It is late Sunday afternoon on Market Street in downtown Charleston. It’s the sort of mild, early spring day that invites window-shopping and strolling in the fresh air. But up the heart pine steps to the banquet room of French restaurant Mistral, a civilized commotion is set to break out just as it does every month. And even as the sun goes down outside, the temperature in this corner of Charleston is going to get a lot warmer. The Charleston Argentine Tango Society has assembled for a milonga.
This particular milonga, a tango dance social usually preceeded by a mini-lesson, is special as it marks the 10th anniversary of the Tango Society. What began as a handful of eager would-be milongueros — tango aficionados and practitioners — informally teaching each other the steps they’d gleaned from instructional DVDs and the occasional out-of-town tango workshop, soon found itself connecting with similar groups throughout the Carolinas and in Savannah, Atlanta, and the larger tango community across the country. Almost from the outset, they were confronted with the bewildering array of dance styles called tango.
Two founding members of the Tango Society, Lewis Stillway and his dance partner, Karen Shelton, faced that dilemma. They encountered Argentine Tango accidentally on an instructional video they’d purchased thinking it was about the tango that they had already been dancing. But this tango was something else altogether.
“We had never seen authentic Argentine tango, nor heard Argentine tango music,” says Stillway.
Like so much else about tango, a simple question — “What is the tango?” — yields many answers.
Broadly, there are three tango styles: the ballroom styles (the American and the International tango) and the Argentine tango, considered the most authentic.
In a much-loved quote shared among American tango aficionados, California tango instructor Barbara Garvey likens the different styles to the stages of a relationship: “American tango is when a couple is on their honeymoon — it’s romantic and sexy with both on their best behavior. Argentine tango is the whole of the relationship — with all the passion, pain, sorrow, joy, anger, humor, of real life. International tango is when the couple can’t stand each other and stay together just for the sake of the children.”
What distinguishes Argentine tango from ballroom styles is an emphasis on improvisation in the dance, and co-creating movement by focusing on unspoken cues exchanged with the dance partner. Once mastered, the Argentine tango is less a standardized form than a kind of riffing on a theme, like a jam session among jazz musicians. Between them, the dancers aim to shape a nucleus of intimacy out of a moment in time.
Robert Farris Thompson, author of Tango: The Art History of Love, explains it this way: “The first thing you notice is when the music starts, guys and their girls out there on the floor wrap themselves very carefully into an embrace and they wait. They let a couple of measures go by.”
He says, “Natalia Games, a great tango dancer, explained to me why. She said, ‘We are taking the measure of the beats before we get into it.’ Now if they will stop and make sure they are going to flow — just right — with the rhythm, then that explains why tango is such an incredible fusion of bodies, sounds, and motion.”
The paradox of the tango lives in that fusion of bodies. Milongueros insist that one dances the tango for oneself, not for the people who may be watching. But together, the tango couple must dance for each other. How is it that one dances for oneself and also for one another? The fusion of tango dancers begins, literally, with the dance floor itself.
Upstairs at Mistral, among the milongueros, the room takes on an air of purposefulness. The linen-draped tables are cleared of the light meals they’ve taken, the chatter of old friends visiting with each other slackens. The music begins.
Piano, double bass, and violins set the windows thrumming with a quickened heartbeat tempo (1, 2, 3, 4) that catches at the next downbeat and wraps itself around with a rushed, rhythm-breaking syncopation (5 and 6 and 7 and 8). The melody marches ahead, overwhelming the room and evoking other rooms: a milonga in Buenos Aires, a dance salon in Paris, a café in Casablanca.
Within moments, couples come together and begin circling the room. They dance in close embrace. Each pair of dancers caresses the oak floor with the soles of their shoes, pivoting, circling, gliding.
The tango, it’s said, is a form rooted to the floor. As if to underscore the here and now of the dancer’s intent, the tango is centered and grounded. So much so that professionally trained dancers from other disciplines often find it challenging.
“Ballet is mostly about lightness and lifting your body, feeling like you don’t weigh anything. You just fly through the air,” says Melody Staples, a dancer in the Charleston Ballet Theatre company. She is one of the performers in Jill Eathorne-Barr’s recent work, Twisted Tango, a balletic interpretation of tango. (The North Charleston Performing Arts Centers hosts a performance May 1.) “Ballet training prepares you for all kinds of things. So when we’re asked to do something very low and grounded, we’re able to do it, but it is using different muscles in a different way. And in tango, the girls are wearing high heels and skirts, so that’s a whole different ball game for getting rooted and grounded.”
It’s a challenge for the men, too. Another Charleston Ballet dancer, Staples’ husband Steven Hammell, says that unlike traditional ballet partners, the tango dancers’ center of gravity is both individual and shared.
“In classical ballet,” he says, “the man’s job — this is ingrained, hard-core — is to keep the girl on her leg, on her center, upright. In tango, you have to move the center between you. But if something doesn’t work quite right, as a partner my instinct is to put her immediately onto her leg, onto her center. That doesn’t work in tango. It’s not right for the movement.”
“When you dance by yourself,” Staples continues, “your center is yourself. You have complete control. In classical ballet, when you’re dancing with a partner, the girl is on about an inch circle (her toe). The guy is the one who is manipulating her center and her body while controlling himself. In the tango, there is a sharing of that center as we go back and forth, transferring where that center is. And that’s what makes that partnering in tango so dynamic and more like real life — it’s not the guy doing everything and the girl staying home. It’s a shared partnership.”
