The following are recently published articles about Tango's various artistic, culture and social aspects.
"It Takes Two to Tango"
Western Standard Magazine, June 27, 2005
Tango. The word conjures images of dancers with smouldering eyes and simmering sensuality gliding to the melancholy sound of Astor Piazzola's accordion-like bandoneon. The men are manly and the women are, well, wrapping their legs quite conspicuously around them.
This is no two-step, or waltz, and definitely not predictable. Tango is an exploration of moods, from melancholy to playful. Dancers seem to vibrate while maintaining the balance of energy between male lead and female response, a powerful interaction that can evaporate as soon as the music stops.
That sultry Latin image is playing out in growing numbers of dance clubs in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg. Fanatics say the Argentine transplant flourishes here because it's a living thing, a mystery people want to explore, a passion meant to be communicated without words. And, just maybe, the tango lets North Americans experience our biological imperatives rather than our politically correct ones. "I wonder if in our culture, if we haven't been seeking some therapeutic interaction," acclaimed performer and instructor Susana Domingues muses from her Vancouver studio. "Tango is a product of a different culture, and maybe that provides a safe place to engage in these very definite male and female roles."
Tango is fundamentally based on the strong male lead--and the woman's willingness to follow, she explains. There is no sexual homogeny here; the "manlier" the man, the better. He directs the steps through movements of his torso, his hand on the small of her back, his rhythm. The woman responds to the direction, then he responds to her, creating a tight balance of power that is the key to tango's sensual appeal.
But it's a concept that has caused many a tight-lipped argument on Canadian classroom floors, and silent exits by fuming couples. Calgary-based instructor Leo Sato makes sure beginners know exactly where the sexes stand on the dance floor--and it isn't politically correct. "Ladies, repeat after me," Sato begins his classes. "Men lead, women follow, men lead, women follow."
Sato started out in ballroom dance, and fell into tango while living in South America. Since coming to Calgary about five years ago, he's seen the number of tango students swell, in part, he believes, because tango's basic eight steps are easy to learn. The clothes are rather cool, too; form-fitting pants for men, leg-baring dresses for women. And those ankle straps? They're not just for looks: they keep the shoes from flying off women's feet while executing the gancho, where the female "hooks" her leg behind her partner's knee with a swift, sliding backward kick, or the ocho, when he prompts her to swivel in a tight "eight" formation by his side.
Unsurprisingly, the male- female ratio in Sato's tango classes is around one to one, whereas in other Latin dance classes it's around one to five. "Salsa is like an action movie, or a comedy," he says. "Argentine tango is more like a good romantic movie." In tango, men and women are equal partners but definitely not the same. "It isn't a chemistry of similar parts, but of different parts," Vince Davis, founder of Edmonton Tango, says. "The two very different roles come together and fit; it's magical."
Vince and wife Cindy became full converts to the tango after visiting Buenos Aires in 1995. Both were ballroom instructors at the University of Alberta, where Vince manages the School of Business' information systems. "There's a very strong personal and emotional involvement in Argentine tango," Vince says. "Ballroom dancing doesn't have that same feel."
The couple were instrumental in promoting the dance in Edmonton and Calgary. A couple of years later, Tamara and Ernst Edler, of Tango Sutra, caught the bug--in Canada's small tango world, Domingues taught Tamara her first class--and now split their year between Edmonton and Argentina. "Tango is enticing because it explores the depths of emotions, is very intimate, and you never stop learning because of that," Tamara says. Over time, the gender dynamic evolves. "The woman exerts more of her will as her level of expertise in tango grows." In other words, the more you learn, the clearer it becomes that it really does take two to tango.
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"A Dance of the Embrace: learning to tango in Argentina"
Mytelus.com/travel/article, October 12, 2005
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) - At the School of Tango's weekly practice, couples dance their way across a wooden floor as music blares from loudspeakers and spectators sip mate, a bitter South American tea.
As an American in Buenos Aires, I'm learning to dance the tango. I've been at it for more than a month, taking lessons in the mecca of tango, but I'm still hesitant when a tall Argentine man asks me to dance.
Steps later, I'm adjusting to my partner's dancing style when he pauses and asks me where I'm from. When I tell him I'm an American, he nods self-assuredly and advises: "You Americans are always so tense. Relax."
Tango is quintessentially Argentine, like the mate tea sipped through a metal straw to the caramelized ice cream known as dulce de leche and even the national pastime, soccer.
Inspired by lonely immigrants who first sailed to Argentina in the 1880s, tango is a seductive and enduring dance that has weathered rock 'n' roll, economic crises and turbulent military dictatorships of yore.
At tango's height between 1925 and 1955 - the so-called Golden Age of Tango - a dancing craze swept the country's bars and ballrooms as live tango orchestras proliferated. "It was all about the tango. All the great avenues had tango. All the people listened to tango on the radio," said Laura Fernandez, a curator at World Museum of Tango.
My curiosity to learn the tango was piqued after seeing proud "portenos," as Buenos Aires natives are called, showing off their tango steps just about anywhere from airport lobbies and tourist sites to shopping malls and stages.
Never mind that tango fell out of popularity for a time. In the 1980s, Broadway shows sparked a resurgence and today tango is very much in vogue among generations discovering the dance of their grandparents.
After a deep economic crisis in 2001, the worst on Argentina's record, many began searching for their roots. A searing devaluation at the time made Buenos Aires overnight an affordable destination for foreign tourists who flooded the country and discovered the dance anew.
Tango classes advertised on posters beckon visitors to nightly tango shows and Broadway-style reviews - while dance fiestas, called milongas, also pack in tourists and locals alike. There's even an Argentine School of Tango in a local shopping mall and a tango hotel for guests who want to learn without stepping outside.
"After the crisis, the tango was kept alive not only because of the people here in Buenos Aires. There were many who came from all over the world searching for tango," explained Octavio Maroglio, executive director of the Argentine School of Tango.
Watching men in black suits and women in sleek dresses move gracefully across any available floor space made the dance look effortless. But after taking my first classes, I soon found learning the tango is anything but easy.
Standing in an unfamiliar embrace only a breath away from my dancing partner, I practised the "ochos" - Spanish for the "figure eights" that constitute the basic step. All the while, I tried not to step on my partner's feet as I did them over and over until I could do them in my sleep.
I was learning, awkwardly at first, how to shift weight from one foot to the other and keep my balance in high-heeled shoes.
As I gradually added more complex steps, I also learned a thing or two about learning tango. For starters, there is no limit to the Argentine enthusiasm to pass on the dance and there's also no set format for learning tango the right way.
From one class to the next, I learned completely different moves, usually with the advice that I needed to keep my chest always parallel to my partner's and let my feet follow my heart. Still, stumble I did. And I quickly decided more practice was the only remedy.
By joining the School of Tango's weekly practice session, I soon became acquainted with Julio, a middle-aged Argentine instructor. Barking tips, Julio followed my figure eights up and down the dance floor. Finally, after he was satisfied I was getting the steps down right, he stepped away to sip mate tea while I continued to practice.
Eager to move beyond the basics, I soon began attending a variety of classes, from the old cobblestoned San Telmo district not far from where the tango originated to the Confiteria Ideal, a charming hall in the city centre.
