A History on the Passion of Argentine Tango
- its birth in La Boca, its evolution and its migration to New York City

Sharbari Bose interviews Danel and Marìa Bastone, Carina Moeller and others

The striking splashes of green, pink, yellow, and blue on every building in La Boca mark the birthplace of Argentina’s passion. The vibrant colors and the rhythm of Argentine music in every street give this particular barrio, or neighborhood, of Buenos Aires a personality of its own. Though the port area has traces of old fisherman life, La Boca is most famous for its Tango. As tourists swarm in a constant circular flow around souvenir stands, some stray onto a nearby street to eavesdrop on a sensual conversation called the Argentine Tango.

Two women in impeccably good shape, both clothed in skin-tight, slightly worn black dresses and fishnet stockings, flaunt their elastic hips. A man clad in a pinstripe suit with threads hanging from the hemline and a dusty top hat demonstrates his prowess and beckons a woman to follow his lead. She turns, twirls, and swirls according to his every whim, but she walks with a cat-like confidence too overwhelming for him to resist. The man, overcome by passion, sweeps the woman off her feet, carries her into a dip, and gently kisses her neck.

In La Boca, I caught a glimpse of the tango in its raw and original form, and the image justified its popularity all over the world. When I returned to New York, I discovered that the tango scene was just as vibrant. Fanatics, whether in their 20s or 80s, have inhaled the spirit of Buenos Aires and breathe it out at milongas, or formal dances, throughout the city. Men and women, though separated by generation or race, use the one thing they have in common to breach all other gaps. La Belle Epoque, just one of the many tango clubs in the city, is famous for its multicultural tango scene. Couples shuffle gracefully across the dance floor to sounds of the violin, shifting pace quickly once the bandoneon begins its pulse. Dressed in their tightest and finest, women point their toes in already high-heeled shoes and men stomp and slide with equal precision.

The spontaneous raw tango was evolving into a more choreographed... dance form.

My tour guide, an art historian at the University of Buenos Aires, took me back to a time when the tango was shunned for being too provocative. The tango was born during the late 1800s in the slums and ports of Buenos Aires in prostìbulos, or brothels, as a form of entertainment and as the community’s way of forming an identity. The tango, since its formative years, has been, as improvisational dance, borrowing from and assimilating with other dance techniques brought in by immigrants who populated Buenos Aires. The lower classes molded the tango with the fast rhythms of the African candombe and tomba and the Cuban habanera, using the dance as an expression of grief or love like American blues music. As the working class became more interested in tango, the pace was slowed down and the focus shifted from emotion to footwork. The spontaneous raw tango was evolving into a more choreographed and structured dance form.

In the early 1900s, the economy of Buenos Aires boomed with foreign demand for beef and wheat exports. The immigrant surge and the cultural exchange between Buenos Aires and European cities continued at a steady flow. Europeans, especially Parisians, fell into a craze over the tango, adding their style of waltz as well. Yet in Buenos Aires, the tango was still looked down upon by the higher classes for its connection with prostitution. As the tango acquired more identifiable rhythms and the higher classes absorbed the Parisian waltz, tango became a national pastime.

In the 1960s, tango was banned in Buenos Aires after military intervention...

Danel and Marìa Bastone have been dancing together for 40 years as professionals and as life partners. Together, they hold tango classes at XXI at 21 East 26th Street [Editor's note: The Bastones were the first to run tango dances every Saturday night and continue to do so - www.tangocentral.com/bailemostango]. The Golden age of tango lasted from 1920 to 1950 in Argentina and across Europe. Danel, a native of Buenos Aires, lived in the Argentine tango culture during the height of its popularity in the midst of World War II. “I grew up with the tango. At that time, that was the in-thing. It was like swing in New York… each barrio had many clubs,” Danel said in a raspy accent. Like American big bands led by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, “there you had big orchestras with Osvaldo Pugliese and Carlos Di Sarli. And everybody danced tango. Like here, swing and fox trot was extremely big,” Marìa added.

Marìa came to the United States from Italy as a small child and although she has relatives in Buenos Aires, her connection to dance is more local. She remembered a time in New York when dance was a social pastime. Up until the 1950s, dance and dance music pervaded society through the Hollywood screen. The tango first caught America’s attention with films by Italian-born actor and ballroom dancer Rudolf Valentino and singer Carlos Gardel in the early 1900s. But as dance became less a part of mainstream culture and faded into American memory, Buenos Aires also saw a dying out of tango’s popularity.

