The tango fanatics are easy to spot on a recent weekday night at the Washington Park Grill; they're the ones crowding around a makeshift dance floor they've created by shoving a few tables out of the way. Already the room is buzzing, and the women, many of them older and exuding Neiman Marcus glamour, are particularly revved up.
"I wouldn't be here if I couldn't dance," says a beaming Kathyrn Lindahl, wearing a form-fitting white dress. "Tango's a beautiful, sensual dance."
"If men could dance it, they could get any date," adds Michele Massee, deeply tanned and wearing a black dress with white ruffles at the bottom. "Wallflowers can become men of the world."
The men present at this gathering of Denver's growing tango community surely don't see themselves as wallflowers, but they might as well be when Argentine tanguero Armando Orzuza, a real man of the world, all dark sensuality, emerges from the front of the restaurant in a sharp pinstriped suit. From the other end of the restaurant, he is joined by the striking Daniela Arcuri, who wears a velvet dress, fishnet stockings, red heels and a black veil and gloves. Her blond hair is tightly bound. The pair look like Moderns from 1920s Paris.
Above Orzuza and Arcuri, tungsten light the color of French vanilla creates a soothing, dreamy mood. The dancers, in town as part of an American tour, are husband and wife, and the electricity between them as they size each other up for a moment and begin to move toward each other appears genuine. But this is still an act for the audience, a tour de force of the technical wizardry and zenlike connection that defines the tango. The dance is equal parts passion and intellect--and courtship, too.
"Argentine men are very clever," says Gabriela Carone, the only Argentine tango instructor in Colorado. "They are never totally spontaneous. When they approach a woman, they know what will work and what won't."
It's been almost seven years to the day that Daniela and Armando first embraced at a tango class in Buenos Aires, and the two clearly know what works. They weave effortlessly about the room--most of their performance tonight is choreographed--and make a radiant pair. But they smile so much that their first few dances seem to be a warmup, lacking in drama. They're one-note paeans to pleasure.
After two short songs, the couple disappears upstairs. The crowd loves them anyway, and many are moved to tears.
Later that night, the locals take the floor. Some are skilled, others clumsily bump into one another. Then there are Nina Pesochinsky and Roberta Farley, two of the mainstays of Denver's burgeoning tango scene. The two women are dancing together because Nina's usual male partner is out of town, and Roberta simply doesn't feel any man in town is her equal.
Pesochinsky, the larger woman, leads with a driving edge, and Farley executes move after move with precise snaps and turns of her leg that look deadly enough to break men's hearts--or other parts of the anatomy. Here is not the harmony of the Argentines. Here is an almost aggressive conversation, a competition between skilled rivals. The women's embrace is a crucible.
At first blush, the tango is a little corny. With its playful, goofy melodies and pronounced musical accents, the dance is melodrama par excellence.
But there's listening to tango and then there's dancing to it. Beneath the dance's larger-than-life sensibility is a complex subtlety that often frustrates those who attempt to master it. Unlike other partner dances re-emerging in America, the tango isn't about individual accomplishment, or about endlessly rehashing the same steps. It is, ultimately, improvisation, an act of creative communication.
Tango made its way from the bordellos of Argentina in the early years of the century to the drawing rooms of Paris, and eventually to the United States and Hollywood, where it has been danced by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Rudolph Valentino and, more recently, a tuxedo-clad Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie True Lies. Actor Robert Duvall--who has invited Arcuri and Orzuza to his large home in Virginia to tango--has gained more attention for leaving his wife to dance the tango than for any of his recent screen roles.
"He's an incredible man," says Arcuri of Duvall. "He remodeled his farm in Virginia and put in a milonga [a tango dance hall or party]. He loves the tango. He talks all the time about Argentina. He's very good and very enthusiastic."
No one on Denver's tango scene can match Duvall's bank account, but they share his hunger. Sparked by a revival of interest in Argentina's greatest cultural export engendered by several touring stage shows that hit America in the 1980s, tango is dancing its way back into the spotlight. Denver's group, like most of the others springing up in North America, had its roots in a workshop given by American tango instructor Daniel Trenner, a pied piper of tango who has gone from city to city preaching the dance's faith. Last fall he took more than a dozen Coloradans to Buenos Aires to study with the masters. Today the Front Range tango community is several hundred persons strong.
Local enthusiasts talk of the tango trance and of the dynamics of a man and woman joined in an embrace. They talk of tango shoes--you can't really get them in America--and of the sublime power of fingers touching. They are bugged by popular misconceptions about tango. They cringe at the stereotype of tango as an overtly sexual, even campy dance.
There are no mushy moments during which a couple gaze deeply into each other's eyes, they'll tell you. Women generally gaze off to the side and down or close their eyes; men's eyes wander to make sure they don't hit anyone and to ward off potential suitors.
And to many dancers, the most venerable symbol of tango--the rose held between clenched teeth--borders on an insult. "The Hollywood vision of tango is overdramatized," says Tom Stermitz, a member of the nonprofit organization Tango Colorado and Pesochinsky's usual dance partner.
"Tango is a technology of seduction," the wiry 42-year-old continues. "It's not an adrenaline rush. But it is a rush, more meditative. There's no state where you are that way with another person."