At the Confiteria Ideal, locals regularly dance tango to live orchestras against a backdrop of crystal chandeliers dangling from ornate ceilings and a dance floor set under a gilded dome.
On a Saturday afternoon at the Confiteria Ideal, a five-hour class attracts all kinds, from the Argentine beginner to the foreigner cramming in classes to wow friends back home.
After watching the instructor and his partner demonstrate a manoeuvre, I find myself dancing with Remi Trichaud, a 25-year-old visitor from Lyon, France, who has been taking classes for just a week.
We struggle, fumbling our steps. "I take classes for four hours a day, sometimes more," he said, laughing. But even after one woman walked away from him in the middle of a dance at one class, Trichaud said he kept dancing anyway. "I like having a nice time with a girl I didn't know two seconds before and completely forgetting about it two seconds later."
For Argentine Nestor Garello, 60, learning to tango is a matter of pride. Embarrassed at being unable to dance the tango when asked on a trip abroad, Garello has spent an entire year learning. "It requires a lot of time to learn to dance the tango," Garello admitted, saying it was harder than Argentine folk dancing. "The tango is more a dance of the embrace, more passionate." After mastering the basics, I soon set out to find the dance and its enthusiasts in their most passionate, natural form: at a tango dance session called a milonga.
On a Saturday night, the milonga's atmosphere is charged in a downtown club called El Beso - Spanish for "the kiss." The mood contrasts sharply with the casual, anything-goes attitude of the classes: Women are wearing colourful dresses and elegant high-heeled shoes. The men dress darkly in formal attire, ready to go. Grouped around tables facing the floor, the men invite the women to dance with a stare from across the room. Once a woman accepts the man's advances, she is his for that set of songs.
As couple pair off and head to the floor, soon they are circling beneath mirrored disco balls that throw off a dim, sparkling light. All seems so graceful and in sync with the music. I quickly notice that the style isn't the elegant dance form I've practised in class. Now it's the "milonguera" form, characterized by a closer embrace and smaller foot movements.
Seated next to me is Lisa Przuntek, a 25-year-old student from Bochum, Germany, who hopes to learn enough in an eight-month-stay to teach tango back home. She took her first classes at a German university and confided: "I've listened to tango music for a long time, for 10 years, and I've always loved the music."
But neither of us is prepared for the fast "milonguera." We each take turns dancing with partners, but find the skilled dancers rapidly pair off among themselves. Still, even from the sidelines, the energy of the tango is intoxicating.
As the night creeps into morning, we both get up to leave as newcomers still stream into the club. Yawning on the taxi ride home, I can't help but feel I've had a quixotic tango experience, one impossibly hard to sum up in words.
Aurora Lubiz, who travels the world teaching the tango, said the interplay between two partners makes it one of the most alluring of dances. "The roles are defined: The man makes a move, the woman makes a different one," said Lubiz. "It's exclusive to Buenos Aires. And I believe that that's what seduces people all over the world."
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"Buenos Aires' Dance Fever- Buenos Aires jam-packed dance halls hold the secrets of the tango."
enRoute Air Canada Magazine, October 2005
By Kevin Carrel Footer
After two years of tango lessons in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Avik Basu has finally achieved the tango lover's dream: He's sitting at a table in one of Buenos Aires' famed dance halls, watching some 100 couples locked in passionate embrace. The 27-year-old engineer is on a month-long pilgrimage to the cradle of tango culture. He marvels at how the couples sweep across the crowded floor within centimetres of each other, skirting collision with fluid precision.
Basu isn't alone in his fascination. Starting at 3 p.m. and stretching until dawn, several thousand souls, locals and visitors alike, gather at sweltering dance halls called milongas. Like Basu, who got started in tango to help him get over a failed relationship, these people are not professional dancers. They are taxi drivers and students, factory workers and physiotherapists, all drawn together by a shared passion for what is often described as "a vertical expression of horizontal desire."
Buenos Aires' milongas range from grimy to chic; some are housed in former cafes and community centres, others in abandoned churches and even old basketball courts. Authenticity often weighs in on the side of the gritty, echoing tango's roots in the brothels of 1880s Argentina, where Italian and Ukrainian immigrants found fleeting respite from loneliness. While smoke-filled, the sites are kept well lit so prospective partners can size each other up.
Tango is stubbornly nostalgic, just think of all those lonely immigrants pining for home. The milonga crowd isn't interested in the latest hits; disc jockeys generally oblige by spinning the old, traditional recordings. (A live orchestra may perform on rare occasion, but the standard five-peso entry fee, approximately $2, doesn't leave much margin to pay musicians.) Even the milonga beverage of choice is nostalgic. A bottle of local champagne in an ice bucket reminds dancers of the good old days, when destiny smiled on Argentina and Buenos Aires was full of bon vivants. (Tip to neophytes: Tango's intricate steps don't mix well with alcohol. Sip, don't guzzle.) At many milongas, the only concession to the modern world is air conditioning.
Tourists visiting Buenos Aires are inundated with hard-sell campaigns for corny Broadway-style "tango" stage shows that, although sometimes fun, reduce a century-old ritual to a spectacle far removed from its gritty bordello roots. Tango is about participation, not glitz. "In most shows, one goes to watch as a spectator," explains Jose Garafalo, a dancer and impresario. "In the milonga, you are one of the active characters of the evening." Fortunately, the visitor craving the true essence of tango need look no further than one of the countless milongas.
To the uninitiated tango may seem like little more than a bunch of people walking around together. But Avik Basu knows how to divine the dancers' emotional state from the way their bodies surrender to each other. He stares in wonder at the effortless grace of one of the seasoned dancers. The man is well into his 60s; a paunch strains his traditional dark suit. Upon first glance, he and his partner, slender, bare midriff, cargo pants, one-third his age, seem to be an improbable match. But this is no act of charity. "Check out the look on the girl's face," Basu says, as the man guides his partner with the most subtle of touches. "She's in ecstasy."
Watching two people dance together is to become privy to an intimate secret, but milongas aren't carnal free-for-alls. Elaborate codes of conduct control the discharge of all that raw emotional energy. Instead of explicit communication (which is verboten), a man invites a woman to dance from across the room with a glance and a nod of the head; if the woman isn't interested, she pretends she missed his signal. Forbidden from initiating contact, women deploy flirtatious stares and other subtle signals to "persuade" a man to ask them to dance, unless, of course, he doesn't want to.
Basu is still seated at his table with that beatific smile. He marvels at the way the best dancers, most of them over 60, accentuate their languidness by dancing a bit behind the beat. He has also caught the eye of a woman across the room. She accepts his nod. And so Basu, too, becomes one of the characters of the evening.
Gotta shake it? Air Canada can scratch your tango itch. We already have Canada's only scheduled service to Buenos Aires, and starting in November, we have flights leaving Toronto six days per week!
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Excerpts of "It Takes Tenacity to Tango"
The Vancouver Courier, November 24, 2004
By Peter Tupper
..The problem with this instruction is that Li weighs about 90 pounds soaking wet. As she leans with both hands on my chest and instructs me to step forward, I have a vision of accidentally trampling her.
