Dance: Close Encounters

Aspiring dancers tackle the Tango, Argentine-style

Jul 2, 2008 at 2:06 pm
Kurt Strecker

Partnership: The Tango takes two.

Editor's note: This is the first installment of a three-part series highlighting dance-class offerings around town.

You might expect a dance class — especially one that includes a partner — to kick off with learning some steps. Not so with Tango. In a recent introductory Argentine Tango class at Tango del Barrio in Northside, we began with a focus on walking. Instructor Debby Vigna reminded us that this is a walking dance. It's also a close one, where you spend the majority of the time in a face-to-face embrace.

The expression "It takes two to tango" carries more weight than the oft-quoted sexual innuendo. It's actually a shared, if not equal, partnership.

Elements such as partner connection, weight sharing and mutual balance become more crucial than in most other partnered dances. These are good reasons why we didn't simply dive into learning steps.

The instructors led us through a series of exercises to get us in touch with moving through the space, first as individuals, then as pairs. Our group of around 30 students began walking alone while concentrating on shifting our weight from one foot to the other to the beat of the music. Musicality and expression really shine in Tango, but these things will take time.

Vigna refers to the "lead" and "follow" roles of ballroom dance, but here, she says, the terms are almost misleading: The dance is directed by subtle shifts in body weight and positioning more than with the leading partner's arm movements. And because this social dance is improvised rather than based on figures, you must learn to adapt readily to and communicate with each new partner in a nonverbal dialogue.

Next we walked side by side with a partner, each with an arm around the other, sides lined up and touching. We stepped together, starting and stopping, but it only worked when we could feel the intention of the leading partner — when we moved as one. We took turns leading and following to grasp how the other half must shift into a direction before taking a step.

Our next challenge had the "follows" placing their hands at the base of their partner's shoulders while facing them. The leads were not allowed to use their arms to lead, only their intentional weight shifts. The follows were to close their eyes and "listen" to sense or feel their partner's lead. It wasn't easy being directed to walk mostly backwards without seeing! But having my eyes closed heightened my concentration.

It brought to mind a reversal of the scene from the film Scent of a Woman where the blind Col. Frank Slade, played by Al Pacino, navigates an unsuspecting partner through an elegant Tango.

Mesmerizing in its subtlety, intimacy and intricacy, Argentine Tango is a social dance form that originated in Buenos Aires close to 100 years ago. Tango del Barrio teacher and co-op participant Michael Wizer gave me a brief history lesson on the form in a recent telephone interview.

Much of the dance's accompanying music was composed between 1915 and the late 1940s and directly paralleled the dance's development.

Argentine Tango has swept through Europe and the U.S. in different waves — most notably during World War I and the 1980s. Different variations stemmed from the original style, such as international or ballroom Tango, but Tango del Barrio stays true to Argentine Tango's classic roots, according to Wizer.

"We could go out the clubs in Buenos Aires and successfully dance there," he says.

Perhaps some students from the class will find their way there someday.

For more information on TANGO DEL BARIO, go to