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.

The ranks of the town's tangueros y tangueras quickly doubled, and the burgeoning movement rated a Westword cover ("The Spin Crowd," September 4, 1997). The dance enthusiasts soon founded Tango Colorado, a non-profit club that they based in the Denver Turnverein, a rundown landmark at 1570 Clarkson Street. It had been built in 1921 as a German social club and gym and was still used occasionally by a German choir, as well as for dances and weddings. But there was plenty of room in the schedule for Tango Colorado.

There was room in the ballroom, too. The Turnverein was larger than most of the traditional tango halls in Argentina, and it still looked empty when the entire Denver tango community showed up for a dance, or milonga. But at least that gave newcomers extra space so they could avoid collisions with dancers who were quickly moving from intermediate to even professional. "Tango saved the Turnverein," remembers "Angela," one of the dancers who'd taken that original trip to Argentina and helped found Tango Colorado (she asked that her real name not be used in this story). "We were the blind leading the blind. We had Argentines who would come to our city once every two to three months, and they would show us something and we'd have to practice it."

Angela couldn't get enough of the dance here in Denver, and she returned to Argentina for three months, where she lived and worked in a professional tango show. Meanwhile, the Denver dance community continued to grow. By 1999, Tango Colorado was hosting two festivals a year — on Labor Day and Memorial Day — that featured a sunset milonga in Cheesman Park and attracted dancers from across the country.

Just one thing was holding the dance back: a shortage of men. In this town, there has always been an abundance of women interested in the dance — and it definitely takes two to tango. So men who've wanted to join Denver's tango community have always been welcomed with open arms.

Men like Chas Gale, whom Angela met at a class hosted by a visiting Argentine dance instructor about ten years ago. Chas Gale is a military brat who was raised around the country and has spent most of his adult life in Denver. His attempt at a music career fizzled, despite his good singing voice, and through much of the '90s, he volunteered as the host of a Friday-morning jazz show on KUVO radio. He's been married once, briefly, and has no children. But when he started tango dancing, he became part of a tight-knit family. A tight-knit family with plenty of drama — and Gale is now at the center of it.

Although Gale had plenty of charm and charisma, Angela remembers thinking there was something strange about the grown-up hippie. On the day she met him, he was wearing a woman's scoop-neck maroon leotard under pleated pants that came up too high. The outfit didn't exactly scream macho, so she thought it would be all right to accept Gale's invitation to practice at his house, where he'd moved the furniture to give them more space in a room that seemed too dark.

"When we danced together at his house, I had such a bad feeling about him that I wanted to leave after fifteen minutes," Angela remembers. "He held me in a way that was incorrect for tango, but it allowed him to prohibit me from moving in such a way that I had to pivot my body, meaning my breast, into the palm of his hand. As a follower, you're walking backwards, and the way he was holding me, you had the feeling you couldn't escape. It's not like swing or salsa, where you have a lot of space apart from each other. I guess that's why I was afraid, why I didn't feel safe. I knew there was something wrong with him."

And Gale definitely said the wrong thing after the dance, when he asked Angela, "Did that make your pussy wet?"

After that, Angela never danced with Gale again. She found a new partner and soon started a dance business with him.

Gale moved on, too, establishing himself as a teacher supported by Tango Colorado.

Over the next couple of years, Angela would hear creepy stories about Gale from some of her students. She says that was the main reason that she and a few other instructors approached Tango Colorado's president at the time, Pat Patton, and asked for a code of conduct for teachers. Patton remembers it differently: She says it was her own idea to write such a code, to protect students and teachers alike. While other dance styles, such as ballroom, have strict guidelines regarding touching, they're much less spelled out in the sensual, intimate tango. And while Colorado state law does address deceptive trade practices in dance studios, it does not have specific regulations for dance teachers.

So in July 2004, Tango Colorado came up with ten rules for teachers. Some involved simple courtesy, but others were more graphic. Number 6, for example: "Do not force people into close embrace. Let them choose the distance with which they are comfortable. We have lost many new people over this one issue." And Number 7: "This is a sensuous and passionate dance. It is NOT a sexual ritual. Be very, very careful in your use of language and sexual innuendos. As an example, use the word 'chest,' not 'breast.' Avoid overtly sexual moves. As a TC teacher, you represent us more than any other influence on students. Please respect the trust students give you." And Number 8: "Avoid dating your students or 'coming on' to them. Sure, you might be attracted, but wait for a few months until you know that an attraction is mutual and that the person is single if you date."

