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.
Felipe takes us under his wing, suggesting places to practise, such as the Estrella in Old Palermo, and even cheaper, the large gazebo in Belgrano Park, where the cost-conscious just show up and dance to tapes or CDs in someone's boom box. He also invites us to attend the opening night of a new dance place, the Trovador, in the suburb of Vicente Lopez.
Large and spare with grey concrete walls, it looks like a hall rented for a wedding, and is bright enough for a game of floor hockey. There is no band, but a sound system with big black speakers, and a large shiny dance floor. We are given numbered tickets for the raffle later that night, then take our places at the big, white-covered tables with the rest of the crowd: middle-aged couples, old people, teenagers, even a few children, all dressed in their glittering best.
When the music starts it seems as though everyone there has been dancing tango all their lives, making it difficult to find the courage to take to the floor and do those few basic steps. What catches my attention as I watch the dancers, however, is the fantastic grace of simple everyday tango, skillful and elegant moves that Hollywood transformed into the image most of us have of tango, including the dramatic backwards dip at the end, in which no one at a place like the Trovador ever indulges.
There are really two types of tango, the smooth, synchronized moves of the people, and the theatrical, almost frenetic style of the professional tango couple, known as tango de fantasia. Both come from the same roots, roots that are apparent here at the Trovador, from working-class immigrants in often seedy dance halls or backyard patios, combining everything from the Cuban Habanera to the Italian canzonetta to Andalusian flamenco, the primary instrument of which is a kind of accordion, the bandoneon.
A few days later we try out a place called the Ideal, on Suipacha Street in downtown Buenos Aires. Open since sometime around the beginning of the First World War, the Ideal is a pastry shop and tearoom of enormous proportions, slightly down-at-heel these days. The upper floor, once popular for engagement parties, according to my husband's Aunt Cecilia, now features dancing from 3 p.m. to 10 every weekday.
The place is packed when we arrive, every table taken up with retired men and groups of women who attempt to defy the effects of age with makeup, hair dye, and short dresses, fanning themselves as they wait for an invitation to dance. The single, understandably sullen waiter runs around with trays of tea, coffee, and mineral water, no one ordering anything much more expensive, or anything liable to fog up the reflexes. The walls are lined with carved wood and large mirrors, dusty chandeliers hang from the ceiling. To one side of the massive pillared dance floor, an elderly man sits on the stage and acts as disc jockey, providing a short commentary on every shift he plays.
Here we also learn some tango etiquette. The dancers always stand and chat for the first few bars of each song and all couples have to move counter clockwise. Dancing is divided into relays or sets of tango, waltzes, and milongas -- a faster rhythm, closer to the Cuban dance tradition -- with brief musical interludes. Finally we make some progress. I start to close my eyes and follow, our movements become more fluid as we negotiate our way among all the excellent dancers, and, best of all, we don't bump into anyone. There's no doubt that our fellow dancers have little patience for neophytes, and concentration is essential.
Research suggests plenty of other places to keep up our practising, including the Nino Bien in the traditional barrio of San Telmo, the Gricel, the Almagro, and other clubs with romantic names like the North Wind and the Embrace. All charge between five and 10 pesos to get in, and offer lessons mid-week.
Salons with live bands are few and far between nowadays, charging the quivalent of $75 cover or more. Some are in five-star hotels, like the Plaza, or at Cano 14, a night club across from Recoleta Cemetery. The traditional orchestras of the forties and fifties, with as many as six accordions, pianos, guitars, violins, and more, like those of Osvaldo Pugliese or Juan D'Arienzo, are expensive to maintain and pretty much a thing of the past. It has been a long journey from the days when tango was played in the cheap sailors' bars and cantinas of Boca, and men only danced with each other.
On our last night in the Argentine capital we decide to try out a place called the Salon Augusteo, where a brass plaque outside tells us that tango legend Carlos Gardel used to perform here. It's a four-storey, neo-classical building with a magnificent doorway and a huge "For Sale" sign on the second floor.
Arriving close to midnight, we find the huge room, entered through heavy curtains of red velvet, almost full. The Louis Quatorze mirrors have been painted over with tacky drawings of big-bosomed women, a mirror ball has replaced the chandeliers, and one of the enormous old electric fans falls off the wall while we're there.
Here the sets of tangos are liberally interspersed with Mexican disco music. It's a bit disconcerting to notice how the floor packs out far more when it's on than during the tango sets: Once you're hooked by tango it seems impossible to listen to anything that isn't similarly melodic and sophisticated.
Still, dancing with my husband in an atmosphere as undemanding and authentic as this, I do finally get the impression that learning to dance tango means learning to feel its peculiar urban magic. In the end, I figure, anyone can learn to tango, either by systematically picking up its techniques, or just by falling for its marvellous nostalgic sound on a steamy Buenos Aires night. Of course, for women at least, learning to follow is de rigueur as well.
Augusta Dwyer is a writer living in Mexico City and Toronto. Her books include Into the Amazon: Chico Mendes and the Struggle for the Rain Forest and On the Line: Life on the U.S.-Mexican Border.
WHERE TO LEARN TANGO IN CANADA
Vancouver. Susana Dominguez Dance, 604-602-1831; Arthur Murray Dance Studios, 511-929 Granville (604) 684-2477; Carlos Loyola Studio, 927 Granville, 2nd floor, (604) 876-9061. Calgary. The Studio, 1120-10 Ave., S.W. (403) 228-5668. Winnipeg. Ted Motyka Dance Studio, 1335 Main St. (204) 989-0704.
Montreal. L'Academie de Tango Argentin, 4445 Blvd. St. Laurent, (514) 840-9246; Studio Tango, 1447 Bleury, (514) 844-2786; La Tangueria, 5390 Blvd St. Laurent (514) 495-8645; Tango Libre, 1650 Marie-Anne Est (514) 527-5197.
Halifax. Edgett International Dance Ltd., 3667 Strawberry Hill, (902) 455-1924; Dancing With Michel & Co., 5460 Inglis St., (902) 422-1040. Toronto area. El Tango, Courtney Park Ctr., 6435 Dixie Rd., Mississauga, (905) 670 - 7549l; Pollock Dance Studio, 2000 Yonge St. (416) 485-9305; International School of Dance, 18 Chauncey Ave. (416) 234-5201; El Rancho, 430 College St. (416) 921-2752; Corona Nightclub, every Thursday with Keith Elshaw, 1720 Queen St. W., (416) 919-5520; Rita Ridaz Dance Academy, 147 Spadina, Ste. 204, (416) 598-4395; Club Viva Tango, every second Friday at Citta, 20 Victoria St. (416) 968-2782 Tango 'tea' Sunday afternoons, at Dancing on King, 79 King Street East - 721-6498 or 955-0504