Dirty Dancing

The dance begins in the eyes of a man, searching from woman to woman. Some of the women will make eye contact for a second, then break it off. Others don't even acknowledge him. But when his eyes land on the right one, there's no confusing the look.

And there's always a woman willing to dance with Charles "Chas" Gale, a self-proclaimed "king of tango." After Gale locks eyes with that woman, the two move toward the dance floor and meet there halfway in an embrace, the classic start of the tango. The lights are dim overhead, and the bottoms of Gale's expensive dance shoes caress the wooden floor as he leads his chosen partner into the tanda, a set of three traditional tango songs. Surrounding the dancers is the smell of Gale's nice cologne and the hint of a breath mint covering the odor of cigarettes.

Argentine tango is all about letting go of inhibitions — and trusting your partner. In its traditional form, even the strongest woman must submit to the man, allowing herself to be led through a dazzling and dizzying array of steps and twists as they move chest to chest, heart to heart. The woman leans against her male supporter to strike dramatic poses; he protects her from the other couples rotating around the floor, avoiding any bump that would disrupt the meditative bliss, the feeling of two people becoming one through the fluid motions of the dance. Such a collision is a serious taboo in tango.

But these days, Gale is on a collision course all his own. On April 3, he pleaded guilty to an indecent-exposure charge connected to a private dance lesson that he taught at his Tango House in north Denver. And in October, he has another date — in court — on charges of unlawful sexual contact that stem from another set of private lessons. During the first of those lessons, Gale allegedly grabbed his partner's breasts as he lifted her up; during the second, he allegedly placed his hand between her legs, groping her while he said she needed to "sink into the floor, be more relaxed and in the moment." And then he put her right hand on his penis over his clothes, she reported, which is when she told him she wanted to learn the tango, not have sex. According to the arrest warrant, Gale apologized and asked the woman not to report him because he didn't want to hurt his reputation in the tango community.

For many in Denver's tight-knit community of tangueros y tangueras, though, Chas Gale's reputation has long preceded him.

Tango emerged from a fusion of cultures. Although people have danced for thousands of years, it wasn't until the Viennese waltz emerged in the early 1800s that partners not only faced each other, but held each other, with the man taking a woman's right hand with his left, then embracing his partner by wrapping his right arm around her back. The dance crossed the Atlantic at the end of the nineteenth century, when Italians immigrated to Argentina, where the style was considered scandalous, even promiscuous, and regarded as a prelude to sex. And it only got hotter as it adopted some indigenous influences, as well as contributions from Africans who'd been brought over as slaves. But it was the Germans who made the dance's greatest contribution with the invention of the bandonion (or bandoneón), an accordion-like instrument that created the simple, haunting melodies that pace the sensuous dance now known as the tango.

Wealthy Argentines visiting Europe at the turn of the twentieth century took the dance with them. It was a hit with the Parisian upper class and spread across the continent. American soldiers learned the steps from European women during World War I, then brought them back home to the United States. Soon Hollywood got its hands on the tango, and the dance was glamorized on the big screen, right down to the rose-in-the-teeth stereotype. The tango was in its heyday in the 1940s and '50s, but then decades of dictatorships clamped down on the dance in Argentina, and it fell out of favor in other countries, too.

It wasn't until 1985 that a popular tango show traveling across the United States helped return the dance to popularity. A decade later, tango scenes were developing in San Francisco and New York, and people like Daniel Trenner continued to popularize it in other cities, including Denver, where he hosted a three-month workshop. Some of Trenner's students here were professional salsa or ballroom dancers who went to Argentina on a twelve-day tour hosted by Trenner in 1996. When those sixteen travelers returned to Denver, they couldn't get tango music out of their heads, the beat out of their hearts or the steps out of their walks. They were hooked.