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The Spin Crowd

Is that a rose between your teeth, amigo? Not if you're a true tanguero.

Buenos Aires, says Stermitz, who also went south last fall, looks and feels very European. You could mistake it for a city in France or Spain. And though tangos aren't performed on every street corner, you can find them if you know where to look. "If you ask a cab driver about tango," Stermitz says, "he'll tell you about a tourist show. It's very much a living tradition in terms of song. Not as much as a dance."

While in Argentina, Stermitz and the other Denver dancers divided their time between practice sessions run by master teachers and milongas, where they tried to show what they had learned.

Milongas in Argentina are very intimidating--at least they were for the Americans. "Americans ask the first pretty girl they see," Stermitz says. "Then they'll bump into an old gentleman, who'll look at them with daggers in his eyes."

Not only is the skill level different; so is the space available. The ballroom floor at the Denver Turnverein, where Tango Colorado members practice, is larger and emptier than most Buenos Aires milongas. "Here, you can make big steps because there's room," Stermitz says. "It's like, 'Why be precise with your steps?'" On Argentina's smaller, denser floors, he adds, "we're inexperienced. We try to do five steps in a row when we only have two available, or one."

Room in the dance halls is so tight that dancers move in lanes, notes Delmer Johnson, president of Tango Colorado. "The entire perimeter is lined with tables--people packed tighter than anywhere I've danced in America." The accomplished dancers occupy the outermost lane so they can more easily show off without worrying about crashing; intermediates take the middle lanes, and beginners stay in the center.

"The emphasis is on good technique," says Johnson. "Americans go down there to show off, and no one is impressed. But if you do good steps well, you'll impress them."

The competition is intense. Men especially are concerned with one-upmanship--that's how new and innovative moves are developed. "They're not there to socialize," Stermitz says. "They're there to see and be seen."

And that's not always a bad thing. Stermitz recalls watching an older couple dance at a milonga when the man looked up and saw the American watching him. Many dancers will change their steps if they think they're being watched, but not this seasoned milonguero. "He did four or five fancy steps, just for me," says Stermitz. "He did three loud steps on the floor, calling attention to himself. My instructor got huffy and said, 'He's stomping cockroaches!' The instructor thought it was arrogant, but I thought it was a gift."

Old dancers aren't the only ones with the right moves. Carone says she favors the older, more relaxed milongas in the outlying neighborhoods of Buenos Aires to the trendier tango spots in the center of the city. At a club called Sunderland, she was asked to dance by a twelve-year-old boy. "He danced better than most of the grownups," she says. "Later he was sitting at my table, explaining to the grown-up guys how to deal with girls in Argentina."

Which steps squarely into the heart of things. The relationship between men and women. The mating ritual. Sex.

The tango has a leader and a follower. In Argentina, the leader is always a man, the follower always a woman. And though tangophiles insist that following is not the same as subservience, transplanting Argentine culture to America clearly steps on some toes.

"Argentina is a more traditional culture," Stermitz says. "Tango is not just dancing. It's courtship, or at least a symbol of courtship. They take that symbol really seriously."

Denver dancers who've spent time in Buenos Aires say Argentines are more affectionate than Americans, more comfortable in their sexuality, and--for better or worse--clearer about their gender roles. In America, men and women rarely seem to be singing the same song.

Like many tangueros in town, Stermitz grew up in the rock generation, which emphasized dancing by yourself. "There's a failure of intimacy in our culture," he says. "Tango embraces. It connects people."

"Argentines are so affectionate," notes Farley. "Americans are more comfortable showing off their bodies, but it's like, 'Don't touch!' We mistake sensuality for sexuality. To enjoy a woman's breast is inappropriate here, but in Argentina, that's a beautiful thing. I'm hoping we can grow up and out of this."

In Argentina, men and women learn to dance the tango separately. Women learn by following experienced male dancers. Men learn to lead by dancing with each other--for no woman will have them if they don't know what they're doing.

In Denver, men and women are learning together. And women are learning to lead. Trenner has caught a lot of flak for encouraging this, and he admits that many Argentines don't like it. "Argentines are very horrified that women are leading in the States," Farley adds. "They feel the woman is cutting off men's balls."

The concept of the female lead "really is offensive to the old Argentine tanguero," says Trenner. But he stresses that this is America in 1997, not Argentina in 1947. Besides, he says learning to both lead and follow makes men and women better dancers.

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