Instead, we walk around the dance floor-"Chest first," she tells me, "like a rooster."-me forwards, her backwards. I'm supposed to relax, but instead I feel like I'm lurching around like Frankenstein's monster. Li remains graceful, even though she's walking backwards with other couples dancing around us. Without looking behind her, she matches me when I turn.
It's Friday night at the Grandview Legion Hall, and the second floor has become a dancehall dedicated to the Argentinean tango. People from their 20s to their 60s pair up and dance around the floor counterclockwise to recorded tango music, learning the ritualized dance of desire.
After the lessons, the milonga, or social dance, begins. Regulars come in, singly and in couples, often well-dressed. Men greet each other with handshakes, women greet each other with Latin cheek kisses. The experienced dancers take the floor in pairs and dance together, chest to chest, their feet nimbly sliding around one another.
Tango looks simple, but it's actually quite complicated. The arms of the lead and the follower form what's called the frame, making their upper bodies effectively one unit. The dancing is done with the legs.
One of the most interesting things about tango is that the complex footwork and intricate manoeuvres done by experienced dancers is supposed to be completely improvised. That requires wordless communication between the dancers, through subtle shifts in pressure and body posture.
"There's a very strong intimacy," said Jim Jardine, the night's co-founder. "It's not sexual, though it can be."
....Tango requires dedication and passion, as the learning curve is steep. People say it takes five years just to learn how to lead properly in walking. Proficiency in following only takes a couple of years. This means that tango dancers are devoted in a way that's hard to explain.
"All these people are totally addicted," said Jardine.
Lorenzo, a man in his 40s, described tango as something that "speaks to the inner core of one's being. It takes one away from the mundaneness of daily existence."
"It's like a three-minute relationship with a beginning and an end," said Willie, a woman in her 20s. "Maybe some man who can't approach women in public can come here and ask a woman to dance. He doesn't have to say anything. Or a woman who's had a bad breakup can get swept away with a different guy in every dance."
Willie sits out the first few dances, pleading that she's recovering from surgery for an ingrown toenail, but she still didn't want to miss out. A man she knows, a doctor, urges her to dance despite the toenail, and in a few moments, they are gliding around the floor.
Willie's friend Anna sums it up with what she says is an old saying in Buenos Aries: "Tango is a sad thought you can dance."
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"A sense of where you are - The history of tango"
The Economist, December 22, 2001
Author not available
Tango, that "reptile from the brothels", is making a comeback Taxi-drivers in Beijing have Mao Ze-dong as their talisman. In Buenos Aires, Jorge Malcinas has hanging from his rear-view mirror a picture of the late Osvaldo Pugliese, the great bandleader of tango. Indeed, the driver has dozens of pictures of Pugliese to bring him good luck about the cab, his person and his house. He needs them more than most mortals do, he explains, for he lives a stone's throw away from the house of Carlos Menem, Argentina's ex-president, who is widely reckoned to bring "the curse" to anyone with who he comes into contact. Mr. Menem used to be banned from attending matches of both his favourite football teams, River Plate, and the national side, because of the perceived ill effects he brings.
Mr. Menem himself might usefully seek to have some of Pugliese's powers rub off on him. That is what Juan Domingo Peron, Argentina's flawed if charismatic leader, did. When he returned to power in 1973, Peron begged Pugliese to forgive him for his past mistreatment of him. Pugliese used to wear his pyjamas under his tuxedo in anticipation of arrest, for-perhaps because he was a staunch communist- he liked his creature comforts in jail. Whenever he was in prison, his band would place a red carnation in a bottle on top of his unmanned piano.
On any day of the week, lovers of tango can dance to Pugliese's classic, "La Yumba", in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, New York, London, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Helsinki or Tokyo. Dozens of other cities including Beijing, hold milongas, get-togethers at which both Tangos and milongas are danced, at least once or twice a week. At these, there is always an itinerant or two- a banker in town to work on some deal, an exchange student, an actor, a mother visiting her daughter-whose passion for tango has led them perhaps through the internet, to this spot. No one needs, or wants, to press people on their background. At a milonga, it is enough to share this madness for tango.
But what is tango? The commonest description-the vertical expression of a horizontal desire-is the least adequate: that applies to nearly all dances. "A sad thought you can dance", a comment on on the wall of the National Academy of Tango in Buenos Aires, is closer to the mark, though tango was not always a sad or even a nostalgic music, and can certainly be a joyful one. Besides, though Luis Alposta, a poet of tango, is surely right when he says that the tango is "the most beautiful dance in the world for couples", he is quick to point out that tango has three elements: music and sang as well as dance.
The lyrics of tango, based on copious use of lunfardo, the port-city's hoodlum slang, have grown over the decades to create a vast, chaotic tableau of Buenos Aires life, in a language that is still topical and accessible. The music has a life of its own, too. Ever since Astor Piazzolla, the genius of Argentine music, demanded in the 1950's that people listen rather than dance, plenty of talented musicians have disdained dancers and even singers. Nestor Marconi, perhaps the finest bandoneon (concertina) player of the post Piazzolla generation, says that before Piazzolla, "tango was a music in service to the dance; now it's a music in itself."
And the laments of the music? One recent afternoon in Buenos Aires, Emilio Balcarse, once one of Pugliese's chief arrangers, is putting a young tango orchestra through "La Yumba". Afterwards, he describes the composition as: "A rhythmic force that develops strikingly to the point where it dissolves into something much more soft. First, a strong sense of rhythm; then everything is much sweeter, more intimate; finally , it's back to the main theme, but with a solo, in this case a violin, inside the rhythmic structure." That's as good a summing-up of a tango as you can get. Since Piazzolla, however, the classical harmony and counterpoint on which tango was built have been stretched to the limits, with new rhythms and instruments added to the brew.
Unravelling the secret Half a century ago, Argentina's greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges, put his finger on the problem of tango:
The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still guards, as does all that is truthful, a secret. Dictionaries of music records its short, adequate definition, approved by all: ....[it] promises no difficulties, but the French or Spanish composer who then follows it and correctly 'crafts' a tango is shocked to discover he has constructed something that our ears do not recognise, that our memory does not harbour, and that our bodies reject.
Borges had another insight, which he appears to have borrowed from Oscar Wilde:
Music reveals a personal past which, until then, each of us was unaware of, moving us to lament misfortunes we never suffered and wrongs we did not commit. For myself, I confess that I cannot hear 'El marne' or 'Don Juan' [two tangos] without remembering in details an apocryphal past, simultaneously stoic and orgiastic, in which I have challenged and fought, in the end to fall silently in an obscure knife-fight. Perhaps this is the tango's mission: to give Argentines the belief in a brave past, in having met the demands of honour and bravery.
No two people agree about the origins of tango. The only thing about the tango that can be states with conviction, Borges says, is that it was born in the brothels. Hence the lascivious movements, the suggestive titles-"El choclo" (the corn-cob), "El fierrazo" (the iron rod), and the way pairs of men would dance the tango on street corners, since the women of the neighbourhood were repelled by its debauchery. But Ricardo Garcia Blaya, a contemporary writer on tango, says of the brothel theory that "nothing is more absurd and incorrect." Tango, he insists was born in the dance halls; there, polkas and waltzes also had suggestive names.
