You know when you've been tango'd




Dangerous. Sexy. Provocative. And addictive. Tango, once a scandalous dance of the poor, is now sweeping Scots off their feet. By RON CLARK

Love and death; sex and despair; slicked-back style and undercurrents of violence. It should surprise no-one that Glasgow is in thrall to the tango. The dance that originated in the dockside slums and bordellos of Buenos Aires is being embraced with a passion by night people who are sated with salsa and need more than merengue.

Tango classes are taking off and dance shows are drawing ever-increasing crowds, the latest being Tango Siempre in the Arches. Tango Pasion - 12 sinuously lithe dancers and an orchestra of septuagenarians - has just left. The Gotan Project - a classic tango band with a pumping house backbeat - sold out effortlessly, again at the Arches.

If you still notice the dance snaps that introduce BBC1 programmes, the lead dancer in the tango one is Ricardo Oria, who takes lessons in the west end of Glasgow.

Veteran tango teacher Clea Wallis says: "Dancers in Glasgow are in love with the fantasy - the sharp suit, the rose in the teeth, the skirt slit to the thigh. But the reality is that tango is a thoughtful dance. You have to use the brain as well as the body to get the steps right, so you have to be serious about it. It is physically demanding and the people who take it up get obsessive about it. It is quite addictive."

Obsession. Addiction. Thoughtfulness. And a fair dose of fitness. Not the normal ingredients for a fun night out. But as one Argentinian writer said: "Only gringos dance tango for fun."

The dark reality behind the spectacle, the flair and the romance of the tango is that it is all about sex - a joyless, hasty fling between strangers who let their bodies speak while their minds keep a decorous distance.

It is essentially a dance of the poor, created by homesick immigrants - dockers, sailors and meat packers - who would rent a suit on weekends to go dancing in the houses of pleasure.

Early images of their stiff gait and oddly-held bodies are said to be caused by ill-fitting jackets and pinched shoes. It was a bold woman, and by definition a sexually adventurous one, who would frequent the early dance halls. The music was a combination of black rhythms and the almost operatic laments of Spanish and Italian village boys for their lost loves and a lost home.

Below the waist, the dancers' legs entwined like mating snakes; above, the dancers held themselves with the formality of a gavotte, with the woman's head turned away like a belle de nuit avoiding an unwanted kiss. Smiling was frowned upon. The nights often ended in fights and bloodshed. It remained a scandalous and marginalised dance of the dispossessed until it was taken up by smart Europeans in the twenties and thirties - and re-imported to the Argentine middle classes as the latest Parisian, and therefore acceptable, craze.

The music brought undreamed of fame to tango singers such as Carlos Gardel, whose image, reminiscent of a young George Raft, is everywhere in Buenos Aires. When he died in an plane crash in 1935, there was unprecedented outpouring of grief, and several reported suicides among his legion of female admirers.

His tomb is still visited as regularly as Evita's. Clea, who spends several months of every year in Buenos Aires, admits there is still a "very heavy" tango club scene in the Argentinian capital where the men Hoover up cocaine to keep them awake and the women are attracted by the loveless intimacies of the darkened dancefloors. She says: "It gets quite nasty at times."

But she adds that now teachers encourage "communication", smiling and eye contact is forgiven, and in several of the more tourist-orientated clubs, self-obsession is losing the battle to showiness and flash. Dancers also need to be fit to handle the high-speed moves and pace.

Clea first became fascinated by tango in the clubs of Buenos Aires in the eighties. She and her partner Paul Rous brought it back to Glasgow, where they turned a coin by busking. They were spotted by enthusiasts and persuaded to start classes in Glasgow Art Club, which led to private lessons for couples.

She says: "It is massively popular, here, in Germany and in France, where clubs are springing up. Teaching only really started 10 years ago and before that the dance was passed down by tango and milonga dancers - almost exclusively men - whose personal style dictated the intricacies of the dance."

In Britain, people want to learn the eight step-sequence, which, repeated and combined, allows for endless patterns. With the basics mastered, couples can move on to techniques such as the bite, where the man's foot traps the woman's leg, and the hook, where her leg flicks dangerously into his crotch.

