Author’s love of tango yields lessons about life

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 20, 2003

Tango: ballroom dance of Latin-American origin in 4/4- time with a basic pattern of step-step*step-step-close and characterized by long pauses and stylized body positions.

Julia Cass is hooked on the tango. Her addiction began with tango lessons in Philadelphia in the fall of 1996. In the beginning, she recalls, “I loved the idea more than the actuality. The first guy I was supposed to dance with said ‘No!’ and walked away. But the first time I really tangoed, it felt like flying. My partner said to me, ‘I love a passive woman who knows how to follow.’

“In the tango you have to feel the music. I remember some of my partners: Jorge, who did intoxicating spins; Leo with his syncopated rhythm; Augustin who waltzed beautifully; and Jose Luis who strutted like a peacock.”

Also taking tango lessons was a couple from Argentina, who sent her a copy of a newspaper printed in English. An ad for an executive editor caught Cass’ eye and she sent an e-mail application for the position. “Five minutes later they telephoned. That was early January and the middle of February I flew down for an interview. They asked, I accepted, and came back to Philadelphia with six weeks to sell my house and close everything out.”

Cass stayed three years in Buenos Aires, living in “a gorgeous apartment and dancing every night.” Then the economy crashed and she came back home, “following to Berkley an economics professor who had been on sabbatical. The location (Buenos Aires) put a bubble in my champagne, but it went flat in San Francisco,” she confides, laughing.

At present her dancing is confined to memories and listening to the music of the tango. Cass is currently living in Selma, her third period of residence here, although she came several times between 1982 and 1985, when she was living in New Orleans as southern bureau chief for the Philadelphia Enquirer.

Her first trip here was in 1984, when she was assigned to cover the “big brouhaha” over the firing of the deputy registrars. She interviewed Marie Foster, Mayor Smitherman and J.L. Chestnut. She says she found Chestnut “so interesting” and she learned so much about “Bloody Sunday” that she went back to Philadelphia and wrote a contract for the book she and Chestnut did together. “Black in Selma” was quite successful. Since then, Cass has kept in touch with Selma and with her friend, “Ches.”

For a while, she was managing editor for the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News. In less than a year, the economy fell and the magazine was cut. Knight-Ridder, which also owns the Enquirer, offered her a buy-out and she took it, did some free-lancing, “then I started playing with the idea of a novel.”

The publishers accepted her idea and she and Chestnut are busily writing a mystery novel, set in the 1960s in a town called Emanno. The book, Cass says, “has really good characters and settings, with four chapters in New Orleans. I think it will be well received and read.”

What ‘s next for this peripatetic journalist/author, who claims no permanent home. Her father, a botanist in experimental farm research, lives in Minnesota. Her mother, who died recently, taught consumer economics, served 20 years on the city council and, Cass explains, “was strictly a career woman. She made me very independent.”

Her sister, who lives in Alaska, and two nephews, one in New Orleans, are her immediate family and “a good reason for traveling,” she says.

Asked if she will ever settle down, Cass responds, “After the novel is finished, I may be in Panama for six months on an International Center for Journalists fellowship. After that, who knows? Some day New Orleans will definitely be my settling place. But I plan to work out the rest of my career as projects instead of a regular job. Maybe, putting together a program to teach beginning journalists.

“And there will definitely be time to tango.&uot;”