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New tango trades cheek to cheek for hot, fast moves

Monday, August 29, 2005

By Kim-Mai Cutler, The Wall Street Journal

BERKELEY, Calif. -- It still takes two to tango, but young urban aficionados have added some surprising new twists to the tradition-bound Argentine dance.

For most of a recent Saturday night, Homer Ladas staged what appeared to be a program of traditional tango at a small studio here. Locked in tight embrace, dozens of couples gently swirled on the scuffed wooden floor as the sound of violins from the golden age of tango in the 1940s floated in the air.

But by about 4 a.m., it was time for something quite different on the dance floor. With the traditional crowd gone home to bed, Mr. Ladas dumped the orchestra music and replaced it with the sort of modern, bass-heavy dance music that might be played in a hip nightclub. The dancing was different, too: The people in their twenties who remained switched over to a new kind of tango that had them lifting, twisting and ricocheting around the room.

This is "neotango," a new millennium version of the dance that was born at the turn of the last century in the brothels of Buenos Aires. It's booming all over the tango world.

For years, the very word tango brought images of sophistication and glamour: tuxedoed, rose-clutching tangueros strutting across the floor with leggy women -- tangueras -- in dresses slit up the thigh. But the tango was withering away. A lot of American milongas, or dance parties, were kitschy affairs patronized by an aging and dwindling cast of die-hards who danced to scratchy records of accordion music.

But now, in city after city across the U.S., a new generation of tango dancers is packing the floor again. They swerve and kick, not to the traditional violins of, say, the great Francisco Canaro's orchestras, but to the dub beats of Massive Attack or wailing guitar lines of Jimi Hendrix. Formal wear is out; sneakers, low-rider jeans and halter tops are in.

And the dance itself is different: faster, more fluid and requiring more floor space. While old-school dancers, enjoying simple steps, might press themselves heart to heart, the new version rotates over swaths of floor at high speed. Actually, there are many competing new versions. Some dancers borrow moves and music from electronica, swing and even martial arts.

One popular neotango DJ played gigs in Beijing, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis this summer. Indeed, at Mr. Ladas's Berkeley milonga studio, there's usually a global assortment of partners on hand -- an architect from Berlin; a Japanese woman who helped found the Edinburgh, Scotland, tango society; college students who fly up from Southern California just to dance; even a porteno, or native of Buenos Aires, or two.

Mr. Ladas, who hosts all-nighters in the San Francisco area and in other cities across the country, is emblematic of the new generation of dancers. A former mechanical engineer in Tucson, Ariz., he saw a flier for tango when he was 27 years old and became obsessed. He took lessons and, soon, 10 hours of dancing a week became 15 and then 20. At an Amsterdam tango festival, he danced for 26 hours nonstop.

But tango remained just a hobby for Mr. Ladas, now 36, until two cataclysms shook up his life -- his mother's death and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, just a day later. He took a leave of absence from his job to teach tango, and he never returned. At around the same time, neotango was growing increasingly popular in American and European dancing circles. It had its roots in the pounding club music, the experimental stylings of a few prominent Argentine dancers and modern fitness regimes: yoga, Pilates, martial arts and capoeira, a Brazilian art form that combines martial arts with acrobatics.

While the traditional form of tango can be highly structured, neotango's early proponents believed dancers had to be free to experiment, and experiment they have.

Mr. Ladas set out to spread the word about the new tango, teaching classes and hosting milongas around the country. In 2003, he and a group of like-minded San Francisco dancers opened the doors to the city's first large-scale alternative milonga. "There was a group of young people who were frustrated who wanted to have more expressiveness in tango," he said.

But when neotango started picking up steam, the passionate tango community divided into cliques as arguments brewed over which kind of tango is best. Even as Mr. Ladas's neotango events have swelled in popularity, some dancers have branded him a "tango philistine" or have avoided his events. The same rifts have appeared in other communities, too. When new-style dancers first emerged in Denver, they were dubbed the "nuevo brats" for causing collisions on the floor with their flashy and sometimes haphazard moves, said Stephen Brown, founding member of the Dallas tango community who has been a DJ at Denver tango festivals.

Traditionalists simply long for the older styles: chest to chest, cheek to cheek, and eyes closed in what is known as the tango trance. "Tango is very close to the heart," dancer Moti Buchboot said. "That makes it really easy for crazy zealots to go in there and say that their style is the style and that's the only right style."

It isn't just the dance moves that are dividing the audience, it's the more beat-oriented music. "Tango requires music with a human breath, and without that it isn't danceable," said longtime Denver teacher Tom Stermitz. But even Mr. Stermitz, who promotes the older, closer style, recently added an alternative milonga to his popular annual festival.

The debate has even come home to Argentina. Tango was repressed there between 1955 and 1983 under regimes that broke up milongas and jailed dancers. Argentine tango went underground. Although it came roaring back to life when several Broadway shows in the 1980s and early '90s, including "Tango Argentino" and "Forever Tango," sparked interest abroad, the music didn't catch up with the times.

When neotango music first emerged, just one club in Buenos Aires would play Carlos Libedinsky's homemade compilation of electronic tangos called "Narcotango." But after spreading it to friends in Europe and North America in 2003, the musician has sold about 20,000 CDs, mostly through word of mouth, and it has become part of standard playlists at several Buenos Aires clubs.

"Many people say that it's not tango. Even I'm not sure -- I don't say that it's traditional tango, of course," Mr. Libedinsky said. "But it's something new, something refreshing. It brings new colors to the music and to the dancing."

It is abroad where the new dance has taken off and gone through endless mutations. Mr. Ladas has been teaching swing dancers to tango. "Swango," anyone? Other East Coast couples are pioneering "liquid tango" and "free tango," among an infinite assortment of names. By whatever name, it proves that, after several decades, Argentina doesn't have a lock on tango anymore.

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