One dominant camp says that the tango was accepted by the upper classes of Buenos AIres only after the dance had been taken up with passion, just before the first world war, in Paris, and that the Vatican lifted a ban on the dance on after Pius X himself had been treated to a demonstration. Complete fabrications, say several modern historians. As for the word itself, some say "tango" came from an African word, tambo, meaning a gathering place for slaves and freed blacks to dance; others say it comes from the Spanish fandango; yet others have entirely different explanations.
Since everyone has a claim to know the origins of tango, The Economist will not be left out. In 1881, Buenos Aires had a population of 210,000. By 1910 that number had nearly sextupled, to 1.2m. It was to Buenos Aires that new railroads brought livestock off the vast pampas, to be slaughtered and refrigerated in the (mainly English) meat--packing plants, and then shipped out around the world. These boom-days brought European immigrants-chiefly Italians, Spaniards, French and Germans-in droves to settle on the edge of the city. (The history of Buenos Aries, Bruce Chadwick once said, lies in its telephone directory.) The fencing off of the pampas, and the mechanisation of livestock transport, brought displaced gauchos, or cowboys, to the same urban fringes. The immigrants, uprooted from their home continent, and the gauchos, uprooted in their own country, met and blended in a new town they soon embraced as their own. The music they made together managed to sing at once of a sense of loss and of a deep attachment. Nostalgia and sentimentality: two strands of tango.
Cowboys, blacks and Payadores The gauchos brought with them their guitars and their musica criolla of essentially Spanish origin: habaneras, fandangos, milongas, vidalitas and cifras. The new immigrants brought their ability to read and write music, a broader array of instruments, and Italian opera traditions. At some stage the bandoneon arrived, an impossible instrument ("a chaos", says Mr. Balcarse), with four registers and little order to its buttons. Yet, somehow, this German instrument for playing hymns was subverted into something diabolically expressive. "You can play tango without the bandoneon," says Leopoldo Federico, one of the surviving great musicians of tango's golden era in the 1940s and 1950s, "but the history, roots and direction of tango are inconceivable without it".
Argentine blacks may also have thrown their influence into the mix with the candombe-the only Rio Plata dance that clearly has African, and even Indian, rhythms-and the milonga, a jaunty, 2/4 music which to this day is danced to add variety to a languid stream of tangos. But the black influence is hard to gauge, for few remain in the city today. Many were sent to fight in the genocidal campaigns against the Indians, in the Paraguayan war of the late 1860s and in the civil war of a decade later; others left for Montevideo, in Uruguay. Chatwin was not entirely right: today, Buenos Aires is a whiter city than almost any in Europe.
Gradually the tango spread from the urban fringes, through the suburbs, to the centre of Buenos Aires. It was helped on its way by payadores-- itinerant singers with barrel-organs, whose shocking notes must have wafted through the windows of more respectable, but grateful, homes-by the dance halls that sprang up, and, for those who insist, perhaps by the brothels. At the start of the first world war, tango was on its way to pushing out other popular styles of dance. Between 1903 and 1910, over 1,000 records were released in Buenos Aires, a third of them tangos. In the next decade, 5,500 records were issued, half of them tangos.
Today, tango is reviving again. "Throughout its history you hear that tango is finished," says Daniel Melingo, one of a younger generation of tango musicians. "People talk as if it's their own youth that is over." And that attitude, he says, is what feeds tango's nostalgia, which in turns generates new expressions of dance, music and song.
Adriana Varela, a powerful female vocalist of tango, says that Buenos Aires is a city that too often turns its back on the vast Rio Plata, "But whenever it turns round to face the river that shaped it, the city rediscovers everything that touches the people of Buenos Aires. My job is to take what the great poets of Buenos Aires have wrought, and to convey the landscape to which I belong." Tango is a sense of place more than it is a set of musical rules. As Borges put it long ago:
We might say that without the evenings and nights of Buenos Aires, a tango cannot be made, and that in heaven there awaits us Argentines the Platonic idea of the tango, its universal form.
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"From Submission to Suggestion, The Hidden World of Tango"
Dance Central, December, 2002
By Susana Domingues
As a tango dance teacher, I am always interested in how people view tango, and over the years I've read a lot of articles on the subject. Generally, I find that those who write about it cultivate commonly held ideas. "Passion," for instance, is one of the first words that most people associate with tango and the woman's submission in her role as follower seems to be the first image that comes to mind.
The ad campaign for Forever Tango, a production that visited Vancouver twice, capitalized on public enthusiasm about tango's sexual nature. "Tango. A vertical expression of a horizontal desire" read the ad copy, with posters featuring a picture of a man standing, feet planted firmly apart, while a woman stands with one leg wrapped around his hip. I myself have certainly not been unaffected by the expectations of audiences who I performed for over the years. Whether performing in theatres or at official government functions, at weddings or bar mitzvahs, there was an expectation that I wear sexy outfits, with high slits in the skirt, and look very serious. I gladly complied and confess I enjoyed playing the part.
Although the Forever Tango approach to publicity helps to sell tickets, it leaves the general public with no idea of what tango is to thousands of "tangueros" and "tangueras" worldwide. A tanguero is someone who goes out several times per week to dance tango with friends, strangers, mates and dance partners in a variety of venues such as dance halls, dance studios and cafe-bars. I visited Argentina several times and found that the world of the tanguero was quite different from that of a tango performer. The relationship of the man and woman dancing tango socially was an area I had not needed to explore as a performer. My goals in tango dance began to shift.
Tango has been described as one of the few urban folk dances, born in the Rio Plata region of Latin America about 130 years ago. Although there is controversy about the history of tango, I found the best explanation of its origins in a recent documentary called Tango, the Obsession, produced and directed by Adam Boucher. In it, historians describe how the city boys, called "compadritos," who frequented the dance halls, would travel to the outskirts of the city where the African drum dance called candombe would take place. On their next visit to a social dance in the city they would apply the movements they had seen in the candombe to the popular dances of the time, such as the polka and mazurka. They did this partly for fun and partly as an expression of rebellion because the movements from candombe were considered obscene. The historians explain further that the much publicized theory that tango was born in brothels is probably incorrect and that instead it was the prohibition of tango because of its "obscene" nature that drove tango into the brothels where other prohibited activities also took place.
Today tango is a subculture in many cities around the world. I believe its staying power has had to do with how it has evolved over the years. Through Argentina's various historical phases, tango has always reflected Argentinean society. Had it not evolved, tango might have remained a folk dance that no longer related to modern society and Argentina might not have had such success in bringing its brand of tango to the rest of the world.
In 1985, the dance show Tango Argentino began a successful Broadway and off-Broadway run. As the production toured the world, cast members offered instruction to locals. This was the birth of many social tango dance scenes outside of Latin America. Tango enthusiasts in North America began teaching themselves to dance from any available videos of performances. Tango tourism to Buenos Aires began to bud, and eventually Argentine teachers toured and taught communities about their way to dance social tango. Now tangueros outside of Argentina must decide whether they want their tango dancing to be an expression of tango's past (a past when women rights worldwide were not at all what they are today), an expression of Argentine culture or an expression of themselves.