Angela states the rules more bluntly. "Rule number one: Thou shall not fuck the student, or solicit your student for sex, or blackmail your student for sex," she says. "At the time, Chas was one of the better male leaders in Denver. And since there were very few, this gave him a lot of power, because women wanted to dance so bad that even if he was ugly and dressed weird and creepy, women still danced with him."

And if they wanted to keep dancing with Gale, they could forget the Tango Colorado code of conduct.

"It affected our community," Angela says, "because there was this revolving door of women who danced with Chas and never came back."

Still, there were always more women, and Gale was the envy of many of the men in the tango community. By 2003, he was dating and dancing with a petite woman who wore her hair in a single braid down her back all the way to her knees, a former student who was young at heart even if she was about the same age as fifty-year-old Gale. He was duplicating CDs for a living, no longer hosted the jazz show and had plenty of time to teach; he just needed a suitable place to do it. About six months into their relationship, Gale and his girlfriend purchased a circa 1890 building that had been Cerrone's Italian Market for more than eighty years, and most recently an artist's study. Together they turned it into the Tango House, a place where they could both live and work. They incorporated the business with the Colorado Secretary of State in December 2003.

The following spring, tango school was in session.

By the time she retired in 2004, "Martha" had been dancing ballroom for seven years, and also was familiar with salsa and country dancing. She thought she was up to the challenge of learning the tango. After meeting Chas Gale at the Denver Turnverein, she signed up for a twenty-lesson package at the Tango House, at a cost of $700 or $800.

At the first lesson, Gale was wearing thin shorts and a tank top. Martha remembers thinking the outfit was a little weird, but since the Tango House was also his home, she assumed he just liked to keep things casual.

She soon had more serious concerns. "As we danced, he'd like to rearrange my body," she says. "It mostly has to do with the pelvis area and the tailbone because of the body alignment. It's a fine line of where you can really be instructing and pushing it too far. And in a way, verbally, it's very humiliating; he really wanted to see my behavior when he made suggestions. It's a kind of power trip just to see if he can actually find you in a situation where you feel pushed into a corner or humiliated."

By the third or fourth lesson, Martha says, she decided to spell things out for Gale, and told him that she was seeing someone. Gale acted like he didn't know what she was talking about, and told her that since the tango was a very sexual dance, she must be confused about his intentions. But Martha had danced with enough men to know the difference. "When you bring your tailbone down, try to think of the opening between your legs being very open," she remembers Gale repeatedly telling her.

"It was very suggestive in that way," she says. "He wanted to evoke some sexual response from me, that I'll get ready for him or whatever, but that doesn't work with me. I could see what he was trying to do by the way he was dressed, by the way he talked, by the way he handled himself. It was always suggestive that there could be something else after the class.

"As we danced together, at one point I said, 'I don't want you talking to me or stopping and changing me physically. I just want you to dance.' I thought I wasn't getting my money's worth. I want to dance — I don't want him to give me his spiel about how my body should be."

Still, Martha made it through all twenty lessons. One reason was Gale's girlfriend, who occasionally joined the class and seemed very pleasant. But she wasn't around for long.

In tango, people who aren't interested in doing more than dancing together traditionally dance just one tanda at a time. But Gale took a liking to a married student, Gaia Banovich, and would dance multiple tandas with her — a slap in the face to both his girlfriend and Gaia's husband of twenty years. Gaia wound up leaving her husband and joining Gale at the Tango House; he bought out his former girlfriend's share of the venture and kept on teaching.

After taking a group class at the Tango House with several other couples, last year "Lucy" signed up for four private lessons with Gale, at a total of $200. Martha knows Lucy, but admits that she didn't warn her about Gale's behavior. She says she didn't want to be unfair; she remembers thinking that maybe Gale wouldn't hit on other students.

"My first lesson was a pretty good lesson, mainly because he just complimented me for every step I took and he was just so delighted with my progress that he was kissing me every time," Lucy remembers. "And after a while, I told him, 'Quit kissing me or I'll start charging for it.' I was joking. My confidence level got really high; he was telling me what a great natural dancer I was. But also on the second lesson, I remember very vividly that the door opened, and his girlfriend came in and he was very nervous about it." But Lucy didn't mind Gaia being there, because she gave some valuable pointers.

Gaia wasn't around when Lucy arrived at the Tango House for her third lesson. And as she walked in, she saw a naked Gale dash across the hall from his living quarters. "If he had underwear, they must've been extremely small, because I don't remember seeing anything," she says.

She thought maybe Gale had just overslept — but she also thought it odd that he showed up for the lesson in pajama pants. And not only did he keep urging her to relax her private parts, but he seemed to be touching his own private parts too much, "like Michael Jackson."

