- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

BUENOS AIRES Nicolas Patti expected a few dozen visitors for his walking tour of the Buenos Aires haunts where the legendary tango began more than a century ago.

Instead, a crush of more than 300 Japanese, American, British and other tourists, many shouting and shoving, surged into the Grand Cafe Tortoni here, pushing their way past startled waiters serving afternoon tea.

"Wow, this is the first time we've done this tour, and we're being overrun," Mr. Patti said. "We knew people like the tango but never expected this."

Argentina hasn't recovered from its worst economic downturn in decades, but the tourists kept at bay by last year's social unrest have started flooding back since the South American nation became one of the world's cheapest tourist destinations after a 70 percent devaluation of the peso. After a decade of one-to-one parity, the dollar buys 3.19 pesos.

A tango boom is accompanying the surge in tourism as the country braces for a record 4 million visitors this year.

Tango bars are packed, lavish stage shows are drawing tourists by the busload and compact-disc remixes of tango greats such as Carlos Gardel are selling fast to out-of-towners.

Then there are the dance contestants from Europe and Japan who flew here last week to take part in the Buenos Aires Tango Festival and its first World Tango Dance Championships, which ended Sunday.

"I wouldn't have come here a year ago," said Ray Safi, 35, an American on Saturday's tour of tango dives. "But now it's a real bargain."

A dance that is by turns sexy and sad, tango gained fame in the 1990s on Broadway and in American movies.

Now that unrest has subsided in Argentina, the dance is proving a big draw as international travelers are discovering this cosmopolitan city dubbed the "Paris of the South."

Many pack nightly revues where professional dancers men in dark suits, women in evening gowns whirl on stage amid the smoke of dry ice and the wheezing accompaniment of the tango's bandoneon, an accordionlike instrument.

"I'm not exactly a tango fanatic, but I sure do like it," exclaimed one Italian, Claudio Capraro, 47.

Other tourists pack clubs and halls for lessons from tango masters. Or they soak up strains of tango floating off the cobblestone streets of the historical San Telmo district or the Boca waterfront, where tango emerged from bars and brothels in the late 1800s after the arrival of European immigrants on wooden ships.

The more adventurous try their steps at dance parties called "milongas," such as the one that blocked off a downtown avenue Saturday night for a raucous street fiesta.

"Any tourist who comes to Buenos Aires and hasn't seen tango hasn't been to Buenos Aires at all," said resident Silvio Palmucci.

The tango that won fame in New York during the flapper era and in the ballrooms of Paris between two world wars today attracts followers from around the globe.

Masahito Namiki and Rui Saito flew from Tokyo to dance the tango, joining hundreds of couples for a week of competition at an annual festival here that defied the Southern Hemisphere's summertime heat.

"The tango is a very passionate dance," said Mr. Namiki, 27, who caught the craze five years ago in Japan. "It brings you and your partner together in a way words cannot express."

Mr. Namiki and Miss Saito took classes in Japan from visiting Argentines, but it wasn't enough. "Here one lives the tango, one listens to it and one dances tango all the time. In Japan it's just not the same," Miss Saito said.

Gustavo Sorel, a tango teacher giving lessons one weekday a block from Argentina's pink Government House, said tango is a local invention whose passion is understood universally.

"Right now there are lots of tourists here, and many are coming because of tango," Mr. Sorel said. "Anyone can learn the tango, and everyone should learn in tango's birthplace."

For many tourists, just watching the dancers is enough.

"Oh my God, I'm so impressed," said Bonnie Mion, a tourist from upstate New York, with mouth agape. "It's an exquisite dance, sensual, beautiful and magnificent."

She added: "I'll be back again. No other place in the world has tango like this."

Associated Press writer Deborah Rey contributed to this report.

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