Beirut's tango nights: It takes two, and harmony.
BEIRUT: The street facing the St. George Hotel located on Beirut's St. George Bay was relatively empty, even though it was a busy Saturday night. Within seconds of stepping into St. George Beach and Yacht Club's lounge and bar, however, everything changed.
Greeted with a display of men's tango shoes for sale at the entrance, the space behind was packed with solemn-faced women and men clutching at each other's bodies with a seriousness of intent one would find in a dance competition.
This is Beirut's tango scene.
The air was filled with 1920s and 1930s tunes from famous tango musicians such as Francisco Canaro, Juan D'Arienzo, Rodolfo Biagi and Carlos Di Sarli and the clakc of single-strapped tango sandals on the floor. The dress code for the ladies seemed to be somewhere between comfortable, skimpy and glittery.
Even though people on the dance floor, a mix of the young and elderly, seemed like professionals, not all of them were.
"We are a group of social tango dancers, not professional dancers," Alma Haddad, co-organizer of the event, told The Daily Star. "We dance for our own pleasure. Coming from different backgrounds, we have one thing in common: the love of this beautiful dance."
"We are addicted to this dance. We go out dancing tango a minimum of twice per week and up to four or five times."
Haddad started dancing tango seven years ago.
"First I learned flamenco, then all the Latin dances like salsa, cha cha, vals [waltz], rumba... But when I started dancing tango, like any other person who learns tango, you get instantly hooked by the music and by this beautiful dance."
"First, I learned tango in Lebanon with local and international teachers, then I started travelling abroad to get the chance to learn from highly professional teachers and to dance with people from different nationalities as well," Haddad added.
In Lebanon, all tango lovers know about Milonguita, an event organized monthly at St. George Beach & Yacht Club. The name was inspired by Milonga, the popular music genre that originated in Argentina in the 1870s.
"For the past five years, we tango lovers, 'tangueros,' gather and dance for five, seven hours or even more!"
As with any dance, music is of paramount importance.
"What makes a tango night a success is the music because you have to keep people motivated and happy to keep on dancing for a minimum of five hours," she said.
"This is why we invite tango DJs from abroad, mainly from Istanbul and Cyprus, to play music in our tango nights to make the ambience more pleasurable and keep people on their feet," said Haddad who acted as the DJ on Saturday night.
Haddad explained the origin of the dance. "Tango is an Argentinean dance. It originated at the end of the 19th century in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay, by the poor immigrants who went to Argentina. Then quickly this dance grew in popularity and spread internationally."
"Tango is a dance of connection, improvisation and most importantly of passion." Leaders and followers, women and men need to be in sync to match their steps with tango music," she explained.
"Tango is not an easy dance especially for men. Since they are the leaders, they should think about each step they are making. They should dance with the music and they should improvise, all this during the three-minute duration of one song. Women are the followers, they should follow men's lead and they should dance on the music as well, of course."
Powder was occasionally peppered under the bar for the dancers to powder their shoes to ensure maximum sliding ability on the wooden floor.
Beaming attendees mingled with each other between short dance breaks.
"I have been dancing tango for the past six years. I come here for the gathering. It's the best in Lebanon," said dancer Stephanie while sipping wine.
As for newcomer Naji, who started learning tango just three months ago, he was enjoying his first night out with the group.
"It's a passion for tango that drives me. I found this event through an online advertisement and thought that I should start practicing with the Lebanese tango crowd out of class to improve my skills," he said, before braving himself to ask a lady to the dance floor.
Professional dancers were also among the crowd.
"I've been dancing for 20 years. As a professional dancer and choreographer, what I like about those nights is the improvisation and freedom," said Jana George Younes, participant and finalist in the Arab version of the "So You Think You Can Dance" television contest.
For Haddad, it's clear that tango in Lebanon is booming.
"People in Lebanon and abroad are travelling all over the world to dance in tango festivals and marathons for four days non-stop! A friend coming to Lebanon in June called me a few days ago asking about tango events happening here in June, from now!" she exclaimed.
Last November, Haddad and friends organized an international event in Beirut called Beirut Libertango Weekend, inviting special guests from Istanbul including Murat Elmadagli, dancer behind the tanGO TO Istanbul tango festival, considered one of the biggest events of its kind in Europe.
"They gave tango workshops and performed. Three DJs also came from Istanbul, Cyprus and Egypt. Participants attended from several countries like Cyprus, Egypt, Istanbul and the UK. It was a three-night tango weekend."
And she has more plans set for Beirut's tango lovers in 2015: "This year we will organize as well the second edition of Beirut Libertango and we hope to receive more people from abroad."
"It is an excellent way to keep in contact with people from all over the world and to dance in a beautiful and pure environment. Everyone is welcome to take part."
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