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Photograph by Rory McNamara

Olé: Tango teacher Christy Coté and a partner practice their moves.

Three-Minute Love Affairs

Tango and flamenco have long showcased the beautiful and young, while devotedly practiced by the pleasant and old. Why? Because art and obsession know no age.

By Jennie Orvino


Dance is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.
--George Bernard Shaw

We begin with a glance and a nod of assent. I snake my arm around my partner's shoulders as I feel his right hand warm my back. I turn my head toward him and we take a moment to feel each other's balance, to harmonize our concentration. I respond to a slight dip of his body and glide into one backward step and then another; I follow his lead into a figure eight, a turn, a pause. My left foot is weightless, touching his right, and when his foot slides out, mine goes along willingly. We step forward and shift back, our legs twining and lifting before we're on to another move, pulled along by the music's melancholy seeking and soaring. There is a moment where I flick my leg defiantly, then immediately lean forward against him in complete trust. We both listen and succumb to a rush of stringed instruments, crooning vocals and the wail of what seems like an accordion under exquisite torture. I feel his breath in sync with mine as he moves with and between my steps, both of us working to end together perfectly on the last note of the song.

 

We should have a warning at our website: 'May be habit-forming,'" says Gustavo Hornos, a native of Buenos Aires, the world capital of tango. His teaching partner and wife, Jesica Salomon, adds, "The elegance, the romanticism and the sensuality attract people. If you don't have those things, you want them. If you have them, you want more!"

"What's so addictive is the feeling of connection," Hornos says. "The tango is a very close dance, your bodies are very much in contact. You almost feel the heartbeat of your partner, really--you are facing each other heart to heart in a beautiful zone of sharing. It's about your life moving with another life. This is so powerful,it's maybe the main reason people get so crazy about tango."

Watching a tango demonstration by these two salon-style dancers under the lights at Ellington Hall, I can't help but be swept away. Anyone who has seen even a photograph of the stage play Forever Tango knows that the dance stirs desire and generates heat. This kind of intimacy is why tango is often referred to as a "three-minute love affair." It might also account for the preponderance of forty- and fifty-somethings in the classes I attend. It requires maturity to take the risk of getting close.

Tricia, 61, a political activist and teacher, says, "Every time you dance with someone, it is an event. You are right in front of the person, with a very intimate frame. You can't think about anything but what you are doing--sometimes you can't even think. It's a great stress release. It also becomes obsessive. You want more and more of what it gives you."

 

There is a cliché that tango was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires, but as dance scholar Christine Denniston notes, the brothels were where people of the upper and middle class first encountered it. The lower classes and immigrants from Africa and Cuba had already brought their rhythmic patterns and dance vocabulary to the barrios. Early tangos were accompanied by improvising on guitar, violin and flute. Around 1910, the bandoneon, originally created as a kind of organ for religious services, was put to better use and has since became the trademark tango instrument.

In the 1800s, many tango musicians got their start, as many a New Orleans jazz artist did, in the red light district, playing to entertain customers while they waited. Since the ladies were otherwise occupied, the men used the opportunity to practice dance by dancing together. They used their skills later in the dance halls to attract eligible women into their arms. On the street corners, tango was a challenge dance men did with each other to display their prowess.

Despite the tango's original sexual disposition and combativeness, the contemporary relationship of the partners is not one of tension, or dominance and submission. "When I lead Jesica," Gustavo Hornos says of his wife, "I am feeling her movements, her balance, and I am sensitive to that. So she is also leading me. We are both leaders and followers."

"I believe that the woman is an individual at all times," says Jesica. "A good leader gives space for the woman to do embellishments and to express herself in any moment. When you're first learning, there is a lot of emphasis on leading and following, but actually the partners are making the dance together. It's like we are one body, one leg, one arm."

 

Amid the stacks of tables and chairs in a large multipurpose room, Donna Agoita flashes her remote toward a boom box and prepares couples for their across-the-floor practice. Tango happens in Petaluma at the Lucchesi Community Center because this teacher wants to create more of a community for tango in the North Bay. She works with beginners to understand the basics.

"Tango is a grounding dance, full of challenge and subtlety," Agoita says. "The follower needs to be willing to let go, to be extremely present, flexible and very ready for the lead. The leader must be focused on the partner, aware of their skill level and sensitive to it. This dance is not about showing off; it is about making a connection."

In order to experience such co-mingling and aliveness, students make a considerable investment of time and money. Carol, 50, travels weekly around the county and to Marin so she can take several classes and occasional private instruction.

"I'm ga-ga over tango," she says. "I first saw this dance in a small ballroom in Vienna where a group of seven men and seven women called Tango Seduccion gave a three-encore performance. They knocked me off my seat. As the show progressed, the dancing became more and more intimate. When I got back to the United States, I couldn't find Argentine tango classes soon enough."

