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"Pa'que baile la ciudad" ("Let's get the city dancing") was the slogan chosen for Buenos Aires's first-ever International Tango Festival in March 2001. Straightforward enough, and why not, since tango is enjoying a resurgence in the Argentine capital, as it is in Tokyo, Helsinki, San Francisco, and, indeed, any other city where there are wooden floors and sound systems. But in some ways, tango--once called a dance of death has come back from the grave. Its current boom was neither inevitable nor the product of one prime mover or phenomenon. Rather, it resurrected, as many cultural forces intertwined to help tango reclaim its position as a dance of the people.

From 1870 to 1910, tango emerged in the southern districts of Buenos Aires, in bars, brothels, and on the streets, gradually making its way into the wealthier center of the city and the middle-class salons. So tango ballrooms, called milongas, prospered as a popular form right through to the 1950s and became the focus of social and community life in Buenos Aires. They eventually petered out as the small but aspiring port city of immigrants grew into the present-day heaving megalopolis. Composer Astor Piazzolla, who fused jazz and tango together during the 1960s, was responding to this with his urbane, stridently modern tango nuevo. For the masses, rock, pop, Latin rhythms, and even folk music became the fashionable sounds, and tango was viewed by most portenos (as the residents of Buenos Aires are known) as a tricky dance for elders and a few tourists. State and guerrilla terrorism, hyperinflation, and dictatorships helped none--after the coup of 1976, Argentina was a dark, troubled nation and its citizens had little time for dancing, romance, and artistic expression.

In the 1980s, even while Argentines were tangoing round the supermarkets trying to keep up with unprecedented daily price hikes caused by an imploding economy, Juan Carlos Copes, himself a milonguero (one who frequents milongas) proved with Tango Argentino that the genre was alive and kicking, flicking and flashing more than ever. Audaciously, he and partner Maria Nieves even demonstrated that you could dance to the tango nuevo, so long as you followed Piazzolla's technique of incorporating the basic language of tango while remaining free to interpret, improvise, and occasionally be irreverent of the traditional forms.

Copes's theatrical exhibition thrilled London's West End and Broadway and stirred the nostalgia of many older Argentines. To others--dancers, rock fans, cultural critics--the heavily theatrical floor shows were a kind of "tango for export," too cleaned-up and crafted to tap into the seedy love and knife-fighting from which tango had first evolved. Ironically, the new foreigner-friendly tango was doing its bit for the homespun version, in allowing tango dancers to become professionals and, when not onstage, to teach. Standards were raised, experimentation was encouraged, and more and more tango shows went on tour. It wasn't the first time tango had traveled abroad; in the early 1900s, "tango mania" in Paris (the ultimate European embrace of a Latin American phenomenon and a fashion and dance revolution that spread rapidly to London, Moscow, and the East Coast cities of the United States) had boosted the dance's reputation back in Argentina.

Ezequiel Martinez Estrada wrote of the milonga revival in his Radiografia de la Pampa (Buenos Aires, 1933) that tango's "best quality, like marriages, is in its everydayness, in its calm ordinariness." Writing at the outset of tango's golden age, he was reflecting on the control, the repressed sensuality, the cold desire of tango as it was danced al suelo (to the floor), with the minimum of visible flamboyance and maximum inner tension.

After the 1950s, the milongas were there, attracting older people and a few would-be pros, but the scene was basically on standby. But go along now to thriving neighborhood dance venues like Club Almagro, Gricel, or Sunderland Club, and you'll find dancers from all walks of life, from 16 to 80, with a really new universality and openness. All those "in the know," however, perform the sacred rites: the men nodding, the women consenting, minimal conversation, eye-to-eye contact, and great poise, especially at the outset, when it is taboo even to cast a glance sideways to see if your hands are coupled correctly. The clothes range from casual jeans and shirts to glamorous split skirts and daggerlike stilettos to ancient suits and satin numbers recently dusted for the big night. Hit Buenos Aires at 3:00 P.M., 9:00 P.M., or after midnight; somewhere there's a milonga taking place--from teatime lessons in the Confiteria Ideal in the city's downtown to a dark embrace in the small hours at neo-Gothic La Catedral.

As tango historian Irene Amuchastegui put it, "If you go along to a milonga looking out to confirm preconceptions, you'll find them, such as the romantic notion that `tango is a sad feeling danced' or the anachronism of characters in hair cream, fishnet stockings, patent-leather shoes; but if you really look, you'll see clerks, students, pensioners, snobs, little guys, skinny fellas, housewives, blondes, teenagers, bosses--a multiform collective high on friendship, romance, rivalry, admiration, grievances, and goodwill."

