Today's happy camper has grown up


RHINEBECK, N.Y. -- Meet Stig Regli of Washington, D.C. And Don Klein of Spring Lake, Mich. And Charlie and Leah Wilkins, of Reston, Va. All are happy campers, but with a purpose.

They've come here on vacation to the Omega Institute, a retreat in the Hudson River Valley, to socialize with people who have interests similar to theirs -- and to learn to tango.

These four people form part of the ever-expanding clientele of a growth industry in this country. It is a service industry, one that offers recreational and educational experiences, frequently in a rural setting.

These are the adult camps and workshops. Somewhere, there is one for every taste and interest. The taste of these four is for tango.

We're not talking about the tango you see in the movies, with long strides and loose, melodramatic flourishes. They are learning the more intimate, exotic and maddeningly complicated Argentine tango.

This is the real thing, where the couple is virtually fused in a tight embrace that never loosens. The hands and elbows are tucked in, and all the quick action is in the feet. There is no room for a misstep. The virtuosity is not individual, but in making the partnership work.

To Mr. Klein, a 59-year-old software designer, tango has "panache," and more. "This dance has guts!" he says, grinning dreamily and flipping his pony tail. Mr. Regli, 46, an engineer with the Environmental Protection Agency, said he has wanted to learn the tango for about 20 years, ever since he first experienced it during a bicycle tour of South America.

He is a tall marathoner who likes physical challenges. But after two days in Nora Dinzelbacher's class (she's a professional teacher of the dance from California, by way of Buenos Aires) he has seen his aspiration collide with the reality of the dance's frustrating intricacy.

"I'm having a very difficult time," he said with a pained look. "It's very hard work. I'm really struggling."

It's not always easy to isolate the specific wellsprings of trends. Nor is it entirely clear whether the immense popularity of adult learning camps should be seen as a development in education or leisure. Maybe such a distinction is not important.

Karen Cure, editor of Fodor's "Great American Learning Vacations," has watched the growth for years.

"When I started travel writing in the early '70s these camps were like the little jewel you found that nobody knew about," she said. "Today all the special interest magazines are jammed packed with listings."

Books like hers contain hundreds of vacation possibilities, from foreign language programs to painting workshops, to spas and fitness centers. They include the sports camps: tennis, golf, sailing, basketball, baseball, hang-gliding, you name it.

Navajo log hogans

There are centers, such as Crow Canyon, in Cortez, Calif. Anybody can pay to go there, put up in Navajo log hogans, listen to lectures and sift the dirt at Anasazi ruins.

Ms. Cure noted that at one time people who went to specialized learning camps or workshops usually knew something about the subject. But now most accept beginners. "Today you can go to guitar camp and not even know how to play at all," she said.

Or to tango camp, like Mr. Regli, and not even know how to foxtrot.

There are music camps and excursions of eco-tourists to observe the dolphins and whales off the coast of California, the caribou of Alaska. The Disney Institute will open in February, offering learning vacations in Orlando. Club Med had its first "Ocean Awareness Month" this year at Sonora Bay in Mexico.

Club Med even had a computer village in the Caribbean. "The thought was, if you're wearing a bathing suit, computers don't seem as intimidating as they do at home," said a Club Med representative.

Religious camps continue to thrive, for every level of commitment and persuasion. These camps were the precursors of all the others.

Kirkbridge Camp, in Bangor, Pa., for instance, has a Christian orientation. It's aim, according to administrator Cynthia Crowner, is to encourage the kind of engagement of public issues that Philip and the Rev. Daniel Berrigan personify. The Catholic peace activist brothers are regular lecturers.

The original Chautauqua Institution is going strong in upstate New York. Chautauqua, said Milton Stern, dean emeritus of continuing education at the University of California at Berkeley, was the prototype. He described it as an "outstanding example of the American self-improvement movement," the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

Chautauqua was established on the lake of the same name in 1874 as a Methodist summer camp for Sunday school teachers.

It influenced the development of adult education in the United States for more than a hundred years. Chautauqua draws about 180,000 people a year. They enjoy its opera, its theater and symphony orchestra. William Jennings Bryan used to be a regular speaker. Today it's Vice President Al Gore.

Learning vacations

Kay Kohl, head of the National University Continuing Education Association, in Washington, sees the growing interest in learning vacations as natural to a population that is better educated than ever before.