Outside of today's tanguero circles, tango hasn't ventured far from what it was when Rudolph Valentino first danced it on screen. Women contemplating tango dancing can experience a stumbling block in the idea that to dance tango they must comply with this outdated image. Obvious questions arise. What if I'm not submissive? Am I supposed to act submissive while dancing tango? What if I am not attracted to the person I am dancing with? Am I to pretend that we are in a three-minute romance? What if I feel happy while dancing? Must I stay with the traditional look of tango angst? What about the tradition of man leads/woman follows? Is that still true for today's woman? Must a woman submit to always following?
Perhaps there is a stigma to submission; perhaps the word suggests much more than what it actually defines. Perhaps following does involve submitting to being led. But that doesn't necessarily mean that one has to be submissive in the role of follower.
I like to compare tango to a non-verbal dialogue. Not every dialogue with a leader involves dominance and submission. The old cliche holds that it takes two to tango, just as it takes two to engage in complimentary roles of any kind. If both partners are into their respective roles, then I see no dilemma. I also see no reason to assume that the roles and experiences we have with dance partners must reflect the other interpersonal relationships in our lives. What is important to me, is that the dance become a vehicle for genuinely expressing one's self.
I've had the privilege of dancing with some great dancers. They were all different. Some of them had an exquisite way of responding to what I was doing, even though I was following. They could intuit the subtle suggestion in my movement and respond through the lead. Sometimes they did this with motives of seduction. Other times, I felt the comfortable warmth of friendship. The character of the dance, and the character of the dancer, can unfold gradually or it can be revealed from the first embrace. That embrace can be a soft nestling into the most comfortable position for both, or it can be an expression of the partner's need to be strong and take the other dancer somewhere quickly. The possibilities are as endless as the personalities of the dancers.
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"Tango's Seduction is Impossible to Resist"
The Vancouver Sun, April 1, 2000
By LLOYD DYKK, Sun Classical Music Critic
As a classical pianist par excellence, as a chamber and symphony musician heard in the great repertory of Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Schumann and Shostakovich, Linda Lee Thomas is well known to Vancouver. But her passion for another style, tango, almost equals the sum of the others. She plays tango, has one of the biggest collections of tango music in the city, wears tango black and red, has learned to dance tango and lives tango.
"It's not just a phase," she says in her kitchen as the amazing sound of the 80-something tango violinist Antonio Agri drifts in from the livingroom CD player. "I can't imagine my life without it. It's such a big part of who I am and what I do. Who's to know why? This is where the magic comes in. Why does tango have such an irresistible pull on people? It's been said you don't choose tango, tango chooses you. When I first heard it, I said 'Take me, I'm yours.' "
Playing tango isn't so different from playing chamber music. "Music is music - it's just another style," Thomas says. "Mozart has a style, Beethoven has a style ...learning styles is a musician's job." As superbly as she plays Bach, she's never had a desire to dance a minuet, but playing tango led to an overwhelming desire to learn to dance it. "I thought it would help me play tango better. Little did I know I'd get hooked and become a tango dancer."
Dancing tango is like playing chamber music because it has much the same "give and take, the basis of listening together." Two dancers embraced in a tango are, in a way, like two musicians in a duet, right down to the silences. "You don't talk in tango, even in the social tango. If somebody starts talking, you don't dance with them any more. Tango is about communicating feelings through the music."
Her obsession with tango began years ago, when the Tango Argentino company first came to town. Thomas took nearly the whole cast out to dinner, mainly to try to get the pianist to teach her how to play a proper tango glissando, the sweep of a finger across the keyboard.
Five years ago - "it takes five years just to learn the tango walk" - she took up dancing, and though she would never take credit for it, has been instrumental in developing a tanguero community in these unlikely northern climes (actually not so unlikely, if you consider that tango is a rage in Finland, of all places). For years, Thomas and a widening circle of tango aficionados, many of them ex-pat Argentines, have convened for weekly milongas (evenings of tango music and dance) at a number of venues in the city, though these places have a pattern of changing, one reason being low bar sales. Tango dancers, who have to keep their balance, tend not to booze.
Last year, Thomas vacationed in Buenos Aires, the original home of the tango, and spent a lot of time in tango bars, where things start at 11 or midnight and go to four, five and six a.m. These weren't chi-chi places. "Some are just dives, but it doesn't matter; others are elegant, with marble floors and elegant old architecture - everything's old there. One place was a huge gym, ugly as sin with neon lights, and packed to the rafters on family night. You'd see little kids dancing the tango, with their dads and moms. Argentines are such tender people, they care about each other. They also honour their musicians."
In Argentina, the tango has a code for strangers who want to dance. "Acceptance and rejection are done from a distance" and signified by the subtle code of a look or an attitude, she says. "It's a macho country. A man would feel terrible if a woman said 'no'." Thomas was struck by the beauty of tango's generous democracy, the expression of a culture blind to age or body image. "The best tangos I danced were with 80-year-old men. There were three or four I'll never forget how they interpreted the music and moved you just slightly, or not at all. It was like silence in music. By not moving, it creates that magic of waiting. I think the Argentines are just waiting for something, and [with a nod to Argentine political history] have been waiting for a long time."
It just so happens that there will be a lot of tango in the city in early April, leading up to the return of Forever Tango to the Vogue Theatre in May.
Some time ago, an artist's agent happened to run a name past June Goldsmith, who runs the Music in the Morning recital series. Would she be interested in bandoneonist Daniel Binelli? Would she ever! For years, Binelli, considered one of the world's primo exponents of tango, was a member of Astor Piazzolla's New Tango Sextet. Goldsmith immediately got on the phone to her friend Thomas, who also reveres Binelli, and booked both of them for four mornings in her series, April 4 through 7.
Those concerts sold out nearly two months ago, shortly after they were announced. Thomas, who thought it would be tragic if Vancouver's Argentine community missed the chance to hear a tango legend, got complete cooperation from Goldsmith for an independent evening called Tango Real, which will feature Binelli in a piggyback event arranged with the Vancouver Sun Community Concert Series on April 6 at 8 p.m. at the WISE Hall, 1882 Adanac St. It features not only Binelli and Thomas but famous Buenos Airean dancer Miguel Angel Pla who happens to be appearing in Calgary with Binelli before the Vancouver date, as well as Vancouver tango dancer Susana Domingues. When the concert is over, there will be a real milonga, an intimate evening of social tango with Vancouver's local dancers. The wines that will be served are all from Argentina.
Thomas says the East End hall is ideal for tango because it's so like many of the tango bars she saw in Buenos Aires. "It has cruddy old rickety steps but it also has a high ceiling, beautiful chandeliers and wooden floors."
As for Binelli on the bandoneon, the German invented button accordion that she describes as "the heart and lungs of the tango". She says: "I've known about him forever. If you're into tango, you know about Binelli. His sound is rough and melting. In tango, you look for someone with that magic. Someone who can make you cry when they play or make you laugh. Someone who can make you see their soul through their music."
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"Tango and Marginalisation"
By MIGUEL ANGEL PLA, Sun Classical Music Critic
Presented at the 1993 International Congress on "Social Marginalisation" in Buenos Aires. Sponsored by the Swiss ãLazos Foundationä and attended by Psychologists, Psychiatrists and Sociologist from around the world
Of African origin, the word tango, tambo, tambor (tambor meaning drum), was used to denote the place where blacks who were captured as slaves were kept before being sent on to their final destinations. By extension, the word was also used to refer to the cells of the slave ships in which they were confined. Following their emancipation, former slaves gradually grouped together on the outskirts of the Buenos Aires of the period - united by common stigmas such as colour, language and religion - and the almost onomatopoeic word tango was also applied to these meeting places.
Caucasian, criollo or of mixed race (mestizo, zambo etc), those individuals who were not fully accepted into the closed society of the capital found a safe haven in such places. They were hang-outs for muleteers (who transported cattle), horsebreakers, cart drivers as well as those who for various reasons were persecuted by the police and the militias.
And in these hang-outs there was dancing. Accompanied by rudimentary percussion instruments of religious origin, blacks danced with swaying, sometimes shuddering movements, which whites mocked at first and later imitated in crude fashion when they tried to copy them. To these movements they added others, which were less supple, less ostentatious and more rationalised. Blacks danced for themselves and their Gods and beliefs, whites for themselves and those around them. The music had to be adapted for whites, and the guitar was introduced. And so tango was born!
It is worth noting that as this process of metamorphosis or gestation was taking place, the word tango was making itself known in every part of the American continent where African slaves were to be found.
The origins of tango can be traced back to the middle of the last century - back to the arrival of the men who would make up the "generation of 1880" (amongst them the founding fathers of independent Argentina), to one of their paradigms of government: to govern is to populate, and to the influx of Europeans and Asians into the Rio de la Plata region. Thus, all the necessary conditions were in place for the genesis of "something" accessible and universal enough to bridge ethnic, linguistic, religious, historical and social barriers.
To this ethnic melting pot (comprising descendants of former African slaves, oppressed American Indians, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Syrians, Turks, Poles, Portuguese, Germans and so on) were added Spanish tanguillo and Cuban habanera music - and what it produced was tango. Never in human history has there been an example of popular culture of such richness and scope and which combines such a range of contributions. And if that were not enough, tango s popular origins, which it preserved for some 50 years, gave it a firm anchorage in a country which was not yet 200 years old.
Tango was first written down at the end of the last century, producing 'la milonga" - the 2/4 time (fast for what we know today as tango).
And so tango was born and matured on the geographical and cultural periphery of a cosmopolitan city where the social "elite" had its eyes on Paris. El Queco, Sacudime la Persiana, La Cara de la Luna, La Morocha, are some examples of tangos from this early written period (most of which had daring, salacious and/or picaresque lyrics).
With the immigration of Polish Jews, tango was introduced, along with the mazurca, into brothels (where its entry was aided by the prospect of an embrace), by two Jewish mafia organisations. It then reached the street corner (an early meeting place), later the tenements, and with the the formation of the first orchestras (duos, trios and quartets), the bars of the poorer outlying districts. By that time there existed a tango culture. There were bandoneonists, guitarists and violinists to play it, and the first tango singers, who would intone the choruses. The bar-cum-store where tango developed early on gave way to more open, spacious places where customers could listen to tango and also dance to it. They had platforms and even stages for orchestras and singers. It was the age of the first orchestras, the first singers and the first dancers.
For reasons of snobbery or other motives, tango attracted good boys and girls from bad homes and bad boys and girls from good homes. This was the eve of a golden age: one of great orchestras, singers and composers who produced a series of recordings and films which were responsible for spreading River Plate culture throughout the world. Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Laurel and Hardy, as well as Cachafaz, Tito Luciardo, and Carlos Gardel, and more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Pacino, Robert Duval and Madonna have all danced tango for the cinema.
Dance is one of the most basic forms of human communication. It is a ritual often used by primitive tribes to seal or celebrate agreements. This is how tango began as a dance, and how today it allows a Dutchman and a Japanese woman a three-minute non-verbal exchange.
There are tangos for every occasion. Christ on the cross, the excommunicated Galileo, Romeo on the balcony, the arrogant dancer, the mother who gave her sons to the battlefields of France, pretty girls in aprons - tango sings of all of these things. It is a reflection of man and his environment. It is a mirror which does not lie. Which is why it always has been, and always will be marginalised. As in Snow White, the mirror shows us just one reality - and it is a reality that the wicked Queen (or the powers that be) could never accept.
A few further considerations
Tango was born not as society's prodigal son, but rather, some might say, as its stepchild, and its entire history has been a catalogue of proscriptions. Because of its humble exurban origins, it was not accepted by city people, and much less by the ruling class.
The Catholic Church branded it the work of the Devil, because of its connection with pagan carnival rites which celebrated the King/God Momo. Clearly, the male-female embrace and the tenor of some of its Iyrics also played their part. In 1934, Casmiro Ain "El Vasco" danced tango in the Vatican before Pope Pius X and there received his Holiness's approval. From that point on our clergy merely tolerated it. In local festivals throughout the length and breadth of the country there could be music, choirs or folkdances, wherever they might be from, but no tango. For the city of Buenos Aires there were police edicts, and both municipal and government orders prohibiting tango in some of its forms.
Even today, although the present government announced at the beginning of its term that it would promote tango culture in primary education, it took eight years to formulate a law to do so.
Twenty years after its formation, the Orquesta de Tango de la Cuidad de Buenos Aires has neither its own premises for rehearsals nor a permanent venue for its performances. For over four years it has not had the necessary funds to repair the only harp in its possession. Over two years ago it lost the budget for transporting its piano to educational concerts which it gives weekly in public elementary schools. The orchestra does not have, nor has it ever had dancers to accompany its performances.
The de facto government that defeated President Yrigoyen in 1930 banned tangos by Gardel which were accompanied by the guitar, and those which used lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) in their lyrics. The government of the last military dictatorship prohibited songs by Enrique Santos Discepolo, such as Cambalache for example.
Without doubt, it has been the representatives of a prudish morality who have most fervently opposed the expansion of tango culture - but they have not been the only ones. As was said earlier, musical recordings and movies helped considerably in spreading Argentinean culture and cultural models to Spanish-speaking countries. With the result that a Peruvian, a Colombian, a Cuban or a Venezuelan wanted to use Argentinean expressions, drink mate, wear lengue, and listen to Gardel, when it was required that everyone chew gum, drink coke and wear jeans. It was a question of switching one archetype for another, of bringing a corporate action against one type of culture - that of tango.
As stated above, tango could be defined as a mirror of man and his environment. In this mirror the individual discovers his own shabbiness, his defects, or simply sees his feelings reflected in his expression. Add to this the rebellious nature of some of its lyrics, and it is easy to see why the guardians of main-stream culture want to BREAK THE MIRROR - that is to say, do away with tango. This is why tango does not feature in the mass media, much less in opinion-forming programmes. From an economic and philosophical point of view, we are living in a new era; with post-modernism and late neo-liberalism since the end of WWII, and now with the death of ideologies. All of which is undoubtedly more a product of intellectual theorizing than of observation. It was many years ago that the tango lyricist Celedonio Flores wrote that at Corrientes and Esmeralda, or any other street corner in any other city in the world "there is a cockatoo who thinks he is Carlos Gardel", but he could well have been talking about the likes of Fukuyama and the supposedly globalizing philosophers (who know only too well that the 'mind creates the phenomenon'). Their empty theories merely reflect the necessity of those in power to steer us towards individualism, and tango is gregarious and communal. Tango is modern.
Winds of Change Blow from the North
Thanks to the travels of numerous representatives of tango at various periods, but principally thanks to the prolonged continuity of Tango Argentino, tango came to interest certain cultured, at first, and later perceived cultural elites and to finally establish itself amongst those of refined sensibilities throughout countries of the Northern Hemisphere. To such an extent that our culture is sought after and in demand abroad. Hotels, boarding houses and B&Bs all over Buenos Aires are primarily occupied by Japanese, Canadians, Americans, French; Germans Italians and so on. They are marking the beginning of a new era. They come in search of the roots of tango and are not fooled by "for export" versions. They want the real thing. Most can detect ãwatered-down'' offerings. This is the great challenge for them and for us, which is to say for US (because they are us) - to reclaim our culture for all and for all time.
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"Flirting with the Tango: It's Serious"
The New York Times, June 11, 1999
By JANNY SCOTT
Elegance, Passion for Beginners and Beyond
One of the oddities of learning to Tango is how much time you spend walking, endlessly, forward and backward, this way and that in the merciless glare of the dance studio mirrors. The instructor glides on an invisible balance beam, the student teeters and galumphs. It is like starting chess by steering the rooks back and forth across the board, again and again.
The Argentine tango is not unlike chess, an instructor once told me. It is serious; it takes discipline; it must be studied hard to be done well. It is elegant and formal, passionate and intimate. It is about power and vulnerability. It is both a dance and a metaphor. And to its captives, it can become a magnificent obsession.
I admit I never harbored the illusion that I was born to tango. I figure I am too Anglo, too Saxon, not enough something else. I did learn the box step from a society lady who taught dancing to velveteened preadolescents, and before my wedding, I learned swing in a rush But if I had ever considered the tango, I would have assumed I was hard-wired for other things.
This spring, I set out to defy destiny. In a city where one can tango in a different club nearly every night of the week and where the tango has spawned a small subculture all its own, I joined the shifting group of New Yorkers who turn out every Thursday evening for the beginning Argentine tango class at Stepping Out, a midtown Manhattan dance studio.
Week after week, I hurried up Broadway at dusk and reported for duty, amid the swing/lindy classes and just down the corridor from the gay and lesbian two-step class. There, I would wrestle with my walking, practice my foot patterns and shuffle tentatively around the dance floor in the arms of a succession of often equally addled strangers.
Over time, I began to learn a few things about the tango. It can be danced small and simply, or with ferocious theatricality. At its best, people describe the experience as somewhere between meditation and sex. It demands immediate intimacy. As Angel Figueroa, a dancer and one of the owners of Stepping Out, put it delicately, ãYouâre literally plastered up against some-bodyâs body.ä
I also learned that for many people, the tango becomes a consuming passion. Sarah La Rocca was an art teacher in her late 20's in Washington when she saw a dancer named Fabian Salas tango. Moved to tears, she began taking private lessons from him four times a Week. She started traveling around the world to take lessons, then quit her job and moved to Buenos Aires.
For months, she lived the nocturnal life of an expatriate American tango bum. Like others, she would rise in the mid afternoon to practice the tango, take a class in the evening and go out for coffee and then to a tango club. She would arrive after midnight and stay until 6 am, eat breakfast and go home to bed. When her money ran short, she said, she taught English to bank executives.
In the clubs, she saw people whose lives seemed to be held hostage by the tango: the same women, in the same seats, waiting for the same men. They looked like zombies, liberated only by dancing.
"I thought, 'God protect me from becoming like that,'" Ms. La Rocca recalled recently. She returned to the United States in late 1997 and now works, and teaches tango, in New York.
"There is something about tango, about the listening to each other in tango, that creates a really moving experience," Ms. La Rocca said. "It's not that it happens every night. But when it does, in a way; it's like a physical love at first sight.ä
"It can be two people who don't even know each other, who don't even have a common language," added Ms. La Rocca, who is now in her early 30's; "It's almost like this meditative state where two people can transmit feeling to each other without even speaking. It's an extraordinary thing and I've never met anyone who could explain it."
Tripping Over the Brain
For weeks, though, my own tangoing felt desultory. I couldn't reconcile the tango I had seen in movies with my fretful circumnavigation of the studio floor. I kept being reminded of math class - that unsettling sensation that whatever I was learning was stored so precariously in my brain it would spill out my ear if I shook my head.
Seeking enlightenment, I telephoned Paul Pellicoro, the 42-year-old owner of the dance studio Dancesport, who taught Al Pacino to tango for the movie "Scent of a Woman." The unfortunate thing about dance schools is that people end up thinking about their feet, Mr. Pellicoro said. You have to take your brains out of your legs, he told me, and let them respond.
To get my brains out of my legs, I made an appointment with Mr. Pellicoro. (He had also assured me I could not write about learning to tango without taking a lesson from him.) I delivered myself to Dancesport at the appointed hour. Ride the elevator to the third floor, a receptionist told me, and look for the only good-looking man.
The doors glided open into a mirrored studio with a honey-colored floor. Off in the distance was the good-looking man. He was plastered up against the body of a statuesque amazon in a silk chiffon, leopardprint dress slit up the side, its neckline and spaghetti straps only partially containing a most voluminous chest.
Jacked up on high heels, she had her head thrown back, long, straight hair streaming down her back. Her eyes were shut tight in apparent ecstasy. Mr. Pellicoro, dark haired and lithe, was maneuvering her effortlessly around the floor, their legs entangling and disentangling, to the mournful strains of tango music, which has been called the Latin blues.
His student was, she would tell me later, Marilyn Cole Lownes. Now 48, she introduced herself as "the only British Playmate of the Year." She had seen Mr. Pellicoro perform the tango at a Manhattan restaurant, Il Campanello, and had become his disciple. "It gets into your blood," she said. "It gets into your bones."
Then I was up.
We began by walking, of course. Then, almost imperceptibly, we were dancing. Or, he was dancing and I was along for the ride, being guided Iightly around the floor, given small physical clues to change direction, speed up, slow down, pause. Mr. Pellicoro likes to describe the Tango ãelegant, organized stumbling to music."
Lean into me he said. Press with your - he paused÷your sternum. I found myself tilted slightly forward, sternum pressing, weight on the balls of my feet. Bring your ear toward me, as if I'm going to tell you something, he said. My cheek was on his shoulder, then on his chest. Don't think about your feet, he reminded me. As though I was thinking about my feet.
"the best dancers really very rarely learn it through schools", said Mr. Pellicoro, who said his mother, who was a Iindy hop dancer from Levittown, L.I., was forever scooping him up and dancing with him as a child. "They learn an outline, but the best dancers are sometimes the worst students. They don't listen to the teacher. They let things happen intuitively and naturally."
"You can write volumes on what happens in the body before the foot even takes a step," he had told me. "Experience is something that can't be replaced. I can go and say to you everything about this step. But until you feel it -'Oh, that's what I have to feel!' It's like describing what an orange tastes like. You've got to eat an orange."
That was some kind of orange.
