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Flirty Dancing

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Tango has been called the three-minute romance, and a thriving circle of aficionados says the late-late 20th century is the right time for its passion and perfection

By Jim Rendon
Photographs by Christopher Gardner

VALERIE HART LOOKS out on the empty dance floor, watching as couples arrive, a few at time. She reaches across the table and grabs for an Altoid. "These are addictive," she says, popping a bright-white mint in her mouth from one of the little red-and-white tins that seem to be everywhere. Tango is a close dance.

Dressed in a glittering black shirt, fishnets and a short skirt with a long slit, Hart keeps turning her attention to the floor as she talks. Her dark hair is slicked back, cut straight at the neck. Though her eyes look sleepy, her conversation is sharp and entertaining.

"With tango, you are either in or out," she says, turning away from the floor. "Family and non-tango friends don't understand. My friends in New York thought I was white-slaved away. I sold my business, gave up my apartment. But I did not really give up anything," she says. "I have a great life with Alberto. We embrace this community."

On the dance floor, couples move tentatively in a counterclockwise walking embrace. Clearing his throat, Alberto Paz brings the studied movement of five couples to a halt. "OK, now we'll try something different," he says. Valerie's 55-year-old partner has an air of grace about him that makes his maroon tuxedo jacket and white silk scarf look comfortable, almost casual. "Like this," he says as he and Valerie embrace, face to face, and move in exaggerated motions to the melodramatic rise and fall of the music. Even in their overblown instructive performance, their connectedness is unmistakable.

Alberto steps across Valerie with his right foot, then brings his left foot toward her. They move to his right and stop, shifting weight back to his left. "Go on, try it, try it," he says. And the circle of dancers moves again.

Each Monday night Paz and Hart drive from their home in Sunnyvale to share tango with everyone who wants to learn, from the advanced, invitation-only crowd decked out in dark suits and slicked-back hair, to dance-floor virgins in rubber-soled shoes, like me. As with many of the people who are filtering into the room, tango has enriched, changed and utterly consumed their lives.

Five years ago, Hart and Paz lived on opposite coasts, each unaware of the other, wrapped up in successful business ventures of their own. Today their careers lie abandoned, their lives bound to each other and to the dance that brought them together.

Since meeting and falling for each other, Paz and Hart have been an important part of a decade-long Bay Area tango obsession. This is the hottest tango spot in the United States, and some claim the hottest in the world outside Buenos Aires. On any night of the week, tango-obsessed dancers can hit a milonga (social dance) somewhere in the Bay Area. Homegrown teachers have sprung up to support the craze. And many Argentine masters work their way through town, arranging invitation-only classes through Paz and Hart.

The dance--close, passionate, sensual, demanding a physical connection--expresses a side of the human experience that Silicon Valley turned its back on. Engineers locked in a mental embrace with numbers, theories and codes have traded sensual experience for platonic flirtation with a machine. Tango, Paz says, can help fix that. "Silicon Valley is populated and run by engineers, people who have a love affair with the keyboard," he says in a deep voice that masks a distant accent. Tango is refreshingly different. "The first thing you do is to embrace a total stranger, keep your mouth shut and listen to the music. You learn to listen to your partner, to know what they are feeling. It is a shocking and devastating experience. These moments of sheer connection are important," he says, especially in a valley where people are increasingly alienated and cerebral.

Dance of Life: Sunnyvale residents Valerie Hart and Alberto Paz found each other through tango and now teach others in a thriving Bay Area scene where a milonga can be found any night of the week.

DICK SIMONI, a Menlo Park architect, sits down at a long table dotted with glasses of wine and tall draughts of ice water. He moves a few glasses aside and puts his small canvas bag on the table. His back to the dance floor, he pauses to take in a stunning view of San Francisco's rolling hills, fading into the gridlike outer Richmond. From the 19th floor of the Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill, the city unfolds in every direction. Simoni turns his gaze back to the table and pulls a pair of leather-soled dance shoes from the bag, swapping them with his formal footwear.

At the sound of tuning violins and the sighing bandoneon, the Argentine accordion, people begin to mill about at the edge of the dance floor, picking out partners, anticipating the evening's first dance to the live band. While most milongas have a DJ, Paz and Hart have booked Strictly Tango, a five-piece band, to bang out Argentine tunes every Monday night.

Like most of the men in the club tonight, Simoni wears a dark suit, his hair brushed back off his forehead. He looks around the room, enjoying the view, the potted palms and wood pillars that hem the dance floor. "We like to imagine this is a 1920s Berlin nightclub," he says. "Today in Europe, it's more underground," he says, describing the warehouses he and his wife, Ginger, danced in during a recent trip to Switzerland, as the band starts playing and the dancing begins.

