Tangoing your life away
by Kate Conner-Ruben
I watch from a distance as the young man in neatly pressed khakis and a polo shirt approaches a young woman at a table. They shake hands in mock formality. They chat and laugh for a moment. Then he motions toward the dance floor. She nods and rises. As they make their way to the center of the room, they joke and laugh again. Then, as if a switch is thrown, the smiles stop. They step close to each other. She rests her face against his. His right hand presses gently but firmly into the small of her back, drawing her body close to his. Her right hand finds his left, and their fingers intertwine. Her left hand snakes to the back of his neck and rests there. Her eyes half close. They begin to dance to elegant, lilting trills of violins and tumbling arpeggios of accordions, making their way around the room. Like the other locked couples on the dance floor, they follow an invisible circle, sometimes following the beat step, step, step sometimes mirroring the complex rhythm, sometimes gliding on the melody. Then they're lost from view, obscured by the crowd. A few minutes later the music comes to an abrupt end, and across the floor, the movement stops on a dime. I find my couple. They remain in their embrace for a moment and then pull apart, chatting animatedly.
It's Saturday night at Milonga Picante, a tango dance party sponsored by the Michigan Argentine Tango Club the U-M's only club devoted to Argentine tango.
Avik, a doctoral student at the School of Natural Resources, has been tangoing for two years. "I've always loved music I played the violin but dance? I didn't understand it, as a concept."
But then, he says, he discovered Argentine tango and found that the mix of movement and music clicked with him perfectly. "It's the interpretation of music, but with someone else," he
says. "Everything is improvised, not at all like ballroom dance."
Argentine tango is, quite clearly, more popular than ever. There are clubs all over the world, conferences, and master teachers who travel from city to city offering workshops, coaching, and inspiration. In fact, the night I visit, the U-M club is in the midst of a weekend-long tango intensive with Robin Thomas and Jennifer Bratt a New York-
based couple who teach classes like "Flying Feet," "Changes of Direction in Close Embrace," and "Embellishment Boot Camp."
So what's a "milonga"? Avik explains, "Milonga has several meanings. It's a kind of tango, but it's also a tango party, and it's also a place where people go to tango. So you could play a milonga at a milonga, at a milonga." Avik also explains that tangos are broken down into tandas groups of three pieces of music by the same orchestra. In between tandas, a cortina is played maybe thirty seconds of a different kind of music, to signal the end of one tanda and the beginning of the next. You're supposed to find a different partner for each tanda.
Pat, a Sterling Heights software engineer, got into tango about three years ago. "I absolutely love to dance," he says, "and this is the perfect dance for me, because it's very creative, not stuck to patterns."
The men always lead in tango, Pat explains, and the women follow. But within that format, there's room for lots of variation and experimentation. While the steps are deceptively simple really just walking (men forward, women backward) the rhythms and patterns are completely improvised. The women add "embellishments," little movements of the shoulders or whatever leg is free, and both partners listen hard to the music. They may look like they're in the throes of intimacy, but these folks are concentrating. Pat concurs: "This isn't about sex. It's about dancing."
Hmm. I guess. Perhaps I'm imagining the charge I feel in the room. I spend a lot time watching the faces of the dancers, displaying what Avik calls "tango trance." The men look blankly ahead (they're the navigators, so they'd better be looking ahead), but many of the women close their eyes entirely, jaws slack and relaxed. "Look at her," Pat whispers to me as one couple glides past, "She looks like a little angel when she dances!" He's right, she does. I can't imagine ever looking that way in the arms of a stranger.
After about an hour, a total of four men have come up to talk to me, but not one woman, so I seek out Heather, an artist from Westland who's been dancing Argentine tango for four years. Rail-thin in tight black pants and a black top and high heels all the women are wearing beautiful shoes, I notice Heather is sitting out this tanda after having danced the last few. She's a regular at dances like this throughout the Detroit area. "I used to be a soccer player," she says, "but had repetitive injuries. I was specifically looking for something that was fun, and physical and challenging." Soccer, I say, seems a long way from this, in which the woman's role, it seems, is to relinquish control. Heather pauses. "I think of it more as a conversation," she says. "He initiates it and I reply. I love the music, and I love that it is improvisational. And I love that you never get to the end of knowing tango."
The Tango Club hosts Milonga Picante tango parties at the Michigan Union on Saturday, April 9 and 23.
[Originally published in April, 2005.]