"It got so uncomfortable that I just left," Lucy says. "I didn't tell him why. I told him I wasn't feeling right, that I had a headache, and I left. I was very disappointed. I thought, if this is what the tango teacher is going to talk about, I wasn't going to take the class."

Lucy had paid for four lessons, but she never went back after the third.

This wasn't Lucy's first unpleasant sexual experience. When she was a girl, a custodian at her elementary school put his hand up her skirt. She told her mother, who told school administrators. It turned out there were many other victims, but Lucy was one of the few willing to testify. The perpetrator was sentenced to seven years in prison. But his family was popular in her home town, and Lucy felt the heat.

"From that moment," she remembers, "I was victimized. A lot of people pointed fingers at me and called me troublemaker. Probably because of that, I wasn't going to speak up this time." So she, like Martha and Angela, stayed quiet.

But last year, word of Gale's unusual tango-instruction techniques started leaking out of the community — and into the files of the Denver Police Department and the Denver District Attorney's Office. Those files started with an incident in June 2006, when a woman went to the Tango House for a lesson and found Gale in a weird outfit that allowed his genitals to be outlined. As the two twirled around the dance floor, Gale encouraged the woman to "free herself" from any self-conscious feelings. She glanced over at Gale, and saw that he had exposed his buttocks, testicles and erect penis, the woman told police. She was so uncomfortable that she fled the dance floor for the kitchen, where she got a glass of water. Gale followed her, and told her that other women with low self-esteem issues got over them quickly when they freed themselves as he had. After Gale pleaded with her not to talk about what he had done, she agreed to one more dance.

In this final dance, Gale put his hand between the woman's legs, cupping her genital area through her clothing, and told her to imagine peeing in his hand, according to police reports. He asked her to keep this between the two of them, too, and she agreed.

After the lesson was over, the woman called the DPD.

Gale was apologetic when a Denver police detective contacted him, and admitted that he'd exposed himself during the lesson. He said that while he didn't recall touching the woman's genitals, the "peeing" line was one of his teaching techniques.

Gale was charged with indecent exposure and unlawful public indecency. On April 3, he pleaded guilty to the indecent-exposure charge in exchange for the public-indecency charge being dismissed.

Suddenly the tango community's big secret was no longer a secret.

And more secrets were about to spill. On April 17, Gale was charged with unlawful sexual contact in connection with his behavior with another student. In February, the woman had gone to the Denver Police Department with complaints that Gale had fondled her breasts at the first lesson, then placed his hand between her legs and groped her on a second. There was no third lesson.

Gale pleaded not guilty. He has a trial set in October on that charge; if he is convicted, he faces up to two years in jail and a $5,000 fine, and his name will also be added to the state's sex-offender registry.

Gale's legal woes came up at a Tango Colorado board meeting in April. Gale, who was at the meeting, was invited to discuss his situation but declined, citing his pending criminal case and sentencing. Neither of the women who'd filed charges against him, both relative newcomers to tango, were in attendance.

But some Turnverein boardmembers were there, and Gale again become a topic of discussion at a Turnverein meeting in May, during which women who claimed to have been mistreated by him shared their stories.

On June 26, exactly one year after the incident that led to the indecent-exposure plea, Gale was sentenced to 365 days in jail, suspended if he completes a psycho-sexual evaluation, continues with mental-health treatment and completes two years of probation. The judge restricted Gale from teaching one-on-one.

By now, Gale was running out of teaching options. On July 3, he was banned from entering the Turnverein, because his plea made him a liability, the board that runs the facility said. Gale then relinquished his membership in Tango Colorado, because being able to use the Turnverein is a prerequisite for belonging to that group. He's no longer on Tango Colorado's list of twenty endorsed teachers. And other tango hot spots, including the Mercury Cafe, Blue Ice and the Avalon Ballroom in Boulder, have also banned Gale.

"I'm really not in a position to talk about my difficulties, my legal mess," Gale says. "There's a lot of things still up in the air, and I'm just not at liberty to talk. The ramifications of this will be forever with me." In an open letter to the tango community posted by Brenman, Gales says he regrets "the negative impact that my personal difficulties have had on you. By 'you,' I mean everyone who is not me — every dancer of tango, and everyone connected with the Turnverein or Tango Colorado: Everyone: friend or foe, supporter or detractor, whether you know me well or barely know me at all, please accept my sincerest apology for any discomfort this whole ugly situation may have caused you."

Gaia, too, has sent a letter to the tango community. "To all of you who have reached out publicly and privately, thank you," she writes. "I appreciate it more than I can tell you. To all of you who have publicly or privately spoken ill about me, my partner and the Tango House, I accept your sentiments but won't respond in kind." She also declines to comment in Westword. "I don't think it's going to help his situation," she says.