The band starts with a stereotypical tango song. It's the one that I hear in my head when I think of tango, a jerky beat, soft and then loud. It has the rhythm of someone frantically sneaking up a staircase--a quick run, then a pause to check if someone is listening, then another burst up the stairs. It's almost comic, reminding me of Charlie Chaplin's slapstick, until suddenly the music slows, becoming sad, almost tragic. Even the fastest, most upbeat tangos the band plays have an edge of sadness and tragedy.

Simoni points out a couple moving past, their chests pushed tightly together, legs pushed out so they look like a triangle. "That's miloguero style," he says, admiring the couple's performance. The tight embrace and subtle foot movements evolved from the tightly packed milongas in Buenos Aires.

A woman in a long black dress pauses at the table and asks Simoni to dance. Standing chest to chest with the woman on the dance floor, Simoni waits for the music to move him. Then, on the downbeat, he steps away, tangoing with the others, adding his own slide and shuffle of leather against wood to the quiet sound that flows just beneath the surface of the music.

Tim Yoshida watches another young woman whose arms are draped over the shoulders of a tall, older man. She stretches to reach him, but the couple looks graceful nonetheless. "She's only had something like three or four lessons," Yoshida says. "But she's danced just about every song all night. She's hooked," he says with a laugh.

Yoshida, like a lot of dancers, talks about two things: the sensuality of the dance, and something dancers call the tango trance. Yoshida studied martial arts for 10 years before trying tango. After three years of dancing, he finds it fills the much the same need as martial arts. "In the beginning, you work on posture and try not to fall down," he says. But once you get comfortable with the footwork, the dance changes. "You are torso to torso, hand to hand. It's up to you to lead. If you lead and she follows, you become lost in the music. You are transplanted to another time and place."

Sitting across from Yoshida, Caroline Duncan agrees. But for her, the spirituality gets wrapped up in the physical, sensual nature of the dance. "With tango, you meet a man right here," she says placing her hand flat across her chest. "It's a touching way to meet a man."

Duncan takes a sip of her drink and looks out on the floor, watching for a minute as dancers pass. Everyone is engaged in their own world, creating their own steps. Some move slowly, deliberately, with long pauses. Others stamp by quickly, swinging and kicking feet in the air. Though everyone moves differently, the dancers flow together. Always the couples stay close, never leaving the embrace.

"It's a dance for people who like to touch," she says. "When you first start a dance, you press your shoulder up tight against them and listen to the music. You can feel the music, your partner's energy. You can tell a lot about the quality of the person you dance with. It's synergistic. Together you are more than two."

The dance, she and others say over and over, got its start in the brothels of Buenos Aires. Some call it the three-minute romance. Though it quickly left the bordello for Argentina's society nightclubs, the heart of Argentine tango never strayed far from its passionate working-class roots.

tango Passion Players: Argentine dancers Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, in town to perform in Tango, took time off to dance at Top of the Mark.

TIM RISES TO GET IN a dance or two with the young woman. As he leaves the table, Jim Maes, a slender, bearded man in a dark suit, approaches the table. He says a few somber hellos, then crosses to the other side of the room, where he sits alone with a full glass of red wine, watching the dancers spin past him.

Maes is a casualty of tango. Tonight he looks back on his five years of dancing with a wrenching mix of joy and despair.

Maes began dancing after seeing Forever Tango, a Broadway-style show featuring some of the best tango dancers in the world. "I saw it three times," Maes says. "It brought tears to my eyes."

Maes had a nearly instant reaction to the show and the dance. "I know that," Maes said to himself as he watched the proud attitude of the dancers, the tough stance and macho clothes. As a teenager Maes had been a greaser, knocking around San Francisco's Mission District. The tough, proud attitude reminded him of the street. The lure was irresistible. He jumped in head first.

Maes would take classes as often as possible, sometimes six times a week. "I fell in love with the beauty of the dance, the passion and the power," he says.

Maes left his most recent job so he could dance more often. Tango has taken over his life, and Maes feels lucky to give himself over to the dance. "It's a way for me to express myself," he says. "It's been a long, hard struggle to get to where I am now."

But now that pride is tainted. "The dance is so seductive," he says. At a recent milonga, Maes' dance with a stranger went too far--extending beyond the dance floor. The relationship with his longtime girlfriend came tumbling down around him. Now he hates himself for what he did and for what he has lost.

