It takes two to tango
A CN&R writer tastes the ambrosia of the dance of love
I first felt the sweet tug of tango lessons about three years ago, while working as calendar editor here at the CN&R. When typing listings for local dance lessons, I often noticed a pang in my heart akin to what Martha Stewart must feel when she walks by a porn shop. It was like a multi-colored, exotic bird had fluttered onto the nearest windowsill and winked promises of some forbidden, nectar-filled lake.
Not to mention my girlfriend at the time thought taking tango lessons sounded great.
Unfortunately, we saved our money for scuba lessons instead. Ever since then, an alluring image of myself—hair slicked back, pencil-thin mustache and pinstripe suit—has hovered in my subconscious like the notes of an Argentine love song beneath a half-open window at the Sicilian Café. That is, until early this summer, when I once again heard the call of the wild.
Actually, it was an answering machine message from a local dance instructor asking if I was interested in taking a few tango lessons and writing about the experience. I accepted his offer immediately.
But I was single now and faced with the problem of finding a partner. The dance requires partners to be closely entwined, not to mention a degree of passion. It’s not called “the dance of love” for no reason. Instead, I imagined staring into a female friend’s gaze and both of us cracking up.
Remarkably enough, as if on cue, I bumped into my ex—the same one who had originally wanted to take tango lessons three years earlier. As fate (or, perhaps, the Lords of the Dance) would have it, she was in town for a month. After a friendly discussion on the pros and cons, we decided to give it a try.
Our teacher, Antonio Lopez, is a short man with a warm disposition and a high, delightful laugh—a distinctly pronounced “ha-ha-ha,” like the gay caballero or The Simpsons‘ Dr. Hibbard on paint thinner. In retrospect, this is probably the laugh of an extremely patient teacher, distilled after years of guiding amateur students, like gawky newborn birds, through the eight basic steps of the tango.
“It is the only dance based on the embrace,” Lopez tells beginners. “The man interprets the music from moment to moment so there are no two identical phrases and the woman never knows the next lead.”
In this way, even if the couple dances to the same song, a unique and creative story is told again and again. From the basic steps stem millions of possible combinations and adornments, always allowing for unpredictability and personal touches. It’s kind of exciting just thinking about it.
“I was drawn to tango by the beauty,” Lopez says. “I knew the dance from my childhood but was told it was only for grown-up people.”
Lopez was born in Argentina and studied with acknowledged world masters Juan Carlos Copes, Carlos Rivaralo and Rodolfo Dinzel, among others. He taught tango for eight years in Argentina and Germany before moving here a year ago and beginning classes once a week at Nash’s restaurant (on Sundays) and now, Chico Creek Dance (Wednesdays). He also teaches in Marysville, Sacramento and Grass Valley.
Lopez co-teaches with his girlfriend Laura Ingram, a similarly dedicated lover of the tango who has also studied classical ballet and folk dances.
The tango was born in Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, when the country was experiencing massive immigration. As a port town, Buenos Aires was a melting pot, receiving and absorbing dance influences from elements as diverse as African slaves, Cuban Habaneras and Spanish flamenco. Similarly, the accompanying music was influenced by instrumentation from other parts of Western Europe, such as Italy and Germany. Tango music is still largely characterized by the German bandoneon, an accordion-like instrument with buttons instead of keys.
Although the phenomenon started in bars and brothels around 1910, within a decade it had moved into high society. Argentine ranchers brought it to Paris, where it became popular during the 1940s with the development of various styles and orchestral arrangements. By the mid ‘80s there were companies throughout Europe and the U.S.
There are five tango styles: salon (regular social style), milonguero (adapted short steps for crowded spaces), cayengue (an early style of simple, side-by-side steps), fantasia (choreographed stage tango, the only style where partners know the next move); and contemporary (more complex, modern style, often using the music of Astor Piazolla). All of them are proven to turn heads.
The first night of class is almost too fun to be legal. Two hours speed by like 15 minutes, and people still want to stay and perfect the steps.
Class always begins with a group circle walk to practice the slow, toe-led steps that feel at once dramatic and relaxing ("bend your knees!"). Then we learn about proper positioning, Lopez teaching the men and Ingram showing the women.
It’s a challenge to synchronize movements between partners, but the experience is exhilarating and often funny in a “klutzes-on-parade” way. All the students seem to be enjoying themselves and passionate about learning—inspired, no doubt, by the respect our teachers convey for the dance.
Together, Ingram and Lopez perform the tango wonderfully, commanding the attention of everyone in the room. Afterwards, I ask her if the dance is traditionally male dominated, since the man seems to do the majority of leading, while the woman responds.
“He’s in charge of the weight change,” she explains, “but it is more of a dialogue. We [women] have our part. I’m not masculine, so I can’t do his role, but I am given the ability to respond and challenge the man.”
“The tango enhances a man’s masculinity,” Lopez notes. “You must hold and contain her, and she must trust your lead, but both partners are given times to improvise and express themselves in the moment. … This is an art where there are no true competitions, since there are no strict rules.”
Lopez might not be teaching here if it weren’t for a man named Bob Moretti, credited as “the guy who brought tango to Chico.”
The son of Italian immigrants and a former New Yorker raised in Hell’s Kitchen, Moretti has a colorful history. As a young man, he played semi-professional baseball and was almost recruited by the New York Yankees until an injury ended his ball-playing days. He then went into the Air Force for 20 years, eventually obtaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. After his military career, he became an antiques dealer and restaurant owner in Chico.
In 1995, while visiting San Francisco, Moretti rediscovered the tango he remembered so well from his youth. He was soon studying under a woman named Nora Dinzelbacher and, after visiting Argentina with a group tour in 1997, teamed with her as a business partner for a Bay Area event known as Nora’s Tango Week, currently in its fourth year. The event brings masters of tango to the city as guest instructors and provides programs for students of all levels (visit the website at tangoweek.com).
Moretti often stops by Chico classes to tango. As I am quickly learning, once you develop a passion for the dance, it is hard to deny yourself any chance to do it. Watching this distinguished gentleman perform is quite a treat.
By the end of the second class, my partner and I are still improving. We learn that there must always be a communication and dialogue through the hands, the embrace and the torso, while remaining steadily conscious of each other’s movements. For inspiration, watching Lopez and Ingram dance each week never seems to get old.
Regretfully, after a few classes, I realized that my time had still not come. The tango is an art form that demands so much honesty and desire from its participants that one should come prepared. I told myself I was lacking the necessary passion (Lopez tells me it takes about a year to get the form down well), but what I really needed was a long-term dance partner.
Someday I would love to return to the dance with the right woman stepping on my toes. But for now I can only wait—yet another testament to the power of the tango. It’s worth doing, so it’s worth doing right.
The old adage is true: It does take two to tango.
Before I left, however, my teachers taught me some important things about the dance.
“The benefit is that the dance requires constant attention and communication,” Lopez said in a reverent tone. “There is no other way to relate. This is a way of building a better relationship. … The tango has sensuality, and it is a noble one.”
“I don’t know if you want to get New Agey, but there is only the interchange of energy,” Ingram added.
Lopez stopped for a moment to stare at her and recollect a phrase that they both suddenly repeated almost at once.
“At the end of the night, your feet are tired but your heart is full."