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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Tango a Go-Go
News & Columns

Tango a Go-Go

Utah’s hands-off culture embraces tango’s sensual charms.

By Stephen Dark
Posted // June 11,2007 -

“Que pechos!” shouts Argentine tango teacher Tomas Howlin as a young woman walks along the sidewalk before entering the Coffee Garden at 9th and 9th, where he sits at the window like a cartoon cat that’s suddenly turned into an arrow.

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To be fair, the entire male coterie seated by the café’s entrance'this is a warm September day'all watch her sashay by with the same eyeball-popping attention, to the mock-disgust of the one woman among them. Only Howlin is direct enough to let rip, albeit in Spanish, with his appreciation of her physical assets.

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His two-word critique translates as “What a chest!?'although the whiplash-velocity of his delivery suggests the more colloquial “What a rack!” might be just as appropriate.

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Howlin, an Argentine who lives in Montreal, is in Salt Lake City at the behest of Wasatch Tango, a local nonprofit dedicated to promoting the art of Argentine tango. The organization regularly imports Howlin and other teachers of international renown to instruct workshops in dancing social tango. Howlin’s highly vocal enthusiasm for female anatomy aside, his nickname as a tango instructor is “the pink teacher” because he insists men can learn best from the women they dance with. “You ask your partner,” he says, “what you have to do to make her happy.” But despite such arguably feminist principles, this is still a dance where teachers have been known to instruct bemused female students how to roll their breasts across their partner’s chest.

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Name any major city in the United States, and you’ll find not only Latinos and Anglos teaching the tango, but also milongas'social dance parties'where you can go and dance. For many, the tango is an obsession, an addiction.

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But what is the tango doing in Salt Lake City?

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Is it not odd that in a town where self-control, abstinence and the virtues of monogamy are preached by the dominant religion with undeniable gusto, the tango, that most sensual and, as the cliché would have it, sexually rapacious dance has found a home? This is a city where many cool to the prospect of shaking a stranger’s hand.

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For the 20-odd core members of Wasatch Tango, it’s not just about a dance. The tango provides a sense of community, mental well-being, low-impact aerobic exercise and posture improvement, even therapy. The way tango aficionados go on about it, you’d think they’d discovered the meaning of life.

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Perhaps they have.

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Argentina.

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Land of the gauchos and the Pampa grasslands, Evita and the mothers of the Disappeared, Jorge Luis Borges and Maradona, the most tender steaks and superb red wines, some of the most beautiful women in the world'and the tango.

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Whatever the historical roots of the dance'be they whorehouses, tenement slums or the tearooms of the Argentine middle class'many snobbish Argentines have preferred to ignore the tango, the military junta of the 1970s even going so far as to effectively ban it.

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“We wanted to be like the U.S.,” says Howlin. “Anything that was part of our national culture, our folk music, drinking yerba mate tea or the tango just wasn’t cool, so we had to kill it.”

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It was only with the enormous success of the Tango Argentino dance revue on Broadway in 1983 that Argentines, as ever taking their lead from the developed world, decided to turn their attention to a dance that for 30 years had been relegated to tourist dives.

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“I thought the tango was the tackiest thing in the world,” Howlin says. “All that flashed underwear, stuff for tourists.” But then an American girlfriend who he’d hooked up with in Buenos Aires took him to see a show by Miguel Angel Zotto, Perfumes de Tango, and he was shocked. “You can do all that with a woman in your arms??

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Your first class: A drafty hall in La Acadamia de Danza.

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Richard, 28, instructs the class with posture that comes from years of ballroom dancing before his wife Joanna saw the light and converted him to Argentine tango. He stands in the middle of a circle of students, hands pressed together as if in prayer.

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“Walk,” he says, “feel the music, step forward.?

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What’s so difficult about this?

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For the man who is the leader (in the tango, men generally lead and women follow), it doesn’t take long to see you’re being asked to practice a dance you don’t know'with a stranger'in public. Is it any wonder the majority of first-time male dancers never come back?

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Disconcertingly, some of your partners stare into your eyes. They’re supposed to look at your chest or close their eyes while you navigate over their shoulder through the melee around you.

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“Find your balance, find the weight,” says Richard.

