Fuego a la Buenos Aires 

Argentine tango catches fire in valley

It begins with a glance, a significant look across a crowded room. Cabaceo, they call it, its sibilant syllables foreshadowing the hushed nestle, the subdued swivel of the partnership to follow. This piercing gaze seals a pact between the two dancers—milongueros—that their cohesion will be wordless, a silent sharing of space, a brief moment of connection before moving on to the next partner.

It's Thursday night and the lights are low at the Dream Cafe, where the Boise Tango Society meets weekly to practice their giros and cruzadas, share a friendly toast and commune with fellow practitioners of this stately yet smoldering dance.

"Tango is so beautiful," said Sarah Durney, one of the group's instructors. "It is contagious how much you want to spread it to others around you."

Born in the tenement blocks of Buenos Aires at the end of the 19th century, this sensual dance has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity across the globe, and Durney and many others are committed to introducing the Treasure Valley to its intimate charms.

One sly peek around the room leaves little wonder as to why many have fallen under its seductive spell. An evening spent in the company of gussied-up gals and their pomaded partners is a welcome trip back in time to a simpler era, a living anachronism played out in a dim cafe to a soundtrack of clinking wineglasses and murmured conversation.

"It is the only social dance that can completely transform a vanilla box—a dorm hallway at Columbia University during exams week ... and even many an Eagles/Elks lodges across the great Pacific Northwest—into the sultriest and most welcoming of adult playgrounds," said Beth Anne Osborn, host of the weekly Thursday practica.

While dancers can learn the steps of tango and other Latin dances at many Treasure Valley dance studios, the Boise Tango Society is where the instructors go to dance, and the only group in the valley that focuses on the nuances of Argentine tango: the atmosphere, the etiquette of the setting and the long history of the dance.

"Tango is all about the community and being friends with others and making connections," Durney said. "The society has continued to grow in the last two years, but it is still small. Our community is very connected to the dance and to each other, so it is unique that we have a small devoted tango group."

The atmosphere of exchange is a palpable force as dancers partner with beginners and instructors alike. "People really try to help each other," said dancer Carl Isaacson.

Compared to ballroom tango and showier forms of Latin dance, Argentine tango might appear mellow and unobtrusive, the wallflower of social dance. But when an experienced pareja—or couple—takes the floor, it becomes clear that there is nothing demure nor even chaste about it.

The telling difference is found in the embrace—known as the abrazo. While in the performance styles of tango the dancers join at the hip, in the Argentine style connection is made at the head and chest, a heartbeat simpatico. The partnership exists solely for the two who are engaging in it, without respect toward an audience.

"The close embrace naturally forces a detente between the sexes," Osborn said. "One look at the expressions of sheer contentment on the faces of these couples ... speaks volumes about the healing benefits of human touch."

While the close proximity of the abrazo can be unnerving for some, other dancers find it euphoric. "Once you actually experience it, it's addicting ... You can't get enough," said aficionado Dena Molsee. "It's almost like an adrenaline high."

Others liken this conjunction to a spiritual experience. Durney, who also owns and instructs at Ashtanga Yoga Boise, finds similarities to tango in her yoga practice. "Tango for me is very heart-connected and axis-oriented movement," she said. "Tango and yoga fit very well together ... Spiritually, though, dancing tango is like letting your heart fly out of your body."

Due to the revival of traditional tango worldwide, Boise dancers do not lack for partners to meld with wherever they go. Whether traveling for business or pleasure, they find that like-minded communities are popping up everywhere.

"I'll just get on the Internet and find out whatever is going on tango-wise," said Isaacson. "Just walk in for two hours with total strangers."

"I am always looking for places to dance to and travel to," said Durney. "People have their own style of dancing tango, so it is quite special to go to another community and see how they are dancing, what they are listening to."

Although most Treasure Valley milongueros won't sample the culturally diverse tangos Durney has—she first encountered the dance in Argentina and has taught in India—the Northwest, and Portland, Ore., in particular, is a hotbed for tango festivals, in which dancers spend three days dancing from noon till 4 a.m. The Boise Tango Society frequently hosts weekend milongas with live bands and guest dancers and instructors.

Unlike ballroom tango, which must be practiced with a consistent partner, Argentine dancers can dance anywhere because it's based on improvisation rather than codified footwork, allowing dancers to work instantly with a new partner, without practice or verbalization.

"[Tango] is extremely complex in the sense that there are not set steps," Durney said. "You are never following a routine; you are putting steps together and making them blend."

This unplanned movement literally keeps the female follower on her toes—not to mention the recommended 3-inch heels—and the strong leadership of the older, more experienced milongueros make them preferred partners, rather than younger, flashier dancers. Thus, it is rare for an elder participant at a milonga to have an empty dance card, while the novice planchadoras learn by sitting and watching.

Although veneration for the viejos, or "old ones," is part of the tango tradition, both the music and the style is in constant evolution, and its fluctuations are appealing to younger dancers.

"There even is a nuevo tango, a style of tango dancing where you are away from your partner and doing much more kicking and stepping around each other," Durney said. "The close embrace also happens during this nuevo tango style of dancing, but now it is broadened to include modern music. It is not uncommon to dance some tangos to Nora Jones or to a techno electronic style beat."

The Boise Tango Society emerged approximately seven years ago and, in addition to hosting the weekly practicas and frequent milongas, the group offers resources for finding classes and private lessons.

"Taking a private lesson is really ideal for the nervous beginner, and/or anyone who may need special attention," encouraged Durney. "But, I recommend coming to the lessons and then the practicas. There are so many people that are kind in our community to help anyone interested starting. Start listening to the music. Tango is all about the music, and hearing it inside you."

A romantic and unapologetically ardorous pastime, the Argentine tango is as beguiling as it is beautiful.

"The secret of this internationally acclaimed dance is in its embrace," intimated Osborn. "This is an age-old secret between a man and a woman."

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