Donna D. Lees
PELLICORO ON TANGO published by Barricade Books (Available
Pellicoro on Passion and Pacino
Above the buzz of taxicabs on Broadway (perhaps
making a bee line for the nearby Lincoln Center), Paul Pellicoro,
the President/Owner of Manhattan's largest Latin and ballroom DanceSport
studio leans back in the black leather chair in his office. He appears
relaxed and ready to answer anything. (The dancer, coach and choreographer
will also be addressing frequently asked questions in his book,
Paul Pellicoro on Tango, due out in the spring of 2002.)
I begin by asking Pellicoro about his deliciously
seductive Tango choreography for Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.
(The dark haired dancer with chocolate brown eyes has also created
choreography for movies such as The Object of My Affection starring
Jennifer Aniston and Let It Be Me - written by Eleanor Bergstein,
the author of Dirty Dancing.)
"Did you tower over Pacino?" I ask
the 5'11" Pellicoro.
"Everyone towers over Pacino."
"And how did you go about teaching
America's favorite Godfather son to Tango?"
"My partner Eleny Fotinos and I worked with
Al (Pacino) for about three months prior to shooting the Pierre
Hotel Tango scene in Scent of a Woman," says Pellicoro. "Eleny
and I started teaching him the simple elements of Tango such as
forward and backward ochos (figure eights). And of course, the eight-count
salida (a basic Tango walk)."
The choreographer/coach adds that, "The
foundation to being a ballroom dancer is simply to walk forward
and back in a comfortable, relaxed manner while embracing a body
in front of you. All dances are designed around the natural walk."
The dashing Sicilian smiles and continues, "Some people go
into a dance studio and suddenly they are walking around to music
in some bizarre fashion."
He is convinced that, "the Garden of Eden
wasn't a physical place. It was an experience of innocence. Becoming
shameful of our bodies and our true nature are factors that made
many of us confused. Unknowingly, as we got older, we lost our trust
and love of our selves. And lost faith in the powers born within
I comment that Pacino certainly has no inhibitions
about expressing himself on the silver screen. Pellicoro nods and
says, "It seems to be related to his "method" style
of acting. You can't make a dancer in a couple of months. But from
our intense Tango sessions, he picked up an understanding of the
intense focus and intimacy of the dance."
The man called upon by "every national news
station to be the expert whenever a dance event happens" confidently
continues, "I also had Al doing improvisational exercises.
He trusted my instincts to guide him to becoming a convincing experienced
blind Tango dancer."
I remark that the Pellicoro/Fotinos/Pacino trio
must have spent a lot of hours practicing in the studio. "We
worked between three to six hours a week," says Pellicoro.
With a grin he adds, "However, the three of us would always
take a break for double cappuccinos and talk."
"What did you talk about?"
"About life," says the Tango master.
"It was wonderful to be able to ask Al anything I could think
of. His answers were always frank and sincere."
He recalls that, "Al seemed to have a sincere
interest in how other people lived their lives. Eleny's and my life
as dancers seemed remarkable to him."
I chuckle. I can see why even a "been there,
done that, got the t-shirt" Oscar
award-winning actor would find Pellicoro and
Fotinos fascinating. For starters, Fotinos - who Pellicoro calls
"a Greek goddess with well developed legs" - seems to
have stepped off the pages of a storybook. Like Sleeping Beauty,
the gifts of Princess Fotinos lay dormant until Prince Pellicoro's
embrace awakened her passion for dance. But that's not all. Fotinos
and Pellicoro soon moved from a pupil-instructor relationship to
dance competition partners.
Pellicoro explains, "We started Eleny in
her first Pro-Am competition in 1985 dancing Hustle." (The
current International Hustle/Salsa Champion and former Fred Astaire
ballroom dance instructor, Debra Hampton, raves about Pellicoro's
diverse talents. "He is a phenomenal dancer and teacher! Of
course, Paul is famous for his Argentine Tango too.")
The DanceSport (ballroom dancing) coach tells
me that by 1987, "Eleny turned professional and we made our
debut by winning the Eastern U.S. Championships. We also won in
the Rising Star Latin American category at the North American Championships."