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The two of you stand there in an open embrace'your chests almost but not quite touching'shifting left to right and back again as you try to find out which foot your partner is standing on before you take that fateful first step, driving forward from, as Richard puts it, “your core.”

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The two of you look like metronomes flirting with each other in slow motion.

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“Don’t be predictable,” Richard says. He tells you off for looking at your feet.

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You try not to growl.

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At the end of the hour, your arms ache from the stress of holding seven or eight different women as gently as you can while at the same time trying to direct them the way you want them to go. The women look equally tired from trying to figure out how to surrender to men who have no idea what they’re doing.

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There’s an hour and a half practica for you to ask any of the women'or men'to practice what you’ve learned for three songs (that’s how many tango etiquette stipulates for a practica or a milonga). You shuffle round the floor, trying not to crunch toes. Several sensible women wear boots with steel toecaps.

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“You were too hesitant,” says Richard. “You have to drive yourself through her, look where you’re going, be masterful.?

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You can’t decide. Does he want you to be Fred Astaire or Captain Bligh?

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And yet, later, when you get in your car and drive through the rain and the neon wash towards State Street, there is a sense of well-being, of having left behind whatever misery and stress you took to the class, a sense indeed of having been healed.

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Mark Christensen is the president of Wasatch Tango, the spokesman for the dance in Salt Lake City, a tall man with limbs that overwhelm the air around him, his gangly frame reminiscent'he is the first to say'of Ichabod Crane. And yet there is nothing goofy about him'unless you include his raucous giggle'or awkward about the way he moves.

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“The tango,” he says from his dental practice off State Street and 6000 South, “is the revenge of the nerds.” Not that he sees himself in this category.

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Four years ago, he and his wife Lorraine lost their 19-year-old son, one of four children, to bone cancer. “We spent so much time in clinics and hospitals and at home together with the family during my son’s illness, that outside of this, our social life was pretty much dead.?

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Two weeks after the funeral, he decided to take a class in tango. His wife reluctantly came along several classes later. Given that he had never danced much before, not even in high school, it was an odd thing to choose. “Tango was a new interest that got us out of the house. It helped me, I think, return to what felt like normal engagement with life. That is the simple answer.?

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The deeper, more complex answer, he says, is something he is still discovering. “It relates to the way tango music speaks to me of love and loss, and displacement. There is also something about expressive movement that is so immediate, present and alive, and this also touches me.” Yet why tango is so attractive to him, he says, is finally a mystery. “It is obvious that I get something out of it that others don’t'or more people would be doing it.?

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Recent converts to the cause include Russian couple Alexi and Yuliya Chadovich. They emigrated to Salt Lake City 15 years ago, leaving jobs in software and statistics, respectively, at a nuclear-research institute. They both take their tango very seriously, even having gone so far as to replace their basement carpet with a wooden floor so they can practice on weekends.

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“It took us three years,” says Alexi, “to get to a reasonable level.” The first few months, he explains, you just learn how to walk. “I was desperate to do something technical but walking the music is half the story, along with learning to communicate your intentions.” For him, every partner’s “a different challenge.?

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Yuliya says the secret for her was stopping trying to predict her partners’ moves but rather listening for them. “It’s the hardest thing of being a follower.” She adds wryly, “We didn’t want to get divorced, so we didn’t dance together for the first year.?

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So what’s the appeal of the tango?

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“You can’t dance closely with someone else without having to open up yourself,” says Christensen. “Be vulnerable. It’s scary to connect with other people like that. But you can explore, experiment, be playful.?

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He continues, “It helps you express yourself. It’s such an intimate dance, you feel the energy, the stressful day at work your partner has had, so you try to be a little more relaxed, soften up, they begin to soften, you begin to be more playful, then a little bit more spunky, then you get energetic.?

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All this in a three-minute burst of music from a bandoneon (a German accordion) and a melancholic violin, as a man’s mournful voice crawls all over lyrics about treacherous women, whiskey at 4 a.m., someone’s heart breaking over rain-slicked cobblestone streets.

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“Tango,” Christensen says. is the antidote “to this beauty-obsessed culture.” He talks about dancing with a heavyset woman in Portland, Ore. (the U.S. tango capital; perhaps it’s all that rain). “She did this rhythmic thing with her tummy muscles that made me laugh out loud. I watched this guy stretch his spine, then shorten himself to the music and started laughing. It’s fun as heck.”