"It is a shame that Mr. Gale is being vilified before his right to a fair and public trial commences," says Gale's new attorney, Iris Eytan. "The fact that he pleaded guilty to a municipal offense in no way affirms the accuser's version of the facts, and, in fact, there are many reasons why someone would choose to plead guilty which do not include a belief that a crime was committed." Eytan suggests that testimony given by Gale's second accuser at a hearing where she unsuccessfully tried to secure a permanent restraining order would vindicate her client (the judge has closed those files pending further hearings, and the transcript is not yet available). "In fact," she continues, "Mr. Gale is being targeted by members of the tango community who have financial and personal agendas against Mr. Gale. He is innocent. Tango is sensual, not criminal."

And while the web has been burning up with discussions of the Gale situation, many tango enthusiasts would prefer to keep the story to themselves, for fear that any publicity will hurt the tango community. Some have even suggested that the women who are now complaining about Gale have ulterior motives, including competing businesses.

"If Chas has a problem, a more impartial court will decide it with the services of a court-ordered therapist," one woman wrote. "We do not need to dwell on this. It is out of our hands. Those who do not have professional and personal grievances against him will address it. Outside of that, I believe that Chas is a great friend, who has always treated me with the utmost respect, honesty, humility and most of all, good humor. I love the man and believe him to be like many of us, flawed, but wonderfully rich and worthwhile. I have and will continue to support him, Gaia and the Tango House."

"There seemed to be some people who were more vehement than others to see Chas somehow drawn and quartered," says Jeffrey Brenman, an attorney who's been president of Tango Colorado since January. He notes that during his five years on the board, no one ever filed a complaint about Gale. In fact, some of the highest turnouts at the Turnverein were for Tango Colorado lessons hosted by Gale, and he always received great reviews.

"People who hate Chas would love to close down the Tango House," says Nina Pesocinsky, a longtime tango dancer who remembers the days when they had to dance in warehouses and people's homes. "I have this vision of them taking it apart brick by brick. But these are the same people who have never seen this community without a venue for tango. They come in and take it for granted."

But nothing's being taken for granted on the Tango Colorado message board. Some dancers don't want any Tango House events mentioned there or promoted at events sponsored by Tango Colorado, since Gale is still dancing at the Tango House and available for lessons. "He's a criminal, and if you want to dance with the devil, that is your own business," Angela says. "But to use Tango Colorado as a means to promote and support the Tango House is a direct conduit, for new people in our community who are unaware, straight to the perpetrator, the predator."

Brenman, however, says that banning any mention of the Tango House would be unfair to Gaia, who is now the business's registered agent — although Gale is still listed in city records as the property's owner. "We're walking a difficult line," Brenman says. "We're trying to be fair, we're not trying to destroy the Tango House; it's not our agenda to do so. We've done what we had to do, and we've bent over backwards to not do what we don't have to do."

Tango Colorado is now revising its code of conduct for teachers.

"When you have a teacher crossing the line, it's different than just another dancer making a pass," says Lucy. "If this was just another person in the dance community who tried to touch me, I wouldn't be upset, but he calls himself a teacher. In tango, it's close, it's intimate. You have to trust the teacher like you do a doctor."

And not only did Gale abuse her trust, but others in the community have failed to support her and the other women who've complained about Gale's behavior. "Once again, I'm being the black sheep because I speak up," she says. "People think it's no big deal, but it is a big deal when it's a teacher. Men behave differently. Sometimes they flirt, but you know where your line is when you dance. When you are a teacher, it is a completely different circumstance. You trust the teacher to hold you and to dance with you."

Angela knows why she didn't speak up sooner, and louder — her therapist has told her that victims often don't speak up — but she wonders why other men in the community stayed silent. "How is it that we have a group of people who are choosing to dance very intimately, who consider themselves a family, and were able to hold on to this deep, dark secret for so many years?" she wonders. "It's a contradiction. Why is it that they didn't come forward and beat the shit out of Chas when they saw him do these things?"

The only way to make sure that such behavior doesn't happen again — not only on the dance floor, but in any community — is to to talk about it openly, Angela says. "Once I came forward and started talking about it, I realized I'd shut down to everybody," she explains. "But since I came forward and spilled my guts, I feel really closer to other people, people who are victims and the men who are supporting us. I feel really open to being connected to people and being loved." She feels the way the tango is supposed to make you feel. Close — and safe.

On dance floors around Denver, women are still doing the tango with their eyes closed — but now everyone's watching.

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Luke Turf