October 9, 2008

Uno, Dos, Tango Learning the Dance Full of Argentine Heart

By Joe Ray Daily Herald Correspondent

It's every male wallflower's dream: Walk into a hall of beautiful people, choose the woman you would like as a partner, nod confidently in her direction and watch as she meets you on the dance floor.

One caveat: In Argentina, when you take her hand you had better know how to tango.

With the goal of understanding my fascination with the dance and maybe learning a few steps, I introduce myself to Edith Paez, a tango instructor in Buenos Aires.

"It's OK to be a beginner in an all-level class?" I ask.

"No problem," she says.

"Good, because this is my first tango lesson."

Her face drops.

"Suerte!" Paez quips, exhibiting some Argentine pluck. Good luck.

Three minutes

Tango fanatic and area native Silvia Guzman had agreed to be my guide in Buenos Aires. She immediately put a finger on what fascinates me most about the dance.

"It's three minutes of connection," she says as we watch dancers go 'round in counterclockwise circles at the Salon Canning milonga, or tango hall. "You're always right in front of your partner, never next to each other."

The sensuality is delicious. We watch instructors call out a few steps -"uno, dos, tres""apart, together, apart" - as his feet scissor in and out between hers, which flare in circles. When the class ends and the floor fills, people aren't just connecting, they're smoldering. I zero in on one couple and while their feet flit about, cat-and-mouse style, their heads touch and their chests are pressed together. I might as well be staring through a bedroom window.

Nothing this exciting will be happening for me anytime soon. Guzman steers me toward Web sites and tango magazines that list courses happening at almost any given hour around town. There are so many that it's like looking up movie listings in the States. Starting around noon, pick the time you want to go and there's a class or three happening, broken down by skill level.

Guzman and many other people also counsel the following: Once you find a place you like for lessons, stick with it.

Luck and word of mouth had led me to the tango school run by Paez in the very hip Torquato Tasso Cultural Center in the San Telmo neighborhood. The benefit here is that Paez, a former master balrinlea, both teaches and recruits a set of very capable instructors.

"In the past five or six years, tango has become our national hallmark. It's like a cultural renaissance," she says. "People wanted to connect again. It was a return to the city's cultural roots."

Lumbering Frankenstein

At my first lesson, Paez teaches our group to walk again. About 10 of us stride in a circle as she guides us. "Uno, dos ... uno, dos, tres," she says as we step in a matching short, short, fast, fast, fast cadence. There's no smoldering; we're not even holding partners, but it's curiously gratifying just to put one foot in front of the other.

When Paez pairs us with other dancers, I am matched with a well- dressed, gracious 60-year-old Argentine, and for the first official tango step of my life, I stomp on her stilettos.

I go to the next course with my girlfriend and, out of politesse, I make it to our second step before I tread on her toes. A travel writer, she refers to me as a "lumbering Frankenstein" on her blog - a link I conveniently forget to send to family and friends.

During the course, however, we learn a similar uno, dos, tres step, this time with a crossover that actually feels like tango. I crush her toes and squeeze the blood from her fingers, but once in a while we get it right. No one would be impressed, but to simply do a few steps correctly with each other is exhilarating.

For course No. 3, I sit in on a class given by Dante Sanchez, 20, the 2007 salon-style world champion (tango is broken into several styles). He practically gives his time away, charging 13 pesos an hour for group lessons, the rough equivalent of getting passing lessons from Tom Brady at four bucks a pop.

I ask Sanchez what the connection means to him and it's simple: "The music, the woman and the floor."

"The floor?" I say, thinking my Spanish is failing me.

He responds by doing a stiff, hokey jig where he hops around on the floor like a marionette, before switching to tango steps and sliding his feet as if in a trance. "You glide over it - it's beautiful."

"Like ice skating?" I venture.

"Claro." Clearly.

"In my parents' house and at fiestas, we listened to the music as kids," Sanchez says. "When I hear it, I think of when I would listen with my father. When you listen, there's an emotion that runs through you. It's hard to explain, but it's like being in love."

Quang Bobrowski, also a former professional ballet dancer, is visiting from Germany for a few weeks of tango immersion at Paez's school, sometimes taking a couple of classes a day, then going to milongas at night.

It's easy to see his progress. At one point, something clicks and he gets so excited, he breaks rank and does a ballet-style split jump.

"Taking the class, something has changed," Bobrowski says, catching his breath. "I could feel another muscle working. Suddenly, you feel another part of your leg that gives you a power to lead."

"You can dance with less tension," he says. "It's like dancing heart to heart."

All walks of life

A few nights later, I meet Guzman under a giant outdoor gazebo in the tourist-free Belgrano neighborhood at the beautiful Glorieta de Barrancas de Belgrano milonga. Here, a few nights a week, tango courses are followed by open dancing, and Guzman has promised to explain her connection and get me out on the floor.

Portenos (Buenos Aires natives) of almost every age and walk of life are here to dance. There are 70-year-olds in their Sunday best and a twentysomething couple of a dressed-to-kill woman in purple pumps and a guy in a track suit and black sneakers, all creating a near-perfect cross-section of the city. The big, glitzy tango shows downtown make for great spectacle, but here under the gazebo it feels like staring into the heart of the city and its inhabitants.

"It's a wonderful dance to learn about the relationship between a man and a woman," says Guzman. "Having a man hold you is like a lesson in letting life take you somewhere and not trying to control it all the time."

