Timeless tango

Bangkok Post  |  Oct 13, 2006

By Sin-ming Shaw

Argentina's national dance is enjoying a worldwide surge of popularity both as a dramatic, musical spectacle and as a sensual game for two players

Juan and Delores Fabbri, the owner and artistic director of Esquina Carlos Gardel, a swanky tango club in Buenos Aires. Dana Frigoli and Pablo Villaraza, dancers and founders of DNI Studio, famous for creative "nuevo" tango.

What better time in Thailand than now to think about something apolitical, something romantic, pleasing, fun and yet at the same time melancholic? What better than the Argentine tango?

To a growing community of aficionados around the world, tango is Argentine tango, not the ballroom kind danced to a regimented step count and distinguished by its snapping head movements and stiff, formal posture. In the Argentine tango, dancers hold each other in a tender embrace. When the couple dance well, it is elegance at its most sensuous.

Argentina is an immigrant country with deep Spanish roots, but there are also Italians, English, Germans and a growing community of Japanese and Chinese, mainly from Taiwan. With few native in habitants remaining, Argentina today is the most European of all the South American countries.

And, yes, there are even Thais. Two, to be exact, in all of Mendoza, the third largest city and the wine producing capital of the country. I met them both working at the Hyatt Mendoza, where they are sought after as masseurs by international travellers who know what a good massage should feel like. There are certainly Thai restaurants in the capital, Buenos Aires, though strangely, Argentines do not take to spicy food as Europeans do.

Argentina may not be for everyone, especially those used to a no-nonsense business culture where efficiency is often prized above other human values. The supercharged businessmen in Hong Kong or New York would find the country maddeningly laid back. On the other hand, Thais would probably love it.

To appreciate Argentina you must love food, wine, laughter and above all you must want to be seduced by tango. The late, great tango maestro Carlos Gavito described tango as "two people caressing music with their bodies".

Tango is back in vogue around the world after decades of hiatus, and Buenos Aires is the tango capital of the world. There is even a gay tango club. Salon tango is the most traditional style and remains to most dancers the gold standard. Stage tango is for performance in a show, hence the name.

Then there is the nuevo, or new tango, which many younger dancers around the world have taken to like ducks to water. The style is more playful and less exact than salon tango where the "walk" requires years to perfect.

The young dancers don't care for the term nuevo as they consider it pejorative; in their mind this is just the same as traditional as salon tango. They claim a less restrictive form was how tango was originally danced before stricter discipline was imposed in later years by dancers with ballet training. Yet I find the label nuevo tango apt and complimentary. Why not?

Tango teachers in Buenos Aires are plentiful and their fees are more than reasonable - unlike in Hong Kong where unscrupulous carpetbaggers often prey on the vanity of the bored rich, charging exorbitant tuition and treating the students as mindless ATMs. In one celebrated case a wealthy banker agreed to pay US$15 million to her dance teacher for 6 years. She sued successfully to have half of her contractual payment returned because the teacher had called her "a lazy cow".

In Buenos Aires the top maestros charge US$100 an hour, although they will often charge $5 to $10 a person for two hours in group lessons in a public dance studio open to all comers. As one master explained: "We want to keep the art of tango alive by teaching to those who cannot afford private lessons."

Where does the novice even begin to search for a good teacher? The tango publication El Tangauta, http://www.eltangauta.com is a good place to start. The government also has a helpful site in English at http://www.tangodata.gov.ar/ingles. In Buenos Aires you can take lessons from world-famous maestro Osvaldo Zotto (http://www.zottoermocida.com.ar) whose brother Miguel Zotto, travelled throughout Asia to perform to sell-out shows.

Another world-class dancer is Mora Godoy (http://www.zottoermocida.com.ar) who, like all female tango dancers, was trained in classical ballet. Her partner is the darkly handsome Junior Cervila who made his debut in the classic movie Tango featuring some of the best-known living tango dancers today.

For beginners and the young, the popular and famous DNI dance studio founded only 18 months ago by two young dynamic dancers well known in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Dana Frigoli and Pablo Villaraza. Under their coaching, the studio has turned out four finalists in the annual World Tango Championship Competition, the equivalent of the Wimbledon in tennis.

Dana and Pablo have created a style that combines the rigour of classical tango with individual creativity allowing the students to improvise according his or her physical uniqueness and, more importantly for beginners, a method that is user-friendly.

"Not everyone is built the same, and therefore it is wrong to insist that each must dance the way the classic tango is usually taught," Dana said.

The studio (http://www.estudiodnitango. com.ar) is a home to many from all over the world. At the reception area, students and teachers waiting for their class to begin often just invite each other to dance impromptu.

Buenos Aires never sleeps, and many restaurants stay open till well past midnight. There are at least 40 milongas or tango dance halls, forming part of the city's nightlife and attracting dancers of all ages to tango till dawn.

Good dancing shoes are a must. For ladies the best place is Comme Il Faut in exclusive Recoleta, 1239 Arenales. All shoes are hand-made and the shop is invariably packed with stylish women who wear them as street shoes.

No one should leave Buenos Aires without going to watch a professional show and the best is at Esquina Carlos Gardel (http://www.esquinacarlosgardel.com.ar). The owner and founder, Juan Fabbri, is the Godfather of tango. To be asked to perform there is an honour even for already famous maestros.

When Juan and his beautiful wife, Dolores, the artistic director of their show, go to a rare midnight milonga to dance, it is a scene out of the movie, Godfather. When they make their entrance, a throng gathers around them. Tango maestros hug them to pay their respect: everyone knows Juan is the kingpin of all the tango impresarios in Argentina.

Argentina may be far from Asia, but one can easily find magic in its culture, its wine and its flamboyantly stylish and seductive national dance.

 Back to home page