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Face the Music

L.A. is a great place to learn the Argentine tango. There’s no more intimate partner dance, but the closest connection new students make is with themselves

Photograph by Alyson Aliano

The quest for personal growth takes many forms in Los Angeles, but few have as lush a soundtrack as Argentine tango. Any night of the week, from minimall studios in Sherman Oaks to balmy promenades in Santa Monica, people of all ages and backgrounds seek perhaps the only kind of therapy that requires fabulous footwear. If you think the hugs at AA meetings are intimate, try the airtight embrace of the tango, which requires the kind of chest-to-chest intimacy seldom attempted outside one’s bedroom. Tango rejects the self-help rhetoric of relentless positivity and frantic self-improvement, instead inviting you to express the emotions in the music—good, bad, and whatever lies in between.

“People come to tango seeking connection, friends, passion, sensuality, but they don’t know the change it can bring,” says Makela Brizuela, a gregarious Argentine woman who hosts a spirited practica (practice dance) at the Electric Lodge in Venice on Monday nights. “Tango transforms their lives. Posture, confidence, self-esteem, everything.”

I discovered tango through actress Jamie Rose, who wrote a self-help book (see “Baby Steps,” opposite) in which she applies the wisdom of partner dancing to relationships. I met Jamie at a party, where I watched her captivate a roomful of people with a few impromptu tango moves. I immediately cornered and interrogated her. I have always wanted to partner-dance. My father was known at family weddings for his mean jitterbug. As a child, I loved to watch old musicals with him on late-night cable as I imagined myself inside the “moonlit” gazebos of studio back lots. I soon figured out that dancing in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s wasn’t much like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire gliding over a cruise ship deck in 1933. I logged countless hours at bar mitzvahs, stifling a yawn while rocking at arm’s length to Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” with a boy who would rather have been head banging to Motörhead. Even though I basically enjoyed myself, I felt frustrated that even the slow dancing of my generation seemed oddly disconnected. Apparently I’d been born in the wrong half of the 20th century. My secret fantasy, in which I dance cheek-to-cheek with a gallant partner, always seemed destined to remain only that: a fantasy.

But Jamie assured me that I had not been condemned to forever dance alone in a circle of halfhearted girlfriends. In Argentina, she told me, tango provides a vital physical lexicon for social interaction and often is the foundation on which people build new relationships—by mingling at parties and nightclubs. To learn how to tango, Jamie said, I wouldn’t have to renew my passport. I’d just have to be willing to step on a few toes.

The Argentine tango is a dance and musical genre spawned in the slums of late-19th-century Buenos Aires. Its influences include European and African traditions, since those Argentine neighborhoods were then absorbing Spanish, Italian, and other European immigrants, who in turn were joining settlers from other South American countries. Over a century the dance has evolved into several distinct styles, all of them built on improvisation. Tango is not a democracy—it has the strictest lead-follow dynamic of all partner dances. For the man, it requires absolute commitment and for the woman, profound levels of trust and surrender. Bottom line: It’s sexy as hell.

After meeting Jamie, I think for weeks about the need to inject a bit of mystery into my life. As a working mother of a young child, I’ve accepted that for the time being I have to put spiciness on the shelf in favor of meeting deadlines and cutting up oranges to take to soccer practice. But some days there just isn’t enough Wellbutrin or Kundalini yoga to make macaroni collages exciting. I’m yearning for something new and uniquely my own.

One morning, I drop off my son at preschool, then pull the car over and text Jamie: I want to dance. I’m intrigued by her claims that partner dancing lowers the levels for cortisol while raising the ones for oxytocin as it makes you feel more confident, balanced, and in shape. I tell all of this to my husband but fail to convince him that tango lessons would be a better use of his spare time than performing in his Rush cover band. So I’m relieved to learn that you don’t need to bring a partner to tango classes. In fact, most people show up solo.

My introduction to tango begins with the search for some proper stilettos. I visit the home studio of tango instructor Yolanda Rossi, where an alcove is lined floor to ceiling with gorgeous dancing shoes for sale—some tame, some flat-out slutty. Yolanda, an Argentine who has been teaching tango here for 20 years, lounges in leggings and a sequined T-shirt, reminiscing. Turns out that Juan Perón, the president of Argentina, had been a proponent of tango, so once he was overthrown in the 1955 coup, the military junta discouraged its practice. By the end of the decade, as rock and roll became more popular, tango lost its cachet. The current revival in Argentina dates from the early 1980s, when democratic rule was restored and the stage show Tango Argentino became a phenomenon. The spectacle toured the world and inspired a new generation of tangueros and tangueras.

Before the mid-’80s, one of the only places to do the tango in the L.A. area was at the Argentine Association of Los Angeles in Burbank, where you can still find a lively scene. But after Tango Argentino came through town, L.A. tango took off. Yolanda recalls a Bolivian restaurant in the Valley—Nora’s Place—whose tango parties began to attract lines around the block. On any given night, you might find one of L.A.’s most famous tango aficionados, Robert Duvall, dancing to a live trio with a famous blond singer on his arm. Yolanda can’t remember the singer’s name as she tells me this, until her daughter calls out from the other room, “Madonna!”

