- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

There are no mistakes in tango. Not like life. If you get all tangled up, you just tango on.
Al Pacino as Frank Slade, 'Scent of a Woman'
This is living. The lights are low at B.A. Restaurant and Tango Lounge on 14th Street NW, a hip Argentine restaurant that's barely a year old. Its walls are painted in hues of mustard and rust. Free-standing walls with square holes punched out of them snake into the middle of the lounge. Round paper lanterns dangle from above. A disco ball (will they ever go away?) sparkles festively from above.
Below the ball, seven couples are locked in embrace. On the yellow wood dance floor, they seem oblivious to their surroundings. They're focused like lasers on their partners. The men, their arms outstretched and their backs as straight as 2-by-4s, lead the women while staring into their eyes. The women follow, carefully, sometimes wrapping their legs around their men.
They're doing the tango.
"It's almost like having sex on the dance floor," says Marylee Blackwood of Ellicott City, Md. "If you watch, it is."
Ms. Blackwood, 53, and her partner, Steven Kulawy, 49, have been practicing their tango moves during a break from dance classes. A DJ spins CDs and as the room fills with the pulsating rhythms of the piano and the bandoneon (the tango accordion), the gliding student dancers' feet shoosh and swish around the dance floor. Hands on hips as if she's inspecting the troops, instructor Anne Sophie Ville cheers on her students, shouting, "Very nice … very, very nice." The couples move in a rhythmic circle, yet each pair follows its own path.
That's tango, the intimate social dance sometimes considered Argentina's greatest export. Though the sensual passion of the dance is considered key, what can't be ignored takes place below the ankles. Tango is considered a "walker's dance," a glide, which has more to do with improvised footwork by the leader (the man) and less with choreographed steps. In other words, it doesn't have a competitive bone in it.
"A lot of people who have seen the shows think that the way you dance the tango is the way you dance it onstage," Ms. Ville says, "with the big, fancy movements." That's not Argentine tango, she says. That's American, or ballroom, tango, which, she says dismissively, includes jamming a red rose between the teeth and throwing back the head in a stylized manner.
Sitting near the dance floor at the B.A. Restaurant, Indian native Rajnit Nayak, 33, leans back and watches mildly. He is an intermediate student waiting for the beginners' class to end. Tango gives him a chance to express himself on the floor and really feel the music. He also admits it's a wonderful way to meet the ladies. (Check out the club Diversite on Monday nights, he advises. Many European women frequent the place.)
"It's a very natural dance, not like waltz, fox trot or jazz," says Mr. Nayak, an anthropologist for the World Bank. "I think there are more rules there than there are in tango."
Tango student Elaine Guerre, 23, on the other hand, says the tango's very openness to improvisation makes it the hardest to learn even among Latin dances, including merengue and salsa.
"I did it with my boyfriend the first three weeks," says Miss Guerre, an intern at the Kennedy Center. A tall, reed-thin brunette wearing a choker around her neck, Miss Guerre calls those first few weeks of tango "frustrating, but you learn a lot about your partner." She lets out a nervous laugh. "The way they move, the way they react to frustration. Dancing gives you a sense of otherness, so you kind of learn to move together."
Tell that to Steve Sapienza. A District resident, 33, he hangs out at the bar, quaffing a Corona with his girlfriend, Rachel Galdin, 27. He gave her dance lessons for her birthday, and they have just finished whirling around the dance floor. Now they intently study the intermediate group.
"I'd heard that it can be pretty complicated," he says as she giggles. "It looks complicated sometimes, but that first class is a lot of fun." Ms. Galdin, also from the District, has taken salsa, merengue, swing and ballroom lessons. With those dances, she says, she always learned a set step pattern, and everything else the turns, dips and frills was built on top of that step pattern. Tango was different.
"I was kind of disoriented at first," she says. "This is sort of a simple slide that you have to follow. Our feet have to learn something first."

Tango's followers are legion and committed to the point of being hard-core. Try to talk to a beginner about tango during an intermediate course, and chances are he'll politely tell you to go away. He wants to practice.
People plan vacations according to where they can find tango. (Thank goodness for the Internet, says one aficionado.)
Addicts are out on the town, tangoing, three to five times a week. Style is everything, and some men find themselves criticized by their partners some they've just met if they don't lead properly. Yet people still return, wherever there's music and a dance floor.
"It's booming," says the doe-eyed Ms. Ville, 31, a Belgian native. "Even in the most remote places, there is a tango community."
Ms. Ville ticks off various cities: Moscow, Rome, Paris, Istanbul. Winston-Salem, N.C., Portland, Ore. Here in the nation's capital, dancers tango seven nights a week. Aside from the B.A. Restaurant, tango goes on at such venues as Diversite, which is right down the street; the Chevy Chase Ballroom; the San Antonio Restaurant on Leesburg Pike; and the Virginia Ballroom on Lee Highway.
Tango has amassed an underground community of followers; if there's no restaurant or bar, there's always somebody who will open his house for tango. Ms. Ville, among others, organizes tango events and runs a Web site. (During the day, she works at the World Bank, where she has given lessons also.) Thanks to the Internet, tango addicts can be found here and abroad. Teacher Viviana Levinson says that although the D.C. area is "very, very small," she guesses that in the past year, interest in tango has doubled.
"We used to have mostly the older generation," she says. "Now we're generating a younger audience."
Most tango classes last about six weeks. The unstated "uniform" is all black. Most teachers mix students with other partners. Sometimes that feels "weird," says Ms. Ville, because total strangers tightly embrace each other in this sensual, passionate dance.
"I went to Buenos Aires a few times, and there it's even worse, because you really don't know those people and you know you will never see them again," Ms. Ville says. "But for the time of the dances that can be one dance or can be four or five you can dance really close to that person, close your eyes, and you are in a totally different world.
"And especially if there is a connection. If the leader is good, plays with the music really well, has a nice embrace, I'm like, 'OK, I'm giving up everything I know for 10 minutes and I'm dancing.' And when it's done, that's OK; I'm going to someone else."
It's not unusual for the Argentine-born Mrs. De Isidoro, who admits that "we in South America are kissy and huggy." Dance instructor Murat Erdemsel, who teaches at the Virginia Ballroom, puts it more succinctly: "In Buenos Aires, everyone dances in close embrace. In America, everyone dances in open embrace."

While scholars agree that tango originated in Buenos Aires, some disagree as to the circumstances. The most widely accepted belief is that the dance began in the late 1800s, when an influx of immigrants from Italy, Germany, Spain and parts of Africa sought work in what was then a thriving Argentina.
Mostly they sought solace in bordellos, and there developed a style of music that mixed parts of different countries' cultures. The first dances actually were between males, a sort of a combat between two men for the love of a woman. Tango made its way to Europe, landing in Paris around World War I. Tango aficionados enjoy the fact that the seamy, forbidden dance eventually became a favorite of the upper crust.
Tango and its connection to Argentine culture is not lost on Carlos Di Laudo. It is after 9 p.m. at the B.A. Restaurant. Mr. Di Laudo, 44, the restaurant's owner, with short hair, turtleneck and dark jacket, brings out pitchers of sangria for the dancers. He saunters about his place with intense grace and goes out of his way to promote his restaurant. By day he's a cultural affairs staffer at the Argentine embassy; by night he pushes more than just tango.
"This is a unique place to have an Argentinian dinner and tango lessons or tango dance," he says firmly, opening his menu. "This is the original Argentinian food."
Mr. Di Laudo, an Argentine native who started dancing only four years ago, says he sees people from many ethnic backgrounds Russian, Japanese and French taking lessons. Ms. Guerre says it's all part of a Latin culture mania.
"People always think that the world is becoming Americanized," she says. "I feel like America is becoming Latinized. I mean, salsa was originated in New York. And it's spread through the media y'know, Jennifer Lopez, lots of Latin artists. For that reason, Latin dance has become more important.
"Each time there's a tango movie out, you see more people show up to the dances and milongas and taking lessons." By "milonga" Ms. Guerre means a tango dance party.
Films such as Sally Potter's 1997 "The Tango Lesson" and Leonard Schrader's 1990 "Naked Tango" have helped popularize the dance. So has the hit Broadway musical "Forever Tango." This fall, Robert Duvall is to release a film in which he stars and directs, titled "Assassination Tango." In the film, to be produced by Francis Ford Coppola, Mr. Duvall plays a New York hit man who gets caught up in Buenos Aires' tango world.
Best known for his roles in "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now," Mr. Duvall lives in The Plains-Middleburg area of Virginia with his Argentine-born wife. They have hosted several milongas at their 360-acre farm. The two even danced for then-President Clinton and then-Argentine President Carlos Menem at a state dinner in 1999.

The dance can be considered politically incorrect. The man leads, period. In the beginning of her tango lessons with her boyfriend, Ms. Guerre refused to relinquish the lead.
"I knew a little bit more than him," she says laughing again. "I would try to lead him. To try to follow someone was hard because I was always trying to push them away. They were just like, 'Relax, let yourself go, follow.'"
At the Virginia Ballroom, Mr. Erdemsel leads a beginner's class. The room, with a tan parquet floor, is surrounded by full-length mirrors. In the corner, a lamp shoots out colored lights. All of the women wear black pumps. Almost everyone, in fact, wears the standard color black.
At 26, Mr. Erdemsel, with his jet-black hair, khakis, black shirt and black shoes, looks like a model but gently cracks wise. He takes his partner, Irina Chikounova, 31, and places her hands gently over his chest.
"Her hands are very relaxed," Mr. Erdemsel tells his students in his elastic Turkish accent. "She is not touching me. She is putting her hands over there and trying to feel my torso. It's a very sensitive connection we have."
They dance in this position. This exercise, he says, also helps the dancer focus on the music, not on the passionate embrace with his or her partner. ("The music is the only thing," he says later.) The class follows his and Ms. Chikounova's moves.
Some seem uncomfortable with such an intimate kind of contact but eventually adapt themselves to it.
Mr. Erdemsel says that when he dances, he focuses more on the music than his partner. As he dances with Ms. Chikounova, they seem perfectly blended. His chest is always aligned with hers, leading, and she responds instinctively by kicking her leg out like a jackknife, then returning home to wrap around his.
This is tango at its steamiest.
"You samba together to have a little fun," Ms. Guerre says. "You salsa to have a little passion. Then you tango to the bedroom."
Yet for the Argentine-born Mrs. De Isidoro, who has been dancing for six years, the tango goes way beyond sex.
"Listen to the lyrics; there's nothing sexy about them," she says. "They're very dramatic, sometimes like a soap opera. They can even be funny."
Ah, but with its locked embraces and improvised footing, the meaning of the tango is in the ear of the beholder.



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