In the 1960s, tango was banned in Buenos Aires after military intervention called for a tradition of Argentine folklore and slowly, younger generations became more acquainted with American culture and rock ‘n’ roll. Tango has reemerged only during the past 15 years as a popular dance form. The renaissance of the tango, Marìa explained, began with Tango Argentino, a tango show that performed on Broadway in 1985 for six months. An Argentine restaurant on 9th Avenue and 50th Street called La Milonga became a hot spot for cast members and locals curious about the dance. As friends of Claudio Segovia, one of the creators of Tango Argentino, and Juan Carlos Copes, a dancer, Danel and Marìa decided to travel with the cast to teach tango. “We figured if we did it with the cast of Tango Argentino and they were teaching, it would draw more people,” Marìa said.

Close embrace resembles street tango and... only learned by dancing.

With Tango Argentino came a sudden urge for young Argentinians to learn the tango. “Most Argentinians learned the tango here in New York,” Marìa said. “The younger generation didn’t know how to dance and they would cringe in embarrassment when asked to tango.” Danel and Marìa also attribute this desire to dance to the economic recession in Argentina. “They saw that there was money to be made outside of their country so a lot of them started to learn,” Marìa claimed.

Juan Pablo Vicente, a tango instructor in New York City, agrees with Danel and Marìa. Tall and deep-voiced, 37-year-old Vicente has worked at La Nacional, a dance hall on 14th Street between 7th and 8th avenues, for about a year. Vicente, a native of Buenos Aires, had never danced the tango while in Argentina. “I hated it,” Vicente said, while chewing on some French fries. “Tango was for old people. My grandmother used to dance, but it wasn’t for me…it just wasn’t cool.” While Vicente was in his early twenties, the tango was by then part of an antiquated past. In 1995, he moved to New York after hearing of a job opportunity at La Belle Epoque. Working at Belle Epoque, Vicente became familiar with bands and regulars. After being asked to dance several times and replying with embarrassment that he did not know how, Vicente realized it was time to tango. “It took me four years to learn and I fell in love with it,” Vicente said.

La Nacional, a dance center that attracts students of all ages, races, and professions, was established only two years ago and yet it is one of New York’s most frequented tango spots. Beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes are held every Thursday under three different instructors. Most of the regulars are well acquainted with each other and the friendly vibes lend to a casual and intimate setting. There is no dress code and the multi-colored Christmas lights are reminiscent of middle school dances. The hardwood floor runs into the eating area in a space no more than 20 by 40 feet. Despite the low-key setting, once the music is cued, mingling stops and partners embrace.

Daniel Carpi, part of Vicente’s generation, came to the United States in 1991 to study neuroscience and had taken only two lessons in Buenos Aires. But Carpi became interested in tango after its revival in New York and in Buenos Aires. “Going to Argentina and seeing tango pick up got me very jealous of not being a part of that scene,” Carpi said, adjusting his round specs. “I had no clue. I couldn’t even dance… but I was so eager to do it.” Though there was a demand for the tango in New York, it was publicly inaccessible. Only private halls and studios would host milongas, or formal dances. Frustrated by the lack of tango outlets, Carpi decided to host his own Nomad Milonga, a traveling party that would take place at various locations in the city such as La Belle Epoque, on Broadway and E. 12th Street. “I saw that the emphasis in the studios was about teaching the people more and more steps, which is not tango,” Carpi said. “Tango is not about fancy steps… that’s stage tango. Tango is a way of walking with the music and with your partner, a way of embracing.”

“One of the problems is when you’re a tango dancer, you’re like a vampire.”

Eventually, Carpi settled at La Belle Epoque. Furnished with antiques, the décor of the hall is ornate and teeters on the edge of ridiculously tacky and tolerably European. Red and blue spotlights shine directly toward the hall’s focal point - the hardwood dance floor. Dinner tables draped with red cloth surround the floor from either side and from the second floor. The atmosphere has a certain air of sophistication as people concentrate on executing the perfect tango. The 30-plus crowd included all races and nationalities - Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and American. “Here, Argentinians are a minority,” Carpi said.