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Second class the following Friday.

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This time, there are more men than women. But women dance with each other; why shouldn’t men?

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Sean is more than willing to dance with another man and practice being a follower instead of a leader, something that Christensen strongly advocates. “You learn so much about leading by being a follower. Now I know why women like it, you clear your mind of any expectation, you are suspended in his arms.” He adds, “Men have a different energy continuum. It feels like two bulls doing something together.”

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It is fair to say Sean is actually more pliant, more maneuverable than some of the women you’ve danced with up to now. Perhaps because being man-to-man, there is less fear of overstepping physical boundaries. “Fear translates into muscle tension,” says Christensen. “Being too self-conscious impedes progress. If a follower anticipates, it kills the dance, if a leader hesitates, it kills it, too.?

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Dancing the tango with a woman, he says, is like painting music on the floor with her feet.

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If the geeks will inherit the earth'at least as far as the tango goes'then clearly this dance is a mind-to-body thing, mastering technique and putting it to practice on the dance floor. Yet Tomas Howlin contends Argentine tango came into being from the opposite direction. “Gringos like to put words to things,” he says. “They come from the intellect. The people who invented the dance, they didn’t know their right from their left.” He was taught by postmen and butchers, he says. “The mind to body is a long journey. Some argue we’ve done wrong teaching it this way.”

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You try to avert your eyes from the mirror that runs along the wall showing you stumbling ’round the hall like an ankle-shackled dancing bear. It’s hard for men to swallow their pride and make asses of themselves in public. It’s equally hard for women, especially those used to taking charge, to throw up their arms and say, “Hey, do with me what you will.”

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Christensen tells the story of a couple outside Utah. The wife had dragged the husband along to take some classes so they could spend more time together.

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Big mistake.

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“He discovered very quickly he was quite good at the tango. She, on the other hand, could not follow. He ended up being asked all the time to dance; she didn’t. She got frustrated, so she decided to learn how to lead. A good follower empties herself of all anticipation. It’s hard to give up.?

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The rewards for those who reach tango nirvana can, by all accounts, be incredible. Women enter into what is called the tango trance: They close their eyes, rest their head against your shoulder, your cheek and suddenly the two of you are in an altered state of flow, becoming one with the music, each other.

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New York writer Marina Palmer turned her experiences learning the tango in Buenos Aires into a recently published memoir called Kiss & Tango: Looking for Love in Buenos Aires.

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She was drawn to the intimacy, she says, something other women she notes find difficult, surrendering themselves to a stranger who’s sweaty or smelly'or both. Her first social tango was in the sweltering heat of a summer night in Plaza Dorrego, the heart of Buenos Aires’ oldest district, San Telmo.

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“I was dancing with an obese man named Oscar who wrapped me up in his mountain of a frame before taking me to tango heaven for the first time. After we finished the set, I realized that my dress was drenched. I couldn’t have been wetter had I taken a bath with all my clothes on. I can’t say I was thrilled, but it had been worth it, nonetheless. Nothing, not even being covered in someone else’s sweat, could put me off the tango. It simply felt too good!”

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What was it that hooked her to the dance? She says she was looking for comfort when she started which she found in the close embrace (where the bodies are pressed together). Inevitably the search for comfort led her to more intimate ground.

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“It’s difficult to avoid awakening physical desire when you are dancing so close,” she says. “And frankly, who wants to avoid it? But if you give in to the desire, you also lose the tango, since it is predicated on the tension that is generated by the two bodies in question. So the ideal tango scenario is to keep a nice fire going all the time but to contain it behind a fireguard. Easier said than done.?

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Next stop, a week after your third class, a workshop led by another Wasatch Tango import, German-born Brigitta Winkler, Argentine tango teacher extraordinaire.

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Howlin calls her the hottest teacher in the world. “She has very strong opinions,” he says, “and she’s very cool.” If measurement of the German’s coolness were required, she could regale you with stories of drinking whiskey with Roberto ?Polaco’ Goyeneche, one of the greatest and certainly most suave tango singers.

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She is nothing if not forthright, once telling a German journalist that tango was better than sex. Her husband was not pleased. Howlin, too, had implied that tango is a kind of sexual activity beyond the sex act. Winkler says her comment was taken out of context.