"We have many more college graduates than we had years ago," she said. "When they think how they will spend their leisure time and disposable income, education is very appealing. Going to institutes or continuing studies programs -- like Elderhostels -- assures them an opportunity to spend some time with like-minded folk."

That's the primary attraction to Harriet Webster, author of "Great American Learning Adventures."

"I think people are lonely," she said. "I think people see learning something, taking a course that puts them in contact with other people, as providing a set of new people to form relationships with."

Others insist that the whole thing reflects this country's traditional preoccupation -- sometimes obsession -- with self-improvement.

"If you track it, you will find that Americans always had a need to justify their entertainments," said Michael Marsden, dean of arts and sciences at Northern Michigan University, and a professor of popular culture. "I don't think America has ever learned to play.

"Virtually all of our entertainment has to serve some educational purpose. Even the rodeo is always preceded by an announcer informing people that the activities of the cowboys reflect the work they do."

Suspicious of leisure

Jack Nachbar, another expert in American popular culture from Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, agreed: "America is a country that traditionally has been suspicious of pure leisure. Even kids don't just go to camp anymore. They used to learn to swim and do crafts. Today it's computer camps."

Baltimore's Loyola College runs a popular summer camp for children 6 to 11 that teaches them how to run their own business. Camp Lemonade Stand is into its fourth year.

The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, N.Y., is one of the largest New Age learning centers in the country. It sprawls across 80 acres of tranquil glade and forest.

It is quiet, removed. There are no newspapers or alcohol. Accommodations are Spartan. All campers are called to their vegetarian meals by three blasts on a conch shell.

Omega has been in operation for 18 years. It is a friendly place where people go around smiling indiscriminately at strangers, and hugging each other a lot. Skepticism as a human trait is not admired.

Omega's summer courses include Meditation for Beginners; Choices in Dying; Healing Ourselves, Changing the World.

Many people drawn to camps of this kind often have aims that are not easily described.

What they are looking for, said one student of the Nigerian drumming master, Babatunde Olatunji, is "something deeper and beyond the everyday."

Mr. Olatunji's class is one of the most popular at Omega. For hours on end his students pound and pound their drums, working their way toward a dreamy Nirvana, or some other nice place to be.

Stumbling tango students

In the meantime, nearby, Ms. Dinzelbacher's tango students stumble through their acrobatic maneuvers and steps, the ochos, paradas, sacadas, voleos, to the recorded rhythms of Francisco Canaro and Carlos di Sarli.

Now and then, it works for them. Only occasionally, and just for an instant, they get it absolutely right, as it should be. That's when they finally know why they came.

For Mr. Klein, learning the tango was the latest advance in a personal campaign to gain some self-respect for his physical capacities. He was an unathletic child, as he put it, "a bad baseball player, the last kid to be picked for the team."

He is small man, bearded, with eyes that reflect a Zen-like detachment. He was always kind of clumsy.

Then he found Tai Chi, a regimen of Chinese exercises. It changed his life. This was followed by some informal lessons in swing dance, the jitterbug. His confidence eventually led him to the intimidating tango, and the glamorous Ms. Dinzelbacher.

"This is my own test of myself," he said. Frisky with purpose, he returned to the dance floor. His fellow dancers, he said, are patient.

Mr. Regli took the class not only to fulfill his decades-old dream, but because he thought the effort of learning the tango would help him enhance his concentration. It's something he works on a lot.

"I'm involved in meditation," he said, "and workshops like these help me seize the quality of the moment, to live in the here and now."

Then and there, Mr. Regli seemed to be in pain.

Charlie Wilkins, the lobbyist, who smiles a lot and looks a little like George Will, and his wife, Leah, a "psychic counselor," are hoping the tango will move their relationship in a direction they want it to go.

As Mrs. Wilkins put it over a lunch of millet loaf and carrots:

"My nature is to want to take charge of everything and everybody. His nature is to sit back and let me. With the tango he has to take charge and I have to surrender." She paused. "At least I do if I want to dance."

When Kathryn Seddon, a Washington lawyer, took Ms. Dinzelbacher's tango course a couple of years ago her main purpose was only to learn the dance. She had been inspired by the Broadway production of "Tango Argentina."

She did learn it, she said, but that only presented with a new and unexpected need. She found no great supply of partners in Washington.

"What they say is true," she said, a hint of disappointment in her voice. "It really does take two to tango."

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