Carpi explained that there are three different tango styles. The first is close embrace or milonguero style. This style is the most authentic and is a mark of the original tango. Close embrace resembles street tango and traditionally, it was never taught and only learned by dancing. The second style, called open embrace or non-milonguero, developed when people began to teach tango. The steps in this style are longer, the embrace more open, and there is a more systematic approach to the dance. The last style is called Tango Nuevo or the new tango, which has developed recently among experimentalists. These styles are all part of basic tango jargon and technique. Both Carpi and Vicente teach the open embrace styles since New Yorkers are culturally more accustomed to individual space.

I interviewed red-headed Carina Moeller, the instructor at Triàngulo, at Chelsea Market as she sat in a corner sipping herbal tea. Watching the practica, or informal dance, Moeller said that she emigrated from Germany six and a half years ago. She had studied modern dance in Germany but gradually became immersed in the tango. “There’s a big tango community in Berlin,” Moeller said. “The people in Buenos Aires always say that it’s the biggest city outside of Buenos Aires for tango… it’s much bigger than in New York.” Once in the US, Moeller started with a modern dance company but now she runs her own studio on Hudson Street that is dedicated only to the Argentine Tango (www.tangonyc.com). She also holds practicas at Chelsea Market on Saturdays. Moeller said that the popularity of tango in New York is growing at a steady incline. “The outdoor dances are helping to get more people interested in Argentine Tango,” she said.

Ken Wade, one of Moeller’s students, developed the idea to hold classes inside the market. Fifty-year-old Wade, a musician and singer, used to perform in the market and also frequently shopped there. “I’ve never been to Buenos Aires, but it seems to me that if you went to Buenos Aires and people are supposed to be dancing everywhere, this is the kind of place they’d be dancing in,” Wade said. Passing through the long brick-walled corridor inside Chelsea Market, sweet smells of fresh flowers, baked bread, and ice cream cones mingle with odors of fresh fish and meat. The end of the winding path opens into a large dance space surrounded by souvenir shops where the market scene seems to mimic the bustle of La Boca.

“...tango is a way to connect heart to heart and get very close with someone...”

Wade invited a few tango dancers to perform at one of the events at Chelsea Market and since then, practicas have been held there for three consecutive seasons. “One of the problems is when you’re a tango dancer, you’re like a vampire. You need fresh blood. You need fresh people to dance with because you get tired of the same old crowd all the time,” Wade said, selectively picking ripe kiwi fruits inside a grocery store. In an effort to gain publicity, Moeller allowed her students to promote her classes. Wade believed holding classes at Chelsea would not only attract new students, but it would spread the popularity of tango as well. The Chelsea practica has become famous worldwide. “This is one of the stops for people to come to New York to tango,” Wade said.

Dance Manhattan, located at 5th Avenue and W. 19th Street, was one of the first schools to give tango lessons in the 1980s. Jean Fung, one of the instructors at the studio, began dancing the tango as a form of rehabilitation. She had tried the machines at gyms but was intimidated by the “torture chambers.” After being introduced to the tango at Stanford University by a dance historian, Fung fell in love with tango and used it to recuperate from a back injury 15 years ago. “I was totally immersed in it and enamored of it. And now all I do is teach tango,” Fung said, childlike with her wide eyes and freckles. She became affiliated with Dance Manhattan through Rebecca Schulman, the tango coordinator at the studio who used to be Fungs’s teacher.

The courses at Dance Manhattan consist of beginner, pre-intermediate, intermediate, and advanced levels. In other schools, the bulk of the program is in the intermediate level. But here, the focus is on learning the fundamentals as thoroughly as possible. The beginner’s course is divided into four parts: walking, turning, learning to dance to three different rhythms (tango, waltz cruzada, milonga), and learning to create patterns. Originally form Philadelphia, Fung teaches in both her hometown and in New York. Though the tango scene is not as big in “conservative” Philadelphia as in “cosmopolitan” New York, she enjoys teaching in both cities. As she waited for her class to return from a break, Fung contemplated the meaning of tango.

“Basically, it’s like a language… tango is a way to connect heart to heart and get very close with someone,” Fung said. “Tango is to enjoy the music, to move together, to let down barriers, and to be completely awake and aware.” Dance Manhattan is exactly the type of studio Carpi disliked for its restrictive teaching methods, but there is no denying the attention tango has gained through these outlets along with milongas and practicas. “Everyone who dances tango has an addiction. They need their fix every week,” Carpi said. And it seems that New York is the place where people flock to get their tango high.

In La Boca, I saw one passionate couple. In New York, I saw hundreds.


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Edited by Emma Pegler and Azlan Ezaddin.


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