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Taming the tango Add to ...

I see the sign, tempting yet totally intimidating, a couple of blocks away from our Buenos Aires apartment: Tango lessons, twice a week, at a lofty bar with exposed brick walls and a narrow wooden dance floor called the "La Dama de Bollini." It takes a while to decide. Does tango not require the legs of a sprinter to manage all those flips and twists, the reflexes of a race-car driver, a certain amount of grace, and possibly an obsession with one's tango prof? Absolutely none of these things is on, for me or for my prospective dance partner, my husband, Luis.

Nonetheless, we decide to take the plunge. At eight pesos a lesson each (about $12) all we have to lose is our sense of dignity, and with two months in Buenos Aires, it seems a shame not to give it a try. We show up on a warm January night and meet Tamara and Felipe. She's about 20 and he's over 70. They are taking over for Tamara's sister and brother-in-law, who, like almost all Bonaerenses, disappear to somewhere along the Atlantic coast for the summer holidays.

The sound of taped tango classics is just the background for us, as we slowly learn the eight basic steps; and after three hours, we seem to have gotten that down at least. Our fellow students include middle-aged couples like ourselves, as well as a number of younger folk, who tell me that whenever they travel, reveal their nationality and the fact they cannot dance tango, they elicit such frowns that they realize they really ought to learn.

Tangomania has hit Argentina with the full-force blast of a half dozen bandoneones. Spanish film director Carlos Saura's latest dance movie, Tango, was nominated for an Oscar, while Sally Potter's Tango Lesson has become an off-the-wall hit. Dance companies from Argentina are pulling in crowds all over Europe and the United States, and tango classes are filling up in cities like Paris and Madrid. After falling out of favour in the sixties, tango is back, and the lost generations of tangueros are eager to find out what all the fuss was about when their parents and grandparents knew all the steps and all the greatest voices.

With Tamara and Felipe's patience, we go on to a few more steps -- the ocho, or eight, the caminata, or walk -- and even learn how to change directions doing the ocho para atras, or backwards eight. My husband recalls more and more tunes from his childhood in this country, classics from Mariano Mores, such as A Grey Afternoon and Blue Room, Lucio Demare's Malena, and Juan Carlos Cobian's and Enrique Cadicamo's The Drunks, not to mention the classic Uno from the great Enrique Santos Discepolo.

One of Argentina's most extraordinary composers, Discepolo wrote skeptical, often depressing lyrics, such as Cambalache,in which he compares priests to thieves and corrupt politicans. Luis remembers Discepolo visiting his parents' house in the early fifties. Eventually, his fame led to his downfall, as Discepolo finally gave in to official pressure and agreed to do propaganda for Argentina's pro-Nazi presidential couple, Juan and Eva Peron. During his lifetime his public never forgave him. He was spat on, twice, on the street, and finally grew so ill that he collapsed during a performance of a play called Blum, which he wrote together with my father-in-law, Julio Porter.

Memories aside, by the time our regular teachers, Esteban and Nadia, return, we realize that we have a problem. In tango, the man leads and decides all the moves, with his partner following and receiving signals for the eights, double eights, turns, and so on, all the so-called figuras that catch most people's attention when they watch tango. This is difficult for me, since, like many wives, I am used to being the one who feels she should make all the important decisions.

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