You can take the girl out of New Orleans …. but Missy McCroskey proves that you can’t take that New Orleans joie de vie out of the girl.
After half a century of California living, McCroskey is back in her native city, bringing with her a new dance partner, an in-the-genes appreciation for antiques and old warehouses, and a lifelong devotion to Newman School, where she graduated 52 years ago. She brought with her an exotic import: the Argentine tango.
Here’s the backstory.
Although she was conceived at the Coronado Hotel in Southern California (a card she often played to overcome resistance to outsiders while living in the ss state), McCroskey is a New Orleanian through and through. You get that the first time she mentions New Orleans, gently replacing the “l” with a “y” in the kind of elegant Uptown pronunciation that comes only through DNA.
She grew up on Valence Street in the heyday of musical blockbusters like The Sound of Music and The King and I.
“I just wanted to tap dance off into the sunset.”
She recalls days at Icebreakers and Valencia, where shy kids scuffled their feet and learned a few dance steps. But it would take another few decades for her to get back on a ballroom floor.
In the meantime, she trained as a secretary (“I can type like a bat out of hell”), moved to San Francisco “on a lark,” married young but not so well, raised three sons, and ultimately divorced.
“Suddenly, I was this happy, single woman,” she says. She was 65.
Her bucket list was short: She wanted to swim with dolphins and she wanted to dance.
She did the first — ”Oh, my gosh, so thrilling” — “but not a soul I knew danced. Oh, maybe at a wedding, but I wanted to waltz. I wanted to feel like a princess.”
As fate would have it, a friend introduced her to a dance instructor, and he took her to a studio in Oakland for a lesson. She discovered afternoon tea dances, “and for a month I just danced my feet off. I learned the foxtrot, the waltz, bolero.”
Then her life took a cinematic turn. After class one misty night, she shrugged into her raincoat and walked toward the door. She realized an Argentine tango class — something she’d never attempted – had started, so she sat down to watch.
When the lesson ended and a half-hour practice session began, she prepared to go. She looked up to find a tall, quiet Korean standing before her, holding out a hand.
“Would you like to dance?” he asked. And away they spun – and haven’t stopped since.
A widower who had taken up dancing to fill lonely hours, Y.B. Kim, it turned out, was a tango fiend.
“They called him the Volcado King,” McCroskey explains. “Five years ago it was a new step in Argentine tango that he had perfected and was known for.”
She loved the way he moved, but was most captivated by his kindness.
“He saw me, this strange little white-haired lady, sitting against the wall, and he came over to me,” she says. “It was so romantic. I felt like my feet didn’t hit floor.
“The next day I was at Costco and he called. He asked me to come tango. We’ve been glued to the hip ever since.”
In homage to her passion for those sweeping blockbuster musicals, McCroskey says, “I call our story The Kim and I. Don’t you love it?”
Soon Kim’s dream of opening his own tango studio became their dream. But San Francisco prices made it just that … a dream.
Then she brought Kim to New Orleans for a four-day visit, and this time he was the one who fell in love. He began to talk of a tango studio in New Orleans.
But McCroskey wasn’t sure she wanted to move back home after all those years as a Californian. That heat, for one thing.
“Then God pulled a trick on us,” McCroskey says with a smile. “A friend offered us her house for a month in New Orleans, and it turned out to be the coolest July in years.”’
Kim began researching properties online, and found a double shotgun in Marigny. Two years ago, they moved in.
“We raced to get here by March, because I didn’t want to miss my 50th reunion at Newman,” McCroskey says. At the reunion, she reunited with a friend from seventh grade, who turned out to have just moved to the same block on Dauphine Street.
So New Orleans.
Next up: Find a likely property for a tango studio. “We looked at some really awful places,” McCroskey says.
On their way to one bargain property after another, they kept driving by a triangular warehouse at the corner of Tchoupitoulas and Felicity. For some reason, it resonated with McCroskey. She admired its shape, like the Flatiron building in New York City, and the fact that it stood on Nuns Street at Felicity, where Tchoupitoulas becomes Religious at Race Street. – a virtual pilgrimage to get there. But it also was pricey.
“Then one day I learned through the realtor that it had gone into foreclosure, and I jumped into my car and raced over,” McCroskey said.
Wheels turned slowly, but finally, on Jan. 28 of this year, the couple became the owners of the gutted, concrete-floored, tumbledown two-story warehouse of their dreams.
“The place had been abandoned for five years,” McCroskey says. “There was no Sheetrock, no toilet, just a wall of 2-by-4s. And the termites owned the place.”
She and Kim set to work, turning the downstairs into an airy, light-filled dance studio with polished wood floors. A modern kitchen and bath are cleverly tucked into the acute angle of the building’s far side.
The second floor became a two-bedroom loft with a contemporary kitchen , walk-in closet that holds half a dozen pair of McCroskey’s specially made tango shoes, and a wrap-around balcony that offers views of the Mississippi on one side and the city skyline on the other.
On May 14, 2011, McCroskey’s 70th birthday, they opened the doors to Embrace Tango at Tango Ensueño.
Now Embrace Tango offers evening lessons three days a week, and a Sunday afternoon practice session from 3 to 6 p.m. that’s free. Check it out here.
On Saturday, Kim will partner Times-Picayune social columnist Nell Nolan at Rockin With the NOLA Stars, a “Dancing With the Stars” benefit to raise money for Bridge House. Read more about it in the accompanying story.
“I’m doing well for a 70-year-old,” says McCroskey with an ever-present twinkle in her eye. “Like Ginger Rogers, I’m dancing backward and in stiletto heels.”
And loving it.
Renee Peck was a feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune for 32 years. Now she writes a weekly column about life in New Orleans for NolaVie.