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Winkler, who has a tango group of all-women dancers in Berlin called TangoMujer, views her work as both political and artistic. She uses it to explore ideas and concepts of what it is to be a woman. “The tango is very profound, very deep, sometimes dangerous,” she says. “You can fall in love but that doesn’t necessarily mean sex.?

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She begins her workshop ordering the 20 souls gathered in a circle to walk among each other, to touch another’s shirt, leg, hand, cheek, tip of the nose. You cringe, others laugh, but there’s a certain hysterical undertone to it.

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Then, with a partner, you stand side by side, arms around each other’s waists and walk. This class is about musicality, she says. With different partners, you walk just before, on and in front of the beat. By now, it’s old hat saying hello to women whose breath is about to intermingle with yours. You take turns leading and following, trying to feel, to intuit the pace at which she’s walking, and to change it.

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For the first time, you’re learning to listen to your partner’s body, and you’re beginning to hear what that body’s saying. It’s almost magical.

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The day after Winkler’s workshop. It’s time for the milonga, the dance party, your baptism of fire'time to ask a stranger if he or she will dance the tango with you. A big event can number 500 to 700 people in a crowded venue, and it’s very competitive. But tonight there’s maybe 30 or so other dancers.

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Because nothing in the tango is simple, there’s etiquette to be observed.

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“I ask with my eyes,” explains Christensen, who has danced all over the country. “I give her a ?cabaceo’ (somewhere between a nod and a twitch), a raised eyebrow. I don’t introduce myself. Actually, she chooses me. She lets our eyes connect across the floor. Of course, there might be women who trap you. When you’re going out of the room, you keep your eyes down'don’t look at anybody.”

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But suppose whoever you approach turns you down? Then where do you slink off to?

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Don’t worry, says Richard. “They never say ?no.’ That’s what they’re here for, to dance.” The less-experienced dancers tend not to get asked, the advanced sticking with their own kind. Richard, however, squires a wide range of students. “If they’re not following, then you’re doing something wrong.?

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Still you hesitate. “Just get out there,” he says.

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So you ask Karen, the last person you danced with during the introductory lesson. Together you step ’round the dance floor. This is your first social dance, and Karen’s, too. Indeed you have the advantage, since she hasn’t taken any other classes than the one that night. You make idle chit-chat, knowing you should be concentrating on your steps.

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You shuffle ’round the dance floor, trying to avoid the tables at the borders, aware of no one but Karen in your arms, as she looks up at you expectantly. You feel like a stalactite with feet. Think of the steps you’ve learned. You continue your inane patter.

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Somehow the two of you get through the three-song “tanda.” You thank her, grateful that at least you didn’t step on her toes.

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Is this the magical tango?

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You ask other patiently waiting women seated at little round tables. You dance with an artist who chastises you for asking her what she does for a living, a human-resources manager who stayed home reading philosophy the night before, a woman half your height who is setting up a foundation for children, and finally Lorraine'Mark Christensen’s wife'who afterwards says she appreciates “an attentive beginner with a willingness to connect in a fresh way.”

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Somehow this doesn’t comfort you. You sit down, an abject failure, unable to find one moment, one scintilla of feeling that in some way explains what the tango is.

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For the true tango devotee, there can only be one ultimate objective: visiting the motherland, Buenos Aires.

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But Mark Christensen won’t be on that boat. “Smoke irritates my eyes,” he says. Argentines are the last of the unrepentant smokers.

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After Argentina’s peso devaluation in 2001, when the government and banks cruelly robbed the middle class of all the dollars it had saved during the years President Carlos Menem kept the local currency pegged one-to-one with the dollar, tango for export became big business. There are tango tours; ritzy, expensive shows; and even hotels dedicated solely to the tango. Clubs and halls such as Salon Canning, El Beso and La Estrella brim with gringos keen to try out their steps and their latest shoes and slit dresses, while local predators circle the floor looking to pick off the unwary.

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To find authentic tango'if such a thing still exists'you have to go out to the suburbs, says Howlin, to districts like Liniers, Wilde, Avellenada'where tourists rarely go. The clubs there play a mixture of jazz, foxtrot, tango. There’s an unspoken pact among teachers to keep students away from those places, to protect them like holy relics before globalization washes away the last traces of authenticity.