"But more importantly, they have to learn to communicate wordlessly with their partners," says Clea. "In tango, the man's function is to make the woman look good. He should be slightly ahead of the music so the woman follows him on time. He has to give the right signals to the woman - it's like in relationships: the good ones just float." There are also added benefits - if you want to tango, you must be fit. A session provides a cardio-vascular workout, which can lead to weight loss. An average couple, where the man weighs 12 stone and the woman 9 stone, would each lose between 250 to 300 calories in an hour of tango.

Alan Francis, a teacher at Glasgow University's sport and recreation department, said an hour of tango would be equivalent to an hour in an aerobics class. He says: "The benefit is tremendous, and people are more likely to adhere to the exercise because it's fun. It is the sort of activity we encourage people to do, even the elderly.

"The difficulty for many is finding a mode of exercise they enjoy taking part in. With tango, you would have to expect any benefits to be less visible at the early stages, when you are learning and dancing more slowly.

"But dancing two or three times a week would give you a regular cardiovascular workout with attendant weight loss."

Leading Glasgow criminal lawyer Ian McCarry and his wife Frances McMenamin, one of Scotland's most eminent QCs and a ferocious opponent at the Bar, are hooked.

Ian says: "Frances has been passionate about tango since she was a child, and it came to a head when we went on holiday to Rio and Buenos Aires and saw one of the country's top tango shows. We saw two of the dancers in that show performing at Tango Pasion in Scotland, recently.

"Inspired by that, we went to a one-hour lesson in the cultural centre at Recoleta, the bizarre and baroque cemetery where Evita is buried. We were dancing in a corridor - it was like a scene from Fame. I learned five steps, but the teacher, Carlos, said to me: 'There is only so much I can teach in one hour'."

Undeterred, Ian and Frances took up classes when they flew home. They attended Maryhill Community Centre, where Frances's skills are being finely honed.

Ian, however, has abandoned the classes. He says: "It was not bad until I started getting thrown about by different ladies. I would have been happy to dance with Frances all night."

He is planning to try again, however, when the couple go to Sitges on the Costa Brava for a week long tango festival which will include lessons and exhibitions from the world's top dancers in nightclubs.

Tango became an old persons' dance in the sixties, and almost disappeared in Argentina during the military dictatorships.

Its revival followed the nineties success of Broadway musicals such as Tango x 2 and Tango Argentino. There are now more than 80 tango and milonga ballrooms in Buenos Aires, visited by enthusiasts such as Robert Duvall, Liza Minnelli and Madonna, who first infuriated, then won over the country with her Evita.

Wallis, who toured the north east of Scotland last year with a tango and milonga workshop, said: "I prefer the social clubs in the barrios such as La Boca, where the old people still dance. There are some real characters and the moves are fantastic."

Wallis says that the people who took classes were more often couples who had tried other dances such as salsa.

"It is all about weight and balance and communication between partners," she says. "The trouble with Scotland is that people get really upset if they don't get the steps right."

Glasgow

* Claire Flanagan runs beginner classes, supported by Glasgow City Council. All levels, Thursdays 7pm- 9pm, St Francis Centre, 405 Cumberland Street. Cost £4. Tel: 0141 569 0977 or e-mail: claire.flanagan@ntlworld.com

* Ricardo Oría runs beginner and intermediate classes on Fridays at Notre Dame High School, Observatory Road, Dowanhill. Contact David Cooper, tel: 0141 954 0313. or ricarditango@hotmail.com

* Practice classes, Monday: 7.30pm-9.30pm at Notre Dame High School, Observatory Road.

Contact Anu Gordon on tel: 0141 337 6384.

* Tango bar: Wednesdays 7.30pm-11.30pm, downstairs at Blackfriars, Bell Street, Candleriggs.

Edinburgh

* There are two weekly milongas classes five nights a week, with Ricardo Oría, a community of more than 100 regular dancers, plus regular visits by dancers, musicians and teachers. Full details on the ETS website at www.edinburghtango.org.uk

* There are also classes in Aberdeen, the Borders and Newcastle. For infor: contact James@edinburghtango.org.uk

* For more information visit www.scotlandtango.co.uk

-July 21st, 2003?