Carlos Quiroga

Alex Turney: an instant love affair

t was love at first sight. When he came down the stairs of the boat that brought him to Ellis Island, Mrs. Barkan fell immediately in love with him. Born in October 1918 in Suwalki, a small Polish town near the East Russian border, Alex Turney has been a survivor for a good part of his 97 years.

When his parents divorced, his mother, Fanny, decided Suwalki was too small and embarked on the search for something more exciting, interesting and modern. That place was Germany. According to a relative, living in Berlin, it was the center of the Western European culture. “We packed up everything and moved. I was 7 years old and I had to start learning a new language. So, I told my mom ‘please don’t speak Polish to me anymore’. I wanted to become German, because -he’d heard- everything German was superior. We were the Übermensch (the overman)“.

The Nazis took over in 1933 and it became a disaster. “I was thrown out of school. I loved the school, the language, I was very good on my studies but they threw us out. There was nothing to do. So, my mother decided that Germany was no place for me”.

Fanny visited friends and relatives in the US. To get him out of Germany, she needed a signed affidavit. Mr. and Mrs. Barkan, a couple from their hometown that used to live in a house built by Alex’s grandfather, agreed to help and signed the papers. “They invited me to live with them. They took me into their home, like their own son. It was a blessing!”

Soon after Fanny got her travel permits. It was the winter of 1937. Alex graduated with honors from High School, but had no money for University. They learned that College was free for NY residents. “We packed all our belongings and moved again”.

After College, Alex started to work as a chemist for various chemical companies in New Jersey, and through mutual acquaintances he met Jean, a young American woman who had majored in dancing in Chicago and whose parents were also Jewish immigrants from Krakow. “When we danced… it was like love at first sight! The dancing was the magnet that brought us together”. They got married in 1948 and adopted 3 children.

“Jean started taking me to dance lessons to Fred Astaire’s and we learned all the Ballroom and Latin dances. She was very disciplined with dancing. We would take our lesson and then go home and practice, so eventually I learned and began to feel competent with the Latin dances (Cha-Cha, Rumba, Merengue) and the Waltz, too”.

As a routine, they’d go to see Ballet and Modern Dance, and whenever a foreign company visited New York, they made it their business to go see them. It was 1985 when they read in the paper that a company called “Tango Argentino” was going to be in town. The Turneys had been into dancing for several years but never heard of argentine tango. So, out of curiosity, they went. “It was a revelation! We heard the music; we saw the dancers and they weren’t your typical 20-year-old Hollywood stars. They were true people: tall, not so handsome, a little overweight. But when they started dancing, it was a complete transformation; they became stars on the stage. We loved it and told everybody about it!”

One of the members of the show, Nelson Ávila, started teaching a class on Monday’s afternoon. Jean couldn’t go because she was working part time, but she invented ‘a dentist appointment’. They went and started to take lessons. “It was an instant love affair. The following week, Jean took off from work again, and the next week and the next… until her boss fired her! But we didn’t care!”

Nelson introduced them to Nelida, Copes, Maria Nieves and the others. They became fanatics. “We saw the show 6 or 8 times before we followed them to Paris. Every night they smuggled us into the show as part of the company. And after the performance, we’d go to an Argentine nightclub called Les Trottoirs de Buenos Aires, with some of the dancers from the show, and stayed there until one o’clock. Someone from the show would dance one or two numbers, and then they would invite us to dance. It was a dream! All of a sudden -with arthritis in my back and all- we were getting so much love and attention!”

Inspired by his new passion, Alex asked a member of the show: -How long does it take to get this dance? The answer was -A lifetime! Alex said -Oh my god! I’m 70 years old. I don’t have that long!

Later they met Danel & Maria Bastone and took lessons with them, and danced on every birthday and anniversary. The Turneys became ‘stars’ of the tango community. They were among the first milongueros in the tri-state area (New York, New Jersey and Connecticut). “The first years you couldn’t find a hundred people that danced tango. We used to go to classes and there were only 6 to 8 people”.

Still at Fred Astaire’s they participated in a competition with five other studios. They took first place! At age 85 (Jean was 79) they were chosen to star on David Licata’s “Tango Octogenario”, a movie that has played in hundreds of dance film festivals in four continents.

For the past 11 years, it has only been him on this journey. He doesn’t dance that much anymore, but still enjoys sitting and watching. “Tango is part of my life. I think it stopped our aging. Dancing tango and all the exposure and the admiration we got, we felt like two young people, through our 70s and 80s”.

The secret for his young 97 years hides behind three letters: DDL. “Diet, Dancing and Love. I was married 57 years to a woman. I loved her and she loved me. I think our marriage was more beautiful because we had each other, we needed each other, we knew each other, knew every step, every nuance. I couldn’t have imagined anything so exciting, satisfying, and wonderful, which brings people together again. That’s why tango is special. It’s not about gymnastics, but the romantic element of a man and a woman together in harmony, dancing as one”.

Alex has no doubts when defining tango: “It’s a 3-minute love affair. Two bodies, dancing together as one. And that feeling of holding the woman in your arms and the beautiful sentimental and sensuous music, it’s just a wonderful magic combination”.