Yet tango draws him back. "It has brought me so much joy," he says of the dance. "But it has also brought heartache. I wish I never found it. I wish I could cut myself off at the knees and never dance again," Maes says, looking at his untouched glass of wine.

Simoni walks over to offer Maes a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. An older woman extends her hand to Maes, offering a dance. He accepts, taking the floor. But he moves stiffly, his thoughts elsewhere.


MAES HAS AN UNUSUAL dedication to the art of tango. But for anyone to master even the basics takes time and some commitment. Learning to dance well is like learning to play jazz music. Tango is less about learning individual steps than about understanding body position, knowing what range of movement to pursue from any given position, and learning to give oneself over to the music. Like jazz, the form allows an infinite range of personal expression. It can take a lifetime to master. Women take about a year to feel comfortable, Hart says. Men can take two years before they are confident on the dance floor. For me, I think it would be longer.

As couples circle the room under Hart and Paz's direction, she can't resist giving me a little help. With her fishnet-clad legs bowed as if straddling a Brahma bull, Hart stomps away from me. Her hands rest on her hips as she swings her chest back and forth exaggerating a swagger. "Don't walk around like a cowboy," she says to me, a grin creeping across her face.

"You want to keep your feet together, place them right next to your partner's as you move," she says, grabbing my shoulders and moving me around with unwavering physical certainty. "Feels better, eh?" she says, cracking a smile and walking off toward another couple. I am left to work out the rigorous act of walking with my partner.

Though we attempt little more than walking counterclockwise, I feel as if just putting one foot in front of the other is beyond me. But I am assured over and over again that everyone feels lost at first. Even Alberto, who grew up in Argentina surrounded by the dance, felt awkward when he took his first steps less than decade ago. For the first six months he found the dance a trial.

Paz moved to the Silicon Valley from Buenos Aires in 1968 seeking a future in electrical engineering. For the next 20 years he worked for small high-tech video companies, finally founding his own in the 1980s. But by the end of that decade, Paz felt there was something missing in his life.

He began working at KIQI as a soccer announcer and eventually as a night-time DJ playing South American music. Every now and then he would spin a tango from the station's collection and the phone lines would light up. The music brought back memories of home from listeners who grew up all over South America, and they wanted to hear more.

Soon he switched to an all-tango format. To gear up for the show, he took a two-week trip to Buenos Aires, snatching up books and music, absorbing the history and culture of the music. "I learned a lot of things that were already somewhere in my mind," Paz says. "For the 25 years I lived in Argentina, I totally ignored the tango I heard every day at home. I liked rock & roll."

What Paz uncovered was a rich history of music, dance and culture that was largely undocumented. At that time there were no English-language histories of tango. The first was published just a year ago. Even Paz, who tracks down the dance's roots with a disciple's fervor, feels uncertain about many of the details.

Italian immigrants and recently freed slaves living in and around Buenos Aires (which was a slave port in the mid-1800s) developed the earliest form of tango in the 1860s. Paz says that the dance may have originally been a spinoff of high society's ballroom dancing which gave immigrants, penned up with little work and few resources, a chance to develop and show off their grace and skill. Initially, most of that showing off was done by men dancing together, because the flood of immigrants was largely male.

By the early 1900s, the dance moved from the streets to bordellos, where men lined up to take turns dancing with the women. The music developed an upbeat, seat-of-the-pants style, played by working-class musicians without the benefit of sheet music. From the bordellos, the dance began to spread upward through Argentine society.

Sailors took the form to Europe, where it caught on like wildfire. And once Europe embraced it, Argentine society grabbed hold of the dance, creating nightclubs and smoothing over some of the raunchier moves. When depression hit in 1931, tango went with it, falling out of favor for the first, but not the last, time.

A few years later, in 1935, musicians dramatically changed the songs, emphasizing the rhythms and making it easier to dance to. The crowds came pouring back. Tango hit its golden age from the late 1930s through the 1940s.

Though diminishing in popularity, tango remained strong among working-class people until the 1970s, when Argentina lived under a dictatorship. Paz, like most in his generation, just missed out on tango. The foreign influences of rock & roll were more appealing, and the tradition seemed on the wane.

With the fall of the dictatorship in 1983, a show called Tango Argentino was organized in Buenos Aires. Many of the old masters took the stage. The show toured the U.S. and Europe and helped to rekindle interest in the dance. When Forever Tango came to San Francisco in 1994, it was scheduled for four weeks and stayed for 92.

Now Buenos Aires is packed with tango tourists. The government officially sanctions the dance. People around the world from New Zealand and Japan to Germany and New York dance tango.

