The Baltimore Sun

September 13, 2004

A Crew to Tango

Stephanie Shapiro, Sun Staff

Even during Saturday night's "practica," while perfecting spins, turns and leg hooks, participants at Baltimarathon, a weekend of Argentine tango lessons, dances and workshops, surrendered to the dance's alluring cues.

The lights had not yet dimmed; men and women had not yet changed into their sultry tango finery for the all-night milonga - or social dance - that would follow. Already, though, couples, transported by the music's mounting intensity, were gliding across the floor - the women with their eyes closed - intuiting one another's most subtle dance desires.

Oleg Gnedin, an astronomer who recently moved from Baltimore to Columbus, Ohio, returned for the marathon. He had studied other forms of partner dancing, but it was tango that captured his mind and emotions. "It was the most exciting and the most passionate dance I experienced," says Gnedin, 32, who met his girlfriend, attorney Nicole Papa, at a Baltimore Tango practica.

Tango is a tempest with manners, a controlled way of moving simmered down to its sensual essentials. Today, the dance form, which first emerged in 19th century Argentina, is blazing a trail through dance communities around the world, borrowing from musical genres and styles of movement as it does.

Like other resilient art forms, tango has reinvented itself while remaining true to its origins. Called "alternative," "found" or "neo" tango, this edgier new style can be performed to world music, Led Zeppelin, electronica, disco, even Eminem, if the beat is right.

Tango's changing dynamics parallel social changes at large, says Sharna Fabiano, who runs NeoTango Productions, a dance school and tango clearinghouse in Washington. In traditional tango, men lead and women follow. Clasped in what is called a "close embrace," followers had little room to express themselves on the dance floor. Today, as women enjoy more egalitarian status off the dance floor, tango has adopted the "open embrace," which allows for broader movement and greater creative choices for both dancers.

"Now it's the beautiful idea of partnership - with a different idea of partnership," says Fabiano, who, as the practica's chosen DJ is busy mixing traditional and adventurous new sounds.

Established two years ago, Baltimore Tango has swiftly become a community of ardent dancers who are known to hold impromptu "guerrilla" milongas in unlikely spaces, such as piers and church halls, throughout the city. With little or no notice, they slap down a portable dance floor, flick on the boombox and tango to their hearts' and minds' content.

Baltimore tango in the Baltimore Sun

The sultry Argentine dance draws a crowd to a weekend marathon where the moves are being adapted to new music.

Under the instruction of Tova and Carlos Moreno, a young couple who came to Baltimore from Seattle, the group not only learned how to dance the tango, but how to survive after the couple moved to Boston last year.

"They studied tango communities in other cities and avoided their hierarchical snobby [attitude] by making a network of people who would do different jobs - dances, practice session, bring in teachers, Web site, and it worked," Baltimore Tango member Marty Katz says.

The Morenos presented Baltimore's first tango marathon last year, and returned for this year's event, held in conjunction with Baltimore Tango on the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. There, about 150 dancers converged for workshops such as "Elasticity and Looseness" and "Poses, Pauses and Reflexes," a tango garment and shoe swap and three milongas, one of which lasted until 4 a.m.

Carlos, a burly former wrestler, and Tova, a 27-year-old costume designer, are sticklers for style in a dance of infinite variations performed to a "walking beat." But they also love to "tell tango jokes on the dance floor," in the form of an unexpected move, or by "breaking the rules" with a wiggle of the shoulder or behind, says Carlos, a 26-year-old doctoral student in biology at Harvard.

"A good dance follows like a conversation, rather than a monologue or a dictatorship," says Tova, who has a ballerina's lithe carriage.

During the practica, the Morenos move from dancer to dancer, adjusting a stance, demonstrating a dance element. Here and there, a couple stops to discuss their progress. Some couples take minuscule, perfectly carved steps and scarcely appear to move. Others sweep dramatically across the entire floor under the lead's invisible guidance. Those in a close embrace assume a timeless, dignified posture, while dancers in an open embrace occasionally favor some moves common in swing dance. A woman, prompted by her partner, wraps her leg around his. And when the music stops, a tango sixth sense allows them to finish in a beautifully arranged pose.

"In tango, it's all about connection," Gnedin says. "You can lead your partner without touching her at all. ... It's physical and also mental. You have to be interested, not necessarily in your partner, but interested in dancing with your partner. You feel that connection through your brain, also."

The weekend marathon drew scientists, acupuncturists, bankers, teachers, doctors, artists and others who readily admitted that most of their free time was spent in the pursuit of tango nirvana. Several had just returned from a field trip to Buenos Aires led by the Morenos, where they also danced day and night.

When Beth Weber, an actress and legal secretary who lives in Baltimore, first saw a television ad for the dance troupe Tango Argentine years ago, she was transfixed. "I had to do it," she says. People often assume that the tango is popular because "it's sexy," says Weber, 43. "That's not it. It's beautiful. It's creative. The music is beautiful and in a way [dancing the tango] can be almost like a little game. You don't know what the lead is going to get you to do."

The event also brought Boston instructor Hsueh-tze Lee, who was a biology professor at Wellesley College when she gave it all up to teach tango. Tango's best qualities - its spirit of improvisation and its insistence on communication between dancers - are what's best about life itself, she says.

As the practica draws to a close, Fabiano and Homer Ladas, a San Francisco practitioner known for his "organic tango" philosophy, take to the dance floor.

Fabiano and Ladas move fluidly. With his support, she pivots endlessly on the toe of one red high heel shoe. Taking wide, backward slides around the floor, their moves are elegant and leave no wake, like those of divers who slip into the water without a ripple. Tango is "another deep exploration that you can take to infinity," Ladas says. "That's what we've done. It's become our lives."