By Alan Prendergast
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Despite the flirtation with role reversal, most American tango dancers still follow the traditional gender model. And if dancing the tango allows women to become sexy femme fatales, for men it's a chance to capture the alpha-male sensibility of, say, Cary Grant--suave and impeccably in control. "What other socially legitimate excuse do you have to hold a beautiful woman in your arms?" Stermitz says. "It's better than a pick-up line at a bar."
Which leads back to sex. Isn't all of this mumbo jumbo ultimately about finding someone to go home with at the end of the evening? The Denver dancers swear the answer is no.
"The tango is not sexual, but sensual," Carone says. "The fact that you can dance sensually does not mean you're making a move."
That may be the case in Denver, but not in the tango capital of the world. "At a milonga in Buenos Aires," says Arcuri, "everyone is there to find somebody. Ten percent like to dance, ninety percent like to get a date."
Born in the tough, marginalized neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and Montevideo in the nineteenth century, tango was for many years shunned by polite society. As a result, it became bound up in certain myths about making it in mainstream society. For the poor girl from the countryside, for example, tango embodied the hope of escaping her condition by catching the eye of a wealthy man. For the young immigrant man, proving his ability to tango meant he had become integrated into society and could now earn respect and vie for the attention of women.
Tango developed chiefly among Buenos Aires's many Italian immigrants. But not unlike jazz, the music also drew influences from the propulsive polyrhythms brought across the ocean by African immigrants and by musical instruments toted over by Europeans.
In fact, it wasn't until the appearance some 100 years ago of the German bandonion, an accordion-like instrument, that tango came into its own. "The bandonion changed it all, because it was very sad, very melancholic," says Arcuri. "It was the feeling of the immigrants, away from their homes, just trying to make a living."
In the 1910s, tango made its way to Paris--then the "capital of bourgeois hedonism in the world," says Trenner. Middle-class Europeans loved it, which in turn made the dance respectable when it made its way back to South America. "The sense among middle-class Argentines was like, 'Oh, Europeans like it, we should like it, too,'" says Carone.
The tango first arrived in America around 1915, at a time when both the music and the dance were characterized by simpler, more playful sounds and movements. After World War I, the tango in Europe and America came increasingly under the influence of European cabaret traditions and began to evolve in a decidedly more flamboyant manner than the tango danced in Argentina.
Meanwhile, in Argentina, the tango was evolving into a more subtle, sophisticated dance. By the 1930s, this tango was all over the place in that country--tango film shorts were even run between shows at movie theaters. But after Juan Peron was thrown out in 1956, the golden era passed. Argentina fell under the control of a string of dictatorships that repressed tango, along with nearly everything else.
In the U.S., meanwhile, tango began to change. Composers grew more ambitious and began composing tangos to be listened to, not danced to. The main figure of modern tango was Arthur Piazzolla, and today most of the tango albums in record stores are his. But despite the composer's popularity, Stermitz says most dancers prefer to tango to pre-Piazzolla music. Dancing to Piazzolla's music is like dancing to the atonal improvisations of jazz giant John Coltrane, he says, while golden-era tangos have more in common with the user-friendly swing of Benny Goodman.
By the early 1980s, tango began to re-emerge in Argentina, though Orzuza says that today in Buenos Aires "the main population still doesn't accept it." Where it has really caught on is in the U.S., where in the last five years or so the dance has rejoined the European and American ballroom traditions. "As much as people were attracted to all these half-breed forms, as soon as real tango showed itself, it took over easily," says Trenner. "There was so much more to do."
Trenner was a modern and jazz dancer until the mid-1980s, when he fell in love with an Argentine woman while living in Europe. A few years later the two were involved in a car crash in Buenos Aires and were forced to remain there while they recovered. As soon as Trenner was able, he went out and started learning tango.
Trenner came back to the U.S. in 1991 and discovered that the country had only a half-dozen tango communities. He and others began spreading the gospel.
In the fall of 1995 Trenner was invited to give a three-month tango workshop in metro Denver. The workshop was well attended and paved the way for the current revival of tango in Colorado. "Newcomers need to come to dance and experience a group of people, all of whom can do something well," says Trenner. "In Denver, we got over that hump in a four-month period."