Students--even if they are experienced dancers--discuss how hard it is to survive their first attempts at the complex steps. Emil Waldteufel, the chef-owner of Emil's restaurant in Santa Rosa, has studied all kinds of dance in his life, including tap dancing in the hoofer style. He has even performed onstage. "The first few lessons, I found tango difficult. I was blurting out 'I'm sorry' all the time, but I've progressed well. Sometimes a breath of the music will come over me while I'm working and I'll happily execute a little step. Then I'll go back to my sauté pan."

Paul, a 58-year-old vineyard mechanic and Calistoga resident who takes classes in Sonoma, Petaluma and Santa Rosa, describes tango as "a dance for overachievers. It draws intelligent people because it's not easy to learn. But it still has soul. Tango has a way of making you yearn for it." And a retired artist who declines to give even her first name says that the dance makes her feel feminine and seductive. "You want to dress up and look beautiful when you do it."

Indeed. When tango took Paris by storm in 1912, it was said that women abandoned their corsets to dance tango. Couture designers changed the position of feathers in women's hats--from sweeping horizontally across the face to going up vertically from the forehead--so as not to get in the dance partner's face. "Tulip skirts," which open at the front, making leg flicks and ganchos (hooks) easier, became popular, and manufacturers, then as now, sold anything they could with the "tango" adjective preceding it.

In an increasingly competitive and mechanized American culture, people in the tango community find it a relief to have an activity that is noncompetitive yet personally developing, warm and pleasant to do. Traditionally, tango etiquette allows no one to snub or abandon a partner. It can even require the courtly gesture of escorting a woman back to her seat after dancing, and it's considered polite to engage her for more than one number. In Argentina, eye contact, a nod or a smile is enough to indicate a man's intentions. The same is true for a partner's response. The dynamics of the dance venue are a result of all the participants being neighbors and friends, with an understanding of social graces.

Bill, a 52-year-old self-described instructor-sailor-poet-single-father, who finished high school and started college in Argentina, remains enamored of this cultural phenomenon that went in and out of favor and at one time was even banned as subversive, under a repressive military regime.

"Back then, tango was something that only my father listened to," Bill remembers. "We had to learn in order to dance with our mothers for our graduation ceremony. I preferred folklore and rock and roll. It wasn't until later, after being prohibited by the military government of Argentina to return [Bill assisted his brothers' escape from the country in 1976], that I could allow myself to be embraced by the deep melancholy and defiant joy of the tango, and I started to listen to it deliberately and learned to dance again.

"I love to move in unison to the music--suggest, wait, follow, until my breath and chest and pelvis melt into my partner's," he says. "The tango has certainly helped me to be more gracious sexually, and should be a prerequisite to intimacy."

 

Tango and its cousin, flamenco, were both created by the kind of people who generally leave no mark on history: the poor and the underprivileged. Flamenco arose from the melting pot of Roma people who migrated to southern Spain, particularly Andalusia, in the 15th century, and from two other cultural minorities, the Moors and the Jews. These groups made common cause with the native Spanish mountain people and a smattering of Christian infidels. Around their campfires, the flamenco arts developed, probably beginning with only voice and rhythmic hand-clapping, followed later by guitar and dance.

The students of flamenco I have met range in age from a 22-year-old recent college graduate to a 67-year-old retiree. Some women say the combination of fast, intensive footwork with graceful arm and hand movements made them feel very powerful. Others like that it's "sexy but not explicit and over-the-top." Most reported their interest was piqued by seeing the dance live in performance, or in the movies or on television. Many said learning it was a lifelong, even secret, desire.

Christina is a 33-year-old social worker from Sebastopol. When she was about 11 years old, she saw Carmen and was enthralled. "I tortured my parents by playing the record for hours and stomping around the house," she laughs. What Christina terms a "little splash of experience" remained latent until she began a relationship with a man who was interested in flamenco guitar. The couple began to explore their mutual dream of music and dance through friends who were performers.

Now Christina studies with Phoebe Vernier (who goes by the professional name of "La Fibi") at Ellington Hall. Christina and her boyfriend can practice together, although she says that keeping the dance and guitar in compas (locked into the rhythm) is one of their most difficult tasks.

Regarding her three years' worth of flamenco study, Christina says, "Honestly, it has not been all fun, especially in the beginning. This is the most challenging form I've tried, by far. It's the most complex in terms of rhythm, footwork and the multiple things you have to do simultaneously. It's very specific, almost like a science.

"Once the basics are mastered, a person can have more freedom. So I can't quit now, just when I'm getting a taste of that freedom. I'm seeking mastery so that I can get full expression of grief, anger, pain, exhilaration-- all the extreme emotions. I want to express with full force, no holding back. That's what attracted me as a child, and that's what attracts me now."

All things fiery and passionate appeal to Bonnie, a red-haired soprano and voice teacher just six months into flamenco classes. She describes it as being "like opera, where you have to sing with your whole body. You can't dance with a bland face. Whatever feeling you can imagine, there's a song and a rhythm for it."

