Photographer: Donna D. Lees
PAUL PELLICORO ON TANGO published by Barricade Books (Available at
Paul 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 us."

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 dancing."

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 York.

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," says Pellicoro.

"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.