By Margaret Putnam
Copyright (c) 2000, The Dallas Morning News. All Rights Reserved
I’d been warned. The rapids are treacherous and the current swift. Once you step in, watch out. It doesn’t take long to be swept away.
Those rapids – otherwise known as the Argentine tango – have claimed plenty of victims. Valorie and Alberto, for instance, gave up lucrative careers to tango. Beth resisted for a while, quitting, returning, quitting and now back at it. Eiko is definitely a goner – she took up tango four years ago and soon found it impossible to return to Japan.
I fear I’m next. Already I’ve skipped two ballet classes, rushed from a flamenco show to get to a Sunday afternoon session, plunked down $60 for a private lesson, practiced tango steps on the streets late at night while walking the dog and danced on and on despite feet that ache so badly I wonder if I’ll make it to the car. And it’s not even a week. Only last Friday I had laughed when Leonard responded to my question about what other kinds of dances did he do. “Tango is the only dance,” he said. I think he’s right.
Tango is the Everest of social dance. Impossible. Demanding. Intricate. And therefore irresistible. “The geometry, the navigation and the balance captivate men,” says Valorie Hart, who with her partner, Alberto Paz, is in town to teach a three-week tango workshop sponsored by Tango Argentino Dallas and the city of Dallas. “Engineers go wild over the infinite mathematical possibilities.” She mentions likewise lawyers, architects, artists. “Tango has become the darling of the professional classes. In the old days it was the working class and the middle class.
“People who spend too much time staring at computer screens and talking on cell phones discover, through tango, the heady pleasures of physical reality. Suddenly, the body counts for something. And the isolation and distance built in to most forms of modern work disappear in a flash the minute a man steps forward to embrace a woman.
With that embrace, the rest of the world falls away. The music takes over. Even in the cold florescent glare of KC Dance Studio where some of the workshop classes are held, my partner listens, I listen, both of us waiting for the moment to take that first smooth step to the side. Then I’m moving backward, to the side, forward again, gliding like a miniature liner through unresisting ocean. “Stay connected,” Alberto exhorts, surveying the dancers from the middle of the studio. The tango requires uncanny cooperation between man and woman and woe to anyone who loses focus. This is not the fox trot or the waltz, for which you learn a pattern and repeat it, ad infinitum. There are steps and patterns, to be sure, but they’re only a base, and the possibilities of variation are infinite. To tango is to improvise, and to improvise with a partner requires intense concentration.
Not that we start out in the workshop improvising. Alberto starts us with the basics: the tango walk, a stealthy stride placing one foot directly in front of the other, thighs crossed, upper body moving slightly in counter motion. Then the side-back-side-front pattern.
We practice, and practice and practice. Amazing how much there is to learn, about balance, keeping connected, turning out the legs ever so slightly on the side step, shifting the weight, keeping the rhythm.
Overconfident at the end of the second lesson – after all, I’ve had decades of ballet training – I approach Alberto with a question. He eases me into his arms. I move before he does. “No!” he barks. We start over. “No! Why are you swinging your leg?” he says. We begin again, and once more, before we get to the end of even a complete pattern, I’ve done something wrong. “What are you doing?” he asks incredulously, trying to explain that the leg doesn’t initiate the movement – my wonderful ballet training – but the upper body.
Alberto is so warm and encouraging
|The two-minute lesson is a revelation. And after that, every time Alberto glides over to me, hand outstretched, I quake, ego on the line. But each brief encounter yields tremendously helpful information, and I improve on the spot. Think what a private lesson could do, I reason, and Tuesday I find myself in the Oak Lawn apartment where Alberto and Valorie are staying and spend 90 minutes dancing with him on a slick wood floor. Not only does he not bark, he is so warm and encouraging I begin to understand why Valorie ditched her New York business five years ago to take up the tango life with him.
“My friends in New York thought I had lost my mind,” Valorie says. “I had a beach house in the Hamptons, a studio and an apartment. I gave all that up. My friends thought I was going into white slavery. I’ve never had those issues of submission. A kind of courtliness arises with the tango. We’re all in this together.”
The “togetherness” aspect of tango, in fact, is its most striking characteristic. The battle of the sexes may rage elsewhere, but not on the dance floor. The man and woman either cooperate or stop dead in their tracks. Alberto doesn’t even like the terms “lead” and “follow.”
“Lead and follow imply we are doing something we both know,” he says. “But the moment you are improvising, you can’t lead or follow. The woman moves first, the man responds and creates the space for her to dance. It’s not even 50-50, it’s 100 percent and 100 percent from both of them.“
Tango is too intense to permit small talk. In three group lessons and a tango party, I learn nothing about any partner other than name and tango history and often not even that. I have no idea what Leonard, Mac or Carlos do for a living, whether any of them has been indicted for fraud, been married six times or plays the horses. Nor do I care. Can he dance is the only burning question.
The single-mindedness of the tango fanatic extends after class, too. After the second lesson, about a dozen of us repair to Goldfinger’s restaurant nearby. The band plays Greek bazouki music, and in a flash, the dance floor fills with couples doing – what else? – the tango.
And who can bother eating? At the milonga, or tango party, Saturday night, two tables filled with food at 9 p.m. are still filled with food at midnight. When Astor Piazzolla’s music is playing, “to dance or to eat” isn’t a hard choice.
“When I first signed up for tango lessons,” Valorie says, “I thought, how hard can this dance be? I can fake it. That first lesson was like ‘Whoa!’ I’m not going to be able to put on a cute dress and cute shoes and think that will cut it.”
Watching Alberto and Valorie move together in their infinitely smooth and subtle way, I’m heartened. Valorie took up tango only five years ago, and look at her now. True, she has her own Argentine partner, a charmer, but I’ll bet she’ll tell me where to buy some sexy tango shoes.