Sedona CALLAHAN, Writer
It takes two
The intense, passionate tango entrances dancers worldwide
By Sedona Callahan, Scripps Howard News Service
Matilde Neruda entices her husband, Pablo, to dance the tango with her on the patio of their adobe cottage while living in exile in Italy, in Bernado Bertolucci's film, "Il Postino." Al Pacino as blind Lt. Col. Frank Slade danced a seductive tango in "Scent of a Woman." Madonna's Eva Peron tangoed her way to sainthood in revolutionary-torn Argentina. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger managed a tango, sort of, in "True Lies."
The popularity of the tango, said to be the fire, passion and soul of Argentina, is kept alive through its romantic depiction in film, song and music and in performances throughout the world.
"Forever Tango," an Argentine tango performance group formed in Los Angeles in 1984, went to San Francisco for an expected three-month presentation, and ended up staging performances for 10 years to wildly enthusiastic audiences.
"The tango is very popular," says Carlos Blasco, tango dancer and instructor in Salinas, Calif. "In Spain, one out of 10 songs is a tango. There are clubs in the United States, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia. In New Zealand there are more tango clubs than anywhere else in the world.
"It's extremely popular in Japan. The grandson or nephew of the emperor Akihito hired Orlando Pavia, one of the principal Argentine tango performers, to spend three months in Japan, teaching him the tango."
Mr. Blasco says there is a big difference between international tango, which is commonly danced in ballrooms across the United States, and Argentine tango (tango Argentino).
"International tango is very rhythmic, with only four or five basic steps. The dancers project away from themselves, looking away from each other," says Mr. Blasco. Argentine tango has about 160 integrated steps, and is still evolving as new steps are invented and incorporated into the dance. "Besides the number of steps, it's danced very intimately, a closed area that nobody can penetrate," says Mr. Blasco. "The steps are very difficult to do, expressing sexuality and power."
Argentine philosopher Ricardo Gomez says of the tango, "The dance is intricate, legs intertwine, but all of the movement is from the waist down."
If properly danced, the upper body is stiff, the look between the dancers intense, but distant. The male controls with his eyes, but the woman controls his attention with a brush of her hand across his neck or chest. "Power is expressed through ganchos, or hooks," says Mr. Blasco. "The leg hooks around the partner's leg."
It is generally agreed that the beginnings of the tango as we know it today originated in Argentina, but its roots come from a combining of rhythms and movements of many nations: the Cuban habanera, the Spanish fandango and the candombes from Africa.
"These dance forms were mixed into the dance called the milonga, the mother of the tango," says Mr. Blasco. "She's a happy mother, although the tango is a serious, dramatic dance."
Tango music is traditionally performed on the piano, bass and the bondoneon, an accordion-like instrument.
Jorge Oclander, in the book "Tango: So You Know Who I Am," describes the poverty of late-19th century Europe that gave rise to a steady stream of emigrants going to America. They came from "Napoli and Genoa, Marseilles and Hamburg, Liverpool and Malaga, Belfast and Istanbul to seek their fortune in America," says Mr. Oclander. "Instead of their dreams, they found the horror of the packing houses along the Riachuelo in Buenos Aires and near the port in Montevideo, Uruguay ... At night the Italian, French, Irish and German immigrants crowded into the bars and the street corners ... where they sang the mournful Neapolitan and Andalucian love songs."
According to Mr. Blasco, the men began dancing with each other, lacking female partners. "The tango is so serious because it originated among lonely men," says Mr. Blasco, who is from Cuenca, Spain, a region of La Mancha, southeast of Madrid. "The men would dance together, so when they went into the cities they could dance with the women in the dance halls. Originally they were dancing the milonga, which developed into the tango."
Initially, the tango was rejected by the Argentine high society as a vulgar dance of the common people. "But shortly after World War I, a group of Argentine intellectuals, on their annual sojourn to Paris, decided to have fun by teaching the 'indecent' tango to their friends," says Mr. Oclander. "The tango quickly became the craze of the Parisian ballrooms. And Argentine society, always looking towards Europe, reimported the tango back to the shores of the Rio de la Plata."
When the tango was adopted by Argentine society, the rough dress was replaced by an imitation of the compadritos style -- a wide-rimmed hat thrown over one eye, a white handkerchief tied around the neck, the short coat and tight pants, and, as a last connection to the toughness, the knife to one side. Eventually, this style evolved further to the black tuxedo, patent leather shoes, spats and silk top hat worn in the genteel dance salons.
"The woman can wear whatever she wants, as long as her legs are free for movement. Usually the woman's dress is very sexy," says Mr. Blasco. Mr. Blasco, a computer programmer by day and a tanguero by night, has studied dance for many years, but only began dancing the tango about four years ago.
"I was looking for a flamenco class, when a friend told me about a tango seminar in Los Angeles. I went and saw this incredible dancing. I had never seen anything like it. That was Argentine tango!"
© 1997 Sedona Callahan
Scripps Howard News Service photo by The Monterey County Herald