That point speaks directly to one of the enduring clichés about tango — its supposed machismo. To the contrary, Thompson speaks of tango’s democratization of male and female roles.
“The tango steps are one thing,” he says. “They give women a chance to be wholly independent, redeeming them from just being pushed around. You’ll find that the more elegant dancers like El Cachafaz (in the 1930s) — there’s a photograph of him where he’s dancing with his partner and she’s just unendurably beautiful — he takes just her fingertips and folds his fingers lightly [around hers]. Which is a way of honoring her because it’s so light that if she wants to escape, she can float away. She’s not gripped in this strong, bossy, macho way. As precise a detail as the way you take the woman’s hand in your hand tells you whether it’s redemption or it’s going to be work.”
If it turns out to be work, it’s unlikely the dancer will find many partners. There is a joy to this enterprise, even as there is the legendary romance of it. And while everyone dances with everyone else at a milonga, it’s not uncommon for regular tango partners to find the intimacy of the dance a starting point for a more enduring relationship.
Not so long ago, Gabrielle Celeste and Gene Reed met at a tango workshop. Today, the young couple is engaged; they both teach Argentine tango. They’ve driven down to Charleston from Columbia as they often do, to join the milonga this Sunday.
As they walk hand in hand to the dance floor for a demonstration, it’s clearly difficult for them to take their eyes off one another. But once the music begins, their smiles transform into an almost expressionless, relaxed focus as they give themselves over to the dance. They become a single silhouette in motion: he in black trousers and vest, his shirt the color of Malbec wine in a glass. She too, dressed in black: a gauzy top and form-fitting flared pants, slit to the knee. They are improvising as they go, choreographing on the fly in response to the music and each other.
This is Fantasía tango, the flamboyant daughter of Argentine tango designed for stage presentations. Even so, while their dance is intended for an audience, the twirling lifts and leg interweaving flourishes they perform gleam with their energy as a private couple.
The dance ends with them folding back into each other, just as the last note of music rings. They accept the applause with a bow and walk off together. He grins broadly at her and says, “That felt great, didn’t it?”
Perhaps it is this, this rapture in the moment, that defines the enduring appeal of tango. There is risk in this kind of abandon and also the delicious uncertainty of raw emotion. Which may be why the popular image of tango still drags along the Hollywood pastiche of genuine passion: the “rose-in-the-teeth” tango stereotype.
“We Argentines know that the tango is not about sex, per se,” says Luis Bravo, creator and director of the critically acclaimed show, Forever Tango. (The North Charleston Performing Arts Center hosts Forever Tango May 2.) “Chemistry needs to be there between the dancers, and that creates a very thin line that is sometimes difficult not to cross. But the energy is the same sensuality of any art. I often say that tango is a story you tell in three minutes. A man and woman melded in just one intention — the dance — that is what makes it so captivating to watch.”
As an audience, it’s easy to recognize the sensuality of the tango. But tango aficionados experience another side of it, too. When they speak of tango culture, they’re often referring to something beyond the dance.
While perhaps not as widely appreciated within American tango circles, Luis Bravo speaks of that other side of tango, the music and the lyrics of these songs. “Today tango is probably more recognized by people as a dance,” Bravo says. “But once you understand the lyrics of the tango, the melancholy and the mournful sound of the bandoneón, [you begin to understand] the drama that is always with the tango.”
The bandoneón is the archetypal tango musical instrument. It’s most often described as accordion-like, principally because it has a bellows, but where an accordion has keys, a bandoneón has pearl-sized buttons. It might be the concertina’s deep-voiced cousin. The most sought-after instruments were made in Germany where the bandoneón was invented, legend has it, as a substitute for a church organ in poor parishes.
It arrived in Argentina along with the European immigrants who first shaped the tango in the barrios of Buenos Aires. They drew upon a hodge-podge of musical traditions to cobble tango together: African, Cuban, Spanish, Italian. The tango is the bastard offspring of an unknown mother. The bandoneón became the defining sound of this transcendentally profane experience. Its bellows breathe and sigh, giving it an expressive voice, by turns melancholy and raucous. The perfect accompaniment for the “stories told in three minutes.”
These stories are tales of love, loss, betrayal, revenge, and picaresque humor. In this way, tango defines its birthplace. Carlos Gardel, the tragic prince of Argentine tango singers sang these tales for a nation which all too often found itself aching for a golden age perennially just out of reach — either behind it or still ahead. In his voice, tango became the projection of national identity. Those lyrics wedded to that music, hauntingly beautiful and proud, resonate like sonorous kvetching raised to the level of poetry.
“That’s the miracle of the artist’s creation,” says Luis Bravo. “You can tell a painful story with so much beauty.”
When they talk about tango, the milongueros at Mistral agree it is a lifelong pursuit, difficult to put into words. And there is something grand, substantive, even fundamentally adult, about tango. Perhaps that is why it’s said that there is no rush. “El tango te espera” — the tango waits for you.
Read CP’s review of Charleston Ballet Theatre’s Twisted Tango.
Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Lewis Stillway as Lewis Stillwell.
If you go
Thurs, May 1
North Charleston Performing Arts Cente
5001 Coliseum Drive
$27, adults; $22, 21 and under
(843) 529-5000, ext. 5113
Fri. May 2
North Charleston Performing Arts Center
5001 Coliseum Drive
$31, $51, $61
(843) 529-5000, ext. 5113