The Tangoing of New York
The recent history of Argentine tango classes in New York City begins in 1985, the year that "Tango Argentino" arrived on Broadway and exposed many audiences for the first time to the dance - not the stiff, rose-in-the-teeth version but what Mr. Pellicoro characterizes as something more organic, more natural, cheek to cheek, the way Americans once danced the fox trot.
The cast included many of Argentina's leading tango dancers. Marooned in New York for months on end, some moonlighted by teaching the tango. New York city dance teachers were among the first to sign up. Then they took the tango back to their schools and began teaching civilians. People seemed hungry to learn.
"It was something I had never seen before," said Diane L. Lachtrupp, a dancer who owns Stepping Out with Mr. Figueroa. "The music was compelling and haunting. And the relationship between the dancers was different. There was a kind of restrained passion. It is intimate on a very different level than how we were brought up in the United States."
In my case, I approached my first class with trepidation. I would have the wrong shoes, the wrong body. Scariest of all, I was going by myself. But the crowd of about 30 men and women who wandered into the well worn studio at 8 P.M. Iooked reassuringly motley. I alone seemed to have assumed this was a club to which I could never belong.
We began by walking. This, too, was reassuring, even I can walk most of the time. Then we took a partner and walked around, facing each other, leaning forward, hands touching. The "followers" (a euphemism for females, mostly) were told not to move until the "leaders" indicated it was time. Then on to the "partnership hold" and our first foot patterns on the floor.
Every week, we changed partners often, rotating counterclockwise in the circle of people. For the first weeks I was usually stumbling with someone considerably more accomplished than myself. "Don't anticipate!" one leader hissed at me with startling vehemence. Another confided to me gravely, "Tango is a conversation between two bodies."
An Hour Is Not Enough
A few complexities of the tango:
The tango is not danced to a particular rhythm; as Ms. Lachtrupp put it, "You dance to the melody and your own heart." Leader and follower are not a mirror image; they often do different steps.
The tango is not danced on the spot, like swing or mambo; the dancers travel. So a leader must learn "floorcraft," the art of maneuvering ', in traffic. And a follower must learn trust.
A beginning tango student might learn how to get around an empty dance floor in a lesson or two, Ms. Lachtrupp told me later. But it takes at least six months to become comfortable and confident, she said. A student learning another dance might pick up a half dozen steps in an hour long lesson, Mr. Figueroa said, a tango student will learn one or two.
Over time, I discovered that many in the Thursday night crowd were perennial beginners who had opted not to advance to the intermediate level. When I asked why people repeated the same class over and over, one man explained patiently that he was too stupid to move on. Another told me glumly, "I used to be smart, when I was younger."
The key was obviously practice. Esther Neale, 51, spent months screwing up her courage to sign up for beginning tango. Now, she goes out to dance at clubs three times a week, takes private and group lessons and has a regular tango partner who takes her to workshops and comes by her apartment after work so they can practice.
As for me, life kept interfering with my progress. My children considered it treason that I would spend Thursday evenings with anyone other than them, which made it difficult to follow the teachers' advice to stay after class for the 90-minute tango practice, return for the tango parties, attend weekend workshops and stay out half the night at clubs.
One Thursday night recently, I got on the subway and hurtled home by 7 P.M. Sometime around 8:30, I wondered fleetingly what bodily conversation I was missing. Would it have to been one of those nights that Ms. La Rocca talked about? Maybe, maybe not. Then I went back to my other life. After all, I had tasted the orange.
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"Buenos Aires Diary, The Sad Land of Psychoanalysis"
Daily Telegraph, May, 2000
by CHRISTINA LAMB
Do not smile, English Senora!" scolded the tango teacher as my attempts to do a dramatic twist sent me banging into a man with sideburns and overpowering aftershave, and dissolving into giggles.
Unlike any other dance I know, tango requires gloom. The lunchtime class at the tango hall on Avenida de Corrientes is full of people who have stepped out of their offices or shops and are all looking almost suicidal.
Just as the exuberance of samba matches the personality of neighbouring Brazil, the tormented wretchedness of tango suits a people who seem to revel in misery.
Argentineans, especially portenos, as the residents of the capital are known, are said to be the world's most psychoanalyzed people. Buenos Aires has three times as many shrinks per capita as New York, including an entire suburb called Villa Freud, and there are daily features on depression and anxiety in the newspapers and on television news.
State schools all have an on-site psychologist, as do most companies, including, bizarrely, the bus company - bus drivers seem to be among the most depressed members of Argentine society.
Yet to outsiders Buenos Aires seems a wonderful city, full of grand boulevards and impressive buildings with cupolas and columns, smart shops and steamy coffee bars, parks where professional dogwalkers trail behind them as many as 20 dogs of different shapes and sizes, and flowers sold at kiosks on every corner.
"The problem is we think we are Europeans and cannot understand what we are doing stuck here in South America," said a lawyer. He soon started telling me about the misery of being Argentinean.
He is not alone in his views. "Things look like they work but you don't have to scratch far below the surface to find they do not," complained someone else when I was raving about the efficiency of the recently privatized telephone and metro systems and the gleaming new airport. "Recently one part of Buenos Aires had a power cut and it took them seven days to get it back."
It's not a good time to be Argentinean. The country has been in recession for the past two years, and the pegging of the highly overvalued peso to the dollar has made everything enormously expensive.
The country's prized beef industry is in crisis. The United States has banned imports because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease and even Argentineans - though still world leaders in meat consumption - are eating far less beef than they used to: only 63 kilos per person last year compared with 82 kilos a decade ago.
The restaurants of Buenos Aires seem full of people indulging in enormous plates of fat, juicy steaks, but the fall is enough to cause panic and there are posters everywhere inciting Argentines to eat steak.
The new fashion for salads is not the only problem. The country is experiencing its biggest corruption scandal with the revelation last week that senators were being bribed with millions of dollars by the government to vote in labour legislation.
Corruption, of course, is nothing new in South America, particularly Argentina where investigations by the government, World Bank and UN into the regime of the former President Carlos Menem have uncovered government servants helping themselves to Treasury money to an astonishing extent.
It was a way of life set by the president himself with his love of champagne and Ferraris and his presidential jet, Tango 1, complete with gold fittings and bar. But those times, generally referred to as the last days of El Dorado, were supposed to be over. President Fernando de la Rua came to office last year pledging a cleanup. So the discovery that his government is merrily bribing senators has plunged the country into a new wave of despair and self-loathing.
The timing is unfortunate as the government recently substantially raised people's tax burden. Last month Dr. Rene Favaloro, Argentina's most esteemed surgeon and a pioneer in heart bypass -surgery, shot himself, apparently because his foundation, like most of the economy, was in dire financial straits.
His suicide so shocked the nation that the newspapers are still full of letters blaming society and essays with titles such as "The Sad Land of Psychoanalysis and Tango," published in La Nacion newspaper, which described Dr. Favaloro's death as a reflection of "nationwide melancholy and frustrated expectations.
It was the hot topic at my tango class. "What is wrong with us?" a rather stout woman with tightly pulled-back hair asked me during the break. She looked devastated when I replied that Buenos Aires struck me as a really nice place to live.
Having been told in a dance class in Rio some years ago that I didn't have the hips for samba, I think I can live with not being miserable enough to tango.
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