"Dancing is a place where people are alone, then they meet someone, they're held," she says. "It's very sensual. It's like a drug." At this point, her attention floats away into the crowd in front of us, or perhaps she's daydreaming of some tango connection in the past. "There's passion," she says, floating back. "It is passion."

Suddenly, she grabs my hand and commands, "Put down the pen!" pulling me onto the floor so I can, um, strut my stuff. I show her the uno, dos ... uno, dos, tres and the crossover step I've learned, along with one that sympathetic locals have taught me.

"That's it?" she cries, giving my limited repertoire a good- hearted tease. I turn three shades of red, but she graciously sticks it out with me, as people literally dance circles around us. When she catches me regressing into "lumbering Frankenstein" mode, she squeezes my hand and says, "Follow me," breaking into a bit of a wild freestyle. It's probably tango heresy, but it's perfect.

Later, I join Guzman and some friends for a drink at a crowded sidewalk cafe, but in my head, I'm still under the gazebo with the sun going down, watching people dance, hearts pressed against hearts.

If you go

Learning to tango in Buenos Aires

GO: If you like to dance, want to learn a bit, and have a bit of gumption; being a night owl helps

NO: If you're not a city person because Buenos Aires is huge, enriching, beautiful and awake at all hours, but "calm" isn't usually the first word that comes to mind

Getting there: American Airlines has a nonstop flight from O'Hare to Buenos Aires. Several airlines offer flights with connections.

What to expect: Some say you could spend your life learning to tango and thousands of people come here every year on dance holidays. Needless to say, people here take their tango very seriously and going out on the dance floor without experience is a no-no. Dedicating yourself to lessons and milongas for a week will help you get out on the floor with confidence, but even a couple classes can be a lot of fun and leave you wanting more. Many courses - even group lessons with a world champion - are a bargain at only about $4 for a one-hour class.

Language differences are rarely a problem. Most instructors speak enough English to get you through a course. Even if they don't, following along simply by watching is surprisingly easy.

Where to tango:

Edith Paez Tango, Torquato Tasso cultural center, Defensa 1575, (011) (54-15) 5524-8396, [email protected]@gmail.com. Paez runs the tango program at a very hip cultural center where she both gives lessons and recruits top-quality instructors. Group courses run an hour to 90 minutes for about $4.

Dante Sanchez was a 2007 world tango champion and gives group lessons at Paez's school. He also gives separate private lessons for about $33 per hour. If there are languages concerns, his brother sits in on lessons to translate, [email protected]@hotmail.com.

Resources: El Tangauta magazine is an easy-to-find tango reference with course listings and (limited) content in English. Information can also be found at www.eltangauta.com. Scroll down to the LQV section for courses broken down by day and hour.

Milongas: Even if you've never danced in your life, come to the dance halls known as milongas, have a drink and get to know tango and its intricate customs. Things often get going late, with lessons starting around 9 or 10 p.m. and open dancing beginning as late as 11 p.m. or midnight.

La Catedral (aka Parakultural), Sarmiento 4006, ring buzzer No. 5, then follow the music up one floor. A funky, underground milonga in the Almagro neighborhood with everything from lessons and open dancing to live music and bizarre interpretive art. There's a minimal cover charge at the door. Best on Tuesday nights.

Glorieta Barrancas de Belgrano -"La Glorieta" - 11 de Septiembre at Echeverria, look for the large gazebo. Located in a park in the residential Belgrano neighborhood, this is a pure slice of life of Buenos Aires and its inhabitants. Lessons and dancing in the warmer months on two or three weekend nights (check listings).

Salon Canning, Scalabrini Ortiz 1331, (011) (54-11) 4832-6753. A classic and a great starting point to get the fever. Sparse in detail, you're here to dance (or at least watch).

Where to stay:

Gurda Tango & Winery Hotel, Defensa 1521, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, (011) (54-11) 4307-0646, www.gurdahotel.com, [email protected]@gurdahotel.com. A stone's throw from the cultural center where Edith Paez runs her tango school, this trendy seven-room hotel is well-located for exploring the center of Buenos Aires. Rooms $121- $190, breakfast included.

Caseron Porteno, Ciudad de la Paz 344, Capital Federal, (011) (54- 11) 4554-6336, www.caseronporteno.com, [email protected]@caseronporteno.com. This 10-room bed-and-breakfast is a low- key option in the funky Palermo neighborhood. Particularly good for those looking to stay more than a couple days. Doubles range from $58-$85 with breakfast, a kitchen and free tango lessons.

Where to eat:

El Pobre Luis, Arribenos 2393, (011) (54-11) 4780-5847, www.elpobreluis.com, [email protected]@elpobreluis.com, closed Sunday. A Buenos Aires landmark in the Belgrano neighborhood. Eat here to immediately understand why Argentines are such meat fanatics. About $20-$30.

Oviedo, Beruti 2602, (011) (54-11) 4822-5415. Though Argentina has an enormous coastline, seafood is a curious rarity. Oviedo is one of the few exceptions and has one of the city's best restaurants and wine cellars. $60-$100 plus wine.

Il Matterello, Martin Rodriguez 517, (011) (54-11) 4307-0529, closed Sunday night and Monday. Unlikely as it sounds, Argentines do Italian right and this family-owned restaurant is one of the best. Located in a sketchy neighborhood (take a cab). About $20- $30.

- Joe Ray

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