For Serafina, a 55-year-old trying to overcome her anguish following the dissolution of an 18-year marriage, listening to the language of the songs has provided an emotional catharsis, a way to love life again. "I stumbled," she says. "And wept. I lost my balance. And screamed in the car on the way home. But I felt the spirit of flamenco rising up from the floor, pushing and shoving me to keep trying. The music was my constant friend. The other middle-aged dancers were my family. The singers, my strangled voice."

One instructor maintains that "women don't have anything to dance about until they are older than 35." On the other hand, flamenco expertise seems to transcend age and body type.

Carol and Bernard W. are both eligible for senior movie discounts. I met them at Flamenco Arts Company of Santa Rosa, where they were practicing sevillanas, a social dance often done in pairs. In addition to dance, Bernard studies flamenco guitar and was one of two men at class the night I visited.

The other, a 44-year-year old chiropractor named Brian, appreciates flamenco for stress reduction. "I like to make noise and stomp my feet, especially on a Friday night," he jokes. Brian studies with his wife, a champion ice dancer. "What's great is that my lack of expertise doesn't hold her back, as it would in ballroom-type dancing." Several women agreed that their feelings of strength, femininity and independence through flamenco is in great part due to not needing a partner in order to excel.

"There's no limit to the things you can try as long as you can still walk," says Barbara, a 54-year-old designer and builder from Petaluma who has studied flamenco for five years.Barbara says learning this form of dance is like learning to play an instrument-- with your feet. "The sound of the shoe is so defined, anyone can tell when you're off! But when everything is in sync, it's like those days at the office when you're wearing high heels and they tick down the hallway. You've got things rolling, you're wide awake and on top of it, you're making something happen."

 

Revealing the cultural context is very important to musical artist and scholar Robin Brown, who, with his wife Elena, owns Flamenco Arts. "We are very much into instructing form and style with precise attention to detail, but we also emphasize the total collaboration of forces that make up the community and this huge family of Spanish dances and song. We want our students to know more than just the translation of lyrics. We want them to understand where the music comes from, what the politics and folkways had to do with the expression," he says.

Many lyrics flowing from the mouth of the cantaores (flamenco singers) were written by poet and dramatist Federico García Lorca, an artist committed to preserving the traditional music of southern Spain. Similarly, the world-renowned Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges wrote poems that were adapted to tango by many of the genre's finest composers, such as Astor Piazzolla. Perhaps the music had more resonance for these literary giants, as each was exiled from or politically harassed in their home countries.

There are those who believe that entering and understanding cultures other than their own is the first step toward empathy for "the other," a pathway to world peace. This is a focus for Darcy, a 45-year-old body worker. "I'm doing this because, for that brief hour, I am not an American," she explains. "I am part of an entire cultural milieu of people doing palmas (clapping), yelling 'Olé!' dancing, singing and thoroughly enjoying themselves."

The Zangria Latin Supper Club, a Petaluma restaurant, is the only regular venue for live flamenco in the North Bay. Phoebe "La Fibi" Vernier dances in and produces weekly Saturday-night performances there. She also brings in artists who give workshops in authentic technique.

"I grew up on the road with my mother, an Italian immigrant who was a professional Middle Eastern dancer; I was onstage for the first time at the age of four," Vernier says. "A lifetime with dance has fulfilled something that's missing for me in American culture--song, music and dance as an integral part of everyday existence."

The teachers and owners of show venues are of course enthusiastic, but the mostly middle-aged aficionados of tango and flamenco are its best promoters. These students can afford to fly off to Buenos Aires, take jaunts to Spain, book cruises and hold conventions--anything to help perfect their execution and deepen understanding of the originating culture of their beloved dance. They host ever more juergas and milongas, social gatherings where dedicated practice pays off in an evening of big fun.

As one tanguero confessed without apology, "It's a madness that grips you."


Famed Spanish flamenco dancer and choreographer José Galván appears in concert with the Flamenco Arts Co. and performers direct from Spain, Friday-Saturday, Aug. 20-21, at the Jackson Theater, Sonoma Country Day School, 4400 Day School Place, Santa Rosa. $25-$35. 707.544.0909.


Spirit Moves You

Here are some handy websites for tango and flamenco history, tips and accessories, as well as North Bay dance venues in which to practice and learn.

Argentine Tango
www.zanabonidesign.com (clothing, accessories)
www.22tangoshoes.com
www.history-of-tango.com
www.thetangolesson.com
www.tangopetaluma.com

Flamenco
www.flamencouniversal.org
www.flamenco-world.com
www.sfflamenco.com/lafibi.html
www.flamencoarts.net

Venues
Ellington Hall, 3535 Industrial Drive, Santa Rosa. 707.545.6150.
Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. 707.938.4626.
Flamenco Arts Co., 2337 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.544.0909.
Zangria Latin Supper Club, 1370 Redwood Hwy., Petaluma. 707.795.0119
Lucchesi Community Center, 320 N. McDowell Blvd., Petaluma. 707.778.4380.
Footloose Dance Center, 5320 Old Redwood Hwy., Petaluma. 707.795.8058.

--J.O.


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From the July 21-27, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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