After a coaching session with Andrew Sinkinson,
the recently-bereft-of-a-partner reigning English royalty of DanceSport
asked Pellicoro's permission "in a very proper manner"
to partner up with Fotinos. Pellicoro flashes his pearly whites
and remembers that Sinkinson, "was quite intrigued with Eleny's
And what makes a Fotinos/Pellicoro performance
so special? "I think our background with Argentine Tango, Hustle
and Mambo as well as the fact that we are natural social dancers
creates a genuine feel for the dances," says Pellicoro. He
adds, "The base of all quality theatrical and competition style
dancing stems from a love of social dancing. Why? Because there
is that seed of spontaneity."
So with Pellicoro's blessing, in 1994, Fotinos
and Sinkinson flew off to the United Kingdom's "by invitation
only" Closed British competition. The couple placed in the
top six in the prestigious event. (Fotinos also became the first
American to place in the Open British Championships.)
Did Pellicoro experience any pangs of jealousy
or remorse? The choreographer/coach shakes his head. "The fact
that a world finalist regarded Eleny's dancing so highly was actually
a flattering gesture to my life's work. Also, I enjoy dancing more
as an art form than a competitive sport."
Pellicoro, however, is well versed in the world
of competition sport. Besides excelling in dance competitions as
an adult, he apparently displayed prowess on the football field
and on the wrestling mats in his youth. He switched allegiances
from football to Foxtrot thanks to his sister and his mother.
Pellicoro's sister insisted that her brother
help her practice her newly learned Hustle steps. His mother spontaneously
showed him the Lindy in their living room. And Pellicoro got hooked
on dancing in the process. So much so that the Long Island youth
chose to major in dance at Adelphi and the State University of New
His climb to the top, as the CEO of Manhattan's
DanceSport, his notoriety as a Tango aficionado and film choreographer,
did not happen over night. Pellicoro paid his dues. Dancing, teaching
and training at other schools - such as Arthur Murray's and ballroom
guru, Bill Davies' studio - were all par for the course before opening
the doors to his own DanceSport in 1985.
What kept the dancer motivated and moving? "Integrity
and hard work. I was passionate about dancing and the teaching of
dance. I was sure that I could convey that love," says Pellicoro.
Sixteen years later, his studio continues to
see a stream of students arrive for lessons and practice parties.
Does Pellicoro still derive the same kind of pleasure from dancing?
"Oh yes!" he answers. "Dancing is a form of foreplay.
It's a form of courtship - just as enjoyable as being in bed!"
"So is romance the reason that the sales
of Salsa and Argentine Tango classes and instruction videos are
skyrocketing?" I ask.
Pellicoro says, "At our studio, attendance
at Mambo/Salsa classes have always been strong. And yes, I think
Americans want to have more passion in their lives so they look
to things like the Latin dances."
The choreographer/coach also attributes the rise
in interest to singers like Marc Antony and Luis Enrique who have
popularized Salsa movements and tunes. He laughs as he recalls,
"When I was doing Hustle in the '70s, everyone wanted to be
Travolta. Nobody acknowledged they could speak Spanish. Now, since
the '80s, everybody is recognizing their Latin roots."
"And isn't Swing also a very "in"
dance?" I inquire.
"Well, I think it's waning in popularity,"
says Pellicoro. "However, at our school it's started to pick
up again. Christian Perry - the guy on the Gap (Swing dance) commercial
- teaches classes for us."
"So what is it about Swing that
is so attractive?"
"It's an American dance and music that we
can embrace as ours," says Pellicoro. He adds, "Although
sometimes people don't progress because they get too confused by
all the different types of Swing like Boogie-Woogie, East Coast,
West Coast and all the variations."
"What is the ideal dance for a
beginner to learn?" I wonder.
"As professional instructors, we are programmed
to say Foxtrot and/or Swing. However, I believe there is no one
way to teach. Nor is there one particular dance to start with,"
"Well, how do you know where to direct newcomers?"
"I like to ask newcomers," says Pellicoro,
"what inspired them to step into DanceSport?" With a smile
he illustrates his point. "Did they see a Broadway show like
Swing! or Forever Tango? My job is to work with their inspiration
and help them to learn to dance."
With the Spring 2002 arrival of press junkets
and book signings for Paul Pellicoro on Tango, undoubtedly he will
continue to inspire and illuminate Tango fans. And whatever subsequent
chapter the Fates write for him, it looks like Pellicoro will be
relaxed and ready to dance his next steps with confidence and passion.