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Argentine tango teachers view the teaching of the dance in two ways'“There’s how we do it,” says Howlin, “and how everyone else does it.?

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He explains that there are two theories as to how foreigners react to the dance. Some attempt to Argentinize themselves, developing a new side of their personality, emulating Argentines in the way they live and think. He tells of a German student who cried bitterly because he wasn’t born an Argentine. “He said he hated the fucking German culture. Projection big time.”

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The other approach is the more superficial use of the form to allow you to feel the tango, if just a little. “They wear the right outfits, the red and black dresses, the shoes.”

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But others view the apparel as very much part of the story. For Palmer, “You can’t dance without the shoes. Four-inch stiletto heels, while not de rigueur, are damned sexy and what most female dancers aspire to. Fishnet stockings are indispensable. As is a slit in your skirt. Preferred colors are black, followed by red. When you start out, it helps to look the part if you want to pique potential new partners’ interest.?

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But whatever the apparel, Americans, says Howlin, have advanced remarkably in their dancing. “They didn’t get it 10 years ago, but some do now.?

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Your first milonga is drawing to a close. Now comes the final test.

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Brigitta Winkler, who sits poised in a chair on the edge of the dance floor waiting for music she wants to dance to, has agreed to dance with you. You should be nervous, yet somehow it doesn’t register.

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“Hold me like you mean it,” she says, pulling your hand around the back of her waist so you are snuggled tighter then a key in a lock.

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You don’t have a clue. Can’t hear the music, can’t concentrate, can’t think.

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She holds up her mane of blond hair above her head and, for some reason, it distracts you. “It’s just my hair,” she says.

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You think of an American Indian holding up a scalp.

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With no sign of irritation at your utter lack of skill, she says, “Walk through me.” You remember Mark Christensen telling you to be confident, to take big steps, and then, just for a moment, you find something, it’s as if she has melted into you, as if you are literally gliding through her.

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It is, to quote Christensen, “Awesome.”

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Afterwards you sit there a little dazed and breathless, Winkler now swirling across the floor in the arms of someone who knows what the hell he’s doing. Your moment of grace is long gone, now all you have is the misery of your awkwardness, baby steps next to one of the most refined dancers in the world.

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Richard comes up to congratulate you. “I wouldn’t dance with her,” he says.

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Why not?

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“I’d feel stupid.”

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Somehow you feel just a little bit better.

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“There is a beauty in the tango,” says Tomas Howlin, “an ultimate expression of human nature, happily dancing in a tight embrace.” He talks about an old bar in a dilapidated part of downtown Buenos Aires full of Felliniesque characters dancing in an afternoon milonga that as yet has not been overrun by tourists. The floor is crowded with “veteranas” (middle-age single women) and aging lotharios.

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“I sit there,” he says, “and I think, ?feed me tango.’ We do the tango, but they, they are the tango. Americans have a hard time understanding it’s not a combination of moves; it’s not a technique. It’s something else. If you’re a cold, controlling person, that’s the way you’ll dance. It’s your way of being; it’s about how you express your feelings. I asked this old man at a dance hall what the tango was. He said, ?It’s everything, what I breathe and eat. You dance who you are. It’s my life.’”

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The tango is a journey and this particular voyage you went on began with the wolflike cry of Howlin at the sight of an anonymous woman walking by. But it was less what Howlin said than the force, the directness with which he said it. It came from within, from his core, from his being: no façade, no pretense, no milksop-negotiations with cultural and social expectations.

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“There’s an ancient wisdom, a primitive knowledge about the body and life in the tango,” says Howlin. It’s clear he possesses it.

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Brigitta Winkler’s comment to the German journalist that the tango is better than sex starts to make sense. This dance opens people up to each other in a way that for a few melancholic chords allows them to be truly, utterly one. Or perhaps the tango is simply safe sex: a safe encounter, as one teacher says.

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Whatever its sexual nature, the tango certainly teaches you how to dance, how to listen to music; it also shows you how your body moves and works. It may or may not even make you a red-hot lover, a lady killer, a vamp or a femme fatale.

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But the one thing it will do for those who persevere, who come to believe in its special charm, is one day take you by the hand and glide you over the dance floor to meet the one person you probably never expected to find.

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Yourself.

 
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