I’ve almost forgotten: I’m here for heels, not just a history lesson. I opt for relatively sensible nude open-toed shoes that add three-and-a-half inches to my five-foot-six frame. I consider buying a pair with less lift, but Yolanda convinces me otherwise. “You will have plenty of years to wear flat shoes when you’re an old lady,” she says.


This feature was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

 

Photograph by Alyson Aliano

Donning the shoes automatically makes me feel about ten times sexier, but now that I have the equipment, it’s time to master the moves. I seek out Mitra Martin, the program director of the Oxygen Tango School of LA in Culver City, which holds beginner-friendly classes, with names like “Tango Torture,” that won’t make you feel like a klutz. To Mitra, tango is a form of activism. “The core of tango technique is the idea that devoting yourself to your partner’s delight is the wisest road to your own happiness,” she says. “There is something socially conscious about that.” All of this sounds charming, but I find it’s another thing entirely to be chest-to-chest with a stranger. If you want to dance the tango, forget personal space. During my first class, even in “open embrace” (which is slightly less intense than “close embrace”), I am still struggling with my inhibitions, and it seems nearly impossible to move in sync with my partner. My classmates are diverse—young and old, of every ethnicity—and fashionably casual. Their earnestness is tempered by a willingness to laugh at their own mistakes. Usually a quick learner, I am taken aback by how difficult it is for me to follow a lead. We switch partners frequently. Toes are trod on, apologies mumbled. Still, after a couple of hours, I have bonded with the other students over the common challenge and shared vulnerability. Also, there’s the fact that we’ve spent the entire class holding each other up—literally.

A few lessons later, I gather my courage to visit the Tango Room Dance Center, an atmospheric slice of Buenos Aires tucked into a strip mall in Sherman Oaks. It offers private and group classes and a weekly milonga (tango dance party), where you can dance beneath paper lanterns. I spend the first part of the evening hiding behind my guru, Jamie, until she plants me in front of her friend, an elegantly turned-out Korean businessman, who invites me for a turn around the floor. The dimly lit room is crowded with couples dancing a hairbreadth apart to the raw, passionate melodies that characterize classic tango music. The minute he embraces me, I spear his feet with my stilettos. I keep anticipating the next move (the cardinal tango sin) and step in the wrong direction. I cling to him with a death grip, frozen with panic, until I can barely hear the beat. But by the end of the tanda (three or four songs in a row, usually danced with the same partner), he at least has me moving in some kind of rhythm.

Julie Friedgen, who owns the studio with a porteño (Buenos Aires native) named Angel Echeverria, tells me, “The thing I love about tango is the intense connection that’s possible with another person, without it being about sex. There’s a sense of moving through time and space with that person, as though gravity didn’t exist.” The dance I just experienced doesn’t come close to resembling this description, but somehow I know what she means: For a heartbeat out on the dance floor, everything clicked. I leave my first milonga emboldened. I figure it can’t get worse than this, and this isn’t half bad. For a moment or two it was even wonderful.

I decide to try private instruction. Jamie gives me a phone number, and I head for Koreatown. I take a creaky elevator up to a huge ballroom with high ceilings. An elegant Korean couple waltzes out of the way of a pair of pros doing an athletic mambo. The walls are plastered with dusty photographs of dancers spanning 30 years. Sitting at one of the tables is Moti Buchboot, a broad-shouldered Israeli with a disarming smile. He tells me that tango helped him recover from the PTSD he suffered after serving as a paramedic in the Israeli army.

“Dance heals people,” Moti says, “because you use all your faculties, your whole being, and through that you’re able to access the broken places.”
He teaches private and group classes and hosts an outdoor milonga on Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade on Sundays. We start with a walking exercise, and I settle into my body, shaking off some of the twitchy anticipation that has been plaguing me in other classes. It is hard for me, a woman used to fighting for my foothold in the world, to surrender to the role of follower. But soon I start to see the dance as Mitra does, as a spiritual exercise. I resolve to spend an hour, just an hour, each day giving up control and being led. I find that at its best, following resembles floating. I feel more like a slinky tanguera and less like that tutu-wearing hippo in Fantasia. I am finally dancing in the gazebo of my childhood dreams. No matter that it’s actually a worn dance studio overlooking 6th and Western.

I reflect on the relevance of tango to L.A. People here spend far less time in communal spaces than people in cities that are more dependent on public transportation. We even get our morning coffee from a drive-thru window. What more perfect counterpoint to hours spent sealed inside a solitary cage of steel and glass than a dance that is done connected—hands and heart—to another human being?

A few weeks later, at the DIVO Milonga held at the Santa Monica Bay Woman’s Club, I see the man with whom I danced at the Tango Room. While we take another spin, I ask him why he learned tango. “Probably for the same reason as the immigrants in Argentina who started the dance: because I was miserable,” he says, smiling. The foreign-born laborers who birthed the tango were caught between a longing for a better life and nostalgia for the lives they’d left behind. L.A. is also a city of immigrants, a city of longing. Somehow, after an evening of dancing to songs that embody that melancholy, I drive home euphoric. What was once yearning has been transformed into joy—not by thinking about it but by inhabiting it fully.      

An excerpt from Jillian Lauren’s novel, Pretty, appeared in the August 2011 issue of Los Angeles

 


This feature was originally published in the April 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine