Longform

Dirty Dancing

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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.

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Luke Turf