The reasons for the resurgence of popular tango are manifold and it is not only the popularity of glitzy shows that has brought it about. It's been a classic battle of experts and enthusiasts. Buenos Aires Secretary of Culture Jorge Telerman, the man responsible for the March 2001 tango fest, claims dancers are "taking tango back from the tangueros. For many years, a small group of individuals ran the tango scene, but the local and international revival of the dance halls has taken it away from the specialists." From January to March, more than 100,000 portenos turned up for free classes, and the four-day festival proper, organized by Miguel Angel Zotto (a Copes disciple and the creator of Tango x 2), was an orgy of gigs, shows, films, debates, and above all, ballroom socials. Tango recolonized the city.

"We're everywhere again, just like the old days," cried one veteran tango musician. Even actor Robert Duvall, a student of Nestor Ray, turned up for an open-air shuffle on Avenida Corrientes, "the street that never sleeps" and that all aficionados connect to tango, culture, literature, and nightlife.

Not all tango is subdued, even on the dance floor. It is the dashing, dazzling, dangerous side of tango that appeals to the foreigner in visitors, and it is these qualities that the most successful shows have exploited. Nestor Ray, a respected professional dancer and dance teacher in Buenos Aires, says athletic dancers still turn up at the clubs and academies. "These people don't drink wine, don't smoke. They're not like us; they come from classical dance, and in the shows we do, they jump two meters in the air and have fun that way. It's a kind of therapy for them."

There might be milongas everywhere, but two facts often escape those who seek to adopt tango for their own. On the one hand, there's the tango-psyche connection, the fact that it came from the melting pot of this remote city's margins, from the uncertain hopes and dreams of immigrants, from a vibrant but vulnerable subculture. Patricia Ray, Nestor's partner, defends, in machine-gun fashion, the core mythology of tango: "It's the romantic song of the girlfriend left in Europe, a mixture of melancholy and villainy. It's about lost love and betrayal, the nostalgia of Mamma while she's kneading pasta for the family meal on Sundays, of trams going down the street, of friends playing cards in bars, of duels over women, of pimps, of conquest and rootlessness." Breathless and hermetic, you might not fully grasp the tango ideology, but you cannot ignore its icons, even when they verge on cliche.

Nor is it all in the mind: There is a tango aesthetic, in the walls and on the corners of the city. Tangos sing of lampposts, quiet cobbled streets, old barrios--in its lyrics, if not in the visions of town planners, the old city lives on. Tango has constantly reminded portenos how to see and feel their city and feed symbiotically on the city's pulses. Even at the later stages, when Piazzolla cranked up and electrified the orchestral sound, the city was his inspiration. You'll hear Buenos Aires's frantic traffic, human and mechanical, in the swirling rhythms and chaotic clamor of the new tango.

But dancing is a bodily affair. Nestor Ray says: "Young people need to feel things, to communicate with the opposite sex; in ordinary bars and clubs, you can't even scream a conversation, you can't dance together, and there's no romanticism whatsoever." He stresses the embrace, the sweat and perfume of tango, and the sensation that "you can even feel her heartbeat when a girl gets nervous because she doesn't know if she's dancing well."

Zotto claims the physical aspect is fundamental, from "kissing whoever we want" in streets, family parties, and bars, to the "amazing curves" of Argentine women, which highlight the gender differences. "In Europe, the genders have become confused, and in tango the roles of men and women are clearly identified." But, he adds, it's deeper or more basic than that: "Its the way we walk, our speech, our combination of the Italian and the Spanish in our movements, our clothes, the way we stand--this all affects our dancing."

Foreign dancers should not be put off; the pride of portenos is legendary and there would be something drastically wrong if those who dedicate their lives to tango, the clearest expression of Argentineness, were mild-mannered or humble.

Tango is back again, and not only for pros, oldsters, and addicts--its concentrated vortex of a dance is pulling in all kinds. It has been quite a leap from obscurity to fame this time round, but the fact that the boom consists of a thousand fringe gatherings and not merely a media-driven fad can only be good. Tango is gaining allies all over the world, in the center and the suburbs of cities, in ballet schools and ballrooms, tangoing all the way back to an imaginary barrio, with hookers and knife-wielding crooks for company, and all of them ready to dance.

Chris Moss was an arts correspondent for the Buenos Aires Herald and now works for Time Out: London.
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Title Annotation:Buenos Aires's International Tango Festival
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Sep 1, 2001

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