Inspired by his trip, Paz returned to Sunnyvale ready to play more tango music. Soon he was DJing milongas and classes, but he never danced himself. "I had the prejudice that tango was something you learned when you were a kid. In Buenos Aires if you weren't good by 18, forget it. If you didn't know how to dance, then a woman wouldn't dance with you."

After a while, Paz learned a few steps, but never really applied himself. Then, at a milonga one night, he realized he was the only Argentine in the room and he was not dancing.

That night Paz made a commitment to learn tango. Like so many other Argentinians, he was rediscovering what his parents already knew.

Within six months, he began to think there was hope. That was in 1993. Two years later, on a whim, he went to Stanford Tango Week and saw Hart leaning against a dance studio door.

WHILE PAZ WAS discovering tango, Hart was living a successful life in New York, running her own business, oblivious to the dance that would change her life.

One night while she was making a pasta dinner with a group of Argentine friends she met through her corporate event­planning business, someone put on a tango album. An Argentine friend boasted that he would teach her tango. But it only took a few steps for them to realize that no one in the room could dance it. As with Paz, the dance had passed these Argentines by.

They promised to take lessons, and Hart's interest was sparked. When she heard about Stanford's tango event, a two-week-long, eight-hour-a-day tango celebration featuring some of the world's best dancers, she had to check it out.

She showed up in Palo Alto just curious, not looking to change her life, meet anyone or fall in love. But then she danced with Paz. "Not till I met Alberto did I feel comfortable dancing. He produced a safe haven for me to dance," Hart says. They danced and talked and got to know each other. At the end of the week they parted, keeping in touch via email and fax.

"Tango touches people at crossroads in their lives. There is something deep about the experience of connecting with someone. My mother had just died at the time I was introduced to Argentine tango. She died young and suddenly," Hart says. "That made me realize that life is short. I am approaching my 50th birthday and suddenly I thought, where did 50 years go?"

Three months later, Alberto visited her in New York and asked her to come to Sunnyvale.

"I thought, am I nuts? I don't even know this guy," Hart says. She packed her bags and left New York behind.

HART AND PAZ TAKE the floor together after an evening of mixing partners. The couple share a dance--slow, deliberate, so close together that they snuff out the light between their bodies. They circle the nearly empty floor as others look on.

The dance holds a deep meaning to nearly everyone here. For Hart, a child of the '60s who has run her own business, the issue is about fitting the dance with her feminist background.

"At face value, it looks as though it is traditional role-playing--a man's dance," she says. "But it's not. The man navigates the dance. In following, you get to improvise. The man creates the space for you to dance in. Once that space is secure, it is a place for you to express yourself, to experience the music, to be feminine."

Alberto finds the social nature of the dance addictive. "People come together and share three minutes of true 50-50 cooperation between a man and a woman. The body communicates. The man improvises and feels the woman's responsiveness. It requires commitment, more than going out and listening to noise and drinking alcohol."

Both Hart and Paz dropped everything to be with each other, and not long afterward they started a company, Planet Tango. They publish a magazine, El Firulete, and are in the midst of installing a dance floor in their home. They teach, broker lessons for visiting masters, arrange tours to Buenos Aires, and sell CDs, shoes and anything else related to tango.

"I'm living the life of a boho gypsy. It's like being 18 again," Hart says. "We are poor, but we make enough for house payments and to make a little pasta." The couple travels almost half the year. In the next few months they are scheduled to teach in Honolulu, Alaska and Florida. Every summer they take a group to Buenos Aires, all to dance.

"It is an obsession," Paz says. "You incorporate tango into your life. In many cases, it's like a religion."

As the floor clears, the band packs its instruments. Paz spins a few more CDs. A crowd watches from the sidelines as the dancers from Tango show off their skills. Some couples dance furiously, some slowly, with exquisite yawning movements.

The dance, which these people perform so well, seems to spark obsession in everyone it touches. Casual dancers are hard to find, and those who work at the dance are close. Tango, born at the end of the last century, fills a void that has opened up over the past hundred years. Once a release for the massive dislocation and upheaval of the industrial revolution, it now provides a vital link to that remarkably sensual world, a world that this century has left reeling behind it. Here, at the Top of the Mark, as I watch architects and mechanics, attorneys and students, lose themselves in the music and the feel of each other, the dance feels like an embrace of the waning century, a retreat from the gaping emptiness of the next millennium. Looking around the room, it seems obvious that we will need to bring tango with us.

As the song ends, Hart walks out onto the dance floor. It's nearly 1am. She calls out loud and happy, "Last tango!"

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From the December 24-30, 1998 issue of Metro.

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