- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — At the School of Tango’s weekly practice, couples dance their way across a wooden floor as music blares from loudspeakers. Spectators sip mate, the tealike beverage that is Argentina’s national drink.

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 sipped through a metal straw; the caramelized milk known as dulce de leche, the national sweet; and even the national pastime, soccer.

Inspired by lonely immigrants, mainly from Europe, 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.

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,” says Laura Fernandez, a curator at the 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 tango is very much in vogue again 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. Dance fiestas, called milongas, also pack in tourists and locals alike. There even are an Argentine School of Tango in a 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,” says 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 makes the dance look effortless, but after taking my first classes, I found learning the tango is anything but easy.

Standing in an unfamiliar embrace only a breath away from my dancing partner, I practiced 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 the moves 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 the right way to learn tango.

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, I stumbled — 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 ochos up and down the dance floor. Finally, after he was satisfied that I was getting the steps down right, he stepped away to sip mate while I continued to practice.

Eager to move beyond the basics, I soon began attending a variety of classes in places ranging from the old, cobblestoned San Telmo district, not far from where the tango originated, to the Confiteria Ideal, a charming hall in the city’s center.

At the Confiteria Ideal, locals regularly dance tango to live orchestras against a backdrop of crystal chandeliers dangling from ornate ceilings and on 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 maneuver, I find myself dancing with Remi Trichaud, a 25-year-old visitor from Lyon, France, who has been taking classes for a week.

We struggle, fumbling our steps.

“I take classes for four hours a day, sometimes more,” he says, laughing.

Even after one woman walked away from him in the middle of a dance at one class, Mr. Trichaud says, 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 by being unable to dance the tango when asked on a trip abroad, Mr. Garello has spent a year learning.

“It requires a lot of time to learn to dance the tango,” Mr. Garello says, adding that it is 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, a milonga.

On a Saturday night, the milonga’s atmosphere is charged in a downtown club called El Beso (the kiss).

The mood contrasts sharply with the casual, anything-goes attitude of the classes. Women are wearing colorful 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 stares from across the room. Once a woman accepts the man’s advances, she is his for that set of songs.

As couples pair off and head to the floor, they soon are circling beneath mirrored disco balls that throw off a dim, sparkling light. All seem so graceful and in sync with the music.

I quickly notice that the style isn’t the elegant dance form I have practiced 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.”

Neither of us is prepared for the fast milonguera. We each take turns dancing with partners but find that 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 get up to leave as newcomers still stream into the club. Yawning on the taxi ride home, I can’t help but feel I have had a quixotic tango experience, one impossibly hard to sum up in words.

Aurora Lubiz, who travels the world teaching the tango, says 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,” Miss Lubiz says. “It’s exclusive to Buenos Aires, and I believe that that’s what seduces people all over the world.”

• • •

Argentine School of Tango (Escuela Argentina de Tango), Viamonte Esquina San Martin, Buenos Aires; visit www.eatango.org or call 54/11-4312-4990. One dance class, $4; four classes, $15; 16 classes, $49. Classes for all skill levels, as well as voice and instrument classes for tango music. The school’s San Telmo branch is at Defensa 1575.

Other tango schools include Unitango, Avenida Boedo 1079, www.unitango.com or 54/11-4957-0111, and Tango Brujo, Esmeralda 754, www.tangobrujo.com.ar or 54/11-4325-8264.

Confiteria Ideal, Suipacha 384; www.confiteriaideal.com or 54/11-5265-8069. Lessons begin at noon Monday through Saturday. Milongas are held nightly, sometimes lasting until 4 a.m. Mondays and Tuesdays have a dinner-drink-show deal.

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