (310) 621-0622 or go to

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