The weekend rain provided no deterrent for dancers from across the country who gathered for dancing and lessons. Most drove in from a distance of a few hours by car. One couple came from Denver, Colo., while others came from as far away as Tampa, Fla., Minneapolis, Minn., and Texas.
"Rain dampened the day on Saturday, but not the spirit of the dancers," said organizer Karen Whitesell. "They performed to an umbrella crowd on the stage at 12:30 p.m. The Saturday night park tango performance with a live orchestra was held in Murray's ballroom."
Bill Zuppann said Meet in the Middle is a hybrid experience, a cross between a workshop and a festival. A smaller gathering organized around lessons, the structure of the event is like a workshop, yet because multiple teachers are involved, the effect is more like a festival.
"There's a real community feeling here," Zappann said. "You eat together and do other activities together. There's a lot you don't do in other festivals. You get to know everyone. You get to come back and see them again, find out how they're doing, see how the dance community is developing in their own town. You can exchange stories and see they have the same problems you do."
Zappann is from St. Louis and considers Mt. Vernon within driving distance. He has come to Meet in the Middle for several years. He said dance communities do not tend to be very big from town to town, except in a few cities like Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash. By coming to Meet in the Middle, he gets to see people from Tulsa and Kansas City and other mid-American towns.
Kristin Balmer came to Meet in the Middle from Nashville, Tenn. She used to live in Fayetteville and heard about the festival from a friend. Balmer said she liked the cooler weather here and the live music provided by four members of the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra who are sidelining as the Tulsa Tango Orchestra, who were at the festival on Saturday to perform.
"I like having lots of people to choose from to dance with," Balmer said. "The exciting thing about dancing as a follower is to decipher the leader. The bigger the event, the more opportunity there is to learn. You don't have that opportunity with the same partner all the time."
Horst Wassermann, from Little Rock, Ark., has been driving to Memphis to dance, and learned about the event from dancers there. A regular ballroom dancer, Wassermann said he has danced the tango for less than a year. His dance partner has been doing the tango for some time and he wanted to keep up with her.
"I love it," Wassermann said of the festival. "It's a wonderful group of people. The best part is getting to dance with so many people."
Virginie Cochard, of Tulsa, had come to the Meet in the Middle two years ago and returned this year. A small figure wearing dangerously high heels and speaking with a distinctive French accent, Cochard fit right in with the tango attendees, all of whom were at least over 30 and showing signs of worldly experience from their gray hair and fashion sensibilities.
"I love dancing," Cochard said. "It's stress relief. After the end of the evening, I'm fine. I have great friends here. We always go out afterwards. We get connected."
Again and again the dancers said the formal tango dances, the Milongas, were their favorite part of the festival, what Zuppann called "the payoff" from all the lessons and practice. By the final day of the festival, the atmosphere in Murray's ballroom was one of relaxed comfort, easy laughter and familiarity. As more music started and a partner appeared, dancing instantly began.
For instructors Gustavo Benzecry Sabá and Maria Olivera, coming to Mt. Vernon from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was hard to know what to expect.
"We were gladly surprised," Olivera said. "It looks isolated here. We expected to have a few people with a little tango experience. We did not expect to have such a dedicated crowd. All were well-versed in tango. Karen does her best to make people feel welcome."
"This is a palace," Sabá said.
Sabá, who also sold copies of his book on tango technique, was impressed with the discipline shown by the dancers and the respect they showed for the Tango Sálon, the style of dancing he and Olivera teach.
"The spirit of the tango," he explained, "is to embrace in a single body, chest to chest. We found not only a good organization here, but very good students who tomorrow, they will be friends. Maria and me, when we teach, we are students too. Students teach you how to become better as a teacher."
Lessons, dinners and dances were all held in Whitesell's stained glass studio. Tables were installed where glass supplies had been. Meals were provided through local caterers. Dances and classes were held upstairs in the ballroom.
"The event was great, as usual," Whitesell said. "Attendance was about like last year. We enjoyed seeing new faces coming to the event and having the pleasure to again meet returnees."