Tango By The River’s Saturday night milongas bring South American style to Sacramento temperatures

There are two kinds of people: those who dance tango and those who want to learn.

There are two kinds of people: those who dance tango and those who want to learn.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Sacramento needs to rethink its attitude toward heat.

Other cultures respond to scorching days with shady siestas, feverish nightlife and spicy dishes that make the body’s heat rival the atmosphere’s. Most Sacramentans eat the same food year round, work through the hottest part of the day and scurry from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned house, trying to pretend the weather doesn’t affect them.

In the interest of adding some seasonal flair to the River City (not to mention avoiding high air conditioning bills during the energy crisis), it’s time Sacramento took a lesson from the warmer metropolises of the globe and learned to revel in its blazing summer weather.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, people respond to the summertime heat by dancing tango at late-night milongas (a Spanish word meaning both “a social dance” and a particular style of tango). Dancing tango is about as close as two people can get with their clothes on. The temperature-sensitive Sacramentan may think such contact should be avoided on a steamy summer night, but increasing numbers of adventurous locals are learning what Argentinians have known for a century: sometimes the only way to beat the heat is to make your own.

“Tango has always been a dance of seduction,” said John Heaney, a local tango student, at a recent milonga at Old Sacramento’s Tango By The River. “It originated in the brothels of Argentina. It was a way for the women to try and seduce the johns into choosing them, into giving up their money.”

As tango became fashionable in high society and moved into the ballrooms, Heaney explained, the balance of seduction shifted. “At the balls, there were more men than women. Men had to get better at tango to attract the women.”

Tango can be a fickle seductress, however, and sometimes the pull is not to one’s partner, but to the dance itself. A year and a half ago, Donna Tielsch was on a date at a rock ’n’ roll club.

“We were just dancing and doing our thing when, all of the sudden, he took me in his arms and pulled me in tight,” Tielsch recalled. “He led me around the dance floor in these fancy patterns and he said, ‘You’re dancing tango.’ From that moment, I was hooked.”

Tielsch began taking tango lessons several times a week and private classes with big name tangueros passing through town, sometimes even driving across state lines for a workshop.

“When you really get bit by the tango bug, you do crazy things. I planned my vacation to the Caribbean around a stop in Orlando,” she said. “I rented a car and drove to Miami just to catch a milonga there.” Just six months after her first tango dance in that rock ’n’ roll bar, Tielsch opened Sacramento’s premier tango studio, Tango By The River.

Tango By The River is an airy, second-floor studio accessed by a curving staircase. The blond hardwood floor gleams in the light from hanging lamps and the brick walls are lined with chairs and overstuffed couches. Tall windows bordered by gold sashes provide a view of Old Sacramento’s historic storefronts. Sultry tango music emanates perpetually from a stereo console in one corner.

During the day, the brightly lit studio is host to tango lessons of various levels. Yet at the milongas, held every second and fourth Saturday night, the atmosphere is romantically subdued. The lights are dimmed and candles flicker on the tables. The music pulses as couples move across the floor, leaning into one another.

The women wear tight dresses with high-slit skirts, fishnets and strappy heels. The men dress in crisp slacks and blousy shirts. With a table full of refreshments and groups of guests gathered in conversation at the edge of the dance floor, a milonga at Tango By The River has the feel of a party in the home of someone you’ve just met.

Every milonga starts with a beginners lesson for those who aren’t already skilled tangueros. Willing students should forget what they’ve learned from watching Dirty Dancing because, in tango, there’s no, “This is my dance space. This is your dance space.” The couple shares the same space, with full upper body contact. The dance is led with the chest and the rhythm is a basic four-count. After that, almost anything goes.

“Tango is improvised and there are no set patterns,” Tielsch said. “As long as you follow the rules of tango, you can put moves together in any way that feels right to the music or make up your own moves. So every dance is a different dance and you can dance all night long. That’s how you get hooked.”

Newcomers should also be aware of the social rules surrounding the dance. The traditional way a man invites a woman to dance the tango is by looking at her. If the woman wishes to accept, she will return the gaze and smile.

“The man will nod toward the dance floor and if you smile, he will come over to you and take your hand and you’ll leave. Nothing has transpired on the surface, but it all transpired via the eyes,” Tielsch explained. It is her theory that this custom evolved to protect the men’s egos from rejection by eliminating face-to-face invitations. “The men don’t have to have a woman say ‘No’ to their face. If you don’t want to dance with someone, you just never see them.”

This custom may sound romantic in a “Some Enchanted Evening” kind of way, but it can be troublesome for the first time visitor. By flashing a polite smile to a group of men standing near the door, a girl can unintentionally fill her entire dance card before she’s taken off her coat. Or, conversely, by keeping her eyes glued to her table in order to avoid unwanted invitations, she may miss a worthy suitor.

The subtle nuances of tango can be tricky for Americans brought up on freestyle club dancing, but more and more Sacramentans are learning the “dance of seduction.” In the year that Tango By the River has been open, the number of beginning dance students has increased five-fold and continues to grow.

So if you find yourself complaining about the heat on a sweltering Sacramento evening, why not come to a milonga and generate some heat of your own? Hey, you’re sweating anyway.