Its proponents call tango the most difficult of partner dances. It requires dancers to learn a whole vocabulary of movement and then create the dance spontaneously.
Many of Denver's tangueros and tangueras are amateur or professional dancers who grew up on other forms but gravitated to the challenge of tango. "On stage you can do anything," says Stermitz, a computer programmer who came to tango after years of dancing ballroom and swing. "You're trying to capture communication." Others are new students drawn to tango by everything from a love of motion to a desire to inhabit more traditional gender roles.
All of them seem enjoyably obsessed. Gabriela Carone's class at Kakes Studio in Boulder actually ends with tango therapy--a sort of pop-psych gabfest in which class members talk about the dance and the sometimes too-strong emotions it can stir. Spouses and significant others get jealous, after all, and newcomers often do look intently into each other's eyes.
Carone, a CU philosophy professor, learned her first steps from her father, who grew up in Buenos Aires during tango's golden age of the 1940s and 1950s. Years later she danced the tango for twelve hours straight in the dance's second home--Paris. She arrived in Colorado in 1996 and less than a week later was asked to teach a tango class.
"You can love it or hate it," she says. "A few years ago the young generation was divided. It meant [doing] what your elders did, so you rebelled against it."
Pesochinsky, a public-relations consultant, came to Denver from Russia in 1978, in hopes that the dry climate would improve her asthma. She began dancing to correct what she says was one of two oversights in her education. (The other was not having studied Latin.) She's been dancing the tango for two and a half years. Now it's the only dance she does.
"We talk about it all day long," she says. "We can't eat heavily before we dance. We eat late at night. We're non-drinkers--it affects your balance. When we walk into a mall and hear tango, we kind of drop everything and just listen."
But of all the locals, none seems more crazed than Farley, a 36-year-old who has huge ambitions of fame as a tanguera. "It's like when you get bit by a vampire, if you believe that," Farley says. "When his cloak comes up and he takes the woman into his arms, that's the last thing she sees. She goes into a state of ecstasy. The only thing she can hear is the pounding of her heart.
"I don't think that ever happens for girls who don't surrender," Farley adds. "American women are afraid of surrendering."
Now a windshield repairer for a local contractor, Farley started to tango three years ago. Last fall she joined Trenner's pilgrimage to Buenos Aires, even though she says she was still depressed over the breakup of her marriage a few years earlier.
"My heart was encased in cement," Farley recalls. "I didn't allow myself to be close to people. To touch me here," she says, pointing to her heart, "was so intimate. I was stiff as a board. I was terrified."
She danced with fifteen-year-old Pablo Pugliese, one of Argentina's best young tangueros, in a Buenos Aires milonga. His gentleness started to break "the casing around my heart."
Later, Farley danced with another woman who was an instructor. "She took me to the funkiest studio I'd ever seen," she says. "This one looked like it had been bombed out in World War II, and that was one of the nicer ones." They worked on technique for an hour, then she was told to forget everything and dance.
"She took me in her arms, and as I began to dance, tears began to fall," Farley continues. "I cried through the whole dance, but I didn't stop." She didn't know why she was crying, but her instructor told her not to sweat it--Farley was just having a tango moment.
"We were all possessed after the trip," Farley remembers. "We left our hearts and minds in Argentina. When we came back, we were so sad."
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.
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."
Before leaving town, Trenner asked several local dancers to keep the flame going. The result was Tango Colorado. It is now possible to take classes from several teachers in Denver and Boulder and, more important, to dance at milongas held almost every week.
In tango, a dramatic pause is pregnant with possibility. In fact, possibility is the essence of the dance. So is the embrace, says Pesochinsky, because there's no escape from your partner.
Twenty minutes after their first set, Armando and Daniela return to the dance floor at the Washington Park Grill. Now he wears a white suit with gray pinstripes, she a beautiful flower-print dress that leaves her shoulders bare. As they dance, it's clear that his lines are all vertical, while hers are horizontal--from her shoulder blades to the sway of her hips to the spinning of her dress and the upward slice of her leg.
There's a constant adjusting of feet, and Armando's feet catch on the tile a few times. He'll say later the floor was not comfortable for him--too sticky. But no one notices. The room feels a little like a jam session in jazz, the audience spontaneously applauding during a virtuoso move or a stylish piece of footwork.
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The couple is dancing more of a stage tango than the pure social dance of Argentina, which means they're dancing for the audience. So there are exaggerations, bits of acting, moments where they are a dozen feet apart, Daniela spinning like a ballerina toward the south end of the room. In real life they would dance only for each other, their embrace unbreakable.
Though no one has a rose clenched between his teeth, the second and third acts are more dramatic than the first. Daniela's smile is replaced with a serious, pained expression. Armando's brows are furrowed, and sweat runs along his neck. They are close now, their lips moments away. For the third set they wear nothing but black, and they finish up their performance with an improvisation to a milonga--which here connotes a light and happy song. They dance as seamlessly now as they did when the steps were drawn up in advance. Their smiles return, and the audience seems to have come full circle.
After coffee and dessert, Denver's tangueros and tangueras take the floor and, locked in half a dozen firm embraces, negotiate the room.
"I feel in heaven when everything is in harmony," says Pesochinsky afterward. "It's a hypnotic experience, a completely whole experience. It's immensely fulfilling. I feel very human.