Thursday, January 23, 2003
Not far from the winter glow of Carmel''s Ocean Avenue, where the lights of expensive restaurants beam onto damp sidewalks, and lit store windows showcase the fine wares within, an unexpected flame is burning.
Come nightfall on certain weekend nights the curious and the smitten climb the narrow stairway to the Scout House, at the quiet intersection of Mission and Eighth, leaving their everyday lives behind. An Argentine love affair is about to begin.
Inside this hall, they will dance the tango, the fabled embrace that fuels the imagination with Hollywood images of unbridled Latin passion. Although tango aficionados say that the rose-in-the-teeth stereotype is misleading, there is a palatable allure to the dance, even here in this small community center.
"People speak in terms of ''tango moments,''" says Sandy Gardiner, an administrative assistant who lives in Pacific Grove and who became "addicted"--a term commonly used by the dance''s fervent followers--four years ago. "This is when you have a dance and you really connect with your partner, and you start truly moving as one. I hate to say it because it sounds hokey, but it''s kind of spiritual and elevating, like meditating."
Others describe their attraction to the dance with similar ardor. "A Gestaltish plasma, this wordless communication between you and your partner, the music and the movement on the floor," is how one dancer describes the magic of tango.
Looking around at my 20 or so classmates in Fernando Filippelli''s beginning/intermediate class, I see excitement for what lies ahead. Also a little nervousness, like the kind you have before a first date. It is clear that students in this class, which is to be followed by one of Carmel''s bimonthly milongas, or tango dances, have dressed for the occasion.
Those with advanced training guide new students through the first and most important lesson in tango: walking.
"Walk from your hip not your knee," Filippelli instructs as he and teaching assistant Claire Piper demonstrate the difference between the purposeful glide of a hip step and the jaunty gait of a knee step. There is no room for jaunty in tango. Jaunty is for horses. Tango glides like honey.
For the next hour, we practice walking, changing partners every two songs. Sometimes we walk without touching, learning to "read" our partners. In one exercise, the women, typically followers in tango, give the orders. "Back. Side. Forward. Side," we command. The men dutifully oblige.
Partners push against one another, creating the tension that is tango. Wordlessly we move counter-clockwise around the floor, communicating only through our bodies. ("In Argentina, it''s considered rude to talk during tango," someone tells me.) From this diametrically opposed stance--two strangers holding their own as the music coaxes them forward as one, inseparable unit--we tune our senses to the subtle language of the dance.
This wordless communication is of course what gives tango its sensuality. That and the fact that tango is meant to be danced closely--very closely.
With a nod to Americans'' uneasiness with such overt displays of intimacy, tango here is often more subdued than in its native country. "In Argentina [it is danced] with a very close embrace. Some people here would be intimidated by that," admits Filippelli, the 36-year-old Buenos Aires native who heads Carmel''s tango community.
Ironically, the dance that has come to represent Argentina is actually a conglomeration of immigrant influences. Tango developed in the seamy underworld of Buenos Aires'' bars and brothels during the late 1800s, when European immigrants poured into the city seeking work. The haunting melodies of modern orchestrated tango music stem from the mournful songs of lost love and unkind fate sung at night by these laborers.
Eventually, tango spread throughout Argentine society. But it wasn''t until it emigrated overseas that the dance earned the elevated status it enjoyed throughout the first half of the 20th century. "In the 1930s tango went to Paris and then the upper class started accepting it, because it was [now] coming from Europe," Filippelli says.
Thanks to a spate of films and Broadway productions, tango re-emerged from the archives over the past decade, in Argentina and abroad. Today it is danced on every continent. Canada, Japan, Belgium, Australia and Lebanon all boast tango communities. According to one article, "[tango] is virtually the national dance of Finland."
Even Carmel''s milongas, held the second Saturday and fourth Sunday of each month and which draw up to 80 people, often include out-of-town visitors from Santa Cruz, Fresno, San Francisco or beyond. This border-less community is an added benefit for many tango dancers, who often search the Internet for local tango dance connections when they travel.
To say tango dancers are dedicated is an understatement. Many in the local community, which ranges in age from 30 to 60 years old, dance multiple times a week. Filippelli also teaches a class in Pacific Grove on Thursday night, and there is a practica, or studio time to practice the dance, each Tuesday. Many of the dancers have joined Filippelli on his annual dance trips to Argentina.
"[Tango has] changed my life. The house I bought [in New Monterey] has a wooden floor so I can tango every day," says Claire Piper, who, in addition to her assistant teaching duties, travels to San Francisco a couple of times a month to dance. Piper tells me she met her partner, Sean Moynihan, tango dancing in Carmel.
I''m skeptical when the slim, attractive woman with a ballerina''s posture says she never danced before taking up tango four years ago. "I always felt I had two left feet and was totally awkward," Piper, 55, says earnestly. "As I get older I''m glad I came to it as I did. It helps my balance and flexibility, and it''s not hard on your body like running."
The health benefits of dancing two, three or four nights a week are undeniable. "Tango is a healthy addiction," jokes Filippelli, who himself got hooked on the dance not in Argentina but in San Francisco nine years ago.
On this night, Sue Casey, a distance runner from Santa Cruz, has driven down to Carmel with a friend. "It''s a nice balance to my running," she says when asked what draws her to the dance.
By 8:30 p.m. the Scout House is beginning to buzz. A dozen couples enter the flow moving counter-clockwise around the room. Some are sleek and adept, performing intricate foot patterns and small kicks, turning around and around as if tethered to their partners. Others are still learning, practicing the steps from the class. More than one person tells me that the real dancing will happen later on, when the diehards, in true tango tradition, show up to bring home the night.
Watching the whirl of dancers pass by--women in long skirts and deliciously sexy tango heels, men of all ages and sizes, striking as they confidently move their partners across the wooden floor--is mesmerizing. "It''s hard not to look elegant dancing the tango," Casey finally says.
I couldn''t agree more.